As part of their Democracy Week, the Guardian’s Local Government Network asked me to write about how social media can and is impacting on local democracy. Below is a copy of their edited version.
In this year’s local elections only one eligible voter in three participated. This was the worst turnout since 2000.
Look into the figures a little more and we see a trend beginning in the 1970s, of fewer people voting than not in local elections, except in years with a general election. So has social media had a revolutionary impact on local democracy? Clearly the answer is no. Since Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online communication, organisation and campaigning came along we haven’t seen a distinguishable rise in local voter participation.
But I believe this no will soon become a yes; our lackluster voting trends will gradually change for the better as we put more energy into these new, radical bottom-up tools of communication. With some nurturing, the democratic elements that are part of the very nature of social media can indeed transform what democracy is and how it is exercised.
This is a glass half-full approach – surely better than one that is half empty, like those who believe in compulsory voting.
A recent report called Next localism argued that enforced participation in local elections would improve quality and accountability in our political system. Karl Kraus famously quipped that “psychoanalysis is the disease of which it purports to be the cure”. I believe that compulsory voting would likewise be the disease of which it purports to be a cure; instead of invigorating local democracy, this top-down approach would dampen it further.
I believe social media – and I use the term in the broadest possible sense – offers the right prescription for the disease of disengagement because these new spaces are home to more and more people, and where those people are spending more and more of their time.
According to Pew Research, 66% of US adults were using social networking sites by November 2011. In Britain the number of hyperlocal news sites is now in the thousands, with a flock of active readers, users and contributors growing that is growing exponentially. To quote David Plouffe, manager of the Obama for America 2008 campaign, we now find ourselves at a stage to ask: “So many people are living their lives through technology – how can we expect their interactions with politics to be the one exception?”
Local authorities know this and will continue to make great strides forward to take local democracy out of the town hall and put it where their residents eyeballs are, both on and offline.
We now have council meetings streamed across the internet to hundreds of viewers, council leaders taking to Twitter to answer questions directly from residents, while council officers use hyperlocal community sites to encourage residents to participate in projects. Recently I spoke to a communications officer at a borough council who was engaged in a lively discussion with residents over a recent planning consultation, with the whole conversation taking place on the authority’s official Facebook page.
This will be a slow revolution. It was nearly 700 years from Simon De Montfort’s first representative parliament assembling to the House of Commons becoming the more powerful chamber in our legislature. It will be organic, and driven from the bottom by citizens.
Local government’s role is to be as transparent, open and as experimental as it dares – enabling and empowering people with the information, data and space they need to take on greater roles and responsibility in their communities. With all this, we will find ourselves arriving at a place where voting is an activity almost all will voluntarily and happily participate in.