Went to an interesting discussion with the guys who set up the Road Safety Forum last Friday, and got the low-down on their experience of setting up and running a public submission noticeboard for the National Road Safety Committee. Highly, highly interesting stuff.

But only interesting if you’re a public servant seeking the why’s and wherefores of using social media to garner feedback on an issues-specific basis. And if you are, these guys are talking gold.

In a nutshell their experience is that ICT teams are traditionally averse to providing policy units with the kinds of support needed to allow the effective use of social media. The impression I’ve gathered from this talk, and others like it, is that ICT support in many agencies usually centres exclusively on the provision of certain core services. Anything slightly innovative is viewed with skepticism, distrust, and passive aggression.

And this is a real problem, because a number of writers and commentators are arguing that innovative thinking and solutions is exactly what various public services world-wide are needing.

If I remember correctly, what the guys behind the Road Safety Forum had was a highly supportive project manager who was willing to bend the imaginary ICT rules a little, and allowed them to source a solution outside the organisation. This meant that the Forum was set up by the team itself, on an external server, and therefore “independent”.

This isn’t something that agencies would always do, but if you’re faced with and ICT team who simply cannot deliver (because of resource constraints for example), then it seems entirely appropriate to do so. If anyone thinks it isn’t, I’d love to hear from you.

Once this initial hurdle was passed, the Forum was set up and used to record and store the proceedings of a series of workshops that had been held to measure public opinion on road safety issues. The problem then became one of managing content, but also ensuring that the Forum was an appropriate public space for the discussion of issues around Road Safety. What the guys seemed to indicate is that the Forum became a “community” or “interest” space for persons interested in discussing, learning about, and airing opinions/issues on road safety.

In other words, a space where small-g government engaged with the public on an issue of mutual concern. They moved immediately to expand the range of topics discussed (though all within the rubric of ‘road safety’) to meet the needs of the users. This allowed people to participate more fully, and encouraged users to expand their awareness and knowledge of the issues under discussion. Social media at its best.

Pretty snazzy stuff, but executed simply, a little clunkyly (the interface was a cut-price – read “open-source”- download), but damn well.

I take my hat off to them, and recognise that they seem to be “best practice” in this area.