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Building the Social Town Hall

The four stages of social media and government in 140 characters or fewer.

Social media is the new town hall where government leaders join residents in the constant digital conversation that occurs on Twitter and other sites. However, in addition to straightforward communication, social media offers much more in transforming how government works and listens. The use of social media is now evolving through four stages.

Stage 1

Social media as a communications channel. Most city and state elected officials now use social media accounts to share updates and respond to questions from constituents. This information ranges from street cleaning notices to vital emergency notifications. In times of crisis, social media, both to and from city hall, often precedes traditional news outlets. Whether during the search for the terrorists in Boston or responding to the problems caused by Sandy, eyewitness residents and public officials alike turned to Twitter as one of the best and quickest ways for government to communicate. Newly developed apps let residents report problems more quickly and accurately than calling 311.

Stage 2

Enhancing constituent satisfaction with social media. We can of course find better uses for social media than just facilitating ways for voters to complain or public officials to brag about what they’ve done. The next level of social media use is creating a digital town hall to collect ideas and input from residents. Social tools allow a broader segment of a community to participate in solving a problem or reacting to an idea than a typical town hall, which is dominated by the loudest person who has the time to invest. For example, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee recently combined live-streamed media with questions about the city’s budget submitted via email and Twitter to gather input. Incorporating digital tools into discussions and presentations that already occur at the city level is an easy way to begin using social media at low cost. These conversations can also be entirely new efforts to crowdsource ideas to big problems. For example, Chicago hosted a Twitter discussion called #WhatIfChicago seeking ideas to reduce illegal guns on the city’s streets, which quickly grew into a global conversation.

Stage 3

Listening and acting better through social media. Although Twitter campaigns and mayoral accounts will engage a good portion of a city’s residents, governments can cast an even wider net through automated analysis of social media conversations taking place in a geographic region. Washington, D.C., has begun to automate sentiment mining on an agency level to supplement direct comments and feedback and develop more holistic ratings of each agency. Such analysis also can trigger service requests (for trash pickup, etc.) before a resident ever submits a formal complaint. Sentiment analysis lets public officials understand concerns before they become full-scale problems.

Stage 4

Social democracy. The size and complexity of local and state government produced over the last century has moved more to technical professionalism and government by representative elites and less to democratic participation. Talking to large numbers of individuals, synthesizing their thoughts and translating it into action became daunting and in some ways viewed as inappropriately political. Our next generation of social networking will look at ways to renew the democratic fabric — deeply weaving the mined and curated community reactions through the social network into the daily functions for customer service, rule-making, prioritization, problem solving and ideation. When analyzed and combined with 311, 911 and stat program data, social media inputs from residents can unlock insights that make government more efficient and effective.

Social media tools, now widely used for communications, can harness the wisdom of crowds, improving government and involving citizens in a renewed democratic confidence.


Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.