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?

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