England & Wales Communities and society

5 ways councils can use tech to support better relationships


In The Social Council, an essay recently published in Municipal Futures, I argue that councils need to be doing what they can to support better relationships in councils and in the community.  Thinking less about service provision and more about relationships is the key to real demand reduction and better outcomes.

I argue that while there is some cost to supporting better relationships, the payoffs in terms of community resilience and individual health are both well-understood and potentially immense.  And not only are there benefits in boosting community relationships, it’s something that we should be thinking about inside the organisation as well to have high-performing and innovative councils and partnerships.

Some may think that a teched-up world is decreasing the chances of improved relationships, but used well – technology can help people find one another. We develop social relationships through propinquity, closeness of interest or location. And technology can be a propinquity revealer.

Five ways councils can use tech to support better relationships:

1. Better information sharing:

People meet and develop relationships through being together at shared interests.  A lot of councils share local event listings, but these could be better. Clubs, workshops, sporting teams, etc are not only fun, but they are places where people with common interests can meet each other. Hampshire County Council provides excellent events listings which can be automatically added to your google diary or shared on Facebook. Hackney has a beautiful website which promotes events and venues and is mobile friendly. Northampton has an engaging site where local businesses can log-in themselves to add events.  The City of Helsinki goes one further and provides its events listings as open data so someone else could re-use the information and share it more widely.

2. Better dialoguing:

People feel more connected with their communities if they can work more closely with local citizens to influence the way their communities are run. Many have tried, with varying success, to use technology to support consultations. But others have worked with local blogs or used and followed local hashtags on Twitter to have open conversations about their community. The relationships that develop from this may not be deep, but they signify an open council which could have as much benefit inside the organisation than outside it.

Councils are broad organisations, so federated communication is vital. A person who is interested in trading standards may not be interested in a healthy communities initiative – and if they are – they can easily engage with different channels.

3. Better integration of services

Councils spend a lot of money on social care, but most caring that goes on is ‘informal’ – done by relatives, friends and neighbours.  Care workers aren’t often well-connected with the existing care network and social workers don’t always get the time or space to help facilitate the integration of formal and informal caring. Apps like Tyze can help visualise and organise networks around individuals needing care. Use of tablets can help people keep in touch for the vital emotional links and tele-care could support things like medication prompts which are routinely covered by the infamous 15 minute care slot. This won’t be universally suitable, but better use of tech could help facilitate care and support better relationships between care workers, carers and the cared for.

4. Better civic action:  

More people say they’d volunteer than actually do. But when Middle Tennessee flooded badly (where I’m from), tons of people were sharing links to Hands On Nashville  which is a clearing house for volunteering and a volunteering network.  The local government gets involved, too. Nashville’s Mayor offers an award for volunteer engagement.  Do-it.org.uk is an online clearing house for volunteer opportunities. Services like this could be better engaged with, either by encouragement or involvement from the council.

5. Better collaboration:

In The Social Council, I write that we need to make better connections in councils.  You certainly don’t need expensive team building exercises. Shared purpose, joint working and easy access to information are what help create good professional relationships (or expose people who foil them).

In too many councils I’ve visited, I’ve seen bad intranet, almost no intranet, or too tightly controlled intranet which doesn’t allow for conversation never mind collaboration.  I’ve seen dire SharePoint implementation and surprise when it didn’t encourage collaboration. I’ve seen Yammer networks started by a few enthusiastic colleagues and then flounder under the frown of management. (Check out the entertaining blog Intranetizen for some good do’s and do-not’s)

In some cases specialised tech platforms like Patchwork which help people get in touch when data protection is an issue help professionals support troubled families. But most of the time the software you need to support collaborative working is free or low cost and often has already been purchased – what it really needs is an understand and a commitment to social working practices.

People not tech

Embracing social technologies is vital for developing the social council. But it’s not about the tech, it’s about our attitudes to using it.  Tech can be used to foster better face-to-face working and community relationships and support the ties that make a community or an organisation really knit together.