Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Grittier Side of Life: What Snow Can Do for Citizen Engagement

User Generated Content in full effect
As someone who is passionate about social media and its power to give citizens and communities a voice I was pleased when a tweet I sent last week about Birmingham City Council's efforts to grit the roads and pavements of England's second city was picked up by the BBC News. While it is easy to be sniffy and dismiss stories about snow and gritting as nothing more than banal 'local interest' I believe my experience offers some useful insights into how social media can support citizen engagement.

Andy Warhol may have been a touch optimistic

What would Andy make of my gritting story fame? Photo: qthomasbower
Back in 1968 Andy Warhol famously remarked, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Clearly, Andy Warhol had not foreseen the Internet and the media saturated environment in which we live today. Instead of 15 minutes, my tweet probably garnered me 15 seconds of attention. And far from captivating a global audience, I had to make do with the slightly more selective online readership of BBC News England section of the BBC News website. Allow me to explain my brush with the fame monster.

On my way to work last Thursday morning I was impressed to see some workers in hi-viz jackets liberally applying grit to the footpaths of the Five Ways underpass and park. The sight of my route to work being cleared of snow and ice pleased me and, being a former local government officer who understands the difficult decisions involved in responding to adverse conditions, I decided Birmingham City Council deserved to be praised for making this citizen's life a little easier. 

Being a fan of social media's immediacy, I decided to Tweet a photo of the municipal activism along with an encouraging shout out to Birmingham City Council's main Twitter account, @BhamCityCouncil. I included the hashtags #FiveWays and #Birmingham so that other people interested in following developments in their local area or city could more easily discover news of the gritting.

The Tweet that was heard around the world
After Tweeting my picture I got into work and thought no more about grit, snow or Birmingham City Council. It was only after lunch that I noticed someone had replied to my Tweet, asking if I would mind speaking to them about a BBC News story they were doing on gritting and could they use my photo in the story. Sufficed to say, I didn't have to think twice before agreeing to take the call.

From speaking to Kathryn Hamlett, a BBC News Online journalist, I discovered I was not alone in feeling positively predisposed towards Birmingham City Council in its hour of need. In amongst the predictable grumbles the response of public authorities to the bad weather Kathryn had detected on social media significant amounts of goodwill and appreciation for the efforts key workers of all descriptions were making to keep services running despite the snowfall. You can read the full story on the BBC News website.

But what does it all mean?

Besides the obvious fun factor of having my tweet tweet featured in a local news story, does my experience have any deeper meaning? For the sake of this blog post if nothing else, I certainly hope so.

My brush with local fame shows how social media can make it easier for citizens to make their views known. While it is true that in reducing the barriers to access it is true social media can make it easier for citizens to vent their short term frustrations, it can also enable citizens to give a 'tip of the hat' to public authorities where before this gratitude may not have found visible expression. In these grim times for people working in the public sector I hope the likes of Birmingham City Council use these good news stories to bolster their own resilience.

My experience also shows the need to manage citizens' expectations of direct communication with public authorities. I suppose I was flattered when I was asked by the BBC for my views on gritting. But the flipside of this feeling was the mild disappointment I felt when Birmingham City Council not to acknowledge my hat tip. Several days on, I can clearly see that Birmingham City Council clearly had more important things to do than say 'nice photo!' or 'thanks for the kind of words' but there's still a small part of me that wished they had done precisely that. Could the people behind Birmingham City Council's Twitter account have done more to manage my expectations of receiving an acknowledgement?

Digital Storytelling through Storify

Given the parlous financial position public authorities find themselves in I suspect there will be little time and even less money available to consider how engagement with the public might be improved. As a minimum I would like to see Birmingham City Council and other public authorities do more around digital storytelling, promoting the use of tools such as Storify to allow the the public to share their stories of the snow and using it to bring together a wide range of content to share their side of the story with the public. On that note, I'm off to find out what stories are already out there.

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