Chapel Hill government and social media

Geoff Green's picture

Ruby's recent post about the problems with the Town's communication strategy regarding the new Downtown Development Framework got me to think about the ways in which our town's government does not use social media to communicate with constituents. I'll have more to say about this hopefully in a future blog post, but this one item jumped out at me:For last year's town elections, Ruby put together a twitter list of local candidates. The list includes our mayor, as well as Penny RIch, Laurin Easthom and Gene Pease from Town Council. Other local government officials have twitter accounts, including Town Council members Matt Czajkowski, Donna Bell, and Sally Greene; and school board members Mia Burroughs and Shell Brownstein. As far as I can tell, neither Jim Ward nor Ed Harrison have twitter accounts. It's also worth noting that the Town of Chapel Hill has a twitter feed as well, but it's used only for reposting news releases -- the account itself has 0 followers.Some local officials like Kleinschmidt, Greene, and Burroughs are reasonably active tweeters. Matt Czajkowski's twitter feed has been silent since last year's election, while Brownstein's hasn't been updated since December 1. However, a constant thread that runs through all these social media accounts is that no one is using them to promote or encourage discussion of issues facing our town and county. Not a one. There are discussions of national political issues, mentions of restaurants that the tweeters are eating at, and other day-to-day miscellany, but nothing about local issues. Road pavings. The future of downtown. Chapel Hill Transit. The library bond issue. Any of the various development petitions winding their way to the council. Nothing.In addition, some of the local official twitter accounts are locked, meaning they're viewable only with the account holder's permission. The locked account holders also may very well accept follow requests from all comers, but that's an unnecessary hassle. It may be that the twitter accounts are intended for the accountholder's personal use as opposed to political use, but in that case there should be a separate, public account to encourage dialog with the constituents they represent.Twitter and other social media aren't just for the trivial and mundane, they also provide a new opportunity to engage a substantial segment of the community, one which may not have the time or opportunity to attend public hearings, council meetings or other physical gatherings. Our local officials need to take advantage of this opportunity.

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11 Comments

Mia Burroughs's picture

One more than nothing!

Geoff is generally right but I was proud of the September 15th tweet below so thought I'd "retweet" it here. (Also it is still timely.)  I also posted a two-part version of it on Facebook.  Elected officials are naturally a cautious bunch but I encourage my colleagues to at least lurk.  Then they can see what it is all about and, hopefully, be more comfortable with it to start to engage in social media conversation. ***********************************************************************Orange Tweeps: 25cents per $100 for schools/jobs.Vote yes. RT @1360WCHL Chamber Seeks Leaders' Support Of Sales Tax - http://bit.ly/aSpmra

czei's picture

"However, a constant thread

"However, a constant thread that runs through all these social media accounts is that no one is using them to promote or encourage discussion of issues facing our town and county. Not a one. "Maybe because Twitter is a horrible venue for this?"Twitter and other social media aren't just for the trivial and mundane..."If we're voting, I'm firmly in the later camp, hoping our elected officials have better things to do with their time.   Twitter != Social media  :-)  

Mia Burroughs's picture

Two examples

If you consider Twitter limited to 140 characters, then yes, it would be a ridiculous place for discussion.  The key for me is that nearly every good tweet is linked to something that is much longer. In some ways, it helps me sort through  a big volume of possible news and let's me pick topics to delve into more deeply.  A good example is this tweet from a few minutes ago from the mayor.

mkleinschmidt

  

RT @townchapelhill: Ephesus Church-Fordham Planning Meeting http://www.townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?recordid=2079&page=22 
Another tweet that facilitated conversation is when the Chapel Hill News tweeted that it wanted to know what people thought about the Mayor's question regarding Costco.  That tweet drove people to their blog and some, well at least I, weighed in with answers of many more than 140 characters.  The CHN then printed some of those responses.  I got more comments about that printed response than anything else I have ever said that was quoted in a newspaper.  

BrianR's picture

A few points

Thanks Geoff for starting this thread. I agree that the Town of Chapel Hill could do a lot to improve their communication with community members. Both traditional and digital communications. I'm willing to do much more than complain. If the Manager would call or email me I'd be happy to offer my professional experiences in this to help improve the situation.

First I think its important to clarify the word "Follower" on Twitter. Each user follows and is followed. Twitter calls this following and followers. For example I currently follow 652 Twitter accounts and 1,521 Twitter accounts follow my account @BrianR. I mention this because you wrote, "It's also worth noting that the Town of Chapel Hill has a twitter feed as well, but it's used only for reposting news releases -- the account itself has 0 followers." I think it would be more factual to say is @townchapelhill is following 0 Twitter accounts and has 973 followers. (As of this minute) This lopsided count basically says that the Town of Chapel Hill, or more precisely its Information Officer or whom ever is in-charge of the Twitter account, is broadcasting and not participating. In other words not reading what citizens have to say nor responding. The whole idea behind Twitter is to have a TWO WAY dialogue with people and organizations. The Town of Chapel Hill is just doing it wrong.

As others point out some Town of Chapel Hill elected officials do use their personal Twitter accounts to communicate, sometimes discuss, the business of the people. One example is Mark Kleinschmidt. He Tweets, the adjective meaning to send a message via Twitter, often short timely messages about what's going on in Chapel Hill. His Twitter user name is @mkleinschmidt. Go check it out. Mayor Kleinschmidt even responded to you Geoff via Twitter recently. That is an example of a two way conversation.

I have similar concerns about locked Twitter accounts of elected officials. I am not an attorney but I think it may violate North Carolina public records law. At the very least it obfuscates access to information. It seems it might take a local newspaper to complain about this for any openness to occur. The State of North Carolina has written some guidelines on this. As far as I know this is only technically applicable to State departments. Local government may be different. But it seems like a good starting point.

Posts and Comments Are Public Records:
Like e-mail, communication via agency-related social networking Web sites is a public record. This means that both the posts of the employee administrator and any feedback by other employees or non-employees, including citizens, will become part of the public record. Because others might not be aware of the public records law, agencies should include the following statement (or some version of it) somewhere on the social networking Web site:

Representatives of North Carolina state government communicate via this Web site. Consequently any communication via this site (whether by a state employee or the general public) may be subject to monitoring and disclosure to third parties.

Source: Best Practices for Social Media Usage in North Carolina [PDF]
Website: Government Records Branch of North Carolina : Electronic Records

My professional non-legal opinion is that elected officials should tweet about personal and public topics in the Twitter feed. I want to get to know my elected officials. Its not always convenient to go to meetings or meet with them. There are a lot of citizens out there that think our Council members are lofty politicians. People think politicians are disconnected things not people. That couldn't further from the truth in the case of our local representatives. They are real warm and caring people. Twitter is just one more way to understand that better.

I know the title of this post is Chapel Hill government and social media but you gota mention Carrboro. Mayor Chilton uses Twitter and Facebook. Frankly he's more active on Facebook to my chagrin. But Mayor Chilton GETS the Internet and the tools of social media and how they can strengthen connections between officials and their constituency. To find evidence to that just read his comments on Orange Politics. True that many politicians avoid participating. But not Mayor Chilton. He's a very brave and forward thinking person. As a advocate for 21st Century communication and transparency in government I thank him for providing a good example to follow for other elected officials.

Geoff Green's picture

Brian makes some good points

Brian makes some good points here, and I just want to correct and amplify a few things.First, yes, he's right, I mixed up my language. I did mean to say that while @townchapelhill has a number of followers who see its tweets, it doesn't follow anyone -- it's a one way street. And Mayor Kleinschmidt did respond to me recently, when I had a trouble getting a response to a question about out-of-date information on the town website. He invited me to forward my query to his email address and he'd make sure it got to the right person, but, coincidentally or not, I got a response a couple of hours later to my original query. That was a great example of town officials using Twitter to make town government more responsive, and I'm sorry I didn't mention it in my original post.I'd also like to echo Brian's comments regarding Mark Chilton. I have appreciated his comments on Twitter and on OrangePolitics, and they're refreshing in how straightforward they are. Very little political grandstanding or fence-straddling. I had the opportunity to speak with Mark Kleinschmidt at a pre-election event and he struck me as having a similar straightforward approach (he and i were both defending East 54 amidst a group of people who were not big fans of the development), and I just wish that other town elected officials would use Twitter and other social media in a similar fashion.(I should also point out that Ed Harrison and others frequently chime in on the comment thread at chapelhillwatch.com. Even if you disagree with the authors' conclusions, they do some helpful reporting and it really does drive discussion.)Finally, I agree with Brian that the informality of social media helps humanize politicians and helps them establish a more substantial relationship with the majority of residents who rarely or never go to a public hearing or other meeting. While it may not be possible for a senator or president to have authentic conversations with constituents over social media, due to their sheer numbers, Chapel Hill is small enough that it should still be possible.

Ruby Sinreich's picture

It's not you

Just like when you get e-mails that offer to enhance the size of your manhood, Twitter spammers mainly just seem to follow everyone they possibly can. This is partially in hopes that folks will mindlessly follow them back and increase their apparent influence.The thing is you don't have to follow the people who follow you, so it's pretty safe to just ignore these folks. In fact, I get so many followers on my @ruby account, that I just turned off notifications of new follows completely. This is sad because I do miss seeing real friends who have just joined Twitter and other interesting folks that I probably would want to hear from.Locking your account does keep those folks from reading your tweets, but it doesn't stop them form requesting to follow you, so it's actually more work on your part than just leaving it open and ignoring them. 

One view on what citizens want in an online democracy

I’m late in responding to this post, but thought some of you might be interested in the results of anonline survey that local grassroots group Neighbors for Responsible Growth conducted last fall on citizen preferences for public notice and participation. The impetus was an ongoing discussion about how neighborhoods in close proximity to Carolina North can maintain open lines of communication with the Town and University, especially once the build-out begins in earnest. 230+citizens from 3 dozen neighborhoods participated. The results and NRG recommendations are included in a report available at: http://nrg-nc.net/attachments/NRG_recommendations_participation.pdf What we learned:

  • An effective public notice and participation plan must be multi-faceted in order to accommodate limitations on citizens’ time.
  • Citizens are interested in information sources that represent a broad range of perspectives.
  • Individuals want feedback when they provide input on government issues.
  • The community lacks understanding about how citizen advisory boards/committees work and how they represent the public.

 BTW, social media such as Facebook and Twitter were not rated highly as public information channels by the respondents for this survey. NRG is recommending, among other things, that the Town begin experimenting with topic-specific blogs that can serve as a hub for information and discussion on substantive, long-term issues such as Carolina North.  It should be noted that the Town of Chapel Hill has greatly improved citizen options for retreiving and recieving information online. Hoping for richer options for interaction that leverage our technology base.