Social Networks…what are the strengths?

A recent comment on my blog got me thinking about what the strengths of social networks are. WOW, what a question and one which i don’t feel that i could give justice to however i have been thinking a lot about how they can fit into local government thinking and use.

A number of obvious things do come to mind and some of which we are already trying in my council.  These ideas are based not only on existing SNS but bespoke ones for specific purposes as well

  • participation and engagement with young people and wider groups of interest
  • extended communications to staff without formal connection to corporate network
  • Internal knowledge base and reduction in use of internal email
  • providing services as widgets so we don’t have to expect people to come to council sites

I’m sure there are lots more, but the reality for me is that these sites will provide greater opportunities to communicate and provide services directly to and for people.

Gerry McGovern highlighted at the “perfect council website” conference earlier this year, that people generally use the internet quickly and in between their favourite programmes so if we make our sites difficult to navigate and services hard to use why would they bother?

However people are prepared to spend time of SNS to co-ordinate social events or exchange information with their friends, so why can’t we offer the services they need within their window of opportunity.

After all even as a council worker i don’t find myself navigating around my own website let alone other local authority websites because i am a busy person, like we all are and time is something i am not prepared to sacrifice to, for example report a pothole.

This issue for me is one of the drivers behind trying to reposition our thinking on web and how we approach the web. I believe that a web strategy needs to focus on the channel and not the corporate website alone. This is why i am now in the process of preparing a re-write of the councils web strategy that i wrote about 18 months ago.

It will incorporate a wide range of opportunities online and will represent a sort of “online activity” and “digital access” strategy.

Regarding the strengths of SNS, well i believe that they now represent a fundamental shift in the way people use the web, it truly is a social web and and that means websites that offer and increase this kind of activity will become more and more popular.   Where does that leave traditional council websites, i’m not entirely sure yet, but they will and can not look like anything they are now…

For me the greatest strengths of SNS are the people in them, the technology is only a facilitator, they wouldn’t work unless people wanted to communicate in that way. So we really need to focus on people and and where people are if we are to engage with them.

Some people will still prefer to meet in the context of a group down the local village hall and would like a council representative to discuss issues with, others will be part of online communities of interest and we must respond to them as well.

SNS and social media in general do exactly what Clay Shirky talks about in his book, they provide opportunities for people to organise themselves without formal structures and organisations to support them. I found this video on you tube of Clay Shirky talking about the book

I also found this interesting presentation on the future of social networks


Thoughts on a “perfect council website”

Yesterday i attended the “Building the Perfect Council Website” event in London. The keynote speaker was Gerry McGovern and i was very impressed although at times i thought it was hard to imagine how you actually achieve this stuff in local government, because web managers are only one cog in a big wheel, we are almost guardians of the corporate web instead of managers but still some great points none the less.

My observations and thoughts (this may not reflect exactly what he said, but will give you a flavour)

  • Get rid of those damn press releases (who the heck reads them).
  • Stop the political messages (Our Leader).
  • Nobody cares for this stuff, they are task focused and don’t have much time.
  • We already take their money and if we take even more of there time we will only create more frustrated citizens and visitors.
  • Delete most of your content as nobody reads or even maintains the stuff.
  • 80% of web management is observing behaviour.
  • Do the tasks your customers do and experience the “journey” yourself.
  • Personalisation doesn’t work, most people don’t want to do it – interesting considering i was on the panel about web 2.0 techniques with “Steve Johnson” from Redbridge and “Suraj Kiki” founder of Jadu CMS, more on this later)
  • Start with your top tasks and get them on your homepage to stop people having to search for them.
  • Don’t force “corporate” crap at your customers, they don’t really care.

I was buzzing afterwards and had so many thoughts and issues running through my head, one then stuck straight away was about deleting content.

My council and it appeared that most councils do the same as well, have started to use the web as a repository for “stuff” which someone at some point might read, it also make FOI easier (well that is the theory), but it doesn’t make using teh site easier as it just gets bigger and bigger with “stuff” that people don’t actually read but one day they might look back and say “i wonder if the council had a strategy on XXX, Oh look it was on there website all the time, that was lucky”

So perhaps a medium term action is to split the website up – not practically, but in a virtual way in to 3 sections

  1. Transactional Services and Core Information – linked with Customer Service Centre.
  2. Corporate Information – stuff you want to say but no one really reads.
  3. Archive – where all the “stuff” can sit and turn to virtual compost.

Right job done, sit back relax……phew…….Wait, there is more

I said earlier that it raised a number of issues in my head, and i started to clarify them on the train home whilst reading “clay shirky”. (I wanted to finish this sooner but got distracted by Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson also an interesting read)

Other issues included

  • Who do we really want our audience to be? We have many different types and research published by Socitm suggests that on average only about 25% of residents look at your website? so who the hell is the other 75% and what do they want to do in terms of top tasks?
  • Personalisation does work, surely it does, i mean amazon, ebay, digital banking, cookie based postcoded weather from the BBC is all personalisation, just varying levels
  • Are we all doing web management wrong?
  • How can you explain to politicians that nobody cares about them on the website?

On to “personalisation” and the workshop Web 2.0 techniques in councils websites.

Suraj, opened the workshop with the “machine is us” web2.0 video, which i have previously posted on this blog.

It was then my turn and i didn’t want to use any slides of presentation as we are on our journey to developing our new site (i will include some of the visual designs for you to see exclusively here towards the end of the post) But i explained why we are on this journey and the benefits we feel we will get.

I also said that i believed that personalisation is something that we should consider, but it will be in the implementation of it that will be key. we don’t intend anyone to register with our site to personalise it, so if you don’t your experience would be no different to anyone else who doesn’t, but if you do choose, then you may have a more personalised view of the council based on your interests and location.

Steve Johnson then gave a presentation on the real thing “redbridge i”, what was interesting to me was the redbridge conversation work that they had done around the budget process…check it out for yourself.

The rest of the day was a blur to be honest, as my mind was digesting all the issues and questions that the morning session had sparked in my head. although i asked lots of questions when opportunity arose, on the whole the event was good, but with all these things the people made it and it was great to make new contacts and meet people i haven’t seen for a while and who i should speak to more often.

Ok, as promised, the visual design for our website. NB: This reflects visually what we intend to complete over a number of phases of development.