With government funding cuts expected to hit the public sector hard in the next couple of years, could public and not for profit organisations be more innovative and make significant cost savings by engaging with citizens through social media? Thanks to Stephen Sloss Strategic Director of Adult Social Care and Health Blackburn with Darwen Council for sharing his thoughts about the challenges for social work in developing new ways of communicating through social media.
Its amazing, is it not, that the way people communicate is changing so quickly and public services and social work in particular, seem so slow to respond. The link word between media and work in this context is “social”. Of all the professions that should grasp the possibilities of richer communication between people, social work should be at the forefront.
I can’t claim any crowning glory for making great strides for the profession as our teams in Blackburn with Darwen struggle like many to work with infrastructure and systems that don’t always meet expectations and despite trying to modernise our adult care services with new buildings and mobile technology, we are still a profession locked in behind the firewall.
In the public sector we have been used to communications in a noticeably one-way fashion for some years. When we consult we have been guilty of asking questions to get a particular answer. When we do PR we have been guilty of chiselling press releases to perfection by Committee, then releasing them into the dead of night via our websites. Even when we talk to our staff we’ve had criticism that public sector managers are hierarchical, top-down control freaks who don’t do interaction very well. Social media is giving us the opportunity to transform this for the better.
Yet the journey has begun in Blackburn with Darwen, even with my own fumbling attempts at Twitter and LinkedIn. Then there is the more superior regular intranet blog from our director of policy and communications, Tom Stannard. We’ve also taken steps to help employees across the council understand the value of social media and to begin to use it with the help of policy guidance to keep things safe and enable social media to flourish.
In Blackburn with Darwen we’re interacting 2-way with our residents via social media every day. We campaign on Facebook, – from new leisure centres to local neighbourhood issues, engage with the public and with opinion formers on Twitter and promote and engage with people in different ways via YouTube – most recently on electoral turnout for young people.
None of this is without risk. Culturally it is uncomfortable for organisations not used to genuine 2-way interaction via fast-moving channels. There is risk in allowing staff access and all the HR and legal/libel ramifications this presents. And there is risk in turning over stones in the community that we may not have done for years. But there is also massive opportunity.
Social work should be in a good position to take advantage of these new communication channels but whilst it is generally culturally uncomfortable for organisations it’s also pretty uncomfortable for the individual social care professional. Social media presents a big challenge to our professional boundaries with customers. It also cuts across our personal lives and for many, given the very sensitive work we do, keeping work and private life apart is important.
Despite these discomforts, the world has changed and we need to debate more deeply the ways we need to change to get the best from social media to help us to safeguard and enable people even more than we do now.
No organisation or professional worth their salt would throw all their eggs into one basket but social media represents a big part of how the world works, and Councils without a proactive social media strategy, and a tolerant approach to staff usage, are really missing a trick.
About the author
Stephen Sloss is Strategic Director of Adult Social Care & Health at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council He has worked in local government social care since 1985. With director level experience since 2003 in social care for both children and adult services, Stephen has a strong focus on organisational transformation, continuous improvement and innovation in the delivery of public services.
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