Disconnected Democracy: what Scotland’s Community Councils aren’t doing online

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.

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15 thoughts on “Disconnected Democracy: what Scotland’s Community Councils aren’t doing online

  1. It’s a good point. Round my way, in Perthshire, all the community councils have an email address under the Perth & Kinross Council domain. However, the email addresses exist even for those community councils that haven’t yet been established, so it doesn’t create the impression that the other addresses are necessarily active.

    Only a handful of the CCs have websites, and only one seems to have a Facebook page. The contrast between the public face of one like Alyth (which has both) and the rest is striking. It’s hard to imagine the rest will ever acquire any relevance. Curiously one of the CC websites listed on the P&K council website is actually for the Birmingham Korean Church. Admirably inclusive, but maybe a bit peripheral to their core constituency,

  2. Thank you Peter and James!

    It occurs to me that my post may have conveyed the impression that my frustrations were about the lack of takeup of products for their own sake, or even for my own bottom line. That is not what it is about.

    For me, an organisation’s level of digital engagement is a shibboleth for its general competence. It speaks volumes about the preparedness of the organisation’s leadership, its ability to apply lateral thinking to real problems, and its status as a best practice example within its own network. Online is the tool, not the end goal.

    But in this example, where the organisations in question were nearly a thousand CCs, we are not talking about a lack of digital engagement in the senses of social media interaction or online membership renewal; we are talking about a complete rejection of the internet itself, full stop. We are looking back at the closure of an umbrella organisation which hoped it could add so much value, but found its time dominated by printing documents, folding documents, stuffing documents into envelopes, putting labels on envelopes, putting stamps on envelopes, and posting out envelopes. A suicidal downward spiral if there ever was one.

  3. From a BBC news item:
    The report estimates that only one third of small and medium-sized companies in the UK have a digital presence and only 14% sell their products and services online, missing out on the potential for billions of pounds more revenue.

    In our findings, 22% of CCs have up-to-date presences. Hence CCs are less poor than UK companies, by this measure.

    However, we also found that only 10% of CCs do interactive, but 14% of companies do e-commerce. Hence CCs are slightly poorer, by this measure.

    Is there an estimate of the number of companies that would benefit from online presences? I’d guess the average corner shop or chippie wouldn’t need one – it needs good service, long opening hours and a decent range of merchandise at not-too-gouging prices to prevent customers walking on to the next one. Similarly, Subway UK would need a presence but surely not each Subway shop (even though they’re franchises and hence separate businesses from Subway UK).

    I wonder why the ASCC didn’t write one last time to CCs, asking for email addresses, and saying ‘from now on, we’re online only!’. This might have prompted more CCs to at least use email

  4. Welcome Bruce. Excellent work!

    I don’t think you can really compare the digital engagement needs of a sandwich shop, which is owned for ROI and profit by a franchisee, to the digital engagement needs of a community council, which is elected by the public to perform a statutory duty. I take the view that if you receive public money or exist to a perform a statutory role, everything you do had better be up there online and on demand, immediately. None of this “I have to take a day off sometime to type up the minutes” nonsense. One criticism often levelled against CCs is that some are little more than boys’ clubs for the same old faces. When CCs refuse to engage or interact in anything other than postal mail, they do not do anything to overturn that stereotype.

    As for your last comment ASCC did not enjoy the full support of its members. As part of its death spiral, once it became known that its ongoing funding from the Scottish Government was no longer guaranteed, many members simply stopped paying the umbrella organisation any mind. The organisation died from within and from without.

  5. Thanks indeed Heather. I’m sorry if my comment wasn’t clear: I wasn’t equating CCs and sandwich shops, just querying the BBC article’s implicit assumption that all organisations and businesses need online presences. The vast majority, however, could at least benefit from being online. For example, even a sandwich shop could post its opening hours online, to prevent potential customers from being disappointed.

    I absolutely agree that all CCs need to engage online so that they can truly find and express the views of their communities. (This is their statutory duty!) I’ve seen a suggestion on a UK parish council blog that parish councillors should not regard themselves as volunteers (i.e. ‘I can do as much or as little as I like, whenever I feel like doing it’) but as unpaid staff, because when they get elected, they sign up to certain duties and standards. The same appears to be true of CCllrs.

    I’ve not read through every local authority’s CC scheme so I can’t say for sure whether they all include standards for CCllrs. However, I’d be very surprised if they didn’t, and I’d suggest that CCllrs who don’t feel they can live up to these standards should be quietly* but firmly encouraged to move on – or be discouraged from standing for election in the first place**. Similarly, I’d suggest that CC schemes include at least ‘have a website and email address so that you can converse with your electorate’.

    *I say ‘quietly’ because the last thing the CC set-up needs is a big stooshie that drags the reputations of those CCllrs who do good things for their communities through the mud, especially if the CCllrs who are being shown the door haven’t done anything illegal.

    **I’d also not want to reduce the numbers of people standing for CC elections – there are too few already. Also, CCs are meant to be independent of their local authorities, precisely so that they can provide constructive, community-based criticism of their LAs, so LAs can’t interfere too much with potential CCllrs.

  6. You are absolutely right in that someone who puts themself up for election – uncontested or not – should be held to a minimum of standards and expectation. If they are unwilling to do something as basic as set up an email address, the implication is that there are other things they are not willing to do. And if they are unwilling to set up an email address particularly because a specific party asked them to do so, that’s not governance, that’s acting like a stroppy teenager. I suspect a few CCs are feeling a bit lost now that they no longer have ASCC to blame for everything.

    What I find the most interesting about your research is that it has uncovered the largest single group of “digital refusers” which I can recall across a particular job duty. This is not the digital divide of geography or education – this digital divide is voluntary and proud. So what is it about the majority of community councils which makes them so hostile to any advancement beyond typewriters and stamps? I would love for one to answer, but they won’t be reading this…

  7. (Some additional) reasons digital take up by community councils may be low

    1. Lack of interest in community council because they have little power and few functions
    2. Minimal budgets
    3. Because of 1. and 2. few candidates standing and little budget for ICT (OK, we know how much is achievable without cost but they may not)
    4. Many if not most community councillors are elderly and may not be familiar with the technology, both for their own individual use and communication with the public
    5. The extra workload perceived to be associated with keeping web sites, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages up to date.

    Sorry this comment comes so late – only just discovered your blog!

  8. Indeed so – one strand of my work is trying to find out why CCs aren’t online so much and so well as we’d like.

    More constructively, I’ve just started with a CC that’s looking to kick off its use of SocMed. Learning their pitfalls, and how they get around them, may well help other CCs.

    Also, councils have staff who specialise in helping with these issues. (To be precise: I know one in Edinburgh and would appreciate getting to know of more.) There are also non-council resources such as social media surgeries, so it **can** be done.

    And some CCs do it very well. My great white hope is that CCs can mentor each other in a ‘community of practice’. So I guess the relevant question is ‘how can that be engendered?’

  9. Hello and welcome Roger.

    Should being elderly be an excuse? It might if it was a hobby group, but perhaps not here. You could argue – and Bruce and I essentially did in our consultation response to Glasgow City Council (http://idea15.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/consultation-response-thoughts-on-the-draft-scheme-for-glasgows-community-councils/) – that if you are going to put yourself up for election (contested or not), and claim to speak as the voice of your community, you need to be willing to accept a certain standard of practice as part and parcel of the job.

  10. Heather, Roger: Scottish Government are hoping to collect demographic data on CCllrs. (See http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0039/00396030.pdf). I’m really looking forward to the results and analysis.

    Some anecdotal evidence: the CC treasurer from whom I took over in 2004 was in his 80s, and used Excel very well. I’ve no doubt he could have done online comms just as well.

    Other anecdotal evidence: one of my parents ‘gets’ communications and is a regular emailer. The other, who has vast friends networks and is very communicative offline, is a complete technophobe. Both are in their mid 80s.

    So age is not **necessarily** a barrier to using IT/online comms. (I’m not denying there may be a correlation between age and IT non-use, just pointing out it’s not a hard rule.)

  11. Since this discussion the other day I’ve been mulling over what is for me the heart of the problem with the digital disconnection within CCs. The issue is not because these individuals are what the researcher Wesley Fryer defined as “digital refugees”:

    The Refugees: The older adults in society who have chosen to flee rather than integrate into the native culture. Digital refugees often feel lost in a threatening and dangerous environment, and perceive themselves to be homeless. They have chosen to flee rather than remain immigrants, and may actively work against the goals and interests of both the digital natives and the digital immigrants. The refugees are primarily motivated by fear and a staunch desire to not only resist change but actively oppose it, deny the existence of a changed environment, and/or ignore it.

    This definition restricts refugees to older adults using their fear of digital technology to confer a victim status upon themselves; they will not go digital because they feel they are personally under attack. This definition does not explain where they are acting out these emotions, or in what role.

    No, the issue here needs a new category, which I am going to call “digital refusers“. To me, a digital refuser is an adult of any age who refuses to adopt digital practices in the course of their duties within an organisational role, leadership position, elected office, or salaried occupation. Digital refusal is not a form of psychological defence; it is, when it boils down to it, a work avoidance strategy.

    So by that definition, a digital refuser is not, for example, a Board member with progressive Parkinson’s who can no longer use a laptop, a community Councillor living in a village which does not have broadband, or an elderly volunteer who is happy to attend what love requires of her.

    A digital refuser is someone who wants the title, but uses the fact that some of the tasks that go with that title are digital to redefine their job duties.

    And that, after all, is what being a community Councillor is: a job. It is an elected office and an obligation. When you are unemployed and looking for a job, most job listings will say which skills and abilities you must have to do the work. If you don’t have them, you can’t apply for the job. Simple as that. When you are hired by a company, most of the time they will expect you to accept training on certain pieces of equipment, or software, or process. If you refuse to accept the training you need for the job, you are let go from the company.

    So why do we allow the CC network to essentially exclude themselves from modern, accountable, and professional practices on personal grounds?

    Let me explain why I feel so strongly about this. My thoughts stem from a personal experience in a company I worked for before I started my own business. The experiences still have an impact on me today. If it sounds like I’m venting, keep in mind I’ve had to wait until the statute of limitations expired to talk about this. And it has, so what the hell.

    The company I worked for had an HR manager. I’ll call her Briony. Briony was a digital refuser. Despite being only in her late thirties/early forties, she was completely offline. I watched her try to figure out how a mouse works. It was comical. She could not type; she could not use email; she could not double click on a folder; she could not use Word. All her work rested in her physical notebooks where she wrote long-winded notes in florid cursive script. To complicate things further, Briony only worked six hours a week, in theory. But as an expert in both work avoidance strategies and employment law, she had deployed every hour of statutory sick leave and holiday time available to ensure that she only had to set foot in the office for nine or twelve hours per month.

    Obviously HR managers deal with things like salaries and benefits, confidential staffing issues, employee grievances, hiring and firing, discipline, promotions, demotions, psychological breakdowns, backstabbing, expenses, and the like. And yet, here was someone ostensibly responsible for these things who could only address them in physical meetings in the three hours per session she bothered to turn up.

    Here is what happened as a consequence of that key leadership role being left in the hands of a digital refuser:

    • Because she could not use Word, the only way I got an employment contract, after three months of full time work, was by going into the office on a Saturday and typing it up myself;
    • I came and went at the company without ever having been signed up for its occupational pension scheme. As the new employee induction process was in her head and her notebooks, and she was on a Norwegian cruise for the month I started work at the company, I simply never received any sort of induction. My subsequent self-employment means that I have not been enrolled in a pension scheme since the age of 25;
    • Her inability to use email or an electronic calendar meant that when she did show up in the office, she was completely unprepared. She had no task list, no idea of what her priorities for the day would be, and no schedule of meetings. This meant that
    • When she did arrive she was easy prey for the physically dominating office sociopath, who had multiple grievances out against the company. He would appropriate her into a meeting room for yet more discussions about the company’s insults to his “prestige and status” (his actual words!). Many times, he would monopolise all three hours of her time, so she would leave the meeting and consider her day’s work done.
    • I found the company canteen assistant sobbing into her hands alone in the kitchen because she had been trying to speak with Briony about a raise for two years, and had not once had a physical meeting with her. This is someone who made just above the minimum wage.
    • Because Briony was so physically and electronically unavailable, other senior managers as well as Directors (!) would carry on with recruitment, hiring, and firing processes without her involvement. (I realised all too late that I had been one of the people hired as part of this practice.) Because staff members had been hired completely outwith an HR process, they felt they reported to their sugar daddy sponsor on the Board rather than their line manager. Likewise, some Directors had favourites within the office available to carry out personal intrigues.
    • Another employee’s conduct (a secondment from the Council…) became so unacceptable that, after forcing Briony to (gasp) discuss the issue on the phone outside her six hours per week, I had to fire him myself. My manager and I met him at a cafe and collected his work badge and keys. I got back to the office, unlocked his desk, and found every piece of postal mail he had received over his whole secondment in the drawer, unopened. I logged into his email and found every email he had received for the year unread, with the exception of the emails from the builders who were creating the conservatory on his house. He had opened them right away. Where had Briony been for the year he was getting away with this?
    • When you have a manager who refuses to communicate electronically, run accountable processes, or schedule her time in advance, you begin to wonder what sort of leadership you have within the company which would find that arrangement favourable. The further you look the more uncomfortable truths you uncover. It did indeed serve certain individuals’ interest to have an ineffective senior manager and a destabilised office staff.
    • Long story short is that Briony caused one problem too many and the MD sacked her. One week later the Directors, who had gained power from the destabilisation Briony caused, retaliated by sacking the MD and announced their intention to run the company themselves without replacing either of them. This meant that the acting managing director role fell by seniority to – you guessed it – the office sociopath. Having finally received the “status” he so craved, his first priority of business was to get the key to Briony’s paper HR records box and read everything she had written about him during his grievance hearings. When I asked him what my own future in the company would be, his comments centered around how great my t**s had looked in the blouse I had been wearing the day before. And so I came to self employment…

    Now, we had offered free training to Briony on the digital skills she needed to do her job. Basic stuff like how to use the mouse. The local university was ready and willing to sit down with her at a time of her convenience to give her that practical training and emotional confidence. She refused. The wily Briony was having none of it.

    Because for a digital refuser like Briony, learning digital skills would have meant she’d have had to do her job, rather than milking endless holidays and a pretty business card out of it. She might have had to do something to earn that title. She would have to hold herself up to accountability.

    For that digital refuser, being more responsible in the job she was paid to do would have spoiled all her fun.

    The consequences of one person’s digital refusal still affect me to this day.

    An unwillingness to go to the library and get a Hotmail address may not be all it seems.

    Now, if that is the damage wreaked by one person in one company, what might be going on behind hundreds of closed CC doors? Possibly nothing. But.

  12. Good grief! To be honest, it sounds like the whole company was dysfunctional. No wonder you got out – and that this issue means so much to you.

    Your distinction makes sense: to go back to my examples, the 80-year-old former CC treasurer used IT appropriately, so no worries there.

    My technophobe parent has no online duties, and arthritis would make typing difficult anyway. It’s OK, as far as I’m concerned, that this parent is a ‘refugee’. So long as we can phone each other, no real worries. (It may be a shame for this parent that opportunities for contacting overseas friends are missed.)

    My non-technophobe parent had an engineering career, so technology **as a concept** doesn’t cause fear*. Online comms/IT (emails, web-surfing, Skype, using a database to track Scouts’ achievements) facilitate this parent’s Scouting duties, digital photography and contact with family in Australia. Neither a refugee nor a refuser here.

    *My least favourite OS, some bad software choices and ancient hardware do cause upset but that’s detail.

    And if someone in their 80s can do online, while dealing with much other stress, then surely so can many others – including ‘Briony’ – especially if their duties require this.

  13. I just received a call from someone complementing me on my excellent article about this subject in the SenScot bulletin. Unfortunately this was news to me. I went to SenScot’s web site and saw that they had indeed lifted this post without permission, citation, or a link through and reprinted it in their bulletin.

    So to clarify, I did not write for SenScot, nor have I ever had any sort of engagement or involvement with them. And I certainly won’t in future after this.

  14. There’s another item on the list of things that happened in the company I worked for as consequences of the HR manager being a digital refuser. I had let it slip my mind until a chance remark the other day reminded me of it. Ready?

    So the number three had been sacked, and then the HR manager had been sacked, and the MD had been sacked, and following that, I worked for two days before opting to quit myself. I spent those two days trying to reconstruct those three senior managers’ workloads and pending items, which did not necessarily disappear when they did. The most critical item was the company’s annual accreditation report to its parent organisation, which was due in just over a month. It was a substantial process demanding accounting on internal standards as well as external achievements. Without this accreditation the company would lose its legitimacy, hit the headlines, and struggle to survive more than a few weeks.

    For the HR part of the accreditation report, we were required to have a current Investors in People accreditation. We had a huge IIP plaque in our lobby and the logo was on all our letterheads. A search of Briony’s paper records turned up only glossy brochures promoting the programme rather than any documentation of our own IIP processes. So I phoned up IIP in Edinburgh and explained that our HR person had departed unexpectedly, and I needed them to help us out in the interim by sending us confirmation of our accreditation as well as any renewal documents. The person at IIP agreed to take a look at our file and put me on hold…for a very long time. When he came back, he informed me – and I can only imagine his embarassment as he told me this – that we didn’t have an IIP accreditation. We’d had one in the past, but it had expired over two years ago. All I could do was ask him to send me the materials for getting it back.

    So that left me having just over thirty calendar days to personally implement an expensive and thorough IIP programme, from scratch, in a company which had lost its three senior managers in a fortnight and was being run on an interim basis by megalomaniacs directing their personal placements within the office.

    It also left me with the dangerous knowledge that the Directors, Briony, and the previous MD had systematically and knowingly falsified the previous two years’ accreditation reports to the parent organisation. So what was I supposed to do with that knowledge? Confront them with evidence of their lies? Turn whistleblower to the parent organisation? Keep schtum and implement this all myself, with no HR training or accreditations?

    No wonder Briony was afraid to commit anything to an electronic trail. It wasnt just that she was afraid of a bigger workload. It was a lot worse than that.

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