Posted At: December 8, 2009 10:22 AM
by Enelda Butler
The goal of any local government should be to serve the best interest of its citizens. The development of new forms of communication, such as social media Web sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, has revolutionized the way that some cities communicate with their residents. For instance, cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York have Facebook pages providing information about upcoming events taking place in the cities.
Social media has also been used to keep residents informed during emergency situations. For example, the Mississippi Department of Transportation used Twitter to keep citizens informed during the 2009 hurricane season.
According to Carrie Adam, MDOT Public Affairs Division director, the organization developed the idea to use Twitter after last year’s hurricane season. “Every year after hurricane season we have a brainstorming meeting to discuss ways to better serve the public,” said Adam.
After this meeting MDOT decided to begin using Twitter as a way of reaching residents in a timely manner. “We use Twitter as a way to get information about evacuations out to the public quickly, and people can get these updates on their cell phones,” said Adam.
However, because of a relatively quiet hurricane season MDOT did not use Twitter as often as they expected. “We just started using Twitter last year, but only during hurricane season, which is from June to November,” said Adam.”We weren’t able to utilize it as much as we wanted to because there weren’t many threats to the Gulf Coast this hurricane season.”
MDOT also communicates with residents through mstraffic.com. This is a Web site where residents can sign up to receive traffic information for the area they live in, including updates on accidents and road construction. The Web site also offers live streaming video of major interstates and highways in the state.
Currently, Twitter is the only form of social media that MDOT uses, but they plan on expanding in the near future. “Our intent is to begin using Facebook, probably in a couple of months,” said Adam.
These tactics can develop stronger two-way communication between government officials and community members. Residents can voice their opinions about important issues without going through traditional channels, like city council meetings. Although traditional means of communication remain important, these new tactics give residents more options.
Tuscaloosa, Ala., is one city using several different ways to communicate with its residents. Tracy Croom, city clerk of Tuscaloosa, said the city’s most recent mayor inspired these new communication tools. “Things really changed in the last four years,” said Croom. “It’s so important to Mayor Maddox to have open communication.”
Tuscaloosa recently began using social media. For instance, a video of the mayor’s inaugural address can be found on YouTube. The city has an active Facebook page and a Twitter account. Although these tools are beneficial, Croom said face-to-face communication between government officials and residents remains vital.
“Even though we have Twitter and Facebook and all those avenues, it’s still really important for the citizens to come to the council meetings because that’s where the laws are enacted and that’s where the policies are changed,” said Croom. “We use those types of avenues just to get the word out.”
Two years ago, the city began Tuscaloosa 311, a hotline residents can call to report non-emergency issues. According to the city’s Web site, this service also provides a neutral forum for citizens to make suggestions about city services and departments, answers questions citizens have concerning city organizations and services and assists citizens in obtaining city services in a fair and efficient manner.
Croom said Tuscaloosa 311 is one of the city’s most successful communication tools. In fact, more than 100,000 calls were made to the hotline in the past year.
“When people are utilizing these tactics you know they’re effective,” said Croom. “If it doesn’t work or it’s not convenient, we’re not going to use it. Seeing the number of users increase over the last two years lets us know that we’re doing something right. But we’re always looking for ways to increase and to get better.”
Croom said the goal of all of these tactics is to better serve the community. “We’re here to make life easier for our citizens,” said Croom. “Our mission is to serve.”
Graphic ed. by Niki Gautier