Councillor is a quarterly magazine designed to help educate current Councillors and demonstrate innovative approaches to local government.
I was contacted by Councillor Magazine to write an article on how councilors can harness the Internet to assist in encouraging dialogue with their community. The following is an extract of the article that was featured in the September/October edition of the magazine:
How Councillors can harness the Internet
City of Maroondah Councillor Alex Makin has operated his own website and blog since 2005. In this article, Cr Makin describes how councilors can also establish their own website and blog, and why more elected members need to use the Internet to engage the community.
Compared to the UK and the US, Australian politics has been relatively slow to embrace the capabilities of the Internet and its potential to re-engage the community and our constituencies.
While the use of websites is not new, Australian politics is still typically not using the Internet for more than a digital version of their off-line campaigns. The Internet, through the use of blogging has the potential to be so much more.
As local Councillors, representing the needs of our local constituencies, we are best placed to take a leadership role of embracing the Internet to create dialogue and re-engage with our communities.
We need to move beyond static webpages and move into an era of dynamic blogging and dialogue.
Going beyond a website
Some Councillors already have experience with establishing a website. A blog extends the capabilities of a website by providing interactive content.
A website can be likened to a static shop window, which displays information but provides little opportunity for someone to interact with the content.
Standard websites can also become difficult to maintain over the longer term as information becomes out of date.
A blog, otherwise known as weblog, is an interactive website, likened to a diary, that allows you to post new entries, keeping content relevant and allows people to post comments and subscribe to updates.
Blogs use categories and tags to file new content and provides readers with the opportunities to subscribe to updates so they are notified when new content is posted.
Extending your blog
Comments are usually moderated meaning that they need your approval prior to being included on your blog. This means you have the possibility to prevent inappropriate comments from being included on your site. Likewise spam filters exist which block spam comments from appearing.
While you have the ultimate control over what comments are included within your blog, do not go overboard in preventing feedback.
The purpose of a blog is to encourage dialogue and interaction and all relevant comments should be encouraged. Also make sure that email and phone details are available as some people will prefer these methods of communication.
Once you have established your blog and website it is worth considering ways of expanding its reach. Blogs utilize RSS feeds which allows people to be notified when new posts are created.
RSS feeds operate similarly to email where a subscriber receives the content of the post. RSS feeds are a standard feature of blogs and it is worth encouraging your readers to subscribe to them.
In addition you can also create an email subscription list for people that prefer to receive emails. This way email subscribers can receive an email message of your blog post and raise awareness of the activities you undertake as a councilor.
Just as newsletters assist in informing the community about our activities as a councilor, an electronic newsletter or RSS feeds can expand the reach of your communications with the public.
The web as an accessible medium
The Internet, through accessible web standards, means we can truly create a medium that can be experienced and accessed by all people.
Screen readers, larger font sizes, colour contrast and other technologies are available to assist people with disabilities to view content on the Internet and your website should be mindful of accessibility issues.
For example screen readers cannot read images so any graphics you include on your site should not be used in place of text.
In addition, the layout of your site should be mindful of people who prefer larger font sizes and your site should adapt to these requirements.
Future use of the Internet by councillors
Councils are the closest form of government to the community and we need to consider new methods of encouraging community engagement and interaction. In particular the web has the potential to assist us in communicating with younger people, as well as people with disabilities and the many other people in our community that prefer communication via the Internet.
Just as mobile phones are now considered essential equipment for Councillors, no doubt a web presence will be seen as a necessity shortly into the future. As councilors we have an obligation to remain relevant and keep pace with new technologies.
Creating a web presence is neither difficult nor time consuming and will assist in conveying the work you undertake as a councilor.