This post originally appeared on the National League of Cities CitiesSpeak blog. You can find the original post here.
Have you ever had the experience of going through a lengthy process to develop a new plan or project only to have a few vocal community members publicly oppose the project at the last minute, claiming to speak on behalf of the wishes of the larger community?
Social media is reactionary. Often times, its main purpose is to let you know that an issue exists, but without the specifics to determine how significant the problem is and who is impacted. Understandably so, city staff and elected officials are therefore reluctant to engage the public on social media - leading to an information gap.
Facebook has become the nemesis of many, particularly in our current highly politicized environment. Unfortunately, it is also where many people get information without always checking the accuracy of the source. As a result, government struggles with getting accurate information to residents and particularly doing so in a timely fashion.
Many in government have since decided to not engage with their community except through their website and newsletters, which risks narrowing the conversation to a small (but often vocal) set of the community. An alternative would be to develop a game plan for how to engage the entire community, and not just the vocal few. The key is to do so in a way that doesn’t rely exclusively on social platforms like Facebook, which are not designed to facilitate constructive input. Those communities who have done this have been able to take these situations and use it for constructive input for decision making.
Imagine what would happen if, in response to the above example, you posted the following on the “what’s happening” Facebook page: “Thank you for your interest in this initiative. You can learn more about it on our website, and also weigh in on several questions we’ve posted for community input. Please participate here (link) so we can gather community insight.”
Micro-surveys are emerging as a way to take back the conversation and provide additional information as well as gain valuable community input. But this is a path that requires careful navigation to ensure a balanced response, and not just an avalanche of opinions from the vocal few.
If you would like to learn more about how to gain constructive input in a timely manner, check out our blog or LinkedIn page in the months of August and September as we continue our 6-part series on “Taming the Social Media Beast”, showing best practices in how to use polls and surveys to engage your community.
Civic engagement isn’t just for cities anymore. It’s not just for council members, county boards or other government entities. Civic engagement is about bringing groups of people together to learn about and be a part of decisions that affect them. That means nonprofits, advocacy organizations, news outlets and even private companies, among many others, have a critical role to play.
As governments across the country grapple with ways to effectively engage a decreasing number of locally involved citizens, the availability of modern tools seem to always lag behind those which citizens desire. The rise in social media use to almost 70% of the adult population(1) has created expectations and habits among residents that may not lead to productive discourse or feedback. Popular social networks make it difficult to ensure that outbound information is accurate and objective. These platforms are also not designed for civic communication - too frequently, the most used channels devolve into negative discourse. All of this means the information about local sentiment being relayed to municipal decision-makers on important local issues is of questionable utility.