Continuing our series of blogs in advance of the Scrutiny Conference on 28 November, Cllr Andrew Jenkins of Neath Port Talbot CBC shares his thoughts on the important of public engagement to his role as a Councillor.
Democratic representation is a partnership between electors and elected.
I don’t think anybody involved in local government or the wider public sector in Wales is under any illusion that things are going to be anything but difficult over the coming years. With decreasing budgets, increasing demand in certain services and an economy that is recovering at such a slow pace that it will be years before many in our communities will feel the full benefit, there will be no shortage of tough debates and impossible decisions.
Within this context of hard times we also see an overall distrust in politicians and many public bodies, in part driven by repeat failures over the last decade to properly communicate and engage with residents across Wales. Traditional forms of engagement by councillors – newsletters, surgeries, public meetings among others – tends to miss out large sections of the population or fails to facilitate two way communication.
This has reinforced the concept that local governments are separate from the communities they govern, and that members of these communities have little to no say in the decisions that affect them.
The rapid increase of internet usage across the country has altered the way in which the public engage with politics, and politicians at every level need to adapt the way they engage with the public to match. In 1993 only 0.5% of the UK population was online, with the number in 2013 now being closer to 86%. Over 70% of the population use the internet on a daily basis, and both these figures will continue to grow over the coming years.
Many businesses and organisations are having to adapt in order to reflect this reality, building what I call digital resilience – the ability to adapt to and take advantage of growing online usage. People in elected office are no different in this respect. If the majority of the Welsh population can go online to buy goods, use services and speak to people across the world, doesn’t it seem rather unbelievable that many of them cannot talk to or find information about the activities of their elected representative?
As part of my online public engagement strategy (that makes it sound a lot more organised than what it is!) I have a website which links into my facebook and twitter accounts so that I can post updates across all three platforms with a single click. It also provides three separate platforms for people to communicate with me, read my opinions and find out what I am doing to serve them. It takes a while to develop these, and I am still figuring out what works, what doesn’t and how best to target what I want to say in order to engage more with the residents of my ward.
This online engagement complements traditional, offline engagement activities rather than replaces them, and no councillor should assume that building an effective online presence is – or can ever be – a replacement for good, old fashioned face to face engagement.
With reducing budgets and a clear need for all councillors to make difficult decisions about service provision, jobs and community well-being in a wider context of decreasing trust among the public towards politicians, it is clear that we do need to explore new ways of increasing public engagement and public scrutiny. This isn’t just about rebuilding trust between public and politician, but facilitating better two-way communication in order to empower both – giving the public information about what is being done on their behalf and the means to influence those making the decisions, and giving the politician the information they need to ask better questions and make better decisions.
Representation is a partnership between elector and elected, and social media can be a useful tool in facilitating the growth of this partnership.
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