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The Use of Social Media in Planning by Regional Councils of Governments

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

By Sarmistha R. Majumdar
January 6, 2015

When the age old question of the need for public involvement in decision making resurfaces, the answer often lies in the core normative values of democracy: mainly autonomy, equality and responsiveness to the public good. Scholars have defended the need for public involvement as an essential prerequisite to make decisions more meaningful and worthy of public support in expenditure of taxpayers’ money. In defense of the need for public involvement in the field of planning, Louis Albrechts, in his 2002 journal article in Planning Theory and Practice titled “The Planning Community Reflects on Enhancing Public Involvement,” contended public inputs have only helped to build social and intellectual capital, gain an understanding of each other’s perspectives and interests, cultivate social intelligence and promote democratic decision making. It has also been pointed out by David Booher, in his 2008 journal article in Planning Theory and Practice titled “Civic Engagement and the Quality of Urban Spaces,” that public involvement in planning helps planners to practice a more robust style of planning, which is more responsive to distributive justice, environmental well-being and economic vitality.

Over the years, public involvement in planning has undergone changes from a passive to a more interactive mode. In the 1960s and 1970s, people had limited influence on projects designed to benefit them. As stated by Sherry Arnstein in her 1969 Journal of the American Planning Association article, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” people were informed only at a later stage of planning and there were no opportunities for feedback and negotiation. In the 21st century, efforts to make participation more meaningful and legitimate have meant a transition from the traditional approach of decide, announce, and then defend draft plans at public hearings to a newer and more empowered model of public participation, aided by social media.

Majumdar janCurrently, to obtain public inputs in planning decisions, social media is being used along with traditional methods. The role of social media is not restricted to announcement of public meetings and forums where individuals can voice their opinions. Varied social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, websites, and others are used to engage the public in planning decisions. For community members to communicate using social media, all you need is access to the Internet, which makes communication possible anytime. Further, social media has the ability to replace person-to-person interaction with place-to-place interaction, thereby transcending the barriers of time and location in communication, and tends to focus more on the variable of context of use as pointed out by Barry Wellman and others in their 2003 article in Journal of Computer Mediated Communication titled “The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism.”

In the summer of 2014, a survey was conducted to determine the use of social media for public involvement purposes in transportation-related decision making. The survey was electronically mailed to the transportation planning divisions of 24 Regional Councils of Governments (RCOGs) in the state of Texas. Twenty-two RCOGs participated in the study and the data have yielded valuable information on social media in the public involvement process. Among those surveyed, 50 percent used social media.

The RCOGs that used social media used various platforms, Facebook being the most popular, followed by Twitter, You Tube, LinkedIn, Blogs and others. Such a finding is in congruence with a 2013 Pew Research report that looked at the use of social networking sites and found that Facebook is the most used and frequently checked social media site with 63 percent of users visiting the site at least daily, followed by Instagram and Twitter.

An analysis of survey data on RCOGs that do not use social media has revealed two things. First, there are some RCOGs comprising of urban counties that do not use social media at all for public involvement purposes in making transportation related decisions. Second, there are RCOGs comprising of predominantly rural counties along with a few urban or metropolitan counties that also do not use social media for public involvement purposes. Contrary to an expectation that rural counties are most unlikely to use social media, the study has revealed that this perception is not always true. Further, there are rural, urban and a mix of urban and rural counties that use at least one or more social media platforms in their communication with the public. Such findings imply that RCOGs’ physical locations in urban and/or rural counties do not necessarily influence their use of social media for public involvement purposes. Also, there do not exist many differences between rural, urban and a mix of rural and urban counties in their frequencies of use of social media.

In the survey, both users and non-users of social media were asked if management personnel at RCOGs understand the importance of advancements in social media and the need for their integration in communications with the public. In response to the aforementioned question, 68 percent of RCOGs replied yes, 18 percent said no, and approximately 14 percent did not know. It has also become apparent from the survey findings that there exists lack of information among government agencies on the best practices in the use of social media as a tool for public involvement. Among the RCOGs who use social media, 73 percent of them are aware of best practices while among the non-users of social media, 50 percent said no and another 50 percent responded do not know.

The survey also revealed that the RCOGs serving the urban and rural counties in Texas tend to use social media more as a vehicle in their one-way communication with people, mainly for distribution of information. In a 2012 Nextgov.com article, Ines Mergel pointed out that the unidirectional use of social media to relay information precludes the scope for public participation as observed in transportation planning.

In explanation of such a practice, the organizational policies of RCOGs are partly to be blamed. The RCOGs tend to attach more importance to written public comments than those posted on social media sites. Additional impediments that some RCOGs encounter in their use of social media include lack of resources, personnel, and time constraints along with the predominance of organizational perception of the lack of control over the use of social media in their communications with the public.

Author: Sarmistha R. Majumdar is an associate professor in the Political Science Department, Barbara Jordan_Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. Majumdar can be reached at [email protected]

Acknowledgement: This study was funded by a seed grant from Texas Southern University.

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