The IL-DEM project is designed to answer three research questions which Bruce set out in his post on 23 October. This post is our chance to start exploring the first question:
What are the current practices of Community Councillors in exploiting information channels for engaging citizens in the democratic process?
To quote the proposal, the aim in asking this question is to ‘allow for an evaluation of how Community Councillors (1) access and understand information on their duties and rights; (2) keep up to date with local developments of relevance to the communities that they serve; and (3) disseminate information to their communities.’ The practical aim of this is obvious: this will identify examples of good practice, and where training will be useful.
There’s a fairly large assumption in this research question, its rationale and in the term information literacy, namely that people always strive to engage with information – that is, there are assumed values built into the term. But it’s not always true that people want to find information.
It may well be better to think about information behaviour, to allow for all the ways people may react to (their needs for) information, including avoiding it. For example, it’s conceivable that individual community councillors may fail to keep up with developments as a result of Community Empowerment Act – because they know they can’t understand laws, or because it increases the role of what are seen as rival non-elected community groups.
This all exists in a socio-cultural context. Take for example a typical question faced by a community councillor such as ‘what will this development do to our area?’ Their needs for information will be perceived within cultural contexts such as developments in Scotland’s local democracy, but also:
- Cognitive/affective contexts such as self-efficacy (‘I can make a difference’, ‘I can use my LA’s online portal to find planning information’, ‘I can synthesise this information and my knowledge of my area to build an informed set of findings or opinions’, ‘I can broadcast these in appropriate, effective ways’). This will be affected by past positive and negative experiences in making a difference in other parts of their lives. (We’ll revisit in a later post some models of how people use knowledge from other life roles.)
- Demographic contexts: in our experience, the majority of community councillors are middle-aged or older. Older people seek out and use information in different ways from young people. But there is a drive to engage younger people with community councils: that means, any suggestions must also take their information requirements into account.
So, while community councillors do find, process and pass on information, some may avoid certain topics, or face obstacles along the way.
What this means we’ll do
We want to learn and understand what actually happens, without preconceptions getting in the way.
We do assume we will learn of some good practices, of useful information sources (and how to use them), how community councillors process information from different sources, and how they pass on the processed information. We don’t assume it will all be digital – in fact digital engagement by community councils is depressingly low. We know that channels such as face-to-face chats and community noticeboards are very valid options: we all know people who can’t or won’t use the internet at all. Some people refuse to use certain online social media, either from fear, past negative experiences or principled stances against the providers.
This is why we will ask about information practices (or behaviours), and what’s behind them. We look forward to learning lots of interesting things!
This is a small project, which will inevitably mean we focus on the examples of good practice, and the obstacles that have been overcome. It will take a much bigger project to be able to explore the behaviours of the vast majority of community councillors who are invisible on the internet, or who failed in their seeking and sharing of information.
Get in touch with one of us if you are interested in this project.
Ford (2015) is a good introductory source on information behaviour:
Ford, N. (2015). Introduction to information behaviour. London, UK: Facet
We’ll be citing key sources from now on.