Councillor is a quarterly magazine designed to help educate current councillors and demonstrate innovative approaches to local government.
I was contacted by Councillor Magazine to write an article on how councillors can harness the Internet to assist in encouraging dialogue with their community. The article was featured in the September/October edition of the magazine:
How Councillors can harness the Internet
City of Maroondah councillor Alex Makin has operated his own website and blog since 2004. In this article, Cr Makin describes how councillors can also establish their own website and blog, and why more elected members need to use the Internet to engage the community.
Compared to the UK and the US, Australian politics has been relatively slow to embrace the capabilities of the Internet and its potential to re-engage the community and our constituencies.
While the use of websites is not new, Australian politics is still typically not using the Internet for more than a digital version of their off-line campaigns. The Internet, through the use of blogging has the potential to be so much more.
As local Councillors, representing the needs of our local constituencies, we are best placed to take a leadership role of embracing the Internet to create dialogue and re-engage with our communities.
We need to move beyond static webpages and move into an era of dynamic blogging and dialogue.
Going beyond a website
Some Councillors already have experience with establishing a website. A blog extends the capabilities of a website by providing interactive content.
A website can be likened to a static shop window, which displays information but provides little opportunity for someone to interact with the content.
Standard websites can also become difficult to maintain over the longer term as information becomes out of date.
A blog, otherwise known as weblog, is an interactive website, likened to a diary, that allows you to post new entries, keeping content relevant and allows people to post comments and subscribe to updates.
Blogs use categories and tags to file new content and provides readers with the opportunities to subscribe to updates so they are notified when new content is posted.
Getting started – what do you need?
Establishing a website is neither difficult nor expensive.
There are numerous free tools, such as www.wordpress.com or www.blogspot.com, which provide templates and a basic blogging presence free of charge. Using these tools you can set up your blog, complete with photographs and content within 10 to 15 minutes.
While these free tools provide you with a good start, there are advantages in having your own web presence.
To do this you firstly need a domain name. A domain is the physical name of the site, such as www.alexmakin.com.au. Domain names are easier for people to remember and also provide greater flexibility in how your site will look and function. A .com.au domain normally costs around $65 per year, US .com domains are slightly cheaper.
Secondly, you need a web host. The host provides the computing system that stores your website and makes it viewable on the Internet. Total costs for hosting a site varies but you generally do get what you pay for.
If you want to set up a blog you’ll need a host that supports database and dynamic capabilities, namely functionality called mySQL and PHP. Most mid-level hosting packages provide these features.
I use a carbon neutral hosting provider that provides maximum reliability and detailed site statistics, my costs are roughly $300 per annum.
While free blogging providers certainly have their use, your own dedicated web presence will provide you with greater flexibility in the functionality and features of your site.
In addition many hosting providers are able to supply detailed site statistics so you can ascertain how people are accessing your website and the content they are accessing.
Getting your blog online
One of the common mistakes people make is keeping their blog separate to the rest of their website.
Web users typically dislike navigating through a site; so if the content isn’t there when the page loads, it is unlikely that they will look to find what they want.
Likewise don’t reinvent the wheel. There are many blogging programs, such as WordPress (www.wordpress.org) that are available free of charge and provide the functionality that you need.
WordPress and other blogging tools, such as Movetable Type use templates that guide the layout of a site. There are many templates that are available and these can be further customised.
Once you have downloaded WordPress or a similar package, you will need to upload to your website. Your hosting provider should be able to assist with this, once uploaded you will be able to install the package and begin blogging.
WordPress (which is the program I use), allows you to create two types of content, pages and posts. Pages are designed to be static content that is always available, like contact or about pages. These are the links across the top of my site.
Pages contain information that generally does not change, such as my contact details or information about the ward I represent.
Posts are the blogging element of your site. Posts are filed in specific categories (such as urban sustainability, accessibility, delegates reports that I use on my site), as well as tags, which help define the content of the post (such as accessibility, public transport, planning and so on).
Posts relate to a certain event or activity that occurred at a point in time and hence newer content appears towards the top of the page. Blog posts can be used to discuss council events, community meetings or other activities you undertake as a councillor.
When I first designed the website in 2004, the concept of blogging was still relatively new, so I referred to the blog as an Internet Journal.
The Journal stores the posts I created with the five newest entries listed first.
Each blog post provides an opportunity for people to comment. This way your community can add their thoughts or ask for additional information.
Blog posts can also be linked to each other, meaning you can provide an easy chronology of events. For example, I link my delegates’ reports, to each event that I discuss so that people can easily find additional information on the activities I attend and speak about.
Posts and pages are created just like using a standard Word Processor or email program. Like email you can also attach other documents to your posts to allow people to download additional content, I normally discuss presentations I deliver and include the slides for people to download.
The template system in WordPress or similar tools controls the layout of the post so you simply need to type its content. This means each post and page will have a similar look and make it easier for people to navigate throughout your site.
My website has had three substantially different designs and the template system meant the content of my site was unaffected by these changes.
Separating the layout of a site from its contents makes it much easier to maintain and extend compared to traditional web pages.
Extending your blog
Comments are usually moderated meaning that they need your approval prior to being included on your blog. This means you have the possibility to prevent inappropriate comments from being included on your site. Likewise spam filters exist which block spam comments from appearing.
While you have the ultimate control over what comments are included within your blog, do not go overboard in preventing feedback.
The purpose of a blog is to encourage dialogue and interaction and all relevant comments should be encouraged. Also make sure that email and phone details are available as some people will prefer these methods of communication.
Once you have established your blog and website it is worth considering ways of expanding its reach. Blogs utilise RSS feeds which allows people to be notified when new posts are created.
RSS feeds operate similarly to email where a subscriber receives the content of the post. RSS feeds are a standard feature of blogs and it is worth encouraging your readers to subscribe to them.
In addition you can also create an email subscription list for people that prefer to receive emails. This way email subscribers can receive an email message of your blog post and raise awareness of the activities you undertake as a councillor.
Just as newsletters assist in informing the community about our activities as a councillor, an electronic newsletter or RSS feeds can expand the reach of your communications with the public.
WordPress has a number of plugins, which can add additional features. Examples of plugins include the calendar and event system I use on my site. This enables me to post details of meetings I attend. Likewise previous posts can be accessed through the calendar or using the search functionality.
The web as an accessible medium
The Internet, through accessible web standards, means we can truly create a medium that can be experienced and accessed by all people.
Screen readers, larger font sizes, colour contrast and other technologies are available to assist people with disabilities to view content on the Internet and your website should be mindful of accessibility issues.
For example screen readers cannot read images so any graphics you include on your site should not be used in place of text.
In addition, the layout of your site should be mindful of people who prefer larger font sizes and your site should adapt to these requirements.
Future use of the Internet by councillors
Councils are the closest form of government to the community and we need to consider new methods of encouraging community engagement and interaction. In particular the web has the potential to assist us in communicating with younger people, as well as people with disabilities and the many other people in our community that prefer communication via the Internet.
Just as mobile phones are now considered essential equipment for Councillors, no doubt a web presence will be seen as a necessity shortly into the future. As councillors we have an obligation to remain relevant and keep pace with new technologies.
Creating a web presence is neither difficult nor time consuming and while purchasing your own domain and hosting provider may incur some expense it will be of benefit to the wider community and assist in conveying the work you undertake as a councillor.