At Kirklees Council, a cross-party team of members has been part of the 21st Century Councillor pilot scheme.
This innovative project aims to develop councillors’ internet skills and encourage more people to become elected representatives. Not only have the group looked at the value of using social media, but the council’s web team has created individual ward portals, which gather information from across the web and present it in one place alongside the members’ blog posts and comments, planning applications and complaints and suggestions from the public, making it easier for councillors to find out what a wide range of voices are saying about their area.
The councillors taking part in the programme have been offered help to make videos, set up social media accounts and write blogs. They have also been advised how the different tools can be used to reach different audiences for different purposes.
Kirklees is hoping that increased social media use will allow councillors to engage more effectively with citizens and also increase the appeal of becoming a councillor to a wider and younger audience.
Each of the four members have so far taken different lessons from the ongoing work:
“You’ve got to find as many ways as you can to engage with people. Lets face it, it’s used by a lot of young people and we’ve got to try and engage with them as much as possible. It’s also important for politicians to go through the discipline of having views and opinions and being able to express them and having a blog helps me work out how I feel about things in my own mind.”
Cath Harris (Labour) is wary of social media becoming the main strand of communication for councillors, because many people in her ward don’t want to or are unable to access it, but she still feels it has a role to play for councillors.
“I can see this is a good way to contact young people because this is the media they tend to use. But councillors need to be aware it is just one method of communication and it is important to engage with a wide range of the community by using all the communication methods available.”
Andrew Palfreeman (Conservative) has found some barriers to using social media including the council’s own firewall, but believes it is important to make the effort.
“Its important to make it easier to contact councillors and for people to be aware of what their councillors are doing. By using the modes of communication young people are using then hopefully we can get them involved in campaigning and even becoming councillors themselves.”
David Woodhead (Liberal Democrat) writes a blog which has grown to between 2000 and 3000 readers a month. He finds the two way communication of social media helps him talk to and hear local residents.
“I can communicate my messages to the electorate and they can respond and let me know what they think. Traditionally we have done this face to face, but as more and more people communicate through social media we need to keep-up. I would urge all councillors to look at it and I’m sure they will be pleasantly surprised with how easy it is. I had some training and downloaded the blogging tool from the party website. I have since gone on to encourage eight or nine colleagues to start a blog.”