Social media, civic engagement, and the need for political leadership

Probably not as keen on encouraging his political grassroots to interact as he could be?

Peter Mandelson: Probably not as keen on encouraging his political grassroots to interact as he could be?

There’s a terrific post here, authored by Dave Briggs – brimming with positivity and enthusiasm as ever. It’s a really good round up, and a good introduction to what is possible for users that already have their heads in the right place.

I’d add a number of observations to it that I hope make sense.

Firstly, I’ve not found a good briefing anywhere that makes the basic moral case for interactivity – particularly aimed at local politicians and officers. This is really what we’re talking about here when we strip out the actual applications. Something that mirrors the biblical Parable of the Talents.

Social capital is something that is there for us to create if we want to. If we don’t, do we impoverish those around us? And do policymakers have a moral duty to interact, as Edmund Burke argued? (Apologies for re-posting this quote, but it can’t be repeated enough!)

“…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”

Secondly, I’ve seen a good deal of work about how interactivity generates social capital that can be harvested by organisations (businesses, in particular) but nothing much that has been written for local government. It may be that it doesn’t exist, or it may be that I missed it – I’d be interested to know which?

Thirdly – and this isn’t a criticism of Dave’s piece – more an appeal for a re-working of it for a different audience: I’ve not seen anything similar that really tries hard to underestimate the level at which a lot of key players are at.

My advice – based on bitter experience – is that it’s impossible to underestimate this level. I work with local authorities and councillors – and in most cases, I find officers and councillors who pick this stuff up fairly easily.

But I also find myself working – perhaps in a majority of cases – with people for whom sending a text message, updating a blog, using a RSS reader – hell, reading and responding to e-mail – is quite a traumatic challenge. Even using a word processor to write a letter is dangerous and hostile territory. I’ve met councillors who really get it. They want to do it and they’ve enviously watched their kids interacting. But the simplest suggestion is met with the kind of stressed-out body-language that is only seen in divorce courts, and during the completion of a house-purchase.

Fourthly, there’s the need for the hymnsheet here (that’s enough ecclesiastical references – Ed). There isn’t an orchestrated, agreed, clearly communicated message that is going out about this yet. Really, it needs to come from the political leaderships of the main parties. Again, I can explain why in a long post another time, but I’ve found that this sort of thing can only work if it is enthusiastically endorsed by local political leaderships – and they often tend only to respond to pressure from above. It also can do wonders in focussing minds on overcoming the problems in point three (above).

Like Machiavelli’s Prince, however, I’m not convinced that they would really regard this as being in their interest.

Parkinson’s Law states that…

“An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.”

I’d argue that one of the main causes of political centralisation – and the weakening of local government – can be found in a political variation on this theme – as De Tocqueville pointed out a long long time ago.

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One Response

  1. How did telephone evangelists do it in the early 20th century, I wonder?

    “But nobody I know uses them”
    “But how would I remember all those numbers?”
    “But how do you know it’s really me?”
    “But I’m much more comfortable writing”
    “But it’s expensive, and I don’t have time to learn anyway”

    Did they fight these attitudes? Or just get on with selling phones to people who saw the potential and were ready to trust that the network would build? Build more competitive businesses and more effective political campaigns? And then just wait 10 years or so for people to catch up with them, or fade into insignificance.

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