Independent View: Help residents recognise their councillors

With councillors starting new terms following the local election, now is a great opportunity to review how they communicate and get involved with people in their communities. This is actually quite a challenge. Would you be surprised to hear that over two thirds of voters are unable to identify any of their local government representatives? Worryingly, despite the hours of work and campaigning that councillors invest in their local areas, most people admit that they wouldn’t be able to pick them in a line-up. That’s what we found in our Connecting Communities Report, having surveyed over 2,000 UK adults through YouGov.

We also found that only one voter in four believes that their local council and the services it provides “address the needs of their specific community”, with a mere 13 per cent feeling that they have “the power to really influence decisions that impact their immediate neighbourhood”. These figures are disappointing; the councillors I know got into local politics because they wanted to make a positive difference in their local communities and help their neighbours.

In Lib Dem heartlands such as the North East and Scotland, councillors tend to fare better. In Scotland almost half of voters can name one of their councillors – the highest percentage across the UK. People in the North East are also most satisfied that their local council meets their needs. Overall, however, local residents express a sense of detachment and disconnection with councillors’ services and local government decision making. I’d say time is a big issue; people have busy lives and can’t fit council consultations and meetings into their schedules. Also, many don’t know how to contact their local councillors if they have an issue in their neighbourhood, or even realise that they should.

The problem is certainly not apathy. Our research found that many people really do want to get involved in their local communities, and we’ve seen this in action on Streetlife.com, which launched nationwide last month. In our pilot area, the London Borough of Wandsworth, which has been running since September 2010, over 10,000 people are using the site to form neighbourhood watch groups, arrange street parties and discuss local issues like planning applications and speed limits in residential areas. The site is already being used to bring about positive change in the area. York Gardens Library was saved from closure following a campaign, organised and promoted on Streetlife, to rally against the local council’s decision. The library will now be kept open with reduced staffing supported by volunteers, many of whom will be sourced through local social networks and community websites.

So the question is: how can councillors better connect with their local communities and spearhead these grassroots, neighbourhood initiatives? Many people are wary of strangers knocking on their doors or calling on the phone, and so the internet is the obvious solution. In our pilot area, Wandsworth Council use Streetlife as part of their ongoing communications strategy, to engage with local residents, respond to their queries and suggestions. Council representatives have circulated advice on setting up neighbourhood watch groups, details of Safer Neighbourhood Team meetings and school holiday activities, and discussed borough parks, childcare, street parties, leisure facilities and eco-fund applications. They’ve also used the site to consult residents on the Wandsworth Challenge, an initiative looking at how the council provides public services and works with local people.

Using a local social network has proved to be a great tool for the council to gather feedback and respond directly to residents, as well as getting to know them on a more personal level and making them feel that they have a voice. Communicating via online forums breaks down the barriers to starting conversations as people can get involved at times that suit them, and councils can reach a large audience quickly, without the social awkwardness of knocking on doors or the expense of flyering. If councillors want to engage with their local communities they need to embrace digital channels. As ironic as it sounds, we’re finding that online interaction is helping real-world recognition and communication.

Matt Boyes is Founder & CEO of Streetlife.com, the first UK-wide local social network, which aims to help people get the most out of where they live by connecting and sharing information with neighbours, councils, community groups and businesses.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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7 Comments

  • I do think that this seriously overstates the value of the internet, but leaving that aside, I think that this might be a problem with a lack of vision on the part of some councillors. And, just to be clear – I mean this as applying to all parties.

    An example. I live in Watford with Lib Dem mayor Dorothy Thornhill. Her literatire seems to sum up her vision for mayoralty as, ‘if I can help I will.’ (direct quote). Is this really going to get people interested? Councillors just seem very invisible. This is not to say, of course, that they do a bad job or are ineffective. But at times it all seems a bit limp, waiting for things to happen. ‘If I can help I will,’ just makes me think how much I like motherhood and apple pie too.

  • Sandra Folliot 12th May '11 - 12:21pm

    Communication locally is always going to be patchy as few read local papers (if they even exist).
    Point in case: I live in Wandsworth and I’ve never heard of your site.

  • The Urban Forum have produced an excellent report ‘Local Democracy Revisted ‘in relation to councillors leading in empowering and engaging effectively with communities’.

    As a councillor senior in age, I agree with the comments above about the difficulty of using social media to it’s fullest potention. I represent a ward with a very active Facebook page, where residents raise topics, which the community discuss online. There was a particularly active online discussion during the local government elections last week.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '11 - 1:22pm

    When I was a councillor most people in my ward knew my name and knew who I was, simply because that was the only way I could get elected. It was not a ward that would elect Liberal Democrats purely because of the party name, in fact it had all the demographics of a ward that would give a derisory vote to the Liberal Democrats if there was no active Liberal Democrat campaign. When I lived in a Labour-held ward in the borough, I had no idea who my councillors were because they did not have to campaign – they won elections by default, there were enough people who would turn out and vote Labour purely for the party name to ensure that.

    Well, that’s your answer, and it’s one most Liberal Democrats know well. We don’t need trendies coming along and telling us this and telling us it means we have to get active online. Anyone can look up their local councillor on the web, but they don’t, do they? It hasn’t changed – it was a long time ago that a leading member of our party said “If you have something to say, put it on paper and stick it through people’s letterboxes”. It still works.

    The British people have just voted against changing the electoral system which leads to safe seats and so councillors who don’t need to bother getting local recognition. So I’m afraid I won’t feel very sorry for them if they moan about the results. For some time now, my stock answer to anyone who moans about any aspect of British politics will be “Did you vote Yes in the AV referendum?”. And if the answer is “No”, then it will be “Well, tough, by voting No or by not voting and so letting No win, you have endorsed the political system we have and blocked the chance of change. Now just put up with what your (in)action gave us, and don’t blame me – I voted Yes”.

  • Matthew Huntbach –

    ‘When I lived in a Labour-held ward in the borough, I had no idea who my councillors were because they did not have to campaign – they won elections by default, there were enough people who would turn out and vote Labour purely for the party name to ensure that.’

    You have some evidence of people voting for this reason, beyond comforable assumption? If they are actually turning out isn’t what you are describing a case of decisions being made by the people who show up, rather than some great anti-Lib Dem plot?

    ‘It still works.’

    I’m inclined to agree. The problem with pretty much anything on the web is that it becomes an echo chamber – somewhere that like-minded people come together and convince each other that they are right. This is my big problem with these local social media – my own experience is that they become gatherings of the ususal suspects, though, of course I’m sure that there are examples where it works well.

    On AV – AV (and PR) could lead to safe seats. FPTP at local level has produced and continues to produce hung councils. PR has just produced a single party majority in Scotland whilst heavily punishing a party whose vote share held up. I fear your stock answer reeks of stock bad loserhood. Don’t get me wrong, if you think that AV would have produced the land of milk and honey, that’s your right I suppose.

    Anyway, I’ll let you shout at me now.

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