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.