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Why Free Public Engagement Technology Isn't Really Free

Published:  June 5, 2013
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Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, email...Local governmental officials have a slew of technological channels for communicating with the public. From publicizing services and forums to soliciting input on policy matters to gauging public opinion and communicating with groups typically underrepresented in community meetings, the possibilities for local governments’ use of social media and other communication technologies are endless. And best of all, all these all free -- or at least that’s what social media outlets would have you believe. But technologies that are open to all aren’t necessarily used effectively by all. And the cost of using these technologies is hardly zero.

This fact might explain the findings in one of two reports recently released by Public Agenda, with support from the James Irvine Foundation, and in collaboration with the Institute for Local Government and the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. The report, entitled “Testing the Waters,” examines local government officials’ attitudes toward public engagement, and the practices they employ (and don’t employ) to reach out to the public. The study is based on a survey of 900 local officials in California, a group that includes Council members, city managers, community development directors, public works directors and various other elected and non-elected officials.

The study shows that while those working in local government see great potential for technological means of engaging the public, they are often hesitant to embrace those technologies. Nearly all survey respondents reported using websites and email to communicate with residents, but only 22% used Facebook, Twitter, or blogs. Nearly two-thirds wondered about the effectiveness of online media, even as an equal number viewed these technologies as “helpful in communicating with many segments of the public.” And over a quarter of respondents worried about the misinformation that could be generated through social media.

Those who work in under-resourced and rural communities embrace these technologies even less. Just over half of officials who serve rural areas report using email and websites “a lot” compared to three-quarters of those in urban and suburban areas. And only 14% of respondents in rural cities and counties use social media, contrasted with a quarter of their counterparts in urban and suburban cities and counties. Respondents from the San Joaquin Valley and the Central/Southern Sierra region also report fewer resources and less embrace of technologies for engaging the public.

Clearly there is a correlation between use of technology for public engagement and resources. The truth is that free technology isn’t really free. It requires time and energy to evaluate and learn, and the missteps can result in legal fees, time spent deflecting criticism and atoning for mistakes, and fears of termination. Plus, as so many officials noted in the Public Agenda report, it’s not even clear whether -- or in what ways -- these expenditures of time, energy, risk, and money are worth it. Do they engage new constituencies? Do they generate substantive debate? Do they result in better utilization of governmental resources? Do they allow governments to make better use of existing resources? And ultimately, do they result in more adaptive and responsive local governments?

The jury is still out on these questions. Public Agenda’s report suggests some great ways that funders, local government officials and others can move forward on some of these issues: networking with those in other communities to determine what is most effective, increasing capacity for professional development opportunities, supporting evaluation of technology, and sponsoring technical trainings and experimentation with online technologies, especially for those in under-resourced and rural communities.

These are all important ways of moving forward. Those of us inside and outside of local government should also recognize that investment in online technologies and social media for engaging the public will require real money, time and energy. There is promise in so-called free technologies, but only if those inside and outside of local government dedicate resources to making these technologies work as substantive tools of engagement.

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