Local Government and Social Media event – Political
9th November 2009
Last Thursday, myself and Matt Butler from Birmingham BEST went down to London for a Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) event about Social Media and councils. It was a mixture of talks and panels about how politicians can use social media, which tended towards the campaigning value rather than talking with constituents, and possible usages of social media within local government.
Because there was a lot of content, I’m going to split these posts up between the political and council based bits with this one concentrating on the politics side.
The first keynote speaker was Iain Dale, the Conservative political blogger. He was a very engaging speaker, often because he spoke of the effects that his blogging had made upon his personal life. It had already become obvious that at least one person had strong opinions about him before he stood up as they had called him a liar on the Twitterfall in the room. Iain used this opportunity to say how he had been targeted by some people he considered to be political obsessives as a result of his writing.
Iain made the point that many people felt intimidated by contacting authority, which included councils. The Conservative Party has just launched a big “Ask Sam” button on its website to make it feel more personalised. He felt that councils could perhaps learn from this approach. He also made the point that If councils use social media as just a new broadcast channel they will be missing 99% of the benefits.
For local councils however, the most illuminating part of his speech wasn’t related to social media. Iain said that he felt local government still had not realised quite how much the Conservative Party has “got localism”. His opinion is that any new Conservative administration would look to push out decision making and power to smaller, more local areas. Here is the most recent post from his blog about localism
After Iain, we had a speech by Kerry McCarthy the Labour MP for Bristol East and the party’s New Media Campaigns Spokesperson. As that title would suggest, Kerry spoke about the different examples of Social Networking Services and sites and how each one could be used to help political campaigns. She highlighted the use of Facebook for specific campaigning as opposed to Twitter for a more sustained social media presence where a politician could build up their online visibility and reputation.
She related this to her own experience in Bristol where she came into the constituency at very short notice and needed to find ways of meeting people and making herself known. As there was a vibrant blogging community in the area she felt that writing her own blog was a way of both achieving those aims and of making herself heard in an online space that would comment on her anyway.
Kerry made a very interesting point about her perception that Twitter was a medium where more liberal ideas are dominant. She spoke of the comparison between the Twitterstream on #bbcqt (the hashtag for Question Time) on the evening that Nick Griffin was on, which was very hostile to him and the much more supportive texts that came through on Question Time’s text line.
In retrospect, I think there is an assumption in that statement that the established technology of text messaging contains a more representative sample that the newer social media, in this case, Twitter. I’m not sure that I agree with that although I can see why that is an assumption that Kerry made, and I recognise that I haven’t thought about and challenged this until now.
The final session brought together some local London councillors: Fiona Colley, James Cousins and Jon Ball with Anthony Zacharzewski from the Democratic Society and Ingrid Koehler from IDEA, who had also spoken earlier.
Anthony feels that council officers need to stop worrying too much that public speaking meant that they were making political statement. He said that the ratio of elected members to the general public was such that for local government to become more personalised and to mean something to the people it serves then council officers should be involved in the democratic process. Involvement in social media could be a way to achieve this.
Fiona Colley and Jon Ball both spoke about their use of social media for connecting with her constituents and letting them know what they are up to. Jon made the interesting observation that now he uses social media it is a lot more difficult, nay impossible, to compartmentalise his life as much as he did before. Fiona’s talk included some Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) advice for local councillors.
I was interested in the response from Jon to Jess Linacre from Stevenage who spoke of the difficulty she has had in engaging local politicians with Social Media. His response was that the pull of enthusiasm is more effective than the push of obligation in encouraging councillors to get involved. It seemed to be one of the more popular comments of the day.
James spoke about how his use of social media had changed the way that he thought about his constituents. He described his first “Twitter dream” which involved him accusing one of his followers of diddling the council out of parking revenue. He also said that he had arranged a Tweetup and met with some Wandsworth residents in the pub.
And I liked this approach most of all. It reflected what many of us using social media recognise: that we don’t use it to replace real life friendships, but to make new ones and enhance existing ones. Also, it showed a different approach to other politicians that spoke that day. Yes, I’m sure that James views being on Twitter to be good for campaigning, but it isn’t his primary reason for using it. It makes him more available to his constituents, makes him appear more human to them, and gets him closer to what they are thinking and what they want from him.
That ends Part 1, the political bit. Expect Part 2, the council bit along shortly. Well by this time next week, anyway.