The Zombie Problem- feedback from Councillors about using social media

Photo Credit: San Diego Shooter via Compfight cc

This post isn’t about the problem of zombies (although I think we can all agree they are a menace that needs to be dealt with) but rather a problem that keeps coming back from the dead to plague local government: technology. By ‘technology’ here I mean equipment, software, hardware and websites. Last month I delivered two master classes for elected members about social media. It is the first time our organisation has delivered these sessions so we used the opportunity to have discussions and learn more about the landscape for Councillors and did not provide much hands on training, which was a disappointment to a number of Councillors who came along. The first half of the session I talked about the abundance of resources for elected members around social media use (these resources far outstrip information produced for Officers by the way)- The Networked Councillor, 21st Century Councillor, Councillor Camp and Campers, GovLoop’s Social Media in Government and Finding Your Way on Knowledge Hub. The second half totally focussed on blogging. As we went through the slides, I encouraged interruption and discussion, especially around points coming out of The Networked Councillor, and below are notes on the feedback and discussion.

What is now very clear to me are the issues around identity and permission are big for elected members. There is a desire or need for a space that is safe to experiment and practical training to be provided by a neutral body or group. Running through all the discussion- and to me what seemed to be the biggest frustration- was the issue of poor quality Council issued equipment (phones, PCs, internal systems or lack thereof) and too restrictive IT security. I was struck, but not surprised, that the issues brought up by the Councillors are the same issues faced by Officers and I hope the disproportionate attention being paid to Councillors in the way of support and encouragement to use technology to communicate and learn can help make moves toward positive changes in councils that benefit everyone.

I’m looking forward to your comments!

Social media specific discussion and comments

  • People who comment on Facebook are always negative.

  • Social media needs to be managed and supported.

  • Social media has encroached into personal life.

  • Social media is open to abuse.

  • Social media can be used for criticism and users who are more serious about communicating with a Councillor will use a different communication channel.

  • There are fears that whatever is said or done can be instantly reported online, such as on Twitter or YouTube. What might be a social occasion can be reported in a bad light.

  • There are reservations about being available 24 hours a day through social media. Pressures around the expectations with social media - instant messages expect instant returns.

  • Need advice about ways to safeguard, self protection and self preservation. Cllrs from a certain council said they have not been guided by anyone at the council about how to be safe online and how to respond to negative online comments or exposure of certain things about a person online, for example from someone’s past.

  • Social media doesn't help stress and anger levels. It can cause paranoia which could then give a distorted impression of comments being made by citizens or of the Cllr if they are acting/reacting while stressed or angry.

  • The law hasn't been clarified as to what can go on social media- what types of comments. Once the law is clarified then then social media will be used more.

  • It is an another communication tool. Facebook and Twitter are great to communicate with young people.

  • There was a comment then a discussion around the idea that social media is a tool younger Councillors use in order to avoid face to face meetings. This came on the back of a short video by 21st Century Councillor highlighting a Cllr who uses social media as a way to keep in touch with her community because she works full time. This idea was very much dismissed by Councillors in the session who do use social media well in order to complement their face to face work.

  • ‘There is a pressure on us to move to use social media. Can we afford not to do it?’

  • Social media needs to be addressed at executive level- what Cllrs can do and can't., what equipment is needed. Some clarity is absolutely necessary. Also needs national standard guidance and some programme to follow on social media. Accreditation would be desirable. Tools need to be made available to allow adoption, such as iPads and smartphones. Feeling from one group this should be addressed and pushed by COSLA.

Organisational IT restrictions and issues specific discussion and comments

  • ‘The attitude of Officers to new technology is appalling.’

  • ‘Network blocks and poor equipment.’

  • Two Councillors from the same council reported finding out about a local greenbelt campaign being organised on Facebook but could not see it from council equipment or networks. They had to ‘fight’ for time limited access to see the campaign on Facebook.

  • One Councillor reported finding out about flood warnings in his area at home through the council’s Facebook page but could not return to that Facebook page for further updates from inside the council.

  • The IT people are given to use is usually outdated or poor quality. ‘We need to have the best technology.’

  • Devices not allowed to have access to websites is a real issue.

  • Gsx security is proving to be an issue. Its possible to allow BYOD or greater mobile working but the real problem is the council wants to manage risk but are being risk averse. Stories of Councillors asking for things like access to calendars and email on their own devices only for IT security to say allowing that would violate EU law. One Councillor said he suspects this is not right- it is a deflection- but is not knowledgeable enough to challenge the claim. Information or a resource to help them argue against these points would be helpful.

Support, guidance and learning discussion and comments

  • How can Officers provide support to Councillors without being politically biased or without being perceived as being politically biased?

  • Peer to peer support or training would need to be handled carefully as politicians have to be careful about what they say to each other.

  • On the suggestion that teaching could be done by Communications Officers, a question was raised ‘What level of Officer?’ It was then suggested that council communications generally need to be improved, never mind social media. Comments that senior and middle level Officers don't have a great deal of experience using social media. There is a lack of training within councils.

  • When asked if peer support would be a useful way to explore and learn, one group had an issue with cross-party working saying it would never happen and the other group focussed on the need for a resource/person outside the Councillor community to teach and to be on hand for ongoing support and learning. There seemed to be a concern with one group especially that this role should not be taken by Officers because they could be seen as having a political bias. This has been echoed by one Comms Officer who was approached by one of her Councillors after one of our sessions for training on blogging- her manager is very concerned if she helps this one man, it will be seen as bias toward his party.

  • Support methods and mechanisms are not there. They are south of the border but not here.

  • Online videos needed for training and that can be stored on the desktop and accessed in own time.

  • In some cases devices such as iPads have been given but the training to use them hasn't.  We don't know how to use them. It's just a waste of money if we are not trained and supported.

  • Q: If practical training was offered would you be interested? Yes. Hands-on experience would be very useful. ‘This master class session should have included hands on training.’

Other discussion and comments

  • Meeting etiquette. It’s difficult to treat people bringing iPads to meetings and using them to take notes seriously. It appears rude, like they’re sending texts or emails instead of paying attention to the meeting.

  • Lack of websites for community councils which would be useful to distribute media and information.

  • Community councils should be responsible for putting and distributing information in collaboration with Councillors. Councillors should be able to rely on community councils to get messages out, including online.

  • Council websites are hard to navigate. They need to be made simpler to navigate and find information.

  • The suggestion from Networked Councillor that digital should be part of a Councillor’s job from day one was seen by some as unfair because different people use different channels. Web and social media can be daunting and harder for the more mature Councillor.

  • There is a gap in learning how to use IT, including mobile phones and tablets. Lots of stories about iPads and phones being distributed with no training on how to use them. This results in people giving up and going back to printing. It could also be impacting the way people feel about others using tablets or laptops during council meetings- that it is rude and distracting the person from the meeting at hand as opposed to the IT being used as an efficient/new way of working.


Security level: Public

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Former Member 8 Years Ago
All the points your list Leah suggest that Councillors, like many newbies, see 'social media' as one single big thing they have to get their heads round. And it's frought with problems and security worries. I usuaally push the notion that social media is a collective term for very wide range of tools ro do things we've always done: find, organise, manage and share information. It's just 'media' and 'social' just means sharing, meeting or networking: things Councillor do! I alos use the mantra 'lead with the need'. Are you bookmarks or favourites a mess? The answer is always yes. Then use social bookmarking. Finally back it all up with the Scottish Government's aspirations for a digital future (and I'd rather take 'digital' out of that phrase) ' The starting point… has to be a commitment to develop the digital capabilities of staff across the Scottish public sector. Organisations should be encouraged to join and participate in the work of Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter to encourage the development of digital literacy across their entire workforce. This should be supported by the development of workplaces and IT policies that enhance access to and familiarity of digital technology.' Scotland Digital Future. Supporting the Transition to a World-leading Digital Economy I'd send that quotation to every IT /data security bod in the country....
Former Member 8 Years Ago
It would also be interesting to hear a councillor perspective on socail media policies for staff. e.g. Some issues in Edinburgh: Sensible policies -like no-names Censorship policies like no public comments on council services
Former Member 8 Years Ago
Social media policies should aim to guide and nurture rather than command and control . Edinburgh Council's appear to be too much of the latter and not enought of the former. I'd suggest that it be more effecitve to remind people of the long established principle that in both your working and your personal life you shouldn't do things that bring your employer into disrepute. This principle existed before the internet and remains a good basis for policy. In fact it's probably all that is needed. Of course the difference now is that what you say on social networks is much more public than mouthing off in the pub. Having said that I recently saw a notice in a social work office reminding staff to be careful what they say in public places. Which reminds us that focusing on social media as the cause of the problem is misguided. It's all about behaviour, and trust.
Heidi De Wolf 8 Years Ago
The challenge is that many of the later adopters want 'evidence' of whether social media will make a difference and can only see the negatives, which the blog above proves. Innovation is about counter-intuitive thinking. There is no such thing as 'total safety' unless you have 'total control'. This means wrapping people in 'cotton wool' instead of embracing personal responsibility and accountability. Organisations should embrace social media as it will provide visibility to conversations and knowledge which is otherwise invisible. If an organisation is committed to openness and transparency, and is serious about innovation, social media is the enabler. To date however, I understand that many organisation are still trying to update their infrastructure to ensure improved coverage which means that some of the ambitions around social media are not yet possible. Here too openness and transparency is key. Tell people where you are now and where we are moving towards, and you will have their understanding and backing.
Former Member 8 Years Ago
Hi Leah, Thanks for such a well-written and informative piece. My company - Excela - has been commisioned by the Welsh Local Authority Association to devise and roll-out our popular seminar "Making Social Media Work For Councillors" to all Welsh Authorities. We've presented the seminar throughout Wales during 2013 and we're now offering it to local authorities throughout the UK. I'd be delighted to have a conversation with you, if we can be of assistance in Scotland. Some of the discussions we hold with members during the seminars reflect their fears - as recounted in your piece - but there are numerous tried and tested techniques which members can deploy to easily build constructive, safe and lawful use of social media into their daily work. For example - experience of elected members shows that rather than ADD to their daily e-mail burden - effective use of social media actually REDUCES that burden. For example - if a major event happens in their ward - it may generate 30 or more separate emails to the local member. If pro-actively using a social media channel (such as Facebook) as a notice-board - the member can put up a post about the major event on their Facebook page and this encourages a dialogue with their electorate on Facebook -where everyone shares views rather than simply send the councillor numerous time-consuming e-mails. Have a look at the dedicated page on our website Kevin
Leah Lockhart 8 Years Ago
Thanks, Kevin. It's great to have examples of how others have found social media useful in reducing work load. I'll pass your information up to The Boss and go from there!