Friday 27 March 2009

Using Twitter as a benchmark for Australian local government use of social media

Tomorrow is #barcampcanberra and I’ll be getting up early to drive down from Wollongong for the day. I’m planning to talk about something Gov 2.0 flavoured and have been thinking about where Australia is compared to the rest of the world. For example, while at Barcamp in Canberra this week, over in the US a Government 2.0 Barcamp is taking place - they ended up capping this event at 500 people.

Now, I don’t believe Twitter is the beginning and end of social computing, but it does provide an interesting benchmark for comparison. Lets consider the UK and Australia:

Local authorities in the UK on Twitter = 90 out of 468 (approx. 20%)


Local councils in Australia on Twitter = 3 out of 677 (less than 1%).

Those 3 councils I’m aware of are the City of Sydney, Mosman and Wyong. There may be a few more, but let face it - we would need to pull a lot out the hat to match the UK's efforts to date.

Now, when you look at the combined 10,000 or so followers the UK councils have attracted so far in the context of the UK's total population, you might be tempted to argue that Twitter isn’t actually having much of an impact. However, two points need to be considered:

Firstly, Twitter isn’t a numbers game - considering the low barrier of entry for establishing a Twitter presence, it provides an excellent return on investment compared to other hit and miss broadcast communication approaches - its not a passive communication tool as information is getting specifically to those that want it. Some of those Twitter followers will be acting as information brokers, so news and other information will be passed on through other information channels, including both the traditional media and other social media.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is a sign of UK councils have far greater willingness to experiment with social media as new ways of communicating and engaging with the communities they represent.

It would be unfair of me to bash Australian local government over the head with Twitter. There are lots of reasons why government as a whole in Australia isn’t experimenting with social computing to the same degree as the UK (and the US, Canada, etc). And, as I mentioned earlier, there is more to using social computing in government than Twitter. For example, look at HeadShift’s Commission for Rural Communities case study:

“The Commission for Rural Communities ensures that governmental policies reflect the real needs of people living and working in rural England... [they] faced the challenge of uniting groups and individuals based in very different places.”
Sounds like the kind of challenge we face in this wide brown land, right?

So, if at least four Aussie councils have now done it, what’s stopping the others from at least sticking a toe in the water and start investigating the possibilities? Well, to help on that front here are some Twitter focused tips:

  • Create a personal account to learn about the medium. There are a stack of local government related organisations already on Twitter you can follow;
  • Use a tool like TwitterLocal to find people twittering from your local area; and
  • Start working on getting an RSS feed on your council Website - there are tools that will make it easy to automagically post updates to Twitter (plus you’ll kill two birds with one stone by also providing your community with the option to follow news via your RSS feed).

If you work in local government in Australia I would love to know more about what’s stopping you from experimenting with social media and social computing.

BTW This wasn't a scientific survey of Twitter use! My rough calculation of the number of local authorities in the UK is based on data from and Wikipedia. For Australia, I used a figure from the Australian Local Government Association. I also used data for Twitter from the Local Government Engagement Online Research Blog and Also, if I’ve missed out an Aussie council on Twitter, please let me know.

UPDATE: Care of the Stap isi blog, here are examples of a few more Aussie local councils on Twitter - City of Bayswater (toe in the water, but not twittering as yet), Mitcham Council, and Toowoomba Council.

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  1. Anonymous1:19 am

    Thanks for the mention!
    We've been exploring the use of social media, including Twitter, Youtube and commenting and discussions on our website, as ways to reach wider/different audiences and, more importantly, enter into conversations with them.
    Starting slowly, we're beginning to engage with more and more people through social media, from individuals in rural areas to government representatives and MPs.
    The conversations are not always comfortable, but always worthwhile! They help inform our work and ensure that we can communicate the real needs of rural communities to government.

    Russell Tanner
    Commission for Rural Communities

  2. Great comment: "The conversations are not always comfortable, but always worthwhile!". However, its quite ironic that the only comment I've had so far to this post is in fact from someone in the UK, not Australia!

  3. Anonymous12:57 pm

    Micromanagement is a huge social networking killer.

    About all I can say without airing a lot of dirty laundry.

  4. Thanks anon. I don't know if you can speak more to this in general terms, but what's the root cause do you think? Is more education needed at senior levels of local government about the legitimate role of social media and social computing?

  5. Hi James,
    Great post! Thanks for mentioning my website. I'm looking forward to seeing @b3rn/Stap isi's @OZGovLocal list grow in the near future. It will be exciting to watch :)


  6. Tom Fry4:51 pm

    You need to change policies so that government agencies don't believe they are violating legislation such as the archives act. If they did this then I expect there would be more acceptance and use of it within government agencies.


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