As Facebook makes its way into the inner workings of how governments interact with the public, we’re comparing how different governing entities — from small communities, big counties and entire states and countries — are using its tools. We’ve previously looked at other areas, like parks and libraries. This week, we compare how different governments large and small are using Facebook to get the word out about elections in the US.
Although national and state elections won’t be happening until this November, the topic is relevant today for a few reasons. One is that many local elections happen throughout the year, meaning local governments are busy trying out Facebook as a new place to encourage voting. They’re likely encouraged by seeing Facebook’s relevance in big 2008 campaigns, when both major US political parties, and especially President Barack Obama’s campaign, used the service to promote themselves.
Facebook has also grown by more than 200 million monthly active users in the last year or so, 60 million of whom are in the US. Today, more than 112 million people are using the site every month — that’s a third of the US population, and another reason Facebook is a venue that governments can’t ignore.
But before we start digging in, we should note that there are always a bunch of caveats when it comes to governments and the way they use the web. A variety of laws and established bureaucratic processes define which employees can interact with the public, and what information they can share. For example, one Page we saw posted a link to local election results, but didn’t state the actual results on the Page. Why not? There may be laws that require election results to be posted on public forums (such as a departmental web site) before they are shared anywhere else.
But, those concerns aside, the departments we saw did some pretty interesting things with their Facebook Pages, sharing information almost exclusively from their official web sites, but presenting it in a fun and interactive way. Walls were the primary depository for most of the information in the form of shared links such as press releases; many had open Walls where users could share their own posts. Notes were used frequently by about half of the Pages. Photos, when used, were pretty interesting and many used events to promote governmental activities.
All the Pages we saw included basic contact information, although one red flag was that several of the Pages have not been updated since the end of 2009, sort of defeating the purpose of using Facebook to update the public about elections (unless, of course, there have been no elections).
The Office of Alabama Secretary of State’s Facebook Page has 210 fans and shared the RSS feed of official press releases on the Wall in lieu of status updates. This turned the Page into an informative, albeit not very interesting, place.
Williamson County Elections Department’s Facebook Page has 69 fans and took a different approach to sharing information, providing good, useful information with status; the department also has a Twitter page. Some of the information provided via links shared on the Wall and status updates included the number of early voters, a notice of electronic voting equipment tests, the early voting schedule, and polling places, among other things.
Another good example of sharing useful information on Facebook was Delaware’s New Castle County Department of Elections with a Page counting 55 fans and announced several candidates who had filed for office on its Wall.
The Office of the Los Angeles City Clerk-Election Division had a Facebook Page with 160 fans that makes good use of the events function up until it stopped updating the Page in 2009. The Wall is filled with updates about elections voting information, like time and place, and how to apply for special voting privileges, like vote by e-mail. Another good feature of this Page is that the landing page for the account is a well-informed “about” section that lays out the department’s purpose.
The Ohio Secretary of State’s Page also lays out the department’s purposes on the Info tab in a lot of detail, much more than any other Pages we saw. Specific details about the office were provided via status updates. One directed fans to a full list of candidates, for example, while another shared the language of the May primary ballot and yet a different status update announced initiatives for women in Ohio; most of these linked to the department’s web site.
Florida’s Polk County Supervisor of Elections didn’t lay out its departmental purpose as explicitly as Ohio’s Secretary of State, but provided details with status updates about what the department does for the public. An update on March 19 was “Ever wondered how many registered voters there are in Polk County? Or how many live inside a city vs outside? You can find all sorts of interesting statistics on polkelections.com under facts and figures.” One on March 18 was “Have you moved recently? You probably remembered to change your drivers license and update your magazine subscriptions, but did you update your voter registration? Visit polkelections.com to find out how.”
The Page also made good use of events and shared some interesting photos of elections-related events.
What we saw is that elections departments are looking to Facebook as a way to disperse important, if not always exciting, information that affects their constituents in very tangible ways. Some of the departments that seemed to take more time and expend effort into creating interesting status updates, or post photo albums of elections events, ended up with Pages that piqued curiosity, whereas other Pages that simply used Facebook as a repository for election-related information didn’t manage to step from informative to interactive.
As more government entities begin to experiment with Facebook we’re likely to see new and different ways they find to make usually uninteresting bureaucratic information more relevant to people. If you’re in government and looking for more details on how you can use Pages to raise election awareness, be sure to check out our Facebook Marketing Bible.