Parish Councils and Social Media

For the last four plus years Graham Williams and I have been fighting an uphill struggle to get our Parish Council to accept the changes in behaviour required from them by the; 2011 Local Government Act, the Lancashire Community Engagement Parish Charter, the Governments 2015 Briefing Paper “Parish and Town Councils: Recent Issues”, The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 and the 2014 Parish Council Transparency Code published by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Their failure to respond to the wealth of criticism on this Blog resulted in the public meeting held on 20 March, being called following a message, posted on this Blog, by Colin Hall.  In his message Colin acknowledged the criticisms, predominant among which was the above mentioned failure of the PC to communicate with the people it is supposed to serve.  The meeting resulted in a PC controlled website which, unfortunately has not addressed the underlying problem, which is the need for the PC to have a bi-directional method of communicating with, and being contacted by, the parishioners whose views they are supposed to canvas and incorporate in their decision making process.

In their report for August the Organisation “Communities, Parish and Local Councils” Have once again drawn attention to this need to communicate with parishioners, their report contains the following statement:

In no particular order, here are the top ten reasons for Councillors to use social media.

  1. It boosts the number of people you can reach when talking about the good work you have done for your area. This includes the local press who can pick up on your stories without you having to press release them. “Social media is a good way to tell people what you actually do as a councillor.” Nick Bason, Waltham Forrest
  2. Unlike traditional media/leaflet dropping, it allows for two-way communication so you get immediate feedback on your plans or manifesto and can react accordingly. “Social media is an immediate, unmediated and two-way channel of communication with people we represent and need to engage with.” Steven Adams, Buckinghamshire
  3. It allows you to connect with a different type of resident-who perhaps can’t give up time to come to council meetings or surgeries. “My website had 1,000 visits in first 9 weeks after it was re-launched. I know that residents are being informed.” Ken Hawkins, Solihull
  4. With Twitter you can follow or create conversations on many different interest levels, so you might follow some people because they tweet about your party and others because they are involved in local issues. Some may talk about the issues faced by councillors generally, while another group might be based around your favourite football team. So depending on who you follow Twitter can become a one-stop-shop for the news and views you are interested in. “It’s the widening of the local government network. Councillors tend to be isolated into small groups, but social media can create larger groups.” Tim Cheetham, Barnsley
  5. Campaigns can ‘go viral’ with social media. If you are trying to save a local amenity from closure or hoping to prevent an unpopular planning application from being approved, these campaigns can grow exponentially if they are picked up on-line. A blog can help explain the cause and Twitter and Facebook will help you spread the word. “Twitter helps me keep in touch with what others locally are thinking and seeing. Broadcasting is one thing, but listening is more useful!” Tim Prater, Folkestone Town Council
  6. Help bring your community together and combat extremism. It is important that respectable politicians stand up against extremism in all areas of public debate including the social web. “Communication isn’t just about broadcasting information, it’s an exchange of information. Our new website is a vital tool for us to better engage with all sections of the community.” Antony Bull, Chairman, Southwater Parish Council
  7. The conversations are already happening without you. Many citizens are already using social media to talk about local issues – and they are often bemoaning the lack of a response from their council or councillors. This is an opportunity to become involved. Even if you can’t solve the problem straight away, you can acknowledge it and offer to look into it “In such a fast moving world, councils need to keep up or get left behind. Smart councils and councillors are now taking advantage of technology and social media to drive communications, innovation and improvement” Michael Chater, Chairman, National Association of Local Councils
  8. It’s simple and cheap to do. Using social media costs nothing more than time, there are no printing costs and you can do it from the comfort of your home or office, rather than out in the elements. “I’d possibly suggest twitter as being a good place to start, as essentially it’s asking you what you are doing – which is a question most people should be able to answer.” Anthony Mckeown, High Peak Borough Council
  9. It’s one of the best ways to engage with young people. Young people are increasingly using social media as a means of communication and entertainment and if we hope to get them involved in local democracy it is important to use the tools they use to speak to them. “By using the modes of communication young people are using then hopefully we can get them involved in campaigning and even becoming councillors themselves.” Andrew Palfreeman, Kirklees Council
  10. People will connect with you on a personal level. When handled properly, social media accounts are great at letting people get to know you a little better, allowing them to warm to you rather than just seeing you as an extension of the council. “When I started with my biog it was a little like firing an arrow into the sky. I was never sure whether anyone would actually notice. Then the local newspaper started to follow up some of my blog entries. Stories both personal and in my capacity as a councillor started to appear in print My bowling club colleagues started to comment on the frequency I was being featured! All in all, in my view, social media in local government have a clear future ahead. My advice is ‘pick up your bow and start firing the odd arrow or two!’.” Sean Brady, Formby Parish Council.

It is impossible to say exactly why the PC is reluctant to accept their responsibilities, and to amend their procedures accordingly.  I have my suspicions, chief among which is that there is a Luddite element on the PC which is resistant to any form of modernisation or change.  I encourage the Parish Council to respond to this post with their reasons for ignoring this issue, which is central to the Governments plans for Local Democracy.

John Keegan

The accompanying document by the Governments Improvement and Development Agency provides detailed information to help Parish Councillors: Connected Councillors.

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