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Digital Engagement: An Alternative Perspective

Budgets are being cut, Big Society is bringing sweeping changes and the rise
of the digital generation all means that things are rapidly changing for local
government. Digital technology is changing the way we communicate and local
government needs to encompass this or get left behind. In this article Matt Worsfold
argues why digital engagement is the future and looks towards to use of social media
as a tool of engagement. However, he argues that social media has one fatal flaw and
that instead local government should look to methods previously unthought-of to
engage with their citizens.

Budget cuts, Big Society and the future for local government

Budget cuts and austerity, these are two phrases that have become synonymous
with Britain’s new government. These cuts are already being felt throughout
government, and in particular, sweeping spending changes are being made in local
government as local council budgets are being slashed by £1.165 billion1. Radical
spending cuts are being paired with the coalition government’s ideal of a ‘Big
Society’, one in which communities are being given greater freedom to govern. But
this freedom requires consultation with citizens. Citizen engagement is a necessary
condition in order to make ‘Big Society’ function, as engagement allows citizens to
become empowered to allow them to influence decisions. But the way in which we
communicate is changing. The past decade has seen the rise of the ‘digital generation’
and Ofcom found that consumers are spending almost half their waking hours using
media and communications2. It is obvious that digital technology has changed the way
we communicate, and digital communications is rising in prominence. Local
government needs to ensure that it is not being left behind by embracing these changes
and harnessing the benefits that such technology can bring.

Digital over traditional and the financial rewards

So we have the drivers of digital communications: budget cuts, ‘Big Society’,


citizen engagement and the digital generation. But drivers alone do not represent a
sufficient argument for digital communication. The benefits that digital
communications and digital engagement can bring are wide scale. The most obvious
are the financial benefits that are brought about through digital usage compared to
traditional methods of engagement, such as flyering, mail-shots and paper-based
surveys. A simple comparison of consultation method highlights the benefits aptly.
Let’s take an example: a local council wants to survey the local community on their
bin collection. Without the use of digital apparatus, the costs quickly mount. Firstly,
there are printing costs; secondly there are distributional costs, then the costs of
collecting these surveys, collating them and finally publishing reports. Not only are
there direct monetary costs as mentioned, but this process also uses up both vast
human resources and a lengthy period of time. It must also be highlighted that the time
it takes to carry out this survey often means that by the time the survey is completed,
the results are outdated.

1
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/aug/17/100-facts-about-coalitions-first-100-days
2
http://media.ofcom.org.uk/2010/08/19/consumers-spend-almost-half-of-their-waking-hours-using-
media-and-communications/
Digital resources on the other hand not only replace the need for three out of
the five stages mentioned above; it drastically reduces the costs of the two stages that
digital consultation requires – the publishing of the survey and the reporting.
Distributing becomes irrelevant as digitally hosting surveys puts the survey in one
place allowing constant access. Digital technology also automatically collects and
generates the resulting data, allowing for easy reporting. And in comparison,
uploading a survey costs just a fraction of what it costs to print. Even if one wants to
consider the fixed cost of creating such a system to survey in this way, the savings are
still evident. So to summarise, digital communications are financially cheaper than
traditional communication methods, less time consuming and require radically fewer
human resources.

Print Upload

Distribute

Collect

Collate

Report Report
Figure 1: Digital resources reduce three stages of consultation, whilst reducing costs, time and the
need for human resources

Engagement as a necessity for a democratic society

The benefits that arise from engagement itself cannot be ignored either. A
paper by Anthony Zacharzewski entitled ‘Democracy Pays: How democratic
engagement can cut the cost of government’3 highlights reasons why engagement is
beneficial to democracy. To summarise those points, it is suggested that it provides a
better understanding of citizen’s wants and needs, which results in more effective
policy choices and therefore allows more efficient cuts in spending. Not only does
engagement benefit policy, it also increases the transparency of local government
actions, allowing citizens to see for themselves what their local councils are doing and
what they are spending. Freeing up such information and allowing the spread of open
data through engagement can only increase the trust that citizens have for their local
councils, which benefits all involved.

3
http://www.demsoc.org/static/Financial-Case-white-paper.pdf
Engagement with a digital twist

The above are valid arguments when thinking about engagement as a general
notion, but why digital engagement? Well, one can argue that digital engagement
allows the process to be streamlined into one easy course of action, where the results
are found in one place and easily stored and accessed whenever necessary if needed
for reference for example. We have also noted how the ‘digital generation’ is driving
the change in communications and the ways in which we use technology, and
therefore local government should follow the trend. But one can also argue that this
‘digital generation’, a generation that is notoriously politically apathetic, will find
digital engagement more appealing than traditional methods, therefore empowering an
entire section of the population who would otherwise show little interest in what the
‘Big Society’ has to offer.

Social media: the right path to take?

Social media has often been touted as the ideal vehicle that digital engagement
can use. On average people are spending almost five and a half hours on social media
websites4 and social media companies have in total just under 307.5million unique
users5. So it is clear to see that there is a huge potential in the use of social media for
political engagement, and many political agents are beginning to use sites such as
Facebook and Twitter, a key example being Blogminster on Twitter6 which collates
blog entries from MPs and posts them on Twitter. Social media is an attractive
prospect for many as not only is it low cost, but many of the audience that want to be
targeted are there to be found. The 21st Century Councillor Programme7 highlights
how social media extends the reach of community conversations and helps to support
local leadership. So social media seems to fulfil the criteria, not only is it low-cost,
but, as Michele Ide-Smith found, it increases the transparency of information, it is
useful to gauge public opinion, makes information distribution easier and enables
communities to gather support for campaigns8.

4
http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/global/global-audience-spends-two-hours-more-a-month-on-
social-networks-than-last-year/
5
http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/global/led-by-facebook-twitter-global-time-spent-on-social-media-
sites-up-82-year-over-year/
6
http://twitter.com/blogminster
7
http://21st.cc/news/
8
http://www.ide-smith.co.uk/?p=585
Figure 2: Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are becoming increasingly popular amongst
local government officials. (Picture: Matt Hamm)

Battling the divide

But there are two problems with using social media, in my view. Firstly, how
manageable and customisable are sites that are created primarily for social interaction
and not for consultation? For one must remember that engagement and consultation
are slightly different concepts. And secondly, social media sites do not overcome the
problem of the digital divide. The digital divide is the divide between those that have
the access and knowledge of digital technology, and those that do not. Digital
Engagement found that 17 million people in the UK still do not use a computer or the
internet9 - over half of the number of people that voted in the 2010 election10 - and his
highlights the problems of using social media as an engagement tool. If local
governments are aiming for equality in access to information and in access to the
engagement process, then social media sites are merely excluding those who do not
have and those that do not want access to the internet. Groups such as Race Online
201211 are making efforts to make such technology available to more people, but there
is still a long way to go to reduce the 17 million person deficit. Social media may be
easy and cost-effective, but the extent to which it is inclusive has a limit.

Rethinking the route ahead

Liz Azyan in her paper Government-to-citizen Communications: Utilising


Multiple Digital Channels effectively argues that digital communication must be
simpler, more manageable, must close the digital divide, and have a simple delivery of
information which must be directed to the users needs12. After scouring the internet,

9
http://digitalengagement.org/resources/digital-inclusion-policy/
10
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/
11
http://raceonline2012.org/
12
http://www.scribd.com/doc/32362140/Government-To-Citizen-Communications-Using-Multiple-
Digital-Channels-Effectively
social media sites, blogs and news articles I found such sites as Public-i 13 that offers a
range of multimedia engagement tools, but still faces the problem of the digital
exclusion. So much has been spoken about getting people online and giving people
access to the internet, but in my opinion, while this can help tackle social and
economic exclusion, it is the wrong way to go in order to find a solution to the digital
engagement problem.

Finding another way

Digitalengagement.org and its manifesto14 was created and an offensive was


launched on digital exclusion, and while these efforts are necessary to tackle economic
and social exclusion that comes with digital exclusion, engagement tools and
information delivery must be accessible by all, and that means everyone. Just because
we talk of engagement in terms of technology it does not necessarily mean we are
speaking about engagement online. I am not here to argue that internet websites are
not beneficial to digital engagement, because they are and they possess great potential
for local councils if used correctly. Local government cannot focus solely on using the
internet, but with budgets being cut councils are finding it increasingly hard to engage
citizens in any other way. However there are alternatives that are being piloted at the
moment that fills the criteria and addresses the problems and needs of digital
engagement that I have mentioned in the above. This concept is called window.i
connect15 and is already being used successfully by Glasgow City Council16. The
difference between window.i connect and other digital resources are firstly, it is
accessible by anyone, regardless of technological ability or access, and secondly, it
can be used as either an information delivery service or an interactive consultation
system.

Figure 3: Left: window.i connect site in Glasgow. Right: window.i logo (Copyright PointandPress
Ltd 2010)

13
http://www.public-i.info/
14
http://digitalengagement.org/manifesto/
15
http://www.windowi.co.uk/
16
http://www.windowi.co.uk/news.aspx#glasgow
window.i connect: the multipurpose solution

window.i connect is already being used by Glasgow City Council, and the sites
consist of an interactive digital display situated behind a shop or office glass front that
is accessible to anyone using the touchpad provided. The display on screen is fully
customisable and can display an array of information, consultations and campaigns,
making it ideal for local government usage. Not only does window.i connect allow
effective information delivery, but it has many advantages over social media. For
example, it allows councils to slash advertising budgets as events and information can
be updated instantly and displayed on screen therefore reducing the need to poster or
flyer.

But the second element to window.i connect is the fact that not only does it
communicate essential information; it can also be used as a consultation device and
these are two key elements to citizen engagement. Hosts can upload surveys which are
undertaken by users with either complete anonymity or with submission of user
details. Feedback from these surveys can be accessed at near real-time, meaning all
data is accurate and relevant, while the system will compile data into easy and
readable graphics. The system also allows the host to access useful data on content
popularity, such as when content was accessed and how many times which can also be
seen in usage reports. Because window.i connect is multi-purpose, there is so much
potential to form local partnerships with other local authorities and sponsors. It can
potentially streamline the delivery of information from a number of local authorities
(for example the fire service, local hospitals, job centres) into one place, making
information easy to locate and access.

Figure 4: Systems such as window.i connect can offer many avenues for citizen engagement
Glasgow City Council: the success story

Glasgow City Council opened their first site in April 2010 and they currently
have four pilot sites running around the city centre. Over two years it is expected that
the council will save around £30,000, with this figure increasing dramatically as new
sites open and the usage of the extra sites increases. The council reported that local
community councils (or parish councils) budget for citizen engagement was £800, but
is now being slashed to £100 with the use of window.i connect. This either means that
budgets can be cut more effectively, or spending can be redirected to other important
areas. The whole concept is supported by the Scottish Green Party as part of a
communications strategy. Glasgow City Council are also looking toward the 2014
Glasgow Commonwealth Games in which they plan to use the window.i connect
system in and around their facilities in order to improve information delivery,
especially to visitors of the games.

Figure 5: Glasgow City Council are already piloting the window.i connect system, and look to
incorporate the system for the 2014 Commonwealth Games

Rethinking the phrase ‘digital engagement’

The Glasgow case study has provided evidence of the successes of not only
digital engagement, but a unique form of digital engagement, one in which the citizen
decides what information they want to consume. As has been shown, the use of
technology is driving down costs, allowing for greater citizen engagement and
empowering citizens as they are starting to aid decision making processes in local
government whilst reducing the time spent carrying out these processes. This process
is making citizen engagement on the whole a more efficient and popular experience.
As I have found though, window.i connect provides a comprehensive solution in the
fact that it bridges the digital divide and allows citizens to become engaged in ways
that online resources do not allow.

The words digital engagement does not have to become synonymous with the
internet as they so often have done recently. But there is a much simpler way to
engage local citizens which does not require getting everyone online. Digital
engagement is definitely the way forward, but the internet is not necessarily the road it
should take, instead systems like window.i connect offer an efficient and all inclusive
engagement experience.

Matt Worsfold is an undergraduate student in his penultimate year of study at the


University of York where he is studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. To get
in contact please email mworsfold@gmail.com, or via twitter at
twitter.com/Matt_Worsfold.