Policy Briefing: Citizenship, engagement and online civic conversations

Policy Briefing: Citizenship, engagement and online civic conversations

Nick Ellison (University of York)

Research into the use of social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter) by English local authorities undertaken three years ago (see Ellison and Hardey, 2013, 2014) suggested that, in the main, LAs either did not use social media as means of communicating with local citizens, or did so only in the form of ‘pushing’ information to them about local events. A recent further trawl around the web, FaceBook and Twitter sites of some county, city and district councils suggests that this position has not markedly changed, despite the ongoing development and expansion of Web 2.0 reciprocal platforms since 2011.

Perhaps this absence of a serious social media presence is not surprising – after all, local authorities are currently experiencing radical expenditure cuts and their communications departments have not been immune to the need for economies. Even so, might it be that an opportunity for developing new forms of engagement, suited to the communication preferences of tech-savvy local citizens, is being missed? This question is prompted by admittedly slender ‘pre-figurative’ evidence from the original research that suggested that social media platforms can be used as vehicles for council-led online ‘civic conversations’ about key local issues.

Subsequent discussions with some of the more progressive local authorities indicated an interest in using social media as means of enhancing and also potentially diversifying engagement with local citizens beyond those who, for example, already connect with their local councils through attendance at meetings, survey completions and other activities.

Defining ‘civic conversations’ as social media-driven interactions about service provision and wider political issues between representatives of local political institutions (elected councillors and council employees) and members of the various local publics they serve, how might such communication extend citizen engagement in practice? Further, how might the notion of online civic conversations contribute to prevailing understandings of the concept of citizenship itself?

It is important at the outset to be clear that civic conversations are no panacea for the development of ‘high quality’ local dialogue. As local authorities themselves are all too aware, online participation comes with the same caveats about inequalities of representation and access that characterise offline interactions. Moreover, as inhabitants of the Twittersphere well know, it is more difficult to mediate or ‘control’ conversations in cyberspace than it is to influence the tone and style of communication offline. Indeed, there is good reason to assume that these conversations could be anything but ‘civic’ – affording, as they inevitably would, opportunities for the expression of racist, sexist, ageist and disablist opinions as well as more socially liberal and progressive ones.

According to some of those who work in local authority communication departments, it is apprehension about conversations of this kind that make some elected representatives (particularly those from older generations) reluctant to rely too heavily on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms as means of engaging with local electorates. Conversely, LA communications staff have also expressed the rather different concern that councillors who do use these platforms may use them in ‘inappropriate’ ways – for example, by appearing to endorse ideological positions that risk damaging the authority’s reputation, or by making uncosted promises about service quality and delivery.

Nevertheless, our preliminary research suggests that the potential that civic conversations hold for new forms of local engagement should not be ignored. A good example of this potential is the 2011 Brighton and Hove Tweetathon about alcohol usage in the city – which was followed by the 2012 Tweetathon on domestic violence. During the 2011 event, over 300 individuals and agencies (including the NHS and the police) took part in the initial 24-hour Twitter survey and this led to a further three-month conversation involving thousands of people in various on- and offline activities across the city. Findings from the survey were made available online, in the press and in various council locations in Brighton and Hove.

Certainly for Jim Shewell, then Head of Communications at the council, ‘social media has an unprecedented ability to strengthen relationships through the power of conversation’ (Shewell, 2011: 9) – and in his view, it is important that elected authorities both stimulate and become part of such conversations. The 2012 event was, if anything more successful with 8,000 people tuning in to live webchats and over 129 questions submitted. According to Sussex Police, over 75,000 people viewed the Tweetathon. There are, of course, other examples of local authorities attempting to engage local citizens in dialogue about, inter alia, the efficiency of local services, budget priorities, car parking and recycling/waste disposal, although none to date appear to be so extensive and comprehensive as the Brighton and Hove events.

Rather differently, and despite the reservations in some quarters mentioned above, there is growing evidence that local politicians are beginning to provide online surgeries for ward members, or are even engaging directly in Facebook and Twitter conversations with local residents. Again, some councils (e.g. Birmingham City Council) provide live webcasts of their committee proceedings, which citizens can comment upon on Facebook – while others (e.g. Dudley Borough Council) – provide regular online community forums in which the council leader can be ‘quizzed live’ by local citizens on Facebook and Twitter.

What, if anything, do these embryonic instances of civic conversations tell us about the nature of citizenship and citizen engagement more generally? In one sense not very much because instances of sustained conversations, although increasing in some authorities, remain far from the norm. However, despite patchy take-up, and for all the problems associated with online communications more generally, the idea of the online civic conversation is worth pursuing because it can make a positive contribution to discussions about the theory and practice of citizenship – particularly those that conceive citizenship as primarily ‘about’ social and political agency (Clarke et al, 2014; Isin and Nielsen, 2008) – in at least three ways.

First, civic conversations can provide a space for informal engagement that sits between non-dialogic forms of e-petitioning and more sophisticated deliberative mechanisms associated with concepts of the ‘wired community’ (Keeble and Loader, 2001; Dahlberg, 2001). For a variety of reasons, neither of these approaches is particularly satisfactory. E-petitioning certainly has a place in contemporary democratic practice, but it provides no opportunity for discussion or debate, tends not to attract under-represented groups (Lindner and Riehm, 2010) and has an ‘uncertain relationship with constitutional decision making’ (Coleman and Blumler, 2009: 189).

Attempts to create formal deliberative arrangements in small communities complete with requirements for ‘rational’ political dialogue, ‘turn-taking’ and so on have been criticised for failing to attract new publics and for providing little encouragement to those who do not participate offline to engage in online political interaction (see Kavanaugh et al, 2008). It is plausible, then, to suggest that civic conversations, however informal, sporadic and fragmented they might be, could be used by local authorities as flexible ‘engagement mechanisms’ to address a range of local publics depending on the play of local social and political issues at any one time.

Second, for all the fact that citizenship has hitherto been associated with one form or other of membership of a territorial nation-state and its associated ‘public sphere’ (national, regional and local), the increased marketisation of public services – certainly in the UK – has transformed this conception of the citizen as a public entity into a partially privatised, or individualised, ‘citizen-consumer’. While it may be important to remain critical of this shift for a variety of reasons, even a cursory reading of local authority Twitter and Facebook sites reminds us that local citizens themselves do not distinguish radically between what counts as collective participation in political debate, on the one hand, and engagement in issues relating to the (frequently individualised) experience of service delivery and service quality, on the other. Instances of online civic conversations to date suggest that these apparently different dimensions of engagement tend to be elided in people’s minds when they are ‘talking’ to the council. The point is that the further extension and enhancement of civic conversations could contribute to the ongoing transformation of the local public sphere, by creating greater dialogic diversity – associated with a plurality of publics – as citizens engage in a range of different conversations depending on their particular service needs and political standpoints.

Finally, in the increasingly liquid social and political environment created by the emergence and dramatic expansion of online communications (mobile technologies being of particular significance here), there is a growing need to supplement ‘fixed’ democratic institutions (Parliament, local authorities) with new mechanisms of democratic expression that are capable of channelling ideas and demands from ‘above’ and ‘below’ in ways that can facilitate civic and political dialogue in the long interims between formal elections.

Although there is nothing to suggest that online civic conversations can easily resolve existing power inequalities or give immediate voice to marginal populations, what they may be able to contribute to – over time – is a greater sense of the ‘connectedness’ (see Clarke et al, 2014) that underpins the concept of citizenship (however contested in other ways that concept may be). In so doing, these conversations offer one particular mechanism for developing and sustaining local dialogue in ways that could increase a wider and deeper sense of local belonging amongst an ever more complex and diverse range of publics.

Clarke, J., Coll, K., Dagnino, E, and Neveu, C. (2014) Disputing Citizenship, Bristol: Policy Press.
Coleman, D. and Blumler, J. (2009) The internet and democratic citizenship: theory, practice and policy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dahlberg. L. (2001) ‘The internet and democratic discourse: exploring the prospects of online deliberative forums extending the public sphere’, Information, Communication and Society, 4 (1): 615-33.
Ellison, N. and Hardey, M. (2013) ‘Developing Political Conversations? Social media and English local authorities’, Information, Communication and Society, 16 (6): 878-98.
Ellison, N. and Hardey, M. (2014) ‘Social media and local government: citizenship, consumption and democracy’, Local Government Studies, 40 (1): 21-40.
Isin, E. and Nielsen, G. (eds.) (2008) Acts of Citizenship, London: Zed Books.
Kavanaugh, A., Kim, J., Pérez-Quiñones, M,. Schmitz,J. and Isenhour, P. (2008) ‘Net gains in political participation: secondary effects of internet community’, Information, Communication and Society, 11 (7): 933-63.
Keeble, L. and Loader, B. (2001) Community Informatics: Shaping Computer-Mediated Social Relations, London: Routledge.
Lindner, R. and Riehm, U. (2010) ‘Broadening participation through e-petitions? Results from an empirical study on petitions to the German parliament’, unpublished paper, Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research, Karlsruhe, Germany.


Nick Ellison is Professor of Social Policy at the University of York. In addition to an interest in the theories and practices of citizenship, he has research interests in UK and international and comparative social policy. 

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