Why local councils ought to be getting social

This article was originally written for the SLCC‘s ‘Clerk’ magazine.

It’s almost impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper these days without seeing reference to online networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The impact of these technologies in the last decade has been huge, transforming the way people communicate, work and play.

So just how can local councils make use of this technology?

Firstly, we can improve our communications. Lots of people now use online methods to communicate with their friends and families, as well as with businesses and other organisations. If councils want people to see what they are saying, then these new channels need to be used.

It could be as simple as using Twitter to provide quick updates of the work the Council is doing, or what is being discussed at a public meeting. Alternatively we can use different media to tell the same story – photographs are a great way of documenting online what is happening in an area and the web is a great way of publishing them to large audiences.

Second, it can be use to increase participation in the work we do. Not everybody has time to attend meetings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to contribute. By giving people the opportunity to get involved online, we might be able to encourage them to engage even further in future.

This early, online stage could be as simple as giving views on a local issue on a Facebook page, responding to an online survey, or giving feedback on a draft document through a digital form.

Third, using this technology can help us change the culture of our councils, to be more open, transparent and collaborative. Once we start taking even baby steps into the digital world, the possibilities start to become apparent. Increasing numbers of councillors are saving their councils money by using their own devices to work paperlessly, using their iPads for example to read reports and other papers.

Other developing technologies have yet to make an impact on our sector, but they cannot be far away. The transparency agenda has seen councils in other tiers of government sharing their data, whether about council spending or other information. This data is then used by businesses, charities and communities to build apps and develop plans to improve their services.

The so-called ‘internet of things’, where everyday objects, not just computers, have access to the network, is another fast developing area. The concept of ‘smart cities’ is relatively well known now, but what might a smart village look like, when every house, community and business in a parish are connected by a high speed internet connection?

Local councils ought to be considering these issues to ensure they are well placed to make the most of new technological developments, so that they may continue to provide an effective and relevant service to their communities.

Having said all of this, the basics are still important. For example, I would never suggest a council only uses digital communications methods. A balance is required, otherwise people will be left out. However, using digital is scalable and cost effective, so the more of it we can use, the better.

Also, it’s important to get the online foundations right before we start using potentially more exciting channels such as social media. This means ensuring we have an effective website in place and are using tools such as email well – including having an email newsletter that people can subscribe to.

I will be discussing all the issues relating to using digital in the sector in an upcoming series of workshops in 2014, organised by SLCC. Find out more and book your place at http://www.slcc.co.uk/course/digital-engagement/40/

A taster of these sessions will also be provided at the SLCC practitioners’ conference in Spring 2014. More information can be found here: http://www.slcc.co.uk/conference/practitioners-conference/18/

A bit more on #networkedcllr

This morning’s round table, held by EELGA with the support of Public-i, was an enjoyable couple of hours, hearing about how councillors and others involved in local democracy see the future of the role and the impact the internet and social media will have on it.

One of the best things about the beta Public-i report is that it takes the view of ‘networked’ councillors in the widest possible sense. In other words, not just online networks, but all networks.

So we want our councillors to be available, open, accessible, transparent, collaborative and so on – whatever medium they may use is up to them, as long as it meets the needs of the community they serve.

Go read the report – it’s good stuff.

Following on from the session this morning and in addition to my previous notes, here are a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, there is still a clear need for training for councillors in using the internet and social media. This needs to incorporate hands-on stuff, showing people how to log in, which buttons to press and so on; but also cultural stuff, including the netsmarts that Howard Rheingold talks about. How to write, how to know when to respond, identifying trolls, that sort of thing.

Second, we need to put some thought into what the councillor role should be. I think much of what success looks like for councillors will depend on their original motivation for doing it in the first place. For me, as a parish councillor, I see the role making certain tools – processes and structures and procedures – available to me that wouldn’t be otherwise. So it’s a means to an end to get stuff done for the community.

However, it’s fair to say that the role has barely changed in the last decade or so, despite the radical changes to society, the economy, and how people live their lives. If we were starting from scratch, now, to design how our local elected representatives would perform their role, what would it look like? Nothing like it does now, I’d have thought.

I don’t think it’s possible to make existing councillors change their culture or their worldview. If they haven’t been open and collaborative before now, I don’t see how they can be encouraged to change. The effort should be going into designing a role that will appeal to new councillors, who are net-savvy, time limited, mistrustful of bureaucracy, and so on.

So I am looking forward to where the conversation goes next, and hope to get to play a part!

Webchat on social media in parish councils

As part of our work supporting NALC in their inquiry into the future of localism, I’m facilitating a webchat on the use of social media in parish, town and community councils.

It’s happening this Thursday, 9th May at 12pm on the inquiry website. We’re using CoverItLive, so you can sign up for a reminder on that page.

Look forward to seeing you there!

Anil Dash – The web we lost

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the response to this conversation about the web we lost because one of my central points is that the arrogance and insularity of the old-guard, conventional wisdom creators of social media, including myself, was one of the primary reasons we lost some important values of the early social web. Seeing this resonate with those of us responsible gives me hope that perhaps we can work to remedy our errors.

Whose content is it, anyway?

Lloyd Davis has a thoughtful post on his blog about all the content he has been putting online for the last decade and a half:

I want to take stock and put it all in some order. It’s one of those things that really needs doing. I think I know pretty much what I’m doing here now – there’s writey stuff, there’s visual stuff and there’s audio stuff and sometimes it all gets mixed up but that’s about the size of it…

I hate the way that these are all differently integrated – ideally, I mean in that ideal world where I had a team of people to sort this out for me, I’d have everything also hosted independently and from today I’d not be using any of these services as the primary channel/home for anything.

I think Lloyd is right to be concerned – as he sees value in his content he wants to ensure he has some control, or ownership over it.

For a lot of people, of course, this won’t matter at all – perhaps they don’t consider their online output to have that much long term value. Indeed, for some people it will depend on the medium. I’m not overly fussed about my Tweets, for instance.

There are bits of my digital footprint that I work hard to ensure won’t disappear though. Take this blog for instance. I’ve been writing it since 2004 and there are nearly 2,500 posts on it. Not all – or even any – has that much value, but I’d be sad if I ever lost it.

So, I run my own server, with my own version of WordPress rather than relying on a third party service. I also back the whole thing up in three different places – locally on the server, on Amazon’s cloud and on my laptop.

Then there are the photos. My Flickr stream is full of them of course, which were either taken on a digital camera – in which case a copy must sit on a computer somewhere, from which I uploaded them, or a smartphone – in which case they might well be lost.

Photos I upload to Instagram via my phone automatically get sent to Flickr via IFTTT now, so there’s two copies of those, and anything uploaded to Flickr subsequently gets added to Dropbox, which then downloads to my laptop, preserving another copy.

Of course, there are loads of photos on my laptop, thousands, going back years, that aren’t online anywhere and are therefore at risk should something happen to my computer! Hence, backups to a local device (an Apple Time Capsule). I ought to sort out a cloud backup service like Carbonite too.

So, the answer is backups and lots of them. Not just local ones, either, but in the cloud somewhere too just in case your own hardware fails. My other advice, if you’re worried about this stuff (don’t bother if not), is to have a play with something like WordPress, get some web hosting, try importing content into it. Even if you don’t tell anyone about it, use it as an archiving service – where pretty much everything is under your control.

In other words, own your own destiny wherever you can. Where you host stuff on the web, make sure you have a local copy; and try to have a copy of content you treasure in the cloud too, just in case. Services like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Pinterest – all of them – don’t owe you anything and you shouldn’t trust them to always be there or to always do the right thing with your content.