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February 13, 2013

Digitally disconnected

Community councils must be wondering what the future holds for them.  With no umbrella body to provide any kind of national leadership, Scotland’s 1300 community councils find themselves in a very difficult position -individually isolated and largely excluded from important national conversations about the future of local democracy. A recent Government report recommended they should concentrate on their digital connections. Newly published research suggests that was more in forlorn hope than expectation.



National Network for Change and Community

NEW data gathered by two academics blows the lid off any claim that community councils are getting to grips with the digital age.

A staggeringly small number of the more than 1300 community councils (CCs) in Scotland have been found to have an up-to-date online presence.  It’s not one half, one third or even one quarter, but just over one fifth who are regularly reaching out to their communities and each other via the net. 

Even these figures refine further still.  Of the mere 22 per cent online and up-to-date, most of these talk directly to citizens in a one-way conversation.  Possibly only 10 per cent of the 22 per cent use social media to host online discussion and opinion gathering.  And the most disappointing and shocking revelation of all for those who had hoped for more citizen engagement via CCs in planning matters – only four per cent of CCs have easily accessible online planning content. 

These startling figures come in a report called Community Councils Online, published in late 2012 and researched by a Napier University MSc student in Information Systems Development, Bruce Ryan, supported by Research Fellow Peter Cruickshank.  It’s a rich and comprehensive source of information about CC behaviour online.  

Working out of Napier’s Institute for Informatics and Digital Innovation, Bruce and Peter have brought an eclectic mix of experience and interests to the task. Apart from their IT specialism at the Centre for Social Informatics, between them they have an interest in and understanding of local democracy online and some experience of community council activity.  Freelance educational publisher and MSc student Bruce was a community councillor in St Andrews seven years ago, while Peter is on the program committees of several international e-democracy conferences.   

The 21-page report is a mixture of data, background information, summaries, conclusions and some recommendations and it makes interesting reading. While admitting that the unfunded research is merely a snapshot of CCs online, it notes confidently enough that the low level of use and ambition is ‘disappointing’.  It encourages widening the scope of further interviews, investigating why so many CCs aren’t online and looking for the meanings behind the data.  The report makes some tentative recommendations about a way forward (pages 14-17). 

MOST significantly the report concludes that generally online presences are not used for the primary function of CCs – that of ascertaining opinions of people in their communities.  This fundamental activity is done by more traditional methods like newsletters, meetings, emails, ‘contact us’ buttons and follow-up private forums and discussions.  A third of ‘active’ CCs don’t even appear to communicate by email.  

Yet the report points the way to a potential that could be realised much more effectively, providing a glimpse of a future that could be very different.   

Before that however, the facts about what’s happening now.  A relatively small number, just over 200 CCs in Scotland, aren’t active at all and this dearth of potential local democracy is most common in North and South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire (more than half in each area). 

Significantly, there are almost 500 CCs in Scotland that are active, sometimes vibrantly so, but not choosing to be online.  These are mostly in East Ayrshire, the Western Isles and Shetland (over 70 per cent in each case).  

The areas of Edinburgh, Inverclyde, Moray, Dundee, East Renfrewshire, Falkirk and Orkney were all 100 per cent engaged with digital media, although a significant number were out of date.  

Of the 700 CCs Scotland-wide active and online, less than half were current.  Interviews suggested that CC-run sites were often maintained by just one community councillor, with generally very little provision evident for back-up and succession planning.  Under these circumstances, it’s clear that groups often start off with good intentions, but struggle to sustain the monthly work required to keep the sites fresh and comprehensive.  The report notes that attracting CCllrs with online interests and abilities appears to be a ‘matter of luck’.  

Some inclusions pull no punches – a comment from one investigating body, the Jimmy Reid Foundation (JRF), laments the average annual CC annual budget of a mere £400, noting that this matches their “near zero powers and near zero number of contested elections”.  

More generally, the report provides a brief background to the origin of CCs and their historical relationship with their Local Authorities (LAs).  The communication link between the two, the CC liaison officer is mentioned, along with a recent Scottish government recommendation that they should have “suitable seniority  . . .  to ensure that both the CC work and working relationship is suitably progressed at LA level”.  The Network notes that this one sentence in itself points to a whole further area of research and investigation that could be followed through.  

Recent and current reviews of CC and related activity, like the Short Life Working Group (2012) and the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill (2012) are mentioned. 

Some attention is given to the recommendations for change from both the pressure group Reform Scotland and the Jimmy Reid Foundation, including calling for more devolved powers for CCs and taking advantage of IT advances to increase efficiency and effectiveness.  You can read about how the data was collected on page eight of the report.  

Seeking a suitable area of investigation for an MSc thesis, Bruce says he knew that looking into CCs and their relationship to their audiences and each other online could be a rich and fruitful area of focus.  “This has been a very revealing study,” he says.  “There is a lot more that could be investigated here, both personally and professionally.  I’ve become interested in how equivalent or similar tiers of local democracy work in countries such as Austria, Germany and Norway.  Some levels operate well in remote rural communities, some are supported by a combination of federal and local taxes, and the Austrian Gemeinden (parishes) even have offices in Brussels.”

Coming from a background in business, accountancy, IS Audit and information security Peter has a keen interest in e-democracy and online security at both national and international levels.  “I’m interested in how online communication complements other forms of political dialogue,” he says.  “This is a matter of interest to all governments, and to communities at every level.  There is so much more we could be achieving.”   

A copy of the full report can be accessed here