Case study: city leadership through social media

GovFaces co-founder Connor Sattely explains why new tools crafted especially for political interaction are needed for true social digital engagement. 

The “social media revolution” is now sealed – an overwhelming majority of those in positions of leadership in cities now use Twitter, Facebook, and other tools to connect with citizens.

However, this development has not significantly contributed to greater levels of interactive engagement among a large majority of government and political leadership. The culprit primarily rests in what current social media platforms are able to provide in terms of two-way, multi-level exchange between stakeholders. New tailored platforms and channels, when embraced by “early adopter” city officials, have the potential to spur a new era of social media: one of efficient mass dialogue.

Social digital engagement: broadcast and a move to interaction

The first use of social media in political and city leadership was largely centered around broadcast. Barack Obama’s pioneering use of the tools in 2008 focused on two elements: broadcast messaging and fundraising. Social media allowed him to reach citizens and groups across the full social spectrum but did not provide effective mechanisms to dialogue.

Narendra Modi, hailed as India’s first “social media prime minister,” represents how, in a short span, the model of social media use for social digital engagement has evolved. Throughout the 2014 election, his social media efforts were noted not only for the large amount of followers – second only to Obama – but also for his attempts to engage and interact with individuals and groups through social media channels.

Mass interaction emerges as Holy Grail of social media

This model of interaction on social media replacing broadcast -centric approaches and tools has given rise to city leaders defined by their presence on these websites. Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, famous for clever quips and retorts; Newark’s Cory Booker, famous for following up Twitter interactions with real-world interaction; and West Bromwich’s Tom Watson, known for heavy interaction and quick responses, are amongst the world’s best at social media interaction.

The success of these leaders on social media, however, is relatively rare. Studies have shown less than 10% of politicians’ content on social media constitutes interaction with other users.

Two main difficulties prevent leaders from engaging in mass interaction on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

First, it is difficult to get initial traction and citizen feedback to warrant interaction itself. While Tom Watson consistently has soft- and hard balls thrown at him from his 45000 followers, the average MP has less than a tenth the number of followers, making valuable mass interaction opportunities sparse.

Second, interaction on these platforms tends to be extremely inefficient, with hours per day spent responding to only 10-20 users and hoping hundreds or thousands more see the answer. Without a filtering and approval mechanism identifying the top questions, politicians find it difficult to know what to answer first. Limitations of characters on Twitter, or limitations of text-only answers on Facebook, magnify the problem: it can be difficult to make an effective connection through an answer perceived as being posted by a staff member.

Key to new era may be new tools

Some recently developed platforms, however, seek to combat this level of disconnection present in social digital engagement. A tool in Germany, abgeordnetenwatch, is based around question/answer interaction with politicians and boasts 80% participation by federal MPs.

Recently launched in the United Kingdom, a Swiss-based tool GovFaces seeks to enable mass interaction at scale. Initially targetting Portsmouth and expanding into other constituencies, the platform emphasizes a community upvote/downvote function to emphasize and highlight the most important conversation points relative to a politician or official. Video responses allow politicians to create direct connections with citizens.

The age of interactivity on digital social engagement tools has begun; but the extension of this new era to all public officials depends on their willingness to engage with new, innovative tools. The development of these tools has begun, and leaders emerging over the next year will likely feature their use as a major component of their public engagement plans.