Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Facing Facebook

Most councillors want to keep in touch with the community’s thinking on the issues of the day. Traditionally we have done so by reading the letters to the editor in the local papers, through submissions to council and hearing directly from those who phone, email, write or chat to us. 

A more recent feedback loop is the online comment on our local paper’s website. A while back I was I was alerted to the dozen or so angry comments on the sculpture in Garden Place.  In contrast to the letters to the editor which cover a range of topics, the online comments on one issue pack a powerful cumulative punch. 

The Waikato Times now includes some of the online comments in their print version.  Reporter Daniel Adams covers council affairs and also writes a blog “off the record” - more of an opinion piece than straight reporting.  His blog, in turn, attracts feedback and so on it goes.

Comment in the public domain extends still further through Facebook.  

Last week council was to decide whether to approve an application to install a temporary artwork on the Wintec wall. The day before the meeting   I asked my Facebook ‘friends’ if they supported this.  Within two hours fourteen people had enthusiastically done so and a number offered other  suggestions for the wall.  By the next day twenty-five people had commented.  It would be difficult to obtain such an immediate response in any other way. 

I recognise that my Facebook ‘friends’ are not a carefully selected representative sample.  Knowing most of them, though, I can vouch for their sanity, public spirit and discernment.  I accept that there are unlikely to be many amongst them who regard me as a total tosser who should be gone by lunchtime.  You will find those folk elsewhere. 

My favourite feedback though comes from council’s citizens panel which is selected to be representative of the community.   From time to time we ask them questions on issues we are about to debate.  Their views were particularly helpful before the long term plan decisions as they covered the broad range of pros and cons we grapple with.  We could see where the consensus lay.  Whereas we usually hear from those with strong views, for and against, the citizen’s panel provides a voice for the silent majority. 

We can also follow comments  on Council’s website which helpfully provides links to councillors’  emails, facebook and  twitter to encourage contact from the community.

As councillors we have a choice whether to explore social media or not.   If we are concerned about decreasing  voting in local body elections  and little interest from younger voters,  social media offers additional avenues to reach people - despite the challenges for some of us in doing so.