By Daniel Hunter

Local authorities are using social media effectively to improve how they deliver services to their residents, but they are yet to reap the financial benefits it has to offer - according to a new survey of 67 UK local authorities by accountancy and business advisory firm BDO LLP.

According to the BDO #litter2twitter report, over three-quarters (76%) of the local councils surveyed believe that using social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, improves the quality of the services they offer to the public, with more than half (54%) saying it leaves customers feeling more satisfied with the level of service they receive.

Councils appear to be ‘playing it safe’ with their use of these new channels, with 97% using it for external communications, but only 46% using it to deal with customer queries, which is where the biggest savings lie. This may explain why, despite the perceived improvements in service, 59% of local councils feel that social media is not impacting their bottom line, with just over a third (35%) believing it was leading to a decline in call volumes, and a only a quarter (24%) saying it was helping to reduce face-to-face contact with customers.

So far, successful examples of reducing phone and face to face contacts have been limited to incidents causing contact surges such as severe weather, school closures, water disruption and the 2011 rioting, with very few examples of councils making the most of the same opportunity for day to day customer services.

“It’s interesting to see that councils have, by and large, not been been able to use social media to deliver savings," Andy Mahon, Partner, BDO LLP, said.

“By enabling residents to access council services via social media channels more easily, local authorities could dramatically reduce the cost of customer service delivery while offering residents a more convenient platform on which to interact with them. This should allow councils to focus officers’ valuable — and expensive - face-to-face time where it is most needed: on complex cases and on customers with sensitive needs.”

Local authorities have embraced the social media trend and are responding to the growing number of residents using these channels to interact with them. According to ONS statistics, 77% of the UK population have a social media account, including nearly a fifth (18%) of pensioners. Almost all (97%) of the local authorities polled use one or more form of social media.

The most popular platform among local governments is Twitter, with over 95% of councils having an account on the micro-blogging site. More than 80% of councils have a Facebook presence, and over 50% have an account on Flickr to upload and share photos. Despite this, 60% of local authorities still operate a block on social media use for their staff.

The survey identified three key areas where councils felt social media had the greatest chance to impact service delivery: environmental services came first (82%), followed by leisure and parks (74%) and streetscene services (72%) including activities such as litter picking.

“Good use of social media has the potential to keep customers satisfied — so councils should see this as being just as important as any financial benefits that may, or may not, accrue," Andy Mahon continued.

“In the long-term, we believe that social media will eventually pay off and create savings for councils, in a similar way that local authority websites did a decade ago — by creating greater customer engagement and delivering real-time reporting.”

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