Vernon Tava is a member of the Waitematā Local Board in Auckland, Deputy Chair of City Vision and on the Board of Director of SAFE New Zealand. I have asked him to talk about the role he sees for Social Media in a Local Government environment in NZ.
Social Media Engagement in Local Government
I was very pleased to be asked by Matthew to write a guest post for this blog. Not only because I’m a regular reader but also because the type of analysis he’s employing is a promising sign that social media is being taken seriously as a legitimate, direct and, frankly, more honest form of political communication than heavily massaged and micro-managed mainstream media releases and statements. In fact, in my experience, I have been contacted more often by media on the basis of a tweet than a press release!
Oddly, there is a relatively low uptake of twitter by local government elected representatives when compared to central government politicians. This is a shame as I’ve found social media, particularly twitter, to be an invaluable resource for learning, community engagement and sharing information. It is also a highly democratic form of communication. There are no editors deciding who and what will be published. The message goes as far as its appeal, interest and constituency. This is particularly valuable when the national paper of record is highly politically partisan and local papers are limited in what they can cover.
Twitter has something of a community feel and I’ve noticed that my own following has grown quite organically. A large proportion of the people I follow on twitter I only encountered because I saw them re-tweeted by others I follow and liked what I saw when I had a look at their profile. That brings me to one of the best things about my experience of twitter: being connected to specialist, expert communities. In Auckland, for example, there is a really impressive group of experts in transport and urbanism. The exemplar would have to be the team behind Auckland Transport Blog but there are other groups such as Cycling Action Auckland, the Auckland Generation Zero crew and numerous other urbanism and transport professionals who give of their expertise and opinions freely. They are vocal, they are accessible, they know what they are talking about. An elected member has vast amounts of information to deal with. We need to have a good general understanding of many areas of knowledge and be quick studies. Broad brush ideological approaches and dogma make bad policy so we have to be evidence based and able to deal with issues on a case-by-case basis. While there’s no substitute for doing the reading yourself and asking the right questions, I have found my twitter ‘advisors’ to be useful and reliable on any number of topics.
I often ask my twitter and facebook followers about local ideas and projects. Although I’m always aware that I am talking to a particular group of friends and followers who may well not be representative of the general population and balancing accordingly, I am constantly impressed by the usefulness and thoughtfulness of the feedback I receive. There is a significant difference that I have noticed between local and central government representatives: as local representatives tend to have a greater influence on policy and implementation, communications are less ‘broadcast’ and more conversational. We focus less on big policy announcements and a lot more on practical projects and local improvements. I have to say, this makes for far more informative and useful discussions than overly-generalised ‘left versus right’ rhetoric that characterises most online interaction about national politics.
Reading a person’s twitter and Facebook feed offers revealing insights into their personality, sense of humour and take on the world that even quite extensive reading of their published comments and blog posts may not reveal. But this authenticity of voice does not always benefit a politician. It is always important to remember that you are an elected representative and should act accordingly. When people start slinging mud that doesn’t mean that you should start slinging it back! I have seen some breathtakingly nasty exchanges take place on social media between elected members and the public or other politicians and they inevitably end up looking as bad as each other. I’m always reminded of an adage of my father’s: “Never waste your time arguing with an idiot. Before long it’s hard for a bystander to tell who is meant to be the idiot and who is meant to be the smart one.” At the same time, if it’s all platitudes and weasel words readers will rapidly lose interest.
I have recently migrated my Facebook personal account to a ‘politician’ page so that I can reach more of my constituents. My page was a conduit for political communication anyway and I have always been very reluctant to share much personal information beyond what I am up to professionally as I accept friend requests from people well outside my circle of personal friends. I am still interested in having conversations online but it actually seems more genuine, at least to me, to treat my page as the political outlet that it is rather than a personal interface. It’s too soon to tell how this will be taken by friends so it’s something of an experiment.
My Local Board holds regular public consultation sessions and these are valuable but we tend to see the same fairly small number of already engaged citizens. Social media is a valuable tool for local body politicians and allows for much wider engagement with constituents. Elected representatives ignore it at their peril. I am grateful that the technology exists for such a democratic and unfiltered form of direct communication and I like to think that this is a first step towards a more participatory form of democracy with wider uptake than we are getting through the ballot box. As voter turnout, especially among younger people, continues to fall – we had a 34% turnout in the 2013 Auckland local body elections – social media offers a more accessible and direct connection with voters.