How do Councillors communicate most effectively with their electorate?
Few of their committee meetings will be attended by members of the public. Meetings of full Council are hardly sell-out events. These may be seen as failings at a corporate level to engage with the community.
But what about at individual member level ?
Even nowadays, elected members are still seen to occasionally stuff envelopes with flyers to get their message across to the electorate. Some councillors issue press releases and give ‘sound bite’ quotes to their local newspapers on matters of topical concern. It is of course the perennial complaint of many households that they only hear from their Councillor in the month leading up to an election. Members work hard for their constituents. It’s only right that their endeavour should be recognised. The only effective way of achieving that recognition is by regular communication. Leaflet drops and flyers are expensive, incur time-consuming door-to-door distribution and the pamphlets are likely to be popped into the recycling bin by indifferent recipients, without being read.
But in our modern society there are so many more effective channels of communication. The soap box has been replaced by the laptop.
The modern electorate are used to shopping on-line, they are used to banking on-line, they are used to booking travel on-line and they are used to social networking on line. It’s now not just a case of people being used to doing things on line, it’s an expectation.
The 2010 Local Government Association’s Census of Local Authorities discovered that the average age of Councillors is 60, while the average age of the UK population is 39. In the same period, other data disclosed that the average age of Facebook users is in the UK is 38. Across Europe, the average age of computer-users generally is 36. There may therefore be a significant disconnect between many of our hardworking councillors and the skill sets they need in order to capitalise on social media as an essential tool for communication.
There are 48 million adults in the UK – each with a vote. There are 33 million Facebook accounts in the UK. There are millions of Twitter users in Britain and many millions of others on Word Press, My Space and a host of other services. The numbers speak for themselves. Elected Members must embrace use of social media as a basic skill in a modern democracy. It can't be ignored, as both local issues and Councils are already being discussed on line - Councillors need to play an active part in that dialogue, rather than pretend that it doesn't exist.
But how do councillors cope?
The solution is a programme of Member Development and training that empowers councillors to set up one, two or even several social network accounts and to then use them responsibly. Pitfalls are of course aplenty. Postings by Members on their accounts must be lawful and consistent with their Codes of Conduct. Members need to feel both comfortable and confident that comments they post aren’t going to land them in hot water. But it is only with training that elected members can learn to safely and seamlessly integrate social media into their day-to-day roles.
Of course it’s a two-way street. Knowing who to ‘follow’ on Twitter or knowing which page to ‘like’ on Facebook is a great way for Members to keep in touch with the views of groups, associations, or the movers and shakers in their area. It’s an additional channel to allow them to keep a finger on the pulse of their wards.
Councillors must be empowered to make social networking media work for them, by having top quality training.
Kevin O’Keefe is a Solicitor and Director of Excela Interim Management & Consultancy Ltd, the UK's leading provider of elected member development training, including the popular seminar “Making Social Media Work for Councillors”