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One of the aspects of the ongoing reorganisation of Local Government (i.e. scrapping of District Councils) is that Parish and Town Councils should become relatively more important in our democratic processes. I met Justin Griggs, (@JustinGriggs) Head of Policy and Development, of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) at the recent LocalGovCamp in Birmingham. He’s acutely aware that the image of Parish and Town Councillors (Local Cllrs) is not exactly dynamic and go-getting despite in some cases Town Councils are representing towns like Salisbury with 70,000 residents.

He is very keen to get some of those councillors online. The benefits could be enormous.  Not only would it help the councils start conversations with their communities and boost their profile, but it would also help the councillors network amongst themselves.  Blogs and social networks would be a quick and easy way for town and parish councils to share information, success stories and help each other achieve what they want.  This peer networking aspect of blogging is useful but not often mentioned.

To help NALC along the way we sent them 40 copies of the CivicSurf DVD to go to each of the 38 county associations that filter information down to the town and parish councils.  Hopefully it’ll get shown and a few more of our democratic representatives will benefit from blogging.  Maybe some coaching might be in order.

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This project has been called Councillor 2.0 for the last 9 months. We love the name, but ultimately as a project we are aiming to engage civic leaders who are not Councillors. We want to get police chiefs, NHS Trust board members, and senior council officers all using the internet to engage their communities. That’s why Councillor2.0 is too limiting.

So what name to use? We’ve been through a few.

How about Councillor2.0, Police2.0 and NHS2.0? But the expense and time to manage separate identities was too much.

We rejected abstract names like Greenfrog because we have a short time to get through to our audience of member services and communications managers.

What we need is a name that could pique the interest of busy officers and members and combined with a strapline describe the project, which is a series of events showing a film and distributing booklets to get officers and members blogging.

We’re considering two options for the moment.

Reaching Out
Leadership blogging in the Public Sector

or

CivicSurf
Leading through blogging

Why those two you might ask. Reaching out came from the idea that the civic leaders we spoke to who blog most commonly gave one of their reasons as wanting to reach new people, people with whom they wouldn’t normally have contact.

The more eagle-eyed of you will know the source of inspiration for CivicSurf. For me the name emanates from the idea that the first step for civic leaders about to blog is to go online and read what others might be saying online about your area and topics of interest. It is about the online local conversations in which they as local leaders need to be participating and leading. We’re calling those conversations the CivicSurf.

We need to decide what name to use when marketing this project to local authorities and public bodies across the country. We need your input. Which name and strapline do you prefer? Let us know through the comments or via email .

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Yesterday I went up to Norwich to catch up with three of the Councillors who are working on the project. It’d been two months since I saw them last, when they were still finding their feet on getting their blog set up.

 I’d been keeping an eye on their sites which were slowly developing, but wasn’t sure how they felt about their blogs themselves.

The three of them were extremely positive about their experience and interestingly all for different reasons. Peter was please because he felt he had a space for him to speak out, and it was also bringing him in touch with new people and also some old contacts he’d lost track of. Tony found that he was getting interest in an issue by both comments and emails. Jenny, who hasn’t had much commenting feedback actually on the site, has had local people come up and tell her in person that they’d seen it and liked it.

I think in another month’s time they’ll have achieved even more. Interesting, none of them had thought of their blog as an archive, something I questioned them about, but thinking about it they realised it was a way they could track a particular issue.

Peter and Tony both have big issues being commented on their blogs, while Jenny is about to do a leaflet drop with the blog address on, so in another month I’m sure we’ll see huge changes again. 

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he Councillor’s Commission recently reported to government, making in the region of 60 recommendations for central and local government to consider.

One of the areas they took a look at was the support that councillors get to communicate with their electorates. They seemed convinced there was more that could be done to improve on the current state of affairs:

In terms of widespread public communication it seems that councils could do

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much more to utilise technology to enhance access to local councillors (particularly for the younger generation) and the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Local Government Group concludes, that ‘Councils need to develop the use of new media and, in particular, communication with local people through new media’ (Dungey, 2007: 6). For example, Lancashire County Council web-casts most of its public meetings and reports attracting an average of 1,500 viewers each month.

It was suggested to the Commission that councillors themselves should do more to embrace the potential of IT to interact with their communities, for example using blogs and web 2.0

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sites and perhaps extending schemes such as the mySociety HearfromYourMP.com service to provide a ‘Hear from Your Councillor’ service.

Their recommendation is broader

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than getting councillors blogging (as you’d want and expect), but they do think that blogs might be helpful:

As part of their corporate communications strategy, local authorities and councillors should promote the role of councillors using a range of communication tools, for example by:
a) using the media and communications resources of the council to work to build positive relations with the local media;
b) making use of council newsletters and other media publications;
c) harnessing technological solutions – such as email, web 2.0, blogs and texting – to make councillors’ activities more visible.

You can download a copy of their full report here

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A new report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about the role of backbench councillors says:

there is a recognition that councillors will need new skills and techniques to engage different communities of interest and place that go beyond traditional ward surgeries and formal meetings. Action planning, negotiating community agreements, household surveys, community websites and councillor blogs [my emphasis] were among the suggestions put forward – all of which would require new, and more intensive, types of support from local authorities.

Members who are currently representing diverse communities felt that future councillors would need specifi c skills to help them understand and identify with a range of cultural values, including different conceptions of democracy and local political engagement.

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Bob Piper is perhaps one of the best known Labour councillors blogging today.

Bob should have been at the e-Democracy conference last week, talking about being a blogging councillor, but was not well enough to come down to London.

Andy Howell has a half hour interview with Bob that’s well worth listening to in which they talk about Bob’s approach to blogging, how he started his blog and the other electronic means he uses to communicate with his electorate, and why he thinks it’s important for him as a politician to be on the web.

Bob’s approach isn’t the one we’ll necessarily be urging people to emulate, I think we’re likely to advise people to talk about local issues a bit more than national, but it has what you absolutely need from a successful blog, authenticity.

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Shane I were at the e-Democracy conference yesterday – Shane was speaking, I just tagged along.  Here are a few of my unstructured thoughts on what I saw and heard.

First up was Stephen Coleman, who I think it’s fair to say was pretty challenging.  I’ve read a few of the reports that Professor Coleman has written about e-Democracy and new technology and there has always been something interesting in them even if I haven’t agreed with what he’s saying.  So too with yesterday’s key note speech.  It’s been my view that Professor Coleman doesn’t much like blogs, and yesterday he said that he didn’t see any point in any more councillor blogs.

Strange as this might sound I think he’s got half a point.

There isn’t much point in any blog that doesn’t try to become part an eco-system, by which I mean you need to read those that are writing about similar themes as you.  In this case councillors (it seems to me) should try to make sure they are connected to others who blog in their locality, they shouldn’t expect to be the hub around which the system works.

But that’s different from saying “lets have no more of these pointless exercises”.  And indeed I think Professor Coleman’s point was rather undermined when later in the day Councillor Matthew Ellis spoke about his conversion to using blogs as a way of connecting with his community.

Matthew told us that 18 months ago he’d been very wary, seeing them as too much trouble and of little additional value.  But 18 months on he’s had 200,000 visitors to his blog and seems to be signing up constituents to being automatically notified of new posts via email growing exponentially.

Clearly Matthew’s constituents are finding something useful in him having a blog and I’m sure that would be true of many other councillors both those already blogging and those that might take it up in the future.

I’m told that the day’s proceedings will be available on 18 Doughty Street at some point, and I also know that David Wilcox was there doing interviews with all sorts of people and I’m sure they will be worth taking a look at too.

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As part of the same introductory seminar on October 18th 2007 I was asked to provide an overview of the tools and technologies that were available on the internet to help councillors engage with their constituents. I condensed a long list (created with help from the DOWIRE membership) into 10 basic types. This Top Ten was ordered based on the control that the councillor had over the tool. No.10 (Community Tools such as WriteToThem.com) is completely beyond their control whereas No.1 (Blogs) is their personal space to develop as they see fit. For each of the tools I marked whether they were Good/OK for Talking To, Hearing From, Discussing With, Listening Into or Being There For: constituents.

Links for the Sites mentioned in the presentation are:

10. Community Tools: PledgeBank, FixMyStreet
9. Access Tools: WriteToThem
8. Community Events: I’m a Councillor, Get me out of Here, LifeSwap
7. Council Resources: ePetitions
6. Video: Webcasting, VLogging
5. Discussion Boards: Issues Forum, TalkSwindon
4. Email Lists: e.g. Nick Palmer
3. Instant Messaging: IMLocal, Skype, Windows Live Messenger
2. Social Networking: Facebook, MySpace
1. Personal Website: Static Page, Corporate Blog, Group Blog, Personal Blog

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