Local authorities across France have started to move online in order to engage in a fuller, more meaningful dialogue with their citizens. Investing in Facebook and Twitter appears to be top priority.

Democracy 2.0: Local Authorities Need to Reach out on Social Media

Following a symposium at the French Senate in March 2012 entitled ‘Digital as a Driver for Change’, the Paris-based Edgar Quinet Institute set up a monthly survey to track and analyse how France’s local authorities are stepping up their online presence. After analysing a full year’s data, the Institute has drawn up, in conjunction with independent consulting firm NXA, an up-to-date picture of the current situation, which was unveiled during the presentation of a report entitled ‘Local Authorities and Social Networks’, orchestrated by French web communication agency les Argonautes.The analysis shows that Facebook and Twitter have become the preferred channels across the country for the local authorities’ drive to communicate online. From just 56% of French local authorities with a Facebook page in March 2012, the figure had risen to 72.7% by March this year. Moreover, despite the fact that Twitter is often rather an after-thought in local authority strategies, 49% of them now have both a Facebook and a Twitter account.

Paris and Grenoble top the list; départements making progress

Three cities stand out as having made most progress when it comes to engaging with citizens on Facebook: Paris, Grenoble (with an increase of 62,000 fans), and Clermont-Ferrand (14,276 extra fans within the year).Jean-Pascal Szelerski, head of digital strategy at Les Argonautes and partner at the Edgar Quinet Institute, who led the study, particularly likes to cite the example of Grenoble, a city which “has created a true digital ecosystem with its region.” The Grenoble authorities have incorporated social networks as a central component of their communication strategy and have become experts in the field. As regards the various regions of France, Picardie in the north of the country tops the list, followed by the Auvergne in mid-southern France and Aquitaine in the south-west. These authorities have reached out to Internet users, both providing practical information and offering local social and cultural content. They have capitalised on the popularity of gaming, organising quizzes on local heritage as a way of promoting their region. On Twitter, France’s départements (sub-regional administrative areas) leading the drive to garner new followers are Rhône, in eastern France, Loire Atlantique in the west, and Seine Maritime, in the north-west. Most of the Twitter initiatives are designed to enable citizens to address their local authority directly as with the ‘Paris, j’écoute ‘ (‘Paris, I’m listening’) project.

‘Living together’ model built on social networks

The local authorities’ aim in stepping up their presence on social networks is to shift progressively from a vertical approach to communication towards engaging citizens in a sort of structured conversation and ideas exchange between the members of the local community. This interaction should enable a local authority to get closer to people, respond faster, and target its actions more effectively. As social networks are becoming part of the everyday reality of each and every citizen, being present where the institution’s target audience is to be found so as to exchange and share ideas ought to be central to local authority communication strategies. Reaching out to the target audiences and expanding their fields of communication must be part of local authority best practice, underline the report’s authors. Jean-Pascal Szelerski stresses that “very high expectations are being placed on these new communication channels, which means that local authorities must become expert in using these tools.” In fact over the year in question, local authorities have seen their Facebook approval rating rise on average from 2.5 to 3.5, and from 2.5 to 4 on Twitter. Clearly it is now generally understood that trying to interact with local communities in a mechanical fashion, with automated posts coming from RSS feeds for instance, is just no longer acceptable.

By Pierre-Marie Mateo