Twitter and Local Government. Is it a mismatch?


This article is not meant as an erudite and all answering document from an expert. It’s meant to be less puffed than that. The writer was a practitioner in producing high quality local government web sites (responsible for the web site which won Local Government Web Site of the year (2011) at a recent award in London) who has since become re-involved  with commercial web sites.
This shift in direction has enabled him to judge Local Government web sites from a changed perspective and to better see some of the elements Local Government can improve upon.
The aim of this article, therefore, is to be more commonplace and worthy. More hands on. And is meant to show how using Twitter can alter the way you interact with your clients, by providing hints, tips and links on how to achieve that.

Twitter and Local Government

Why does Local Government generally shy away from Twitter?

Local Government struggles with Twitter for a number of reasons. I suppose the main being fear.

  • Fear caused through a lack of understanding. Many officers and a good percentage of Councillors have no idea what Twitter is all about. And it follows that you don’t touch what you don’t understand.
  • Fear of losing control of “The Message”. Once the ability to (widely) talk about the authority falls outside of those who control such things there is panic.
  • Fear of things being said authorities don’t want the public to hear(as if they are not going to be said anyway) or don’t want raised.
  • Fear of damage to the Council’s reputation caused by the loose lipped/fingered internal Twitterarti.
  • Fear of the immediacy and enormous power provided by Twitter.
  • Fear of the ability to “group” around a topic afforded by Twitter.

Apart from the first of these fears – and that can be handled by some familiarization with the technology – the other negative fears can, and should, be turned into positives.

What’s a Tweet?
This is not a treatise on what Twitter is or where it came from or, for that matter the ethos behind it. That type of information can be found in clear detail here…

Neither is it meant to be a “Tweeting for Dummies”. That book must have already been written.

It’s about the application of social media concepts to the medium of local government.

If it’s an audience you’re after…
Twitter describes itself as an information network. It’s built from millions of conversations carried out in 140 character sized chunks.

Whatever your opinion of Twitter, be it embracing or dismissive, you cannot ignore the huge (and that’s an understatement) potential for your 140 character tweets to have an impact on others, or theirs on you.
If you ran a business back in the early part of the 20th century  you couldn’t ignore the telephone or in the latter part of the century the internet. Similarly you can’t ignore Twitter. And for much the same reason:-

  • business is being conducted on Twitter;
  • the public have a growing expectation i.e. they are expecting you to use current technology because they themselves do;
  • using Twitter can save time and money.

Why you shouldn’t ignore Twitter?

Just look at these stats;-

  • 300million accounts (mid 2011) worldwide with about 5million of these (approx) being in the UK.
  • 52% of users are female 48% male.
  • Over 50% are between 25 and 54.
  • About 1 billion Tweets a week
  • Increasing use by business

People are talking about you.
This is worthy of repetition… it’s an “information network. It’s built from millions of conversations”.

So Twitter is  about conversations. Some of those will be about you or your services. Shouldn’t you be a part of those conversations or at least be listening to what people are saying about you?

It’s not one sided. You can pitch in to correct witless and uninformed comment and add value to the whole by providing solid, helpful information.
You can manage your reputation.

I have long held that  “it isn’t from those who pay you compliments you learn anything. It’s from those who complain about your service”.
The complainers are the users of your service and they are taking the time to tell you what you don’t have right, at least for them. If you can answer those complaints you are likely to turn those same complainers into your biggest advocates.

Previously people might have sent you a letter, 1 to 1 sort of thing. This would have happened, in private, without any damage to your reputation. Not now. Little man has a VERY BIG voice.

Spotting what is being said about you on Twitter couldn’t be easier, though I’ll give you putting things right may not be quite so easy – but you can join in.Tell people you’ve heard what they’re saying and are working on it.  Isn’t this what Customer Service is all about; listening, changing and keeping people informed?

Twitter allows micro, detailed management of your customers view of what you do. All you have to do is listen and respond.

So how is this magic performed?

The Hash Tag #

First, learn how to use the hash tag ‘#’ (alt3 for you Mac users).

You can use hash-tags to follow specific groups, to message specific groups and much more.

There’s a really useful “how to” on Hash-tags here… in fact is a great place to answer those general Twitter questions.

Searching for information.

  • Use hash tag to search for relevant tags.
  • Use advance search at!/search-advanced . It’s a definable search so you can exactly specify, and therefore identify, just what it is you’re looking for. Try looking for your own council. See if there are people talking about you now.
  • Save your searches. If your’e using ‘Tweetdeck’ these searches are saved, displayed and updated for you.
  • Use ‘lists’ to group your interests. i.e. Council name, social care, council tax etc.
  • Search using your saved searches everyday. New stuff is being tweeted all the time. ( you can use to do some of this)

Using these techniques you can gather intelligence, see what other councils, thought leaders etc are up to, watch future trends in your industry but most of all you can …
Listen to and identify your customer needs and complaints.

Developing relationships.

People wont read your tweets and re-tweet your messages simply because the message exists or indeed because they are from the Council. The tweets have to be interesting, amusing even but most important they have to be useful.

On your Tweet you can:-

  • break news;
  • share experience;
  • become the group people go to for advice;
  • provide hints and tips;
  • give information on road closures, school closures and the like;
  • tell people what’s happening across your area in libraries, schools etc;
  • guide users to your web site for current  information say on committee meetings etc;
  • get guest tweeters to tweet e.g the Chief Exec or the leader;
  • ask for questions to ask of the guest speakers;
  • tweet discussion on a local topic of interest e.g. closing a school;
  • Develop the relationships by Championing your customers. Reply to them or  retweet their tweets. Show them you are interested in what they say.

What sort of tone should you adopt on your twitter feed and what about the content? What should you say?

  • The tone of voice should be chatty and informal – think of a local radio presenter.
  • 70% of the tweets should be informal with only 30% dealing with more formal, pushy content.
  • Use the tweets to highlight and link to topic points from your web site e.g. videos content etc.
  • Use keywords from a list which you decide on before you started publishing social media. Something like. “your-council-name”, “local government”, “social care”, “libraries” etc. This is particularly powerful if these are also hash-tags.
  • Make using your tweet a rich experience. Full of interest and information.

Managing and monitoring.

Twitter isn’t like a normal web site where you can monitor use with the likes of Google Analytics. There are however some tools you can use to mange your social media – not just Twitter..

  • Tweetdeck. An all purpose tool, now owned by Twitter, which allows you to monitor multiple Twitter accounts as well as Facebook, LinkedIn etc.
    If you save a search in Tweetdeck, say for  ‘Local Government’, it displays real time information on that search.
  • Hootsuite. Similar in some ways to Tweetdeck but seems to have better reporting facility.
  • Sproutsocial ( monthly cost with this )

Depending just how far you wish to delve into Social Media here’s a few more tools you may find of use.

  • Discover people who tweet on a range of topics and displays them graphically.
  • allows you to discover twitter id’s for people Boris Johnson for example @MayorOfLondon
  • Tweriod shows when followers are most active so you can write to them when they are there to read your tweet.
  • allows the creation of coupons for twitter users. With this you can offer discount coupons for some of your services for people using Twitter. Say a discount at the local baths for twitter users.

Where should the responsibility for this medium sit?

The ideal place is in the comms/PR department with a strong sideways link into Customer Services.

Comms is an ideal first filter for incoming information from Twitter. It’s where messages about the authority originate and is therefore perfect for constructing Tweets and controlling the medium in general.

The strong sideways link into Customer Services is to handle the specific complaints and solution providing.

This is not a medium for web techies. It’s about human communication and customer service. It should not be a web function unless of course web and comms are as one in your organisation.

Nearly Lastly…

Being local government organisations you are going to want a policy for all of this. You could look here for quick policy generation – at least the skeleton of one. . It’s not perfect but it can give you a base from which to start.

Really lastly…

Don’t expect instant results  and don’t give up.
Social media is hard work if done properly and it requires a lot of (constant) effort and ingenuity.
Stick at it. It really is worth the sweat and remember it forms an increasing part of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) algorithms – more on that not so black art in a piece to come later.

To sum up.

  • We have explored why Local Government seems reticent about joining in.
  • We have discussed the large audience yet macro possibilities of using Twitter.
  • We have seen Twitter is another communications device.
  • We have explored the use of Hash-tags showing their relevance and power.
  • We have seen how using advanced search enable authorities to glean information.
  • We have said that listening is an important part of the Twitter process.
  • We have talked about developing the community and how that can be done by interacting with your clients and complainers.
  • We have talked bout the tone of your tweets and how to manage and monitor your use of Twitter.
  • We have discussed where responsibility for Twitter should sit.
  • We have talked about the need for a policy for your Twitter actions.
  • And we have talked about managing your expectations.

Useful links.

Some of these have been mentioned in the text above.

Crowd-sourced Twitter guide for local government.   Interesting views and observations.

Don’t’ know what to Tweet, Facebook or Blog. Go take a look here and download the free e-book. Though ideally aimed at  commerce there is a lot that can be learned by the local government social media manager from this treatise.

Policy tool mentioned above.

Risk assessment tool for social media from Carl Haggerty In Devon. It’s a draft but well worth a look.

The “how to” on hash tags.

Twitter Advance search. This is really good.!/search-advanced

Twitter – the basics and much more.

UK Public Sector Web sites – the blog.

About the author.

Peter Barton was the Head of Service for “Web and Information Governance” at Lincolnshire County Council until December 2010.

Peter introduced many innovative elements into Local Government Web sites many of which have since become commonplace. Advertising for instance.

Peter’s background, prior to Local Government web site production  was in commerce where he started and ran a successful design business for many years. Peter has been involved in web site production since 1992 building the first sites in hand written code.

Peter’s business is a commercial venture  in on-line retail. Quite a departure form local government but a departure which has involved learning about the otherwise hidden intricacies of the web again. This time with a commercial eye. What he now has is a commercially augmented experience of local government web production.  And that’s refreshing and useful.

Peter also provides consultancy to Local Government on all things web.

Contact details:

T:  +44 (0) 1522-878135

M: +44 (0) 7712-578596


Skype: V70PDB

Twitter: #lgwebman – Tweets about local government web stuff

“YOUR” web site! It makes you think doesn’t it?

Now that I’m no longer actively involved in managing a website for a Local Council I’m freed of the bonds of the daily arguments and angst.

Being outside allows me a  certain clarity of view, but in some ways that’s false too. It’s really easy from this position to throw brickbats. You only have to read the Better Connected Review to see how those with no responsibility, no pressures – political or otherwise can take  a view on what is outside of their purview. Better still listen to Jonathan Davies commentating on 6 nations rugby. Why didn’t he play like he talks? The answer is simple. It just isn’t that easy when you’re inside; in amongst it as it were.

The point of this piece is to attempt to throw some light onto ‘why the differences’ in what is being delivered. You’d think all councils would be same wouldn’t you? As you know that isn’t so.

Here goes. A stab at a very simplistic approach:

Is your council open, transparent and essentially honest? I mean really open and honest. Not just full of spin. If so then you’re in with a chance of providing a site which is truly ( and I hate the term) ‘Engaging’.

If, on the other hand, spin, gloss and obfuscation are endemic in your organisation then you stand little chance of getting data out to your clients. Probably, because it would be politically damaging to do so, you will be blocked or at best ‘slowed down’  when wishing to publish flat unambiguous, clear data.
Just as a test; were you forced to publish the ‘over £500’ spend by the impending governments deadline or did you publish well before you were obliged to?If you were forced by the deadline or you haven’t published them yet… sort of answers itself.

So councils web sites can, and I would argue do, provide some evidence of the innards of the council; the ‘type of council you are’ sort of thing. Publish everything = open, honest and transparent. And of course the reverse is true.

Is it just the politics of the situation though? Probably not. Large Councils are multi departmental, multi disciplinary and comprise a heady mix of service delivery, back office and of course, the politicos. That makes for teams and even tribes and that means it’s difficult for any web team to get at data embedded within those groups/tribes/departments.

Seamless delivery assumes all managers are equally up to speed with the processes and benefits of electronically delivered data. I’d like to bet that any of you reading this will know somebody who is still firmly paper-based. I can certainly name a few, so wresting information from them and making it electronic will be hard, if not impossible until they get their heads out of the filing cabinets and drawers or after they have fell, or have been pushed, off the twig.

We see therefore, a functioning, seamless and ( here’s that word again) engaging council web site is subject to many forces and pressures, usually from outside  the control of those who are supposed to manage, or even be responsible for, the process. Paradoxical isn’t it? But how do you resolve such a situation?

  • The political will has to be there to be open, transparent and honest.
  • Tribal barriers need to be removed or overcome in some other way.
  • Staff responsible for holding data have to be aware and switched on to the idea of doing so electronically.

A difficult nut to crack?  Difficult but not impossible. Ways of resolving the issues flow from the Chief Executive and the Leader, certainly the first point can’t be overcome without their conscious and conspicuous buy in and action. And the underlined term is crucial.

Additionally, their conspicuous involvement – applying large amount of pressure if needs be – to remove the second and third obstruction will put web produced information front and centre. Which is where it should be because it’s more cost effective to do so. It’s the first place you should put the information. It should not be an afterthought or a bolt on.

This is so obvious I’m surprised it’s not taken up everywhere. I know from experience it isn’t. As an example a head of service said to me one day “I’ll see if I can get you some information for your web site”.

“YOUR” web site! It makes you think doesn’t it?

What price ‘Better Connected’ when the money has gone.

Budget cuts howl through the previously warm and snug corridors of local government like the arctic blast the country  succumbed to during the latter part of 2010. Minus 12 degC outside and chilling decisions being made inside.

Despite being the major means of dealing with councils, cuts are being made to web budgets. Lincolnshire, for example, cut budgets for web services before I left in early December and there’s probably more to come.

In my opinion it’s a short sighted view taken by some who are digitally and customer service illiterate. The web has proven to be the most cost effective method of dealing with the public. Moreover it’s the way that an increasing number of customers want to deal with councils.  Is it foolish then to curtail web provision’s ability to continue to grow as the main focus of customer service provision? Yes, especially as currently calls made to call centres are falling and web interaction with councils steadily rises .

I don’t suppose Lincolnshire will be the only council slashing web budgets, be that in development or in publishing power. Others will similarly make those chicken-licken style decisions and will leave the public all the poorer for it. That’s sad.

Having said that, just like any other service there must be things the web provides – or that are provided on the web – that are a luxury. Each web manager should take a long look at what is provided on their sites and make cost/value judgements on whether those fripperies  should stay.

British LG web sites are thought of as being amongst the best, if not the best, LG web sites in the world. And in some part ”Better Connected”, the yearly review by SOCITM, has been responsible for raising standards. There does come a point though when you’re near the top of the game, where raising the standard ever so marginally  – to meet some imagined need of SOCITM’s and thereby fulfill their requirement for Better Connected to exist and to make money – is just too expensive, and cannot, surely, be cost justified.

I would argue, especially in these trying times, enough is enough. Care not what SOCITM, in their desire to make a profit, say about you. It’s just too expensive a price to pay.

  • If you are providing good quality, up to date information via a readily navigable and/or easily searchable web site;
  • if your ethos is to be open and transparent and your web site demonstrates this;
  • if you let your site be driven by your clients by asking them to complain about a bad service or even lack of service  (remember you learn nothing from those who compliment you. It’s only the complainers who really drive you forward – read ‘What would Google do’ by Jeff Jarvis);
  • if your council, particularly officers,  think of  the web as the first method of dealing with the customer and provide the services and information accordingly,
  • generally if you think first about what the clients want, as opposed to what the council- members and officers – want, and deliver that via your web site, then you will have the basis of an excellent site – no matter what SOCITM may say to the contrary.

SOCITM would argue they have been the ones who have driven up standards. As I’ve said I lean towards agreement. However, having got us up to the top of the tree lets see how they can lead us down to more cost effective branches. If indeed you really need any leading. I would argue you don’t.

Peter Barton

This may be old news but what are you doing about the £501 question?

Way back in May 2010 in an open letter (you can see it  here ), the Prime Minister, David Cameron, laid out his requirement for Central and Local Government to become more transparent by publishing their data on expenditure. In the case of Local government, everything over £500 must be shown.

Francis Maude will be heading up the Public Sector Transparency Board overseeing the Salome like removal of the veils covering the mysteries of public sector procurement. Added to this is the “responsibility for setting open data standards across the public sector, publishing further datasets on the basis of public demand, and – in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice – will further develop the Right to Data and advise on its implementation”. So the right to this data will become enshrined in law it seems. All very laudable. And to be specific this is what Cameron expects from Local Government in his drive towards transparency:

  • “New items of local government spending over £500 to be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011.
  • New local government contracts and tender documents for expenditure over £500 to be published in full from January 2011”.

And how does that translate into what Councils should be providing? The Government web site made these recommendations back in June 2010

“… our immediate advice to local authorities is:

  • Users will be interested in the core information held in the accounts system – such as expenditure code, amount paid, transaction date, beneficiary, and payment reference number. The expenditure code has to be explained and steps taken to help users identify the beneficiary
  • As a first stage, publish the raw data and any lookup table needed to interpret it in a spreadsheet as a CSV or XML file as soon as possible. This should be put on the council’s website as a document for anyone to download. Or even published in a service such as Google Docs
  • There is not yet a national approach for publishing local authority expenditure data. This should not stop publication of data in its raw, machine-readable form. Observing such raw data being used is the only route to a national approach, should one be required
  • Publishing raw data will allow the panel and others to assess how that data could/should be presented to users. Sight of the data is worth a hundred meetings. Members of the panel will study the data, take part in the discussion and revise this advice.
  • As a second stage, informed by the discussion, the panel and users can then give feedback about publishing data (RDF, CSV, etc) in a way that can be consistent across all local authorities involving structured, regularly updated data published on the Web using open standards”.

You can read the full article  here. And the original comments from Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s paper, ‘Putting Government Data Online’ which seemed to kick all of this off, is here.

From this can be seen at worst its suggested, nay required, to place all information about expenditure over £500 on line in something as simple as a CSV file from January 2011.

In saying “…our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account” Cameron’s intention is clear. It’s about the accountability of Councils for their spending to the public they serve.

It’s long been the case that politicians hide their doings using a chamber full of excuses like it’s too difficult, too complicated, too expensive or the public won’t understand etc. And even now, despite this forced openness, some are obfuscating by merely uploading a spreadsheet or even a pdf, neither of which is very helpful and does not meet the sprit of the request from central Government.

And yet, despite the lack of a clear instruction from the government on just how the data should be produced – come on Francis spell it out – some are turning searchlights on the birds nest of data they hold simplifying it and  bringing it into sharp focus for the ordinary man in the street.

One such is Lichfield District Council  which has produced a really useful system of its own in order to put a more friendly face on the otherwise confusing data produced in their ( or anybody else’s)  CSV.

Lichfield’s web manager, Stuart Harrison, takes the CSV produced by the internal accounting systems and uploads it to his own purpose built application which he wrote for the task in PHP.

Talking of the data produced he said “the intention of the CX and myself was to make it easier for people to understand” .

The CSV files are still there for anyone wishing to download the full fat version but from what I’ve seen Harrison’s purpose built simplifier does an excellent job.

Harrison says he is prepared to share the code, which he is going to make available in the near future. Contact him for details on:- Stuart.Harrison  at

As I write this, Lichfield’s figures are not currently up – taken down for some tweaking – but they will return here. In the near future.

As an aside – it will be interesting to see how Socitm view any lack of these figures during their upcoming annual “better Connected” review of local government web sites.

The deadline to get this all out there seems to be the 1st January folks so, if you haven’t sorted this out yet, best get your skates on.

The worldly wise know the truth…

picture of Selfridges Birmingham


No matter what the economic climate – and in Local Government it’s witheringly bleak ( like the weather here tonight at minus 9degC) – there is always opportunity.

In this case the opportunity is to improve your web offerings even when budgets are being butchered by the politicos occupying the upper branches of the Government/Local Government forests.

However, you are going to have to be brave; turn your current thinking on it’s head, measure results, prove your effectiveness and above all hold your nerve.

Collective Responsibility is running a session in Birmingham ( the centre of the universe for us Brummies ) designed to offer advice, support and illustrations of just how others are doing it. Well worth a look.

The event is scheduled for January the 25th 2011 It’s called…

Council Websites: Creating & Finding Opportunities in an Arduous Market.

You can read all about it here

You have to attend to help  you and yours survive the next few years and of course to see this amazing building.

Jean-Luc, the Borg and LG web sites.

Martha Lane Fox

Some years back DirectGov here was the butt, rightly or wrongly, of many a jibe by local government web officers. Things have changed. They have collected up their skirts and are now running at a pace that can’t be ignored.

Moreover with the governments avowed intent to rip the costs out of just about everything, the pressure for us all to be subsumed by a single giant beast grows. And of course DirectGov is being reviewed at present. My concerns were not helped at all by reading La Lane Fox’s  tweets this week (Martha Lane Fox, she who is doing the review)  where she is commenting about her being immersed in Direct Gov.
Martha’s Tweet

i have now read so many documents about directgov that my brain is melting – time to think now….

1:03 PM Sep 17th via web

As Martha is the Governments web guru you’d be best to take notice of  her sneezes and consider them as possible harbingers of the industry catching a cold.

More on the review of Direct Gov here…

where it says…

“The review of Directgov will focus on four key areas. These are:

  1. central government’s objectives in digital delivery
  2. who should do what?
  3. sharing the platform
  4. trends in digital delivery”

It’s the 2nd and 3rd elements that make me twitch.

Out in the Shires the more forward thinking can see a future where individual ‘district’ sites may be redundant. It’s argued they could become a part of a single whole.

It takes little stretch of even the most unimaginative to see this potential grow into something larger, possibly into a giant pot into which we all place our content. In fact into  As ever it’s the detail that may frustrate the process. The detail in fact in managing that process. Like keeping thousands of marbles together on the deck of a pitching ship. Tricky

Is this a view of an alternative future do you think; a future where we have no individual sites but share our data with a mother brain? Very “Jean Luc and the Borg”.

OK, I’ll give you,  it’s a black view of a strange landscape but one that I wouldn’t gamble on not happening.

Of course there remains a small element of LG web sites difficult to centralise i.e. the Comms element, but I’m sure that’ll not be allowed to stand in the way of the great God “Kostensenkung”. And perhaps that’s how it should be.