The public sector needs more ‘Heads of Digital’

2 Jan

Truly ‘social’ businesses understand that social media offers more than just some new channels through which to shove out top-down, one-way marketing and PR.

Instead of using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube  and the rest to shout about their products, many are providing tailored advice and support and building long-term relationships using the technologies.

They are engaging before, during and after the sale.

In fact, the cleverest companies have gone further still and have embedded digital across their organisations to conduct research and gather intelligence, to connect customers who might be able to help each other, to look for new employees, generate growth ideas and much more.

They are a beacon for the public sector.

Yet, the public sector – excepting some notable and laudable parts – has not yet caught on. You see, it doesn’t sell anything (or at least it thinks it doesn’t). In general, it has already been paid for the services it provides. So it views social media as a reputation management tool; a tool to broadcast its news (and self-serving publicity) or to make public statements arguing its case.

Look at the Tweets of some public sector organisations in the UK. Here’s NHS Hillingdon, in London, which seems to view Twitter as a free classified ads board. Or how about Lincoln Council? Barely any real engagement with customers as far back as I could be bothered to look.

But I don’t mean to pick on these two – just type ‘council and Twitter‘ into Google and you’ll find a swampy morass of  ‘shouting’ peppered with the lightest dusting of genuine engagement.

On its website, Devon and Cornwall Police proudly boasts about its presence on social networks. Yet, look at its Twitter stream: there’s nothing social about the way it’s engaging with its community. In fact there’s very little evidence it is ever involved in any conversations. Attempts by the public – like this – to talk back to the force seem to go unnoticed. The Facebook page is no better. It doesn’t even seem possible to post messages on its wall.

Devon and Cornwall Police's Facebook page

The result? These organisations are no more accessible than they ever were, even though they are now pretending the public has a direct route to them. This reinforces the exact negative brand image that they are trying to shake off by being in these social spaces.

There are much better practices going on in small pockets. See how Brighton and Hove City Council engages on Twitter (disclosure: I worked there until last week and was involved in the development of its digital engagement). My local force, Sussex Police, has found that Twitter and Facebook provide a space for genuine engagement with protestors at various demonstrations who would never normally talk to the Boys In Blue.

But these cases are not the norm. Overall, the public sector doesn’t understand the opportunities it now has.

To those who don’t get it, I simply say this:

Stop marketing and start engaging.

And to the few police, hospitals, Government departments, local councils, fire services and others that really are already engaging, now you must go one step further, like the best of the private sector. You must embed a culture of digital innovation throughout your organisations so that they can find better and less expensive ways of meeting their business objectives.

So here’s how you do it:

1. End the centralisation of social media activity

Most public sector organisations that have Facebook pages and Twitter profiles have a few people who sit in the Marketing and PR department and drive ALL social media activity. Which means they need to be experts in every part of the business. Which is, of course, impossible.

Just as there are no ’email units’, ‘telephone units’ or ‘public-speaking units’, there should not be a digital/social unit or function.

Nor should digital be deemed to be the sole preserve of corporate communications or be absorbed into the marketing unit – it should be integrated into all functions of the business.

2. Employ a ‘Head of Digital’

Social engagement, whether internal or external, should be overseen by a strategic advisor or manager, who does not necessarily have any expertise in any one business function. Digital is a technology, not a business function or objective, and should be used by employees in all major functions that have dealings with the public, including Human Resources, Information Technology, Marketing, Legal and Finance.

A Head of Digital should build a fully fledged digital culture, which comprises all sorts of people at many pay grades and levels of expertise in strategy, management, operations and measurement.

3. Empower him or her to provide strategic advice without expecting him/her to be an operational expert

The Head of Digital should seek to expand the reach of specific business functions, not by creating new or parallel functions – but by advising all of the above on the many threats and opportunities. For example he/she will advise:

  • Public and community relations and comms on how to work on reaching more people, particularly the hard-to-reach, to make the corporate message resonate better, to build trust with their audiences, to handle crises, to improve staff morale and information, and to improve inter-service communications.
  • Customer services teams on how to look for ways to reduce operational costs and cut waiting times on enquiries and complaints; to improve the brand with real-time digital customer service; to help more than one person at a time by leveraging social networks and solving problems publicly, to find people in need of help proactively and come to their aid.

  • Human Resources on how to leverage social networks to identify, pre-qualify and reach out to the best candidates for vacancies; to plan for disciplinary issues relating to use of social media; to train staff in social media ethics/best practices/good behaviour; to provide other social media resources to staff.

  • Research/business intelligence on how to leverage social capital to gain insights and collaborate on service solutions.

These are business functions with their own expertise and the Head of Digital should not generally be responsible for operations, management or measurement, aside from in an advisory capacity. He/she should not be a surrogate for every role every time these roles/functions need to leverage digital technologies. His/her role will be strategy and the embedding of a culture of digital innovation within the organisation.

What do you think? Would this work in your organisation?

2 Responses to “The public sector needs more ‘Heads of Digital’”

  1. Frankie Taggart January 3, 2011 at 5:22 am #

    Can you do your next blog about football or the X Factor please?


  1. A guide for care organisations developing a social media strategy | Be Inspired! Shirley Ayres Consulting - January 3, 2011

    […] The public sector needs more ‘Heads of Digital’  with thanks to Michael Taggart […]

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