Is it all deliberate dereliction of duty?

The results of our 2014 survey of Community Councils’ internet use have gathered some interest, especially after Peter wrote about the massive churn in online presences.

(Click the graphic to see a full-sized PDF.)
The rings’ outer diameters represent the numbers in each status in 2014. Inner diameters represent the amount of ‘churn’, i.e. the sum of the numbers that left or entered this status since 2012.

The rings’ outer diameters represent the numbers in each status in 2014. Inner diameters represent the amount of ‘churn’, i.e. the sum of the numbers that left or entered this status since 2012.

We’re not the only ones who are concerned that Community Councils do function as they should. Without them, as Paddy Bort and others have pointed out, Scotland is effectively bereft of true local democracy.

Ever since we discovered in 2012 that CCs generally use the internet poorly, I’ve wanted to know why, so that that this situation can be reversed. My MSc dissertation began to explore this question, looking at some human factors driving individual CC members to use the internet and preventing them from doing so. It’s clear that there are no financial or technical barriers preventing CCs from having worthwhile online presences, so the reasons must lie within CCs and/or their individual members.

It’s been suggested this poor use is simply due to CC members deliberately choosing not to engage with their citizens, even though the primary purpose of CCs is to ascertain, co-ordinate and express community opinions. My experience, including interviews with some CC web-weavers who feel completely unsupported by their colleagues, suggests that this is a major reason. But I don’t believe it’s the only reason – several other possibilities spring to mind:

  • lack of self-efficacy
  • (perceived) lack of resources
  • (perceived) lack of value
  • character clashes
  • lack of role-awareness.

So what do these mean, and what can be said against them?

The first point is about CC members believing they just can’t do this internet thing. But my experience is that once a presence has been set up, adding routine materials (e.g. minutes) is, well, routine. Writing relevant content isn’t very hard. (Writing gripping content may be another matter but CC members’ concerns about their communities may enthuse their writing. Also, most of the material I put on Leith Central CC’s blog comes ready-made – there’s hardly any need for creative input.)

For CCs that believe they don’t have the necessary skills, there are plenty of sources of help, from me via (free) social media surgeries and LA web learning teams to third-sector internet specialists. I’d suggest that CCs look for sources that will help them develop, not ‘£lots for small fixed number of pages’ merchants.

The (perceived) lack of resources point is about CCs believing they don’t have the financial or human resources (i.e. time) to create and maintain presences. If CCs use widely available free blogging resources, the only necessary financial costs are buying a domain and linking it to the blog-host: under £40 per year.

The human resources question seems more valid. It will take time to plan and develop an internet presence, although CCs are welcome to copy this model I developed. (Acknowledgement and/or some money would be welcome!) There are other fill-in-the-blanks mechanisms too. But once development’s done, adding content should take around 2 hours per week. (I don’t count preparing minutes and other routine content because that’s going to be done anyway.)

Adding content can – and should – be shared. Firstly, CC web-masters can go away without the website grinding to a halt. Other CC members can be involved, generating teamwork and cohesion, and de-burdening otherwise solo web-masters, so that they are less likely to give up altogether. It also enables CC members who have particular interests to give them appropriate online space. For example, New Town and Broughton CC’s committee conveners can all add materials to NTBCC’s website.

The (perceived) lack of value point is about the cost/benefit analysis of being online. Financial costs should be minimal. Financial benefits may be hard to quantify – CCs don’t sell products or services. So they have to lie in savings and or achieving new objectives. Considering savings, printed materials are likely to be costly, can’t be changed and may be environmentally unfriendly. An individual flyer can be only be read those who can physically see it, while a questionnaire can only be used once and then has to be returned to the CC. Analysis might involve tedious, error-prone manual methods. In contrast, electronic communication can be used by visually-impaired people (although they might need costly specialist equipment) as well as anyone else who has a computer, smartphone or tablet. Online surveying tools provide fast, automatic results. Online materials can be changed and re-published quickly and easily. As for achieving new objectives, one CC webmaster told me that before that CC had a website, it didn’t consult its citizens at all.

Digital methods will not reach everyone, let alone bring them into full conversation with local government. People lurk. But after 250 years of developing statistical methods, I’d hope that such gaps can be bridged.

It has also been suggested that cost/benefit analysis is the wrong question – it should be about return on influence. That is, measuring results, not money, is what matters. For example, Leith Central CC’s recent Independence debate cost £79, along with a fair amount of organisers’ time. It was publicised through social media, helping to attract far more attendance than had been dreamed of. There was no financial benefit but the event showed that CCs can run such events well and garnered a lot of interest in LCCC. When many people simply don’t even know that CCs exist, such things are important.

There are probably character clashes in any organisation. It might be that CC web-masters clash with their colleagues, particularly as so many seem to be left to do it all alone, and just give up. Teamwork, developing cohesion and collaboration are my suggested solutions.

My other fear is that CC members may not be aware of their roles’ implications. CCs are legally bound to find out what their communities think. Even if CC members aren’t inclined to read the 1973 and 1994 local government acts, I believe they need to know that they are have volunteered to serve public duties. Aberdeen City Council makes this clear. I’m not sure that all LAs do – in fact a large proportion of CC schemes isn’t available online.

To illustrate, here’s a brief examination of how these points affect the person I know best – me!

  • Dereliction of duty: I don’t get involved with my local CC, partly because I don’t know my neighbourhood very well, and have no desire to do so. I’ve simply never been got to know neighbours etc, wherever I’ve lived. However, because I’m minutes secretary to three CCs, web-weaver for one of them and my work is all about researching digital aspects of online government, I think I’m doing enough already.
  • Lack of self-efficacy: I don’t get involved with planning partly because I feel I couldn’t do so well enough. And yet I have a PhD, I recently completed an MSc, I’ve held my own in a difficult job requiring technical and management skills. Also, I’ve recently been trusted to develop new skills for serious, contracted research.
  • Resource management: I also don’t get involved in planning because to do so well would require more time than I have available.
  • Character clashes: I’m a go-ahead techie – others are more cautious. There’s room for both approaches.
  • Lack of value: Isn’t thriving democracy priceless? It has to be better to find out what’s wanted and needed than wasting resources on white elephants and black swans.

So now I’d love to learn what others think, especially other CC web-masters and social media users. Why do you do it? What do you and your CCs get out of it? If you used to do CC digital things, why did you stop? Was it simply that you felt you’d done your bit? Did you cease believing in your CC – or even in the whole CC system. Please comment – I won’t bite!

A final disclaimer – I have no quibble with CC members who devote their time to other CC matters and aren’t involved in their CCs’ online affairs, so long as they don’t hinder them. We can’t all do everything, and CCs have many potential duties. It’s about teamwork and sharing tasks so they all get done. (And of course, if others create anything digital, people like me can put it online.) My argument is with those who only attend monthly meetings to moan about how bad things are, doing nothing in between times, and who act to keep their CCs disengaged and useless.

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2 thoughts on “Is it all deliberate dereliction of duty?

  1. Thought provoking stuff – opens up many research angles for us to follow!

    I think the point about the model of self-efficacy is that previous negative experiences of the political system or of IT can act to reduce participants’ willingness to try again – which could look like deliberate disengagement from the outside.

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