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Online Councillor of the Year – why James Barber stood out

April 8, 2011

James Barber - Online councillor of the year

When Cllr Barber was announced as ‘Online Councillor of the Year’ I was sent a direct message on Twitter saying,

‘Someone with 59 followers & who is following 1 person wins online cllr of the yr????’

It was though exactly because of @CllrJamesBarber’s lack of Twitter-use that his online work stood out. Rather than just targeting the more common social media platforms, Cllr Barber took note of where his constituents were online and built his web-based councillor activity around them.

Since his first post on the citizen-run neighbourhood website East Dulwich Forum (EDF), Cllr Barber has established a presence by engaging and responding positively to local people’s issues, providing information, giving responses from officers and inviting residents to submit their problems and questions to him.

“Participating on EDF is useful for many reasons. For one, it’s incredibly time-efficient – for both me and residents. Rather than having to travel to local surgeries people can just post their problems on the forum from anywhere, anytime”.

“And because others can see and comment on the post it helps me gauge the importance of an issue.”

Cllr Barber has been cited as a pioneer in this field by the excellent Networked Neighbourhoods report for London Councils – a summary of which can be found here. Online Neighbourhood Networks was a study of the social impact of citizen-run online neighbourhood networks and the implications for local authorities – and it found some rather noteworthy results.

–          69% of respondents felt that participation on the local site had strengthened their sense of belonging.

–          59% of respondents already feel able to influence decision-making processes in their area.

–          42 per cent said their attitude towards local councillors had changed for the better.

“On EDF my case work is public.  This helps as it explains what I’m doing and advertises opportunities to local people participate and get involved in decision-making.”

By virtue that they are open and not pointedly political, the culture of these online neighbourhood networks no doubt helps nurture better relationships with and attitude towards local politics /politicians.

“I avoid posting anything highly political on the forum –that’s not what it is about. It is about building credibility, trust and solving local problems. Only be using the space like this can I expect people to engage with me.”

Where does this engagement lead? “I’m currently helping the EDF set up a community calendar. The council experimented with a similar idea before but it just didn’t garner enough interest. This one will be on a much smaller scale, and a lot more centred on community-led activities”.

There’s an on-going debate around how involved councils and councillors should be in the internal organisation of a neighbourhood website. Clearly elected representative should stay well away from the ‘control’ or running of these sites, but their local knowledge and experience can, when applied positively, be a valued and respected addition to online neighbourhood networks.

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