About Me

Full-time husband and dad, Head of Governance and Democratic Services at Kirklees Council. Passionate about democracy, local government, Sheffield United, my mountain bike and punk rock. Views here are my own

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Councillors, Meetings and Banning Technology

I came across an article the other day that I thought added another dimension to the whole tweeting in meetings discussion.  I've blogged previously about this, seeking to present another perspective to the whole debate.

You can imagine that when I stumbled across the headline "Councillor Calls for Blackberry Ban" I was naturally suspecting that this was another re-run of the usual tweeting in meetings story - same dialogue, different cast.  It transpires that the story, emanating from Canada, had another dimension to it.  The main issue causing consternation seems to be that councillors are using their devices to communicate with each other in the meeting, particularly to "debate issues and plan voting strategy".  I'm not sure what to make of this one to be honest.  On the one hand it sort of has the feeling of school children passing notes in class whilst the teacher isn't looking and on the other it begs the question what are the party whips doing.  Party whips, at whatever level of government, have a key role in party discipline, which includes being clear as to voting intentions.  

That said, I think this article poses some greater and more fundamental questions.  Firstly, I'm not sure that "banning" per se is often the answer to many challenges and societal developments.  In this case it feels at least like one step forward and one step back.  Secondly, the most interesting part of the article to me was not the one that attracted the headlines.  A footnote to the article includes a quote from a councillor who defends the use of hand held devices in meetings:

"Councillors use their BlackBerrys to do Internet research on issues that are being discussed and to communicate with their office staff to get information on a file being discussed which might be pertinent to the debate."

There might be a real case for the research argument - informed debate is, one would think, a cornerstone of democracy and political dialogue.  Do tools like Blackberries enhance this?  Furthermore, communicating with staff (presumably those employed by the councillors / political groups in whatever capacity) during the meeting is a fascinating scenario, one that I have not come across before.  I'm not sure what I think about this, there are opportunities and potential pitfalls when applied to our own system of local government.  What do you think?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Case Work Keeps Coming Through Thanks to Twitter

The other week I came across a cracking little case study.  I follow Stockton councillor David Harrington on Twitter (I recommend you do the same - @cllrharrington).  On that day he tweeted:
“Received two DM's with ward queries. Thanks to Twitter residents sent me a DM knowing the problems with email.”
Now on the surface this may not seem like such a big deal.  Two pieces of case work amongst what I am sure is a heavy volume doesn’t exactly grab the headlines, but it got me thinking.  We’ve all begun to depend on e-mail as part of what we do.  Like most things its great when it works.  After the telephone it’s the main point of contact between residents and their councillors.  Expectations have been created.  What this little example shows is that there are some real alternatives, especially when the more traditional media break down.
Councillor Harrington was able to let his followers on Twitter know that he wasn’t contactable by e-mail.  He was able to use social media to broadcast this message.  More importantly he was able to use Twitter as another tool to carry out his ward councillor role.  

Now I don’t know the nature of those two pieces of case work, and nor should I, but they could have been urgent issues that local residents needed sorting.  Being able to access their councillor in this way meant that their issues were communicated and progressed.  There is significant potential in this small case study for councillors and the organisations that support them.  We need to explore and embrace the alternatives that can work alongside and complement more traditional ways of working.  Powerful stuff eh?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Councillors, Social Media, Chickens and Eggs

This blog has been inspired by some of the work that we (@steventuck and @spencerlwilson) have been doing regionally across Yorkshire and the Humber. Thanks to the support of Local Government Yorkshire and the Humber we have been running social media sessions for councillors, the full details of which can be found at cllrsocmed.

So far we have done two sessions, both of which have been real contrasts and posed different questions and challenges. At the heart of the issue is where do you start and what do you cover. This is a real conundrum for which, it seems, there is no consistent answer. Right at the outset it was clear that there was a real cross section of councillors at the two events, and I am not referring to their political affiliation. When recently facilitating the Local By Social on-line conference discussing councillors and social media I referred to four types of councillors in this context:

1. Perpetual sceptics - unlikely to be convinced (if you can crack the tough nuts, you're home and dry)
2. Curious yet cautious / fearful - with support and encouragement will begin to dip their toe
3. Grab it with both hands and run with it - self explanatory, they are the evangelists and will be key to supporting the curious yet cautious
4. The next generation - future councillors who will walk through the door following their election expecting social media as a tool in the same way that a computer and email are now seen as tools for the job

I think it would be fair to say that our first two sessions have had a good blend of types 1, 2 and 3. I look forward with interest to see if the May elections deliver a raft of type 4's. Whilst not wishing to generalise I think that our two sessions provided a microcosm of the current councillor / social media landscape. This is the whole point of this post - it's tough, it isn't one size fits all and it's a balancing act for anyone seeking to deliver support and development sessions.

On the one hand it is important to explore some of the concepts, understand the benefits and identify the risks. Some councillors wanted to know what all of the fuss was about, why should they even bother with this social media stuff, how was it going to help them in their roles as councillors? Some wanted to discuss and explore the problems and their real fears, some of which were technical, some reputational. On the other hand some councillors just wanted to be shown how to use the tools - "how do I get started" and "what do I do" were common questions. I guess that this all emphasises that councillors are coming to this debate from different starting points, with different needs and with different learning styles. It poses the dilemma - which should come first context / business case (chicken) or let's dive straight in (egg).

My personal view is that there needs to be space for all of this, but our sessions lasted over four hours and I felt we were still scratching the surface. The councillors who co-facilitated the sessions with us (@cllrtim and @simonmagus) were brilliant at bringing the whole debate to life from a councillor perspective - they thoroughly covered the "what's all the fuss about" dimension. I think we only partially satisfied those councillors who wanted to roll their sleeves up and get on with it. We perhaps needed a bit more social media surgery, but we ran out of time.

Since the session @steventuck has pulled together some on-line tools and posted them to cllrsocmed which we hope will be useful to those councillors who just want to get started. In future sessions we hope to look at how we can better strike the balance between context and getting started.

In summary, for others who might want to do some of this stuff for their councillors we have learnt:

- All councillors are different and come at this agenda from different starting points. This may be obvious but will need to be managed as part of any session
- Be prepared to be flexible with your session plans - we don't even bother with a structure now
- Co-deliver with councillors - they have the unique understanding from a councillor's perspective
- Be prepared for a little bit of a hard time - sorry but both sessions have been characterised by a segment where councillors DEMAND to be convinced why they should bother with this. Given that they are already very busy people I think that this is reasonable.
- Have a balance between democratic services and web team officer support on the day
- Get there early to make sure the technology is working
- Have a post-mortem / reflective meeting to share thoughts and learning
- Post your learning and keep in touch

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Its Your Council- Join In

This is a little case study about tweeting meetings. There have been lots of stories in the media where councillors have got a bad press. This post seeks to present a different perspective and perhaps redress the balance in favour of opening up democracy.

The origin of this post goes back to a Summer evening in Cleckheaton, a town in Kirklees. In fact it begins in Cleckheaton Town Hall where I was sat (as part of my job) awaiting the start of our Full Council meeting. The reason we were in Cleckheaton Town Hall (and not Huddersfield) was because the Town Hall in Huddersfield was being refurbished. Bear with me all of this is relevant.

Not being in Huddersfiled meant that we were unable to webcast the meeting. This was a real shame as there had been an interest developing amongst residents and staff in terms of what happened at our council meetings - people were tuning in to watch!! As I sat waiting for the Mayor and Chief Executive to enter and for the formal proceedings to begin I routinely checked my Twitter account on my phone. That was the lightning bolt moment - I'm here, my phone's fully charged, I have a full signal. For the next four hours I tweeted the meeting (using the #kirkcouncil tag), providing commentary as best I could and kept linking to papers and reports on the council web site as councillors discussed the items. As the meeting progressed there was a steady growth of interest as my tweets were retweeted and comments and views began to add to the conversation. Not a big deal really, or so I thought.

The next morning I woke up and routinely checked my Twitter account (a bit sad perhaps, but I bet I'm not the only one). I was amazed to see how many mentions and retweets had been pinging around whilst I slept. I really thought that tweeting a meeting was not such a big deal. Residents were commenting, officers from other councils were interested, a councillor asked for a copy of a report that was discussed and craziest of all a council in Sydney (yes Australia) wanted to speak to me about "how I did it". Just for the record I had a great e mail conversation with colleagues in Sydney about this and other democracy stuff. I think if I ended this post now it would be pretty cool in itself.

Back in the office I discussed this with colleagues @spencerlwilson and @steventuck. Cutting a long story short our next council meeting, back at Huddersfield, had a Twitter Fall sitting alongside the web cast. We have now used this approach twice. We now have a combination of residents, councillors in the chamber, Kirklees council officers and all comers watching and joining in the dialogue. Blending the media of web casting and twitter has proved to be a really good combination.

It is early days but there is no reason why this simple model of engagement and dialogue can't be developed and rolled out to other meeting experiences - some food for tough for me there.

For the benefit of others who might want to try this out I think there are some learning points:

  • Having councillors tweeting in the meeting adds value and perspective to the event - they are politicians expressing views on important matters for the residents of their borough. People are interested in this - this should not be a revelation.
  • Be lucky enough to work for an organisation like Kirklees Council that is forward thinking enough to give this sort of stuff a go - obvious but true
  • Try and answer any questions that are tweeted.
  • Make a virtue of the passionate web and democracy folk in your organisation
  • Promote internally within your organisation - it is important that staff understand councillors and the democratic organisation they work for. This is a quick and easy way. We are all approaching budget council meetings - this will be important to residents and staff alike.
There's loads more to do with this, I feel we have only scratched the surface. Would love to know what others are doing.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

About Me and This Blog

I have been thinking long and hard about this blog - should I or shouldn’t I? I wanted my blog to reflect what I am passionate about – for me there’s no point otherwise. The problem is my passion also poses a dilemma (more later).

For as long as I can remember my life (like many of us) has been touched by politics, democracy and “events dear boy, events” . I wouldn’t say that I had a political upbringing, but there was always some

strong messages about the importance of voting and understanding what politicians were “doing for us and in our name”.

As a child I remember the excitement of the power cuts under the Heath government, the Lib Lab Pact, Wilson surprisingly leaving Number 10 and the subsequent Winter of Discontent. I may not have understood the political ideologies and decisions behind those events, but they are part of my past and must have sparked some curiosity. Growing up in Sheffield in the 1970s and 1980s certainly fuelled this curiosity. This was a time when the Labour run council had some fame (and notoriety) for some of its policies – the cheapest bus fares in the country being one that everyone reminds me of (like I’d forget) when I say I’m from Sheffield.

Cheap bus fares aside, it was “Rock on the Rates” that I remember. My teenage (and adult) passion was music, punk rock music. It was the collision of my curiosity and my passion that shaped the course of my life from then on – a grand statement, but on reflection true. I was a teenager who was able to see The Damned, The Fall, The UK Subs (I could go on) because the Council put on these free gigs for young people like me. I remember well waiting in line to get my “free” tickets to see bands that I couldn’t afford to see.

Around this time I had a bit of a lightning bolt moment – somebody had made a decision to make that happen. Not exactly rocket science, but enough to have a real impact on me. Politicians had made a decision to give me the chance to do something that was so important to me.

My curiosity with all things democratic and political accelerated – I developed a voracious interest in the world of government and politics. This interest began in the early 1980s and stays with me to this day. When I wasn’t studying politics I was fascinated by the people and events that characterised that period. Labour under Foot, Kinnock and Smith, the SDP, the Thatcher government, inner city riots, the Falklands War, monetarism, the miners strike, Scargill, privatisation, Derek Hatton, yuppies, the Brighton bombing, North Sea oil… I could go on.

At the same time punk music continued to spin on my turntable (CDs don’t feature until much later), with many bands making social comment about the people and their policies that I found myself studying about. I think you’re getting the picture.

I came out of Polytechnic (now there’s a term that dates me) being clear about one thing – I wanted a job that somehow involved making use of all this politics stuff I’d been filling my head with. I wanted to work with these political decision makers, find out more about them and their world. Beyond that, I didn’t have a clue.

It was a Margaret Thatcher policy that I have to thank for getting my foot on the local government ladder. In the late 1980s the Community Charge (aka Poll Tax) came into being. I got a job as a Trainee Revenues Clerk with Kirklees Council in February 1990. Now, I thought, was my chance to get into this political world. Not quite.

Four years!!! later I managed to get a job that gave me the back stage pass to local government politics I had been looking for – Committee Administrator. Since then I have had many roles working with and for politicians in Kirklees. At the moment I am Assistant Head of Policy and Governance.

In terms of this blog, the jobs I have had aren’t important (CV available on request). What matters is the way those experiences have shaped my values, passions and interest. Working closely with councillors at all levels has made me appreciate what they do, why they do it and why local democracy really matters.

Elections, decision making, openness, transparency, representation, governance, scrutiny, accountability, legitimacy, democracy – lots of words, but ones that are important to me. That’s what this blog is about – my take on this world of local democracy and its key players, the councillors. Councillors like the ones who made a decision to allow some kids in Sheffield to see some bands for free.

Finally, the dilemma. I am an officer working for Kirklees Council, and want that to continue thank you very much. I don’t intend to say anything in this blog to compromise the Council’s reputation or my professional position. So you will get my experiences and views (I hope to get yours in return) about loads of stuff, but there will be no politics, no confidences broken and no trusts betrayed.

I also reserve the right to talk about anything else besides. So be warned, there may be rants.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with it.