After giving a training session on social media to a group of Councillors today it struck me that there is a high level of enthusiasm to embrace new platforms that allow members to engage their residents and a real acknowledgement that these residents are already having conversations on Facebook and Twitter et al that elected members are missing out on. Councillors seem to 'get it' with social media and want to use it but just seem to need some initial help in getting to grips with a technology they are not familiar with. I hope that the training sessions being put on by Council's across the country help to push Councillors into the social media realm so that they can hold conversations with more and more people.
So whilst in my reseach for the training, and carrying out I found that Councillors seem keen and Councils, to some extent, want to encourage usage there are many facets of the picture of local government that are just not up to scratch with the terms of social media. An example arose of this when I considered whether we could advise Councillors that it was OK to use their Council-supplied smartphones to go on Twitter. It seemed to make complete and utter sense to allow this as it would clealry help them to actually use the platforms we wanted to train them to use but accoridng to the rules, designed for a different age it was not that simple. It dawned upon me that Council equipment can only be used for the purposes of the Councillors 'official role' so could not be used for anything party political or personal. Given that on Twitter and Facebook it is easy to re-tweet a political message or make a political point or say something on a personal level this casued a problem. I felt it would be silly to make this distinction to Councillors to say to them that they can log on on Council equipment but as soon as they want to say something unrelated to ward work they would need to log off and find a different device - not their Council supplied laptop- then log on and send that message but yet this is exactly the message that the rules we have to work within demanded be given. It seems to be clear to me that the rules in this case are in need of modernisation.
A further example of the rules needing urgent updating come from election periods and how they fit the constant churn and updating of social media accounts. Is it reasonable to expect a politician to imprint twitter posts and facebook updates with the various information. This seems to again be a rule for a bygone age of printing that has just been blanketed over all types of communications that it is just not suitable for. Should you have to recored political advertising via Twitter and can this cost be quantified, or if you tweet a campaign poster to activists who then print it off should you be recording their costs or must you explicitly state instructions via every tweet? The rules don't seem to be enitrely clear and the electoral commission, to my knowledge, do not seem to have laid out clearly how social media campaigning works in practical terms for a local Council candidate, as far as I can tell in their information on candidate spending there are mentions of newspapers, leaflets and websites but not one mention of social media. Given the flux that social media has caused in other professions,practices and industries it seems odd to be entirely silent on the issue even if you believe the rules don't apply.
Times change, technologies progress and people change their habits. It is a great challenge for local authorities and those that govern and make rules to keep apace with change and it may be impossible to stay ahead of the game however it could be suggested that there is a need for greater responsiveness and flexibility from rule-makers to help willing and able people to use new and exciting platforms to carry out their roles as democratic representatives. Confusion and obstacles can put people off, which would be a crying shame for democracy.