Civic Engagement Online: Mr. Spaghetti and The Man Behind the Curtain
When L. Frank Baum wrote the Wizard of Oz, some saw the wizard as symbolizing faceless leadership – lacking accountability and transparency. It’s a metaphor that can still apply today if digital media is used as a shortcut for public engagement. Witness the backlash against the ‘thoughts and prayers’ tweets following the tragedy in Orlando.
But few human relationships are truly improved by shortcuts and small talk. It was once a significant gesture all its own for a government agency simply to create a social media account. In 2016, we expect more than just a veneer. Anything less would be the work of the man behind the curtain.
The Bait and Switch vs. Real Engagement
A few agencies have tread into crowdsourcing naming public property, only to pull the rug when a community response doesn’t fit desired preconceptions. When the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council invited public suggestions via social media to name their newest research vessel, the flip suggestion of “Boaty McBoatface” caught on widely, but was nixed by the agency. Too whimsical, not regal enough.
According to the BBC, the NERC was called before the British Commons to discuss whether the affair was a ‘triumph of public engagement, or a PR disaster’.
Similarly, the invitation to name the new MBTA Police society training dog received ample comment – participants rallied around ‘Mr. Spaghetti’ after a local comedian joined the conversation. Once again, the agency overrode the public, rescinding the offer and renaming the dog a more buttoned up “Hunter.” It’s a suitable but forgettable name, and the real damage is the breach of trust created with the general public who participated in the contest.
Compare that to this exchange between the SF BART Twitter feed and a frustrated constituent – the honesty from Communications Officer Taylor Huckaby was human, resonant, humble and open.
To a frustrated constituent complaining of transit delays, Huckaby via @SFBART replied, “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.”
The much-lauded exchange is a signal that behind the handle is a thoughtful, committed public servant. The handle served as a portal to the real public servants who staff the agency, not a smokescreen or a shortcut – and spawned the hashtag #thisisourreality. Huckaby said that the tweet was on message with the same things that imbue other agency communications around the challenged transit system, strained with use by a swelling population, and a good example of Twitter used as an arm of a coordinated communication strategy.
The City as a Service
Constituents aren’t exactly customers – the communities we call home feel like ours for so many reasons. Government agencies may not feel the need to court constituents like salespeople at a car dealership – it’s a captive audience, right?
However, good constituent service is just like good customer service. It starts with the practice of fairly and honestly setting expectations. A bait and switch confuses, alienates, and creates a negative feedback loop that teaches participants not to try again; that can mean broadened civic disenchantment and low voter turnout. The good news is that we have allies in digital engagement who understand that our online communities are an extension of the same factors that have brought us together throughout time.
The choices agencies make shape the behaviors of a community – how we want to express our stake in the places where we live, work and visit. Resonant, committed digital engagement programs are one way to reinforce a sense of community that can suggest a sense of ownership for all. Interactive online communities can be conduits to stronger ties that transcend the digital landscape. An engaged community will reward responsiveness with trust and participation, on and offline.
Resilient Social Systems
For agencies opening the gates to the long term relationship of civic engagement online, sustainable strategies that drive community acquisition, growth and ongoing nurturing are vital. This means creating channels and designing systems to consistently and accurately answer the messages they attract and interpret the conversation at scale – anticipating volume, and creating internal systems that support their sustainable ongoing operations.
It means making sure messages are answered by real people, and connecting those answers with related systems. Or, designing automated systems that actually work. That can mean configuring social CRM so requests collected via Tweet enter the same pipeline as any other service request, or analyzing social data to help better anticipate the type of messages and requests that arrive, whether it’s department type or the busiest time of day. Designed sustainably, they last, not leaving constituents with the digital equivalent of a dial tone.
I’ve always believed in accessible local government, from the first door I knocked as a kid, campaigning for my hometown mayor; passing out buttons in the fifth grade cafeteria while running my (successful!) campaign for student council president; all the way to setting up a mayor’s first Twitter feed. I believed that local government was a place where we should all feel entitled to belong inside – decades later, that’s truer than ever, thanks to the democratizing force of digital media. The winners inside our City Halls and public squares will be where the circuit is completed: the signal received, and returned with meaningful action. Real online civic engagement that unites agency and constituent should be the gold standard, and will help illuminate the road ahead.