Ten top internet tips for councillors

After a break of a week, the guest posts are back! This time it’s Mark Pack, who has written a handy guide for councillors on how to get to grips with the net.

It is pretty rare these days to find a councillor who doesn’t use the internet, at least occasionally. However, in part because the average age of councillors means that the vast majority are not ‘internet natives’, that often does not amount to much more than frequent use of email, a familiarity with the basics of searching on Google and not that much else. So in an attempt to help close the gap, here are my top ten tips for councillors. Any list like this is bound to exclude some tips which other people think are vital, so by all means post up a comment saying what you think should have been included in the list.

1. Get a feed reader (also known as a news readers or RSS reader)

These days nearly all news sites and blogs, along with many other websites, offer an RSS feed (sometimes called a ‘news feed’, or simply ‘RSS’ or ‘feeds’). You can sign up to the feed with a feed reader, and then, in future, when a new story appears on the site, it will appear in your feed reader, saving you the time otherwise spent checking on sites to see if they have anything new.

Google Reader – www.google.com/reader – is reliable, free and has a wide range of functions. It is by no means the only one available, but it’s a good safe choice.

Once you have set up your feed reader, you can tell it to keep an eye on a website either by inputting the web address into the feed reader software, or by visiting the website and then looking for the ’sign-up to a feed reader’, ’subscribe to RSS’ or similar option on screen (frequently accompanied by an orange square with curves cutting across it).

2. Use Google and Microsoft’s free satellite photos

Whether it is pondering a planning application, wondering about transport proposals or trying to picture a particular community, it is often useful to be able to see what an area looks like from the comfort of your desk.

Both Google – maps.google.co.uk and pick “satellite” in the top right – and Microsoft – http://www.bing.com/maps/?cc=uk and click “bird’s eye” – provide free comprehensive satellite photography of the UK.

Google has the bonus of its Street View for many areas, so you can not just look down on an area but also look at it from street level. Microsoft on the other hand has a slanted bird’s eye view, which can be particularly useful for trying to picture how a new development will look and affect an area.

3. FixMyStreet

This is a free service for the public to report local issues such as potholes and dumped rubbish to their council. Usage varies hugely around the country, but it’s a good way of keeping tabs on what some members of the public are concerned about in your area. Go to http://www.fixmystreet.com/alert and you can sign up to receive automatic notifications of new reports in the area of interest to you.

It is particularly useful for councillors who can use examples from the site as a sanity check against what the council staff and reports say about how the different departments are performing.

4. Planning Alerts

If you are a councillor, the chances are you are inundated with information about planning applications anyway. But make a visit to http://www.planningalerts.com/ and you can sign up to very clear and convenient alerts (including via RSS) which you can then use to spot what to dig out from all your council papers. It is also a very useful tool to highlight to non-councillor colleagues and constituents.

5. Use Google Alerts

Head over to www.google.com/alerts, enter the search term you want (such as Indeterminate Council) along with your email address. You can choose how often you want to receive the alerts, such as ‘once a day’ so that the alerts are reasonably timely but don’t distract you too much from what you should be doing!

These alerts are a very useful supplement to having a feed reader. Feed readers are great where you are regularly wanting news from the same sites; the alerts fit in where you want news on a particular topic, almost regardless of which site it has appeared on.

6. Flickr

Flickr lets you easily store photographs online for all to see, such as photos of local issues or your campaigning work. That then means they are all in one convenient place for future use or reference (no more scratching around for copies of photographs when you need them for a leaflet). It is also somewhere you can point journalists or residents to and it avoids the need to email round huge photos (which then fill up someone’s inbox or bounce).

All those benefits apply even if you don’t do anything else online, but Flickr also works easily with blogs, websites, Twitter and Facebook. If you have any mix of those, you can put your photos on Flickr and then reuse them easily.

7. Use communities.idea.gov.uk

I’ve not used this site myself, but it’s been strongly recommended to me (thanks @mariejenkins) and it looks to be a good way of sharing knowledge and gathering information.

8. Install Google Desktop search

Another free tool from Google – http://desktop.google.com/. This is a very quick search program which looks through just the contents of your computer. But it does it fast and goes through emails and documents at the same time. On a decent speed computer it is so quick, you will often find that searching is quickly than remembering where a file was and then clicking through your different folders to get to it.

9. Keep your computer in good shape with CCleaner and Secunia PSI

Given that amount of personal data about other people that is likely to pass through your computer, even if you do only the smallest amount of casework, keeping your computer secure should be taken seriously. Plus getting infected with a nasty can end up taking up huge amounts of time and cause great inconvenience whilst it gets sorted.

You should have an anti-virus program and firewall anyway, and these days it is hard to get a computer without them. Adding these two free programs – http://www.ccleaner.com/ and http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/personal/ – will give you a lot of extra protection at very little effort.

CCleaner is a program you can run regularly to keep you computer clean and tidy, which helps its performance as well as wrinkling out possible problems. Secunia can scan your computer to spot missing security patches and then point you at the right place to install them. (Both are for Windows computers.)

10. Make use of the previous nine tips

Don’t think that any of these tips are too complicated or too time consuming. You need very little skill with a computer to do them – and there are plenty of people who can help. With a little investment of time you will end up being able to do your job better and saving much more time as the weeks and months go by.

Mark Pack worked for the Liberal Democrats 2000-2009, ending up as their Head of Innovations. During that time he often trained councillors on how to make better use of the internet. He’s now at Mandate Communications (www.YourMandate.com) and blogs about politics, history and technology at www.MarkPack.org.uk. He’s on Twitter at @markpack

Bookmarks for July 27th through August 20th

Stuff I have bookmarked for July 27th through August 20th:

The web and safeguarding – a new project

Dom Campbell of FutureGov has blogged about the start of a new project around how the web can help improve and innovate in children’s services.

This project will kick off with a get together of interested folk:

To start off with, we are looking to bring together multi-disciplinary senior manager and practitioners, from childrens social services, to teachers, police and health workers, with social web technologist, public service designer, funders – or even just people who have a personal passion for this area – to help us design and run a small Safeguarding 2.0 pilot. Nothing big in the first instance, more a proof of concept if you like, but with the potential to transform the way in which professionals and non-professionals alike might better share information and form the kinds of relationships that might prevent future tragedies.

This seems a great project, and if you’re interested in this area, I would strongly recommend attending the round table event. More details embedded below:



LocalGovCamb is the latest regional LocalGovCamp to be arranged. I’m helping put this together with Michele Ide-Smith.

There are hardly any details, really. December this year or January 2010. Somewhere in Cambridge. Theme will be local government innovation.

While the event is obviously targetted at authorities close by to Cambridge, there is no resason why folk from further afar shouldn’t attend.

Visit and bookmark http://localgovcamb.com and keep abreast of the latest information. You can also submit your interest in the event.

Social media staff guidelines

There is a lot of discussion about social media policies, especially in government. People want documents to set out how staff can and should use social networks and other websites to engage with citizens and groups, and what the protocol should be when staff comment on blogs or forums in an ‘official’ capacity.

The obvious starting point for this stuff is the online participation guidance for civil servants. These are the high level pointers that Tom Watson requested be developed when he was Minister for Digital Engagement.

These guidelines should, I think, form the basis of any social media policy. Most organisations will, I think, probably want to refine them a bit, however.

In a recent bit of work I have been doing for a client, I wrote up an online participation policy for a specific campaign. This basically listed the standard guidelines, but on top I added three scenarios and what the approach should be to contributing in online discussion spaces:

  • If the information you are posting is already in the public domain, for example it has been included in a press release or similar communication, then post it without needing to discuss with others
  • If the information you are posting is merely a pointer to another online resources, then again, post away with confidence
  • If, however, the response you need to give is providing either new guidance or content, or is expressing a view, then check this with the appropriate policy and communications officials to ensure it is accurate and that everyone is aware of what is being said

Another good place to start for anyone developing this kind of policy would be Carl Haggerty’s blog, where he has kindly shared the document he is developing for his local authority.

If you need even more inspiration, then check out this post from Laurel Papworth, linking to loads of different examples of enterprise level social media policies. Thanks to Steve Dale for pointing out the link.

Free Local Gov E-Learning Event in Ripley

Learning Pool

Learning Pool are running a free breakfast meeting for local authorities in the East and West Midlands.

This meeting will give you the chance to see and hear what your neighboring local authorities are doing with E-Learning, hear how you can create efficiency savings using e-learning as well as give you an opportunity to share your own thoughts and ideas.

It takes place in Ripley, Derbyshire on 3 September between 9.30 and 12.30.

You can find out more and book yourself a place by visiting the Learning Pool website.

You’d be daft to miss it.

GoogleLocalGov community

Those who attended, or would have liked to have done, the Google event last week might be interested in a new group we have set up:


To talk about how local government can use Google tools. Though this isn’t an official Google space, it will have Google folk as members who will be able to join in where they feel they can help.

To save you a click or two, here’s a handy form…

Google Groups
Subscribe to GoogleLocalGov

Visit this group

Win! Win! Win!

I was lucky, in a sense, to get this through the post today as a reward for subscribing to a magazine:

“In a sense”, because I already own it.

‘So!’ I thought. ‘Here’s a chance for a competition!’

If you want the book, all you have to do is comment on this post. Put what you like in the body of the comment, all I really need is your name and email address. Mossychops will then pick a winner at random next Friday (21st August).

Good luck!

Getting noticed: The Five Step Programme

The second Wednesday guest post! Thanks to Sarah for this great post – if you’d like to contribute, just email me – and being called Sarah isn’t necessarily a requirement!

Online communication isn’t always taken seriously. It’s a nice to have on top of offline work or something organisations have been told to do. It isn’t necessarily considered a channel in its own right. And those that work online aren’t always respected in terms of their skills, their knowledge or the value they can bring.

Convincing others of your worth within an organisation is sometimes a bigger hurdle than convincing them of the value of online communications.

So, how to go about raising your profile and getting social media offerings to the table? I’ve worked up a list of five approaches. This list isn’t exhaustive. I’d like to hear people argue against or add their own take and experience.

1. Passion

Fall in love with online but don’t be blind to limitations and suitability. Talk to anyone who will listen about the possibilities but respect their concerns. Be able to explain why you are passionate about online – have examples of where social media has helped improve life, improved efficiency (internally or for citizens) or has saved money (pick according to your audience). Be savvy and believe in what you’re trying to get others to see the value of. And while being a geek is something to be cherished try to remember than social media is about being social so get out there and talk!

2. Persuasion

You may be the only person that believes that online communication, social media and digital engagement has an important part in your organisation. This can lead to frustration, doubts about your sanity and a relentless need to persuade others to listen to your suggestions. A good way to get people to listen to you is to listen to them – why don’t they value / understand / like online? Once you understand where they are coming from you can work out how best to showcase options to them. They still might not be sold but at the very least they will be more aware of what social media is (and probably think you’re a decent, reasonable sort as well).

3. Persistence

Things move slowly in the public sector, and social media is developing fast. Be the middle ground between the need to develop strategy, policy, protocol and being left behind because by the time you get to the dock that particular online ship has sailed.
Just because the answer is no today doesn’t mean the answer will be no tomorrow. Keep making suggestions, keep listening to the concerns around the use of social media, keep trying out ideas. Just keep on keeping on.

4. Private sector attitude

If you believe you could lose your customers to a competitor you’ll try harder to be the first with innovation and the best with services. We’re all citizens as well as public sector employees so what use of social media would make your personal dealings with the council easier? What would your neighbour, your mum, your friends find more useful. In the private sector you need to get the edge on your competitors and by having this attitude in the public sector you’ll get closer to delivering above and beyond what is expected and be able to prove why what you’re doing is of value to the organisation.

5. Play, practice, prove

Alright, that’s not one but three things. I really mean knowing what you’re talking about. Being passionate and persuasive will come more naturally if you use and know social media. The Internet is a playground so don’t be afraid to try out new platforms and ideas. Get to know other people in the sector and find out what they’re doing, share your ideas and experience with them. Collectively we can be more innovative and efficient than working in silos. And gather your evidence. Know how many people are online and using social media, know the demographics of different platforms, know how far you reach with online communications, know what your citizens think of what you’re doing. Know which tool to use for which job.

So, what do others think? Anyone used a different approach or mix in order to get word out about what they can do for the organisation with social media?

Sarah Lay blogs at www.sarahlay.com, works in online communications for Derbyshire County Council (who don’t necessarily share her views) and is studying for a Masters in eCommunications, concentrating on local government use of social media. She is also the organiser of the first social media cafe for Derby and Derbyshire. If you live or work in the area and are interested in online communications and social media come along to meet others – find out more and join the group.