Should basic competence with technology be essential for serving in local elected office?
I think so.
Historically not a lot of the workflow of local roles like City Council member, County Commissioner, or even Mayor have required much familiarity with technology. If you could receive and read through packets of paper, answer the phone and listen to voicemail, speak reasonably coherently in meetings, and perhaps operate a motor vehicle, you had everything you needed to serve the public interest without worrying too much about computers, the Internet, phone systems or other tech tools.
Today, I don’t think an elected official can claim to be truly in touch with the needs and opportunities in their constituent community if they’re not proficient with more modern tools like email, the web, cloud-based document sharing and collaboration, and social media.
At a minimum, using these technologies in the work of government makes it more efficient, representative, transparent, accountable and accessible to the people it should be serving. Beyond that, appropriate uses of technology can help solve problems of planning and communication that were previously overwhelmingly challenging. It can help an elected official understand our cities and regions in new ways that inform the way they legislate and govern.
Some area elected officials have continued to resist using technology to do their work. It’s only been in the last few years that every member of Richmond’s City Council had a published email address, and for a long time several refused to receive their briefing packets electronically, every week requiring a local law enforcement officer to hand-deliver a paper packet instead. Several local officials would have no idea how to view a Tweet or respond to a Facebook post if they needed to. Just yesterday a Pal-Item article revealed that it is in question whether a certain Union County Commissioner will even be able to respond to a state economic development survey because of his lack of familiarity with online tools.
We can only imagine the challenges that these officials face when presented with requests and decisions around buying/implementing/using more “advanced” technology in the daily operations of local government. How can a body like City Council debate offsite data backup strategies or combatting denial-of-service attacks and ransomware if they don’t understand the basic concepts being used in the conversation?
This lack of understanding almost never comes from willful ignorance. Most of our elected officials undoubtedly work hard and bring a wide variety of other skills to their jobs. If they didn’t become tech savvy on their path to taking office, that’s probably a failure of education, training, economics, broader culture or other factors. And just as we might expect to have our officials be trained on navigating the legislative process and zoning codes they’ll oversee, we should expect them to be trained on how to use computers, email, search engines and social media. If there’s any embarrassment or shame involved in not being able to already, we need to help them past that and give them a chance to get up to speed.
So what basic requirements of tech competence should a local elected official be able to meet?
To start with, I’d suggest being able to:
- Send and receive email, including opening and sending PDF and image attachments
- Perform basic online research and distinguish legitimate news/info from fake news/info
- View and respond to publicly available social media posts
- Use collaborative online office suite tools (like Google Docs/Spreadsheets, Dropbox, etc)
- Create and respond to online surveys
Beyond that, an elected official who really wanted to use technology to be more efficient and accessible in their work might be able to:
- Update constituents about their activities via a website or blog, possibly using audio or video in addition to written remarks
- Find and use GIS, Census, housing, crime and other databases to make more informed decisions
- Conduct conversations online via text, audio or video chat
- Create persuasive slideshow presentations to make key proposals
- Make their calendar of public meetings available online
- Follow major developments in the tech world that relate to security, privacy and transparency for governments and the people they serve
- Understand how to use social media and online marketing tools to better reach audiences affected by their work
This may seem like a lot – “how will they get any work done if they’re messing around with all this stuff?!” you ask. But it’s worth keeping in mind that for younger generations, these kinds of activities are already second nature for their use of technology in daily life. It will be increasingly difficult for those voters to justify electing people who can’t do at least some of this in the name of being connected and engaged with constituents.
People who want to be more involved with community building will benefit from it, and I think modern government demands it.