I’ve been working with local governments over the last few months, helping them with their social media strategies and engagement tactics, and one thing that has particularly struck me is the disconnect between the people charged with carrying out the council’s online communication and the decision-makers themselves.
That is not, I hasten to add, any slur against either party, but is instead a reflection of the peculiar forces at play in any local government setting.
The people at the ‘sharp end’—the project managers and the professional communicators—are without any exception in my experience extremely sharp and able instigators of change. What they are up against is the painfully slow and democratic nature of local government.
Any initiative or idea needs to pass through several layers of management before it reaches the ultimate decision-makers, the councillors. Despite every good intention in the world, those councillors are hamstrung by the endless demands on their time from not only the council’s business, but also their own away-from-council business affairs. They are, after all, volunteers. Getting 15 or so grown adults to agree to anything takes a long process of hand-holding, education and trust-building. When those adults only meet once a month or so it becomes even harder to squeeze ideas and initiatives onto the agenda, and then get them heard and discussed.
Family-owned businesses can sometimes be like this, but rarely to this extent. There is usually a decision-maker—the CEO, perhaps—who tells people ‘yea or nay’ and instructs employees to ‘just get on with it’.
But councils don’t work in that fashion and thus my heart goes out to the professional communicators that I meet, no matter what their official job title, who want to engage with their council’s constituents in this new social world but who are held back by the slow, cautious beast of democracy.