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New Fels Report: Philadelphia City Government Is a Social Media Leader

Rise of Social Government

Eric Rabe

The Rise of Social Government, the Fels Institute of Government’s recently released guide and review of social media’s role in local government operations, utilized data and experiences collected last summer and fall.

That fact speaks to one of the greatest challenges every local government large and small faces when it comes to social media and other modern technologies: keeping up with how quickly they change.

“By now I’m beginning to feel that if we went back and asked some questions again we might get some different answers,” says Fels Senior Advisor Eric Rabe. “It’s hard for cities to keep track of where social media is headed.”

The good news is it’s simple to do just that. There’s no shortage of resources – including the numerous seminars and webinars Fels has conducted in recent months to share “promising” practices and information on new tools  -- for city officials to tap into, if only they can recognize and demonstrate the value and devote even modest effort toward tracking social media trends.

Philadelphia’s efforts in social media have been anything but modest. Of 108 cities surveyed on their local government’s social media activity, Philadelphia was among two dozen highlighted as best in class.  That’s largely due to Mayor Michael Nutter’s commitment to technology, Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships Desiree Peterkin Bell, and an opportunistic approach.

For example, the city’s “I Pledge” campaign launched on social media in July, 2011, to promote personal responsibility and collective action to combat increasing citywide violence. The campaign’s Facebook and Twitter accounts aimed for positive community engagement in direct response to a tragedy-filled summer weekend that included 43 shootings and 7 homicides.

While the campaign only mustered 341 Facebook Likes and 203 Twitter followers, has been all but inactive on social media since October, and a year later we’re on pace for a homicide record, it is hard to argue against making even modest dents in a problem that makes every part of the city weak in its knees.

“I actually think that was a pretty innovative thing,” says Rabe.

The city's social media policy has no been without controversy. Just this week, the city's firefighters union did not take kindly to a memo from Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers that detailed new social media policies that prohibit on-duty firefighters using city property for social media, and a variety of defamatory or revealing comments about patients.
In the Fels report, Peterkin-Bell makes the point that incorporating measurement goals from other citywide plans is imperative in helping to determine which social media statistics are most useful. She personally tracks who retweets the city’s posts, and “once ?uestlove and the White Houe retweeed a post we sent out, so that reached several million people,” according to the report.

Philly (along with Salt Lake City, Boulder, Boston and Richmond) was also cited as a city that gives individual government departments the ability to adopt their own social media platforms. That was part of the social media strategy that Peterkin-Bell developed since first taking her post in late 2010.

Major findings in the report include Facebook and Twitter are nearly ubiquitous at 90 percent adoption among surveyed cities for one or both platforms. The number of cities with Facebook pages for their mayor or communications office increased by 22 percent in the two years since the last time Fels studied cities’ social media use in 2009. Perhaps most telling is the rise of social media as a service improvement, public engagement, economic development and emergency response tool.

Official rankings were not part of the report, but Rabe estimates Philly is among the top 5 or 10 most social media-saavy cities. Philadelphia was tied for eighth nationally according to a University of Illinois at Chicago report on civic engaement and local e-government issued in February.
“Philadelphia, like everybody else, is trying to make every penny go farther,” says Rabe. “There are lots of ways social media can help. I’d give Philadelphia a definite ‘A.’”

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
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