Ratepayers footing the bills for Councils’ social media use

Last week, Ratepayers Vic Inc (RVI) was asked by the Herald Sun to response to their question – “Would your association want councils to spend money on social media at the expense of delivering vital community services or do you see a need for increased use of social media in this digital world as a way of communicating with residents?

The following is our official response:

” Social media are just forms of communication channels, for specific purposes. When Councils do not have clear strategic communication plan or social media use policy, ratepayers will be paying for their costly & risk learning curves. To worsen matters, the prevalence and quality of social media policy vary from Council to Council. For example:

  • the City of Melbourne has a pretty good  & comprehensive policy;
  • Maribyrnong Council’s policy is Mickey mousy  as it only states what social media and contact tools they use;
  • Monash Council has no such policy and just allowed their Mayor to use his private blog in official Council newsletters, etc which is causing many potential transparency, accountability and conflict of interest issues that it is not admitting.

 The key concerns is many Councils who do not understand the risks of social media will use them as “big boys’ toys”, exposing ratepayers to pay for very expensive learning curves. These Councils also run the risk of breaching good governance, including the Local Government Act, when Mayors and Councillors are allowed to use their private blogs and other on-line communication tools (that mix personal and Council contents) in official Council communications.

 Because of high learning curves that are costly and risky, Ratepayers Victoria Inc does not support Councils to spend unnecessary ratepayers’ money on social media. The Minister of Local Government or the MAV should set a best practice social media policy for all Councils to use, of which many already in the private and higher government levels. This approach will reduce learning curves and risks for all Councils and facilitate good practice management consistency in the multi-modal digital communications of all Councils. Until such time, discretionary and explicit social media costs are irresponsible and cannot be supported in all Councils.

 Councils should also consult with their communities when developing their social media policies because these policies set the rules of their on-line and interactive engagement with their communities. “

The Local Government Minister acknowledged the value of fostering a statewide policy to ensure Mayors and Councillors use social media in compliance with good governance principles. She also advised that her office is aware of the lack of and inconsistency in social media policies in Councils. She advised ratepayers that there “will be a legislation in 2014 aimed at enhancing the understanding of Councillors about the rules that apply to their role and the high standards of conduct they are required to uphold. Furthermore the proposed legislation will strengthen internal Council processes so that Councillor conduct matters are better managed internally. This should include the circumstances in which Councillors can publicize their work on Council through private mechanisms including social media“.

We see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The Herald Sun’s News Article

Andrew Jefferson from The Herald Sun reported (source: Local councils are all a-Twitter article, 23 Jan 2014):

” MELBOURNE councils are directing increased resources towards social media as local government gets more tech-savvy.

Some employ as many as five staff with social media responsibilities as councils spend increasing amounts of time pushing messages through sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

But critics say councils are wasting ratepayers’ money on social media with many mayors and councillors using it as a self promotion tool.

The City of Melbourne employs two people whose primary responsibility relates to managing social media, resulting in 8946 likes for its official Facebook page and 132,000 for its That’s Melbourne page.

Spokeswoman Bronwyn Perry said the council was active on social media with the number of followers for its Facebook and Twitter accounts about 334,000.

“The City of Melbourne believes social media is a vital channel to inform residents, businesses and visitors of council policy and activity,” she said.

Other councils with big Facebook followings include Mornington Peninsula (7512), Wyndham (6325), and Knox (5580).

Some councils just have a single Facebook page, while others have several pages for specific events.

Port Phillip (508 Facebook likes) and Manningham (244 Facebook likes) both employ five people with social media responsibilities in addition to their primary roles.

Manningham chief executive officer Joe Carbone said updating social media took up only a small part of his staff’s time.

“Updating social media accounts takes staff members only minutes a day and as this function is currently a minor part of existing roles there have been no additional staff costs,” he said.

Nillumbik, with just 128 Facebook likes, employs three communication staff who are specifically trained to contribute to council’s social media platforms.

Port Phillip’s media and communications officer Siobhan Coughlan said the council’s costs on social media were minimal, spending about $100 a year on software.

“In 2011 we employed a consultant to assist with branding on Facebook and Twitter and work around strategy and policy, costing around $10,000,” she said.

Dr Chan Cheah, from Ratepayers Victoria, said when councils do not have clear social media policies, they run the risk of them being abused.

“These councils run the risk of breaching good governance, including the Local Government Act, when mayors and councillors are allowed to use their private blogs and other online communication tools that mix personal and council contents in official council communications,” he said.

MAV President Cr Bill McArthur said it was vital that all levels of government adapt and provide information in a way sought by communities in this increasingly digital age.

“Social media provides councils with a genuine means of engaging with communities, many of whom may not be otherwise connected with their council,” he said.

Some councils such as Hume, Melton, Whitehorse, Whittlesea, and Yarra City do not have any dedicated council Facebook pages “.