Unrestricted Filming at Cornwall Council Meetings

Yesterday, the entire membership of Cornwall Council approved unrestrictive filming – including blogging and tweeting – of council meetings which are open to the public.

Previously, the council did allow filming, but required 48 hours notice. Now there is no requirement for any notice. There is still one rule to filming. That is you must not cause disturbance to the meeting while filming. I think this is only right and I am sure people will respect this rule.

I very much welcome this step forward to make our meetings as open as possible. The myth is Cornwall Council is a closed shop. It is not. In fact it is one of the most open and transparent councils. As we webcast many of our primary meetings; and now allow filming, blogging and tweeting without restriction.

Cornwall Council should be congratulated for this forward thinking approach.

Helston Social Media Surgery

Last week, Cornwall Council held social media surgeries in various locations in Cornwall. It would have been great if it was on a larger scale, but you have to start somewhere. I was pleased Helston Library was selected to host one of these events last Friday.

You never know how many people will turn up, especially as these surgeries were being held in the daytime. At first me, @Donna_Sharpe and @MattBond1 thought no one would turn up as a good 20 minutes had passed without anyone coming in. Like all Geeks, we spent the time talking about our various phones, apps, and other social media related things.

However, it was great when people did indeed turn up and wanted help. The first couple who turned up wanted to learn more about Facebook because they keep hearing  ‘look on our Facebook page’ for more information; and many of their other interests are online. The team were more than happy to show them everything they wanted to know, and how best to access Facebook and various other things.

The last person of the day wanted again to know about Facebook. This time though, they did not have an account, and they were very worried about security and thought everyone would be able to see what they were doing. So the team set up a Facebook account and explained the various safety features and restrictions you can have on social media sites like Facebook.

From the feedback we received I hope Cornwall Council and myself will be able to hold more of these surgeries at different times, as there is a real need by people for helping various online content, especially as more and more government agencies and local government is being placed online.

If anyone would like more help and lives in Porthleven and Helston I would be more than willing to come and answer any questions you have on social media.

A bonus from holding the event in the Library is people then went on to sign out various books on social media, and the three of us (re)joined the Library!

My twitter is: @CllrAWallis

Councils have to be more open from the 10th September

New rules are set to become law in early September (10th) on Councils being more open and transparent in their day-to-day business.  The details can be found HERE and HERE from the Department of Communities and Local Government. The news rules do not stop all meeting from being held in private, as certain items are still allowed to be dealt privately.

If a meeting has to be held in private, the council has to give notice and reasons as to why. The new rules say where a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify why that meeting is to be closed and give 28 days notice of such decision. On the whole I welcome these changes as I have found meetings have gone into closed sessions simply because of the controversial nature of the subject. This is wrong.

A real change a council will face is on recording of a meeting. Cornwall Council carries out a webcast on the main committees. Now it seems an individual can film, blog, tweet, or use some other social media in a meeting to report that meeting.  Furthermore, Cornwall Council’s new policy on filming/social media in a meeting might now be partially defunct because currently you have to ask permission to film/blog/tweet etc. Post the 10th September, it looks like you will not need permission. I wonder if we will see citizens filming at meetings?

The Key points are:

  •  New legal rights for citizen reporters: Local authorities are now obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers.This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.
  • Holding private meetings: In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. Where a meeting is to be held in private, the executive or committee must provide 28 days notice during which the public may make representations about why the meeting should be held in public. Where the notice requirements for a private meeting and an agreement of the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or chairman of the relevant local authority has been obtained, the decision-making body must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred.
  • Less red tape for councils: Removing internal bureaucracy introduced by the last Government about ‘key decisions’, quarterly reports and ‘forward plans’. Instead, a document explaining the key decision to be made, the matter in respect of which a decision would be made, the documents to be considered before the decision is made, and the procedures for requesting details of those documents, has to be published.
  • Special urgent decision: Where it is impossible to meet the publication requirements before a key decision is made and an agreement has been obtained from the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or the relevant local authority to make the key decision, the decision maker must publish a notice to explain the reasons why the making of the decision is urgent.. Previously no notice was required.
  • Stronger rights of individual councillors: Where an executive has in its  possession a document that contains materials relating to a business to be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting . Previously no timescale existed.
  • Stronger rights for scrutiny members: Where the executive decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such a documents.

I welcome these changes and have no problem with anything I say being filmed or recorded. However, will others feel the same?

Lastly, it should be pointed out, Cornwall Council has made massive strives in the use of social media, webcast and filming at meetings, thus making the council more open. It has not fully travelled the road, but it is seen as a tend-setting authority in this area.

Twitter and its use in Local Government

There is a lot of social media platforms out there who all have a varying degree of popularity. YouTube and Facebook are just two of these, and probably the most popular. The real new-boy on the market is Twitter, a micro-blogging site that limits you to 140 characters. This platform has been around since 2006, but it is only in the last few years that Twitter has become really popular, now with over 200 million users.

The reason for this blog topic is a study I came across the other day called An Overview Study of Twitter in UK Local Government. This is an excellent piece of work that was completed in May this year. I am also grateful to the authors for allowing me to use their research on my blog.

While the public are quick to embrace these new platforms, local government is often slow on the uptake, and is often late in embracing new ways to communicate. Much of this is due sometimes ponderous nature of local government, with a policy needed to be written and approved before it is fully implemented. There are some very proactive local authorities, but this is not across the board. However, the real issue is not convincing council officers the bonuses of using social media, but those elected to office.

In the day’s before widespread use of social media in local government, the public only really knew the going’s on at a council by the print-media. Often, information did not get out due to journalist not being able to be everywhere. This was in many parts advantageous to a local authority because information could be controlled, or at least sanitized before its release. It is not like a local authority wanted to keep everything secret (some may argue that), but they know the wrong information, or negative information can be damaging to an authority reputation, including those political groups who are in charge during that term of office.

Twitter has blown that control out of the water, because the pure beauty of Twitter its instantaneous. This is a double-edged sword as five Cornwall Councillors found out back in January 2010 with Twittergate. However, it made Cornwall Council sit-up and take notice of this micro-blogging site. To the council’s credit instead of sticking its head in the sand, or trying to ban (well it did try, until the council realised the folly of trying) it, it has embraced it, and now has just over 5000 ‘followers’.

Cornwall Council is not alone in the use of Twitter, as some 84% of councils (363) have at least one Twitter account, compared with 73% last year.  There is 426 local authorities in the UK. 346 of these are in England, 26 in Northern Ireland, 32 in Scotland and 22 are in Wales. Furthermore, just under three-quarters (73%) have at least one Facebook account, compared with 62% a year ago. More information HERE

The use of Twitter differs with person to person. I tend to use twitter two ways. Information, and general communication, or what they used to call ‘back in the day’ as talking to people. In this study, it has found:

“Politicians devote limited attention on the conversational elements of Twitter, they tend to use the medium asymmetrically during and after elections and are also likely to draw an audience with elitist characteristics, e.g., established journalists. Variations in terms of political affiliation and audience seem to be highly contextual from one political system to the other”.

I find this a great shame, as the real beauty of Twitter being accessible to people not just in your area, but on a more global stage. If you just use Twitter to send out repetitive messages, then, you are nothing more than a bot. Using Twitter as a human will get whatever message you want to get out be better understood. Furthermore, the study points out:

“empirical findings show that their use of Twitter rather tends to support self-promotional models and interaction with the audience remains limited. Saebo (2011) found that tweets produced by Norwegian elected representatives lack deliberative characteristics and focus on general information dissemination, discussions with other representatives and publicly agreeing about non-controversial topics. Golbeck et al. (2010) found that members of the USA Congress are mainly using Twitter to promote links to their blogs or articles about themselves instead of attempting to provide the public with new insights about legislative processes”.

Again, I think this is a lesson to all political and local authority users of Twitter, and how we should all strive to be more human and engaging in our use of this micro-blogging site. The same goes for those who use twitter to campaign for a cause. Repeating the same message over and over again tends to make me click the mute, or unfollow option on Twitter. This study has certainly made me think how best to engage with my followers.

The study shows the date when local government authorities embraced twitter. The first authority to ‘go live’ was St Helens Council, which is a metropolitan authority in Merseyside. They did this in 2007. The majority of authorities signed up to Twitter in 2008/09 . Cornwall Council took the plunge in April 2009.

You would think London council’s would feature heavily in the top 15 council’s using Twitter. In fact they do not, with the top-5 followers and tweets list do not have any London authorities . The council with the most followers is Glasgow, with over 21,000. The most prolific tweeting council is Walsall Council who have tweeted over 11,000 times. Cornwall in comparison has tweeted 2,900 times. Either Walsall is just tweeting about everything and anything, or Cornwall Council is not tweeting enough.

As for the contents of the tweet, the analysis for the size of tweets revealed an average of 108 characters per tweet. About 20% of the tweets have 138 characters or more and 9.5% of them are at the maximum allowed size of 140 characters. Only about 28.7% of the tweets did not contain a single link to other content, while about 70.5% contained one link and the rest 0.8% contained between two and five links. Yes five links!

While Cornwall Council is one of the older users of Twitter, I still do not think it is using this platform to its full potential. This is not the fault of officers not interested, but the resources assigned. One of the fears is how the public would see tax-payers money being spent to employ dedicated social media officers. In the past, there have been headlines of ‘council officer paid xxx to use Facebook/twitter/social media. The public is outraged, and councils retreat, wary of attempting this again.  I believe the outrage could be minimised if more clarification was given on how important and powerful the use of social media can be in local government. To many people, social media sites are just gimmicks, or only for leisure use. This leads to a misunderstanding of its importance and usefulness.

There is a lot more work to do in trying to convince politician’s that social media is important, and council’s to resource the use of social media properly. After all these politicians are policy and purse-string holders . This will only come about if the public does not have a fit when they hear a council has dedicated social media officers whose main job is this to promote and advance these platforms.

I also feel the Leader of a Council, the CEO and the Directors should be on twitter as the corporate and political face of a council. For Cornwall Council only one Director is actively using twitter, and that is the Chief Fire Officer. Sadly he is now leaving, so we will be back to none. Furthermore, only two Cabinet Members are on twitter out of twelve. This enforces a culture of remoteness of senior council officials.

As for political group leaders at Cornwall Council, only the Liberal Democrats have their leaders on twitter. Maybe the other political leaders should be using twitter too, that way the public will see all sides of the argument. Cornwall Council has 123 Councillors, but only 22 (17%) Councillors have a twitter account. Out of those 22, five are regular users, with a 7 more occasionally using the platform. The rest are, well, idle. I always find it amusing when someone says they are on twitter, but never use it. Having an account is not a twitter user. Though this might all change the closer we get to an election!

Of course it would be unfair not to mention many Councillors use Facebook in their role. But, the very nature of Facebook is its heavily controlled by the user. It is not as ‘open’ as Twitter. At the end of the day, social media is not for everyone, nor should it fully replace the face to face contact a council and its elected official have. Still,  like the telephone and e-mail changed the way local authorities engaged with the public, social media has a very important part to play.

Anyway, have a think, and please read the study


The Council and Twitter: Spying?

Twitter and Cornwall Council make the pages of the Western Morning News today with the story of council employees being used to ‘monitor’ the use of Twitter by Councillors. I would love to think this is a misunderstanding but I am afraid I doubt it. As a few months ago, the Leader of the Council and without legal advice, banned the use of social media in a Cabinet meeting after a member of staff handed him a list of twitter comments. The banning was not legal under any of the current rules and was overturned a week or so later.

The comments and use of Twitter and other forms of social media by Councillors from all political parties are in the public domain. They are hardly secret. I would not even say any comments made are breaking any rule either under any of the Codes of Conduct for Councillors, or more importantly, the laws of this country. Sure, some of the comments are of a different opinion, especially on policy at Cornwall Council, but that is politics and people have the right not to agree to something.

My real worry is a few people at County Hall is so paranoid at what is being said on social media platforms they are trying everything in their powers to stop the use of social media by Councillors. This will no doubt back-fire making the council look ridiculous. It would also be acting against the principles of being open and transparent. It is ironic that Cornwall Council is seen as a trailblazer in local government circles of setting the pace in the use of social media, when in fact, a few in prominent positions want to ban, or restrict its use to only sending out ‘official statements’.

If the Leadership wants to know what is being said on Twitter I suggest they get an account and log in. What should not happen is officer time be used to collect tweets. This is not a good use of their time, or the tax-payers money used to pay them.

Twitter Yes; Ban, No

It is a fair point that many do not use Twitter, or struggle to see the point of it. The same could be said of any form of social media, but the fact is, like it or not, social media is now firmly established as a form of communication. I have said before Cornwall Council has in many cases been a leader in pushing new frontiers of using social media to conduct council business.

A few weeks ago, the Leader of Cornwall Council and by his own words ‘mischievous pleasure in highlighting the way Twitter was being misused’ (the misuse is subjective because of who rules what is misuse or not) banned the use of Twitter, and other forms of social media at the Cabinet meeting. Many, including myself, said the leader could not do this, and the ‘new’ media policy did not cover the use of Twitter, or more importantly, Councillors.

Out of this fallout the extremely experienced Monitoring Officer was asked to look into the use of social media by Councillors in meetings. A week or so later, a ruling was made and is as follows:

“I have reviewed the position and although the issue is arguable, I am satisfied that, on balance, the Code (new media policy) does not apply to such activities and Members do not require prior approval.”

So there you have it, the knee-jerk reaction by the Leader was in fact wrong. I am not saying this now gives anyone a free-for-all to say what you like because Councillors are still governed by the Code of Conduct. I believe this set of rules clearly sets out what is acceptable or not.

However, this is not the end of the matter, it seems a report will be coming to full council meeting in March to see if ‘another’ set of rules is made up for the use of social media in meetings. As I have said before, Councillors already have a set of rules, so why another level of bureaucracy? The real danger is the use of social media could be further curtailed by people who do not understand how social media works, and still think the world is flat.

Let’s hope this is not the case, and people will see the sensible use of social media plays an important part in democracy and authorities being open and transparent in their business.

Leader of Cornwall Council Bans Twitter

Tweeting and blogging is not everyone’s cup of tea. I find it a good way to keep people informed about my role as a Cornwall Councillor. I use both to explain decisions made at Cornwall Council. Thus giving the public a better understanding on how the council works, and the role undertaken by a Cornwall Councillor. The use of Twitter is allowed in Courts, Parliament, and many news and TV programs. It is now more common to hear a presenter at the end of their program to say ‘follow me’ or use a ‘hashtag’  for updates and stories.

The council and its leadership make it known to anyone listening that the council is open and transparent. In many areas it is, and officers really push the social media agenda to the next level. However, many Councillors see social media, especially twitter, as the equivalent of people being told the world is not flat.

Today, at Cornwall Council’s Cabinet, the Leader of the said council, and with no legal explanation, banned the use of Twitter and ‘blogging’ during the Cabinet meeting. I asked the legal officer (outside of the room) on the legalities of this action because I do not believe it has any legal grounding. I got  no defined answer to my question, and there was no way of raising this concern in the meeting because I have no automatic right to speak at a Cabinet meeting.

The excuse ruling for this Stalinist action is some tweets were un-constructive (see official excuse here). This statement from the council opens up further questions as who are the ‘censor police’, and what is acceptable, or not. Councillors are covered by the Code of Conduct rules so any inappropriate behaviour is covered there. Granted, as few tweets from all the tweeting councillors are said with a little bit of humour, this I believe gives any discussion a more personal feeling.

A new media policy, which is meant to make the council more open, was in fact used to make it less open in the very first meeting after the policy was introduced.  I believe in one action, Cornwall Council via its Leader, has put the council’s social media reputation back by a year.  There are already concerns within the media and broadcasting world that this new policy would not look out-of-place in North Korea.  Today’s actions have added to this concern.

Will this  policy be used again if the leadership hears something against the corporate view. Will the censor police be mobilized to shut-down any dissenting voice? Hardly open and transparent is it. Various platforms of social media talked about the stupid decision made today. Jokes and comments were made about this whole episode, none of them good.

I feel so strongly about today’s  ill-thought out action and unwarranted ban, I have ‘un-followed’ Cornwall Council’s official Twitter account and I urge you all to do the very same until reassurances will be given this Stalinist, and backward thinking action will never happen again.





Cornwall Council and Social Media

Last night I attended the Cornwall Social Media Cafe (CSMC) monthly meeting. This month it was hosted by Cornwall Council at County Hall. The aim of the CSMC is to bring together people from different fields who are interested in social media.

I was asked by Cornwall Council’s communication team if I would like to talk about social media from a councillors view and how it can be used to communicate with people. The communication team also talked about how this form of communication was used corporately.

I have to say since ‘twittergate‘ broke; Cornwall Council has seen the value social media can have in explaining the role of Cornwall Council, and trying to de-mystify what actually goes on at County Hall. It has not always got it right, but it is heading in the right direction.

During the question and answer session on how Cornwall Council, and those elected to it use social media. A point was raised that all meetings should be webcast; maybe not live, but available in an archive. It was felt this would give a better understanding on how the council comes to a decision. It said it would add to the feeling the council was indeed open and transparent.

Many other local authorities has shunned social media, or tried to ban it. I feel this is a mistake as they should embrace it like Cornwall Council have. For example Cornwall Council’s website is listed in the top 4 local authority website in the UK. The webcast is one of the largest watched (live or archived) compared to other authorities. Furthermore, the council also tries to answer as many inquires as possible it receives from the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Granted there are those out their who think social media is a waste of money, but you cannot knock Cornwall Council for trying to communicate with people using new and innovative ways.  Try following Cornwall Council on Twitter @cornwallcouncil

The Police and Twitter

Last night I was invited by officers from Falmouth Police Station to take part in a small focus group on the use of Twitter by the Police. For those using Twitter and follow @SgtGaryWatts, @SgtDaveNeill and @SCAndyRobbins will know they keep the public up to date on whats happening whilst they are on duty.

Two members of the public @Healthpay and @VyvToms along with the BBC’s @Clarehawke took part in the group. The police asked for pointers on how the use of it by the Police could be improved and how it has come across so far. I have to say I really like it; as it gives a snapshot of whats going on in an area. It also come across more personal and show that Police Officers are indeed human.

No doubt there will be people who think using Twitter is a waste of time, but generally this comes from people who do not use Twitter, or understand how it can be used to communicate with people. Many MP’s and Councillors use Twitter, so why not the Police.

The trouble currently happening is the more senior officers are not fully convinced on how Twitter and other social media can be used. My impression is they feel it is like Pandora’s Box, once opened, never shut, and therefore not controllable. I disagree with the last point, as used sensibly, there is no danger. I believe senior officers in the Police are at the same place Cornwall Council was 18 months ago. Cornwall Council feared Twitter, but then realised this is a good medium and have now fully embraced the useage of Twitter and other social media platforms.

I hope more Police Officer’s will embrace Twitter but this will only happen if rank and file officer have support from their senior officers.

Here is a list of current Police Officers in Cornwall who are using Twitter (feel free to add more names)


Twitter and how news travels

The world of cyberspace is massive, but it’s amazing how quickly something can travel in cyberspace. Today, I was contacted by an Officer from another Council just North of London who inquired on the merits, dangers and usefulness of Twitter and Blogging. You see, they had heard of “Twitter Gate” and wanted to speak to someone who has had some experience of using social media as a Councillor.
This Council wants to utilise social media, but wanted to avoid certain pitfalls that I and a few of my colleagues unintentionally fell into. Of course I was happy to help out on how I see and use social media in my role as a Councillor. This Council wants to use this, but a lot of their Members were worried about how to use it, and the dangers to it. I explained how social media at Cornwall Council had moved so quickly from “Twitter Gate” to web-casting of Council meetings.  Of course I was happy to explain how I saw and use these formats. I also got one more follower on Twitter which is always nice!
I did pass on the contact details of one of our Officers who to me is, Mrs Social Media as well as other Cornwall Councillors who Blog and use Twitter for their thoughts.

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