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'Senate Cloud' Spurs Political Engagement in Utah

The Utah Senate is on a mission to help connect citizens with their elected officials on social media.

The Utah Senate is using an interactive online portal to jump-start political engagement among state residents on social media.

Called the Senate Cloud, the site is a centralized hub of links to the Utah Senate’s official Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media accounts. Presented in a tile-based layout similar to Microsoft Windows 8, the website enables users to stay engaged on issues senators are working on throughout the Utah legislative session.

“Our main social media presence is directed at Twitter and Facebook, and those are the biggest blocks on the page,” said Kirsten Frank, a legislative aide with the Utah Senate. “But even down to the design, we wanted it to be something that was relevant, modern and efficient.”

Launched about a year ago, the collection of social media channels is rooted in a larger belief that Utah citizens own the legislative process, said Ric Cantrell, chief of staff of the Utah State Senate. Frank added that the idea was to quickly connect people to government in ways that appeal to them.

While the project isn’t flashy, its beauty lies in its simplicity. Instead of people doing a Web search for legislative data or combing through the Utah Senate’s website, they can visit Senate Cloud and choose what communications vehicles they want to receive information from and interact on. The link tiles are sized according to how active the Senate is on a particular social platform.

“Within a matter of a couple of minutes, you can be following us on more than 10 social media websites,” Frank said.

Frank also said she thinks the Senate Cloud helps link the Utah Senate with a wider demographic of people. For example, while Facebook and Twitter are typically hotbeds for political talk, Frank believes promoting the Senate’s presence on Pinterest and Instagram will help them connect with homemakers and young adults who are, or just about to be, of age to vote.

The project has been successful in its first year. During Utah’s 2014 legislative session, Frank noticed a significant uptick in activity on the Senate’s social media platforms. During student tours, Frank would promote the Senate Cloud and watch as young people flocked to the site and subsequently follow the Senate on Instagram and Flickr.

“Several times I’ve had students within a half-hour following us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram – the same five-to-10 students [on the tour],” Frank said. “It’s hard to do metrics on it, but it’s turned out better than I thought it would be.”

“Traffic was way up during the legislative session, but petered out from there,” she added.

The Utah Legislature’s annual six-week session runs for 45 days consecutively from the end of January to mid-March. The Utah Senate is very active on its social media channels during that time -- particularly on YouTube.

A media briefing is held after every Senate Floor session and is live streamed on YouTube. Composed of both Democratic and Republican Senate leaders and those senators who were featured prominently in that day’s debate, members of the media and citizens have a daily opportunity to engage one-on-one with their elected representatives.

Senate staff members also publish a mobile number on Twitter and Facebook prior to each livestreamed media briefing, so citizens and media can text questions and receive immediate answers.

Frank credited Cantrell and former Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, with the YouTube livestream idea, calling it “one of the most impressive things that I’ve been a part of since working here.”

Looking ahead, Frank noted that she and other members of the Utah Senate staff are always looking for ways to improve Senate Cloud and, when appropriate, add new social media channels to it. She’s planning increase the prominence of the YouTube tile at some point and will continue to promote the Senate Cloud as an engagement tool.

“We’re constantly trying to update, but it’s a little bit of an uphill battle at times with a small staff that has big dreams,” Frank admitted. “But we feel it’s appropriate for us to do as much as we can to help legislators connect to citizens. Connecting government to citizens is really something that we’re constantly trying to revamp our strategies on and evolve as social media evolves.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.
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