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Nelson Council Wary of Hearing from Citizens on Social Media
A recent survey of Nelson City Council members by The Nelson Daily shows no inclination on the part of council or the mayor to engage with citizens through social media.
But in a growing number of municipalities, politicians are finding that social media may be the perfect tool for building participatory democracy, and that’s during their full term of office, not just at election time.
Batycki and Adams: It’s a generational thing
Nelson Councillor Candace Batycki, asked about social media, told The Nelson Daily, “Good question. You will have to ask our new communications coordinator. It would be great if it is feasible. We would have to decide who is the person to be answering it and who can say what. We would have to be on it all the time. It really is a generational thing. I tried Twitter and my attention was so fragmented it drove me crazy.”
Councillor Bob Adams said, “I am not sure how city council would put out information on Facebook and Twitter. As an individual councillor, absolutely. During the sessions in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities convention there were three screens and you could see a Twitter page and people in the audience were tweeting onto that screen, and those things were changing every 30 seconds. When first I saw the lady sitting in front of me with her iPad, I thought she doesn’t seem to be paying attention to what is going on, but really they were, and somehow they can do all that stuff. I don’t know how council could do that, but as individual council member it an easier thing to do.”
And it is as individuals, as Councillor Adams suggests, that some politicians in B.C. are making real inroads into a new kind of dialogue using Facebook and Twitter.
“It’s a game-changer,” says Mayor Taylor Bachrach of Smithers in a recent phone interview with The Nelson Daily. He uses social media to get citizens’ opinions on just about everything from how to get more retailers in Smithers to how to respond to the Northern gateway pipeline proposal. In return, he keeps them updated on council decisions and he posts photos city events that people seem happy to comment on.
“I really believe that one of the key roles of local politicians is communicating with their constituents,” he says. “Historically we have had a fairly limited toolbox for doing that, but social media has added such great potential. It is such an interactive medium. I have got a really strong positive response from folks in my community.”
Dooley: I am accessible already
“I don’t know. Good question,” said Mayor John Dooley, when asked if there is a place for social media in his job as mayor. “I don’t know how to answer that. For myself, personally, to be honest with you, the amount of emails and calls that I get in a day, it is tough enough keeping up, and I am not familiar with Facebook or Twitter or those types of formats. I am not sure how much time it would take or how much work it takes. Some of my colleagues in some of the bigger cities are on Twitter all the time, but they have personal secretaries and big budgets and that is what they do for a living, period. I know for myself, I am accessible, I am around a lot, for instance in the last week I did the relay for life for the cancer society, I went to the pancake breakfast yesterday morning at the chamber. My calendar is pretty full with meeting with community groups.”
Hearing from more than the same few people
Mayor Greg Moore of Port Coquitlam, one of the big city full-time mayors Dooley refers to, is active on Facebook and Twitter because “it allows you be more engaged and have a better level of conversation. I put some questions up about the budget and got 250 responses, compared to the four I would otherwise get from the same four people every time. It started an impromptu conversation (among the people who responded). Otherwise there is no mechanism for this, for hearing from people.”
For Moore, being on social media is part of his daylong routine. “I don’t think about it. It’s just part of what I do all the time. I have integrated it into my job. It gives you a deeper connection with your electorate.”
Kiss and Macdonald: Not enough time or energy
“I am not sure,” says Nelson Councillor Paula Kiss. “We haven’t discussed it. We have to talk about it as a group. I have a Facebook page and I post things on it sometimes, but I don’t use it enough to build a following. I don’t have the time or energy. One thing I did not expect was how email and computer heavy this job is. It’s a tech-heavy job—the amount of information, with the council having gone paperless, with digital copies of everything.”
Nelson Councillor Donna Macdonald is concerned about the time it might take. “When we hired Deryn Collier (the city’s former communications consultant) we wanted to get our legs under us first with Deryn just doing traditional communications stuff and she certainly kept pushing us toward that direction (toward social media). I think we need someone who can tell us how to do it without creating a huge amount of work for both staff and council, putting stuff out and not getting ten thousand comments back that you have to respond to. We don’t have time. I am not on Facebook and I am realizing I might have to one of those days, and so this is a concern about capacity and how to manage it.”
An openness to have a dialogue
Was Bachrach afraid he’d get flooded with too much response? “Yeah, that is one of the aspects, we talk about citizen engagement, but what we need to realize is that when you engage people they are going to provide feedback and input and ideas, and that you need to increase your capacity as local government to respond to that. The result is a net benefit for everyone.”
Bachrach and Moore said their use of using social media is not part of a council strategy. They have simply taken it on personally, as a method of finding out what people think.
“As a public figure you need to be prepared for feedback, and it is an adjustment,” says Bachrach. “You need to have a certain level of humility. It is an openness to have a dialogue. You have to be prepared to hear what people have to say, in a very public way.”
Moore and Bachrach are not alone. In fact some municipal politicians are not only hearing from their constituents on social media, but from each other. There is a Facebook group with about fifty members called Mayors of B.C.