10 Ways Facebook Pages Can Help Local Governments Better Serve Their Constituents

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.

General Tips

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.