I’d been writing Slugger for about three weeks before I had any idea who was reading it. When I worked out how to read the logs, I discovered there were 90 people reading every day. Most were US based, but gradually I discovered that the people I wanted to speak to (ie, people at home) were ‘listening’ (and often speaking back). If the success of Slugger (and host of other blogs hosted by similar ‘nobodies) has proven anything, it is the power of conversation.
Today sees the launch of councillor.info at Stormont. Its an e-democracy project that has enjoyed some success already in England and Wales that aims to help councillors build their own online space, that focuses on them as elected representatives.
First Minister Peter Robinson:
Communicating with people is the most important aspect of any elected representatives role. The use of new media and technology offers the opportunity for people to connect with politicians more quickly and directly than ever before.
The Councillor.info project allows a two-way flow of information and can play a very important role in ensuring that people are fully engaged in the democratic process and the decisions taken in their local Council.
Councillors are often the first port of call for people in the local community. But when it comes to the Internet they are also often the least visible of the elective body of public representatives.
In Northern Ireland, since up until now councils have had few meaningful powers, the job of councillor has carried little status in our political parties. The age profile is probably the highest. Its probably fair to say that few of them consider the Internet to be an important part of their day-to-day communications with their local electorates.
But with the shake up of local government in Northern Ireland due under the Review of Public Administration, there are likely to be some big changes. Council areas will get bigger, and there will be fewer council seats up for grabs. Many older councillors will be looking to move out and make space for younger, fresher, perhaps more ambitious blood.
There is an unprecedented opportunity here for the renewal of a whole tier of government. Thus far, political parties have been slow to exploit the read/write revolution that has driven the online political revolution. Many are unsure of how to tackle a difficult and often unpredictable beast, which they fear will only serve as a distraction from their real jobs.
Councillor.info is a means of first resort to help councillors make direct contact with people in their own constituencies. That’s life blood for any elected representative. So far 175 councillors out of a possible 582 have signed up to the project. You can find out if any of yours has signed up by pumping your postcode into search engine at the top left of Slugger. Let them know what you think.
The Internet is not (and never will be in itself) the key to political success. Howard Dean was probably the first politician to seriously unleash its potential (and its campaign dollars), but proved disasterous on the hustings. But the lesson for those with the courage to grasp it is that Burke’s ‘respectful frankness of communication’ can build trust between the elected official and his/her constituents.
In that respect, I personally hope that Councillor.info is just a first qualitative step for some of our more ambitious politicians. Today’s councillors are tomorrow’s MLAs, MPs and MEPs (and perhaps TDs as well). On line, it is the quality not the quantity of the discourse that can be had which distinguishes it from traditional media.
Over the next months, we’ll report regularly on the best of the sites. At the moment, here are some of the best examples so far from across the parties:
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty