Networked Councillor
Networked Councillor

In November 2013, the East of England LGA with Public-I published a research report which considered how to increase the effectiveness of councillors in the online world beyond the current mixed picture. The report is available here

It lays out the evidence to support the idea that we need all our elected representatives to be comfortable and effective in the online space and recommends the need to develop new models of training, mentoring and support to help councillors be effective in a digital and networked world.

Since publishing the final report, in 2014 we delivered two pilot programmes in two areas in the East of England: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Suffolk. 

A taste of the programme

While many of the skills and issues are common, councils will approach this process differently and with a different idea of how they, as councillors, want to achieve online and the type of relationship they want to have with the public. The programme was designed in order to provide the opportunity for each council to shape its own response to this new landscape and not simply learn by rote, but below provides a flavour of what was on offer.

The Networked Councillor programme is designed as action learning, so that councillors can build their own skills, understanding and digital footprint.  It was delivered through three workshops in each area.

The theme of each was:
• Understand your digital footprint and current network
• Develop skills to shape that network and manage debates online
• Develop skills to influence your network and lead effectively in this context
The aim of the programme was to enable councillor to:
• Be able to integrate social media into their workflow
• Be able to measure and understand their digital footprint and have made informed choices about the tools that they are using
• Actively influence others online
• Actively manage their online networks and reach

Councillors were also be supported with technical skills training to help them get to grips with the tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogs and websites.

Lessons learnt

The following lessons have been drawn from across the pilot programmes.

Councillors who chose to use more than one type of social media ended up with bigger networks and more benefit. What proved more important than any particular choice of blogging platform or social network was the combination of at least two platforms, one for providing detail and another for listening and networking in the community. A blog is the ideal for going into detail on any issue as can a dedicated Facebook page, however without the community reach of a network such as Twitter or Facebook, these posts can have little impact.

Every council is different - and the audience on social media will be different too. Whilst we assumed this would be the case, it became clear very quickly that every council has its own, distinct
requirements. Each cohort has presented with different concerns and priorities, and each council has its own, unique audience.

Mixed groups are less effective. Have a cohort which is split between different councils has worked less well – there is a reduced commitment to shared learning and also greater logistical issues which make the programme more difficult to run. The other mix that has been experienced is in terms of skills. With a single council cohort it is easier to ‘stream’ the participants based on their levels of knowledge and therefore deliver a more appropriate level of content to them.

Having some kit really helped. Councillors in some of the councils we worked with were provided with iPads. We found that this really helped to introduce the idea of digital activities and integrating this into their existing council workflow. Case work is increasingly coming through social media and everyone having the same basic equipment to handle this on the move is vital to respond effectively in a networked society.

Officer support of members is easier for community officers. In some of the pilot councils, it became apparent that officers with community engagement experience found it easier to support members on the programme as they already have extended contact with members and know the issues arising in the community.

Councils need to help councillors by creating social-media friendly content. More content from Council departments could be prepared in a more easily shareable format that members could use to answer common questions or address current issues. This could include news and bulletins utilising short-links to stories, which are easily shared via social media.

Councillors are better placed to hold difficult conversations with the public than council officers - so let them. Councillors have a unique relationship with their residents which allows them to deliberate much more freely than any officer can. This needs to be seen as an advantage and encouraged throughout councils.

Most of what councillors say on social media really isn't political.  Certainly from what we have seen from the Facebook and Twitter posts of our participants to date, and know from them directly, councillors wherever possible avoid being political in their social media posts.

It's better to bring councillors into council's engagement work than hold them at arm's length in case they say something controversial. The concern around political bias in social media posts is one of the main reasons communication departments appear to avoid promoting or retweeting the posts of councillors, however knowing that most of their posts are not political and that they have a very direct relationship with residents, making councillors part of the council’s engagement activities would be the most effective route to effective networks and coproduction of services.

What next?

The pilots did indicate that the programme provides a number of possibilities with respect to wider organisational change ambitions. For example:

  • Supporting changes to the way in which the Council works with the community and develops more coproductive relationships
  • Redesign of the member support function
  • Cultural change with respect to the member/officer relationship
  • Supporting greater use of digital & networked technologies throughout the council