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

Monday, 17 June 2013

Networked Cllrs - Some Initial Thoughts

What better way to end my hiatus from blogging than to reflect back on a Round Table discussion I was invited to attend today to discuss The Networked Cllr research piece.  The session was facilitated by the report author Catherine Howe (@curiousc) who was joined by a cracking panel of experts from across the sector - officers and councillors alike.

On a general note I feel the report has provided a bit of a hallelujah moment in that it has empirically and anecdotally given some real traction to areas which some of us have seen as really important for some time.  I've banged on in the past about councillors and social media and, along with others tried to do my bit to raise the profile of the importance of local representative democracy in a digital age.  All worthy stuff but there has always been a need for an evidence base to move us forward beyond what we intuitively thought was the right path.  I think we now have a sound platform from which to build as the report moves through its next iteration.  Comments and views are welcomed on the report and I would encourage you to inform the work as it develops.

In terms of my reflections, I'll start with some grumbles and then finish with some positives.

  • Officers, Are You Helping or Hindering? - As a fully paid up member of the officer club I get little satisfaction from reporting that we could really do a lot better to support the development of Networked Cllrs.  Over two years ago when we were doing the CllrSocMed sessions in Yorkshire and The Humber there were a number of themes which emerged in all sessions.  One in particular was the reluctance of officers in IT to open up access to social media and the other was the inherent need for officers to develop codes, protocols and rules that councillors should abide by.  I am an officer who understands that an implicit part of my role is to protect councillors but I cannot ignore evidence that indicates in so doing we are putting barriers in the way of councillors embracing opportunities and potential benefits.  I'll probably look at this in more detail in another post, particularly in terms of the need for a different support model for councillors that is better equipped to tackle these thorny issues.
  • Councillors, Are You Leading the Debate? - This grumble follows on nicely from the one above.  Councillors have the solutions to the real and perceived officer barriers at their fingertips.  They take the decisions, have a fundamental role in setting priorities and the culture of the councils they are members of.  If we accept that councillors need the IT tools for the job, access to social media and a support model that facilitates the development of the Networked Councillor then come on councillors start saying that these things are important within your own councils.  Surely a climate where councillors are the best and most effective they can be is one that benefits local residents, the council and, dare I say it, officers.
Moving swiftly on, some observations on parts of the report and todays discussion:
  • The Case is Compelling - democratic participation is declining, election turnout figures demonstrate this.  On-line participation and accessibility  is growing.  There is a compelling case to connect these two issues for the benefit of local democracy.  Whilst not the panacea, the Networked Cllr concept is a powerful enabler.
  • It's Not About Twitter - I am heartened that there is an increasing number of councillors getting more social media savvy - this is good.  I am even more encouraged that we are, hopefully, moving away from discussions about the tools and beginning to focus on the skills and etiquette of elected representatives operating in digital spaces.  A lot of todays discussion was about being effective in those spaces as opposed to "how do I use Twitter?" or "why should I bother?"  
  • Identity and Reputation Are Important - whilst councillors do not want to be bound by rules and protocols (the existing ones suffice e.g. the National Code of Conduct) they are concerned about their identity and reputation in digital spaces.  In particular they want to better understand the rules of engagement in instances where they are interacting with "anonymous" users and those who are "challenging" - trolls.  I would hope that, as the Networked Cllr work progresses, thought is given to striking a balance between equipping councillors with the confidence and support to be effective whilst not binding them with protocols or frightening them off completely.
  • Communicative, Collaborative, Co-Productive - I particularly like the way in which the report findings begin to explore the ways in which a Networked Cllr can be active in digital spaces.  The 3Cs provide a really helpful framework for addressing some of the issues raised above whilst also having the fluidity to ensure that councillors are not pigeon holed.  If I understand the concept correctly the 3Cs are inter-changeable and used as appropriate to particular circumstances.  They also provide helpful context around which to consider and construct development.
  • Networked - Finally, one message was loud and clear.  Networked is not just about digital.  If a councillor is not networked off-line then chances are that he/she wont pull it off on-line.  This is perhaps obvious, but very true.  We mustn't forget this.
I'm sure there is much more to share, but plenty of time as the discussion will continue - join in if you haven't already

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