Peter Cruickshank, Dr Bruce Ryan and I recently completed the Information Literacy for Democratic Engagement (IL-DEM) project. This work set out to investigate levels of digital and information literacy within Scotland’s Community Council system. It was supported by a grant from the CILIP Information Literacy Group.
We explored how community councillors develop the skills required to inform and engage with the citizens that they represent, and how libraries support this work. In doing so have extended further two established research streams within the Centre for Social Informatics: (1) Cruickshank and Ryan’s work on digital engagement in local democracy (such as our DigiCC workshops), and (2) mine with Christine Irving on information literacy and life-long learning. This work also builds upon 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 overarching goal of our project was to 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.
The investigation addressed three key questions:
- What are community councillors’ current practices in exploiting information channels for engaging citizens in democratic processes?
- What is the role of public libraries in supporting community councillors, particularly around their acquisition of information literacy?
- What are the relationships between community councillors’ information behaviours and literacies, resources, and knowledge and experience?
We also wanted to identify where future efforts need to be directed to improve the information skills and practices of this group so as to contribute to the development of strategies to improve citizen engagement in democratic processes at community level.
We collected data for analysis from three groups of people: (1) community councillors; (2) public officials; and (3) library staff. Desk research was also undertaken to explore local authority policies about library support for community councils.
Our main findings are as follows:
- Community councillors use a range of practices in exploiting information channels for engaging citizens in democratic processes.
- To explore their roles, community councillors refer to a range of formal and informal information sources. These include the national community council web site and Facebook groups aimed at community councillors.
- Community councillors generally understand from local authority guidance that they should communicate the opinions of citizens to public authorities (e.g. local authorities, emergency services).
- In practice, community councillors are also tasked with disseminating information from authorities to citizens.
- Community councillors use a mixture of digital and traditional channels for information sharing and gathering. Facebook pages and groups feature prominently. These complement non-digital channels such as newsletters, word-of-mouth and local networking, and local press.
- Overall, community councillors recognise that information skills are critically important in an environment where information serves as a form of currency that should be ‘spent’ to benefit the citizens that community councillors represent.
- Some community councillors exhibit awareness of their information skills gaps. Others also recognise that they are not completely aware of the extent to which they are under-skilled. (These findings are important in the context of the self-selecting sample of study participants: all were highly educated (the majority to degree level, and over half with postgraduate qualifications) and self-efficacious.)
- Although public libraries provide facilities for community councils – such as hosting meetings and displaying information – none appear to address the information literacy needs of community councillors group directly.
For further details of these findings please see the Community councillors’ information literacy blog post and the stakeholder report [PDF] hosted on our Community, Knowledge, Connections web site (the online ‘home’ for reports of our research and related materials in the areas of community, (hyper)local democracy, connections and knowledge). The Information Literacy Group has also blogged about the IL-DEM project findings on its web site.
We have recently embarked on another project to explore the issues raised by the findings of IL-DEM, and look forward to reporting on this in due course. In the meantime, please feel free to follow our Twitter feed on community, knowledge and connections.