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Voices in the cloud: social media and trust in Canadian and US local governments

Lois Evans (School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)
Patricia Franks (Department of Information Science, San Jose State University, San Jose, California, USA)
Hsuanwei Michelle Chen (Department of Information Science, San Jose State University, San Jose, California, USA)

Records Management Journal

ISSN: 0956-5698

Article publication date: 19 March 2018




This study aims to examine how 20 local governments in Canada and the USA operationalize the government–citizen trust relationship through the administration of social media by answering two questions: Can local governments use social media to increase citizen trust? and if local governments can use social media, what can be learned about the administration of social media that results in an increase in citizen trust of government?


Based on a normative belief that increasing the trustworthiness of government is a desired outcome, the working proposition is that social media may offer a low-barrier method for engaging citizens and supporting trust-based relationships, if social media programs are administered in a way that operationalizes this objective. Using content analysis of data collected from interview transcripts and documentary sources, this exploratory, process-oriented study emphasizes the social, organizational and functional contexts of social media and social media as records.


The study found that most cities had extensive programs featuring multiple accounts on a number of common platforms. The cities maintained tight control over content, account creation and employee and audience participation to ensure compliance with federal and provincial or state legislation and to mitigate technology and content-based risks. The cities used social media to broadcast information, respond to service requests and provide issue management. Social media results were measured sporadically on an ad hoc basis for operational purposes and only two cities had dedicated procedures in place for managing social media as records. Contrary to previous research, this study indicates that fiduciary trust relationships do require trust by the agent (i.e. institution) and the principal (i.e. citizen).

Research limitations/implications

To increase generalizability, an effort was made to select cities that were demographically and geographically diverse by selecting a range of population sizes and locations. However, selection was skewed towards cities with well-developed social media programs, and as a result, over half of the cities were national, provincial or state capitals or larger population centres. While these cities experienced economic advantages, the participants in the study identified challenges around resourcing and capacity, and their responses are expected to be of value to cities operating under similar constraints. Additionally, this study represents a point in time, as social media use at the local governments continued to expand and evolve during and after the data collection period.

Practical implications

This paper identifies three scenarios where social media content from local government accounts should be managed as records, including: the documentation of incidents, the on-going collection of city content from high-profile accounts and the “on demand” collection of citizens’ content where cities have asked for citizen input on topics or issues.

Social implications

This study provides an in-depth characterization of social media administration and use by 20 local governments in Canada and the USA. Considering the progress made by cities in e-government using their websites as a base, cities can develop greater capacity for open government, meaning wider participation by citizens in the decisions that affect them on a daily basis. To achieve goals of transparency, accountability and civic participation, cities will need to develop capacity around social media measurement, reporting and procedures for managing social media as records.


In providing a detailed and complete description of social media use in 20 cities in two countries, this study moves beyond a compliance- and requirement-driven approach to consider the larger question of government–citizen trust and the relevance of records within this relationship.



This project was realized through the support of the SSHRC-funded InterPARES Trust project based at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. The authors also thank the graduate research assistants at San Jose State University and the University of British Columbia who contributed to this project.


Evans, L., Franks, P. and Chen, H.M. (2018), "Voices in the cloud: social media and trust in Canadian and US local governments", Records Management Journal, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 18-46.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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