After arsonists destroyed a portion of the Fun Forest children’s playground two years ago in Chesapeake, Va., city officials got help from a source they least expected — social media. Community members launched a Facebook campaign to repair the playground. The city jumped in to support the effort on its own websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. The results: more than 5,700 “likes,” nearly $88,000 in donations, 1,800 volunteers and 21,000-plus donated hours.

The effort led to a more collaborative relationship between city government and residents, says Lizz Gunnufsen, Chesapeake’s public communications coordinator for information technology. “It has changed communication forever and the opportunities for engagement for us,” she says.

Many local governments are using social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, mobile applications and other tools are becoming game changers for improving operations and service.

It is “the next frontier for government,” says Katherine Parker, co-author of a soon-to-be-released study of government social media use by the Philadelphia-based Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. “[Governments] are realizing there are benefits to using social media, but it’s also what constituents are beginning to ask for, as well.”

Local governments are using various social media platforms, including their own self-designed website tools, like the virtual city hall in Arvada, Colo., that provides residents one-stop shopping to get answers to their questions and request services. Similarly, MyGovIdea in Miami-Dade County, Fla., helps officials collect residents’ suggestions to cut costs and improve service.

Fulton County, Ga., offers live “play by play” tweets during its county commission meetings, boosting its Twitter followers by 20 percent. In Pinellas County, Fla., officials are combining low-tech and high-tech. They planned a traditional open house before the start of an e-town hall budget meeting so that live audience participants could meet with local officials.

Researchers are tracking this trend. A study by the University of Illinois at Chicago found that in 2011, 87 percent of the largest 75 U.S. cities used Twitter, up from 25 percent in 2009. And 87 percent of large cities used Facebook, compared to 13 percent two years earlier. Many cities have adopted social media for purposes beyond marketing/communications to include economic development and emergency response, according to data from a Fels Institute report due out in May.

“We’re going to stay on top of this trend,” says David Thornburgh, Fels Institute executive director. “We want to see where it’s going to take us.”

Learn more about the Fels Institute of Government’s report by visiting

S.A. Reid is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.