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The councillor’s charter

The councillor’s charter
Mar 14, 2018 Shaking Hands 0 comments
This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 13/03/2018.

The councillor’s charter

The topic of an evening of debate was “Social media and local government – help or hindrance”, which naturally led on to the participation of councillors on social media.
Not for the first time, a good idea came out of discussion at the Croydon Debate Club. Since it wasn’t me who came up with it, I would go so far as to say it was a very good idea.

Councillor interaction with voters on social media was welcomed but the current dialogue was felt to be negative, un-enlightening and sometimes even went so far as to give a poor view of our town. Some kind of guideline was suggested as a way to improve.

At one level, social media is no different from other means of communication. Just like email, letters, councillor surgeries, and public meetings, it’s an opportunity for dialogue, to put across a point of view and seek those of others, exchange information, and perhaps take up issues. The downside is that it is public, immediate, and the evidence of what you said is there for all to see.

A public forum is clearly unsuitable for personal issues

Confidentiality must be maintained and councillors need to know that the person whom they are communicating with is indeed a constituent. A public medium can be a first point of contact, but for personal matters it must rapidly head to the more private arenas of email, direct messaging or even face-to-face conversation.

For general matters there are risks. The audience is not entirely benign. There are those looking to pounce on misunderstandings or take remarks out of context to score a point. There are the ranters and ravers and there are political opponents, declared or otherwise. But there are also genuine people who deserve answers. Anonymity makes it hard to distinguish one from another.

Right now much of councillor communication is broadcasting the party line: ‘my party is great. The other party is incompetent, stupid, duplicitous, wrong, or lying’. That pretty much mimics the dialogue of council meetings which don’t, I suspect, draw a big audience.

Context is important and there are often complex trade-offs

Much of the rest is spats between opposing councillors, political activists, and the party-politically-committed on a specific issue, for example that old favourite fly-tipping. Although this can become tedious to onlookers when it becomes just statistics trading and what-aboutery, there is some value there. Links to supporting documents, articles, or blogs can bring enlightenment if you choose to dig.

The challenge is that complexity cannot be explained in one liners. Context is important and there are often complex trade-offs. The answer to an apparently simple question is often “it depends”. That’s why politicians tend to answer the question that they wanted you to ask rather than the one that you asked.

But enough complaining about where we are. How might we improve? Here is my first draft of social media principles:

  1. I treat you as an intelligent human being. I expect you to treat me as the same.
  2. My primary purpose in communicating on social media is to improve understanding: yours, mine, and anyone else’s. If yours is too then let’s talk.
  3. It has been said that there are two things that you need to survive in politics: a sense of humour and a sense of proportion. Let’s try to preserve both.
  4. Good manners mean that you make your personal interests, like party affiliations, clear, even if you are anonymous.
  5. No one is required to respond but a genuine, polite question should receive a polite answer. The occasional “thank you” does not go amiss.
  6. Opinion is fine, but unless supported by argument and objective information, it is just that. Blather, bluster, and what-aboutery are even less valuable.
  7. If the conversation is going nowhere or if everything that can be said has been said, then don’t be surprised if the conversation ceases.
  8. Persistent pestering means that I stop listening.
  9. Accusations of dishonesty or lying mean that you don’t get answered, possibly ever again.
  10. We are all human. If one of us makes a mistake, then that person should offer an apology. That apology should, except in exceptional circumstances, be graciously accepted.