A Quest for Government Social Media Transparency: Building Citizen Trust
Dallas, the fourth largest metropolitan area in the U.S., has embarked on a mission to improve government transparency — an initiative that comes directly from Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez. The city makes most of its data available through Dallas Data Points, a dashboard that provides visibility into the city’s progress in five key areas: public safety, economic vibrancy, a clean environment, culture and e-government. The city also has a financial transparency portal, an open records platform, an open data portal and lastly, ArchiveSocial — an automated social media archiving solution that captures exchanges on all of the city’s social media accounts. Not only is the public availability of government data making the city more transparent, some efforts, such as social media archiving, are pulling double duty by opening up the two-way communication between government agencies and the citizens they serve.
Starting with the Right Tools
Although Dallas is relatively new to using social media strategically, city leaders see it as an important part of improving their relationship with residents. “It’s a way for us as a city entity to have a real-time conversation with the citizens of Dallas,” says Justin Snasel, senior public information officer and manager of digital strategy for the Dallas Public Information Office. This direct feedback helps “influence the decision-making that goes on at city hall,” says Snasel.
Snasel began focusing on Dallas’ social media efforts after city leaders recognized they had little visibility due to their fragmented social media presence. “About a year and a half ago, we had around 1,000 Facebook fans for the city’s main page and no insight into how many accounts individual offices and departments were running, or which platforms they were operating on,” he says.
Dallas leaders conducted an audit of all of the city’s social media. “We established a social point of contact for each department that was using social media,” says Snasel. “It was a painstaking process, but we now have an infrastructure to better understand the social landscape within the city.”
Better Communication & Transparency
The city now has a coordinated approach to social media and is using it as a strategic tool to communicate with citizens. This is especially useful during critical events or natural disasters — times when people need up-to-the-minute information. One example is the tragedy on July 7, 2016, when a sniper attacked Dallas police, killing five officers, during what had been an otherwise peaceful protest. As the event unfolded, city officials and emergency management turned to social media to relay near real-time information to Dallas residents and an international audience.
Not surprisingly, the event caused a tremendous spike in the city’s social media activity. Snasel estimates that during the shooting, ArchiveSocial captured more than 120,000 social media posts — nearly five times its monthly average of 25,000.
After the crisis was over, the city was able to use its open archive — which allows individuals to search and explore the records themselves — to be transparent about the social media response. “We were able to point inquiries to our social archive when they were trying to find dated information and messaging related to the topic,” Snasel says. “ArchiveSocial helped make all of our data content on social media readily available.”
Before implementing ArchiveSocial, Dallas officials relied on manual screenshots whenever they needed to remove content that violated their social media policy. Had the city relied on this method during and after the July tragedy, when the volume spiked and officials were otherwise occupied, it’s likely that some content would have been lost.
Social media archiving also helps the city comply with more day-to-day public records requests and litigation discovery. “Our Open Records Division manages anywhere from 1,300 to 1,500 open records requests a month, which is a lot. The more data we provide to residents , the more likely they are to not feel the need to submit an open record request. That frees us up to do more impactful work for the residents of our city,” says Snasel.
Supporting City Goals
Social media archiving is just one of the tools Dallas is using to improve transparency — but it’s an important one. “Archiving helps build trust in the community,” says Snasel. “We archive our press releases; why wouldn’t we archive our social media messages? It just makes sense.”