Networked councillors


Some thoughts from a gathering in Cambridge where we discussed Catherine Howe’s report for the East of England Local Government Association

First of all ***thank you*** to Catherine for allowing Puffles and I to gatecrash what was otherwise an invitation-only workshop to discuss some of the issues arising from her report for the East of England LGA. I strongly recommend it for anyone with an interest in improving their local area, holding local politicians to account, people who work in local government and also those of you in the civil service. I understand Catherine’s team will be following this up and will be able to provide a list of who came along and what their backgrounds were too.

Social media activities should complement what you do offline, not act as a replacement

This was the overall theme of what we discussed. There is a risk with social media advocates – myself included – that we see social media as the be all and end all, rather than the tools that they are. Hence some of the negative stereotypes about ‘so-shall meed-jah’ types wanting everyone to be subconsciously connected up to each other via wireless devices implanted into our brains. Or something like that.

What really struck me about the discussion was the overlapping contexts that councillors face when approaching social media. These include but are not limited to:

  • An increasingly connected world that has developed, and continually develops its own culture that doesn’t always sit easily with how things were before
  • A level of skills and connectivity that is incredibly varied – from those who seem to be urban-dwelling digital natives that are online 24/7 to those living in areas with next-to-no connectivity, lacking the finances to afford the hardware and lacking the skills to use both the hardware and software
  • An undercurrent of ‘anti-politics’ – where politicians as a cohort are distrusted – even hated – in some areas.

The above-three points go some way to explaining why traditional marketing methods have limited impact when applied to a political and even a policy context. You can’t ‘sell’ councillors or political parties like you would nik naks or cabbages. You also cannot use a blanket approach on social media because of the gaps in skills and electronic connectivity. Finally, how do you even begin to approach the general public with something whose brand is toxic?

Concerns from local politicians

The two most common points made to me by politicians of all parties when citing their reservations around using social media involve the time commitment and the fear of receiving abuse. Another that was raised today was around giving too much attention to individuals or campaign groups that happen to shout very loudly but otherwise have little to no presence within their communities. With Members of Parliament, a common complaint comes from ’38 Degrees’ style’ tactics – of which I’ve blogged about here.

Should receiving abuse be par for the course with politics?

It’s one of the things that’s been doing the rounds locally after Julian Huppert accused his Labour opponents in the Commons of bullying. I don’t particularly like that sort of behaviour in the Commons myself – it’s a bit too ‘Yah-boo-public-school’ for me, and has ended up becoming very staged. It’s almost as if the only thing that’s missing is the people off of the talk shows holding up signs saying ‘applaud’ or ‘boo!!!’ – it lacks any emotion and spontaneity.

Online? Tackling that is even harder.

One of my recommendations to others has been to create a set of personal house rules – something that has not gone unnoticed in Westminster…

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP announces her new social media house rules - inspired by Puffles!
Dr Sarah Wollaston MP announces her new social media house rules – inspired by Puffles!

You can see Dr Wollaston’s house rules here which cover both her Twitter account and her blog.

That doesn’t mean she won’t receive horrible messages. What it does (in my experience) is manage the expectations of those engaging with her in debate. In particular it helps rein in those that might otherwise have the potential to post one-off abusive posts even through they may not be your regular nasty people. It also says to others that want to engage in a discussion but not get flamed by abusive posters themselves is that this is a safer space for that discussion. ‘This is my social community and I am going to look after it’.

But that also means not being abusive yourself on social media as well as in person – which is easier said than done. I have seen some of the most politest social media users in the political world ‘snap’ under extreme provocation and go off on one. Hence the importance of having house rules and referring to them regularly when they are breached – and flagging up publicly which house rule has been breached.

Rules versus guidance versus conventions

“Councils can have social media rules for employees but cannot have them for elected councillors” was one quotation from the meeting. Other than restrictions placed by the law – civil and criminal, it’s hard to disagree with that. If a councillor is going to behave obnoxiously on social media through the posting of rude posts on public forums, it’s in the public interest that the councillor’s constituents know about it so they can either call out such posts, or use that knowledge to form their judgement come the next election.

A local political party – and even a national one – may take a view on this. You could argue that political parties have something of a duty of care to offer training and support to their elected representatives. Especially if political party brands end up being tarred by the misbehaviour of a small number of individual politicians. But ultimately it’s the electorate that gets to decide.

Adopting conventions? In an ideal world the councillors of an individual local authority could come together and adopt a convention on how they use social media – especially when they are using social media to debate with each other. Initially it will depend on the nature of the individuals and the atmosphere within the council overall. In future though, I expect as social media becomes more mainstream & as more local people engage, so there will be a further incentive to rein in some of the more ‘robust’ posts.

Sources of knowledge and information

One thing that wasn’t really mentioned was how councillors can use their social networks as a resource. This is especially the case where specialist knowledge is useful. I know of a number of MPs that use their social networks to source information that they do not have to hand. This increases the quality of scrutiny that they can bring to bear on executives – especially if their sources are trusted and knowledgable. What we weren’t able to explore is how politicians decide who and what is a trusted source on social media – especially with constituents, and how they develop the constituent-representative relationship based on trust.

Do you sit back and wait for local people to take up social media, or is there a civic leadership role for councillors?

This is something of an ongoing debate between myself and some local councillors and political activists in Cambridge. Just how much effort should they be putting into social and digital media given that their own research shows they get a next-to-zero response? Far better to be delivering leaflets than responding to the latest comment from someone who they may not be able to identify as a local constituent? Perhaps. But how quickly might that change – if at all?

A social media strategy?

You can have an inwards-looking social media strategy as well as an outwards-looking one. One of the things I’d like to see more local councils do is to place social media at the heart of their community development and democratic engagement activities. How can local councils use social media to strengthen their communities? This comes back to the theme at the top – using social media in a manner that complements what is done ‘offline’. In that regard, a standalone social media strategy risks being treated as a separate silo. You may as well have an overarching ‘internet strategy’ or a ‘telephone strategy’. Far better instead to look at the specific problems that you are looking to solve. One of those might be increasing the viability and strength of community groups and civic society in the city. Another might involve making it easier for people to report issues in their local communities – broken streetlights, potholes etc. In each of these cases, part of the problem-solving process should involve how social media can help.

The big thing that I took from Catherine’s report – which I thought was excellent by the way – is the need for social media to have a social context. This matches my own experience being out and about over the past year or so. Organisations and those that work for them have got to give a ‘human’ reason for people to interact with them. That requires a fair amount of planning, thinking & experimenting because the answers are going to be different for each community. Demographics, economic and social indicators, geography and even to the disposition of individual personalities can all make a difference. I’m still to ‘work it out’ for my home town of Cambridge.


2 thoughts on “Networked councillors

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