If you have an option to hear from "expert" or hear from someone who deals with the same challenges as you do, what would you choose?
Because we believe we all learn more when we participate than when we are passive listeners, ShinyDoor and MORPC organized the Government Social Media Conference as an interactive event. 80 participants learned from each other, figured out which Ohio government agencies are doing what in regards to social media, and got to know each other.
The "got to know each other" piece is super important. The biggest issue we heard at the conference is needing to convince management of the value of social media. Government employees (regardless of being state, local, large or small) need real examples of other government agencies experimenting with social media and struggling with the same challenges (such as access to online applications, time requirements, public records laws, message control).
The participants did not paint a rosy social media picture. They painted a realistic picture. Multiple folks explained how they ended up experimenting with social media. The story told by Scott Varner of ODOT was particularly entertaining (and genuine!). He shared a Cleveland Plain Dealer article in which ODOT was hung out to dry for not using social media. After the article came out, Scott was inundated with friends, colleagues and the general public telling him to join the new digital world and offering to assist ODOT. Where are they now? Six months later? They have a 3C Passenger Rail Facebook Page promoting a passenger rail system and 6 regional Twitter accounts posting winter weather road conditions and a YouTube channel.
For us, holding an interactive conference meant going beyond Q&A. The day held only one panel of speakers and one powerpoint (which, btw, was created by the City of Dublin and is fabulous). The rest of the day included roundtable discussions (facilitated by social media practioners), a Facebook Face Off between Mid-Ohio Foodbank and COSI, an informal discussion of setting up Twitter at an event and Q&A with Sheriff Jones of Butler County via video.
Everything we did came with an explanation so as to be a learning experience for the attendees. After Sheriff Jones participated via ustream from a law enforcement conference in Washington DC, we explained the logistical details:
- Sheriff Jones does not have a laptop with a webcam so a friend of mine (Mickey) who lives in DC met the sheriff at his hotel with a web cam enabled laptop.
- The video with the sheriff streamed live (via ustream) so anyone could participate.
- Mickey is a techie but the way we set it up did not require IT skills.
- The ustream is super simple to set up. An account is needed but its free.
- Anyone watching while the video streamed live could ask the sheriff questions.
- We could have used Skype. We did not so that folks who wanted to participate but were not physically at the Government Social Media Conference could easily do so.
- We meant to record the video. We forgot. :-)
Recurring themes we heard:
- Our IT does not understand and does not want to understand social media so we figure it out ourselves.
- We are blocked from using Facebook, Twitter and many other online applications.
- We had to get special permission to get a Blackberry.
- We've been working on a social media policy. For a long time.
- I wish my boss were here.
What did we hear near the end of the day? "What's next?, Will there be another event? Can I get a list of the attendees and their contact info?"
An email we received from Karen Fahy, Community Relations Specialist at the City of Grove City -
"Fantastic event today! We really learned a lot from the presentations as well as the communication we had with participants! Thank you for putting together a great conference."
So, yes, we will hold additional avents and we will arrange a means for the participant to continue to talk to each other. Unfortunately since many government agencies block social networking tools, whatever communication we choose will need to be one allowed by government IT departments. We're thinking a listserv. I kid you not.