Yesterday saw a fanfare from the Department for Communities and Local Government signalling the dawning of a new era of openness. Or did it?
From what I’ve read, all that was announced was that journalists, bloggers, hyper-local website authors, and concerned citizens can attend various types of council meetings. Big deal. They can now.
The announcement went on to say that councils could no longer prohibit social media reporters from reporting and filming from these meetings. Fair enough, some councils have displayed a disproportionate level of paranoia about what people might think of their behaviour if they saw it. But this is an issue of behaviour, not openness.
I’m not aware of social media reporting being a big issue for councils throughout the country. It’s there, but it doesn’t keep many people awake at night, unlike budgets, social care, the economy etc. So why the fanfare, is this an over-reaction similar to the non-issue of council newspapers?
I work for a local authority, and I attend Council meetings, along with a couple of local journalists and a handful of interested residents. The public gallery is rarely full, and we’ve never refused a request to tweet from or film a council meeting. This isn’t due to our great policy of openness, it’s because nobody has asked. Apathy rules.
On most occasions the main discussions around key issues have taken place before Council meetings, they are no longer the theatres of debate they once were. Attendance at these meetings, and viewing figures for live streaming, don’t contradict this view.
We don’t yet live stream any of our meetings, and this is something I’d like to propose we change. But only in the context of making yet another small step to improve access; not for one minute do I think it is the tipping point in flinging open the doors to the triple nirvana of access, engagement, and transparency.
And this is what worries me, what and where is this nirvana? What is the most effective role that social media can play in improving citizen engagement? Will the technology disenfranchise the non-technical, and will some people be intimidated by the fact that they don’t feel able to articulate their argument in 140 characters?
We could end up where we’ve been before, with only those who are confident, articulate, and aware of how to use the system being the only ones who effectively engage. And the people who have never contacted a council, and are still hesitant to do so, may still stay away. An advance in technology, but the same old access issues.
There is a lot of conversation on social media, which is great, but what does and can it achieve? The modern soothsayer Alan Partridge once stopped a colleague in full flow and said “That’s just noise.” Would he be right if he applied this today to social media in local government and the rest of the public sector?
I’m a big fan of social media, and at some point in every working day I suggest, encourage, cajole, and nag colleagues to get involved. Twitter and Facebook play an increasing role in how we engage with residents, and the rollout of Yammer is already having an effect internally.
There are many platforms out there, which is both a blessing and a curse. This proliferation can confuse rather than educate, dilute instead of focus, and lead to prevarication over conviction. Persuasion of the merits of social media is not getting any easier.
I know social media isn’t a one size fits all, but in order to take it forward we need some ‘one size fits a few’ examples. We need some things we can all dip into and use which clearly benefit democracy and all the residents we work for, not just the ones who’ve always worked the systems. Once we’ve got them, there will be no looking back. But where are they?