The use of social media, apps and data is contributing to better city governance all around the world and to improving the lives of billions of people. The revolutionary change in the system of relations among people brought by the rising importance of communication technologies ,have significant effects also on the way urban residents expect that cities communicate to them. Recently, increasing numbers American and European cities have used digital communication tools to foster the interaction of residents in many different domains of urban life.
Cities with advanced ICT infrastructures and high internet penetration rates were among those which drove the debate with innovative practices and experiences in Europe and at global level. Amongst these were many small and medium towns and cities which developed original strategies to foster local development and better governance through social media. Some examples are the tourism promotion carried out by the Italian city of Turin with Twitorino or the London EU Funds account promoting the international activities of the British capital.
Urban communication was completely reshaped by the use of social media and apps, which are creating also the floor for the development of new professions and skills, as well as the integration of digital enterprises in the local economies, as in Helsinki with the Helsinki Region Infoshare and the Forum Virium Helsinki.
The development of new tools for different uses and purposes of the urban life, from increasing the efficiency of local transport systems to the delivery of new customised services or packages of information, has contributed to improve the involvement of residents in their local communities,. This is the case of Social Streets Facebook groups, that make the interaction between local governments and residents an essential element for more democratic and integrated local communities. The development of integrated communication strategies including the intensive use of social media and apps was not only a matter of technology but contributed to renew the sense of place and community in many areas of the world, considering how the user-generated information can be easily integrated in flows which see institutional accounts and other local sources of information in a unique flow followed by the users.
Social media and apps play a decisive role in the strengthening of creative clusters and in sharing information among different levels (institutions, communities, etc). The creation of e-government services and the increased interconnection between city leaders and communities are decisive elements in this framework. This was successfully experimented with the Data Dictionary of Chicago where a metadata repository for more than 500 datasets produced by the City was established and made accessible to developers and citizens.
The development of innovative and interactive technologies is linked also to new forms of local development, collaborative urban planning and the trend towards better use of public spaces by residents. This enabled the development of a new concept of e-Government that emerged in the late 90’s with bidirectional flows of information, which allowed more than ever the citizens to take active part in the local political debate. The real time conversations and debates fostered by Twitter and Facebook contributed to integrate the traditional ways of dialogue and debate at local level, making social media a decisive tool for new, integrated forms of e-Government. The analysis of big data and social media flows is becoming a decisive element for the co-creation of participative local public policies. This extensive use of social media increased the role of the of citizens as clients to be satisfied but also as stakeholders who do not just receive information but contribute to create them. The increased access to smart technologies, such as tablets and smartphones, had effects not only on the generation of digital natives but also on who developed a wide range of services for different audiences in local societies.
Flows of information freely available and analysable on social media and accessible data are ending government monopoly on information. The use of these tools not only by experts but also by local inhabitants opens the floor to unimaginable forms of interaction at local level, for example with civic groups which can recognise themselves in communities. Developers’ competitions, hackathons and other publicly visible moments are only the most spectacular elements of a movement of ideas and practices which do not see only digital experts as main actors but all the possible users of digital technologies. Visualising on a screen the decisions adopted by the City Council with geo tags on the different areas of the city, as done by the Open Ajio application developed by the city of Helsinki, or knowing through Iperbole what service the City of Bologna is sharing with citizens, are ordinary innovations which are changing the way residents perceive public services and, generally, the action of local authorities towards citizens.
The European Commission has recognised the potential of such social media usage within its flagship initiatives for Europe 2020 and has elaborated the Digital Agenda. Social media are hereby seen as valuable tools available for citizens, businesses and administrations to support and reboot Europe’s economy. An important role is also played by Open Data, seen as a valuable tool for fostering innovation and competitiveness. The ownership and capitalisation over the data availability are very sensitive issues, especially with Facebook or Google, as evident in the case of Vienna, which has not given full availability of the mobility data to Google Maps. For the same reason many citizen-led initiatives have developed OpenStreetMap, a platform for open source cartography where citizens can freely upload and edit data under the Creative Commons License. With a very active and diverse debate over Data, today the range of possibilities is extremely wide, and public administration must be aware of the data management consequences of their communication strategies.
These changes happened very fast and often in an unexpected way for many local authorities, which often decided to replicate schemes and modules of action without first empowering its local officials. These had to adapt their role and their tasks to the new reality imposed by the use of apps and social media. It contributed also to reshape the role of local officials but the lack of coordination among different parts of the local authority became also more visible through these tools, which have more in general fostered the active participation of residents and the establishment of efficient systems to communicate complaints and find cooperative solutions to urban problems. Local communication ecosystems, which see users, media, NGOs, planning authorities and other urban stakeholders as decisive actors, are fed by flows of information. These need to be organised and customised according to agreed local uses.. The applications of social media might involve residents in promoting the city at internal and external level, using social media to foster resident and business participation in the use of public spaces and developing better internal communication and governance between local authority offices. These are just some examples of what cities around the world are doing through social media, with low investment in ICT infrastructure and high investment in local human capital.
The effectiveness of social media cannot be seen as an isolated issue, solely dependent on the potential of the communication tool itself, but rather on the way such instruments are embedded in organisations, creating information flows and shaping decision-making processes. Hence the governance model relating to the use of social media is an increasingly decisive element in city-wide communication strategies.
Governance of communication processes
Social media and digital platforms do not only serve municipalities to extend their communication outreach but also help them redefine their governance models. In many cities, social media has become a crucial factor in the provision of public services and the way public administrations and citizens interact around them. While many local administrations use social media for outward communication, an increasing proportion of them increasingly engage in two-way communication: collecting feedback from citizens and basing planning and policy decisions on these feedbacks might effectively create partnerships that go far beyond simply informing or consulting citizens. Such ‘shift from government to governance’ (Bellamy, 2010) has brought an increasing complexity within the relationship amongst stakeholders and the decision-making processes. With governance being characterised by the “interdependence between organisations; continuing interactions between network members; game-like interactions, rooted in trust and regulated by rules of the game negotiated and agreed by network participants” (Rhodes, 1997), the role of the flow of information amongst this increasingly complex network of stakeholders is of essential importance, especially for local administrations who are often the authority in closest contact with citizens. At the same time, municipalities need strategies on how to use citizen feedback. Crowdsourced data and citizen feedback might inform biased decisions, as some social groups are digitally more connected and thus prioritised in online communications. The challenge of public administrations here is to engage also digitally underrepresented social groups in online communication and decision-making. Interestingly, as experiences by many of the Interactive Cities’ partners, the digital divide concerns administrations less than the issue of finding the right language: many municipal communication teams see their biggest challenge in reaching youth through social media and digital tools.
The way the administration will develop a dialogue with its citizens implies a new approach within the communication strategy of the administration. More traditional institutional communication may not be able to engage people, with whom a more collaborative approach will be necessary. In fact, it will be necessary to open up the communication of the administration to a more flexible approach, able to engage in sharing, accepting input and revising contributions.
If many public administrations have been reluctant to engage with the use of social media, this is partly due to the ambiguous outcomes online communications create. In the first place, social media offers many potential benefits for public administrations: increased participation and engagement of citizens and community groups, better access to citizen knowledge and capacities, and an improved transparency of the administration that can also boost efficiency in intra- and interdepartmental communication and management. Furthermore, social media allows public servants to conduct surveys at low cost and tap into public sentiments in real time. Accessing citizen networks also opens the possibility of crowdsourcing solutions for problems inside the administration and its operational and governance mechanisms, thus helping innovation in the public sphere. In the meanwhile, social media can also improve the quality of public services, by fine-tuning and delivering services where they are really needed, and can even help widen the scope of services provided by local authorities and cooperating private and nonprofit partners.
In the same time, social media also carries risks for public offices. Destructive behavior on online platforms can harm the support of public policies, even if they are well-thought and were created through a rigorous participation process. Social media can also distort public opinion about certain themes, through the overrepresentation of certain social and demographic groups who have better internet access and are more comfortable with online communication.
In fact, social media has contributed to a change within institutional communication, transforming this from a linear process into a new form that is based on ongoing input from stakeholders, seen as city experts. For Habermas (1981) ideal speech conditions are with the direct engagement of parties, so these can test if the arguments are accurate. Rationality provides criteria for democratic reasoning processes that are based on communicative practices, allowing for the construction of an ‘inter-subjective consciousness’ through debate. In order to achieve this common understanding, it is also important that decisions are not dominated by people outside the process and that everyone has the same access to information, the same right to speak and to be listened to. This process is what is defined as collaborative rationality by Innes and Boheer (2010), making negotiation theory the fundamental approach, and building upon Diversity, Interdependence and Authentic Dialogue (DIAD):
“Planning and policy are not about finding the best solution — indeed there is no one best solution, though there may be many better ways of proceeding than the status quo. Collaboratively rational processes are about engaging with other members of a community to jointly learn and work out how to get better together in the face of conflict, complex changing conditions and multiple conflicting sources of information. Such processes are not only about finding new ways to move forward, but they are ultimately about guiding community and governance capacity to be resilient in the face of the inevitable new challenges.” (Innes, 2010)
The fact that planning becomes a dialectic process, an expression of governance model that is “the management of the common affairs of political communities” (Healey, 2005), is an enabler towards a more inclusive and democratic decision making process. Arnstein’s ‘ladder metaphor’ identified eight steps of participation level, in which the first two were weak, as they are manipulation and therapy; then come symbolic measures such as information, consultation and placation. The higher levels are stronger, as they are partnership, delegated power and citizens’ control. These are the most controversial ones in terms of democratic involvement of citizens as they open a new role for civil servants that have often not received training for dealing with such new challenges.
Even though communication allows for the development of community reasoning, better understanding and builds the self-consciousness of the group, it still may not solve challenges in finding agreement and compromise between those with different perspectives. Although communication plays an essential role in allowing all actors to be aware of the stakes it does not balance out inequalities between them. This is why social media is a powerful instrument to tap into untouched user groups of our cities, enabling wide numbers of exchanges at hardly any cost.
At the same time, online communication platforms bring up the questions of both the quality of content and the reliability of crowdsourced information. Furthermore, communication through social media raises many privacy issues, due to a lack of established standards. Establishing a coherent social media presence also requires significant effort from public administrations: besides unblocking social media accounts on the office computers, it also necessitates dedicating staff time in order to promote a municipal initiative and generate increased participation in the initiative. One step further, establishing a fluid, two-way communication channel between citizens and municipal governments requires the hiring or nominating of dedicated social media professionals, but may result in the increase of general public engagement, constantly available citizen input and a captive audience for new initiatives. This necessitates a continuous presence: leaving questions and comments unanswered might harm the credibility and reputation of the public office.
In summary, digital communication and social media can redefine and deepen the concept of citizenship and civic engagement, sparking cohesion, promoting shared values and creating a stronger sense of belonging. At the same time, social media operations can also threaten the efficiency and results of other communication and cooperation channels, if they are not coordinated or maintained, and supported by traditional media channels and part of a broader communications strategy.