Saturday, 6 November 2010

Reading Borough Council gets social media

I don't, I'm sure, need to tell you that I'm a fan of social media. I've been tweeting since 2009, blogging since 2006 and using video since 2008. I have also used Facebook extensively to consult and campaign on issues ranging from recycling to rented housing.
Last Winter social media came into its own during the period of severe weather we faced, when in the absence of a corporate policy opposition councillors helped spread the word online to residents via the #rdg hashtag.
But what's most excited me recently is the fact that Reading Borough Council has finally joined the 21st century and is now embracing social media as a way to engage and involve the public in its activities and decisions. Obviously this does not mean the Council will stop communicating with the public in more traditional ways. I hope it will lead to a Council more focussed on its residents and more tuned into local concerns.
The latest example of this new policy is the Council's: Your Money, Your Say Facebook page which encourages residents to be part of the Budget debate. This is something I can never imagine happening under the previous Labour administration.
My colleagues on the Lib Dem side Kirsten Bayes, Warren Swaine and Glenn Goodall have all energetically championed various aspects of this agenda in recent years and I am grateful to them for helping me make the case. Conservative councillors supported our proposal to web cast council meetings a little while ago, and Green councillor Rob White argued recently that Reading Borough Council should make better use of 'new media'. Every Lib Dem held ward in Reading has a local blog maintained by active councillors who are keen to engage with the public.The only Party in danger of being left behind in all this guessed it - the Labour Party. But then again this is the Party that for years included dinosaurs that argued that glass recycling was 'a waste of money' - meanwhile the public and public administration moves forward, leaving them behind.
One of the first but signficant acts of the new Coalition administration was to adopt a social media policy. Many other councils have had such policies for years - but not Reading when it was run by Labour. This decision links closely to the Coalition's commitment to greater openness, innovation and enhanced customer service.
The policy states that:
"rather than waiting for individuals or groups to approach the council, social media offers the opportunity of being able to connect to the community and deliver messages with greater conviction. It may empower local residents to speak up about their needs and influence decision making, in turn building trust and stronger bonds."
On the back of the Council's policy which helps free staff to communicate effectively with residents as part of a two-way conversation - a dialogue, rather than a broadcast. The Council now has a number of social media profiles covering a variety of services - find them all here.
I am particularly pleased to see the Streetcare Team responsible for the street environment on Twitter- enabling residents to report litter and graffiti quickly and easy for action. I am keen to extend this approach into housing and community care services - watch this space. I pick up lots of housing casework via Facebook - probably about 1/3.
Sadly some Labour councillors and activists continue to attack those of us that use social media. A few (mainly the newer ones) do use social media, but they are outnumbered by those in the old guard that don't. You only have to sit in Council debates and read some local Labour blogs to detect the Party's latent authoritiarianism. These days thankfully the Council is becoming much more pluralist and social media is just another tool to bring more voices into the debate - hopefully improving our decisions and our services.

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