We thought that councillors’ engagement with social media would be similar to officers: actually councillors engagement with social media was rather different.
When we interviewed officers for the 21st Century Public Servant report, they talked about the tensions and dilemmas of being active on social media, where public and private lives blur. Asked by their organisations to be active on Twitter, they were unsure about the boundaries: one senior manager said, ‘Comms are saying you need to be blogging “as you”. But…what guarantees do I have that no one is going to say you’ve overstepped the mark here?’
Councillors are different in that they already have a strong public presence and are used to communicating “as you”. They also have seen their public and private boundaries blur during their time as a councillor. The meshing of these two aspects on social media is less daunting to people who talk about how ‘a trip to the supermarket can take two hours.’
For councillors trying to fit the role around paid work, the versatility of social media as a 24-7 medium can be helpful, and much quicker than other forms of communication:
‘The police wrote to me about a van that had been seen around an area and actually how do you cascade that quickly and effectively, you know, there is no time for me to be able to print up a leaflet “be careful about this van” because it’ll be three weeks before it’s out in everybody’s doors.’
But these advantages are only perceived by some. There was no middle ground – councillors either really got social media , and used it as a key part of their work – or they didn’t. As one councillor leader reflected:
‘We’ve got some members that have no idea whatsoever what a Tweet is or, you know, Facebook and all the rest of it. And then we’ve got those who are never off it… We seem to have the two extremes without any people sort of in the middle who just get the balance right.’
And even the ‘natives’ who use it a lot worry about the abuse and immediacy of this medium:
‘I think attitudes have changed. I think people are more impatient, they are ruder, they are… unrealistic, they’ll think of something in the morning and they’ll wonder why they haven’t got a reply in the afternoon.’
What are we doing to help support councillors with these aspects of life online? And does it matter that lots of councillors don’t use social media and don’t want to?
Our next blog focuses on what councillors told us about the combined authorities agenda. The full report is available here.
Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan are based at the University of Birmingham. They tweet as @DrCNeedham and @mangancatherine using the hashtag #21cPS