Why won’t our MLAs interact with us online?

If you ever did a foundation course in politics you may have come across Edmund Burke’s famous explanation of what representation should be:

?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 judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living”

This is often interpreted to mean that we elect them and have to leave them to make their decisions for us between now and the next election when we can decide whether to stick or twist. I’d argue that this “strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents” is often overlooked – and it’s particularly overlooked by most of our MLAs who have resisted the temptation that has been seized upon by the likes of Daithí McKay.Last year Slugger promoted the Councillor.info project – designed to get Northern Ireland’s councillors to be more active users of the internet. From a standing start, it got over 200 of them to say yes, and a couple of dozen of them have updated their sites fairly often since. In some cases, the local government officers were either un-cooperative or downright hostile and the project has – I’m told – got stuck in the bizarre claim that it’s somehow illegal for local authorities to help councillors communicate on-line.

That said, a few of our MLAs have instructed one of their staff to ‘pretend’ to Twitter on their behalf. But is this really good enough? Six years ago in November 2003, we did a quick shorthand round up of the parties web offering. Now, despite a beautiful re-skin of the DUP along with web 2.0 bells and whistles, and a similarly polished finished (and the capacity to comment on pressers – which I’ve not tried, but you might wish to) on Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis site… Outside the use of Flickr in broadcast mode (it’s a fecking community of serious talent guys; engage and collaborate), nothing much has changed.

Now, I am not thinking primarily of campaigns here. It makes good sense to campaign locally as the main parties have been doing for months now (though local online projects like Fermanagh TV will help change that), rather than through an online ‘airwar’ but the kind of quality ‘between election’ engagement that David Cameron and several of his leading MPs have managed is streets ahead of our local boys and girls. The gap is getting embarrassing. In fact he is in Ballymena on this afternoon to hold a Cameron Direct where he will answer questions from an audience of local people.

I’d like to propose a session at PICamp to begin to answer the question: Why aren’t MLAs and Councillors using the web to interact with us more effectively – and what can we do to encourage more of them to do so?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Why aren’t MLAs and Councillors using the web to interact with us more effectively – and what can we do to encourage more of them to do so?”

    I am aware of one Councillor, involved in the Education sector, who does not know how to send an e-mail.

  • jj

    The majority of DUP MLA’s have websites, and a number of UUP MLA’s also. There are also growing numbers of MLA’s on Twitter and Facebook. It actually seems like the DUP are in the lead on these issues.

  • Of course, one of the complications is that the web isn’t yet entirely representative of the electorate, so while they should up their online game, they should also up their offline game too.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m afraid it is Sinn Fein that’s in the lead, if anyone is. I’m not convinced GA’s blog is really engaging, but Daithi’s is the genuine article. Alban’s blog that I linked to earlier is not really seeking engagement. All the DUP blogs I’ve seen are nice looking, but essentially brochureware.

    And the Republic is streets, and I mean quite a few streets, ahead of Northern Irish politicians.

    If there is not a human presence behind it, it ain’t a blog in the usual sense. Character and insight. But even plain old information sharing would be good.

  • Mick Fealty

    I meant sites, not blogs.

  • Real Life

    Mick

    I find your comments a bit plaintive, almost peevish. Any politically-involved person should be out on the voters’ doorsteps at this time, canvassing on behalf of their preferred candidate in the European election. I’m doing this on behalf of my party’s choice, Alban Maginness. I agree that internet technology is important, but nothing-nothing-beats meeting the voters on their own ground. There is a bit of a disconnect between the tekkies and ‘on the ground’ political activists.

  • Caoimhin

    In a democracy you would expect the politicians to represent the people. Although fortunately for politicians when people cannot contact them they can avoid this burden.

    Are we really living in a democracy, or is this a watered down dictatorship?

  • “I agree that internet technology is important, but nothing-nothing-beats meeting the voters on their own ground.”

    I completely agree with this. A party would have to be clinically bonkers to put their online activities over actually getting out and on to the street…
    What the online stuff does, is add that extra 10 percent. Its what you do on top of the doorknocking and flyering. And if you do it right, manage your time properly, it’s very very effective. and, it’s free (for the most part). It could mean an extra few votes, or an extra few activists.

    A conversation with someone on their doorstep might have an audience of one…maybe two if you’re lucky… but when that same engagement happens online, on twitter or on facebook for instance, it’s there for hundreds/thousands of people to see. Engaging with that one person online is like knocking 10 doors, and you don’t get wet!

    And as far as:
    “There is a bit of a disconnect between the tekkies and ‘on the ground’ political activists.”

    Can we please get over the notion that the web is solely for geeks and star trek fans. Have you not seen facebook? my da is on facebook.

    Its not supposed to replace the door to door stuff, its just there to add to it and compliment it.

  • eranu

    i would have thought inability to answer difficult questions would be the main reason NI reps would avoid the internet, especially blogs. they would have strips torn off them on slugger. it would become obvious very quickly that they dont have the skill sets to run anything.

  • the Raven

    “In some cases, the local government officers were either un-cooperative or downright hostile and the project has – I’m told – got stuck in the bizarre claim that it’s somehow illegal for local authorities to help councillors communicate on-line.”

    I noted this earlier and asked some Local Government Officers in two councils about it – obviously not the ones mentioned above. Basically, they thought it was a great idea, knew of it, supported it. But they can’t be seen to help councillors – individual or group – in spreading the message. It’s just a no-no. The ones I spoke to, however, *did* say that they had offered to buy in some outside help to “facilitate” something.

    There just wasn’t the take up.

    I agree with almost everything Keith has written. But – and I say this in general terms – I think if you look at the demographic we’re talking about (general terms now, not specifics) they just aren’t interested and are looking forward to getting out of the game. I was in one meeting the other day with five councillors. The youngest was, I found out afterwards, 53. The oldest, 76.

    It ***may*** have some bearing….?

    Keith, there was one point: “A party would have to be clinically bonkers to put their online activities over actually getting out and on to the street…

    I’d like to see it replace flyers and posters. If only for waste, environmental and aesthetic reasons.

  • I wonder how sophisticated the party machines are? have they figured out the demographic profiles of what age groups, social backgrounds, likely voters are online?

    At the Ofcom e-Democracy event up at Stormont a couple of weeks ago, it was clear that the Obama web effort was incredibly sophisticated, with all kinds of slicing and dicing of the electorate, with specific messaging for each group etc.

    Don’t see a lot of evidence of that kind of approach. Nor any particular call to action to enthuse and exploit supporters for electoral benefit.

  • The News Letter has been running live webchats this week with Nicholson, Allister and Dodds – Parsley to be on Friday – they can be `replayed` on the News Letter website http://www.newsletter.co.uk

    Also the DUP are pretty active on Facebook, Bebo, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr, here are some of them

    DUP on Bebo

    http://www.bebo.com/Democratic_Unionist

    Dianne Dodds for MEP facebook page

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=f909adc28bb0ca6c4dcef7581204f325&gid=52714140795&ref=search

    YouTube
    http://www.youtube.com/dupchannel

    DUP on Facebook
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=f909adc28bb0ca6c4dcef7581204f325&gid=52714140795&ref=search#/group.php?sid=5b779cf566bea999ee5a915b35702466&gid=2213026781&ref=search

    DUP on Twitter
    http://twitter.com/duponline

    DUP on Flickr
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dupphotos/

    Sammy Wilson has his own YouTube channel
    http://www.youtube.com/EastAntrimDUP

  • Pigeon Toes

    The Raven,
    Its hardly surprising that councils aren’t conversant in scary technology.

    I understand that Moyle Council are only beginning to train their staff on The Data Protection Act, that was erm introduced in 1998!

  • The Raven

    Ummm where did I say they weren’t conversant in technology?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “In some cases, the local government officers were either un-cooperative or downright hostile and the project has – I’m told – got stuck in the bizarre claim that it’s somehow illegal for local authorities to help councillors communicate on-line.”

    I noted this earlier and asked some Local Government Officers in two councils about it – obviously not the ones mentioned above. Basically, they thought it was a great idea, knew of it, supported it. But they can’t be seen to help councillors – individual or group – in spreading the message. It’s just a no-no. The ones I spoke to, however, *did* say that they had offered to buy in some outside help to “facilitate” something.”

    And if my above post demonstrates, how far behind the council officials are then it is hardly surprising that some of the councillors are not capable of interacting vis “t’internet”

  • The Raven

    I’d say its refresher training, not “first time” training.

  • Pigeon Toes

    No, I’m pretty definite it is first time training for some of the senior management.