Social media and citizen engagement

Over the past week I’ve blogged an argument as to why people should be taking notice of social media and have also worked up a discussion of the analogy of social media as a vehicle, so today I thought it was time to consider what journey the social media vehicle could take us on, and to consider some of the roadblocks along the way (thanks Pete). One of the most obvious, and arguably powerful, uses of social media is as a tool for citizen engagement. Who wouldn’t want to be able to engage a large number of people relatively easily? What brand, organisation or individual would turn away the opportunity to engage with their audience, community or peers? More importantly if you work in the NHS you have had a Duty to Involve patients and the public in service planning since 2008 under the NHS Act 2006. The NHS have also produced evidence that there is an economic case for public and patient involvement.

Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation
Having participated in discussions about engagement, democracy, e-participation and the like on various social media channels over a number of years it is often apparent that people have a tendency to consider participation as one activity, and digital technology as one solution or tool within that. What is sometimes less clear is the link between many of these conversations and the work of Sherry Arnstein. There are few conversations to be had about engagement or participation that don’t in some way link back to Sherry Arnstein’s paper from 1969. At less than ten pages long it is well worth a read and you can access the full text version below. Arnstein’s paper considered the role of citizen participation in planning and it has since been applied the world over to matters of planning, organisation, education, democracy and so on.

The ladder is quite self explanatory. Arnstein makes the argument that at that time (1969 in the US) much supposed citizen participation was in fact little more than lip service, engagement activity dressed up as genuine participation.

‘There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process’ (Arnstein, 1969).

The ladder is symbolic and therefore the eight rungs could be extended to as many rungs as fits the situation you find yourself in. It is also an oversimplification and there are many overlapping behaviours and characteristics between the rungs. The rungs can also be viewed within broad categorisations that relate to where power is situated.

Manipulation and therapy see no real transfer of power, in fact Arnstein argues that there is no intention of enabling people to participate but the real objective is one that enables the powerholders to educate or cure the participants. The progression to more tokenistic participation sees those in positions of authority appearing to listen, citizens having the opportunity to hear and sometimes be heard, but without any power to ensure that their views are taken on board and acted upon. In these situations citizens lack power or muscle and placation sees citizens invited to advise while those in authority retain the right to make decisions. Towards the top of the ladder is the real dizzy heights of participation with increasing level of influence and citizen power within decision-making. Partnerships allow citizens to negotiate, engage and trade with those in authority, whereas delegated power and citizen control sees a genuine transfer of power and decision-making capabilities to citizens, to the top of the ladder where citizens hold full managerial power and responsibility.

So what about social media?
To be blunt, social media can support activity and engagement with citizens, customers and local communities at every rung of Arnstein’s ladder. Social media tools can be used to manipulate, inform, consult, placate and to genuinely improve and enhance stakeholder experiences and involvement in the design, planning and evaluation of services, products or experiences.

There are many roles that social media can play in supporting citizen engagement, particularly in support of:

  • dissemination and provision of information
  • two-way information flow, debate and discussion
  • consultation and input gathering
  • decision making by the public, and
  • it has particular unique qualities in it’s ability to improve transparency and authenticity.

The slideshare from my October session includes a number of examples of each of these approaches so I’ll not repeat all of them here. If you are interested in a brilliant collection of methods and approaches then visit the Digital Engagement Guide – see signposting section for more info. What follows is three case study examples of organisations who are using social media to support engagement:

Example One: PatientOpinion

The idea behind PatientOpinion, and the soon to be launched CareOpinion, is a blindingly simple yet effective one. PatientOpinion collates peoples experience of health care services and shares them with the people responsible for and delivering the service. In a nutshell they use people’s stories and experiences to make services better. A user visits the website, shares their story, PatientOpinion share that story with those providing the service, the person may (or may not) receive a response, and the intention is (and initial evidence suggests) that services make changes and improvements as a result.

Example Two: Barnet Pledge Bank

In this example you can see a successful pledge on Barnet Council’s pledge bank. Barnet agree to provide the grit, equipment and insurance for streets in their area, if at least four residents agree to spread it when required. I think the pledge bank is another simple, yet brilliantly effective, idea. The pledge bank team share pledges through social networks, using twitter, facebook and other social networks. Citizens can also suggest their own pledges – although it’s not clear from the website how these are reviewed. This platform provides an online focal point for citizens in Barnet to gather, share ideas, gauge interest and make a difference.

Example Three: NHS Choices

This example is slightly different from the others, in that it isn’t about engagement in decision making but I think it’s a great example as the NHS Choices team have successfully used podcasts to disseminate information and engage citizens in public health activity in their Couch to 5k plan. Podcasts are a fantastic resource as they are portable, require little expensive equipment, more engaging than simply providing print or readable information and in this instance, are incredibly well suited to the task in hand, allowing someone to exercise with the information with them.

What are the differences between engaging through social media and other channels?
There are many schools of thought about this. Obviously there are a range of methods to digital engagement. Some of these work best when accompanied by offline methods, some improve existing offline approaches, some circumvent the need for offline methods at all. There is of course the issue of online access that I briefly touch on here so you need to be aware of who you are trying to engage to ensure your digital approaches aren’t creating a trap that is keeping some people off the ladder due to access.

The key benefits as I see them are related to transparency and authenticity, there is a visibility from using social media that is rarely visible offline. There is also much more opportunity for two way dialogue, debate and discussion, at all times rather than in the predetermined 90minute period on a damp Thursday evening. Beware anyone who tells you that social media or digital methods are free. Few things in life are free and engaging online takes as much time, resource, skill and commitment (at least in the early days) as engagement offline. There are certainly likely to be efficiency savings to be found, but it’s not as simple as doing it all online so we don’t need a budget.

The other angle to consider, in keeping with the Arnstein discussion, is power and networks. One considerable advantage of social networking is that it brings people together (on and offline) around a common cause. The network potential online is immense and in almost all instances it breaks down the distance between participants. It is easier than ever before to forge relationships, networks and discussions online. Andy McNicoll from Community Care covered one such discussion between Ermintrude and Paul Burstow, MP on twitter. Andy makes the pertinent point that pre-twitter the most likely course of action would have been for Ermintrude to write to Paul B, and she may (or may not) have received a reply from his office (or him). Social media has the potential to close the gap or shorten the distance between citizens and MPs, or other authority figures.

Catherine Howe has been studying digital democracy, alongside her work in this field for Public-i, she has an interesting blogpost here about Disintermediation and Community Engagement – she argues that networked technologies are removing the intermediaries from processes and relationships. Catherine discusses the impact on relationships between citizen and government, but it’s worth considering whether social media and digital engagement methods will eventually force a change to offline democracy.

Beware the reach metrics!
My final point is a warning about what we value and what we measure. There is much talk on social media about increased reach. The somewhat oversimplistic implication is that greater reach is good because it engages and involves more people. We’ve all seen the tweets ‘This talk/hashtag/discussion/conference reached a million trillion people’. Let’s think about this for a while in the context of communication and sharing messages, I could stand in a busy street with a megaphone and shout my opinion about something, I could print hundreds of flyers and post them through the letterbox of everyone in my neighbourhood, I could chat with someone at a bus stop or in the shop, I could send a tweet or write a blog post and share it online, I could post a comment on my facebook wall – the reach of all of these approaches will be different, as will the experience and high likely the quality. The resulting engagement is likely to be very different too. So yes, social media could be a useful tool to support engagement, but if we’re not careful we’ll be using social media to claim increased engagement, when actually we’re just hanging around those bottom rungs and broadcasting at people.

Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224 – You can access a full text version of the article here thanks to Duncan Lithgow

Barnet Council Pledge Bank

Department of Health guidance on the duty to involve – Real involvement: working with people to improve services and the Economic case for public and patient involvement in commissioning.

NHS Couch to 5k


There are stacks of resources, websites and online guides to digital engagement (just search google), however, my favourite one which is full of practical examples from the public sector (so no more excuses that it can’t be done in our council) is the Digital Engagement Guide. Curated by Steph Gray @lesteph it is packed with examples, case studies and screen grabs to give you ideas, inspiration and information. It’s a great starting point.

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