HOW HAVE SOCIAL MEDIA AFFECTED THE INSTITUTIONS OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND THE TRADITIONAL REPRESENTATIVE PRACTICES OF COUNCILLORS?
The thesis explores changes in local democracy through an analysis of the challenges for councillors created by the growing phenomenon of social media. New platforms for online dialogue such as Twitter and Facebook offer the potential for more participatory forms of democracy at the local level (Coleman and Blumler, 2009) and it might therefore be expected that councils and councillors would have been using these online platforms to increase engagement with citizens (Xenos and Moy, 2007). The thesis addresses the question of how councils have engaged with the new technologies and adds to current knowledge by building a normative picture of social media use in local government over a three year period. The impact of social media on the everyday roles of elected representatives and on their perceptions of accountabilities in a digitised environment is also examined and analysed using new institutionalist explanations of change (Lowndes and Roberts, 2013). Using rich descriptive case studies of four English local councils the thesis illustrates for the first time how councils’ attempts to constrain councillors’ use of social media are failing as existing control mechanisms weaken. The findings show that councils’ responses to the challenges represented by the unmediated, informal and participatory nature of social media are creating spaces for innovation. The thesis demonstrates that these spaces have been seized by councillors identifying the political opportunities that are offered by social media. Within these spaces, or new arenas for political conversations, councillors are reshaping their roles outside the formal institutional structures. The utility of social media for councillors is seen here to outweigh potential problems and sanctions. The thesis provides a rich account of how councillors have used the political opportunities created by social media in different ways to strengthen the links with citizens, increase transparency and responsiveness and to reinforce their roles as leaders of place. The thesis concludes by drawing out the implications of these findings for institutional design in local government.