Results of our winter communications survey

dinoboy via Flickr

Councillors, officers and members of the public took part in an informal poll over the last 10 days in a bid to establish which digital communication channels are the most effective during special and specific situations e.g. school closures due to snow.

The exact question was;

It’s now December and icy roads, closed schools and uncollected bins tend to dominate local government over the coming months. Residents rush to council websites seeking to report problems and find information. Increasingly, there is an expectation for this data to be real time. So what should councils be doing?

Imagine you a council officer with responsibility for updating residents, media, voluntary organisations and private sector companies during these special situations. Which tools do you think are most effective?

 The nature of “effective” was left deliberately undefined. Some people may have judged a tool in terms of simple numbers of receivers, speed of update and/or cost.

The results are in the graph below. The scores are out of 10 on a scale of ‘no use at all’ (0) to very effective (10).

Some observations:

  • “The quality of the information is most important as it’s the one time of year when people will actively seek information from us”, said one participant. I couldn’t agree more
  • The council website remains the most significant digital space for a local authority, scoring 8.29 out of 10. Many participants in the survey noted how this should be the ‘home’ from which all other digital channels should be signposted to, and syndicate from through RSS. This means
    • The council website homepage is updated
    • Residents and journalists who have subscribed via email (7.1/10) receive an automated notification
    • This same notification automatically updates Twitter, Facebook and any other channels being used
    • People start sharing this information with each other

The main aim of this is to alleviate pressure on contact centres responsible for keeping people up to date with the latest information. The potential for monetary savings here is massive. According to SOCITM, every telephone call costs £5, every web based interaction is just 17p.

  • Many noted that these automated feeds mean there is ‘one version of the truth’ – again cutting down on the likelihood of confused or frustrated residents (and journalists) opting to call the contact centre.
  • Whilst many people opted for the dedicated Twitter stream – there were a large number of anti-Twitter comments, as one person said, “setting up new dedicated ones means you have to get new followers” – this requires added workload for the contact centres. For smaller councils, this may be particularly difficult to achieve. A solution to this may be found in an example from Coventry who are using their main council Facebook and Twitter accounts as these have already amassed a strong following. However, it is also worth noting here that only about 1% of the population is seeking to follow their local authority through Twitter – see our recent report Going where the eyeballs are for more on where people are connecting online.
  • Using real spaces – one of the options I forgot to mention –  like information boards in libraries and outside schools. City of Edinburgh Council reported they were doing this. This is also necessary as we remember that there remain 9m people in the country without broadband internet connections – see more on the digital divide and what your authority can do about it here.
  • There is much pressure on resource that is preventing many people from turning ideas into practical services.  A leading example of how to negate this though is the #wmgrit project. Driving 40 miles through the West Midlands can take you through seven council areas so Birmingham, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Solihull – as well as the Highways Agency – have teamed up to pool all road updates together (using CoverItLive) to give local people a fuller sense of what is going on.
  • Local bloggers (6.05/10)  and community forums (6.68/10) are seen as a reasonably effective resource to distribute information– not scoring as highly as ‘traditional’ journalists or media spaces (7.9/10) but still significant – and a value I believe we will see grow over coming years. See Networked Neighbourhoods recent research for more on the citizen-led spaces and how councils should engage with them.

Whilst the above results are rather unscientific – they are revealing none the less. If nothing else, it further proves that there is no one-size-fits all model to local government communications.

This shows that communication strategies must be controlled yes,  but have a necessary chaotic element at the same time in order to best respond to the special and specific. We must take an agile approach and reflect the multimedia use – or digital ecosystem – of the local community and the services the council provides.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts below or send me an email on rob.dale@lgiulorg.uk