Thanks go to Steven Clift’s US-based network for the heads up on the interesting report from Neighbourhood Networks in the UK. Having spent some years encouraging others to use blogs, social media and other e-media to communicate in the public space, it finally looks like it might be taking off! I’ve seen a recent surge in community websites, but a fall-off in those of individual councillors – but somehow if they lose office, they seem to find time to start doing it (can’t keep away from local politics obviously).
The study isn’t using a particularly large sample – “There were ninety-four responses from council officers and 132 from elected members” – blaming it on staff reductions, and so can’t be considered particularly rigorous. The actual report is interesting in that it is an attempt to find a place for neighbourhood websites, unfortunately as a practitioner with years of trying to provide no-obligation websites to parish and town councils, I personally found that it only works when a small number of committed people are willing to take up the challenge and go with it for as long as necessary, without falling out! The same applies to those sites where no support is provided. It’s all a bit like the ‘Big Society’, since for years a small band of dedicated citizens have assisted their communities in a range of largely unseen tasks, whether out of religious, political or some other belief, and now government is trying to get the less-zealous to become more so and join in.
The report expects local councils to play a big part in this, which seems unlikely when many are reducing staff numbers, particularly in what are seen as back-office roles. One of the findings is that internal barriers or lack of clarity for responsibility within councils still constrain the ability of officers to deal with such sites, which I can understand and appreciate. Who is going to monitor such sites? Is it a media relations responsibility or a customer service one? Is it the web team? Who actually makes the decision and, in the current climate, is it really that important?
It is great for the report to highlight the issues and bring them in to the arena for debate, but currently most councils are frying bigger fish. Yes, engaging with local networks may assist in some of the decision-making, but they need to be taken in a context of the whole neighbourhood and the means of communicating within it.