Connecting Councillors with their local constituents…

One of the most noteable developments is the movement online of Northern Ireland’s regional papers. Increasingly we (and, more often, the venerable Nuzhound) are as likely to pick up stories from the Impartial Reporter, the Portadown Times or the Ballymoney Times in tricking out the telling detail in some of the key stories of the last year. At the moment there is no such regular home for councillors, the lifeblood of local democracy. Increasingly so, since MLAs are now taking up new roles as legislators rather than the community representation role they’ve been accustomed to during the ‘interregnum’ of direct rule. The newly launched www.councillor.info site is an attempt to address that problem, by encouraging councillors to run their own websites. Barry McCaffrey is one of the first to pick up the story in the Irish News, with the headline writer rather colourfully describing them as ‘Slugger sites’.
Although Slugger is enthusiastically promoting the project, we actually have nothing to do with the delivery. The project has previously been road tested in English local authorities with some noteable successes. Bob Piper, now a commentator with considerable influence in English politics far beyond his own Labour Party, began his online career with www.councillor.info.

In fact the project is tightly bound by an Acceptable Use Policy so that it can only be used by councillors in their representative, rather than political function. It’s worth looking some of the sites that have been up and running for some time. Tony Martin, a councillor in Lancashire for instance is a regular user of the site. Mary Docker is a councillor in Sandwell in the English Midlands. All the focus and the information is intentionally local. And it is designed as a simple, relatively risk free, first step to bring councillors into the read/write age.

So why is Slugger such an enthusiastic supporter of the project?

As US Senator Tip O’Neill once famously said, “All politics is local”. Thus far Northern Ireland’s political parties have struggled to find the means, resources and will to give any meaningful online space to their most local, and in many regards their least ‘Political’ representatives. Or as another Irish politician, Edmund Burke put it, rather more grandly:

“…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

“But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”

The project has had warm and enthusiastic support from all the major political parties. We at Slugger are keen to encourage any intiative that helps bolster representative democracy, particularly by leveraging the huge potential of the Internet.

We’ll be giving it a fair wind. =And we’ll be keeping an eye on it as it develops, spotlighting those councillors who run with the ball. We hope you will to.

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  • deirdre nelson

    I posted on your last go at this and once again I would remind you that some councillors are so technophobic they don’t even believe in the use of fire.
    I think this is possibly an idea worth looking at as there is no way I would ever have the ability, knowledge or interest to set up my own website never mind update it. Check out some councillors/local politicians who do have websites- they’re mostly out of date. Anything that helps people contact me is worth considering but at the minute we’re still local enough to be collared in the street. However, that might change with the eventual advent of the new councils.
    Also my details are on the council website so I’m pretty much reachable 24/7 as it is

  • As someone who had the good fortune to learn his journalistic craft many years ago on weekly newspapers (as well as freelancing for almost anyone who’d write a cheque…) these publications had greater resonance in local communities/towns/villages; and stayed in houses longer than the Tele or other Belfast-centric outlets. Hence councillors were desparate to get whatever randomn statements/quotations included. When one considers that some of our 50+ weeklies sell more than Birmingham’s daily title it puts that into perspective. However, given the age profile of most councillors, they are both technophobic and unlikely to begin web engagement. And more worryingly when enterting postcode at the councillor.info link for both my home postcode, and my parent’s postcode I got what my daughter would describe as squat and diddly..i.e. nowt, nada, zero and zilch (I counted twice). Hopefully over next few years this will change, but I fear it will be a slow process…until someone rattles the zimmer frames and says “this will help you get in on the fourth count insead of the sixth”

  • Deirdre,

    I’m working on this Councillor website project. We had a good deal of experience in England a few years ago with councillors there – similar age / skill profile – and we found ways of really making it easy for them to do this. Our success rate has been very good, and lots of councillors are now very active users of their personal websites.

    The website tool is so easy to use that I know that you’d master it in a few minutes – it’s as complicated to use as it is to leave a comment here. I bet that we’ll be able to get a site up for you in about 15 minutes!

    And picking up Belfast Metal’s point, a small news item every couple of weeks would make councillors much more visible in the local press – journalists are very keen on cut-and-paste from councillor’s websites.

    BM – on the postcode thing, we haven’t set up the Northern Ireland postcodes yet. The councillors are being invited to take part at the moment. The Northern Ireland section of the site will be launched in early February.

  • Mick Fealty

    Deirdre,

    Fair point. This is a project that will attract some but clearly not those who ‘want the internet turned off’.

    It’s not like a blog (which is harder work than it looks) in the sense that it is possible to maintain it a different levels. Experience in England suggests that some will populate it with fairly basic information and leave it as their presence on the net. Others will use it systematically to help them keep the local press.

    My suspicion is that a significant proportion will not use it. But I also suspect that some of those who run with it will score success which will in turn encourage other more cautious souls to get involved.

    For the most adventurous it will act as a gateway to using other online tools to talk to their constituents. That might include blogs, wikis, social software like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook to name the most obvious. Applications like my neighbourhood on Facebook have the capacity to bring groups of your constituents together.

    There are photo share sites like Flickr that allow councillors to document distinctly local problems. Uncollected rubbish. Dog poo. Missing or damaged road signs. In fact the number of applications you can find practical uses for grows dramatically day on day. All of it easily translatable to other more traditional media.

    None of these things are on http://www.councillor.info btw. It’s a deliberately basic offering. What it offers is a sandbox, and safe space to get to understand the principles of the read/write era of the net. Just getting to see the bold figures of how many people read you and where they are reading from is one of the spurs to further growth.