Over the summer, I have been working with a volunteer intern Bruce Ryan (@mycelliumme). Bruce has been carrying out a survey of the public internet presences of community councils across Scotland . We’re getting to the data analysis and report drafting stage, so now seems a good idea to start sharing our progress.
In 2006, Edinburgh Napier University’s e-Community Council project showed how providing website tools and training could noticeably increase communication between CCs and their communities (Report – PDF). One major hurdle was that Community Councillors often didn’t know how to create and maintain websites. Also websites generally don’t allow two-way conversations between CCs and their constituents.
Social media have since exploded into the public consciousness. Tools such as WordPress and Facebook allow people to interact online, without needing to know anything techie. Such tools are available on smartphones, so online two-way conversations could happen anywhere, any time: you wouldn’t need to go to your local library to find out what your CC is doing and then get involved.
What has made this project particularly interesting is that Bruce was treasurer of St Andrews Community Council in 2004-5, and learnt a bit about how Community Councils (CCs) function, and occasionally malfunction.
Developments in the community council landscape
There have been a few other background developments which make this a topical area for research.
Late in 2011, the Scottish Government set up a short-life working group on CCs. It is now conducting its own research into what CCs do in general and who the councillors are.
In 2012, the Association of Scottish Community Councils folded, and the status of the National Network of Community Councillors in Scotland remains uncertain.
Recently, both Reform Scotland (Report – PDF) and the Jimmy Reid Foundation (Report – PDF) published reports on the state of local government in Scotland. Both recommended that CCs be given increased powers and status to make up for the remoteness of Scottish local authorities (the biggest in Europe) from their citizens.
So, we wanted to update the picture of what CCs are doing online, and whether they’re using social media to have two-way conversations with their constituents.
Results so far
So far, we have found that there are potentially around 1400 CCs. However, only around 1100 are active and about two-thirds of them have some kind of online presence. Only half of these (around 300) are actually up to date, by which we mean had updates in May-July 2012.
We have also identified and categorised CCs’ online presences according to type (such as full website) and content (such as whether they have minutes or planning information).
Finding out what’s happening is only the first step. Bruce has been interviewing a small number of Community Councillors to begin to find out why CCs choose certain ways of being online, and why other active CCs don’t do online at all. Of course this is their choice – we do not intend to tell CCs what they should be doing.
We are not working for the Scottish Government but we have been talking with them to make sure that this research will complement and inform theirs, not duplicate it.
We will publish a detailed report later this year, and will also share our conclusions with the Scottish Government’s working group. Above all, we are aiming to produce some research that enables decisions to be based on facts!
Update: Changed initial paragraph to highlight the amount of work Bruce is doing.