Social media, blogs, and public policy…again

Suzy Rook from the Northfield News called me Friday to talk about social media, blogs, open meeting law, etc.; read all about it.  What follows should be taken as my personal opinion and not the position of the Council, the City Attorney or anyone else.  Caveat lector.

A couple of clarifications plus some policy observations:

1. Woefully inadequate: This comment was directed at the flood-related information on the city’s website.  The city’s website is very limited and city use of social media almost nonexistent.   When an emergency occurs, the infrastructure for information just isn’t there.  Fortunately, our citizen-driven information pipeline is well-developed (thank you, northfield.org) and our newspaper and radio (thank you Northfield News and KYMN) are more connected to the internet, so flood related information got out.  For those who believe criticism implies disapproval of the efforts of staff and volunteers, it isn’t so – flood workers used the tools available and the city hadn’t stocked their media and information toolbox before the waters rose.  Blame should go to the Council for not making it a priority.  Which brings us to:

2. Not at the top of my list: Also not at the bottom of my list, I might add.  My top priorities at this time are: budget policy (so far, the Council has dealt only with tiny budget decisions with little “big picture” discussion – information management priorities should be part of that big picture), sustainability (a stated but not really implemented Council goal), and the land development code.  Website and information policy specifically is one of a list of issues on three 4 x 6″ bright pink post-it notes over my desk.

But now the public policy stuff: Let’s reduce the supposedly complex issue of city use and regulation of blogging, social media, the internet to a single simple problem: the tension between access to and control of information.

Newer media offer unprecedented access to information and people.   Getting information is not limited to a particular place, simultaneous contact with a specific person, to business hours, or any single medium or entry point.   The flip side, with all those ways to get, use and transmit information, it is difficult (I’d say impossible) to control what happens to the information and who sees it.  Because we can’t control it all, perhaps we could consider how we might help protect ourselves from liability in ways other than attempting to control access.  For example:

  • Education: Before we all go out and blog, public officials should learn about public and non-public information, defamation, the role of individual Councilmembers vs acting as The Council, copyright, and basic academic/journalistic common sense about citing sources, checking facts, and making allegations.
  • Following our own rules: Setting reasonable policies and then following them (and documenting both policy and compliance) helps avoid the perception that the City and its various officials are unaware of their actions or are acting in the “arbitrary and capricious” manner that courts don’t like.
  • Disclaimers: “You are now leaving the City of Northfield official website.  The City of Northfield is not responsible for the content contained on the site you are about to visit.  If you do not wish to continue, click Cancel (Here’s the EPA’s exit disclaimer for a real world example).

And, finally, as to whether my blog transgresses any limits or advice, here is what City Attorney Chris Hood said back in March 2010:

First, it certainly is permissible for you to have a blog and to state your positions thereon.  Second, there is no intention in doing so in avoiding public hearings on such issues as such blog is open to anyone who wants to read it.  So this is all o.k. as I read the law.

What could be a problem is if council members participate in the discussion on the blog.  This activity would likely be a violation of the open meeting law, which leads me to the conclusion that the City should look at developing and adopting a social media policy to provide direction on such matters.  You are certainly correct that the law has not caught up with the electronics to date, and perhaps that may change with action by the Legislature this year.  As a best practice until the law changes Council members should not participate by giving responses to your blog or any other blog in which City business is discussed.

Bottom line: I would like Northfield to be able to exploit newer media to a greater extent to push information to citizens (as in emergencies like the flood), help the public find other information they need (I’ve had lots of emails asking for budget information), access services (like filling out building permit applications online), and understand local government.   Rather than living in fear, we should discuss the relationship between providing better access vs. how much control is reasonable.

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