When I was in Canada last week I had a lovely lunch with clients from a provincial agency in the western part of the country. We were discussing about how to make effective use of social media for citizen engagement purposes and I made an example I use quite often (and gave in a previous blog post). The CIO of a US county stated that what he had learned from several years of poorly attended county council meetings was that citizens want to talk about issues in places that are convenient to them: a soccer game or a swimming pool may be better places than an official meeting if people so feel. He also added that the same applies to online engagement: go where people are as opposed to pull them on some government-crated web site, blog or Facebook page.
The client I was having lunch with had been struggling with figuring out how to engage citizens online to plan changes to quad bike tracks in a nearby park: should they create a community? Should they create a Facebook group for interested people to join? My reaction was that, prior to doing that, it would make sense to figure out whether and where quad bike fans gather online and join them on their turf.
At that point, the senior manager in charge of policy planning had an epiphany and said: “Of course! Actually I am planning to drive a quad bike in the bushes with a group of supporters in order to have a first hand exposure to their issues. Isn’t what you are suggesting the same, just online?”. Sure it is.
It is remarkable how often people forget that what works offline may actually work online too. I suspect that we need fewer social media consultants who offer great Facebook presence strategy and services, and more common sense. And common sense is not a resource that people working for the public sector have in short supply.