We’ve received some great feedback from Community Council webmasters on our report. Thank you! This feedback got me thinking about engagement routes, what people want and sustainability.
One CC told us that it has a rapidly growing social media following (over 1400 Facebook likes and 300 Twitter followers). It’s great to hear of their effort to communicate and engage with their citizens, using a managed mailing list and going where the audience is – and patiently building that audience.
This CC also reports that over 60% of its website visits are from mobile devices. This is in stark contrast to the number of CC presences that do not support mobile use. It is possible that this CC gets mobile traffic simply because it can, and that without mobile support people would patiently wait until they got to a desktop to visit the CC.
But I don’t believe that happens! Firstly, if the US is anything to go by, people primarily use mobiles to access the internet. I suspect that the number of people who only have mobile devices is significant, especially among younger people. Secondly, if I can’t access a site on my phone, I’ll probably not bother to access it later unless that website is mission-critical. (To be honest, I’ll probably forget about it.) I don’t believe I’m the only one who does this.
And as this CC points out, their platform automatically supports mobile – so there’s no pain at all in doing so.
What people want
Most interestingly for me, this CC uses analytics to understand website visits: news articles get the most attention, followed by planning and meetings information. While this is only one datum, it’s a start on tackling the giant hairy mammoth in the room, what do citizens want from CC websites? I help run an Edinburgh CC’s presence – the information we publish is partly based on my research into what other local governments websites do, not on knowledge of what our citizens want. So it’s time for me to get to grips with analytics!
The webmaster of another CC shared page hit records, showing how they’ve patiently built up their following over several years. For me, this is another hint that CCs can get good things from their online efforts but they need to persevere to obtain these.
This webmaster also mentioned that he isn’t comfortable using social media, preferring direct communication by talk or email. My reaction is that CC members should do what they are comfortable with, rather than take on things that they don’t enjoy or that ask too much. Firstly, CC members are unpaid volunteers, with limited time to devote to CC matters. Secondly, it’s better that CCs maintain engagement rather than try new things, run into problems and stop engaging in this way – or at all. After all, the biggest problem we found was the churn in CC online presences, with 45% of 2012 functional presences having failed by 2014.
Also, two recurring problems with CCs are that their webmasters often work alone, and that the stereotypical CC member is retired or nearly so.. Solo CC webmasters have several pressures – they have to set up the presences, then they have to maintain them, both keeping the systems going and adding content. Finally, then they have to deal with any problems or incoming comments. And if they feel they have to do so unendingly, because the website would falter if they take holidays, then it’s no wonder that many appear to simply cease.
This does not mean that I think CCs shouldn’t try new online methods, just that they should use their resources sensibly. But they can develop new resources, if they can attract new members or associates.
For me, part of the solution is to spread the load. This seems to happen rarely – I’ve only met one CC that does so. The secretary handles the blog-based website while a colleague handles the Facebook presence. However, each can substitute for the other, so both facets of their presence will keep going. Also, should either of them become unavailable the remaining one can facilitate a replacement and the access keys to this CC’s digital assets will not evaporate.
Given that the stereotypical young person is glued to his or her mobile, perhaps this can become an advantage rather than an annoyance. Why not ask them to become CCs’ social media operators? Young does not mean irresponsible – Baden-Powell showed over a century ago that young people often react positively to being given responsibilities. And if we want a local democracy system that reflects and includes all sorts of people, then positive involvement roles could be a way to start achieving this.
 I’ve not found numbers for browsing behavior, so this is currently purely speculation.
 This might be worse for the CC’s image than not starting a new engagement method in the first place. As an analogy, a middle manager once told me that pay rises were likely. When they didn’t transpire, I was far angrier than I would have been if pay rises hadn’t been mentioned.
 Of course, this is only anecdotal evidence but I appear to be among the youngest at the three CCs I attend – and I’m not far off 50.