Leveraging Social Media for Change

The  Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community  Networks for GoodStephen Goldsmith’s new book, The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good, written with Gigi Georges and Tim Glynn Burke, offers tools for innovative government and nonprofit professionals to develop and scale their new solutions to public problems. The book is based on Goldsmith’s experience as chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service for nine years under Presidents Bush and Obama, mayor of Indianapolis, and Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School. Relying also on interviews with more than 100 top leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, The Power of Social Innovation features illustrative case studies of civic leaders and entrepreneurs and the catalyzing role each plays in transforming a community’s social service delivery systems. The excerpt below—taken from Chapter 5 “Animating and Trusting the Citizen”—highlights innovative ways that private citizens, nonprofits and government officials are using digital media to “crowd source” or otherwise engage their communities in decision making and actual participation in solving their shared challenges.

Even when the impact of poverty or violence is clearly visible, providers and government funders often use opaque processes or confidentiality rules to hide poor performance. Increasingly, social media tools allow individuals to mobilize their fellow citizens in a way that grabs the attention of government and service elites. Imagine citizens virtually marching on city hall. We saw this when Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Rose asked their two million Twitter followers to demand a response from elected officials about ending malaria.

These tools not only change how advocacy efforts occur but also fundamentally democratize news gathering and reporting, following a trend of devolving control over information from authoritative experts to citizens. Social media will continue to produce opportunities for creatively constructing a new model of citizen participation. Paula Ellis, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s vice president for strategic initiatives, a member of our executive session, and a former reporter, suggests the upside of this lack of boundary between citizen and journalist. Ellis prefers the wisdom of the crowds because, “I’m never sure that the arbiter of value, whoever it is, is acting in my self-interest or the self-interest of people I care about.”

Alberto Ibargüen, a former publisher of the Knight-owned Miami Herald, who today serves as the foundation’s president and CEO, points to the Knight Community Information Challenge as a key example of the foundation’s focus. The Challenge provides $ 4M a year in grants to community foundations to “find creative uses of media and technology to help keep communities informed and their citizens engaged.” An engaged citizenry, according to Ibargüen, needs to be able to pursue what he calls “their own true interests.” The way Ibargüen and Ellis think about the role of community in nominating problems and fashioning solutions closely parallels Brian Gallagher’s rethinking of the role of United Way—using community learning to transform how we solve community problems.

However, we add another step—activating citizens who will pressure funders to redirect underperforming resources toward higher-value solutions. Such pressure comes, for example, when community-based reporters or bloggers comb government data, make sense of them, and broadcast the information to force change. Thus, mobilizing citizen demand for transformative social progress via social media requires access to performance and financial data, plus an engaged community that will post reactions to programmatic involvement.

In the absence of a consumer market for social services, community leaders need to more effectively capture and organize citizen feedback. I am reminded of a visit some time ago to a group of mothers in an orientation room at the pay-for-performance job trainer AmericaWorks in New York. I asked the thirty women present to raise their hands if they thought the city welfare department had helped them. After a little laughter, just two people responded affirmatively. Today, texting, Twitter, and other 2.0 tools would allow that room full of people needing help to digitally “blow the whistle.”

Dominic Campbell, a leading proponent of using 2.0 tools to promote third sector involvement, contributed to my understanding of the potential of social media when he filled a small conference room above a London café with social technologists. Among the varying approaches to engagement they shared with me, one simple application best illustrated how citizen interest could be amplified. AccessCity encourages London residents to travel the city and post pictures, text messages, and “tweets” about the worst public spaces in the city for persons with disabilities. This interactivity allows citizens to spot a public problem and demand a solution at the same time. The site uses mashup software that requires no new hardware; citizens use their own cell phones equipped with cameras and video recorders. According to AccessCity organizers, the site “shows that what meets the needs of official accessibility targets does not necessarily meet the needs of the people using the city on a daily basis.”

Ben Hecht is an experienced civic entrepreneur who now leads Living Cities, a coalition of some of the nation’s largest philanthropic foundations and financial institutions. Hecht argues that the Internet’s potential to “wholesale social change” will supplement philanthropy’s capacity to drive social progress. The sector must, however, provide the legitimacy and financial capital to create space for both experimentation and the growth of civic entrepreneurial efforts that leverage social media.

Former Ashoka fellow Steven Clift provides another example. His e-democracy.org has fifteen years of experience engaging the public online. Because most online efforts fail owing to lack of participation, e-democracy.org invests heavily in outreach and recruitment. And, consistent with what we found earlier, Clift first engages people on their close-to-home interests in neighborhood-based “Issues Forums”—the most successful of which daily engages 10 percent of all residents in one Minneapolis neighborhood.

Similarly, Ellis approaches her work at Knight with the assumption that community engagement relies on an emotional attachment to place; on information and the meaning you assign to that information; and on opportunities to participate. But Ellis wants more evidence and a tangible understanding of community engagement. Is a more engaged community going to do better? What makes a community more engaged? She searches for what civic and community leaders can do to engage more citizens in improving their communities and, by extension, their lives in a measurable way.

While we explore above options for emulating market pressure for constructive change, we also consider how organizations can better communicate information to alert and activate citizens. However, the very information fragmentation that many complain about carries with it great promise. Because the public agenda is so much more difficult to shape now, change in any system must enjoy broad networks of support. And it must have the support of those whose lives will be most affected. According to Ellis:

“Too often ‘experts’ believe they have the rational answer founded on evidence. They ask the public to trust them. They miss the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and solutions flounder because they lack a true empathetic understanding of each stakeholder’s perspective. To thrive in these times of rapid change, we need the time and talents of all citizens. We need to create more pathways for their engagement. We live in a time of de-institutionalization. The time is ripe for a citizen–centered agenda.”

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