Thursday, June 03, 2010

St. Louis local government and Facebook, an opportunity lost

The following post was originally written for the St. Louis Social Media & Tech Report.

The small St. Louis County municipality where I live spent more than $30,000 in August 2008 to purchase and install an electronic sign outside the police station. The purpose was to provide a place for news and events pertinent to city residents.

I’ve probably driven by the sign 10 times in two years. I could never tell you what it said. It’s the prison warden in Cool Hand Luke who said it best: “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate.”

My problem isn’t so much with the sign (although I’d certainly appreciate a better allocation of my tax dollars). My problem lies with my community’s overall approach to communication.

My city isn’t on Facebook and I think it’s missing the boat.

For some people Facebook IS the Internet. It’s where they e-mail, chat and find information. The social media behemoth boasts more than 400 million active users, with 50 percent of those logging into Facebook on any given day. The average user is connected to 60 page, groups and events.

A quick search through Facebook only fueled my disappointment in local government. I found Facebook pages for only two (Ballwin and Affton) of the 91 municipalities in St. Louis County. A City of St. Louis Facebook page only became active last month and has a paltry 14 followers, err likers.

Why do people even establish Facebook pages in the first place? They create these pages around things people care about, to reach out to like-minded individuals, to build community. These should be the same goals of the local government officials elected to represent me.

If you’re a local government, here’s five things a Facebook page would allow you to do:

1. Foster greater public discussion. Local municipalities are great at hosting public forums. They post fliers at the community center and maybe a message on the website. The problem is that no one comes. The discussion board on a Facebook page can be a place to hash out what to do with a new park or how to better protect the neighborhood.

2. Become a better listener. It’s the active city resident with time on his hands who can sit through a 2-hour-long city council meeting waiting to be heard. Not everyone has that luxury. People share all kinds of things on Facebook. Listening to those people could — gasp — help local government become more responsive to the people who pay for it.

3. Speak directly to residents. Yes, fans of a Facebook page can come from all over. However, pages allow administrators to send geo-targeted “updates” to fans within certain areas. If you’re the City of St. Louis, send updates to those who have their current city set to St. Louis.

4. Spread the news. The public announcements, events and photos shared on the city’s main website could have new life on a Facebook page. One of the greatest features of Facebook is its ease in sharing information. Someone likes the Fall Festival your town is putting on and they can share it with their friends with a simple click of the mouse.

5. Provide better customer service. There are some cities that allow residents to do almost everything through Facebook, including paying overdue parking tickets. I don’t think a page has to necessarily go that far, but sometimes is a huge improvement just to provide easy access to an address, phone number or e-mail.

(Are there any subdivisions listed on Facebook?)

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