Budget cuts: an opportunity for local government to deliver services WITH citizens. Social media can help.

@Ross Currier, my Locally Grown co-host, tweeted on Monday, “As citizens increasingly challenge politics as usual, is it no longer left vs. right, nor faith vs. reason, but individual vs. institution?”

Listen Participate TransformThen Steve Clift @democracy retweeted this from @72prufrocks today, a report titled Listen, Participate, Transform: A social media framework for local government from the UK-based Young Foundation. It’s part of their Local 2.0 project (see the Local 2.0 Blog here), funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government

The report’s emphasis on the importance of public officials building relationships with citizens, using social media in part, is encouraging and is the best writing I’ve seen thus far on the topic.

In my hometown of Northfield, this is more than a little timely because:

  1. Significant budget cuts have to be made soon and the process is receiving some criticism
  2. Citizens are being asked to support a referendum for new police and fire facilities
  3. The Northfield City Council has a goal of improving communication with staff, citizen advisory groups and community

From the report’s introduction:

Impending budget cuts mean that local government will need to change the way it works, largely moving away from a model of delivering services to and for people, to a model of delivering services with people. Public servants will be required to build new relationships with citizens, relationships to help support civil society in responding to inevitable challenges.

As a consequence, local and central government needs to find better ways to forge new partnerships, involving citizens and the state working together to generate new ideas, tap into latent community capacity and make better use of local assets.

These challenges come at a time when social media has become part of everyday life for millions of people. For those in central and local government, social media will undoubtedly become part of everyday business, a channel for improved dialogue, wider networks and a new kind of mutualism that will be central to delivering effective public services. However, at this point social media is largely uncharted territory for many councils and public agencies.

  1. Listen Participate Transform - graphicListen to social media users and conversations about local issues
  2. Participate in conversations, building dialogue with citizens through social media, but also by energizing them around local issues, providing spaces for residents to support each other, and ultimately empowering them through decision making. The impact of participation should also be measured.
  3. Transform service redesign, replacing or complimenting existing ways of working and adopting new models of working

This reinforces the Citizens League’s finding on the importance of the quality of the dialogue between pubic officials and citizens that I blogged about last August:

One hypothesis about citizen involvement processes is that citizens view processes as “authentic” if the processes results in policies that citizens favor. This turned out not to be true. The most critical element citizens used to evaluate the authenticity of their involvement in MAP 150 projects was the quality of the dialogue with public officials. The quality of the dialogue was more important than the eventual result.

The disincentives for public officials to meaningfully engage with citizens are strong (see related blog posts here, here, and here) but the financial pain that everyone is about to experience as pubic services are cut back just may be enough to overcome them.

For those who want to go deeper, I recommend two other recent Young Foundation papers:

Public services and civil society working together Birth of the relational state

L: Public services and civil society working together 

R: The birth of the relational state