As one of the elected members who helped to shape the original Networked Councillor research report, Cllr Colin Noble, Suffolk County Council, talks about what the Networked Councillor means to him and outlines his hopes for the Networked Councillor pilot in Suffolk. This was originally posted on the East of England LGA’s site.
“I don’t know about you but I rather took the plunge into social media without much of a clue as to what my strategy was beyond getting my twitter account up and running, working out how to use Facebook and promising myself I would take more photos to feed across the platforms and into my Flickr account. I was even lucky enough to be a Councillor on two councils that arranged some training, on both how to use the various platforms and some of the more fundamental traps and falls that it’s possible to make.
I did this because a couple of things struck me.
Firstly, local government is undergoing rapid change and we need to ask much more of our communities. The relationship between residents and state has to change – both because of the drive towards increased localism but also because we have some incredibly tough decisions to make on the withdrawal or radical redesign of unaffordable services. We cannot do this without the active participation of our residents and communities. Yet often, when we hold meetings in that draughty community hall, the gatherings are smaller than we would like, or in fact need, to have a meaningful conversation. There is always that odd occasion when a topic is suitably engaging to bring them out in numbers, but this is increasingly rare.
Secondly, whilst people seem to be talking less and less in surgeries and in community halls, more and more gathering on social media, and they are still talking politics but just not as we know it. Recently in my home village a local charity running a small local care home, unbeknown to me, decided to close, and one Monday evening they told shocked residents, their families and loved ones about their decision and the time lines to move. After the meeting I had a couple of missed calls on my phone, and three emails. The following day one of those who emailed the night before told me they were starting a Facebook page and I thought I should have a look at that. When I did, on the Wednesday afternoon, it had some 750 likes and lots of people posting various comments, most of which were misunderstanding on how the system works. Through Facebook I guided a large group of residents through the issues, corrected a few misconceptions and agreed to host a private meeting for Residents and their loved ones, followed by a public meeting where about 100 quite angry people wanted answers. Beyond Facebook, the issue hardly registered in the community. This just shows that if we want to part of these important community conversations, we must gather where they do, online.
So I am completely convinced that social media has be part of the overall tool set a Councillor uses to reach communities – and through using all the tools available to us we can all be Networked councillors. In doing so we can start to change and develop our relationship with our communities to move from being communicative, to collaborative, and even co-productive with our residents.
We don’t want the Networked Councillor concept to be just rhetoric, we need to make it a reality. So as a next step, a new model for Councillor development will be piloted with all the Suffolk authorities in order to test out some of the ideas I describe above and, which are outlined in the Networked Councillor report.
I am thrilled that Suffolk authorities will be the pioneers in embedding this new way of thinking.
The pilot will be about peer mentoring and action learning rather than the ‘chalk and talk’ social media training that many of us have received. We will work with a cohort of around 20 members and concentrate on a 3 themes: ‘Understand your digital footprint and current network’, ‘Develop skills to shape that network and manage debates online’ and then ‘Develop skills to influence your network and lead effectively in this context’.
But this is not just for elected members, we will also look at the support function required for this new way of working and how it integrates with the work of officers in many different areas of the council, building on the different experiences and knowledge of social media within a council.
The end goal must be to improve the relationship with our electorate, increase turnout at elections and build confidence in both, us as elected representatives and the services the Council provides.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this Networked Councillor programme is a great opportunity to create a new, more positive, relationship with our constituents to address the challenges faced by local democracy.”