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Using Social Media to Engage the Public

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kelly Larson
December 2, 2014

Hand holding a Social Media 3d SphereAs I sit here perusing Facebook, I am struck by both the potential and the danger that lies within this technological advance. On the one hand, the speed with which we can communicate factual information through social media has vastly surpassed what can be shared through traditional media. For a government interested in ensuring its citizenry is well-informed, this communication tool must be at the top of our list. And yet, each time we choose this source over others that may be available, we face the potential that our recitation of facts will be put to use in a way that does little more than foster the deep political divide in our country.

Certainly there is a time and place for simply sharing the facts, but I find the more interesting question to be how we might use social media as a tool for influence and persuasion. Even more critical is the question of how to do so in a way that is consistent with the ethics of our profession.

Influence and persuasion are challenging topics for public administrators, for at the end of the day they must be rooted in an ethical use of power. One can easily see the ways in which social media could be used as nothing more than a means to spread propaganda. Indeed, the pure recitation of factual information already leads to such accusations, much to the frustration of those who meticulously check for accuracy before posting. This can lead us to view social media solely as a force that is working against us rather than as a tool with potential beyond information sharing.

Yet if our goal is a democracy with a productive and capable citizenry, then sharing information is necessary but insufficient. We must also find ways to promote learning and understanding across our differences, and facts alone are incapable of getting us to this result.

In recognition of this challenge, practitioners in the human and civil rights arena have long used learning and dialogue to move toward this goal. Facilitation techniques used throughout government have continued to build upon this approach. Still, our techniques have relied heavily on face-to-face interaction. It may be time for us to expand our approach to include dialogue through an online forum.

Those leading the way toward this use of social media often operate outside of the government context. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation has been experimenting with fostering online dialogue. Their resource center contains sample ground rules for dialogue, some of which are specific to an online forum. The Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, through Kansas State, integrates an online forum into its certificate program on dialogue, deliberation and public engagement.

In Dubuque, we are at the very early stages of examining how to integrate social media into our public engagement strategies. At this point, our use continues to be at the information sharing stage. We are investigating how it might be used in ways that can foster an understanding of deeper issues facing our community, but we have yet to truly put this use to the test.

To date, our efforts have primarily focused on encouraging residents to take a more questioning, facilitative approach to monitoring their private online forums. There is a reluctance amongst many of us to take the risk of using social media as a public forum for governance, and there is a degree of wisdom in that reluctance. We are in a time where there is deep distrust of government and it has become the norm to rely on outside “neutrals” for anything likely to elicit conflict.

Increasingly, however, local governments lack the resources to hire external expert facilitators. As a result, we have developed ways to play this role ourselves. We often facilitate challenging face-to-face dialogue as part of our decision making processes. It does not appear that social media will be leaving us any time soon, so it makes sense that we begin to experiment with online dialogue as a component of our engagement activities.

Certainly, there is something of our human connection that can be lost through online dialogue. Face-to-face interaction should remain front and center in any local government engagement plan. Nonetheless, as the culture shifts around us and our populace increasingly views social media as a communication norm, we ignore the power of this medium at our own peril.


Author: Kelly Larson serves as the executive director for the City of Dubuque Human Rights Department. She has degrees in law and psychology from the University of Iowa and an Intercultural Professional Certificate from the Institute on Intercultural Communication. She can be reached at [email protected].

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