Using social media in local government

This post is a response to an email from Helen Williams at the Society of IT Management (SOCITM) asking about the experience of using social media at North Devon Council, where I am Web content manager.


I am indebted to Andrew Beeken at City of Lincoln Council for his invaluable insights into using Twitter and social media tools. Andrew’s advice helped guide our initial steps. There are many others in the local government world who have since shared their experience and inspiration including Dan Slee at Walsall BC, Sarah Lay at Derbyshire CC and localgov ex-pat, Ben Proctor. I could name more but I’d be here all night doing so.

In the beginning

We started using Twitter in February 2009. The seed was planted by our Elections team who had read about Newcastle CC using Twitter to push out election results.

After a short Twitter trial through the Comms team, we presented a report to the senior management team (SMT) on our experience and how we might use other tools.


Of the multitude of social media tools available, we’ve chosen to use what at the time were the most popular – Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter.

YouTube and Flickr allow us to publish photos and video without straining our own web servers. Although we have used photos within the Comms team for some time, Flickr has allowed us to build a store of high-res photos for all to access. We’ve also set up several groups for the public to post their own photos of North Devon.

We’ve taken a cheap and cheerful approach with video, using a Flip camera (£70). The results will never win cinematographic awards, but they serve our purpose. We’re quite proud of our cheesy Christmas video card from the Barnstaple pannier market (see also the Pannier Market Facebook page below).

Building a successful presence

Our presence has grown primarily because we’ve continually re-assessed how we use each tool. Despite using some tools for marketing and promoting messages, we’ve never lost sight of the fact that social media is all about facilitating online conversations.

Social media uses

We first used social media – primarily Twitter – as a communications channel, but quickly realised that it was a conversational tool. We’ve applied the same mindset to each of the other tools.

Twitter is still used to push out news, jobs and other information, but it’s now an easy way for customers to engage with us.

Early on we decided that we did not want to launch a council Facebook page. However, we viewed Facebook as potentially a good tool as part of strategies for running campaigns, events, consultations and marketing. We run the Facebook page for the Barnstaple Pannier Market which is part of the marketing plan though we’re promoting the page as part of a conversation between traders, shoppers and the council.

Strategy, policy and people

Our social media presence is run on a day-to-day basis by the Web content manager (er, me) working in the Comms team. The Comms officers also have access to the accounts.

Overall responsibility rests in the Comms team; under our governance arrangements web issues go through the Web Editorial Board (WEB) headed by the Assistant Chief Executive.

We don’t have a written social media policy though there is a general guide to social media which has been approved by the WEB and our original proposal received approval from SMT.

Our IT policies do not block access to social media websites. Personal use of the web and council email system is however limited to incidental and occasional use. We do not tolerate accessing social media sites for personal use other than allowed by IT policies.

Monitoring social media – including hyperlocal websites and blogs – is an important element of our guidelines.

On a strategic level, the WEB has considered a web policy which considers how social media fits into the strategy. However, we will want to consider social media as part of our overall engagement strategy.


We are beginning to see more use of our Twitter account to answer service queries though it is still only a handful a week. If and when this grows, we will want to consider how we give access to the customer service team.

Last winter’s snows did see a big jump in our followers and conversations as we used Twitter to keep customers up to date with disruptions to waste and recycling collections and other services. I think that’s what proved the value of social media to some of the internal sceptics.

We feel that as much as anything, our use of social media has enhanced our online reputation. Also, we are well placed to deploy social media for specific issues/events. We’re probably due to review of our progress and a more strategic look forwards.

I haven’t mentioned metrics in this post. We have got some numbers which I’d like to cover in another post though I would say that I’m still not happy that the sample of stats we have is giving us a big picture: not just yet.

Managing the output and input

We’re using a combination of tools, including automation of some tweets through Twitterfeed. All news tweets are now by hand – redrafted to make them fit the medium.

The web content manager uses the Echofon client plugin for Firefox for Twitter. Otherwise, all other officers use IE8, so are stuck with the web version of Twitter.

Monitoring is mostly through Google Alerts and close monitoring of Twitter and Facebook. We’ve found that Google picks up a lot of local content, including hyperlocals and blogs.

The Future

Trying to predict the path of online platforms, tools and technologies is a mug’s game. But, we do, as an organisation, need to take stock and see whether there are opportunities to harness social media in other areas. Consultation and community engagement are areas where I think there is great scope to use social media. Herein lies a challenge to engage internally to point out the scope for using online tools.

Local government faces huge challenges. It’s the people within local government and, hopefully, the communities which we work for that will help navigate through stormy waters. Social media will have a part to play as part of our toolkit, but I’m not going to pretend it has magical powers. Only people can build communities and communicate.


Everyone is going to have different experiences with social media. We have a sense that take up of some social media tools is not as high in North Devon as it is in other areas. That has coloured our approach.

The most important lesson we’ve learned is that using social media is as much about listening to what others say about you or ask you than it is about using the tools to push out the corporate line. Try dipping your toe in first before pushing out content.

Many people take to social media very easily: there is a high usage of Facebook within the council. But, many officers do not understand the concepts and do not understand how social media can work to our benefit and disbenefit. You may need to look at hands on training.

Always use a personal voice when tweeting. You might, like BTCare and others, identify who is tweeting on your behalf.

Look at ways to encourage contributions – Flickr groups is a great way to do this.

Always respond to comments, however seemingly trivial. We have a 24 hours email response standard which we apply to Twitter, but in most cases you should be able to respond much more quickly.

Think carefully about spreading the load. If your Twitter or Flickr enthusiast leaves you might struggle to adapt.

Enjoy the conversation!

One Response to Using social media in local government

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christine Gooding. Christine Gooding said: Using social media in local government « Allotment 5½: I am indebted to Andrew Beeken at City of Lincoln Cou… #in […]

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