Bums on seats at public meetings can be a real challenge for any local authority.
Unless there is a big local issue to engage people, a date with local councillors in a community centre on a rainy Wednesday night can be a tough one to keep. Equally, people lead busy lives and a public meeting is one too many balls to juggle along with work, family commitments and Coronation Street.
So when Dudley Council came up with the concept of community forums, making it as easy as possible for people to get involved was a top priority. There’s 10 held at community centres and village halls across the borough every other month.
They reflect the council’s desire to become a “community council” and the authority is keen to build on local democracy and transparency and give people a greater say in how their council is run. After all, there are lots of stories to tell from the borough’s communities about the work people do, and there’re lots to let them know about how the council can help them continue that work.
Turn out is good, but how do you get more people interested without having to leave the house? Step forward the biggest social media tool on the planet.
The two thousand or so people who like our Dudley Borough Facebook page regularly share posts and let us know when we’ve got things right, and, well, not so right. So we decided to use the platform to give people the opportunity to ask questions and raise issues, and discuss them with senior politicians, they were more than happy to take part. It’s a meeting of people and it’s in public, and early the response has been excellent.
The idea has also attracted regional, national and global praise from the media and communications professionals.
Armed with a coffee and a PC Councillor Pete Lowe, deputy leader of Dudley Council, sat for an hour discussing local issues and answering questions as they came in on the page. On the first one, we had over 1,000 post views and 17 individuals actively take part – more than any single attendance at a physical public community forum. Numbers have stayed steady ever since and the council has gained a real insight into what makes people tick and offered up useful pointers for people including how to access up to £5,000 in funding for community groups. Importantly, people have been able to do all this without leaving the house.
In more recent forums we’ve shared key messages and discussion topics on twitter as they crop up during the hour to widen the audience. The Facebook forum has also now been added as an official council meeting with Cllr Lowe and the communications and public affairs team tasked with maintaining and improving the way they work. The online session is held before each round of 10 forums covering the 24 wards of Dudley borough with the offer of further face to face discussion with elected members if they need it.
The key to their success is buy-in from senior politicians and a genuine desire to hear what people have to say. Luckily we have both in Dudley.