The Centre for Social Informatics has won funding to investigate levels of digital and information literacy within Scotland’s Community Council system in a project entitled Information Literacy for Democratic Engagement (IL-DEM). The award has been granted by the CILIP Information Literacy Group.
Peter Cruickshank, Dr Bruce Ryan and I will explore how community councillors develop the skills required to inform and engage with the citizens that they represent, and how libraries support this work. It will build on two established research streams within the Centre for Social Informatics: Cruickshank and Ryan’s work on digital engagement in local democracy (such as our recent DigiCC workshops), and my work with Christine Irving on information literacy and life-long learning. It will also build on our group’s track record in library and information science research.
Scottish Community Councils (which are analogous to parish councils in England and Wales) are a vital link between local communities and higher levels of government. Their membership generally comprises ordinary people who often face challenges related to their interactions with information. In some cases they lack the skills required to disseminate information and communicate news in ways that suit their constituents, for example by social media.
The novel focus of this work will push the boundaries of information literacy research into new, interesting territory. It also has the potential to engage a wide audience: there are around 5,000 community council members in Scotland, and since everyone in Scotland lives in a community council area, the research has the potential to reach a wide population.
It is our expectation that this work generate understanding of the types of learning and training that can help our most local representatives work with – and for – their citizens. While central government and local authorities have IT teams and dedicated communications staff to manage their information functions, community councillors are left to do this all by themselves, relying on average annual budgets of just £400 to support all their work. Our evaluation will explore how community councillors:
- Access and understand information on their duties and rights
- Keep up to date with local developments of relevance to the communities that they serve
- Disseminate information to their communities
We will also identify where future efforts need to be directed to improve the information skills and practices of this group. This will contribute to the development of strategies to improve citizen engagement in democratic processes at community level.