by Jon King
We’re in a whole new world.
Social media has changed the landscape of society. The implications for the democratic process are profound.
Popular uprisings can no longer be suppressed or marginalised by the machinery of state as citizens create new, organic networks of communication freed from the grip of a complicit national media.
Once it was underground pamphlets distributed on street corners, now it’s a Twittersphere and Facebook community numbering millions.
Cynicism clearly plays a part in this. The political process is all too often a case of schoolyard hectoring and spiteful obstinacy so is it any wonder? “I don’t vote because the government always gets in” is a hackneyed phrase but “We get the government we deserve” is another side of that coin.
Climbing down from the barricades for a moment, I’d like to take a look at the perhaps more civilized but equally important area of local government. Social media has created countless forums and blogs where issues of the day are discussed in fine detail by citizens who have a real stake in them. For the intrepid local politician they are a ready-made audience or perhaps better, sounding board to feel the temperature of their community.
Generation Digital wears social media like a second skin. The use of these channels is instinctive and local government needs to respond. Take the megaphone out of the politicians hand and teach them to blog. And the same goes for Communications by the way. More significantly, encourage them to listen. Make no mistake; the councillor who tweets and blogs will have the upper hand in the coming years.
As Kim Ryley, IEWM Lead on Transformation commented at the recent All Change Conference in Warwick, “even with shrinking budgets, it’s our democratic status that gives local government legitimacy and clout in the public sector”. Maintaining that position will require a greater effort to coax citizens to the ballot box.
Clarity, openness and engagement are what is required if we are to reverse the trend and persuade the masses to engage once more in the democratic process. And engage they must if localism is to stand half a chance of succeeding, because it’s likely to fall on the shoulders of local government to take the lead and that requires legitimacy.
Also, it’s worth underlining that Whole Place, Big Society, whatever you choose to call it is doomed if participation is still dependent on citizens turning up to meetings in draughty community halls at a time to suit us. Far better to go where the conversation is. It’s not a case of harnessing social media, simply of adopting it, our democracy will be all the healthier as a consequence.
Jon King is Senior eCommunications Officer at Shropshire Council
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