In January 2011, Monmouthshire County Council gave all its staff access to social media. I work in the communications department and I've championed its use ever since I saw how well people responded to a MySpace page I set up to get the community behind the restoration of Shire Hall in Monmouth: suddenly we had a way for people to talk to the council in a convenient, informal way.
Opening access to social media wasn't seen as a brave move . Our council is creating a new culture of openness and innovation and the positives of a move like this were considered to outweigh the negative by some way.
It seems that when a new idea is put out there, we don't take the worst case scenarios as reasons to avoid things. Focussing on the scare stories stops change happening.
So here are 15 'what ifs' we considered...
1. If we had opened up social media and found that all officers piled onto YouTube at one time and totally burdened our IT systems.
Well, what are the chances? So far it has not happened and I doubt very much it ever will.
2. If councillors and officers started swearing, giving out sensitive data and arguing with each other and the rest of the world.
We're trusted to know how to do our jobs. Sometimes we mess up, but not very often. Nothing in comparison to the number of inspired moments we have, and the times when we want to tell people about our work and listen to what people think of life in Monmouthshire.
3. If one person had opened up a link on Facebook that led to a virus taking over the whole IT infrastructure and stopped us all from working.
IT are good at their jobs. They have measures in place to stop viruses and other nasty computer things away (you can tell I'm not a techy). If it happens they will deal with it.
4. If managers found that officers were sitting around all day doing nothing but messing about on Facebook.
We are practising agile working here in Monmouthshire. Agile working is the term used to describe how employees can work flexibly from any location, be that from a council building, in the community, from home or any combination of these. We have instilled an ethos that work is not somewhere you go, but something you do. Managers can't control every move of each employee. They manage work programmes and if a person gets their job done brilliantly but takes a break to look at Facebook once in a while, that is fine. A member of staff elsewhere who sits at their own desk all day may well look busy but be on Facebook on their own phone.
The reality is that a great employee will do good work no matter what and a demotivated member of staff can waste time in all sorts of ways.
5. What if it's not worth the hassle/time?
Learning, making contacts, explaining what you do. Not a waste of time.
I have not been asked to prove the worth of using social media by measuring return on investment. It's worth was proved when senior management understood that this is a new tool to help us communicate in a more sophisticated, networked way. I'm not asked to produce a report on how long I spent on the phone, who I called and what my productivity through using the phone was. Evaluating is a useful way to improve on what we do and it supplements, basically, just asking Monmouthshire people what could be better using the tool. But it's not the purpose for doing it. We're doing it because it feels like the right thing to do. Communicating is worth the hassle and in some case it is service delivery in itself.
But what about our other 'what ifs'?
6. If residents were able to find out more about the services, events and information that makes a difference to their lives?
7. If our partner organisations were able to keep in touch with what we're doing, show public support and cross promote on similar work?
8. If council staff started to think of more succinct ways of expressing themselves and got succinct answers from people who use their service?
9. If professionally all staff had the opportunity to grow through making new connections all over the world and share pioneering approached to work with other experts?
10. If foster carers had a place to speak to each other whenever they want to?
11. If we got access to fantastic talent by using networks like LinkedIn and YouTube to attract outstanding candidates for jobs?
12. If people got to talk to the people that make decisions, question them and get answers in real time while they watch EastEnders?
13. If our communities saw us as a voice in a conversation and not an outdated, paternalistic organisation that doesn't join in on community life?
14. If PDF newsletters that used to be emailed to the world and his wife became a blog allowing people to comment on stories and be tweeted and facebooked and sent as hyperlinks?
15. If Monmouthshire went digital?
Monmouthshire did and became the world's first wikipedia town.
What if others now follow? They surely will.
Helen Reynolds is communications officer at Monmouthshire County Council.