Councillors and the evolution of edemocracy

Councillors are probably the one class of politician in Northern Ireland that is rendered invisible to the wider public, but considered invaluable to the average citizen. Almost completely powerless under current arrangements, and it could take up to three years before agreement is formed on what is to take it place, nevertheless, given all politics is local, councillors will undoubtedly take on an increasingly important role as MLAs shift roles from local advocate to legislator.About ten years ago in Britain, when the edemocracy debate was just getting going, it was suggested that the answer to the dot.com boom was that politicians would establish their own websites (not blogs, just site). Five years later, there were just seven politicians in the whole of the UK with their own websites. Things have moved on apace since prominent MPs like Boris Johnson, Clive Soley, Tom Watson and entered the blogosphere with some gusto. Even the British Foreign Secretary has his own blog these days.

In the Republic, Green Party leader and now Minister for the Environment John Gormley used his blog to scotch some media speculation in the middle of negotiations with Fianna Fail over entering government with Fianna Fail, and his YouTubed confrontation with the former Minister of Justice may well have contributed to his edging out of Michael McDowell in the ensuing poll in May.

In Northern Ireland however, politicians generally have been slow to engage with new media. Indeed, most of those who have (to our knowledge), are councillors, and there’s an interesting in the same council area: ie North Down: Marion Smyth, Ian Parsley, and Diana Peacocke. The Green MLA hasn’t got a blog, but is using Bebo, MySpace and Facebook.

I suspect the numbers are low, because of a lack of confidence in the politicians, and the perception that there is an attendant risk in letting public representatives speak for themselves online. In this respect, the clustering in North Down is probably indicative of how politicians from different parties can build confidence in one another.

In strategic terms it is impossible for parties to finance the kind of infrastructure need to ensure councillors have a voice. But in Britain and the Republic there are outstanding examples of people like Bob Piper and Damian Blake who have used free technologies to create an enhanced profile for themselves despite having relatively modest positions within their respective parties/polities.

  • interested

    Is a rarely/never updated blog better than no blog at all?

    I ask that question genuinely – I see for instance that Diana Peacock’s blog doesn’t seem to have been touched for nearly 16 months and Marion Smyth’s for nearly 8 months. It poses the question whether you’d be better off without a blog than creating the impression that you’re either too lazy to add something or that you just lose interest in things after the initial novelty wears off – both not very good qualities for the public to have of their representatives.

    Also – of the 3 blogs which you highlighted only Ian Parsley’s seems to be readable – at least some things are posted which are not merely re-posting the press release which you’ll probably have read in the local rag last week. That’s the other question, does a local councillor/politician’s blog need something more than just the standard intermittently updated press release section to get the public’s attention?

    I think to get the innermost thoughts of our Councillors would be very illuminating……

  • Only Asking

    Isn’t there a danger though Mick, that politicians putting up sites would only be catering for the faithful anyway? Preaching to the converted?

    Would it not be better if they came on to non-aligned sites like this and engaged in the commentary much as David Ford did here for example?

    IMV party political blogs would be like party political speeches, frequented by the faithful.

  • IJP

    Quickly, to define ‘almost completely powerless‘.

    It is true that local councils here spend less than a third, comparatively, of local councils in England. So yes, in theory the powers are much more limited.

    However, the role of community leader or spokesperson is much the same. Someone with ‘Cllr’ in front of their name will get a faster response from Roads Service, the PSNI or the planners, for example, and will have more immediate access and experience of many local issues, even the ones over which he/she has no official say. Also, NI has not gone down the line of being as restrictive as England with regards to what you can say and can’t say, and whom you can meet and can’t meet.

    For example, Cllrs have pretty well no say over planning in NI – if they’re particularly proactive they may be able to get the odd amendment to a big plan agreed by all sides, but that’s about it. However, is that really much different from England, where members of Council Planning Committees are effectively prohibited from discussing those issues outside Committee (at all, to anyone, ever) and are restricted by legislation? Well yes, a little, but not as much in practice as in theory.

    So, in practice, it is worth noting that the distinction is not as great between NI and England as the list of functions would lead one to believe at first sight. Those who follow politics from the armchair or in front of the computer screen like to quote figures and statistics, but real life is much more complex!

  • nineteensixtyseven

    Many people don’t know who their councillors are let alone whether or not they have a blog.

  • Mick Fealty

    Mrs D, Just quickly, since I am very short of time today: it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it…

    There is real competition for the public mind space, and in reality councillors will always lose out to more senior figures. But just as local papers are catering for local audiences online, so too must local councillors find ways to engage local audiences online.

    There is a problem associated with updating blogs. But then blogs are hard work, there are new tools coming on line all the time that don’t require the same degree of industry. Mashable.com is a good site for picking up what’s new. They reviewed something like 5000 new online applications in their first six months.

    The real cost is absence. One gets the impression some councillors won’t be interested because the RPA when finally delivered will also mark their retirement. But those who want to keep talking to their local constituents and more truly represent them (and at council level, particularly under STV, that’s where the votes are) will simply have to get online.

  • The Raven

    As someone closely connected to local authorities, I have to say, I just don’t think it will happen under current management.

    Look how long most of the Councils took in actually getting online as corporate bodies. I’d be interested to see how many of them actually update their websites beyond the front page. A couple are quite good. Newtownabbey is one…of course Belfast and Derry…some of the rural ones ain’t bad either…Limavady and Carrick are two I can think of.

    I think someone once said “all politics is local”. And this may be why our most local representatives are not so keen to have the presence online. That and the fact that – and I say this with some knowledge – Ye Magick Box in the corner isn’t really targeted demographically at them.

    And most of them are only seen at election time…how on earth can we expect them to manage a blog, for goodness sake! I love it when they do those Youth Council things for the papers…I remember one mayor who brought party colleagues in case the kids asked a difficult question. (Actually, they ARE the most tricky audience any politician will face – I shouldn’t mock.)

    Under previous RPA discussions, Council spend was to rise from around 5% of the total Northern Ireland allocation to around 7%. Hardly something to write home about. Also, I think any notion we may have of a clearout when RPA does happen is fast-disappearing. 15 or 18 seems to be the latest configuration, and while I was confident of 11, I have to stop taking bets on that. (Parliamentary Boundaries seem to be discussion du jour…)

    No, let’s not encourage them. The vitriol and bile that seeps from most chambers in this country should not be added to that which in some quarters already exists online….

  • deirdre nelson

    Just to prove that I’ll take some flak!!
    I’m a local councillor and while I find e-mail pretty useful and love this site and have spent way too much time this last week googling for USA election stuff I really don’t have the time to keep a blog up-to-date. That said there is some sort of website being muttered about that will allow us to ramble on-line but since some councillors (including me) have definite technology limitations it could be a while before it takes off. I also have to agree with The Raven’s last sentence given some of the utterances that come out of our Chamber.
    Finally, much of my time is taken up with local matters and I can be e-mailed or contacted by mobile as my details are public knowledge so I don’t know that a web page or blog would make a lot of difference to me personally but may work for others. Let the flak begin