What do we need to be telling councillors about digital?

I’ve done a fair bit of councillor training on digital in the past. Every time it focuses on social media, digital engagement and how members can use the web to interact with the public.

It usually goes away, people have an interesting time and one or two actually start doing new stuff as a result.

However.

Right now I am not convinced that this is the most helpful thing we could be doing with councillors when it comes to digital, the internet, and technology in general.

Just as the work I have been doing recently on capability with civil servants emphasises the importance of understanding the mindset and approaches of digital ways of working, the same is also true of elected members.

After all, members – particularly those with a role on the executive in their authorities – are making decisions with digital implications all the time. They are asked to signed off digital and IT strategies. They might be asked to give their OK to a big spend on the implementation of a new system. They might be signed up to a big transformation programme with a heavy emphasis on digital ways of working.

Do they really have the capability to be making these decisions? Are they asking the right questions of officers? Can they really be held accountable for decisions made which – in al truthfulness – they possibly don’t understand?

I think this is something that needs to be looked at.

The trouble is, as anyone who has been involved in member development knows, providing ‘training’ to councillors is really hard. They are very busy people who operate in a political environment. This means they have little time, and little appetite to admitting weakness or ignorance.

So I think there is something to learn here from the top of the office coaching programme that Stephen and Jason run at DH.

This is where the eight (I think) people right at the top of the organisation get one to one coaching with digital experts once a month – an opportunity to ask questions without fear of looking silly in front of colleagues, and to really dig into what relevance digital has for them and their bit of the organisation.

I’m pretty sure something like this could work very well with councillors – matching them up with digital coaches who could give up an hour a month for (say) six months to provide answers to questions, coaching and mentoring on specific topics and being a sounding board when needed.

It would be great to get people’s thoughts on whether this is a problem that needs a solution, and whether a lightweight volunteer coaching programme would work.

Why be a councillor?

Pretty damning stuff from Cllr Roger Gambba-Jones:

If somebody was to ask me about becoming a councillor nowadays, I’m not sure what I would tell them were the benefits of doing so and I don’t mean to the councillor. Government funding cuts and more and more centralisation of power, hidden behind the facade of Localism, means that getting elected is more likely to become a exercise in frustration and disappointment, than a fulfilling experience in serving the community.

Launching the DigitalCllr survey

surveyI’ve been doing work with local councillors for some time now – helping them see how they can use the internet to better engage with citizens, and communicate with them too.

This takes the form of running training workshops usually. There’s probably a better way of doing it, but they are probably a bit tricky to procure.

Anyway, I’m interested in finding out where we are up to with digitally savvy elected local representatives, so I have thrown together a quick survey. The main aim to to find out what councillors are doing on the internet, and try and spread the word to their less keen colleagues about how it’s working.

So, if you are a councillor, or you know one, spread the word about the survey. Here’s the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/digitalcllr – I’ll be blogging about the results, so we can all benefit.

A bit more on #networkedcllr

This morning’s round table, held by EELGA with the support of Public-i, was an enjoyable couple of hours, hearing about how councillors and others involved in local democracy see the future of the role and the impact the internet and social media will have on it.

One of the best things about the beta Public-i report is that it takes the view of ‘networked’ councillors in the widest possible sense. In other words, not just online networks, but all networks.

So we want our councillors to be available, open, accessible, transparent, collaborative and so on – whatever medium they may use is up to them, as long as it meets the needs of the community they serve.

Go read the report – it’s good stuff.

Following on from the session this morning and in addition to my previous notes, here are a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, there is still a clear need for training for councillors in using the internet and social media. This needs to incorporate hands-on stuff, showing people how to log in, which buttons to press and so on; but also cultural stuff, including the netsmarts that Howard Rheingold talks about. How to write, how to know when to respond, identifying trolls, that sort of thing.

Second, we need to put some thought into what the councillor role should be. I think much of what success looks like for councillors will depend on their original motivation for doing it in the first place. For me, as a parish councillor, I see the role making certain tools – processes and structures and procedures – available to me that wouldn’t be otherwise. So it’s a means to an end to get stuff done for the community.

However, it’s fair to say that the role has barely changed in the last decade or so, despite the radical changes to society, the economy, and how people live their lives. If we were starting from scratch, now, to design how our local elected representatives would perform their role, what would it look like? Nothing like it does now, I’d have thought.

I don’t think it’s possible to make existing councillors change their culture or their worldview. If they haven’t been open and collaborative before now, I don’t see how they can be encouraged to change. The effort should be going into designing a role that will appeal to new councillors, who are net-savvy, time limited, mistrustful of bureaucracy, and so on.

So I am looking forward to where the conversation goes next, and hope to get to play a part!

What makes for a 21st century or networked councillor?

This week we ran a webchat on the What Next for Localism site in partnership with NALC, on the topic of 21st century councillors. You can read the archive via the CoverItLive widget on that site.

On Monday next week, I’ll be popping down to Cambridge to take part in a morning’s round table discussion based on Public-i’s Networked Councillor report, which in a way is an answer to the question posed by NALC but also another question in itself. What should a 21st century councillor be? Networked! So what’s a networked councillor?

The report states the following things that should be part of a networked councillor’s DNA:

  • Open by default: This is open not just in terms of information but also in terms of thinking and decision making
  • Digitally native: Networked Councillors will be native in or comfortable with the online space, not in terms of age but in terms of the individual adopting the behaviours and social norms of the digital culture
  • Co–productive: Co-production is a way of describing the relationship between Citizen and State which brings with it an expectation that everyone in the conversation has power to act and the potential to be active in the outcome as well as the decision-making process
  • Networked: A Networked Councillor will be able to be effective via networked as well as hierarchical power as a leader

It’s hard to argue with much of that.

So, I’m a councillor myself these days, in a small way – I’m a parish councillor in my village in Lincolnshire, and have been since the start of this year. Due to some changes on the council, I’m now vice-chairman and taking on more tasks and more responsibility.

It’s fair to say that up to this point I’ve taken a bit of a watching brief, taking in what the council does, who the personalities are, what some of the history is. Now I’ve got my feed under the table, I’m hoping to start making a few things happen.

For me, and this is just a personal view and other councillors’ mileage may well vary, I want to use the role of councillor within our parish to be a community organiser. To use some of the processes and systems at my disposal to improve things for the community around me.

Right now our council has very little engagement with those not directly involved. This is unsurprising as we don’t really do a lot that’s worth engaging with – for various good reasons, the council has been a rather reactive one. However, I’m hoping we are now entering a stage where we can start to proactively do some stuff.

So first step for me is to remind the village that we exist! Start some small activities to demonstrate that the council is there to help them – perhaps an organised litter pick and similar activities to those. Things for people to get involved in, somewhere down near the bottom of the ladder of participation.

Then hopefully people will see the council as a group that does stuff and doesn’t just talk about it – and of course with actual activity we can start to communicate – it’s hard to talk to people about nothing! We can at that point start to think about local planning, surveying residents about their views and that sort of thing.

So I do agree with Public-i’s list of needs for a modern councillor. I think my personal list would be:

  • passionate – about the local area and improving it for everyone
  • open – to communication, engagement, criticism
  • community focused – working to do what’s right for the whole community, organising and motivating the community to action if necessary
  • accessible – whether down the pub, on the phone or via the internet
  • positive – always be constructive, always take on suggestions and feedback, always smile

As I said earlier, this is a personal view and one that is shaped by my limited experience of being a parish councillor – it may well differ for others, especially if they are working at a district, county or unitary level.

Digital councillors

digitalcllr is a place where we are bringing together all the work we have been doing recently with elected members.

Mostly that means training, but we also offer a service to host websites for councillors, for free.

On the digitalcllr site, we’re also putting up content now and again that might be helpful to elected members starting to dabble in online engagement.

This morning, for instance, I posted some online safety tips, that may well come in handy.

We also create video content, interviewing councillors about their use of social media. Here’s Cllr Roger Gambba-Jones talking about his use of Twitter and a blog, for example.

If you’re a councillor needing some support in using social media, get in touch! Likewise if you are a democratic services or member development bod.

Youth councils – any good examples?

I’m starting to look at youth councils with a local authority, particularly in terms of how digital can improve levels of participation.

I’ve got some ideas, admittedly not youth council-centric, but rather taking stuff I’ve learned from other online engagement projects and hoping it will fit.

So I’m Googling away like mad, looking up different youth councils and some of the things they are doing online. I’ve not turned up much in the way of really innovative ideas just yet.

So, I’m turning to you, faithful readers. Seen anything good? Let me know!

How open are council meetings?

DCLG have today announced that residents, bloggers, tweeters, community activists and hyperlocal sites should have the same access and facilities to council meetings as traditional newspaper journalists. This is important because it means Government recognises the valuable contribute the wider community makes to accountability in local government.

It’s a very timely announcement. For a while now I’ve been interested in the openness of council meetings. Namely, whether citizens, media or councillors are permitted to live tweet/blog, record audio of or film public meetings.

I have secured permission to film the meetings of my local council meetings in Lichfield and heard stories of others being forced to leave or even arrested for attempting to do the same.

These are just a few examples of the current state of play so an effort to document which councils allow their meetings to be opened up I created Open Council Meetings, a simple project to track which councils allow tweeting, recording and filming of meetings.

My hope is that the project can help bring together localgov enthusiasts, hyperlocal bloggers and active citizens to monitor the situation and put pressure on councils to open up.

 

Government Digital Service blog, and e-petitions

The new Government Digital Service, the part of the Cabinet Office tasked with taking forward various elements of the digital agenda in Whitehall (and beyond) has a new blog.

Very nice it is too, and anyone with an interest in online innovation in public services really ought to subscribe. Simon has some background on the blog’s setup.

Simon also refers to the first project coming out of the GDS, with involvement from the Government skunkworks team of under the radar innovators, headed up by Mark O’Neill, is the return of e-petitions to central government.

E-petitions were originally on the Number 10 website, where I used to have an awful lot of fun moderating the damn things during my stint there. Now they are on the DirectGov domain.

Interestingly, the e-petitions system is using a new system, developed in the Ruby on Rails framework, rather than using an existing project like the MySociety system, or indeed WordPress which was used by Kind of Digital’s WP guru Andrew Beeken to build a petitioning system for Lincoln Council.

One issue with the e-petitions system I picked up quickly, as did others was the fact that it now requires the user to select which is the relevant government department to deal with the petition. As Stefan writes:

An eager e-petitioner clicks the button to start the process and finds themselves with a simple form to complete. The first task is to give the petition a title. Pretty straightforward. The second is to identify the ‘Department that looks after your issue’. That’s a poser. There is a drop down list. There is a link to a page which explains which department does what. But the list is of ministerial departments and the help page gives little more than mission statements. Many of the bits of government which people have at least some understanding of don’t appear at all – there is no HMRC, no DVLA, no NHS, no Jobcentre Plus. Might a petition be appropriately directed to the Scotland Office, or should it go to the Scottish Government instead?

It sounds like this is being worked on to fix – but I’d argue this is a major barrier to participation and probably needs to be fixed if e-petitions are to have a significant impact.

I’ve written before about my view of e-petitions – they’re a blunt object and the process questions they raise are far trickier than the technological issues. One of the first petitions to be submitted was by the blogger Guido Fawkes, demanding the return of capital punishment for certain crimes.

As Anthony writes:

What will it tell us, and tell the Parliamentarians who have to then debate the issue?

That lots of people support the death penalty? We know that – most polls (though not all polls, as Guido claims) show that a little over half of people still support the death penalty, though the number has declined over the years.

That a hundred thousand people want hanging back enough to fill in an online form? What does that add to the knowledge that twenty-five million or so want it across the country?

And what if Parliament debates the issue and rejects it by a large margin (as happened in the ’80s and ’90s)? Will signers, and Guido, go away happy that the issue has been given a good airing in the democratic forum of the nation? Or will it just be used as another example of the perfidy of elected politicians in refusing to do what fifteen-hundredths of one percent of the Great British People tell them to do?

In which case, what’s the point?

Crowd sourcing ideas with WordPress

For a customer, we at Kind of Digital have been putting together a prototype system using WordPress to crowdsource ideas from the public.

We’ve done plenty of reading about previous attempts at this sort of thing, and hopefully have avoided a few of the traps that other projects of this type have fallen into.

Our system:

  • Is completely configurable and customisable in terms of look and feel, branding etc
  • Can ask for various bits of information in the idea submitting process to help structure the contributions
  • Allows ideas to be rated and commented on by other visitors
  • Displays prominent lists of the most popular and latest ideas to be submitted
  • All content can be pre-moderated before being published
  • As it’s WordPress, you can publish other content like news or blog posts and static pages with help and other information in
  • As it’s all open source, you can pull your data out whenever you like and host it somewhere else

Right now, we’re just tidying up the prototype. I’d share the screenshots, but the branding makes it pretty obvious who the client is, so I probably shouldn’t.

However, if anyone is interested, we’re definitely planning on making it a service we can provide to other organisations, and it’ll be pretty keenly priced.

If you’d like to know more, and maybe get a private demonstration of what we have right now, drop me a line at dave@kindofdigital.com.