The democratic potential of community websites has long been heralded, but it won’t happen just by itself. What developments are needed to overcome barriers like digital exclusion, lack of interaction between local councils and residents, or the capture of local sites for narrow interests?

This week we collaborated with the Hansard Society and the LGIU to run a discussion event on these themes at Parliament’s Portcullis House , with short presentations from Natasha Innocent (Race Online), Hugh Flouch (Networked Neighbourhoods), Jonathan Carr-West (LGIU) and Kerry McCarthy MP.

Hugh reported some early findings from our recent survey into the views of elected members and council officers concerning neighbourhood websites – a follow-up to our 2010 survey. Over the past year there seems to have been more activity in low income areas, which needs to be fostered; increasing use by police forces; and evidence of interest from the social housing sector.

Hugh noted that awareness of local sites seems to have grown: those aware of one or more sites in their area increased from 63% in 2010 to 84% for members, and from 55% to 92% among officers responding.

We have also seen a significant increase in the number of respondents agreeing that the sites are useful as a link to online council services.

As in 2010, among the main barriers affecting the relationship between councils and sites, respondents included ‘lack of council or party guidance on how to interact with neighbourhood websites’. Hugh called for councils to start developing policies for engaging with the growing number of local sites.

This year we included a question asking which online channels are the most useful to the respondent (including member, resident and council Facebook pages or Twitter streams, for example, as well as council websites, residents’ blogs and so on). Neighbourhood websites topped the list for both officers (85%) and members (79%). Twitter came second for officers but was far less valued by members.

We’ll be announcing more on the research findings soon.

The meeting also heard about recent research from LGIU which calls for authorities to ‘go where the eyeballs are’ and build more effective and engaging communications strategies: reduced communication costs are implied in a more citizen-oriented approach to digital media.

Among the issues raised in the discussion, we heard the need to keep pointing out that local online is not a solution on its own, but needs to be absorbed into other community development and engagement activities. There were calls to end the still-prevalent perception among some officers of the public as ‘problem’; digital exchanges may help to accelerate that change. And from the perspective of democratic engagement generally, it was suggested that Twitter may be starting to lose its value ‘as a genuine conversation’.

Arguably the most significant remark on the night came from Kerry McCarthy MP, who called for council officers to be ‘freed up’ to engage with local sites and use them to connect with residents.

 

Kevin Harris