Policymakers Need to Start Taking Social Media Seriously

In gathering public input, governments remain stuck in a world of public hearings and postal mail.
February 8, 2016
By James P. Toscano  |  Contributor
Vice president for public affairs and communications at Tidewater Community College

"My vote is for the Western-Red Line," read the response to a transit agency's Facebook post inviting the public to attend a public meeting in Norfolk, Va., to discuss light-rail route options. The agency left the comment hanging out there. No "like." No reply. It's a safe assumption that this "vote" didn't make a difference in the agency's decision-making process.

The transit agency is hardly alone. It's common for agencies to discount public comments when they are received on a social-media platform, as a recent study I conducted documents. Yet, this very same comment -- "for the Western-Red Line" -- likely would have triggered a variety of reactions from the agency if it had been delivered in person at the public meeting. Most government agencies have established processes, many times to comply with regulations, that might require such a comment to be formally documented and presented to decision makers.

Same comment + different delivery method = different outcome. That shouldn't be.

It's time we made public input via social media "official." Government has allowed public-participation policies and practices to fall out of step with contemporary communications habits, social-media adoption in particular. The Pew Research Center reported last year that 65 percent of U.S. adults use social networking and that more than one in five admit being online "almost constantly." That's a huge opportunity for public agencies to extract vital input from citizens. Instead, we're insisting that citizens continue to interact with government in pre-mobile-era ways, in the process forcing them to spend more time and money to have their say.

We fail to give legitimacy to social media despite the fact these platforms have ushered in vast opportunities for citizens to engage with each other and governmental organizations on pressing public issues -- and, boy, do they take advantage. If you're an elected official, just look how lively your Facebook feed is during a campaign cycle. Now contrast that with your typical sleepy town hall meeting. "On social media, you're not getting the same attention that you'd get if you were standing in front of a microphone and in front of a group of administrators," said one official I interviewed.

How can we harness the power of social media for public participation? This past December I led the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads, which I chair, to change its policy to require that comments received via social media or other online sources are captured and forwarded to policymakers. Without such requirements, it's possible that decision-makers could be swayed by the presence and arguments of a single in-person commenter, yet remain ignorant to dozens -- maybe thousands -- of citizens with competing points of view.

Wholesale changes are also needed at higher levels of government. Rules that govern the use of federal funds in local community projects, for example, specifically direct agencies toward public meetings and the use of postal mail; these regulations make no mention of email, social media or other modern modes of communication. State and federal laws and policies should be updated to reflect how people really communicate.

These updated laws should make clear that a public comment may not be treated differently due to its method of delivery. Policies would be strengthened by removing the focus on modes of communication and replacing it with transparent criteria for how comments will be assessed.

Government legitimization of social media is not without its challenges. Problems that must be worked through include agency cultures that are stuck in the communication past; finding the resources for social-media monitoring, capturing and archiving; and the issue of anonymity. But some of these problems are overstated. For example, social-media monitoring tools on the market today provide staff with the ability to sort out critical social-media posts from the chaff and, if called for, escalate them.

In the end, as long as there is confusion about whether a comment on social media is "in" or "out," agencies and private partners have little motivation to come up with solutions that transcend the challenges and tip the scales in favor of citizens. Government at all levels should make clear that social media is in.