Who Comes to Who?

I recently attended a training event for local authority Scrutiny Officers and left somewhat disheartened by something I had heard said which was met with general agreement in the room. In a discussion about innovation in Scrutiny the topic of social media and driving engagement through it came up and, as a newcomer to local authority Scrutiny, I was eager to pick up tips and examples of best practice however an Officer in the room said that they felt it was relatively pointless after an experiment at their authority had gathered only a handful of public participants and that if the public care enough about a topic they will make it to the town hall. 

It was the general agreement that worried me more, it demonstrated to me that what I believed to be wrong was a view that was widely shared amongst my peers. To me it seemed an abdication of duty from Scrutiny officers who should help people access Scrutiny and local government decision making and yet the onus, it seemed, is being put on members of the public to get to the town hall for a meeting. This is not an easy thing to do for many - people are tired from long days at work, they need to look after their children, they may not want to venture out on a dark winters night and all these things stand even if the topic of a meeting is important to them and of course this assumes that the Council has communicated the meeting to the public. Surely the onus is on Scrutiny and its practitioners to make people aware of what Scrutiny is and to assist them in being able to have their say by providing as many access points as they can.

The general disdain for social media was also a shock as I see it as a huge part of providing these access points, it is in everyones front rooms, bedrooms, pockets and hands. Scrutiny is a newcomer to it, ideas will come and go and people should not be afraid of poor responses and failure at first, it is all part of finding out what works. Also a handful of responses on social media is often higher than public turnout at town hall meetings and should absolutely not be sniffed out. Allowing people to communicate with their elected representatives and local decision making from the comfort of their own sofa, in their own time and on their own terms should be a clear goal of Scrutiny Officers nationwide. The public care about local politics and often when something they really care about is being discussed at the town hall they either can't make it or don't know it's on. Whose fault is that? For me, it certainly is not theirs. 


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maureen clark 5 Years Ago
I think you raise an important issue. It seems arrogant, and possibly politically expedient, to assume the public are apathetic when the problem may lie in the medium of communicating.
Pamela Welsh 5 Years Ago
Tom Hancock 5 Years Ago
I don't think there is a member of the public who is truly apathetic about politics. At some point in their day to day life they will come across something they like or don't like that at some point was decided upon by a politician, and often a local politician. Often times it may be that people do not fully realise this. Local government thus needs to be accessible from a number of points for these people to be aware that they can let their views be known to people who sit down, debate and decide on the issues that affect the look of their street, or the design of the town.
Kit Harbottle 5 Years Ago
Another reason people may not go to meetings is reluctance to express views in public. Even those of us who are experienced at speaking in public may not want the exposure, includng possible unpopularity if expressing a minority view. However responding via social media can add to this problem unless there is an option to remain anonymous.
Tom Hancock 5 Years Ago
Kit, thank you very much for your comment. I agree that getting up in front of a room full of people in the atmosphere that exists in a formal public meeting is hard for people to do who are not used to that, and those people definitely will have views that need to be heard. I think that the fact that people can give their comments from the comfort of their own home and not in the environment of the public meeting is a fantastic opportunity for local government to harness those views. I can see the worry about the social media 'mob' turning on somebody with a minority view, this is something that local authorities would need to be careful and mindful of and that they should welcome anonymous views in order to protect those who worry about the wrath of a 'mob'. I really do think that local authorities have so much to gain from increasing access to local democracy and should keep it as easy and as informal as it needs to be.
Stacy Cosham 5 Years Ago
This is a tough issue, at my Authority there is a clear generation link to the use or support for the use of social media. I have ensured that our Members are appraised of how to protect themselves online while also encouraging them to join the conversations. For scrutiny specifically I've commenced a three year pilot using social media to specifically talk about Scrutiny and the work they are doing. So far public engagement has been tempid but recent posts have sparked a huge debate and raised our online presence significantly. The tough arguement is convince your peers that low engagement is to be expected but should not put them off using those communication tools. Get out there, get talking about scrutiny, get educating the people about the scrutiny function and how it can benefit them, and then when something occurs that would 'make them want to come to the Town Hall' you are already there and ready for them online and at the Town Hall. Simply promoting when meetings are taking place and what is being discussed is a good start to get the public informed.
Tom Hancock 5 Years Ago
Thank you for your comment . I would really like to learn about your social media pilot and get a sense of the things that you are doing to make use of social media. I think that you are completely right that initial low engagement should not be seen as a failure at all, given that in monetary terms it is fairly low cost and that engagement is low across the board and across almost all methods. Instead failure should be seen as a learning point to help better focus what you do, when and how on social media. I don't think it is sustainable anymore to not have some form of social media plan for scrutiny or other democratic functions, it is as much a part of peoples lives and the way they engage in politics as going to public meetings or writing letters has been in the past. My only fear is that as a whole across the country scrutiny is behind the curve in using social media so I absolutely salue the work you are doing.
Stacy Cosham 5 Years Ago
Hi. I thought given the context of this article and the comments below that others may be interested in joining a regular, weekly twitter discussion focused on how Scrutiny can use Social Media. It was brought about at the CfPS annual unconference in June, the thread was launched in July by Dave McKenna as part of his ongoing Local Democracy Bytes project. It runs every Tuesday 7pm-8pm using the hashtag #scrusm It is on a break during the school holidays but will commence again in September. Its really worth a follow and to join the conversation.
Tom Hancock 5 Years ago in reply to Stacy Cosham .
Stacy, Thanks for pointing out the tweetchat. Definitely will be joining in on that when it restarts in September. Tom