LONDON -- Social media have already transformed how the private sector conducts commerce. And they are rapidly altering the way local governments do business as well.
Last week, an enterprising government in the English city of Walsall undertook an interesting experiment. For 24 hours, a local council (county) posted all of its activities on Twitter
. The tweets ranged from information on pothole repairs to efforts to combat racism in public housing to calls for cleaning up dog excrement.
The idea was to give the community a sense of the problems its government confronts
-- and tackles -- in an ordinary day. "People here are genuinely doing it because they believe in local government and what local government does, a lot of which goes unrecognized or unreported," said a council spokesman.
But while officials in Walsall were using social media to effectively market their services, other groups in the U.K. have harnessed social media to attack local problems. In recent years, dozens of hyper-local websites have sprung up
to address such concerns as crime and recycling, as well as to showcase planning applications and the opening times of local libraries. Nonprofits are also beginning to train local governments in how to use social media to interact with their citizens.
As William Perrin, the founder of one of the first, widely viewed DIY websites in the U.K., explains, no one has time anymore to attend evening meetings, read long stacks of papers or attend lengthy lectures. Instead, sites like his give "a 21st century interface to a 19th century system. People have got involved because the time cost to them is so much less."
But it's not just the time-savings efficiency of such "civic websites" that makes them increasingly attractive to local neighborhoods and governments alike in the U.K. These ventures also fit beautifully with Prime Minister David Cameron's Big Society initiative
Big Society was a key theme in the Conservative Party's general election campaign last spring. It's centered on giving voluntary groups and communities power to run public services. While partly a cost-saving mechanism, Big Society is also about empowering local communities to govern themselves, and having local governments oversee that process.
Nor is the U.K. the only place where localism is embracing technology
. In the United States, the "Give a Minute" program provides a fast, cheap and easy way for neighborhoods to share ideas, connect with each other, and bring about change. So, for example, if the problem in one urban zone is to reduce the use of cars, text messaging can be used to generate ideas that will encourage residents to walk, bike or use public transportation. While early adopters of this program were nonprofit groups, some local governments are also jumping on board.
Of course, while e-government has its upsides, it also has its challenges. For example, in a cost-saving, environmentally friendly move, many municipalities in the U.S. have begun using iPads to cut costs and reduce paper
. But accountability concerns quickly sprung up about disclosure, since not all electronic records are public.
It's also true that for all the technological wizardry out there, social media can't operate in a vacuum. You need cadres of volunteers to blog/tweet/text, train others how to do so and, most importantly, galvanize communities to actually address the problems that pop up in their Twitter feeds.
To that end, if the future of local government resides (in part) in technology, it equally resides in volunteerism. Volunteering comes pretty naturally
to most Americans. (Some have even suggested it as our defining national trait
). But as I've noted elsewhere, volunteerism is not the Brits' strong suit
. (Although the government is taking measures to address this problem by setting up a National Citizen Service that will require all teenagers to volunteer
as a rite of passage.)
The Walsall Council spokesman summed it up best when he said that his government's pilot Twitter project
was being "powered by free software and staff goodwill."
In today's cash-strapped times
, that strikes me as a mantra not just for Walsall but for all of us.
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