When you become a councillor you are entering a profession (if you can call it that) unlike any other. You don’t need any specified qualifications or experience for the job and rather than being accountable to one boss, the only people who can fire (or re-hire) you are thousands of your neighbours, most of whom you will never have met for more than a couple of minutes on the doorstep.
You become familiar with stories in the local papers that slate you for expecting to get any sort of reimbursement for the time you spend on the job, or even for claiming the basic out of pocket expenses such that most employees would take for granted (and we aren’t talking about moat cleaning here). But even as a back bench councillor, you are taking some of the most important decisions in our communities.
Being a councillor is demanding. Councillors are often expected to feel selfless, like they should know how to do everything that is demanded of them already or they are not worthy of their title. But, as with any role, we know that a little in professional development goes a long way, and with the challenges that lie ahead for local government, should we really be expecting councillors to be perfect leaders, representatives and public servants without this support?
The Next Generation leadership programme was devised by the Leadership Centre for Local Government to fill this gap and is now run through the Local Government Group. In their own words, it: “ensures councillors have the right skills to transform into the sort of leaders required to reinvigorate the local political scene.” And since 2006, young and ambitious councillors from the three main political parties have been put through their paces to do just this. I attended the second co-hort of the programme (2007/8), when I was already in a local leadership position on Islington Council. I found the dynamic challenge of Joe Simpson and Erica Kemp important in helping me develop my strategic thinking, creating a space that was often lost in the day-to-day pull of speeches, meetings, reports and press releases. So I was excited when I received an invitation to run a workshop with this year’s cohort on using social networks to engage with local communities.
As I wrote in this blog here, there is a lot that I have picked up about how social media can be used on a local level from working at FutureGov that I wish I had known I was a councillor. I was pleased for the opportunity to share some of my learnings with people who could make use of this. But, as soon as I arrived in the room in the University of Warwick Conference Centre it was clear that things had moved on from my day (my day ended two years ago) – nearly 50% of the councillors were sitting there using iPads to take notes and deliver their presentations.
The Next Generation course is all about getting councillors to think about how they are using their values to drive the work that they do everyday. Having run a number of sessions about social media with local councillors, I know that this topic can evoke a fear of losing control, so I set out to challenge this group reminding them that controlling and secretive behaviours do not fit in with their Liberal Democrat political beliefs of open and democratically run government.
Almost all of these words above, from the Liberal Democrat constitution, are very relevant to social engagement, but “open” particularly stands out, as does this quotation from Nick Clegg’s speech, The Open Society and its Enemies, delivered in December 2011:
The liberal ideal is of the open society, where power is vested in people, not in the state or other institutions.
The important thing to remember about social media is that it’s social. It’s about communication. It’s about putting the transformative power of the printing press into the hands of the people.
A quotation which sounds a little bit like a line out of the famous Liberal song, the Land, that is sung late at night on the last evening of every Liberal Democrat conference.
After taking the group back to basics on their Liberal Democrat values, we jumped into a discussion about why councillors should use social media to engage with their communities. Answers ranged from meeting the needs of people using Google to find out information about them at election time and being able to communicate with journalists. I also shared some of the reasons that I had learned about: the conversation is already happening be part of it; it is quick and cheap way to communicate with and listen to residents; being a councillor is about building relationships; and it is important to be open about the work we do as councillors.
I then asked the councillors how they should use social media and what tips they would share other councillors about this. The councillors worked in groups to discuss their ideas and generated the following answers: take part in local community social media groups; use the free tool Mailchimp to produce email newsletters for your ward and to monitor who is reading them; create a non party political site to broaden interest to residents who wouldn’t go on a political one; if you are finding it hard to find local residents on Twitter, tap into local businesses’ Twitter followers; establish a non party political local area Facebook site, e.g. one for your town – this can be used to introduce new candidates as community activists; and share details of your casework via Twitter and Facebook, including photographs.
I was impressed to hear from a young councillor who had stared a cartoon blog (although I can’t find the link to it now – please let me know as I’d love to see it!) and his colleague who had used the URL Brympton.info as the link to his ward website, so that anyone searching for information about his local area arrives at his site. I was slightly more intrigued by another who had started a Facebook page for his city and had built up a huge following and 6500 likes, without people knowing that he was behind the page.
After sharing some style tips for councillors using social media: Little and often, clear and relevant; an interactive, rather than broadcast, style; human and authentic; and appropriate to you and your voters – I returned to the fear issue.
I shared a quotation that I had heard on the radio, in the context of scientists who are afraid to collaborate, but I think the observation applies equally to politicians who are afraid of sharing information and connecting with people on social media:
By shutting the door you keep more out than you keep in.
It is often the case that councillors miss out on really engaging with the public by being guarded about what they disclose online for fear of how the opposition parties will use it.
I then ran through some suggestions of how councillors could use their roles to encourage their local authorities to become more open and to make the data that they collect available to those who want to use it – in the spirit of open government and the council not always having all of the good ideas within a community. I also suggested using social media (i.e. Facebook groups) to make traditional community development easier for councillors – the kind of community development that is about real things like improving local parks and housing estates. Work like this is particularly important for local Liberal Democrat councillors to lead, at a time when the national ratings aren’t going to win them many local elections.
I finished the session by asking each of the councillors to pledge what they would do next to improve the way they used the internet to engage with their local residents – and because I am aware of the reputation Liberal Democrats now have when it comes to pledges, thanks to one big mistake from the parliamentary party, I asked them to email their pledges to me, so that I can remind them of what they committed to do in a month’s time.