This summer the Edinburgh-based researcher Peter Cruichshank, assisted by volunteer intern Bruce Ryan, carried out the first-ever study of online presence and engagement amongst Scotland’s 1370 Community Councils. Their work has now been completed and published to the world. You can view the full report here. It is 21 pages which are clearly written and easily read.
I took a keen interest in Peter’s work because I provided web site services for the umbrella association for Scotland’s CCs, the Association of Scottish Community Councils, from 2009 to its winding-up earlier this year. This work included their public web site, an interactive e-learning site, their internal membership database, and a project management system for its leadership. The work was rewarding and the ASCC principals were always a joy to work with. But through all of that there was a nagging sense that we were trying to communicate with an audience that just was not there. We knew that online takeup amongst CCs was generally low, but we lacked any tabular demographics to put true figures behind our suspicions, and we also lacked the money and resources to carry out this research ourselves.
Peter’s research confirms that
- Only 22% of Scottish Community Councils have up-to-date online public presences
- Only 4% of Community Councils have easily accessible online planning content
- Most Community Councils websites communicate from Community Councils to citizen – only 10% use social media to host online discussion and opinion-gathering
- Local Authority-hosted presences guarantee that Community Councils have presence but not that they are up to date. Such presences are also not content-rich.
My dream was that funding would have been made available which would have permitted us to create an online system where every CC could take ownership of an automatically generated page for their CC. The technology would be there, under ASCC branding, for each CC to use, or not use, as they liked. Training and support would have been readily available. But this dream was contingent on having an engaged and digitally literate audience ready and willing to take up the service. Peter’s report makes clear that for a variety of reasons, CC leadership by and large is offline and disconnected, and is quite happy to stay that way. A tiny handful of engaged and interactive CCs do an outstanding job, but their numbers are tragic drops of water in a large sea.
For me, the writing on the wall about my client’s survival came on the day when they asked me to post a news update to their public web site. The news update asked each CC to submit a designated email address to receive correspondence, as the rising cost of postage was becoming too prohibitive. As someone who spends every day helping third sector organisations and charities to put their best foot forward online, I knew that posting this news update was helping my client to shoot themselves in the head. At a time when their sole funder was debating their ongoing survival itself, the organisation made a public admission that they served an audience which still lived in a world of meeting minutes stuffed into envelopes. In an era where a single sentence can gain 40,000 retweets in the time it takes a cup of tea to cool, the most grassroots form of representative democracy had hundreds of branches where not one single adult member possessed an email address. Furthermore, they were expecting people who have never switched on a computer to read and react to a news update on a web site. Their funder would have seen that news update and sharpened their knives. (Third sector organisations, I beg that you learn from this: when you are on shaky ground with a funder, do not make a public statement which justifies every suspicion they have and then some.)
I do not claim to understand why digital engagement amongst Scottish Community Councils is so low. But as a former Capitol Hill staffer I know that democracy – and business, for that matter – is about going out to the people where they are and serving them in the way they want to be served. Online petitions, Facebook groups, retweets, and viral campaigns get people angered, energised, and active. The little statutory notice in the newspaper announcing a reguarly scheduled meeting – at night, in the library, in the rain – does not. In a world where people demand direct and personal engagement in real time, if an elected cornerstone of representative democracy simply refuses to engage in that way, who is that democracy serving? Is a firewalled elected body a legitimate one?
Throughout all the politics, all the partisanship, and all the recriminations, the simple truth is this: if you don’t have the sophistication to go to the library to set up a Hotmail account, don’t expect me to trust you to have the sophistication to fix the complex needs of my broken community.