At last week’s Public-i User Group we were dealing with the thorny issue of councillors’ use of social media – and in particular what councils should do to encourage and engender good social media practice among members.
It was a fascinating debate – and you can follow it on the archive webcast of the event here.
There were lots of points to come from the meeting, but perhaps the most startling was that social media falls into the category of stuff councillors ‘really should be doing’ but is largely their own business.
Well… Lesley Blue, committee services manager at the London Borough of Camden Council, explained that we don’t teach or advise
councils councillors (thanks to Tom Phillips for spotting that was wrong) on talking to residents – we simply expect them to do it. If they fail they suffer at the ballot box. And, ultimately, social media is no different.
This was backed up by comments made by another guest. Cllr Tim Cheetham is a social media pioneer among councillors. He ran a successful blog for some time before deciding to wind it up – and, as you can see, is one of the most followed local politicians in the country on Twitter.
Incentive: it’s common sense
For Tim, it was about incentive, rather than about training, per se. He pointed out that getting councillors to use social media was more about selling the benefits than about teaching or training. Anyone who uses social media will know the conversations you encounter when trying to persuade others of the merits. They often start with the assertion that there ‘really isn’t any point in all of this’.
In fact, for councillors the point is survival. If a good percentage of your residents are online and not talking to you in the usual ways there’s a chance someone else will come along and steal their votes away. Finding this out is a bigger deal than worrying about learning to use Twitter.
Watch the video to hear more about his views.
That kind of no-nonsense thinking has helped the CllrSocMed inititative being run by Kirklees Council staff, Carl Whistlecraft, Steven Tuck and Spencer Wilson . They have taken the social media pioneers, like Cllr Tim, to a number of councils in the last few months, helping other members to become involved in social media for themselves.
The details: good guidance and more common sense
Of course, that doesn’t mean a hands-off approach is going to work on its own. And from what we saw at the user group there is plenty of thinking needed to manage councillors using social media – not least in ensuring they can play a role in helping to make local democracy easier for people to understand and access. And then, of course, there’s the thorny issue of the law, policy and making sure that any ‘issues’ are dealt with sensibly and quickly.
In Camden, Lesley and her colleagues have drawn up a Social Media Guidance document for their members (at the moment I don’t think this is public and on the website, but if this changes I’ll provide a link). This gives a clear, helpful guide on the basics of sensible use and how this use relates to the council. It doesn’t attempt to answer all the questions, but concentrates on the issues that really matter from Camden’s perspective: legality, purdah, the code of conduct. And it thefore offers a common-sense guide on what you can and can’t do.
As Tim Cheetham pointed out in the User Group, accidents are bound to happen – and councillors, in his opinion, can be relied upon to mess up from time to time – so it’s important to ensure you’re ready for what might happen when this takes place.
Councillor social media in the future
I’d add that being introduced to this new technology presents us with a set of challenges that are not technological. We’re confronted with a world in which the movement of our words and thoughts happens much more quickly and much more fluidly. At the same time, new communities are establishing and asserting themselves online – and many of these have vastly different expectations of councils and councillors in terms not just of how they interact but in how democracy operates in response to them.
As Catherine Howe, our chief exec, pointed out: sometimes that’s about knowing when to let things run their course or when to it’s best to intervene. I think, by extension, it’s safe to say that we need to give councillors the freedom to learn how to use social media themselves. At the same time, councils to create a structure and provide the support they need to do it reasonably safely and with the maximum benefit to the democratic process. That’s about a lightness of touch and sticking to what you can reasonably achieve, in a world where the rules of engagement largely exist outside the control of the council.