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Social Media and Citizen Engagement

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

By Stephanie Moore
December 30, 2014

Social media, once a buzz word, has now become ingrained in our vernacular. It seems that every industry makes attempts to take advantage of what social media can offer.

Social media was first conceived back when computers were connected to the primitive version of the dial up Internet, back in 1969 via CompuServ. Thus the infancy of social media began. The first few decades of social media were quite advanced for the times. Social networking boards such as the bulletin board system were popular platforms where users could post upcoming meetings and stay connected electronically via the Internet.

Fast forward to now and there is an entire slew of social media outfits vying for our limited and erratic attention. The sea of social media is vast and the current is always changing. The ability to just reach out and connect with the end user seems effortless. However, just putting the content out into cyberspace for the targeted demographic to seamlessly pick up is not always as easy as it seems. How can we use social media in the highest and best way to properly serve our communities?

The ease and ability of just picking up the content put out into cyberspace has unique challenges. How do end users, who are computer challenged, find the content to begin with? Challenges such as limited or non-existent Internet service, lack of a computer, lack of the skills to traverse the Internet or operate a computer. Some residents may not even trust the Internet in the first place. How can we use social media as a vessel to get the word out if the end user can’t navigate the process to receive it? Even in our high-tech information age there are still challenges with social media. How do stunted computer users become computer savvy?

Residents can learn and improve their computer skills via computer classes offered at libraries and other nonprofits. A nonprofit in Kansas City, Kansas is taking on the challenge of Internet connectivity, providing computers and educating residents on how to be the computer savvy end user. Connecting for Good started in 2011 around the time Google selected Kansas City, Kansas as the launch site for Google Fiber.

What is the good of having high speed fiber if the end user cannot even navigate the system?  Connecting for Good is bridging the digital divide and helping residents feel confident navigating the Internet. The addition of these competent computer users allows the city and other stakeholders the chance to reach out to these residents electronically.

Moore decEven the competent computer users have to navigate the overwhelming content of the Internet. How do we make sure our content is visible to the end user in the sea of social media? The Conversation Prism by Brian Solis provides a powerful visual of the rainbow of options out there. New, competing platforms are being developed all the time. A way to ensure the content is seen by the intended end user is to target social media to a specific demographic or cause. Targeting that content means tailoring the message and getting to know the end user. Tailoring the message takes time, energy and resources. Citizen engagement becomes easier with a more focused message.

Engaging the community in the virtual realm of social media is the new platform of citizen engagement. Some cities are getting promising results. The City of Wichita, Kansas offered residents to weigh in on the 2015-2016 budget process via social media. The public participation exceeded expectations and was higher than former outreach methods.

Units of government need to master the electronic engagement process and constantly continue to build and improve it. Social media can become the most powerful engagement tool used to not only get the content dispersed, but to also receive honest and helpful input from the residents. All too often the decision makers are removed from the communities they serve; social media can help bridge the gap and open communication between city hall and the residents.

The new face of citizen engagement does not resemble the former face. Public meetings and town halls are now streamed onto phones and into homes and businesses. Residents can observe and engage, on their own terms, whether it is from the comfort of their homes or out on the go. There is no limit to the reach and scope of social media. Residents can now tweet and post their comments without having to submit comments in a formal process. This new form of engagement is less intimidating, allowing residents to openly offer beneficial input and suggestions.

As residents continue to seek out information via social media, we need to be ready to put the proper content and resources online. Getting the word out about meetings, ordinances and general updates has always been a challenge for cities. Social media can be a tool to help make the dissemination of information easier.

Cities need to use all the tools, new and old, to engage the community. Social media has matured, from its inception in the early 1970s, to become one of the most powerful citizen engagement tools. Harnessing the power of social media is essential to increased and improved citizen engagement.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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