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

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Democratic Digital Engagement - A Blueprint for Local Government?

Democracy Dude
This post was born across the Twittersphere - an appropriate product of the social media age given the subject matter.  Social media facilitated off-line contact between two (as it turns out) like minds.

Anyone who is interested in local democracy, the role of councillors, decision making and forward thinking practice in terms of democratic engagement should follow Dave McKenna (
@localopolis).  I did and have nothing but admiration for the work he and colleagues are doing at Swansea.

We have developed a dialogue over the last few months, a dialogue based on our shared passion for local democratic legitimacy and the opportunities that social media presents. Our on-line dialogue very recently progressed to a telephone conversation where we kicked about a few ideas (and our shared liking for
New Model Army) and loosely agreed to do something, but we weren't sure what. 

Three e-mail conversations (and much work by  Dave) later we agreed to share what we have so far.  We have tried to take our passions, interests and day jobs and try and set out some ways in which this whole local democracy thing can be made, well, more engaging, exciting and meaningful to local people.  As we pinged e-mails back and forth the challenge was clearly where to stop (should we present our views in the context of the Localism Bill, what about local politics, what are the implications for officers?...).

We came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to share our initial thoughts in their raw form to, hopefully, stimulate a discussion.  Presented below is the fruits of our on-line and off-line labours. It is a first pass at "Five Essential Features of Local Digital Democracy"

What is Local Digital Democracy?
§  Local digital democracy means using social media to make a bridge between the formal world of local politics and the real world of real people
§  It means being clear that local government is not just about services – it has a distinct and important democratic role with elected local councillors at its heart
§  It means recognising that the world is changing.  Social media is changing the way the world works – local democracy needs to catch up
§  It means recognising that local democracy needs stronger citizen engagement
§  It means building from the traditional ways of doing things and using online tools to make them work better and reach more people
Why Local Digital Democracy is Good for Everyone
  • The council as a whole is more effective, innovative and efficient  - it helps employees get better connected with decision making and each other 
  • The reputation of the council is improved both internally and externally
  • Councillors can raise their individual profiles and get their messages across more effectively
  • Improved citizen engagement makes for better policy development and decision making 
  • Citizens learn more about their elected councillors and can hold them to account better
  • Councillors will have better information and intelligence about the patches they represent.  Better informed councillors can lead the debate in their communities and in the council. 
  • Councillors can make better decisions by getting the right information at the right time
  • Councillors can reach more of their constituents quickly and easily
  • Citizens can quickly and easily find information about the decisions that affect their community and the issues that they are concerned about
  • Officers can conduct research more quickly and easily saving them time and the council resources
  • Young people are provided with a greater opportunity to engage with the democratic process on their terms
  • Local politics can reach a wider audience and encouraging more people to vote and maybe even consider public office - local digital democracy can help attract the next generation of councillors and this will definitely be online!
The Five Essential Features of Local Digital Democracy
1.         Online Councillors
  • Whether blogging, tweeting or facebooking, councillors are the human element of the local democratic process – local digital democracy won’t work without ‘em
  • Councillors have democratic legitimacy through elections – their participation gives online democracy legitimacy
  • Councillors will need skills, knowledge and tools to be key players in democratic digital engagement.  They will therefore need support from their Councils
  • Social media can help local political parties to work more effectively by improving internal and external communiciatons
  • Check out ….. to see what is already happening…  CllrSocmed
2.         Social Council Decision Making
  • Agendas, minutes and reports tell the story of local democratic deliberation and decision making but the way they are presented and organised makes engagement close to impossible to all but the most dedicated
  • By breaking everything down into bitesize chunks, like status updates or tweets, it becomes possible to share, tag and comment.
  • Bitesize chunks can also be made transportable so they can be used on whatever social media platform people are using
  • You can find some more thinking along these lines at Localopolis
3.         Social Council Meetings
  • Council meetings are the live action of the local democratic process
  • Live tweeting and blogging brings the action from council meetings to a wider audience
  • Social media interaction can facilitated to allow online citizens to feedback and ask questions
  • Engagement through social media may be the first step to observation and even participating in person
  • See the Kirklees experience
4.         Social Local Elections
  • Local elections are the most dramatic aspect of the local democratic process but campaigns can be lost in the traditional media in the noise of national politics
  • Digital engagement can create spaces, such as online hustings, for local campaign issues to be aired and debated and for candidates to promote their campaigns
  • Digital engagement also provides a way for election teams to raise awareness of the elections and encourage higher levels of registration and turnout
  • Having social media elections, with social media candidates, who become social media councillors helps a wider group of people make the connection between the ballot box, the individual and their role as community leader and decision maker
  • You can find an example here from Calgary
5.         A Local Digital Democracy Community
  • Digital engagement in local democracy is not the same as engagement in local government – often this is seen as being just about delivering services
  • The promoting of citizenship and online local democracy through initiatives such as Local Democracy Week (I’m a councillor get me out of here) needs a distinctive identity both locally and nationally
  • Every local area has a digital ecosystem that can be cultivated and supported – someone needs to be making sure everything works together to produce the best results
  • Local councils should take the lead locally and act as local democratic hubs, organisations such as the LGA and LGIU need to take the lead nationally
  • National social media platforms, such as the Knowledge Hub can provide the platform for a national democratic community to share good practice and ideas
Underlying local digital democracy are five themes that help the local digital ecosystem to flourish and need to guide those involved:
§  Connectability – Everything needs to be designed so that it connects to everything else (widgets, links, transportability)
§  Customisability – Everything needs to be set up so people can decide who and what they want to engage with
§  Sociability  - Effective digital engagement will require a whole new language for those involved in the local policy process – the arcane language of council meetings won’t work on facebook.  It also means putting real people at the front of engagement, not functions, teams or meetings.
§  Accessibility – Not everyone is online and not every online person ‘does’ social media.  This means both ensuring that non digital remain effective and that opportunities and encouragement are there for those ‘new starters’ that want to engage
§  Openness – This means both being willing to share information and ideas at all stages but also ensuring that there is clarity, honesty and realism about engagement so that there are no false expectations, and clear   

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