Complete control

13 Jul

Woman Shouting with Bullhorn

Last week there was a great post on the Guardian’s Local Government Network titled ‘Councils and social media: a desire for digital control still dominates‘.

Although it was about local government in general, it could almost have been written with Newham in mind:

A small study assessing how councils used social media in early 2012 demonstrated the point. Although 96% of authorities surveyed were using social media to post news stories and information, and 90% were promoting specific events and campaigns, only 41% of authorities monitored other forums and blogs. Where they did, only 28% actively engaged with residents on these platforms, with just 9% of councils saying they used social media for two-way communications. Though things may have improved in the last 18 months, the same fears are still holding councils back online.

Think about the way our council communicates with us as citizens and residents – it’s a centralised command and control, one-way process.

That’s why we have the Newham Mag. It’s all about telling us about all of the wonderful things the council is doing; pushing out information out without any conception that people might want to engage in a conversation about the things we really care about. You can’t answer back to a paper magazine.

The way Newham uses digital channels is consistent with this general approach. Although it does have a social media presence, it’s entirely information-based. The official Twitter feed and the Facebook page are filled with announcements about “free events” and suchlike. Trying to get a response if you post a comment or tweet back to them is more often than not a frustrating experience.

It’s such a missed opportunity.

Social media isn’t so difficult. Follow the basic rules (don’t do anything stupid; engage, don’t broadcast) and you have a powerful digital communication tool at your fingertips completely free of charge.

A measure of how wrong Newham gets it is the very small number of ‘likes’ the Facebook page has – just 474. That’s in a borough with over 300,000 residents. More than half of UK residents will use social networks regularly this year, according to eMarketer. And nine out of ten social network users in the country have a Facebook account. So there are probably close to 150,000 Facebook users in Newham. 474 ‘likes’ represents a feeble 0.3% of those.

The council’s Twitter feed is more popular, with almost 2,700 followers. Given the chance, it could be the focus of some really interesting debate, but that would require a change in the governing mind-set.

Allowing local people access to the conversations that go on within the town hall is a good thing. Councils are democratically elected bodies, and their work should be free and open to public scrutiny. The best way to use digital tools to achieve this level of local involvement and scrutiny is to use social media as it was designed to be used.

Social media is about connecting people and sharing experiences. It’s about enabling conversations. It’s also a daily part of most of our lives – we take it almost for granted that we can engage with people and businesses in near real-time.

When political and civic participation is at such dangerously low levels it is verging on the criminal not to use every available tool to reach out and engage.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom though. There are 14 current councillors with Twitter accounts, which they use to varying extents, and a good number of Labour’s new candidates for next year are active users. Hopefully, an influx of younger digital natives will lead to a more open approach.

Maybe they’ll stop talking at us and start talking with us.

One Response to “Complete control”


  1. Virtual reality | forestgatedotnet - July 25, 2013

    […] and far more willing to engage online. I accept there is an issue with Sir Robin’s desire for complete control, but this is about casework – stuff councillors are meant to do to help their constituents […]

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