Council: chance for a fresh start?


A little bit of politics, as Ben Elton used to say, decades back when he was an edgy comedian.

This present administration at City of York Council, since 2011, is I guess the first one dealing with doing its work in the full glare and noise of social media and increased online ‘engagement’.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, indeed for the last year or two. The effect of that is one of the issues covered in this surprisingly interesting item from last night’s Audit and Governance Committee. (This committee does suffer from having a deeply off-putting and boring-sounding title. Maybe needs rebranding with a reinvigorated name.)

Anyway, at this meeting, at around 30 mins in, Mark Edgell from the LGA gives us an overview/review of goings-on at the council. It should start playing at the right place:

It’s very measured and carefully put, which makes words like ‘vindictive’ and ‘bullying’ stand out. One of the most interesting aspects, to me, is the perspective on social media and its use. I don’t know what’s been happening on Facebook, but I do look at Twitter at some point every day, and use it a lot for information.

I am just one of many observers who isn’t on any particular ‘side’, but just wants the best for the city as a whole, and I listened to all this with interest. I was so interested I even typed up some extracts of it while I was listening. In a further effort to help all York residents know what’s being talked about, for those who don’t have time to watch the video.

One of the things Mark Edgell says is that the change of leader is a ‘fresh opportunity’. Though we’re already treating Cllr Dafydd Williams as leader, technically of course he isn’t yet, until the council meeting later today. (See below)

Anyway, here are some interesting extracts, with the times (roughly) they occur. I’ve done it really quickly, it’s a bit rough and ready, but I hope these are accurate, I haven’t time to check. Let me know of any typos you notice.

When he says ‘members’ I assume he means elected councillors, and he also mentions council officers, the paid staff. And, of course, the residents.

York clearly has many ‘passionate members and residents’.
In 2011 CYC moved to the ‘strong leader and cabinet model’ and has seen in recent years an ‘ambitious and driven leadership’ who could be seen sometimes as a rather ‘impatient controlling group’

‘We also felt that the local daily paper, social media, and some commentators outside the council, they have a legitimate role in scrutinising the council, and the use of taxpayers’ money, but in some cases we felt that the frequency and intensity of comment in print and social media sometimes have the effect of raising the temperature and adding to a focus on personalities and process within the council rather than just on policies and the impact of those policies’
– also comments that this is not a lot different from what is happening in many other localities

Within the council, there are issues with ‘policy rather than personality’ and also ‘people being overworked’


Social media, extensively used by some members in the council and some outside commentators:

‘does increase openness and does increase accessibility, but it has also been a platform for misuse. Indeed, we felt that the attention paid to social media, from members, and officers in the council, is perhaps greater than is healthy or constructive. So we felt it was time to pause, for the council, and reflect, to consider if the current use of social media by the council is appropriate.’

‘the closeness of some members to outside commentators seems to breed suspicion and theories of conspiracy’


Relationships between members and officers sometimes straying into ‘vindictive’

And that ‘perception of behavioural issues at the council risks damaging the reputation of the council’

‘erroneous perception’ of officers becoming politically biased

‘accessibility of staff’ in open plan offices, and the issues with that. ‘In some cases officers have been mistreated, and some have used the word “bullying”

‘debate often focused on personalities’

‘the current leader can be a polarising figure’ (notes that this was James Alexander’s own phrase).

And this is the important bit, I think:

‘The election of a new leader is a real fresh opportunity for the York council to move forward’ … ‘widespread recognition that there is a problem’
‘big appetite for change’ but to achieve that, ‘need for many people to behave differently in the future’, and that ‘members have a duty of behaviour to represent their city properly’

Recommendations include:

‘draw a line under the past’ and ‘reset your behaviours’
Recommends ‘not such an intense interest in social media’ which will ‘pay dividends’ and allow people to get on with an increasingly challenging task

So, there you go. Interesting, isn’t it.

Council meeting, 6.30pm, 11 Dec 2014

Is the next recorded meeting, and we can watch this too, via a live webcast at the time perhaps, as I hope to, on this link, or later on the council’s YouTube channel.

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  1. Lisa, you care for this elderly city which since it became a unitary council has become a strange place with Lib Dems and a New Labour faction vying for control. Too many political Councillors, too few Independents (or even Green). An interesting article in the current Red Pepper on the Independents of Frome – York has become too polarised by politics – the world is not binary, black/white and cannot be controlled by professional politicians as such!

    • Interesting to read your perspective Mick as I have to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention, until recent years, to the local political scene. It’s all far more complex now. With the webcasting, the ability to communicate with councillors more easily via Twitter etc, and many other factors too.

      What I did want to say though is that when I listened to the review above, I felt like the message was to all of us citizens, not just ‘the council’. Having seen part of Thursday’s council meeting on that link above (first half and the pubs discussion in the second part) it did seem more tolerant and calm and cheerful, which was good, I thought. But on Twitter it seemed just the same, quite intense, and I find that quite difficult. I guess that’s a personality thing, we’re all different.

  2. Thanks for this Lisa. Really interesting.

    Things did reach a point last year where I felt that things were getting a little too heated for my personal tastes on social media. I had previously thought that councillors and officers being on social media was probably a good way to make them more accessible but I think that was perhaps a little naïve.

    There’s been some interesting stuff by tech-critic Evgeny Morozov regarding what social media is doing to political debate. In the US it’s credited with creating the much more partisan atmosphere that gave rise to the Tea Party movement. It tends to turn things very binary with an ever present default towards rhetorical inflation and a loss of civility. It’s also highly addictive (designed as such by profit hungry tech companies) , which in itself distorts perspective.

    It’s against the ‘trust no-one’ spirit of the age to argue that people who go into local government of all parties probably deserve some basic respect for giving up their time for very little reward and an awful lot of hassle. That doesn’t mean giving them a free ride but it does mean allowing them to do the job to which they’ve been elected without throwing abuse at them or hassling them for hours a day, day after day about points of contention.

    Just read a really interesting book – ‘The End Of Absence’ by Michael Harris ( ) who touches upon some of these issues. He hopefully argues that we’re still in the naïve phase of social media and excesses are happening all the time. In due course we’ll learn new rules of civility and bring a bit more mindfulness to the proceedings.

    On the day I deleted my personal Twitter I saw a councillor was being called ‘thick’ by people who claim to have a degree of knowledge to bring to the debate. Said councillor was included in the Tweet and it was being RT’d. I think sometimes people forget there’s a human being on the other end.

    • Always good to read your thoughts Martyn, and I think we have similar views/feelings about Twitter. I’ve been thinking for some time about doing a page about Twitter and how I use it for York-related info, and may do so soon if I can. Will read the writers you mention.

      And yes, including the @name of people who are then bombarded with critical tweets is one of the main issues.

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