Joining the modern era

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Regional District of North Okanagan needs to get online with benefits of Facebook

It may be good enough for 900 million members around the world, but not the Regional District of North Okanagan.

RDNO officials are refuting the suggestion they should have a presence on Facebook.

“We’re stretched for staff,” said Trafford Hall, administrator.

“Facebook is not a trivial thing. Every time someone puts something up, we must respond.”

Director Kevin Acton insists Facebook can encourage false information and back-and-forth arguments.

“You engage everyone to write whatever they want for everyone to see,” he said.

The debate arose after director Jackie Pearase suggested that social media is a way of providing the public information.

“It’s a good tool for certain projects. You can reach a lot of different people than just through face-to-face,” she said.

One can understand the bureaucratic reluctance because staff time would be required to keep a Facebook page updated — and that must occur if it’s to remain relevant — and to scrutinize anything outside sources have posted.

However, those concerns don’t appear to have stopped other local governments from embracing the shift in communications.

The Regional District of Central Okanagan and District of Lake Country have extensive Facebook pages. There is also Kelowna, Kamloops, Penticton, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, West Kelowna, Salmon Arm,  Sicamous and Okanagan Regional Library. The list goes on and on.

Obviously some of these jurisdictions have communications officers who deal with Facebook as part of their regular duties. But others don’t have a specific position and handle public information, like press releases, off the side of an existing desk just like RDNO currently does.

The reality is Facebook is simply another way of making residents aware of the activities of government. Here’s a  brief example:

Central Okanagan: Open burning season Ends April 30.

Lake Country: Crews are starting prep work for sidewalk restoration at the following locations…

Salmon Arm: Water main flushing is commencing in the Auto Road area starting tomorrow May 17.

Many of the public postings on government Facebook pages are innocuous — praising municipal staff or promoting special events. Rarely is there a need for a staff member to actually respond.

And while misinformation can appear, there’s an immediate opportunity for rebuttal on Facebook. That’s far better than being unable to address rumours circulating in coffee shops or on the street corner.

Because the jurisdiction establishes the Facebook page, it has complete control over what appears there.

It should also be pointed out that some people may not write a letter to government or pick up the phone because they find the process intimidating. But they may be inclined to go on to the computer and bang off a quick comment while they are relaxing within their own home.

New technology can break down barriers and make all of us more approachable, and that’s certainly the case among young people — the very same demographic all governments have a challenge forming firm relationships with.

RDNO recently spent considerable time updating its website and while it is far more navigable, that isn’t good enough in a rapidly changing world.

More and more people are joining Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and increasingly, they expect their civic leaders to be there.

– richard@vernonmorningstar.com