This article was originally written for the SLCC‘s ‘Clerk’ magazine.
It’s almost impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper these days without seeing reference to online networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The impact of these technologies in the last decade has been huge, transforming the way people communicate, work and play.
So just how can local councils make use of this technology?
Firstly, we can improve our communications. Lots of people now use online methods to communicate with their friends and families, as well as with businesses and other organisations. If councils want people to see what they are saying, then these new channels need to be used.
It could be as simple as using Twitter to provide quick updates of the work the Council is doing, or what is being discussed at a public meeting. Alternatively we can use different media to tell the same story – photographs are a great way of documenting online what is happening in an area and the web is a great way of publishing them to large audiences.
Second, it can be use to increase participation in the work we do. Not everybody has time to attend meetings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to contribute. By giving people the opportunity to get involved online, we might be able to encourage them to engage even further in future.
This early, online stage could be as simple as giving views on a local issue on a Facebook page, responding to an online survey, or giving feedback on a draft document through a digital form.
Third, using this technology can help us change the culture of our councils, to be more open, transparent and collaborative. Once we start taking even baby steps into the digital world, the possibilities start to become apparent. Increasing numbers of councillors are saving their councils money by using their own devices to work paperlessly, using their iPads for example to read reports and other papers.
Other developing technologies have yet to make an impact on our sector, but they cannot be far away. The transparency agenda has seen councils in other tiers of government sharing their data, whether about council spending or other information. This data is then used by businesses, charities and communities to build apps and develop plans to improve their services.
The so-called ‘internet of things’, where everyday objects, not just computers, have access to the network, is another fast developing area. The concept of ‘smart cities’ is relatively well known now, but what might a smart village look like, when every house, community and business in a parish are connected by a high speed internet connection?
Local councils ought to be considering these issues to ensure they are well placed to make the most of new technological developments, so that they may continue to provide an effective and relevant service to their communities.
Having said all of this, the basics are still important. For example, I would never suggest a council only uses digital communications methods. A balance is required, otherwise people will be left out. However, using digital is scalable and cost effective, so the more of it we can use, the better.
Also, it’s important to get the online foundations right before we start using potentially more exciting channels such as social media. This means ensuring we have an effective website in place and are using tools such as email well – including having an email newsletter that people can subscribe to.
I will be discussing all the issues relating to using digital in the sector in an upcoming series of workshops in 2014, organised by SLCC. Find out more and book your place at http://www.slcc.co.uk/course/digital-engagement/40/
A taster of these sessions will also be provided at the SLCC practitioners’ conference in Spring 2014. More information can be found here: http://www.slcc.co.uk/conference/practitioners-conference/18/
As a person who is maybe only a little above average when it comes to using technology and poor at using social media, I greatly appreciate your approach: start small, move incrementally and test (good software development methodology), don’t ignore traditional channels. This applies to far more than local councils, but I believe there is a special opportunity for local govt.
A couple of issues I hope you would address are:
1) anonymous vs. identified input/commentary, a big debate for Internet privacy;
2) addressing attempts to affect decision-making through coordinated, mass response; always a problem, but perhaps increased in a digital public square.