When I wrote this post, it was as is shown below the dashes below.

However, the first comment here was from LouLouK at Blackburn & Darwen Council, just up the road from me, who pointed out that some councils have got it right.

I need to be clear that a lot of good work is going on and that, especially in these times, it can be really hard to get people motivated to try things.  Where this stuff is going on, it needs to be shared.  Maybe it is being, and I’m out the loop.  When you’ve read my post, stick to my action plan….or just skip past it and read LouLou’s comments….what they are doing there seems to be better than any action plan I can produce!

It’s getting cold out there.

I don’t know who reads this blog in terms of location. I’d like to think we have a readership in exotic places like Hawaii, California and Walton-on-the-Naze. Those people may well not be aware that we’re approaching winter and have snow heading our way, apparently before the end of the week. If or when the snow does come, we’ll inevitably ignore the fact that this happens every year and, in a wild panic, close the schools, shut down the shops and make worried calls about whether we should attempt the journey into work.

Last year, this joke wasn’t even as unfunny as it is now. A heavy covering all over the country left everyone frozen to the spot and local government, schools, colleges, public transport and every other public body scrambled to find the resources to cope. In the mess, everyone realised there was a lot to gain from social media in a crisis and many of the commentators had got it right in predicting this.

In the wake of snow, there was much reflection. Some great examples of the use of technology emerged, some lessons in how not to use technology were learned. Alastair Smith, then a comms man at Newcastle Council, ran a workshop about this at last years UKGOVCAMP and I followed that up with another at LocalGovCamp YH. The details were compiled in my “Told you Snow” post.

So, as the snow approaches again, it’s interesting to see more people on board than last year. Just the other day, Leeds City Council announced that they would be running a feed similar to Kirklees Councils’ “Kirklees Winter” feed (dubbed The Gritter Twitter), giving out information about the closures. It’s fantastic that more councils are looking to social media now and they are right to do so; I certainly use Twitter and Facebook more than ever in emergency situations, and we’ve seen some great examples of Twitter’s use in crisis since then.

What’s disappointing, though, is that many of the lessons have not been taken on board. Again, Twitter is being used like an RSS Reader to roll out news releases that could be on a website.

In many council approaches, the conversations element, where people can ask questions and get responses via twitter extremely quickly is missing. Isolated, cold, damp and fed up people don’t need to know details about every school closure.  They do need cheering up.  A bit of conversation, when time allows, is as valuable as those road closed details.

The strategy for incorporating information into general twitter feeds and facebook pages is missing. This is particularly worrying if an inexperienced person has to update all the social media because management can’t get in.

The social media mashup element, where tweets can be placed on a google map to chart disruption hasn’t materialised. The lessons about wider access to open / mobile working to prepare staff for working from home have, amazingly in a time of austerity, been ignored.

There were some great Twitter stories last time. Newcastle Council’s Twitter worked with Sky News while Sarah Lay got Derbyshire Council working with volunteer 4×4 drivers through social networking. Part of the reason this worked was because, rather than inventing their own hashtags, they used existing conventions like #uksnow. It wasn’t just social media either. A huge percentage of people accessing school closure information did so using games consoles or television compatible browsers…how many councils test their web space with those?

It seems that, as the cold returns, councils are just rolling out the Twitter gritter with the traditional ones and no one is listening to the innovators who tried this last time round. So, what should local authorities do?

  • Look at whether they need a separate Twitter feed for the winter or whether their existing feed with a hashtag can cover the job
  • Find out existing hashtags and conventions for Twitter (so for snow use #uksnow followed by a postcode followed by any information or a number out of ten to rate severity of snow fall eg. #uksnow bd22 Hebden Road closed or #uksnow bd22 9/10
  • Put together a communications plan.  Ensure that the social network tools are accessible from the office and from home, that people know the passwords, how to use them and conventions for using them
  • Make sure that as fewer updates as possible are needed.  For example, updating a page with an RSS feed can automatically update twitter (using something like HootSuite), a facebook page and a website at the same time.
  • Check that your website updates don’t rely on flash, java or other technicalities that could make it unusable from some smart phones and games consoles.  If it has to rely on these, make sure there’s a link to something that doesn’t
  • Think big – this isn’t just a tool for you to roll out news releases, it’s a tool for people to report things to you, for people who’re stuck to talk to you, for the media to keep in touch with what you’re doing.  The feed isn’t just about you locally, it could be used nationally to paint the picture
  • Use the right hashtags on Twitter.  Use you own by all means, but make sure you use the nationally trending ones, so that others can pick up on your feeds
  • Have a plan – if you need to rope in emergency services, volunteers, community wardens etc, can you get information from them onto social media quickly?  How?  Maybe they have their own feeds you can re-tweet or share on facebook.  If not, is there a comms number/email accessible outside the office to keep the information up to date.
  • Above all, make sure if you start this, you finish it.  There’s nothing worse than a twitter feed that shuts down at five when the snow starts at 4.  Make sure you don’t use the feed one day and not the next.  If using separate feeds, don’t neglect your original feeds. Have plans in place for how to do this.

With the right thought processes, another snow crisis could mean some real innovation in local authorities….I just hope it’s not a snowman that melts with the thaw, but one that stays with local government for a while, because, let’s be honest, it’s getting cold out there.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010 at 1010:32 and is filed under Community Safety, Uncategorized, mobile working, social networking. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “The return of the Gritter Twitter: An action plan for local government”

  1. Loulouk on November 23rd, 2010 at 1010:59

    You spend hours sorting out maps for grit bins so people know where to go to grab some and have a term of reference to report one being empty. Or a point of contact to report the one thrown in the canal. You suggest Highways number them for next year so we can asset track better. You get the gritting routes up, despite trying to explain the difference between a primary route, a secondary route, a radial route and a high level route and when each will be gritted and/or ploughed being akin to explaining some weird alchemy, dependant on the Met Office, sensors in the road, rain falling, icing, more rain falling, more ice and then some snow falling resulting in a completely different gritting schedule to what just plain old ice would require.
    You set up facebook groups and you talk to people. People talk back. You engage. You tweet out messages but there’s not much to say right now, so no one talks back, and you live in an area where, shock! horror! twitter take up is minimal at the moment and Facebook is used much more, so talkback is non existant. You’ve got a PR bod updating the feeds and groups, whose learnt from scratch how to do it. You’ve got a Head of Service on standby at 6:30am ready to tweet to let people know about refuse collection statuses when we get to the point where service suspension becomes an issue. If we have to roll out refuse collection points on main roads again, they’ll be mapped and loaded up. They’ll be available in pdf version too.

    You’ve got met ofice info for weather warnings coming in and going out, you’re going to be interviewing gritter drivers to try and allow people into a night in their life and getting them to take pics to try and show the snowy world through their eyes and make things more interesting. You’ve investigated the reasons why school closures comms fell over last year and are trying to work out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    Plans, plans more plans. Best snowman picture competitions planned where the winner will be displayed in the Town Hall foyer. Many ideas, lots of ideas, all planned, all waiting to go.

    And someone comes along and writes a post like this, and you know, suddenly you just really wonder……

    Don’t assume. On the service it might look calm, but believe me when I say, under the water the legs are paddling like all hell in preparation for this. We weren’t trailblazing last year. We’re not this year either. But hell, we’re trying. Give us some points, eh?

    Phew. Sorry. That should possibly have been a blog post, not a comment, but there you are.

  2. admin on November 24th, 2010 at 1212:10

    Thanks for that! It’s fantastic to know that this is happening!

    I know this sounded negative and I really didn’t mean to undermine any of the work that’s going on, especially in these times when moral is so low. However, having spent a few years shouting this from the rooftops, it’s frustrating when councils role out a badly planned effort, when all the lessons, answers and debates are all out there in the ether if anyone bothered to look.

    I also need to clarify that this isn’t just about Twitter. It’s about social media as a whole and I include text messaging and any interactive web content in that. If Twitter take up is low then, as you say, there are other channels for engagement. Whatever suits.

    Of course there are councils that ARE doing this. Kirklees did it last year, so did Newcastle, so did Derbyshire. Leeds were on the radio just the other day rolling out their twitter feed. I really am pleased things are moving in this direction.

    What you’re doing in Blackburn sounds fantastic. It is precisely what I’m advocating here. I completely apologise if in any way you feel insulted by this post. It’s meant as a commentary of what I see happening generally, not specifically. Good luck with your plans….they sound pretty trailblazing to me.

    PS: I’ve added a bit to the top of this post, because I think I need to be clear about who I’m aiming this at.

  3. Darren on November 24th, 2010 at 1212:46

    Oh dear Twitter has taken over the universe. What happened to listening to the local radio or local news on the television to find out what is going on during the bad weather. The snow storms we have nowadays are mild compared to those of the 80′s but we didn’t have twitter back then.

  4. admin on November 24th, 2010 at 77:49

    Local Radio and, to a small extent local TV, still have a vital part to play in the emergency plan.

    However, many people don’t listen to radio anymore, they listen to their iPod. I don’t carry any sort of radio, but I do carry a smart phone. Twitter and Facebook let me personalise and localise the information I want. I don’t care about school closures but do about travel…so, if hashtags are being used well, I can just receive that information.

    Local radio stations need to receive the information from somewhere andany areas have the best part of a dozen stations….if they need to send details to all of them, why not send it to the public at the same time? Websites are often clunky to update, so Twitter is easy and has the advantages mentioned above.

    If it snows, I’ll still listen to BBC Leeds until I leave the house. But after that it will be web based info…and last years stats suggest I’m really not alone.

  5. Loulouk on November 24th, 2010 at 77:54

    SMS is a good point. We tried picking this up at the beginning of the year as a tool for communication but unfortunately, due to resource we assume, it’s been sat in a project queue ever since. So we’re doing what we can without needing to sit in project queue’s essentially.

    Just as a thought for the person mentioning radio. Comms around school closures last year fell over completely here, as I understand it for want of a password which either wasn’t dissemninated correctly, or was never set in the first place. Trad messages of comms have to be maintained, but there has to be an acknowledgement that the people on the end of the channels are shifting and moving and as LA’s we must respond to that too.

    I’m shutting up now :O)

  6. steven tuck on November 26th, 2010 at 11:05

    I’ve been thinking all week about how to frame a comment to this post when my thoughts were summed up today by @stevelangrick when discussing a different but connected issue. Speaking about the efficacy of organisations, services and teams Steve said: “It not the structures it’s the people”. I couldn’t agree more.

    In an attempt to emulate this masterful summary I offer the following strategy for organisations looking to investigate social media as a communication or engagement option: Recognise your “disruptive innovators”, nurture them and allow them them freedom grow, experiment and be creative.

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