The democratisation of democracy needs embracing!

It is often said of the way people have to vote to elect their politicians in the 21st century world of internet shopping and app voting for your favourite singer on a saturday night talent show is something of an anachronism and indeed this is correct, but this is not the only part of the democratic process which is in dire need of updating. The way people are expected to interact with their local councillors and local decision making between visits to the voting booth needs to be bought up to date and the people - adept at doing their shopping online or talking to their friends and family via a screen - are ready, the technological platforms - twitter, facebook etc - are ready, in many places however local authorites and local councillors are not.

The instantaneous communication that allows people to hold conversations depsite being miles apart offers a great chance for democracy to be truly democratised! Twitter and Facebook, amongst other platforms, offer the opportunity for people to have a real and direct say on the local decision making process and what is truly revolutionary is that it offers them the chance to do this when they want and from wherever they want. Gone should be the days that as a citizen to get involved in the overview and scrutiny function you are expected to trudge along to the town hall in the middle of winter. In effect Twitter and Facebook have made the access points to democracy infinite, they have democratised democracy.

It all seems obvious that this should be embraced, councils and councillors should be using social media to elevate citizens from being mere consumers of whatever they decide in poorly attended meetings to active participants with real input into the decisions that truly affect their everyday life, and yet at too many authorities this is simply not the case, but why?

Culture - In a world where a company such as facebook can go from being the idea of a student in a university dorm to a company worth far over $100 billion it could be argued that it is not surprising   that local authorities has been unable to keep up, however what has happened is that in many cases authorites have kept up with the change - witness the plethora of council Twitter accounts or Facebook accounts. However what has happened in many cases is that cultures have not adapted to the new world, Corporate Communications team try to apply the press release model to Twitter and Facebook with many believing only they should have access to social networks, and only they can post information out on behalf of the Council. This however leaves, departments like Democratic Services unable to be responsive to conversations on Twitter or pro-active in driving engagement, communications in the modern world should not need to be funnelled through one output. Social edia has made much communication porous, and Councils need to embrace this. Corporate Communications should provide guidance to departments who want to use Twitter or Facebook but should not act as a a messenger between the people and parts of the Councii. 

It is also not only the culture of local authorties as organisations but also that of Councillors that are often the problem. They see social media as something for young people - ignoring the sheer numbers of people over 30, 40, 50 and even 60 who regularly use social media. They are sceptical of the value of communication on social media despite the widespread usage of it by national politicians and national institutions and the numerous great ideas that cna be found in blogs and publications tweeted or facebooked into the world and harking back to the earlier problem of local authority culture they are often not encouraged to do it, commuinications teams live in fear of a Councillor saying something controversial. However this approach is short sighted, firstly it falls into the trap of treating citizens as consumers only, why should Councillors not be given the platform to say their views, even if controversial, is this not crucial to democracy, that people know what their politicians think? People as active participants should be able to hear the unpalaable views of Councillors so they can challenge them either via social media or the ballot box. Secondly it is short sighted because Councillors using social media is inevitable, as the next generation of politicians come through they, one would imagine, be more likely to use social media. It is better to be prepared and accept this inevitability and gain experience and knowledge and have helpful guidances and mechanisms in place.

Social media has revolutionsed many spheres, indeed it has fuelled revolutions but it has yet to truly revolutionse local politics.  By faciliting the spread of access points to the democratic process it offers the potential to truly democratise local democracy but this has not truly happened yet on a wide scale.The onus to help this process along is on local authorities, the people are there and they are waiting.



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simon fenton-jones 5 Years Ago
That was so nice, thanks Tom, Have to agree with everything you say, although I think the problem is not one that applies just to local gov. This new culture, if we could nail it to a floor, really does apply to all public institutions. If you view the changes which have been wrought since the www was invented, our institutions still believe that interactice/social media must conform the old media model of publish and be damned . You should see the discussions about (corporate) communications on Linkedin groups like the Institute of Internal Comms. No one can figure out where the join - between the old pump it out stops, and the new build a community - begins. We can all agree that the old sectoral/org/departmental silos are the problem. Every specialist group within them largely duplicates the message to the same citizen/student. After all, they are to be treated as customers whose products/message have yet to be formulated by internal experts and a service "delivered". In a well spun manner. Of course, even if we have two (or three) levels of gov inventing the same tools and trying to conform to the new citizen centric culture - one with a National perspective, one with a Local one - we still retain the misled industrial beliefs about productivity and efficient. Faster! Cheaper! Our institutions are too busy to collaborate. You might like this , as it's a good intro to the new inter-institutional model. i.e. Connecting specialist groups within silos and encouraging them to collaborate with (and here's the peculiar bit) their common users, to co-create shared services. And of course your comment about communications is shared by many people (in groups) from the silos; some within this domain . The challenge now is how to do we include them in a broader social space so, when they read something as beautifully written as your post, we can introduce them to their peers so they can grow the collaborative culture. Cheers!
Kevin O'Keefe 5 Years Ago
An outstandingly insightful piece Tom. I present Making Social Media Work for Councillors around the UK - and it's now our most popular seminar. Generally elected members agree that the average age of their 'core' voters is in the 50+ age group. When I mention that 87% of adults under 30; 77% of adults in the 30's and 65% adults in their 40's have at least 1 social media account - they tend to reaslise that it's the NUMBER ONE channel to communicate with the younger voters in their community.
Tom Hancock 5 Years Ago
Thank you very much for your comment Kevin. I think that Councillors and local authorites are beginning to really switch on to the opportunities of social meda and the facts you outline really make the case that it is absolutely essential that elected members and Council's (and I would say individual Council departments) have a presence on the platforms that their voters/residents are using. It is thus very heartening to hear that the social media seminar is now your most popular. The only regret I have is that your social media seminar was not the most popular 3,4,5 years ago as I fear local authorities and members as a whole are still behind the curve when it comes to utilising social media and could do far far more. Given the reach and relatively low cost of using social media I believe local government should be a real innovator in using social media and not a laggard. Thanks again for your comment.