England & Wales HR, workforce and communications, Technology

Local 2.0: How digital technology empowers local communities

fairstead.org was one of the sites involved in the project

This post is based on an LGiU member briefing by Rob Dale.

I remember reading the case study of the Obama for America campaign. It had a significant impact on my understanding and appreciation for how digital technology could change the way people campaign, organise and mobilse.

Like many others, I was inspired and believed representatives now had the tools to engage better with residents, interact with wider audiences and improve resident-to-resident, resident-to-politician and resident-to-institution communication. And not only could we do things better, but cheaper as well.

There are case studies to show all of the above is true – but, as Local 2.0, which over two years project trialled and supported a series of websites, social networks and blogs found out, it is happening at a slower pace and is not as universally achievable as was first presumed and/or hoped.

The data for participation in these projects suggests that social media and hyperlocal website usage reflects the conditions of a neighbourhood: if a community is active offline, it is reasonable to expect that this will translate into online. Likewise, if a community in not very active offline, it is unlikely social media alone can change this.

This supports LGiU findings in the research for our Going where the eyeballs are project. Online neighbourhood networks work best when their growth is organic, led and controlled by members of the community.

The provision of training would help local residents and council officers learn how to use social media and digital technology more effectively. Such training is increasingly taking place informally (see Social Media Surgeries), with some meetings even taking place in coffee shops or local wifi-enabled pubs. 

However,  as identified, “training is only the first step on the journey”. Support needs to be ongoing and geared towards developing content and building confidence. Local authorities can play a leading role here in feeding information to aspiring content creators and inviting them to cover events and meetings – just like councils would traditionally with local journalists really.

In a survey LGiU conducted in December 2011 we asked local government communication officers to rate the effectiveness of different digital channels during times of severe snow disruption; the option to email local bloggers and/or post messages on local community forums scored low. Councils would do well to feed more information to these spaces.

Whilst the projects Local 2.0 worked with, and all hyperlocal websites in general, may not have huge audiences – they do have relatively high saturation and use in their intended audience. I have been told by one London-based ‘hyperlocal website’ owner that the site has a higher saturation level of readers/residents in area than BBC 2’s Newsnight. 

This, many predict, is likely to increase as more daily newspapers roll-back to become weeklies or go online altogether. Networked Neighbourhoods, a consultancy firm, have investigated the use of hyperlocal websites over the past two years. They have found that many people now use these sites as the main source for local information. 

The Local 2.0 research would support this to an extent. It found that these sites can become a “quicker and more convenient way of finding local news and events information”. However, as the report says, “many still fall short of being able to transform these interests people have into deeper forms or civic participation”.

What may change this? Tim Montgomerie, creator of ConservativeHome believes internet-wise the next big shift will be to political mobilisation. This was the art the Obama for American campaign seemed to perfect. 

Councils have already made large cuts, and many expect another wave to be demanded from Westminster. So it could be that as services retract, more people will go online to speak out, connect, campaign and mobilise. 

The Localism Act may too play a supporting role, as people wake up to new opportunities to take more control over their community and seek like-minded neighbours. So if the redrawing of local government does cause or inspire people to get involved more in their local area (although the Hansard Society found desire to be involved in decision-making locally fell last year from 43% to 38%) it may well be that these sites take on a more transformative role.

My ambitious, early thinking of what social media and digital communication technologies can do has then developed into a more nuanced appreciation for how technology works in practice. It can be an enabler, a stimulant and a simplifier – but, as the project found, it does not necessarily affect the underlying behaviours, values and cultures that really motivate people to get involved locally.