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 E-government in England = county councillors' own websites / blogs!

CymunedolThe Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), stated that, by the end of December 2005, every English authority must “provide every councillor with the option to have an easy-to-manage set of public web pages that is either maintained for them or that they can maintain themselves”.

The councillor.info project is one initiative helping local authorities meet this requirement. To date it has provided over a 1,000 councilors in 21 authorities in England with the facility to develop their own website.

The initiative was launched during local democracy week in 2003 by web solutions provider Poptel Technology with the support of the Local Government Association (LGA) and ten pilot authorities.

The project provides councillors in participating authorities with access to a simple content management system, which allows them to publish a website providing basic information about their work as a councillor.

While the councillor’s website has a distinct identity from that of their local authority, links between the two are encouraged. The content management system also gives publication rights to officers of the participating council, allowing them to publish links to news and information about the services of the authority on the councillor’s site.


Democratic renewal?
But how does providing councillors with a web presence help with re-engaging people in the democratic process?

Research carried out by the Electoral Commission after the 2005 General Election documented the continuing trend of low voter turnout, and highlighted the fact that young people remain particularly apathetic. The research did, however, identify that levels of involvement are changeable and that there is scope to re-engage people in the process.

Data compiled by the Office for National Statistics for 2003-2004 shows that the demographic group using the internet the most in the UK is aged between 16-24; precisely the group identified by the Electoral Commission as most disengaged from the political process.

A presence on the web is therefore a vital tool for councillors in the process of democratic renewal. It gives councillors access to a communication channel that the key demographic group they must reach, young people, are receptive to, and gives them a platform to demonstrate the value of government to the people that need convincing the most.

By utilising the web as a communication channel councillors can become more effective advocates for their own work in the local community, but also for the work of their authority and local government. MORI research commissioned by the Local Government Association has highlighted that good communication is an important factor in producing public satisfaction with the work of a council.

Councillor Bob Piper from Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, one of the participants in the project, agrees. “It enables me to keep people informed and correct or confirm local rumours. I think that it does assist in raising the profile of myself as a councillor, and hopefully increases the respect for the council.”

Councillor Nic Best of Castle Morpeth Borough Council, another participant in the project, also feels that his website allows him to communicate the work of his council more effectively. ”I’ve certainly had considerable satisfaction in being able to explain in my own terms why the council is or is not doing something – and the feedback I’m getting suggests that people appreciate this. I now have the opportunity to publish my perception of the whole story – though I do warn that my view is subjective too.”

Challenges for councillors Publishing a website does though present challenges for a councillor and for their authority and can have a negative impact, particularly if the councillor fails to maintain information and keep it up-to-date. “Websites which lay dormant can bring the council into disrepute,” notes Councillor Piper.

Councillor Best also points out that the effectiveness of the website rests with the councillor. “A website is just a tool which will be effective in the hands of a good councillor but destructive in the hands of a bad councillor,” he says.

The councillor.info project has recognised the importance of the councillor’s input and has identified capacity building as an important part of the project. “Giving councillors the tools to use the sites effectively is vital,” says Paul Evans of the project. “This means marketing the sites so that the number of visitors grows and providing councillors with tips and advice on how they can use the site more effectively.”

The extent to which councillors can deliver democratic renewal by engaging citizens is arguably hampered though by restrictions that prevent councillors from using council services for political purposes. The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity states that publicity produced by the local authority relating to councillors should not be party political.

Moreover during election campaigns, councillor websites have to be replaced by toned down versions containing just bare facts because, unlike MPs, councillors remain in office throughout the campaign period.

To help councillors stay within the code each website in the project has an acceptable use policy which the councillor must sign up to, as well as the facility for members of the public to complain if they feel that content on the site contravenes this policy.

Some councillors have overcome these restrictions by simply asking their authority to provide links to external sites with more overt political content, such as those of their local and national political parties.

Others, including councillors Best and Piper, have gone even further by setting up their own websites and weblogs, and linked to them from their councillor.info website. These sites allow the councillors to be more expansive about their political views and party involvement and, perhaps, offer greater scope for engagement. “I do have access to the Green Party regional website where I can put the explicitly political stuff and putting pointers to that seems to be OK,” says Councillor Best.

Evans thinks a change in the law to allow more political content would increase the prospect of engagement. “Giving politicians a platform to air their views is not the same as giving them a political advantage,” he says.

What will have more impact on engagement though, says Evans, is encouraging more councillors to use the web. “In a lot of cases, councillors don't fully grasp the ways that managing a site can improve the way they work ... until they do it. One of the biggest changes that can be made to local democracy is for as many people as possible to work on coaxing individual councillors to put their toes in the water for the first time.”



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