As always, I looked forward to the full council meeting of South Cambridgeshire District Council with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Anticipation at what drama may likely unfold, as there’s always something, and dread as to what questionable tactics would be unleashed by the majority. The last meeting did not disappoint on both counts.
To Tweet or Not to Tweet?
The drama that unfolded was unexpected, and had to do with the use of twitter to broadcast snippets of the proceedings going on in the Council chamber. For the last two meetings, council had agreed to suspend standing orders to allow proceedings to be tweeted and blogged. Quite surprisingly, this time round, the objection came from Cllr Dr Douglas De Lacey of Girton Ward, who stated that it seems disrespectful to tweet during proceedings as it took attention away from what councillors were supposed to be doing in the Chamber.
Quite why the act of tweeting snippets of the proceedings should be considered disrespectful escapes me. Falling asleep during proceedings is probably more disrespectful!! The fact is that, to tweet anything meaningful, the person tweeting has to listen careful and understand what is going on, and then be able to summarise in no more than 140 characters. It requires concentration and ability to understand and very quickly digest what is being said.
Another voice of opposition to the use of this technology was Cllr Deborah Roberts of Foxton and Fowlmere, claiming that blogging was a “dangerous sport”, and if she did it, she’d say all sorts of things that she shouldn’t. Well, of course that is her problem, and it should not be made a problem for others who might want to blog. All I can say is that anyone wanting to blog should be able to make the judgement as to whether or not what they put out into the blogosphere is appropriate.
Blogging is a communication art form that is increasingly being used in local government and very widely used outside of local government. Even the Local Government Association is encouraging the use of blogging and other social media methods by councillors to enhance their work in their communities, and laying on seminars and training.
In any event, as I pointed out at the meeting, tweeting is micro-blogging, and unless one is taking notes verbatim, full scale blogging is difficult to do whilst listening to or participating in debates. But then again that difference might be lost on those who do not participate in that particular sport.
I appreciate, as Cllr Mike Mason of Histon and Impington said, that tweeting might be distracting for the older members who already have difficulties coping with the email system. Much as we love and appreciate our older members, no one is forcing them to tweet if they don’t wish to. The choice is theirs to tweet or not to tweet. Training has been offered to those who wish to take up the use of social media and blogging for communicating with residents. Those members who tweet are doing so silently, from their devices, so how can it be distracting to others??
To Tweet During Council Meeting?
In her opposition to the tweeting, Cllr Roberts said members should be listening to and participating in debates, and not fiddling with computers and blogging to a minority of people! Wowee… just goes to show how little understanding there is of the proportion of the population that uses twitter to communicate and blogging for that matter! The use of this medium of communication has proved itself to be effective time and again, none more so than during the riots that took place in the country not so long ago.
I communicate with people from around the country by tweeting useful snippets of information and am able to participate in discussions that I otherwise would not have known about. This is connecting with people, which is what I thought Councillors should be doing?!
Cllr Jonathan Chatfield of Histon and Impington, said in support that even though he does not wish to blog or tweet, neither does he wish to ban them either, as he recognises the value of them.
Cllr Sebastian Kindersley oppostion leader put it quite well, as always, saying that all of the proceedings of the council, whatever they are, whenever they are and wherever they are, should be as accessible as possible to as many South Cambridgeshire citizens as possible and if tweeting, blogging and interacting with the blogosphere achieves that, then so much the better.
I then went on to add to the proceedings by pointing out that we live in a district that is associated with the high tech city of Cambridge, and that if we don’t use the modern methods of communication, we risk excluding our young people from proceedings in the council.
And frankly its not just them, its everyone who for whatever reason is unable to be present in the council chambers to listen to the debates, but who are able to follow proceedings via twitter, or even facebook (twitter accounts can be linked to facebook, so tweets get automatically posted on facebook profiles). I know people are not usually inclined to go through the council website looking for minutes of meetings and would happily have some information in a mode that is easily digestible. The subject of the digestibility of some of our paperwork is for another blog post.
Decision to Tweet or Not to Tweet
At the end of the debate, the motion to suspend the standing order was put to the vote. The vote count stood at 26 for, 11 against and 6 abstentions.
The euphoria of having seemingly carried the vote was very rapidly drenched in cold water when the legal officer piped up to say the motion was not carried because it did not meet a majority of two thirds!!! In any other vote, the absolute majority would have carried it. This is another one of those aspects of local government that baffles me. Majority says yes, but the minority who say no, have their way!
I was disappointed at the outcome to put it mildly, as was Cllr Clayton Hudson of Bourn Ward, a keen twitter user, who showed his displeasure by walking out of the meeting. As the former walked out, followed by yours truly, Cllr Ray Manning, the Council leader invited anyone else who wanted to go out and tweet or blog to do so. I went out, but for a different reason, coming back in as I had a motion to see to later.
All I can say is that it is a shame that South Cambridgeshire District Council, so close to high tech Cambridge and with the Science Park on its patch, is lagging behind a lot of other local authorities in the use of modern communication techniques, to carry its message to residents of the district. We need to be more progressive, and give opportunities to engage with residents who very often see the council as remote, irrelevant, unhelpful or just plain obstructive (something to do with miles of red tape I think!).
There are local authorities who we would probably not consider as being as being in progressive areas, yet who are pioneering the use of social media communications and have got as far as developing apps that residents can download and use on their smart phones to access information on the council website.
Come on South Cambridgeshire! there’s nothing to be afraid of with twitter or facebook or blogging. Those who don’t want to do it should leave well alone and let those who want to use these methods get on with it. Why hold back progress or deny the use of modern technology? If MPs can do it during debates at Westminister, why not District Councillors? I enjoy reading tweets from Cambridge MP Julian Huppert, but sadly, there seems to be none from our own MP!
And to illustrate just how effective twitter can be, Hunts Post recently reported on how Cambridgeshire Police are getting a helping hand from young people in the use of twitter and deciphering the hashtags in an initiative designed to help them reach young victims of crime.
The Chief Constable Simon Parr said “What we do with Facebook and social media is a superb way of getting into communities.” This should be a lesson for us, as we can use twitter much the same way and provide information to those who need and want it in that form.
As for being disrepectful, well readers, what do you think? Please leave me your comment or thoughts on to tweet or not to tweet!