What role is there for civic society & local government social media in boosting voter turnout?


Some thoughts from a Cambridgeshire perspective.

I had a look at the turnout figures for the recent local government elections in Cambridge. Chesterton, The People’s Democratic Socialist Republic of Romsey, and The Royal Division of Her Majesty the Queen Edith (the latter two separated by that no-mans-land of Coleridge, where rumours are that it’s being occupied by a dragon fairy) scored much higher than the rest of the city in terms of turnout. Choice and ‘contestability’ (ie candidates genuinely campaigning hard for votes) in these wards were, so activists from various sides tell me, was what made the difference.

It makes it all the more boring for me, in a safe-as-houses seat where none of the councillors or candidates are social media users. Hence chasing after the other political types on social media. Is that good enough for society and the city? I say it isn’t. But setting up a Twitter account isn’t going to change the world on its own.

Who hustled the hustings?

Do people generally know what hustings are anymore? I can’t help but feel that the lack of regular local politics’ hustings in general reflects badly on the state of civic society in an area. The only one I was aware of locally was the one run by the Cambridge Cycle Campaign who not only held an event but provided a platform for all candidates in the city to have responses to their questions published online. It reflects poorly on those candidates that chose not to respond given the size of the Cycle Campaign.

Why aren’t more civic societies in Cambridge organising hustings or local political debates involving a cross-section of political parties?

Genuine question. Why didn’t every parents’ and teachers’ association, every place of worship, every single issue group, every collective look at organising a hustings? The one thing that stands out is the effort required to organise one. It requires someone to do the legwork. As anyone who has been passionately involved in any voluntary organisation will tell you, it’s often a very small number of people that keep things ticking over.

Beyond that, I’m interested in what the barriers are to all concerned. Things like:

  • not having a suitable and affordable venue to put on something like this on
  • not knowing where to start in terms of contacting people to take part. You might call me a digital native, but what about those community groups that don’t have anyone familiar with or confident using the internet?
  • given the ‘paper candidate’ nature of some of those that stood, candidates refusing to take part
  • having a facilitator acceptable to all parties
  • having very limited means of publicising your event
  • people not being able to get a baby-sitter
  • people not having transport access or assistance
  • charities or community groups worrying about being seen as politically partisan

Those are just a few off the top of my head. There are many more.

Councillors and candidates as civic leaders

One of the things that I have been pondering for example is the role of councillors and those standing for election as civic leaders. In particular I’m thinking about how councillors and activists can make it easier for residents to get in touch with them and improve their availability – not easy given many on both sides have full time jobs or commitments too.

This is where I’m learning a fair deal from being a community governor at what was my old primary school, although spending much of my first year listening rather than doing as I get up to speed. I don’t see my role as someone who gives the staff a hard time, but rather someone in and around the school community who looks to see what can be drawn in from wider afield for the benefit primarily of the children.

Given the fragmentation of, and the closure of so many public services, the big ones that seem to remain are schools and hospitals. One of the questions I think councillors and candidates need to ask of their local political parties is who within them is on cordial terms with the key ‘non-executive’ governors of schools and hospitals – eg governors at Addenbrookes Hospital, or the governors of Long Road Sixth Form College, to the governors of Cambridge Regional College. The reason why I’ve stated ‘non-executive’ is because the board of governors has the formal scrutiny role. It means any concerns that a councillor may wish to raise, or have raised, is done through a transparent and accountable route rather than through off-the-record conversations. Use informal routes to put people in touch with each other by all means – as I do. But with decision-making processes and the running of those institutions, it must be above-board.

Getting younger people involved

Personally I’m with Richard Taylor on this. In Cambridge we have a series of ‘area committees’ where local issues are discussed. I think that pupil/student/youth representatives from the school and further education college councils should be invited to attend those area committee meetings that their schools or colleges sit within. I also think that consideration should be given for a substantial formal slot say every quarter, where youth representatives can raise issues with councillors, with the proviso that there is a formal means by which they can report things back to their schools and colleges. I dare say too that there is an onus on governors (possibly pointing the finger at myself here) to keep abreast of what’s being said too – ideally by attending but if not, through online or social media.

What about social media?

This is where local councils can make things easier for people to be reminded via things like Facebook accounts, email alerts or smartphone calendars. Or for those not online, do things the old-fashioned way: Invite people to subscribe to a snail-mail mailing list to remind people closer to the time that there is a meeting on, or invite residents to subscribe to a telephone list where your customer services team phone up people 24-48 hours before a meeting is due to take place to remind them.

Contact details of local councillors that sit on area committees

As mentioned above, a little icon that allows people to download meeting details onto online calendars or smartphones would be incredibly useful for those who are interested but for whatever reason ‘forget’ about the meeting on the day. For example, the Eastern Area Committee has a link to listed meetings here. For each meeting, a single-click icon such as the ‘Add to my Calendar’ icon on this Teacambs event clearly visible on each meetings page would be incredibly convenient.

With contact details – again using the Eastern Area Committee as an example, social media contact details of councillors (where they are using social media in their official capacity) would be really useful – as would links to the websites and group social media pages of the local political parties too. That then gives residents some sort of an idea of the disposition of both political parties, and of individual councillors too.

Finally, there is a role for educating councillors, candidates and residents about social media. Yes, I have a financial interest with corporate training, but I have a general open offer to Cambridgeshire councils to run free group seminars for their local councillors (such as this one I did in my very very early days for councillors in Cambridge City. Things are much more polished these days!) Furthermore, I am one of the social media ‘surgeons’ that runs free 1-2-1 social media surgeries with the local charity Cambridge Online – the next one being on 20 June 2013. If you want to sign up for this, please call Cambridge Online on 01223 300 407.

“Will all this impact on voter turnout?”

I don’t know, but I’m working on the principle that stronger personal relationships and a higher profile of party political types within their – our communities, gives people more of a reason to vote. Using social and digital media increases the ability of people to cast an informed vote, and giving them reminder prompts too, which is even better.

Food for thought?



3 thoughts on “What role is there for civic society & local government social media in boosting voter turnout?

  1. Some thoughts:

    Hustings (lack of):

    This has always confused me. Talking to Martin Lucas Smith, who created the cycle campaigns software to drive their surveys, he’s open sourced it. A day before that I suggested to CAMRA that they do the same thing (as in do a survey, not open source the cycle campaign’s software 😉 ).

    It would seem that lots of orgs could do it – but the caveat here is that even answering the cycle campaign survey was pretty time consuming for me as a sitting Cllr who was on top of the issues. For people newly standing, it might proove impossible to answer, say, 4 surveys all with 10 or more questions each.
    Engagement with specific groups (eg young people)

    I’ve said for a while we shouldn’t be expecting to turn up to “our” events, we should be going to them, *if* we want to engage a specific group.

    If we want to engage young people for example, why doesn’t NAC send a politically proportionate subset of its Cllrs along to one of the local schools? This could be done for lots of groups.

    There is a danger though: what are we trying to achieve? It would work much much better if there is also a specific issue to decide upon that relates to the people we are visiting.

    The internet

    You won’t win an election with twitter. It does have some impact, but it is pretty negligible.

    Email though is something that has an influence, but requires candidates/sitting Cllrs to build up a contact list during the year. Currently my personal email list of constituents stands at roughly 250, but that’s been built up slowly over 2 years.


    For local elections, nothing beats having more than 1 candidate who is putting in lots of effort – that’s the fundamental problem to solve.

    If people think they have a real choice to make, they will turn out to vote to exercise that choice…I really think it is that simple.

  2. It would be good, however, if, even if they aren’t too sure about the issues, they had a go at answering as best they can those CCyC questions posed for example. This is not to have a go at the candidates but if they have limited time to door knock and limited resources to create and deliver leaflets then some communication of ideas is preferable to none at all. Please and thank you.

  3. My own view is mildly contrary to Ian in that twitter does make a difference. However I think that’s the only place we differ. As a PCC candidate from November in Sussex I was shocked at how social-media illiterate some of the candidates were including those whose campaign had 100 times the financial resources. I came third but a respectable third behind Tories (£37k) and Labour (£5k) and ahead of Lib Dems and UKIP both with well over £1k to spend. My campaign cost £370 and I got 20% of the vote (1% behind Labour). The hustings were generally poorly attended (it was a wide geographical area and an unknown role) but for a while we have a monster raving loony type candidate (he withdrew before the £5k deposit was needed) and I was shocked that the two main candidates objected to his presence at some of the hustings. He was disruptive but the were candidates not the electors. We had several lobby groups encouraging their supporters to email us all and again the other candidate seemed unwilling to engage (presumably because they were convinced that they had a constituency they could rely on.

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