» lgiu ¦ What You Can Get Away With

I spent yesterday in London at the first ever Councillor Camp. This wasn’t a group of local government people hanging around in tents and/or pretending to be Kenneth Williams, but a version of BarCamp especially for councillors who wanted to look at ways we could use social media to better carry out our roles. It was organised by the LGIU and Futuregov, and we were very lucky to be hosted by Facebook, who gave us the run of their London training and meeting room, complete with Doctor Who-themed room names.

Unlike most local government events that I get invited to, this was a free event, and rather than having a rigid schedule, it was run as an ‘unconference‘ where most of the sessions and what they covered were determined by the participants, not by some schedule determined in advance. Another key feature of the day was that we were all encouraged to keep electronic devices on throughout the day and so as well as what was happening at the event itself, there was lots of discussion on the #cllrcamp hashtag on Twitter.

The day started with a number of different speakers offering a variety of perspectives on the use of social media in local politics. Again, this differed from normal conferences in that they were only allowed five minutes each to speak, and thus none of the presentations turned into death by PowerPoint. (“Conducting a PowerPoint presentation is a lot like smoking a cigar. Only the person doing it likes it. The people around him want to hit him with a chair.”) This meant they had to boil things down to a few key points, which helped to set the tone for the day, rather than telling everyone what to think. Some key points I picked up from those speeches:

  • Brighton and Hove Council created their own Twitter hashtag – #bhbudget – to promote online discussion of their budget, and councillors were active participants in the online debate, which did feed concrete proposals into the budget
  • Denmark’s tax authorities use their online presence to post details and pictures of what people’s taxes are used for
  • “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.” “Your residents are human, so be human.” Politicians need to be on social media as themselves, not constructing a separate online personality.
  • After those brief talks, we were into the main meat of the day, with people filling out a huge number of post-it that were then collated together into a grid of different sessions, where we could talk about what we wanted to. These discussion sessions were, for me, more useful than breakout sessions at other events. Again, there was no sitting round watching one person PowerPoint us to death, and the fact that people had come to a session because they wanted to be there and had chosen the topic meant people were much more willing to participate.

    (And in itself, letting people define the terms of their engagement and interaction, not having it rigidly imposed from on high is something local government could and should learn to do)

    I could go on for ages, but some of the thoughts I’ve had from Councillor Camp are likely going to generate posts in themselves over the weeks to come, but here are some of the key points for me:

  • Engaging in social media means giving up some control – councils and councillors can create and start discussions, but can’t determine where it goes after that.
  • There has to be more work done to get more people involved and online, so the discussion isn’t just amongst the most savvy.
  • Any social media strategy has to be capable of evolving to recognise the growth of new networks and platforms.
  • A new generation is coming through who see being online and involved in social media as entirely natural and integral to their lives, not an added extra (see this quote fromDouglas Adams). That councillors are generally much older than the population they represent could create issues here.
  • The effectiveness of your social media presence is linked to authenticity – people expect you to be yourself and respond as such, not a programmed drone.
  • Interactivity is expected, not an added-extra. People will expect to interact with the social media presence of councils and councillors and get a meaningful response.
  • There’s more to come – and some of it might link with the thoughts I’ve had after reading The Political Brain this week – but overall Councillor Camp was a great experience, and I’d recommend any follow up and repeat events to other councillors, especially those who aren’t as engaged online and want to discover how to go further. One idea suggested was the potential for regional events, to get more people involved in a more convenient location – anyone fancy a Councillor Camp East?

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    I’ve seen a few people talking this morning about how ‘Westminster Council’ are planning to strip benefits from obese people who don’t exercise. Now, that’s a very silly idea – and Stavvers points out the reasons for that in this post – but the key point that people have missed is that these proposals don’t actually come from Westminster Council.

    The stories are based on this report on the LGIU (Local Government Information Unit) website. While Westminster Council were part of the process in coming up with the report – through some vaguely described ’round table discussions’ with the LGIU – the executive summary of the report (on page 2) states quite clearly:

    Recommendations are, however, made independently by the LGiU and do not necessarily reflect the views of WCC.

    Which actually makes this worse. This isn’t a rogue report floating around one council – this is an officially sanctioned and published LGIU report that will be circulated to hundreds of councils all across the country. Westminster’s name is attached to it as they appear to have been the only Council consulted in drawing up the report and recommendations, but this isn’t their policy unless they choose to adopt it, just like anyone else.

    It’s worth noting that most of the report is pretty standard stuff that’s been seen in many other reports and recommendations 4 and 5 particularly could appear in just about any LGIU report with ‘public health’ replaced by whatever the topic at hand was. The problems mostly stem from one line on page 6:

    Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing and council tax
    benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivise residents.

    However because of the nature of the report, this isn’t backed up with any evidence as to who or where it’s come from, why anyone thinks it might be effective or whether the person who wrote it stared deep into their soul before doing so and realised exactly what it was they were proposing. Unfortunately, that advice is now being pushed out all across the country, so expect it to emerge in lots of places other than Westminster with proponents claiming ‘it was in an LGIU report, it must be a good idea!’

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