England & Wales

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authorities

Are local authorities equipped to engage with social media?

Last week LGiU were able to get an updated insight into how ready services for young people are when it comes to engaging with social media for youth engagement. Through a national survey of over 130 local authorities, we’ve built up a picture of whether or not services are ‘Equipped to Engage’ – a Prezi presentation of which can be found here.


  • Less than half of organisations are actively using social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and Skype in their work;
  • Just 25% of organisations are using social media in youth work and/or social work contexts;
  • Social media has gained popularity as a broadcast tool, but continued gaps in policy frameworks, training and support mean that many services are not able to take advantage of social media as a two-way communication and engagement tool;
  • Social networking sites remain blocked in around 1/2 of all local authorities. Just 25% of organisations have social media training and support available to staff, and under 20% have clear policies on the use of social media for youth engagement.
  • Organisations see the importance of social media, and plan to use it more, but there remain a range of development needs before the full benefits of social media can be realised.

Overall, whilst these responses indicate some progress since the last LGIU survey of local authority social media use for youth engagement, carried out in 2008, the gap between the potential for services to make digital tools part and parcel of their practice, and the reality, remains significant. The use of digital tools remains limited, and many practitioners continue to face barriers to social media adoption, or lack support to make effective use of what are perceived to be cost-effective routes to engage with citizens: both young people and adults alike.

With central government top-down support or policy are social media use unlikely (and unwanted by many respondents) the challenge remains for local authorities and agencies supporting them to continue to develop support offerings to take social media use from niche to mainstream; overcoming barriers and promoting positive, effective use of free and low cost digital tools.

The results in detail

Who responded?

We had responses from right across the UK. You can see the distribution of responses in the graph below.

Equipped to Engage - Geographic Distribution of RespondentsMany Eyes*click on the graph for a much clearer look

The majority of responses (over 90%) come from first or second tier local authorities, with a few responses from health and police services. Respondents included council officers and councils, and 137 different councils were represented in the responses.

200 respondents provided full answers to the first section of the survey (on personal and work use of social networking), with 134 offering their responses to a number of statements and questions about particular groups engaged through social network sites.

Who is using what?

Just under 60% of respondents were using Facebook personally, with YouTube (54%), Skype (35%) and Twitter (31%) and Flickr (21%) also used in a personal capacity by respondents. When it came to using social media for work, 40% report making use of Facebook, 37% report using Twitter, 30% YouTube, and 15% Flickr. Skype is used by just 4% in work contexts, although the IDEA Communities of Practice (COP) platform is used by 35% of respondents at work.

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authorities

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authorities

We asked how social media was being used in respondents organisations. Youth engagement was the most popular focus of social media use (40%) alongside use of social media for particular services to communicate with their service users (39.5%), and social media use for engagement, consultation and participation (37.5%). 25% of respondents said social media was being used by youth workers or social workers and just 11% reported social media being used for internal communication with staff.

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authorities

Action Learning Set contributor Carl Haggerty has highlighted the important role that internal social media use can play in building social media awareness and skills. The low number of services making use of social media for internal communicate indicates a big missed opportunity.

Specific groups

The majority of organisations are using social media in less than 1/4 of their different projects and programmes, highlighting that social media remains either niche, or is being used in particular targetted contexts. We asked about the specific groups that organisations are working to reach through social media.

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authorities

Just under 25% have specifically sought to engage young people Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) through social media, the largest particular target group amongst those we asked about. Online engagement with young adults, and with pupils were also noted by over 20% of respondents, and 14% of respondents noted their organisations are engaging with young people in care through social media; 12% are engaging with young carers, and 11% with care leavers.

Future plans to engage were less certain, with online engagement with parents and guardians the most popular focus for future engagement (15%) and 13% of organisations looking towards further future engagement with young people Not in Education, Employment or Training.

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authorities

What are the barriers?

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authorities

We asked respondents to list three key barriers to social media use in their organisations:

  • A lack of understanding, both amongst officers and managers was highlighted as the most significant barrier.
  • Fear of technology, and of the unknowns of social media was also a very commonly identified barrier.
  • Restrictive IT policies and out of date IT equipment (including out of data web browsers) remain a barrier in many organisations.
  • Risk aversion, limits on time and capacity and an absence of policies and leadership are all holding back social media adoption in many services.
  • A number of respondents highlighted a perception amongst managers or councillors that social media could only be used to engage ‘a select few’ – something not bourne out with respect to youth engagement by the statistics on how many young people use social media spaces, and the experience of practitioners using social media for youth engagement.

What are the drivers?

Equipped to Engage? Survey results from 130+ local authoritiesWe also asked respondents about the factors driving engagement with social media:

  • The cost effectiveness of social media channels was by far the most cited driver for social media use;
  • Many cited the value of social media for engaging with specific groups – from young people to working parents.
  • Respondents varied between those focussing on the value of social media as a broadcast too – to get the message out, and those focussed on the conversational value of social media – potentially reflecting different cultures within local authorities.
  • A number of respondents noted increasing demand for social media engagement from service users.

Are the foundations in place?

We asked respondents to indicate whether a number of statements were true in their organisations:

  • Access – Social networks remain blocked for 50% of respondents, and 37% of respondents said it was easy to get permission to use social media. Those in organisations where access is blocked are less likely to find it easier to get permission for social media use. 
  • Use – 55% of respondents said there are only a few social media users in their organisation, and 37% noted their social media use is mainly ‘broadcast’ rather than conversational. Less than 10% said that social media was just for youth engagement, a shift from early studies of local authority social media engagement where it was more directly seen as connected directly with ‘youth’.
  • Support – 40% of respondents identified their organisation have clear policies on social media use, but just 19% have clear policy on youth engagement through social media. Anecdotal evidence suggests many policies are coming from corporate communications functions within authorities – and some, by not taking into account the needs of youth participation officers and youth workers, can create new barriers to online young engagement rather than removing them. 30% of respondents said staff were encouraged to use social media.
  • Experience – 50% of respondents suggested their organisations were getting better at social media engagement, and 47% or respondents said their organisation had positive experiences of using social media. 10% identified they had had bad experiences of social media use.

Asked about attitudes towards social networks, respondents on average agreed that they would be making more use of social media in 2011; that social networks were vital for youth engagement; and that networks were cheap and effective tools for engagement. However, respondents were not agreed on the availability of evidence on cost effectiveness of social media.

Respondents disagreed with the statement ‘The risks of using social network sites to communicate with children and young people outweigh the benefits’.

What’s needed next?

We asked respondents to rank a range of interventions that could support further development of social media use in their organisations. The ranking is shown below.

1) Training for practitioners

2) Better research on cost savings

3) Case studies from similar organisations

4) Local policies and guidance

5) Better research on the benefits

6) Training for managers

7) Regular briefings on new developments

8) Central government guidance

9) An awards ceremony for good practice

A number of other suggestions were made, including training for managers.

Methodology and Data

The data was collected through an online survey, created using Survey Monkey, and available between the start of February and mid-March 2011. Invitations to respond were circulated to a list of approximately 2000 contacts of the Local Government Information Unit, and through a variety of other e-mail lists and networks. The sample is likely to include a self-selection bias in favour of those with an interest in social media (positive or negative). Given the profile of invitees, respondents may not have direct involvement in youth services, but should have a general awareness of social media use within their organisations.

Results were analysed in R by Tim Davies. Raw data files and scripts are available on request. A code list of questions and variable names is available here. A selection of extracts from the data are made available on IBM Many Eyes as open data to allow for further analysis.

Dataset icon Equipped to Engage – Social Media Youth Engagement Use by LAs
Dataset icon Equipped to Engage – Social Media, Youth Services, Local Govt UK

The matrix chart visualisation option in particular should allow for useful multi-variable analysis for a number of questions. Please use this data in conjunction with the code list to understand the questions that generate each variable value.

This is a guest post from Tim Davies who has been working closely with the LGiU on our exploration into youth engagement,social media and service delivery.