Twitter as a public service

What a great initiative announced yesterday by the city of San Francisco – enable citizens to use Twitter as one of the means through which they can use the city’s 311 online information and services network.

[…] you will be establishing a two-way communication channel which can be used to send direct (private) messages to SF311. Customer Service Representatives are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to assist you. View "Sample Tweets" of our most requested services to help ensure you provide the information needed to service your request. 311 can help with:

  • Street Cleaning
  • Graffiti Removal
  • Pothole and Sidewalk Defects
  • Abandoned Vehicles
  • City Garbage Can Maintenance
  • Department Information (office hours, location, phone numbers)
  • … and much more!

Have a question or concern? Check out the FAQ before continuing.

This seems to be a well thought out idea judging by the breadth and depth of information the Mayor’s office has published about Twitter and 311, eg, the FAQ. If you’re inclined to use Twitter as a preferred means of connecting with people and services, this will appeal to you.

If not, well, it’s simple – don’t use it: instead, make use of the others ways of connecting to 311.

Public services are embracing informal and social means of communication like Twitter as a way to provide citizens with more means of making use of (self) services and easy on-demand access to information.

For instance, my local council in the UK, Wokingham Borough, is also on Twitter.

If you take a look at both Twitter accounts, the contrast in styles between San Francisco and Wokingham is noticeable. And SF311 looks to be run by a number of different people (the different initials after tweets suggest that).

Still, Wokingham Borough also offers a range of useful information via its Twitter account.

We will use Twitter as an additional way of keeping our residents and visitors informed on the latest news and events. It will also feature information on any emergency situation – for example extreme weather like flooding or snow, and any impact this may have, like school closures, road closures or the closure of the Loddon Bridge Park and Ride.

Not much in the way of two-way engagement but useful nevertheless.

One day, every public service will include a social medium like Twitter as a routine channel of communication, there for the use by citizens or not, as they see fit.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Simon Wakeman

    Hi Neville,

    Interesting post and thanks for the link!

    I suspect the difference in approaches may be coming from who in the organisation is responsible for setting up the twitter account. That said, two-way conversations should be the end goal.

    Many councils in the UK are using Twitter – but some aren’t that explicit about how they use it for two-way comms – eg we don’t follow other people, but we do monitor for all “@medway_council” messages and respond to them all via Twitter – but we don’t actually tell people we do that anywhere, which we probably should, otherwise it looks like one-way comms, when it’s actually two-way.

    That said, I wonder if having a large number of @replies in the main Twitter feed actually detracts from the impact that messages to the majority could have – as most of the content isn’t relevant to most of the audience? Maybe it would be better to do the replies privately (DMs or other channels?).

    Interesting times and great to see different approaches to this emerging – what’s for sure is that the public sector needs to be agile and responsive enough to use new tools in new ways.

  2. Yang-May Ooi

    These kinds of public service communications would be of much greater use if we in the UK could receive tweets free on our mobile phones. I think that’s the case now with one UK carrier so I’m hoping that this will be available across all UK carriers before too long. When Twitter first started, one of its strengths was that it didn’t tie you in to using web-based access and the immediacy of getting an SMS from specific people you choose (rather than having to check via your mobile browser if tweets have come in)

  3. will rowan

    Hi Neville

    I’m actually amazed & pleasantly surprised that UK Councils are trying out services like Twitter – normally they’re naturally very conservative (small’c’) , rather than outright innovators. Full

    I do hope that Councils won’t be put off by the same teething troubles every twitter user has had – http://is.gd/NbiW Croydon sent dm to the public feed – there’s real potential for noo meeja channels to engage folk who find traditional Council channels hard to engage with.

  4. rosastef (Rosastef)

    Twitter Comment


    RT @websuccessdiva: What a great use of Twitter, as a public messaging service, take a look at what San Fran is doing :-) [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  5. conosco (conosco)

    Twitter Comment


    Städte in den USA (z.B. San Francisco) und UK nutzen #Twitter, um #Bürgerservice zu verbessern: [link to post] Beispiel für uns!

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

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