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Cities and Counties Try Facebook for Government

A look at how governments use Facebook to deliver services.

Steve Craig, the 311 director of Somerville, Mass., believes that social media is a handy delivery tool for city service — but it’s technically one that jurisdictions can do without.

Somerville isn’t one of those jurisdictions, though. “I don’t think you absolutely need it to make a system work, but it just makes sense,” Craig said. “It’s something that there’s a high demand for, so I don’t see the reason someone would go down the path of 311 and not factor this into their overall plan.”

Residents submit work orders through Somerville’s 311 Facebook page, a popular addition to other work order gateways like the city’s Web page, Twitter feed and call center.



The number of state governments using Facebook to reach citizens, according to a NASCIO survey.


The number of likes Somerville’s Facebook 311 app received from taxpayers.

Evidence suggests that the investment has paid off. As of early September, the Facebook page had 5,248 likes, which Denise Taylor, Somerville’s new media manager, believes has contributed to a 15 percent reduction in calls to the 311 center.

Used by 26 city departments, Facebook is the most popular social media platform with the Somerville government, and according to a 2010 NASCIO survey of 43 states, it is the most popular social media platform among state governments, too. The primary reason for going social? Citizen engagement.

Countless governments nationwide use Facebook primarily for disseminating general information on public walls — it’s department-specific service delivery that’s unique.

For Arkansas CIO Claire Bailey, who co-chaired NASCIO’s surveying group, it’s a general communication tool that lacks uniform adoption. “Everyone is embracing it, but maybe not in a standard way, whether you’re city, county or state,” she said. “In our own state, it’s more of a communication tool right now.”

Despite this, however, Bailey said she feels Facebook’s best application for direct service delivery is in the 311 environment, just as Somerville is doing. “I think that’s where people are trying to use these tools to say, ‘I took a picture of this pothole. Can you fix it?’” she said.

A Service Delivery Network

On Somerville’s 311 Facebook page, citizens submit work orders, comments and suggestions in two ways. Option one is an in-line Web app that’s a simple contact form with fields for a person to type his or her name, email address, phone number and a detailed message about a municipal concern. The person clicks a button to send the message to the city and automatically receives an email confirmation. After that, it’s up to Somerville employees to investigate and resolve the issue.

The second option is a download link to the iTunes page for Somerville’s free mobile 311 app. The app allows users to input the same information they do on the Facebook contact form, with a few key enhancements: They can attach a picture, select preloaded location information, and there are additional fields to type more specific information about the issue.  

Citizens also tweet concerns to the city through Twitter, but the exact method of 311 communication isn’t a huge factor for Somerville.

“It doesn’t really make a difference to us either way. We’re happy to take it,” Craig said. “We do find that a lot of constituents find it easier because they’re busy. If they’re at work or on the bus or whatever they’re doing, it’s easier for them to pull up their Facebook page or Twitter account.”

In San Francisco, the situation is similar. The city-county jurisdiction has a 311 Twitter account and a Facebook app for the public to submit service requests. It used open application programming interface technology to develop the Facebook app within the Open311 specification standard, and receives work orders through other Web apps that are integrated with Open311, including SeeClickFix and CitySourced.  

But unlike Somerville, the Facebook app isn’t a hit with San Francisco citizens, according to Andy Maimoni, the city’s deputy 311 director. “We haven’t gotten a lot of requests from there because I don’t know that people go to Facebook to do that kind of stuff,” he said.  

 Recent figures support his observations. In June, San Francisco only handled 182 cases through its Open311 channel out of more than 18,000 cases total. The government’s central 311 Facebook page had a mere 337 likes as of late August, compared to Somerville’s 5,246. Somerville’s in-line Facebook app alone has more than 44,000 likes, which is a substantial number for a city that had a population of 76,519 in 2010.

The disparity between San Francisco and Somerville suggests that Facebook’s usefulness for 311 service delivery may not be uniform. Regardless, San Francisco government encourages departments to use the platform for individual purposes, and many oblige by posting general information on their walls.

“We’ve distributed out the Facebook presence so people can specialize on what they are really interested in,” Maimoni said, noting that residents “friend” specific pages to receive information that’s tailored to them. “They’re getting the feed from the sites they’ve linked up to.”

Still, some public employees don’t see Facebook as a mechanism for dynamic service delivery in many cases. “Most folks tell you that people don’t go to Facebook for apps,” Maimoni said, “they go for games.”

Reaching the People

Facebook comes with a bevy of features and functionality, but in Taylor’s opinion, government’s ultimate goal is simply better civic engagement, a realization she hopes jurisdictions remember when they go social.

“‘Social’ is half of ‘social media,’ and I think sometimes it gets forgotten,” she said. “You can think of social media as sort of an online billboard, but just remember that you have this incredible potential for it to be a forum, a place for civic engagement as a community space.”

Somerville government and its taxpayers certainly capitalized on Facebook’s two-way communication capability, and it proved a great help when Annie the dog went missing the night of July 12 in Winter Hill. The 3-year-old gray-and-white terrier’s pictures adorned Somerville 311’s Facebook page, with links to similar posts on the “Annie is Missing” page. City employees planned for the digital images to enhance the neighborhood search, where physical signs had been posted around the area.

Stacy Landau, Annie’s owner, undoubtedly felt comforted by the support expressed on Somerville 311’s wall. People shared the original post 49 times on their own walls, and one commenter wrote, “Wishing you the best of luck, will keep my eyes peeled for this sweet looking pooch.”

An unnamed resident found Annie weeks later, and 248 people liked an Aug. 1 post of a photo of Landau holding the dog. “Great news!” and other celebratory comments abounded.

Taylor, who trains Somerville departments on social media deployment, said he feels that social media’s basic benefits can also be the most rewarding from a public service perspective: Residents post opinions on city projects and become more invested in community activities and meetings.

“We have seen attendance at meetings increase significantly because of it,” she said. “We’re receiving volunteers [and] including commission members we weren’t reaching before.”

Though social media is great for connecting with citizens, Arkansas’ Bailey said it may need to mature as a service delivery tool. However, she said 311 applications exemplify a type of government-to-citizen communication that could grow more sophisticated in time and spread to other types of services, independent of the platform. “I think that’s the evolutionary point for us.”

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.