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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Dissertation research: perceptions of using social media for community engagement

I’ve talked about my MSc dissertation research before on this blog. In fact I originally set up this blog to explore some topics related to my research. Having had a bit of a break after completing my dissertation in August 2010, I have decided to publish it here, spurred on by the kind words of a fellow academic researcher Catherine Howe.

My research question was:

How do the attitudes and perceptions of citizens, Council officers, Councillors to the use of social media for community engagement compare and contrast?

My Master’s Degree was in Human Computer Interaction. If you have a particular interest in research into social media and civic engagement (and quite a bit of time on your hands), I’d recommend the full dissertation (PDF, 2.4 mb).

But if you are a local government officer or someone with less time and patience, then I’d recommend the 10 page (that’s the smallest I could manage!) Executive Summary (PDF, 50kb).

I also wanted to add a little disclaimer. The primary research data was gathered from semi-structured interviews with 18 participants. For purposes of confidentiality the data is not included within either document. Because the research question focused on a relatively new research area, it was challenging to find participants with significant experience of using social media, let alone those with experience of using social media for civic engagement. Whilst the collection and analysis of data followed rigorous qualitative research methods, the quality of the data collected was not as high as I had hoped for. I would therefore advise some caution in the interpretation and application of these research findings.

Please note that the usual Creative Commons copyright license I display on this blog does not apply to the two documents linked above.

You can find me on Twitter if you have any questions, comments, or would like more information about my research.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

In the hotseat…

This Thursday 13th January between 1-4 pm I will be in the hotseat, quite literally! I’m hosting a online question and answer session in the Local by Social Online Conference about the social media project I have been involved with in Fenland, Cambridgeshire.

The project aimed to improve engagement with customer groups who were hard to access in Wisbech. The project has been delivered with funding from the Local Government Delivery Council’s Customer Led Transformation programme.

You need to be a member of the Communities of Practise to participate in the hotseat discussion. To become a member of the Communities of Practice platform you will need to register and  join the Customer Led Transformation CoP. You can then join the hotseat discussion thread where you will find the full project case study and some vox pop videos with people who contributed to the project.

If you would like to know more about the project or ask me anything about using social media to engage customers, do come and contribute to the online discussion on Thursday 13th January, between 1-4 pm

By way of a little background, I’ve written about the project before in these posts:

Update on social media project in Wisbech

Fenland social media project

Digital engagement framework adapted for local government

Digital engagement governance

And you can also visit the project blog or take a look at a presentation I did for the Local by Social online conference last November.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Engaging the hard-to-engage – Local by social online conference

On Tuesday 9 November at 10:00 am I’m speaking at the Local by Social online conference. If you haven’t already come across it the conference is a brilliantly organised online event run by Ingrid Koehler and colleagues at Local Government Improvement & Development. The aim of the conference is to discuss:

  • Using social media to improve engagement between councils and citizens
  • Practitioners: creating and sharing knowledge online
  • Exploring Open data for improvement and innovation

I’ve been enjoying some excellent threads facilitated by familiar names including:

My talk is about a project I’ve been involved in for Cambridgeshire County Council in the Wisbech area of Fenland, exploring the use of social media by local public services to engage with communities. Here are some extracts from my session forum post.

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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Customer Insight in Public Services 2010

Just a quick post about the Customer Insight in Public Services conference that I attended today. I was speaking about a partnership social media project in Wisbech, which was funded by Communities and Local Government.

There were some really useful presentations. One that stood out for me was the work Lewisham Council had been doing, using customer insight techniques to drive improvements to public services.

A variety of case studies were presented and some of the customer insight techniques discussed included:

  • intensive ethnography, leading to radical service re-design;
  • video diaries, sketching and visioning with staff;
  • cartoon strips to communicate services to service users;
  • customer journey mapping.

Given my interest in research techniques for human-computer interaction, I feel it’s really positive to see techniques like this being used within local government. Especially where staff are trained to use the techniques themselves. I do worry that the current budget cuts will mean that these techniques are viewed as a “nice to have” in service transformation projects.

In a few of the case studies presented today we learnt that real efficiencies were typically gained as a by-product of using customer insight to design customer-centric services. One Council reported that involving staff in customer insight work had increased morale and reduced sickness levels. Not what you might expect, within a service transformation project that involves significant changes for staff and customers.

I particularly enjoyed a presentation by Andres Crespo from Brent Council about their Brent Going Green campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to use social media to engage customers who had not been reached through other forms of engagement. As Andres pointed out, with access to mobile phones and the internet these days, it’s not that people are hard to reach, but they are hard to engage. Andres shared some heartfelt experiences about the effort it takes to engage customers using social media, but he also demonstrated how rewarding and valuable that effort can be.

Here are the slides from the presentation I did with Inspector Paul Ormerod, from Cambridgeshire Constabulary.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Update on social media project in Wisbech

I mentioned in an earlier post a project I’ve been involved with in Cambridgeshire. Over the Summer we’ve been trialling ShapeYourPlace.org in Wisbech and the surrounding villages. It’s a community website where residents can raise issues and suggest ideas and local service providers respond. The site also pulls in feeds from other useful sources such as neighbourhood policing team details and meetings and community events and activities from Cambridgeshire.net.

I’ve been working closely with the exceedingly patient and helpful team at RuralNet Futures, who developed the website for us in WordPress. We’ve recently made a few tweaks to the design and the back-end processes that partners agencies use. The ShapeYourPlace.org website will be promoted to residents in Wisbech from the end of this month.

The website is managed and moderated by the Rosmini Centre in Wisbech, using their existing pool of volunteers. On Friday Anita Grodkiewicz, Community Centre Manager at the Rosmini Centre, was interviewed about the website for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Anita explained how local residents will be able to use the website to raise issues and local service providers will respond on the site. Anita also explained how the Rosmini Centre provide IT facilities and support for members of the community who don’t have access to the internet at home, or lack the skills to be able to get online easily.

My MSc dissertation research was closely aligned with this project. I interviewed residents in the area and Council officers involved in the project. There’s more info about the project on our project blog.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Research findings and recommendations for Councils

I’ve finally finished my MSc dissertation which is a massive relief. After four years of part-time study I am looking forward to having my weekends back! And I plan to get back to blogging, now that I’ve more time on my hands.

My research study investigated:

Attitudes and perceptions of Council officers and citizens to using social media to engage with local government.

My research was driven from a human-computer interaction (HCI) perspective, as I’ve been studying HCI and Ergonomics at UCLIC.

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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Reactions to the coalition’s crowdsourcing experiment

I noticed an interesting article in the Guardian today about the coalition Government’s recent crowdsourcing experiment. The article reflects on how despite thousands of suggestions being received from members of the public, the Government’s published responses indicate that no policies are changing as a result.

The coalition asked the public to respond to its programme on government websites. It received 9,500 replies online. However, its formal responses, published on each website, shows Whitehall regarded the process largely as an endorsement of what it was already doing. In cases where most of the submissions conflicted with existing policy, the department simply restated the policy. The departmental responses were published last Friday without publicity.

The Guardian quote Simon Burrall of Involve who highlights the impact this may have on trust and confidence in the Government and willingness to participate in future.

I also found the article very interesting in light of some of the findings I’m currently writing up from my own research, into attitudes and perceptions to engagement with local government via social media.

I’ve found that if people believe they will receive feedback and that their participation will lead to a positive outcome, their attitude towards using social media for engagement is more positive.

And a positive attitude towards participation via social media is more likely to lead to actual participation. So if, as a policy maker, you are looking to increase participation among groups who are traditionally less inclined to participate, changing their beliefs about the outcomes and feedback they will receive is likely to be important.

It sounds obvious, and it probably is. But there’s nothing like a bit of empirical evidence to back up your hunches.

Another of the findings in my study was that participants perceived resource constraints to be a major issue in dealing with online participation. I wonder if the government found that it simply didn’t have sufficient time and people to moderate and evaluate the suggestions it was receiving?

Participants in my research also perceived the quality of dialogue to be a factor which would influence their willingness to participate. Another recent Guardian article mused about the difficulties encountered by the Spending Challenge website with malicious attacks and offensive posts.

So, an interesting time for the government and its use of crowdsourcing techniques.

Thankfully I’m glad to say that crowdsourcing does seem to work well for some forms of civic participation, but they tend to be more ‘bottom-up’ than ‘top-down’ driven. Both FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix are good examples.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Reflecting on my MSc research

For anyone that’s familiar with my posts on social media or usability this one is rather academic and self-indulgent, so bear with me!

I’m making fairly good progress with my MSc research, having completed a few interviews and some of my literature review. Every so often I take stock of the approach I’m taking and re-evaluate my research question and approach. I decided that writing about the issues I come across would be a good form of therapy and also a good way to reflect on my situation and decisions.

“[We] become reflective researchers in situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict.”
Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, 1983

I have chosen to research attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens to community engagement via social media. Because this is a potentially vast and complex area I have chosen to focus my research around a project I am working on in Fenland, Cambridgeshire. I decided to limit my research to council officers and citizens. Because within the scope of an MSc project I didn’t have sufficient capacity or time to also interview colleagues working in the Police and Fire services or elected members.

Because there is not much existing research or theory in this area of investigation, I’ve chosen to use a Grounded Theory method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Corbin and Strauss, 1990; Charmaz, 2006) . I’m carrying out semi-structured interviews to collect my data. Once I have transcribed the interviews I am carrying out a detailed analysis of the data to identify emergent concepts or themes. As I identify concepts I start to categorise them and compare them across all the data. As the process continues I am starting to develop theories which I can in turn test out by collecting and analysing more data. And so on until saturation point, or until I need to write up my dissertation and hand it in. Whichever comes first.

So far I’ve interviewed four colleagues and am lining up several more interviews. My sample is probably what you would describe as ‘selective’ rather than ‘representative’ or ‘purposeful’ (Coyne, 1997). Simply because of the constraints of doing research within your own organisation and in the timescales of an MSc.

I’ve encountered a few issues with the approach and method I’m taking so far. Using social media for community engagement is a new phenomenon, certainly within the organisation I work for. The colleagues I have interviewed so far do not have hands on experience of using social media for community engagement. So their stated intentions may well not reflect their actual behaviour (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980).

Now for me using social media has been experiential. I personally believe that you can’t really understand the possibilities and impact of the social web without experiencing it yourself. Hence the JFDI mantra which is so often mentioned by those who are active in the local social media or digital engagement field (see Dan Slee, Sarah LayDave Briggs and Steph Gray to mention a few). To get round this I have shown my participants a range of sites which I feel represent how social media can be (and is being) used for community engagement.

Whilst initially I found it problematic that I was not interviewing participants about their actual behaviour and experiences, I feel there is still merit in my research approach. Many local authorities have been reluctant to adopt social media. Some are blocking staff access for fear of time wasting or the risks of security breaches or damage to reputation (Socitm, 2010). Other authorities are cautious of the benefits of allocating resource time to monitor social media spaces and interact with citizens.

By researching the attitudes and perceptions of authorities and citizens I hope to gain a better understanding of perceived barriers, threats and opportunities of using social media for community engagement. I hope my findings can be shared with other authorities, organisations and researchers. I am also hoping my research could be a useful reference to anyone researching attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens who are actively using social media for community engagement.

At this point in time I don’t want to have too many lofty ideas about the impact of my tiny microcosm of research. But even as a student researcher I have to consider the value of my research to my employer and the wider research community.

I’ve also had concerns about interviewing colleagues who are unlikely to be using social media in a very hands on way for community engagement. This is primarily because they are at a more strategic level and not what you would describe as ‘front-line’ staff. But in reality they are quite likely to be the people who make the policy level decisions about how social media is used and incorporated within community engagement activities. So understanding more about perceptions and attitudes is important, to be able to sell the benefits and persuade senior managers to take risks and innovate.

So far the data I’ve collected has been fascinating and has led me to reflect on how we are approaching our project in Fenland. I’m really looking forward to interviewing some residents in Wisbech in the next couple of months to get their perspective.


Ajzen, I. and Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior. Prentice Hall, facsimile edition.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis. Sage Publications Ltd, 1 edition.

Corbin, J. and Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. SAGE Inc, third edition edition.

Coyne, I. T. (2007). Sampling in qualitative research. Purposeful and theoretical sampling; merging or clear boundaries? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26, 623–630, Blackwell Science Ltd.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine Transaction.

Schon, D. A. (1984). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Basic Books, 1 edition.

Socitm (2010). Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it.

Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Fenland social media project

I’ve been working on a project for the last few months up in the rural Fens of north Cambridgeshire. We’re piloting the use of social media by public sector agencies to engage local communities. I’ve blogged about governance and a digital engagement framework in relation to this project before.

We’ve now set up a project blog so we can share what we learn with other local authorities and public sector agencies. Or anyone that’s interested really. I’ve written a bit of blurb about the project.

It’s also an opportunity to share some ideas about community engagement using social media and reflect on how social media is changing local government and local democracy.

There are some other really interesting projects going on that I’m keeping an eye on:

I’m fascinated by top down vs. bottom up approaches to using social media to improve local democracy. I’m also researching the perceptions and attitudes of council officers and citizens towards the use of social media for community engagement.

If you know of any other projects in this area please let me know by leaving a comment.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Social media elections 2010

A thought I’ve been bouncing around in the last few days is how the 2010 UK elections will play out through social media. Not only from a national perspective, but from a local campaigning perspective.

A number of blog posts have pointed to the fact that the two main parties have not yet managed to generate much positive user generated content online or truly harness the power of social media to build networks. There have been many reports that unofficial blogs are ranking highly in Google search results for terms like ‘David Cameron’ or ‘Gordon Brown’. I can vouch for this fact, as a friend’s rather excellent ‘unofficial site’ was ranking highly in Google search results for ‘David Cameron’ a few weeks ago. However within a day or two it suddenly dropped down in the rankings (bah!).

But at a local campaigning level there is still a huge disparity between those councillors who blog and tweet and those who don’t. Just recently I did a quick audit of the number of blogging county councillors in Cambridgeshire and found 17 blogs out of a possible 69 county council members, just under 25%. Now I may have missed a few, but those who do blog and tweet will definitely have the edge if they can communicate well online and use it to their party’s advantage, with the potential to reach a far wider group of constituents and potential voters.

It will also be interesting to see how the main parties deal with hyperlocal bloggers. How will they respond to stories at a local level that could potentially have a significant impact on the party’s reputation at a national level?

One thing is for sure, the 2010 election will bring the use of social media in UK politics into sharp focus. There will be lots to learn about how national and local politicians adapt to using social media and how voters are influenced by social media.