Communities in ‘Control’? Meh.

On the day that the results of a poll in London reveal that, while one in four Londoners would like to be a local politician, hardly anyone knows anything about them or what they do, Hazel Blears has a piece published asking for councillors to be given more control.

First up, that survey. Reported on

One in four Londoners are interested in becoming a local councillor – despite widespread ignorance about what their councils actually do, according to a survey commissioned by London Councils.

The poll, carried out by Ipsos MORI, revealed that almost half the people surveyed incorrectly believe that their local council runs the police and hospitals.

Only two in five people know which political party runs their own local council, and just 6 per cent of Londoners know the name of their council’s leader.

But despite this, one in four said they would be interested in standing for election as a local councillor.

The results also showed that many people were confused about the role of a councillor. While 71 per cent of people know that councillors receive some payment for their council work, 52 per cent wrongly believe they must represent a political party and 32 per cent think they must hold a formal qualification.

This of course is nothing new, and not unique to London. People are not generally aware of what their local authorities do for them. Whether they would still be so interested in being a councillor once they knew what it’s about might be another matter.

Hazel Blears, Communities and Local Government Minister, thinks councillors, like everyone else these days, need to be ’empowered’:

…the white paper will include a new set of powers for local authorities to be able to promote democracy. This ‘duty to promote democracy’ will mean that local councils are placed in their proper context: not as units of local administration, but as lively, vibrant hubs of democracy.

All this will be revealed in the community empowerment white paper – Communities in Control – to be published this Wednesday (9/7/08). That’s a bit of a weird title, isn’t it? Isn’t control what most of this stuff is supposed to not be about?

Andrew Brown has his say on the matter, tying things in neatly to his local context:

My guess is that Hazel wouldn’t see Lewisham as somewhere which has too many problems on this front, and she’d be right, to an extent. The development of ward based assemblies seems to significantly enhance the community leadership opportunities for councillors, and my experience was that Lewisham’s officers have a healthy respect for the democratic mandate. But, I still think that more could be done to promote the decisions that are being taken and the political debates that are currently being had by our elected representatives.

I had a chance to have a modest input into the White Paper by attending Simon Berry’s Web24Gov workshop at CLG last month. I doubt the whole eDemocracy/eGovernment/eWhatever agenda will get much of a mention, which is a shame as it is potentially so important.

Social web tools help people get together – the proof is in the number of STDs people are catching. Now, there is no reason why this stuff can’t be used to get people into town halls as well as clap clinics.

  • The rise in working hours and commutes means that a lot of people don’t have the time or energy to go out to meetings or other events. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be involved however, and the social web provides an ideal interface for them to do so remotely.
  • The use of tagging and aggregation means that people can quickly and easily find the information they want on the web – provided they can find and are comfortable with the right tools to do so.
  • The use of new media communication tools allows local politicians and activists to put their message directly to the people, without the need to go through the filter of the local press. It also means they can get feedback through comments – both positive and negative – and can respond in kind, thus creating a dynamic conversation. The CivicSurf project promotes this brilliantly.

Do I think that the social web is the cure to all the problems of local democracy? Of course not. But I do think it can help, and it can help quickly and cheaply. My message to civic leaders: Keep doing surgeries. Keep distributing newsletters. But just spend a bit of time getting to know these new media forms, because they offer a direct line to people who might just have the ideas and enthusiasm you are looking for.

But talk of ‘control’ – however defined and however well intentioned – doesn’t really do anyone any good at all.

9 thoughts on “Communities in ‘Control’? Meh.”

  1. I think the social web does have a lot to add, and I would be amazed if it went by without mention in the White Paper. How deep do the tentacles reach, however? I have my suspicions that the difference in reach between Andrew Brown’s ward assemblies and most kinds of social networking is pretty wide (or perhaps they’re circles on the Venn diagram that don’t cross over).

    What evidence is there (and this is an honest question, not a snark) about the extent to which social networking can reach a reasonably representative sector of society?

  2. Quite! Hence why I bang on about blending this cool, shiny online stuff with the boring old offline things people have been doing for years. New media doesn’t kill old media, and should be treated as an as-well-as, not an instead-of.

    That makes it sound like extra work, but it isn’t really because it is dead easy, and in most cases free, to do. As long as people know where to look, which is where programmes like CivicSurf come into play.

    The other point that is well worth making, though, is that the social media and networks savvy section of the population (and I am generalising massively here) are an interested, enthusastic and slightly geeky bunch who like getting involved and like making things better. Ideal folk to have on board, I would think.

  3. Definitely as-well-as, but definitely worth doing too.

    It seems to me that there’s quite a lot of bleed between off line social activists and online ones at least around where I live. But even were there not the point would be about trying to develop that spark of wanting to participate positively in our communities.

    If that stuff about only 1% of people being social activists is anywhere near true then we should use every tool in the book. Or so it seems to me.

  4. Andrew – thanks for stopping by, and I agree with you totally. Even if only one or two peole are brought into the conversation as the result of a blog or other online initiative, it will have been worth doing!

  5. Dave,

    I do believe in the value of the social web for politics & government as well. But I do not believe that it is “cheap or free” as you have repeatedly pointed out. Even if we look at FLOSS it requires quiet a lot of implementation and/or configuration efforts. However, much more energy has to be spent to develop appropriate concepts for the use of social web tools, community management, content generation etc. pp. Participation remains a costly thing to realise, esp. for PAs

  6. Rolf, of course there is a commitment required in terms of time and effort, to create content and manage responses to it. But in comparison to the potential quality of conversation you get in return, it is a relatively small cost.

    And it’s not just about the open source thing. A self-hosted WordPress site is still going to need maintenance and other work, despite being open source. But if you just want a blog, use or Blogger, which really are maintenance free, technology wise.

  7. “71 per cent of people know that councillors receive some payment for their council work, 52 per cent wrongly believe they must represent a political party” – I don’t know if it’s different in London or if this was only asking about particular levels of council, but I don’t get paid for parish council work and it seems pretty rare that independents get elected to anything apart from parishes. Even the neighbouring town council seems pretty party political.

    I’m going to try to make more of an effort to use social media to discuss the council’s work, but not many of our electors are using the same forums yet, as far as I can tell.

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