A Facebook page can help a local government build a stronger social connection to the citizens it represents. Sure, local governments in democratic countries are already social, as they do things like offer public hearings around controversial issues, or mail out surveys to residents. But how many people come to hearings, or bother to fill out these surveys — especially students and working-age adults who have many other responsibilities? For any local government leader looking to truly understand the needs of the people they were elected or hired to serve, the answer is never enough.
Facebook offers a number of unique advantages in helping local governments do a better job of listening to their bosses, from features like status updates, to the wall, to applications for polling, longer discussions, videos and photos, and much else. And it’s the most popular social network in the US and scores of other countries around the world; people tend to provide their real names and locations. These factors make it especially useful for local leaders who are trying to figure out who their citizens really are
If you’re unfamiliar with the basics of creating a page, take a look at the company’s how-to guide.
Facebook pages can be used in all sorts of ways — it really depends on what the local government’s overall goals are. The first 6 tips deal with more general issues, the second section of 4 tips provides more details on what sort of information to share on your page.
1. Find real constituents: While anyone can join any Facebook page, the fact that people live their real lives and list their locations on Facebook means that you can easily see if someone commenting on a page is actually a constituent versus, say, a digital out-of-towner looking to cause trouble. Should a government page owner make sure to respond to these people, too, for example? San Francisco, California‘s page has a whopping 263,000 fans (around a third of its total population) but a large portion of those fans don’t actually live in San Francisco. Many of these people are likely fans of San Francisco as a concept, and aren’t tax-paying residents who want to hear about the minutiae of city life. Their comments may not be as valuable. Note that Facebook does allow you to send geo-targeted “updates” to fans in certain geographic areas that appear in a secondary tab in the Facebook message inbox.
2. Decide who is in control: Who has the responsibility for managing the page? The city council? The county? The mayor’s office? A paid employee of one of these offices? An independent member of the government? Many local governments are still figuring out how to handle online political campaign disclosures in general; we don’t recommend putting campaign material on a city page, for example. But How restrictive are you going to be about social media in general? Earlier this year, Bozeman, Montana, sparked controversy when it went as far as to ask for employee’s user names and passwords to Facebook and other sites — its goal was to make sure employees didn’t misrepresent the city on those sites, apparently. Also, some issues — like state legislation affecting towns across the state, may be left for another page; an example of that is the Illinois Municipal League Legislative Department page, an organization representing more than 1,000 towns across the state. And be aware of legal issues. Here’s Coral Springs, Florida’s guidelines, for example.
3. Make clear administration policies: Does the government have the budget and the focus to pay someone to post regularly? Ventura, California has a general “civic engagement manager” position, for example, who is charged in part with social media, but the city also pushes its other employees to use social media. Is the page an appropriate forum to discuss issues with citizens — should sensitive issues be reserved for town halls or other in-person forums? If the government has a junior employee reading and responding to comments, it needs clear rules about what sort of comments they can respond to, and what comments should be sent up the hierarchy for response. Many companies use enterprise software services for pages, like Context Optional or Buddy Media, to manage this process. Page owners can also choose to either restrict users from leaving their own status updates, or you can let them post away. We suggest you moderate for hate speech and other inappropriate content, if you choose the latter. Also, watch out for employees who spend too much time using Facebook, especially for non-work related things like social games.
4. Provide useful profile information: It may seem simple, but what other contact information are you going to provide fans? Many local government pages we’ve seen provide physical addresses, phone numbers and email addresses for central government offices or for specific departments. The pages for Knoxville, Tennessee and Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, provide addresses, numbers and also business hours. If you do blog or tweet, we also recommend that you provide links to those destinations.
5. Decide if you need more than one page: Should the police department, the fire department, the school district, and other parts of the government have their own pages? The Dallas, Texas police department has its own page, for example. What about the mayor’s office? On a related note, should each elected leader have their own personal page, that they take with them after they leave office? In general, we suggest more populated cities and counties create pages for individual departments. The goal is to have an active page, and if you’re a local government for, say, just a few thousand people, you don’t want to split your potential fans to the degree that you have a hard time getting conversations started.
6. Share content to and from your other sites: Many cities already have their own web sites, and some use social tools like blogs or Twitter accounts. How should a page be integrated with these services? If other services already have active communities, then we recommend governments do things like post links to blog articles within their page, in order to help direct Facebook users to discussions already happening off the site. If your government is also using Twitter, Facebook provides an option that lets you repost any update from your page to Twitter; the Twitter app for Facebook, as well as some third-party apps, also let you post from Twitter to your page. If you have a blog, you can use the Networked Blog service or a number of other third party applications to syndicate the RSS feed of your blog into your page. A Facebook page can also be a place to promote other new services from. Cudahy, Wisconsin has an active page, that it has launched a new, full-service web site. Morris County, New Jersey posts to its page — and to other social sites — using Ping.fm, one of several third-party services that let you post remotely, take a look at this coverage for more detail. Gillette, Wyoming, is using its page to show off mock-ups of a forthcoming city site redesign.
But What to Share?
Sharing status updates, photos, and other media in the stream is the single most important aspect of the site, as this information is what appears to users in their news feeds, and what typically generates the most conversation. Are you going to post only major news? Are you going to ask questions of your citizen-fans? Are you going to provide tips?
7. Public service announcements: Are you making sure important public service announcements are reaching Facebook users? The H1N1 flu season is here, and Fairfax County, Virginia, is posting links about the availability of flu shots, with links to its web site on the topic. Montgomery County, Maryland, used its page to keep fans informed of a traffic light software glitch, and to let commuters know about public transit options.
8. Events: Orlando, Florida‘s page includes posts for about a free workshop for people facing home foreclosures. Maysville, Kentucky, goes as far as to create events on Facebook for civic activities, then posts those events to its page; fans can then see the events and RSVP, allowing the city to get a better idea of how many people are going to show up. So does San Carlos, California. You can set your page to include the Events tab, as Durham County, North Carolina has done — this way, fans can see a chronological list of everything happening.
9. Multimedia: In our random sampling of local government pages, we didn’t see many that made heavy use of photos, videos and other multimedia to increase engagement. We suggest simply reposting the countless, user-generated pieces of content being generated — search Flickr, YouTube and other sites for interesting content to keep people engaged.
10. Applications: We also didn’t see many pages making use of applications. Using any of the third-party polling applications available on Facebook (accessible through the admin interface of pages), Facebook polls can be a quick and easy way to solicit feedback from Facebook users. Or, you can do what Fairfax County did, which was create a survey on its web site asking for feedback about its Facebook page, then link to the survey via an update to its page.
Local government leaders should look at these questions as a reflection of the new opportunities pages provide. As with any aspect of democratic government, Facebook pages are a work in progress for the entire community — not every attempt to use them will work according to plan, but making the effort is the best way to figure out what works best.