Flooding the Environment Agency with Social Media

A couple of us dropped in on Alex, a former colleague who now heads up Media and Events at the Environment Agency's press office. The mission; to get the team thinking about how they could start engaging with people and business through social media, as well as just getting news coverage in print and broadcast.

Thanks to Alex the team were aware of tools like Addictomatic even though they couldn't always access them due to the way publicly-funded bodies block internet access. And for any press office there's some easy social media wins, like switching to a social media style press release.

We started with a sketch of Make your Mark's blogging and Twittering. A lively debate broke out about the suitability of tools like Twitter as people struggled to match the free flowing nature of the social web with the strictures of a government agency. It's a challenge to decribe the value of Twitter to someone who's never tried it. But the bigger challenge with social media is message control; 'what if someone says bad things about us?'. To which of course the only answer is 'they probably already are', so one tool that struck a chord was the USAF's blog response flowchart; a guide to graduating your response between concerned citizen and troll.

We also discussed arms length ways to track and highlight online conversations without having to take responsibility for the content, as evinced by the Cabinet Office Open Source report page on Netvibes. Our visit to the agency coincided with the UK Government advertising for it's first ever Director of Digital Engagement (and I also discovered that the Foreign Office has someone working on Digital Diplomacy!). Alongside the DIUS sandbox of social media innovation in the public sector there's a growing body of evidence that a civil servant can invoke when arguing for more use of social media. If Alex does manage to open the floodgates (sorry!) in their media work, the Environment Agency might start thinking about using the web for agile responses to a crisis, like the quick site put together for emergency school closures. Whether they could catalyse the kind of citizen environmental action of Teeme Ara in Estonia remains to be seen.

The most intense debate in our session was around public consultations. It was easy to see why press folk are wary of opening things up when they've seen how hostile the public can be; no-one want their house demolished to make a flood defense. But the idea of engaging with a digitally-amplified debate provoked people to think behind the surface - for example, asking whether the agency should be consulting before the 500-page expert report is produced rather than afterwards, and whether that could facilitate peer-to-peer debate in the communities themselves.

And so we find that social media provokes people to approach things differently; not just how they communicate, but how they organise stuff. Being authentic is the way to social media success. Mashing up public consultations and social media will end up looking more like thinkpublic's animation The story of co-design.

In the mean time, those of us plowing the furrow inside organisations will carry on having more conversations like Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person.

1607 Flood in the Bristol Channel.