Civility in public life

The LGA is developing more resources to help councillors who face online abuse.

There are growing concerns about the impact that an increase in misinformation and online abuse is having on democratic processes, particularly at a local level. 

In response, the LGA is working with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and Northern Ireland LGA (NILGA) on a long-term project to improve civility in public life.

We hear a lot from councillors about how people communicate online. It ranges from annoying to threatening, has meant that many councillors fear for their safety, and takes valuable time away from the vital work of representing our communities, while the mental toll of receiving a lot of abuse can be huge.

Councillors also need to be aware of their own responsibilities to treat each other with respect, and to make sure their comments are not open to misinterpretation by others who might use them to create a social media storm against a fellow councillor.

LGA lead members are not immune from abuse either, and at a recent meeting detailed their own experiences of online kidnap and death threats, misogyny and racist abuse, from the public and sometimes colleagues

This can be hard. As an elected representative you want to engage with residents and colleagues to make sure you represent them well. The fast-paced nature of social media can make it feel that online queries should receive immediate responses – but no-one can be at their best 24/7, nor are immediate responses always possible, necessary, or advisable.

“The mental toll of receiving a lot of abuse can be huge”

To help you navigate the online world safely, we have published some infographics to help you set the tone of your contact with members of the public online and empower you to take appropriate action if communications break the rules of engagement. 

These draw from the most recent available research and consultation with the sector, and are the first in a series of resources that we intend to publish on our website (local.gov.uk).   

Working with Dr Sofia Collignon at Royal Holloway, University of London, we wanted to understand what was regarded as best practice internationally when dealing with online harassment, and to find out from councillors themselves what they felt worked.

This led to our ‘rules of engagement’ infographic. Designed to be pinned to a social media profile, it gives you a framework for your online engagement and sets the terms of how you will engage online, which everyone will understand. 

The rules also give all users a clear ‘code’ of digital engagement by which they should operate and keep everyone safe. There is a clear statement that users can be blocked or posts deleted by page administrators if they fail to comply. The rules emphasise the importance of formal channels for casework, and that some responses may take time.

We’ve also collated some of the top tips for handling online abuse into a quick reference infographic. This saves time searching for advice and can identify quickly how you might want to deal with a situation. Sometimes that will mean knowing when to step back, consider content, and understand privacy settings, while other situations will need support from your council or the police.

Later this year, we’ll publish a guide to digital citizenship, further information on tackling misinformation, plus updates to our popular councillors’ guide to handling intimidation.

We’ve been really pleased by the response across the political spectrum. This is very important work, and the goal is to lead to better representation, improved decision-making, and more trust in the vital services our councils provide every day.

View all the LGA’s resources on civility in public life, on our website.

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