As a good councillor, making it your business to be aware of everything going on in your area at community level is essential to help you be the representative that you need to be.
Issues often overlap, and if you don’t ensure you are equipped with an objective view, the issues that you are passionate about will suffer from an unintended form of isolation, because you have no knowledge of how gaining success with one issue will impact upon others if you do.
Information about what’s going on, what’s upsetting people, and what you can potentially do to help the people you plan to represent is available from many different sources.
My best advice is that you introduce yourself to all of them, build links and relationships with and within all, and never close yourself off to any source of information.
Just bear in mind that every organisation or business has agendas of its own and it’s healthy to have this at the back of your mind when you are considering their news.
Council Meetings, Minutes & News
Whatever council you are aiming to run for, it is really important to be aware of what ALL the local authorities are doing in the area where you will work.
You can and should attend meetings of other councils covering the area where you are seeking election as often as possible, whether they are above or below the council you have targeted within the tiers of Government.
Even if you go straight for a County level seat, the information from a Parish Council meeting can be invaluable because Parish & Town Councils are the most accessible form of Government and therefore the most likely to be accessed by the voters who are important to you.
Equally, if you are going to be a great parish representative, it really helps to know what your District and County level authorities are doing!
If you can’t attend, it’s not the end of the world. Minutes, Reports and Agendas are available on the websites for District and County level authorities as a matter of course, and most Parish & Town Councils are now in the position to do the same.
Make sure you follow all the Councils representing the area you will be working in on Social Media, and check that you follow each department that is communicating its own news too – e.g. Education at a County Council. Planning, Licensing, Refuse collections at a District level authority.
It’s really important to have and maintain a realistic view of all media, and particularly your local newspapers, online news and radio stations.
They are all highly discerning about what they consider to be news, and their view of what makes good news is likely to be very different to your own – particularly if you are looking ahead to how issues can and might grow as time passes.
What the news sees as current affairs in political terms is often the tip of an iceberg that grew from the bottom up.
Nonetheless, listening to, reading and following all of your local media on Social Media is a very good idea, because it will help you see how the developing bigger picture in the wider area around you, and see how events elsewhere may contribute to shaping strategic level policy nearer to home.
BBC Local Radio is probably one of the best sources for the news that you will need to be aware of most. If you cannot listen regularly, follow their Social Media and keep an eye on the BBC Local News web pages too.
REMEMBER TO THINK CRITICALLY. The news provided by the media is often much more opinion in content than news. Facts, figures and even stories themselves are frequently presented to encourage a particular reaction or certain point of view and in this sense, local media is often no different to the national channels.
Probably the easiest way to focus on as many news sources as possible, Social Media is a great way to find out what all your stakeholders are doing, planning and thinking about the issues which they are specifically facing.
Follow all the key organisations in your area.
- Council Departments
- The Police
- The Fire Service
- The Ambulance Service
- The Environment Agency
- The Highways Agency
- Local Travel Companies
- Prominent local businesses – especially those with a high profile in the local community
- Charities such as Food Banks, Rotary, Lions, RSPCA
- The Hospitals serving your area
- Local Interest Groups – particularly those focused on local issues
- The local branches of the Political Parties
- Councilors representing the same area from the other tiers of government
- Your local MP
With at least one school, if not several in almost every Ward or Division, keeping an eye on news from any of them in the area you are targeting will be very useful.
Schools usually have communities of their own which can be very vibrant, and naturally focus on educational issues.
Education based issues will be a key focus for County council candidates. However, other community focused matters do come into focus such as road and community safety, and the use of community buildings or recreation resources, which might be important if a school has limited space of its own.
Most Schools have a Social Media presence, and it will be in your interests to follow them on Twitter and Facebook, and also keep an eye on their websites.
Once you are elected, it will then be to your benefit to introduce yourself to local head teachers and possibly the boards of governors too, so that you can open up a clear channel of communication and help them with any issues that relate to your areas of responsibility as a councillor.
Local Charities, Voluntary Organisations & Interest Groups
You will probably be surprised by just how many Local Charities, Voluntary Organisations and Interest Groups there are around you, particularly in Cities, Towns and built-up areas.
Some will already be known to you for the work they are doing in the community, or the campaigning that they are doing.
Others will be in the background, but be mentioned in the minutes and agendas of council meetings, on notice boards and in a broad web search of charities, voluntary organisations and interest groups in your area.
When you find them, check out their websites. If the work they are doing is community focused, follow them on Social Media and look for opportunities to attend events that they might be holding, and which you will be able to attend.
Surprising as it may sound, just attending events and taking the time to say hello to people and introduce yourself is a very effective way to get yourself known and pick up useful information on current and upcoming issues.
You don’t need to speak, grandstand or try to force your way into the limelight. Just being there is usually enough.
When you have been seen a few times in different places, people will begin to get more interested in who you are and what it is that you are doing.
Social Clubs, Pubs & word of mouth
Just talking to people from the area you are hoping to get elected is always a good way to pick up information on what issues are on the minds of potential voters locally.
Canvassing and Questionnaires are probably the best way to get direct intelligence from your potential electors. But it is nonetheless a formal process.
A more relaxed way to get to know people and find out what they think is to visit local social clubs and pubs, picking up information by word of mouth as you do.
Once people know who you are and what you are doing, many will take the opportunity to tell you what they think about things when you find them in a social setting. Barriers often come down and there is that feeling that you all have something in common and might actually be friends.
Just having a chitchat with people can reveal an awful lot about what’s on the minds of people locally and this kind of insight can help you no end.
You do need to be cautious with this approach however.
Remember that you will also encounter a lot of gossip and one-sided truths. So if you do hear something that is of interest, use it as a guide to investigate further and check the facts, rather than seeing it as an immediate opportunity to get carried away with a new approach or course of action.
Drinking with potential voters – even if the circumstances appear friendly and convivial, can also be one of the quickest ways to remove the respect that local people might have for you.
Always remember to focus on asking questions and listening to what you are being told. This is not the time to preach any kind of plan or manifesto!
The Emergency Services
Always follow the Police, Ambulance and Fire Services in your local area.
They are all very active on Social Media and will have informative websites for you to read too.
The news from the Emergency Services will often be incident led. It may not even be massively relevant on and event-by-event basis.
However, you will pick up common themes with incidents that they all report and may also pick up useful pointers about strategic issues which could have a broad impact across the responsibilities of different local authorities across the area.