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Digital Best Practice: Belfast City Council and Digital


All too often our local government and public sectors are advised to sit up and learn about best practice from local business. It’s refreshing then that the winner of this year’s ‘Best Use of Digital’ at the recent Chartered Institute of Public Relations PRide Awards Northern Ireland was from local government. This year’s winners were Belfast City Council who picked up the gold award having invested in using digital and social media to improve their service delivery and the quality of their communications outreach. Indeed their commitment serves as a good example of modern digital leadership that provides lessons for both the wider public sector and for local business.


Belfast City Council Use of Digital

Belfast City Council became an early adopter of digital media and now use social media networks to support key areas of service delivery. Eamon Deeny, Head of Corporate Communications at Belfast City Council explains their approach: “Over the past six years we’ve fully embraced using social media as one of our communications channels. It is used to promote events and new services, give advice during adverse weather and engage with the public through competitions.”

Indeed, one of the benefits of investing early in social media was their ability to communicate so effectively during the winter freeze of 2010/11. During that period they successfully used social media, including their Facebook Page and Twitter account, to respond rapidly to inquiries and act as a trusted source of information. Their approach sat in stark contrast to that of Northern Ireland Water whose ineffective customer communications and PR response at the time appeared laughably outdated.

Belfast City Council hasn’t just been successful at using social media for crisis communications. They’ve also been adept at using digital to make fundamental changes to how they communicate with stakeholders and the public. During the most recent local government elections, they were able to provide real-time updates and engagement. Their confidence and ability to quickly create content, ranging from election results posted in real-time via Twitter to short videos of candidate acceptance speeches on You Tube, enabled them to provide a much faster and more effective media experience than other Councils.

Commenting on the value of using social media as an engagement tool, Eamon Deeny says “It has moved beyond information giving in recent times, with much more of an engagement and customer focus, giving us the opportunity to talk directly to our residents and answer them in real time in a cost efficient way. We definitely feel more in tune with our ratepayers as we can listen to what they are saying about us and are better placed to deal with people’s concerns.”

One of the dominant reasons why Belfast City Council is successful at using digital and social media to deliver services and improve communications remains their buy-in and acceptance from senior management. Digital buy-in from senior management is nearly always the critical factor in whether an organisation is able to secure the approval, resources and training needed to perform digital effectively. The Council’s commitment and approach to using technology to improve their core business functions is an example of ‘digital leadership’ where senior management see the value in investing in digital in order to modernise. Sadly, digital leadership is lacking in so many branches of local government resulting in levels of service delivery and communication that look at best outdated and at worse inept.


Local Government Use of Digital

However, Belfast City Council remain one of the very few local government organisations to have placed a strong commitment to using digital effectively. The digital experience you will encounter across the most of the current 26 local councils is poor to say the least. Outdated websites, poor mobile experiences and limited commitment to using social media properly mean that most local councils seem stuck in a communications time warp.

The reasons behind the digital ‘postcode lottery’ for local government are varied, however two factors stand out in particular. One is the relative lack of awareness from many local government senior managers on the importance of digital media and the consumer shift towards greater use of mobile devices, ecommerce and social media. This has led to continued over-reliance on inefficient and costly traditional printed communications, face-to-face and phone enquiries.

Secondly, there remains an almost overwhelming fear of using digital and social media in government here in Northern Ireland. In many government departments and public sector organisations, access to the internet and social media by staff remains heavily restricted. Senior managers actively block digital services being made available online seemingly unaware of the technological revolution that is happening around us. One of the challenges for the eleven new local Super Councils is surely for the senior management to understand how people are utilising the mix of social media, smartphones, email and apps as part of their daily routines and respond to this change by creating effective digital experiences.


Lessons for 11 Super Councils

Looking forward, local government faces a range of challenges including financial pressures and demands for increased quality of service provision and better customer care. The challenges are also occurring during a time of huge technological change. With widespread use of internet and smart phones, many modern consumers are comfortable sourcing, researching and purchasing online. They also have an expectation that government organisations will also be capable and efficient at using digital to services in the modern age.