The power of Mumsnet – for Blog Action Day #PowerOfWe #BAD12

This post is about Mumsnet. We believe that sites like Mumsnet could represent the future of developing public policy. They point to the potential of mass membership online platforms to engage thousands of people in practical consideration of policy issues and so radically widen participation in policy – or as we call it, guerilla policy.

This post is also part of Blog Action Day, held on 15th October 2012. Founded in 2007, Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one global topic on the same day. Past topics have included water, climate change, poverty and food with thousands of blogs, big and small, taking part. The theme for 2012 is ‘The Power of We’ – something ably demonstrated by Mumsnet and its peers.

Now in its twelfth year, Mumsnet was founded by Justine Roberts, a former investment banker and sports journalist, and Carrie Longton, a television producer. The site is now Britain’s busiest social network for parents, receiving nearly six million visits a month. It is the 460th most popular site in the UK – much, much more popular than the Labour Party (5,057th), the Conservative Party (15,040th), or the Liberal Democrats (19,346th). With more than 600,000 registered users, it also has a bigger membership than all of the main political parties combined. In May last year, Mumsnet also launched a site aimed at grandparents, Gransnet, which already has 70,000 members and rising.

On the day I’m writing this, the most popular discussion thread (with more than 1,000 posts) focused on welfare reform, specifically the proposal from George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference to limit the number of children people can claim for as part of the Government’s aim of cutting £10 billion more from welfare (the thread was titled “to be fed up of George sodding Osborne and his Knobbish Ideas”).

As Mumsnet itself states, it’s a community, not a lobby group, and has “no particular political axe to grind”. Despite this, it has been highly active about issues it (or rather its community) feels strongly about. Mumsnet has initiated several national campaigns, and publicly supports a number of causes related to parenting, for example:

  • ‘We Believe You’, a campaign showing the hidden scale of rape and sexual assault in the UK.
  • A campaign for better miscarriage care and treatment, including the Mumsnet Miscarriage Code of Care, a five-point code that proposes a series of simple changes to current health service miscarriage treatment.
  • Successfully challenging major retailers to ensure that lads’ mags are kept out of children’s sight on newsstands, and its Let Girls Be Girls campaign against the commercial exploitation of children’s sexuality.
  • Monitoring how much money local authorities are spending on short breaks for families with disabled children.
  • Opposing cuts to Legal Aid.

This compares pretty well to any think tank or lobby group, even though it’s not Mumsnet’s core business. As a result, Mumsnet has come in for some criticism, which really boils down to two main points.

Firstly, critics question how representative Mumsnet is. The site has been labelled “a bunch of Guardian-reading, laptop-wielding harpies” (by Toby Young, of course, in the Daily Telegraph) “…peopled almost exclusively by university-educated, upper-middle-class women” – in stark contrast to the paper’s own readership of upper-middle class men. The site has also been called “smug, patronising and vicious” by the Daily Mail, of all papers. This reaction is seemingly motivated by competitive jealously, both because the Mail makes a business out of being vicious but also in umbrage that anyone else would dare speak for (middle class) mothers. This also betrays an old media take on new media, in that it completely misses the point. Mumsnet allows mothers to speak for themselves, in contrast to the Mail’s brand of misogynistic ventriloquism. And Mumsnet is just one site – if it’s not representative, there’s Netmums and many others.

Like any online community, Mumsnet doesn’t have to be – indeed it can’t be – representative of anything else but its members. Even though it doesn’t think of itself as a political organisation, Mumsnet realised that it would be remiss not to use its “authentic voice” to engage in issues its members care about, without determining on behalf of its members what these are. If its members didn’t support a campaign, it wouldn’t fly, the site’s leaders would get it in the neck, and its members would just go elsewhere. As Justine Roberts notes (in a recent New York Times article), “The power is in the democracy of it”.

In truth, Mumsnet is probably more representative of its members than the CBI or the TUC is of its members, but it doesn’t claim to be the “voice for employers” or the “voice of people at work” in the way that those organisations do – merely ‘for parents, by parents’. It might be much more illuminating if these organisations such as the CBI and TUC radically re-thought how they represent their members – away respectively from their committees made up of big businesses and conferences with their arcane voting rules, and towards the direct deliberation that online forums enable – so that their members can represent themselves rather than being represented.

The second criticism is the flip side of the first – that platforms like Mumsnet, because they are so large and hence potentially powerful, are somehow a threat to politics as usual (which is surely not a deal breaker). Some commentators (prematurely but perceptively) labelled the last election the ‘Mumsnet election’ as all three main political party leaders took part in live chats on the site. Again, professional jealousy might partly explain this reaction – ‘how dare ordinary people be allowed to question policymakers, that’s our job!’ But it also indicates a recognition that the location of real politics is shifting, away from the Westminster bubble and empty town hall meetings, and towards alternative spaces including online platforms.

Should we turn away from people wanting to participate – or towards them? Politicians have to go where the people are, and that’s the way it should be. People don’t need to be ‘engaged’ – policymakers need to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged and go with the grain of these, using the same approaches and language that ordinary people use. The recent party conferences were indicative of the increasingly ‘empty stadium‘ of contemporary politics. Just like bank robbers and money, places like Mumsnet will increasingly be where policy takes place because that’s where the people are, and where people are is where the personal experience and expertise is that could be used to inform better policy. That’s the power of we.


Open policymaking: Should there be a ‘duty to involve’ for national policy?

As Edward Andersson from Involve noted in his recent blog reviewing the new consultation principles issued by government: “Today consultation has, for many citizens, become a byword for formalistic, tick box exercises, done to mask a decision which is already a ‘done deal’.” Edward rightly suggested that the new principles, while important, fall short of providing the solution to this widely shared view of consultation. Could one solution be a national ‘duty to involve’, similar to the requirement that some local public services are already subject to? In which case, national policymakers should look to their local counterparts for what works.

This post is part of the project on open policymaking and better consultation, hosted by the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office. As Anthony Zacharzewski, head of DemSoc, has summarised it: “Open policymaking is the natural corollary of open data and transparency, requiring openness and allowing public participation at every stage of decision-making and implementation. It supports citizen action and positive involvement of the public in shaping laws and services.” This active engagement is obviously very different in scope and ambition to traditional consultation, but this doesn’t mean we’re starting from scratch. If, as the Government has said, in the future “all policies will be made openly”, we could learn from where there have already been attempts to achieve a different, more deliberative approach to decision-making – in local government and local public services.

Many of these local duties to involve citizens have been introduced through national policy. For example, Section 138 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 imposed a duty on all councils and ‘best value’ authorities to involve ‘local representatives’ when carrying out functions by providing information, consulting or ‘involving in another way’. Councils must engage with a balanced selection of the individuals, groups, businesses or organisations the council considers likely to be affected by, or have an interest in, the council’s functions (including children and young people as appropriate). For the National Health Service, legislation which came into force in 2003 placed a duty on certain organisations to involve and consult, but managers were not always clear when they had to involve people or how it was best to do this. The 2007 act aimed to make this clearer; the duty requires NHS organisations to involve users of services in the planning and provision of services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way services are provided, and decisions affecting the operation of services. Section 242 of the earlier consolidated NHS Act 2006 was also supported by useful guidance on achieving ‘Real Involvement‘ from service users and communities.

The NHS’s operating framework further emphasised that this engagement should be ongoing, not just during periods of change. Primary Care Trusts and NHS providers should “…create greater opportunities for their communities to make their voices heard, raising awareness of those opportunities and empowering patients and the public to use them and LINks [Local Involvement Networks]; [and] take greater responsibility for communicating with their local populations and stakeholders to ensure better understanding of, and confidence in, local NHS services.” More recently, the NHS constitution underlines that public and user involvement should be part of the fabric of the NHS: “You have the right to be involved, directly or through representatives, in the planning of healthcare services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way those services are provided, and in decisions to be made affecting the operation of those services.”

The reality of local engagement might only rarely meet these ambitions, and many local policymakers, managers and clinicians might question the extent to which the public can play a constructive part in decisions on reconfiguring clinical services. Views on the success of local LINks vary widely, and they are due to be replaced by Local Healthwatch organisations in April 2013 as part of the ‘new NHS’. But this gap between aspiration and reality may be more a matter of developing and using the right methods for engagement – and being seen by local communities to be making genuine efforts at this engagement – rather than a fundamental problem with the aspiration itself (these are after all public services, paid for by the public, and they should surely be accountable as such).

Organisations such as Involve (a partner in this discussion) have a wealth of experience about what works locally (Edward referenced some very useful resources in his blog) – surely some of these principles and practices could not only be better shared locally, but applied to national policy as well? As we’ve noted before, one of the reasons that the Government’s NHS reforms ran into such difficulty was the view held by stakeholders that the policy was developed in a fundamentally closed way rather than constructively and collaboratively. The Government says that empowering individual patients and increasing the local accountability of health services is at the core of its reforms; shouldn’t we apply the same principles of empowerment and accountability to the development of health policy as well as the operation of health services – and to any policy for that matter?

The Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan, where its committment to open policy was announced, makes no reference to existing local methods of engagement and how these could inform open policymaking at a national level. Nonetheless, national policymakers should look to the methods that have been used by local policymakers and planners to engage their communities and service users in decision-making – both the successes and the failures – and consider how the most effective approaches could be adopted and adapted for national policy. Open policy is an ambitious agenda. Making it real will require effective methods for engagement, but also ways of requiring that policymakers develop policy openly. As well as learning from local methods of engagement, do we need an equivalent national ‘duty to involve’ stakeholders in policy development?


Political parties need to go ‘guerilla’ if they are to survive

The main political parties are in decline. Their membership is shrinking and the share of the vote garnered by Labour and the Conservatives is at its lowest level ever. If political parties don’t reinvent themselves they will be comprised mainly of members who are increasingly removed from the day-to-day views and experiences of most ordinary people. Political parties need to embrace the principles of ‘guerilla policy’ movements such as 38 Degrees to reinvent themselves as popular vehicles for policy or they will perish.

We’re in the middle of party conference season, and while the political establishment gathers excitedly in Brighton, Manchester and Birmingham, the public are unlikely to following the speeches and ‘debates’ with the same fervor. This lack of interest in the party conferences is not connected to voter apathy; in fact a recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 58% of respondents said that they were interested in politics. Fraser Nelson summed it up well last week in The Spectator where he argued that political parties are dying because the general public is underwhelmed by what they have to offer. The conference season is now the domain of party hacks, lobbyists and general hangers on rather than ordinary party members or citizens.

This week The Economist noted that between them the three main UK parties have fewer members than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The declining interest in the main political parties is also illustrated by their web presence. The Labour Party’s site is the most popular out of the three main parties, ranking 5,057th in the UK according to Alexa.com (which tracks traffic over a three month period), followed by the Conservative Party (15,040th) and Liberal Democrats (19,346th). Party activists, especially on the right have broken out and embraced social media including by establishing blog sites – ConservativeHome, ranked 3,084th, is far more popular than the Party’s own site, and also outperforms both Labour List (13,869th) and Lib Dem Voice (42,124th).

However it is the ‘upstarts’ like 38 Degrees, the Taxpayers Alliance and Mumsnet that are shaking up the world of political campaigning and mobilising. Over a million people have joined 38 Degrees, the Taxpayers Alliance has more members than the Liberal Democrats, whilst Mumsnet is ranked as the 441st most popular website in the UK. These numbers point to a worrying trend for the main political parties – these guerilla operations, which operate well outside of the Westminster village, are passing them by. All of them have led successful campaigns that have directly shaped policy, from the prevention of the sale of the forests, to opening up public spending by councils.

The main political parties are only beginning to attempt to play catch up. At this week’s Labour conference Angela Eagle, the Chair of the National Policy Forum announced the creation of an online policy hub called Your Britain to shake up the way Labour develops policy and their next manifesto. She described it as: “…an electronic ‘town square’ for the Labour movement and the communities beyond. People can get involved by commenting on current policy proposals, propose new ideas and join in with an online discussion.” Eagle also talked up the role ‘crowdsourcing’ could play in finding new ideas. Your Britain is not yet live and it is hard to find out any more information about it other than what was contained in her speech. It is therefore far too early to judge whether this represents a shift in how Labour develops policy or just forms the basis of a good press release.

The Miliband brothers have enthusiastically embraced the idea of community organising as a way to connect local communities to politics and policy (borrowing heavily from Barack Obama’s grassroots campaigning machine). David, as part of his campaign for Labour leader, committed to recruiting and training 1,000 community organisers through his Movement for Change vehicle. Whilst Ed has drafted in Arnie Graf from the US to develop Labour’s community organising capacity. Stella Creasy has demonstrated the potential for community organising to galvanise a community around a particular policy through her high profile campaign against loan sharks in Walthamstow.

On the right, open primaries to select Westminster candidates (another innovation borrowed from the US) have been used to re-connect communities and politics. Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, is the most famous of these candidates, although she has caused trouble for the party business managers because her independent approach has meant that she is not always prepared to follow the party line. In Plymouth the local Conservative Party Association ignored the results of an open primary because they did not like the candidate that local people chose (former Council Leader Cllr Patrick Nicholson). Despite the initial enthusiasm, the party machine has resisted wider adoption citing concerns about cost and watering down of the influence of party members.

Despite these innovations, politicians are still failing to convince voters that political parties in their current form are vehicles for effecting policy change. This is because the political innovations described above are ‘add ons’ rather than a fundamental rethink of how political parties are organised. The Pirate Party, which we have talked about before, shows a very different way of organising a political party by embracing fully the principles of openness, transparency, honesty and accountability. The party’s website is also ranked 254th in the UK. What is needed is a re-invention of the party political model, not tinkering at the edges. Our own effort, Guerilla Policy, is just at the beginning of considering a fundamentally different way of organising a think tank, for instance the potential of social media to develop policy in an open, honest and transparent way (we’ll be announcing another new project soon).

Compared to some other countries, the main political parties in the UK have been relatively stable for the past sixty years, but the decline in party loyalty, their share of the vote and membership means that they cannot assume this will continue in the future. The Labour victory in 2005 was on the lowest share of the vote ever by a governing party at 35.2%. Other western democracies such as Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada have all seen significant upheavals in their political parties. The Amazing Mrs Pritchard was a BBC drama shown in 2006 which presented how this could happen in the UK. Given the rise of social media and the decline in party loyalty among the public, such a scenario seems much less unlikely now.


Making open policy a reality (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the previous post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.

As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to ‘open policymaking’. It has announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”. This post and the previous post set out how Government can make open policy a reality – staring with a few things that Government should avoid doing.

6. Don’t focus only on generating new policy – improve existing policy

One of the problems with the ‘policy industry’ of think tanks, charities, campaigns and commentators is the restless hunt for and promotion of ‘new ideas’ (what David Walker calls ‘neophilia‘). This competition distracts from a more considered approach to improving policy and public services which focuses on how policies and approaches can be steadily improved and refined, better implemented, delivered and administered – in other words, sufficient time to research, think, reflect, plan and review. Openness should enrich existing policy, not serve only to add more ‘noise’.

7. Don’t focus on new technology – use what we’ve already got (used to)

This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. But just as neophilism often results in costly, unnecessary and untested new policy, so technologism tends to assume that new ways of working always require new technologies. They don’t. Wherever possible, Government should use existing technology and platforms. Don’t fall for the tech hucksters, keep it simple (even if it’s not perfect), and focus on the content instead.

8. Don’t listen to the loudest – openness is about hearing quieter voices

Government has said that the open policy agenda is about widening access to policy to individuals and organisations not normally involved. Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about the policy industry. But if open policy really is going to reach out, it needs to include the people and organisations who aren’t always so confident in their own perspicacity but have relevant evidence and insights to contribute. Open policy should carve out spaces for the people we don’t usually hear from – especially those marginalised and vulnerable users and communities who rely on public and voluntary services.

9. Support lots of experiments – and do it openly

Like anything new, parts of the open policy agenda won’t work, and the critics and cynics will do what they do best (sneering). But the best way to discover what works is to invest in a diversity of projects so that we find out and learn. The scale of projects is then important. What will kill open policy is ‘too big to fail’ pilot initiatives. What will allow it to grow and thrive are lots of little experiments – and a commitment to keep testing and keep learning.

10. Stimulate a new ‘market’ – then step back

Government should be congratulated for its public commitment to the open policy agenda, but this doesn’t mean it has deliver it all on its own. In part, this agenda reflects what entrepreneurs and organisations outside of government have already demonstrated is possible – from Change.org and 38 Degrees, Mumsnet to the Spartacus Report. There is already an emerging ‘market’ in open policy, one which Government can play a useful role in helping to legitimize, but not one it has to direct itself. If some or most of the platforms and places where open policy gets done are independent from Government, this will also be an advantage – for the integrity, transparency and credibility of open policy, and also for the specific policies it produces.

To some, the open policy agenda might be a gimmick. But we’re confident that in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future we’ll look back and wonder why the way we currently create policy was ever considered ‘normal’, and why we ever thought it was credible that policy was developed largely behind closed doors, by a relatively narrow group of people, many of whom lack direct practical experience of the issues they were creating policy for. These two posts have been about how we can bring forward this future and make open policy a reality sooner – let us know what you think and what we’ve missed.


Making open policy a reality (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the following post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.

As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to promote ‘open policymaking’. This includes:

  • commissioning policy development from outside organisations such as think tanks;
  • crowdsourcing questions to shape the definition of the problem (not just consulting on solutions);
  • using ‘Policy Labs’ to draw in expertise from a range of people and organisations and test new policies before they are implemented;
  • making more data available freely so experts can test and challenge approaches effectively; and
  • using web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved.

Most significantly, the plan announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”.

This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. So we obviously support the open policy agenda, and we think that government, so often characterized as being resistant to new ideas (especially where these ideas are likely to challenge the power of government) should be congratulated for thinking about how to open-up policy and for its bold public commitments to put this into practice.

Despite the widespread cynicism about politics and politicians today, then, we should take the Government at its word and seize this opportunity. This post and the next post are about what Government needs to do to make open policy a reality – and the role the rest of us can play.

1. Make open policy itself open and transparent

Government has set out its ambitions for open policy. Putting this agenda into practice should start with open policy itself, which is to say how the agenda is developed, how opportunities for funding and support are designed, down to how individual projects are selected and commissioned. An open policy agenda designed and determined behind closed doors would not only be ironic – it would be a missed opportunity to develop and extend the current proposals. Government could start with an open forum to discuss and co-design the open policy agenda.

2. Demonstrate how this is different from consultation

It would be tragic if open policy becomes the new consultation, that’s to say distrusted, devalued, and discredited. As stated in the reform paper, an important part of open policy is that those outside government can define problems, not just express their view on proposed solutions. Government needs to signal how open policy marks a fresh start. This doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for setting policy objectives, just avoiding preempting the answers. One way for Government to do this would be to establish two or three ‘open policy challenges’ – competitions for potential policy solutions for difficult issues – and to see what happens.

3. Crowdsource the evidence on what works for crowdsourcing

‘Policy’ is obviously not one process but a set of related activities. As the US researchers on government innovation William D. Eggers and Rob Hamill recently pointed out, there are at least five roles that crowdsourcing could play in government – competitions, crowd collaboration, voting, labour (‘micro-tasking’), and funding. Government needs to breakdown the various stages of policy – from agenda-setting and development, to implementation and evaluation – and identify what approaches to openness might be most appropriate at each stage. It doesn’t have to start from scratch – it should ask the community of those interested in and supportive of open policy to help gather the research and case studies of what’s already been done, what’s worked and what hasn’t. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, we can help.

4. Make sure that open policy is open to new participants

There’s little point to open policy if it merely becomes a new way to generate policy from the same old suspects. New voices could deliver new (better) ideas, insights and evidence. Government has said it wants open policy to widen access to those people and organisations not normally involved. Two ‘rules’ might help to ensure this. Firstly, make it a requirement of individual projects and proposals under open policy that they engage seriously with typically marginalised people and organisations – especially those who provide or experience services at the frontline. Secondly, support and enable these people and organisations to engage in policy directly themselves – for example, if you want to generate new ideas about how to improve a public service, commission some service users and practitioners to work with you.

5. Deliver an early result

The biggest barrier to open policy – and especially our collective belief in it – will be Government’s preparedness to act on the outcomes. Without a notable ‘win’ – say, a crowdsourced policy passed into law within a couple of years – the armchair cynics will reassure themselves that they were ‘right all along’. The flip side of Government setting out such a bold agenda is that every time it falls significantly short it’ll be called on it. The Spartacus report – one of the inspirations for this project – was born of an angry reaction to a botched and seemingly disingenuous government consultation. Government can do better, and it should.

This is a really important agenda that could be potentially be very radical. The challenge is in how the agenda is developed from now on, and in the spirit of the proposals we believe that this is best done open and collaboratively. In the next post, we put forward five more ways that Government can make open policy a reality. In the meantime, what do you think about the open policy agenda? Do you agree with Government’s ambitions for this agenda – and how would you propose putting it into practice?


Local authorities on Twitter

This is the fifth in a series of posts on local authorities’ use of Twitter. We’ve been counting down local authorities according to the size of their following – this post reviews the results and offers up some thoughts.

As we’ve suggested here before, social media is a cheap and easy way to engage stakeholders, for think tankscentral governmenttrade bodies and directly elected mayors. We even think it could be used to open-up policy research and development, for example for local authorities to connect with their communities. So which councils appear to be using social media, in this case Twitter, the most?

We’ve looked at the corporate Twitter accounts of all 434 UK local authorities – district, county, metropolitan borough and unitary authorities. This shows that 91% of local authorities have a corporate Twitter account. Of these that don’t, Northern Ireland is disproportionally represented, with 15 authorities out of the 39 not having a Twitter account. The 91% figure represents a significant expansion of local authorities’ use of Twitter since 2009 (at that time, a study by LGEO Research showed that only 124 councils were using Twitter, now this has grown to 395 authorities).The total Twitter community around councils is 941,610, whilst local government has tweeted 646,755 times.

The top ten authorities are:

No. Local authority Twitter name No. of followers No. of tweets
1 Glasgow City Council @GlasgowCC 24,016 1,765
2 Edinburgh City Council @Edinburgh_CC 13,054 2,527
3 Newcastle upon Tyne City Council @NewcastleCC 11,992 5,521
4 Belfast City Council @belfastcc 11,639 6,444
5 Manchester City Council @ManCityCouncil 11,313 2,962
6 Cardiff City Council @cardiffcouncil 10,054 4,926
7 Nottingham City Council @MyNottingham 9,374 2,694
8 Leeds City Council @leedscc 9,161 1,838
9 Brighton and Hove City Council @BrightonHoveCC 8,718 7,573
10 Kent County Council @Kent_cc 8,664 2,782

Nine of the top ten councils are large cities, with only one traditional county council represented – Kent. None of the top ten are district authorities, in fact only two appear in the top 50 – Oxford (no.25 – 5,688 followers) and Preston (no.46 – 4,747 followers). Both are large towns with populations of approximately 140,000 to 150,000. No London Boroughs appear in the top 20, although 7 appear in the top 50 with Lambeth (no.21 – 6,434 followers), Lewisham (no.28 – 5,411 followers) and Westminster (no.29 – 5,392) leading the way.

Six local authorities have more than 10,000 followers. Whilst 38 have more than 5,000 followers, representing 10% of councils. 28% of local authorities have less than 1,000 followers. So whilst this expansion has taken place, this is not universal. Our research points to both an urban connection and the use of Twitter and the number of followers.

A slight aside, we also observed the Government’s policy to rationalise back off functions in councils manifest through their social media presence.  Adur and Worthing share a joint Twitter account.  Whilst in Dorset, a number of authorities are sharing a Twitter account @dorsetforyou.

In our previous research on think tanks, we only looked at the number of followers. In this case, we also included the number of tweets sent. We didn’t analyse the quality of tweets, or separate out broadcast tweets from those that engaged in dialogue with local citizens. Nonetheless, we found that 203 local authorities have tweeted more than 1,000 times. Meanwhile, seven authorities with a Twitter account have never sent a tweet. Clearly, resourcing social media efforts matters. Walsall Council for instance has a team of five people who are named as their tweeters on their feed.

Top ten tweeters are:

No. Local authority Twitter name No. of followers No. of tweets
1 Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council @WalsallCouncil 5,214 12,949
2 St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council @sthelenscouncil 3,886 9,514
3 Sunderland City Council @SunderlandUK 8,202 7,835
4 Brighton and Hove City Council @BrightonHoveCC 8,718 7,573
5 Monmouthshire County Council @MonmouthshireCC 4,109 7,044
6 Winchester City Council @WinchesterCity 3,151 6,963
7 Stoke on Trent City Council @SoTCityCouncil 4,603 6,877
8 South Ayrshire Council @southayrshire 3,097 6,628
9 Surrey County Council @SurreyCouncil 4,534 6,585
10 Belfast City Council @belfastcc 11,639 6,444

There also seems to be a connection between activity on Twitter and the number of followers. Of the 106 councils with less than 1,000 followers, only eight have tweeted more than a 1,000 times.

Position on top Twitter list Local authority Twitter name No. of followers No. of tweets
283 Allerdale Borough Council @allerdale 997 3,785
288 Mole Valley District Council @MoleValleyDC 949 1,747
289 Bexley Council @whatsoninbexley 943 1,141
291 Copeland Borough Council @copelandbc 911 1,169
298 East Staffordshire Borough Council @eaststaffsbc 855 1,578
312 Surrey Heath Borough Council @Surreyheath 717 1.572
316 Melton Borough Council @MeltonBC 657 1,127
328 Derbyshire Dales District Council @derbyshiredales 502 1,427

We also found some interesting examples that further point to this connection between activity and presence on Twitter. Fenland District Council who were an early adopter of Twitter appears at no.65 on our list (4,234 followers) compared to neighbouring South Holland, which appears at no.389 (24 followers). South Holland and Fenland have many common similarities. Fenland and South Holland have similar population sizes (91,000 and 76,000), demographic and economic make up. The difference does seem to be connected to their investment in social media. South Holland has never tweeted whilst Fenland has tweeted over 500 times.

North Devon, Mid Devon and Torridge also offer up a further interesting comparison. All are neighbouring rural district authorities with similar population sizes ranging from 65,000 – 91,000. North Devon appears at no. 78 on our list (3,796 followers) compared to Torridge at no.373 and Mid Devon at no.377 both with less than 200 followers. North Devon has however tweeted nearly 5,000 times and has dedicated tweeters compared to 220 and 26 tweets sent by Torridge and Mid Devon.

Fenland and North Devon, both with small rural populations demonstrate the possibilities of increasing reach in a cheap and easy way using social media. Our recent blog on 5 top tips for think tanks using social media has many transferable lessons for local government.  Some lessons from this piece of research for local councils could be:

  • Actively use social media – the more active you are, the more likely you are to build a community;
  • Engage in dialogue, don’t just broadcast;
  • Promote others and not just yourself. A good local council account is a repository of a range of community information and news;
  • Social media is personal – individuals who work for local councils are critical in extending reach and impact;
  • Think without limits: social media offers up endless possibilities.

Of course, only looking at the number of tweets and number of followers on the main local authority feed doesn’t provide a broader analysis of the effective use of social media by any authority. It doesn’t take account of quality of engagement or local population size in particular – and these are factors that we could incorporate into future analysis. Even so, it still provides some indication of local authorities’ take up of social media and offers some interesting insights and lessons. Your views on the results – and what further questions and analysis should be conducted (by us or others) – are welcome.


Local authorities on Twitter – the top 100

This is the fourth in a series of posts on local authorities’ use of Twitter. We’ve been counting down local authorities according to the size of their following – this post reveals the top 100 local authorities on Twitter.

As we’ve suggested here before, social media is a cheap and easy way to engage stakeholders, for think tankscentral governmenttrade bodies and directly elected mayors. We even think it could be used to open-up policy research and development, for example for local authorities to connect with their communities. So which local authorities are seizing the opportunities of social media the most, at least according to this quick bit of research? (Let us know if we’ve got anything wrong and we’ll correct it asap). Congratulations to the top tweeters, and in the next post we’ll review the results and offer some thoughts.

No. Local authority Twitter name No. of followers No. of tweets
1 Glasgow City Council @GlasgowCC 24,016 1,765
2 Edinburgh City Council @Edinburgh_CC 13,054 2,527
3 Newcastle upon Tyne City Council @NewcastleCC 11,992 5,521
4 Belfast City Council @belfastcc 11,639 6,444
5 Manchester City Council @ManCityCouncil 11,313 2,962
6 Cardiff City Council @cardiffcouncil 10,054 4,926
7 Nottingham City Council @MyNottingham 9,374 2,694
8 Leeds City Council @leedscc 9,161 1,838
9 Brighton and Hove City Council @BrightonHoveCC 8,718 7,573
10 Kent County Council @Kent_cc 8,664 2,782
11 Sunderland City Council @SunderlandUK 8,202 7,835
12 Sheffield City Council @SheffCouncil 7,665 5,870
13 Swansea City Council @SwanseaCouncil 7,657 2,750
14 Essex County Council @Essex_CC 7,624 2,481
15 Devon County Council @DevonCC 7,581 3,786
16 South Lanarkshire Council @SouthLanCouncil 7,076 2,471
17 Derbyshire County Council @Derbyshirecc 6,955 2,634
18 Hampshire County Council @hantsconnect 6,892 4,445
19 Fife Council @FifeCouncil 6,522 6,316
20 Norfolk County Council @NorfolkCC 6,484 2,387
21 Lambeth Council @lambeth_council 6,434 1,122
22 Salford City Council @SalfordCouncil 6,399 4,506
23 Birmingham City Council @BCCNewsRoom 6,345 5,747
24 Bristol City Council @BristolCouncil 6,102 1,930
25 Oxford City Council @OxfordCity 5,688 800
26 Nottinghamshire County Council @NottsCC 5,657 3,055
27 Kirklees Council @KirkleesCouncil 5,574 4,502
28 Lewisham Council @LewishamCouncil 5,411 1,967
29 Westminster City Council @CityWestminster 5,392 1,681
30 East Renfrewshire Council @EastRenCouncil 5,372 3,426
31 Cornwall County Council @CornwallCouncil 5,364 2,998
32 North Yorkshire County Council @northyorkscc 5,285 4,164
33 Camden Council @camdentalking 5,227 3,481
34 Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council @WalsallCouncil 5,214 12,949
35 Southampton City Council @SouthamptonCC 5,052 3,770
36 Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council @SolihullCouncil 5,030 4,285
37 Coventry City Council @coventrycc 5,014 1,676
38 Dorset Councils online (some Dorset authorities) @dorsetforyou 5,009 2,220
39 Derby City Council @DerbyCC 4,936 1,288
40 Greenwich Council @Royal_Greenwich 4,907 3,125
41 Renfrewshire Council @RenCouncilNews 4,895 1,898
42 Southwark Council @lb_southwark 4,821 1,695
43 Aberdeenshire Council @Aberdeenshire 4,814 2,832
44 Liverpool City Council @lpoolcouncil 4,801 696
45 Lancashire County Council @LancashireCC 4,790 3,500
46 Preston City Council @prestoncouncil 4,747 2,879
47 Bournemouth Borough Council @bournemouthbc 4,726 3,598
48 Wandsworth Borough Council @wandbc 4,673 2,355
49 Stirling Council @StirlingCouncil 4,671 3,061
50 Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council @RochdaleCouncil 4,613 1,703
51 Cheshire West and Chester Council @Go_CheshireWest 4,611 5,424
52 Stoke on Trent City Council @SoTCityCouncil 4,603 6,877
53 Wakefield City Council @MyWakefield 4,579 3,234
54 Hertfordshire County Council @hertscc 4,575 1,187
55 Surrey County Council @SurreyCouncil 4,534 6,585
56 Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council @TamesideCouncil 4,488 2,861
57 Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council @BoltonCouncil 4,479 1,757
58 Medway Council @medway_council 4,401 3,242
59 Staffordshire County Council @StaffordshireCC 4,358 3,637
60 Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council @StockportMBC 4,338 1,638
61 Hillingdon Council @Hillingdon 4,333 3,117
62 Lincoln City Council @lincolncouncil 4,307 3,512
63 Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council @GMBCouncil 4,284 1,363
64 Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council @sandwellcouncil 4,249 4,177
65 Fenland District Council @FenlandCouncil 4,234 534
66 Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council @WiganCouncil 4,211 5,424
67 Monmouthshire County Council @MonmouthshireCC 4,109 7,044
68 Norwich City Council @NorwichCC 4,065 958
69 Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council @OldhamCouncil 4,046 3,943
70 Warrington Borough Council @WarringtonBC 4,018 851
71 Dundee City Council @DundeeCouncil 4,010 521
72 Shropshire Council @ShropCouncil 3,965 5,133
73 York City Council @CityofYork 3,950 2,393
74 St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council @sthelenscouncil 3,886 9,514
75 Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council @stocktoncouncil 3,844 4,232
76 Durham County Council @DurhamCouncil 3,811 4,904
77 West Sussex County Council @WSCCNews 3,801 3,794
78 North Devon District Council @ndevoncouncil 3,796 4,950
79 Falkirk Council @falkirkcouncil 3,780 709
80 Vale of Glamorgan Council @VOGCouncil 3,774 1,944
81 Bury Metropolitan Borough Council @BuryCouncil 3,697 2,892
82 Blackpool Council @BpoolCouncil 3,544 3,438
83 Aberdeen City Council @AberdeenCC 3,479 3,741
84 Chorley Borough Council @ChorleyCouncil 3,466 2,303
85 Sutton Council @lbsuttonnews 3,447 2,561
86 Bracknell Forest Borough Council @BracknellForest 3,431 5,245
87 Lincolnshire County Council @LincolnshireCC 3,409 1,201
88 Suffolk County Council @suffolkcc 3,390 849
89 Barnet Council @BarnetCouncil 3,389 1,053
90 Gloucestershire County Council @GlosCC 3,333 2,133
91 Telford and the Wrekin Borough Council @TelfordWrekin 3,282 3,643
92 Hackney Council @hackneyliving 3,279 728
93 Croydon Council @yourcroydon 3,267 2,280
93 Northamptonshire County Council @mycountycouncil 3,267 2,162
95 Southend on Sea Borough Council @SouthendBC 3,215 2,359
96 Oxfordshire County Council @OxfordshireCC 3,201 886
97 Argyll and Bute Council @argyllandbute 3,189 1,360
97 Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council @Calderdale 3,189 1,372
99 Winchester City Council @WinchesterCity 3,151 6,963
100 Cumbria County Council @CumbriaCC 3,150 1,578