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When Councillors take to the tweets. Part 2.

March 11, 2014


My second question in the list of nine was, “What is Engagement?” My own understanding of engagement rests on another question, which I have previously written about. In slightly old-fashioned language, “How do you treat people as ends in themselves?” In turn, you can understand this by considering the opposite – treating people as a means to an end.

It’s a challenge I first put to Marketing. How do you Market, even ‘’nice cuddly Marketing”, without treating people as a means to an end? That is, without seeing them solely as a mass of people who will buy [as much of] your stuff [as possible, at the highest possible price] and deliver your turnover or profits? Most marketers probably see that as the only sane focused description of their job. That includes those who have started to talk more about ‘Engagement’ since the advent of social media. These accept there’s now a return channel in response to the messages they used to just broadcast. But for most this is still bound up with the ultimate goal of causing ‘consumers’ to act in a certain way, or at best it is about getting back ‘thumbs up’ signals to say you have hit your target, or it’s about people allowing themselves to be the means by which your promotional messages are passed on to others.

So how would Marketing treat people as “ends in themselves”? It would involve them as equals, give them full information, and the means to discover and understand their own real needs. It would help you to improve your products in response [on those terms], set an affordable price [not the same as a maximum achievable price] and make you part of a bigger sustainable eco-system. This is ‘Engagement’. The strongest argument against it, probably generalised as “realism”, is that unless every other vendor in the world does the same thing you are putting yourself at a relative, and perhaps fatal, disadvantage. The argument in favour of this kind of Engagement is that it is morally right and creates a better society… including for the owners, shareholders, managers and workers in the vendor organisation.

What’s this got to do with politics?

Firstly, if politics is about Party and your party is effectively a brand, then politicians face exactly the same dilemma as Marketers. People are there as a means to an end – to buy your political product by giving you their vote. Or they are there as an end in themselves – to work with you to make their own lives, community and thus the lives of others… better. They are voters or citizens.

Actually, though, are the two mutually exclusive? Politicians will argue that you have to get people’s votes in order to protect them from that worst of all worlds – one governed by ‘the other lot’… those purely power hungry, citizen disregarding, villains in the other party. That’s still maybe OK, if it’s an honestly held belief, until you reach the point where this end is to be achieved “at all costs”.

This year we are starting to commemorate World War 1. One way of looking at that conflict is that it was overseen by people who said, “We will save our people from being ruled over by the other lot, at all costs, even if it kills them.” And it did – by the million.

That may seem a long way from a bit of local politics on social media. It is. But I hope it shows the ultimate conclusion of treating people as a means to an end.

So I think that, like the Marketer, the politician has two choices in their use of social media.

ENGAGEMENT: Using these channels to involve people in understanding and articulating their needs. Using these channels to involve them in defining and [crucially] committing to work towards as well as fund, changes which better meet those needs. This involves a lot of listening, reflecting and dispassionate information sharing. It demands self-restraint about defending or condemning the status quo for the sake of it. Engagement uses transmit and receive.

CAMPAIGNING: Using these channels to push messages, often selectively, with a view to influencing how people vote. This includes focusing excessively on ‘the other side’ and their conduct or personality [or ‘integrity’], rather than on what people need to know, or need to be given the means to consider. Campaigning narrows the agenda to a set of familiar well-rehearsed arguments and rituals. It treats ‘voters’ as a means to an end. Campaigning uses the receive button only to spot when things are said which can be affirmed or contradicted by the politician … not learned from.

So I would urge politicians using social media to ask themselves whether they are Engaging or Campaigning, and which is appropriate. I think there’s obviously a case to make for Campaigning during an election period, particularly if you spent all your other time Engaging and have now set out your [complex, messy and sometimes at risk of being dull?] policies. But the rest of the time I think Campaigning gets in the way of Engagement and will clog the channel, or deter people who might otherwise have been drawn into Engagement online. Those might be the very people who would never have become involved via traditional channels in the past.

Even if I’m broadly right – is this just a counsel [pun intended] of perfection? Am I asking too much, or too much too soon? Probably. But it’s good to have something on the horizon for people to work towards and sign up to.

Also, I’d be a terrible hypocrite if I wasn’t engaging and listening. So what do you think? If you are a Councillor or MP, do you accept my split between Campaigning and Engagement? Do you think you are currently striking the right balance? Do you have the tools, resources and knowledge to Engage more online, if you thought this was a good thing?

If you are a member of the-rest-of-the-public, do you want to be Engaged with? Are you put off ‘community’ social media by partisan campaigning amongst online politicians or not? Do you feel politicians regard you as ‘a vote to be won’ or as an equal to be drawn into running your community? Do you think these two actually go together, or agree they are at odds with each other?

How can I improve my argument? What might persuade you to try to create more Engagement? What might it do for us?

Should we ask our online politicians to sign up to a ‘Pledge to Engage’ kitemark?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Councillor Jonathon Hawkes permalink
    March 11, 2014 10:03 pm

    Really interesting piece. For me -as a councillor interested in the relationships local authorities have with residents – I’m immediately driven to ask the question ‘What is engagement’

    In council terms, I understand it as primarily something experienced by residents, rather than something done to them. – I.e. Councils cannot ‘engage’ – but by their actions, residents can feel ‘engaged’

    When do residents feel engaged? I suspect it’s when they feel there is a genuine experience of a two way dialogue – residents feel they can input into the decisions taken by the council (or even before that, the democratic process itself) and feel they have a stake in the work of the council. Offering residents a ‘fait accompli’ (however widely communicated) cannot achieve that.

    Where does Twitter come into all this? I suspect, in a small, but important way. Dartford Borough Council doesn’t have a Twitter account, nor is the website especially interactive. This doesn’t surprise me as it is indicative of their approach to communication which seems to privilege ‘telling you things’ rather than ‘involving you’. (Yes, I am an opposition councillor, but this point isn’t party political – just genuine observation). It’s little wonder that council meetings, which are open to the public, rarely attract any visitors. The impression that the council creates is largely non inclusive. DBC could set up a Twitter account tomorrow – my guess is it would have little effect until the council’s relationship with residents undergoes fundamental change.

    I’d be hugely interested in others views on what that change might look like.

    • March 11, 2014 11:06 pm

      Two disclaimers: I’ve never been to a council meeting…and the usual ‘my views’ one (since I will vaguely touch on some stuff I’ve done at work)

      I’ve never been to a council meeting, I see it as DBC preaching to the assembled audience, and in many respects the expectation that the audience can feedback and meaningful conversations/outcomes be achieved is pretty low. I may be wrong, though this is what I expect and may not be like this.

      Engagement with the audience (in this case, the electorate) is important, allowing them to feedback, discuss amongst themselves, whilst providing any feedback that can be provided at the time (I appreciate that sometimes you have to go away and think about it) is more valuable than preaching at people!

      Drawing parallels to my working life: preaching/informing people (without the expectation of feedback) is great if you want to tell them about something new, for example: “We will provide everyone with Dart Tags, for free, for free transit, for everyone” – this is new information, and doesn’t really need feedback (and would be awesome if it happened, hint hint).

      Engaging with your audience, with a few targeted points, and listening to their feedback and allowing them to discuss amongst themselves, with a decent person chairing the discussion (like Mr Dimbleby for example) helps facilitate discussion and also helps the audience feel they have a say. Publicising the results of such an event may get others joining in. I’ve had my best feedback through events like that.

      And, hey, if that’s what it’s like already, then tell us! otherwise we’ll feel like it’s pointless/flogging a dead horse. Oh, and Corrie/’enders/’some other TV junk’ is more important.


  2. March 11, 2014 10:30 pm

    “Engagement uses transmit and receive.” Quite right, but I think it’s important to explicitly state that both Agent (Councillor/Politician) and Principal (electorate) need to be using transmit and receive for engagement to occur.

    As such, I think it’s possible to split both Agent and Principal’s social media use into; Transmit, and Receive. Engagement becomes a ‘desired’ outcome.

    You then have the possibility of the following scenarios:
    Agent transmit & Principal transmit = Provocation and argument.
    Agent transmit & Principal receive = Engagement.
    Agent receive & Principal transmit = Engagement.
    Agent receive & Principal receive = Silence.

    Respect and empathy are requirements to make use of this engagement when it occurs.

    Often for Agent and Principal ‘transmit’ is about campaigning, and complaining respectively. If instead they focused on ideas and potential solutions we’d all be in a much better place.

    What’s interesting is to compare an Agent > Agent exchange (Political party vs Political party). By default ‘receive’ is seemingly turned off, and often replaced with ‘defend’. Little value ever seems to come of these exchanges – which is perhaps the biggest problem with politics in general.

  3. March 11, 2014 10:31 pm

    So after twitter exchanges with Nick about this, and his request to put it as a post, I’ll try my best to do this…with the added bonus that I have more than 140 characters. Views, obviously, my own 🙂

    Firstly – in a more general note, Nick splits the two areas of twitter up well (in respect to businesses, which I guess politicians are, in a way). I’ve always felt that companies that will use twitter to push their message as well as get us to follow them, and RT their message, whilst not responding to complaints or feedback to be one sided, and also, in some cases gives me a very bad opinion of the company. My (blogged) exchanges with the 4G part of EE detail this at the end of 2012 when they only chose to engage with customers through twitter/facebook/phone (not email, surprisingly).

    If you use twitter to campaign (or push your message), without responding, then it’s important to make that clear on your account.

    Equally, if you are a politician, of whatever level, and you do not wish to engage your electorate through twitter, then make that clear in your 140 char profile (on top of your ‘views my own’ bit).

    Going back to engagement part of Nick’s post – twitter is a new world to a lot of people. And I think a few thoughts need to be considered when using it as a communication channel:
    – you have 140 character to make your message (less when you include the person/people’s handles that you respond to). And if you want your message to reach a wider audience through retweets (and even favourites), then it needs to fit in one message to be easily RT’d
    – you shouldn’t have to engage with everyone, or feel the need to. Sometimes the person asking you a question is trolling. Now trolling is different to asking the same question over and over again (once you’ve had a response to that question).
    – …and learn how to deal with trolls – it’s like stand-up comedy and hecklers, or being a good public speaker (which I hope our politicians and our councillors are). Though with twitter you have the opportunity to flip the table up and walk away 😉 (and no-one will see that rage)
    – it is your vehicle to quickly engage with your electorate. We’re all busy, Councillors too (though they are allowed reasonable time from work to engage in public activities). A quick response on twitter acknowledging the comments from your resident(s) and that it will be followed up is so much better than ignoring them. And if you’re busy, add a fellow councillor to the tweet and ask them to follow up – I’m sure over time you can all back each other up and even the workload.
    – don’t turn Twitter into the school playground. Remember, it’s public (if your account isn’t public, and you’re a public figure, then..well…pretty pointless). I’ve seen way too many exchanges recently that make our Councillors seem like children, whilst ignoring the real issues that are being discussed.

    Personally, I’m pretty disappointed with recent Councillor-related engagements on Twitter about the Newtown recycling collections – as well as some other rants I’ve had on here about some local issues. It would be nice to see some engagement, to acknowledge and follow through on my comments – some (if not all) of which are valid!

    This is obviously more than the 140 chars I’m used to, and not something I had planned to do tonight, though something I thought a lot about on my walk home.

    And… ‘pledge to engage’ – how about one of those manifesto cards, but with ‘the rules of social network engagement’ on 😀 If I had to I’m sure I could condense what I’ve written above into a slides worth (too many years of powerpoint)…so something that could fit onto a card 🙂

    That’s it. Rant over.

  4. Andy Lloyd permalink
    March 17, 2014 7:22 pm

    First declare my status: Dartford Borough Councillor for Heath Ward, Conservative, and Cabinet member for the leisure portfolio. In my professional life I’m a heavy user of Linked-In, yet in my private life I’m not interested in social media. Started experimenting with Twitter and Facebook summer 2013 to test if it would enhance my communication, especially as a Cabinet member I didn’t feel the local ward newsletter, and public meeting etc does the job Borough wide.
    On balance I’m doubting if the experiment is working due to a mixture of dialogue and my own inexperience with this media tool. Comments below relate to Twitter:
    – It’s the equivalent of electronic chip wrapping, as some people are lazily posting throw away questions, musings and observations without any real thought
    – Its consuming a lot of time scanning for questions that I can answer or issues I can handle. For instance I’ve reported and had cleared up several fly tips and graffiti when an e-mail to the council would achieve the same result.
    – It’s easy to criticise in a few characters it’s a harder job to explain in a few
    – Too many re-posting of party central office propaganda and lots of preaching to the converted
    – As a councillor I tend to know about things I can’t answer because they are commercially sensitive i.e. who’s going to replace Waitrose, Ray Richardson’s negotiations with Tesco – it’s frustrating that I have been unable to answer misdirected questions and political tinkering
    – Some people think that a question on Twitter deserves a personal response – no it doesn’t. If you defiantly want me to answer a question that really matters then have the courtesy to ask me
    – Some of the abuse directed at individuals is undignified. For the record and in response:
    I was born in Dartford and still live her 50 years on – I have never visited Mars
    I’ve had a DNA test and can prove I am human
    I’m not aware of any councillor (any party) in Dartford who has taken a bribe, bung, back hander etc. I certainly have not
    I know my father and he’s a nice man
    I don’t have shares in Tesco or any other companies trading in the town (unless they are held by my pension fund managers)
    I’ve never claimed a penny in expenses during my 8 years as a councillor. Nor do I believe have the majority of all councillors (all parties)
    – Its another communication channel, one which will grow, mature and find it’s right place in the coms mix
    – I have made Dartford a better place because of things I have picked up from Twitter posts
    – I do have an enhanced understanding of peoples frustrations and views about the town
    – I’ve met some people with a real passion for the town and its wellbeing
    – I will continue and hopefully improve my own performance in using the Twitter tool (and typing on handhelds)

  5. njbdartford permalink*
    March 20, 2014 2:46 pm

    Some great comments here. Thanks for taking the time and effort to post them. I hope to pull them all together at the end of the process… if I ever reach Question 9 ;0) There are ideas here on everything from principles, to possible local actions, to persuasive illustrations of the limitations of twitter as a civic engagement tool used in isolation.

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