Certain industries capitalise on new technology and each new communications medium very quickly. Politics is one. When PCs and broadband arrived in more and more people’s homes, politicians invested in websites, some once, others refreshing their designs every few years.
The internet is increasingly now in people’s hands. Mobile internet usage has risen from half of NI households in 2014 to over two thirds in 2016 according to Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report. And use of social media is the rule rather than the exception. Shadowing Westminster candidates as they canvassed parts of Lagan Valley at the 2010 General Election, it was clear that half of incoming casework was already arriving by Facebook.
So Stratagem NI commissioned a report to look at the connectedness of the outgoing MLAs. A set of measures were drawn up and grouped into three dimensions. And over a couple of days in spring I ploughed through every MLA’s social media profiles as well as individual, constituency and party websites to assess what information was held and how up to date it was.
Finding their digital footprint. How easy is it for a constituent to find an Assembly member on Twitter or Facebook? Are their social media streams up to date? If you Google them, which websites show up on the first? Do they have their own website? How well does it display on a mobile phone browser (its level of responsiveness)? Are they mentioned on a constituency website run by their party? Do these websites give you their email address or provide a contact form?
92 out of the total 108 MLAs in the Assembly by the end of the last mandate had a Facebook profile, whilst 90 had a Twitter account, 84 of which had been active in the previous month at the time the research was carried out. A total of 106 put of 108 had some form of online presence.
With smartphone usage running at 72% in Northern Ireland (higher than the rest of the UK) it was disappointing to discover a disregard for ‘mobile first’. Only 20% of outgoing MLA websites could be judged as fully responsive, and more than half had significant problems (mostly relating to the size of text and width of layout). A small number of websites which included support for browsing on mobile devices were hampered by broken menus and other obvious usability issues.
Finding their physical presence. Once you’ve found your MLA online, do they provide the address of their constituency office or advice centre? A postcode to make it easy to find for those relying on GPS? Or a map? Do they advertise their opening hours? The practice of holding regular surgeries around a constituency seems to be dying out. But for the MLAs who still run surgeries, do they publish the address and times, or would you have to phone the office to find out?
For 11 MLAs, no postal address for a constituency office was specified on the individual, constituency or party website. Office opening hours were displayed for 58 MLAs. In three cases the hours of opening were not published on the same page as the office address
Regular surgeries outside the main constituency office of MLAs were poorly signposted online. Holding surgeries around a constituency seems to be a practice in decline. Evidence that surgeries were held could only be found for 11 MLAs (all unionist). Of those 11 MLAs, nine published the times of the surgeries, but only four published the addresses of their surgeries online. Assembly election literature suggests that more surgeries are being run than were listed on websites.
Evidence of activity. Once you’ve found your MLAs online, do they publish much evidence of what work they do in the constituency? If they have a blog, is it up-to-date? Do they link out to the NI Assembly or services like They Work For You to independently showcase the speeches they make and questions they ask in the Assembly? Can you subscribe to updates from their website by RSS? If their website has a photo gallery, is it ever updated? And if they link to social media profiles, do the links work?
A total of 51 personal websites were located across all 108 MLAs. 32 MLAs had published a blog post (or news item) in the last month. 36 had published updates regularly (monthly or quarterly) during the five years of the Assembly term. Some evidence of constituency-level activity could be found online for 85 MLAs. Approximately half was visible on websites (individual, constituency or party) and half on Facebook (account pro les or Facebook Pages).
Very few MLAs, constituencies or parties linked to resources that would automatically provide a view or a feed of activity within the NI Assembly. Eight MLAs linked to They Work For You (which provides links to speeches and voting records) or the NI Assembly question database.
It is clear that picture and video galleries are common tick list requirements when parties or MLAs specify new websites. However, once launched, effort is not sustained to replenish the content. 78 MLAs published photo galleries on their individual or constituency websites or their Facebook pro les or Pages. One MLA still kept their Flickr account up to date. Only 48 MLAs had added a new photograph within the last three months.
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Rather than single out individual MLAs, the results were grouped by party. Admittedly for the smaller parties before the end of the Assembly mandate, they were single MLA parties. However we found that independents and parties with single representation scored most highly in terms of their digital footprint.
The connectedness of Alliance’s outgoing MLAs was mid-table. Despite many of the MLAs launching new websites over the last couple of years, they were not mobile friendly.
The DUP’s strength lies in their online signposting of the location of constituency offices and advice centres. However, their outgoing MLAs had poor digital footprints and there was considerably less evidence of their constituency activity than other large parties.
Sinn Féin’s connectedness was middling. Their weaknesses were a tendency not to publish precise information online about office locations, and a network of old-fashioned looking constituency websites that were prone to host out-of-date information.
SDLP’s outgoing MLAs had above average digital footprints and could easily be found online, publishing information about work in constituencies. However, SDLP websites were very poor at publishing constituency office address information.
The UUP’s strength was in publishing information online about the work of MLAs in their constituencies. Their outgoing MLAs had moderate digital footprints.
The full findings together with more detailed analysis of websites and social media platforms can be found in the report which is published on Stratagem’s website. As an end of term report, the principal’s comment might state that the politicians are getting to grips with social media, but there is certainly room for improvement.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.