User Tools

Site Tools


« Back to index

The Problem

51. There is a lack of clarity about the law relating to engagement

In more detail

Please add more details about this hurdle to effective social media adoption and use here

  • Civil Servants are uncertain as to how they should engage professionally with online space.
  • In Local Authority Contexts the 'publicity code' is interpreted as an obstacle that prevents officers from supporting councillors to engage with citizens online.
  • Laws relating to libel, responsibility for publishing offensive content and other issues are interpreted as barriers to online engagement.

Why this matters

Why is this a problem? Please provide details and links to resources which help make the case for the importance of overcoming this hurdle

  • When organisations are not clear on the legal frameworks and guidance around online engagement they are likely to be risk-averse and prevent or hold back legitimate engagement alongside illegitimate engagement.

Overcoming the hurdles

How can we overcome this hurdle? Ideas, links, resources & shared learning about your experiences of this particular hurdle are encouraged and welcome.

For Civil Servants

The Civil Service code has five key principles for participation online that allow engagement.

Last updated - 25th January 2009 How the Civil Service Code applies to online participation

  • Disclose your position as a representative of your department or agency unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as a potential threat to personal security. Never give out personal details like home address and phone numbers.
  • Always remember that participation online results in your comments being permanently available and open to being republished in other media. Stay within the legal framework and be aware that libel, defamation, copyright and data protection laws apply. This means that you should not disclose information, make commitments or engage in activities on behalf of Government unless you are authorised to do so. This authority may already be delegated or may be explicitly granted depending on your organisation.
  • Also be aware that this may attract media interest in you as an individual, so proceed with care whether you are participating in an official or a personal capacity. If you have any doubts, take advice from your line manager.

1. Be credible

  • Be accurate, fair, thorough and transparent.

2. Be consistent

  • Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times.

3. Be responsive

  • When you gain insight, share it where appropriate.

4. Be integrated

  • Wherever possible, align online participation with other offline communications.

5. Be a civil servant

  • Remember that you are an ambassador for your organisation. Wherever possible, disclose your position as a representative of your department or agency.

For Councillors

There is guidance available from ICELE which clearly sets out the (considerable) extent to which councils can support councillor use of social media tools.

From the executive summary of the ICELE document:

  • Legal issues about councillor websites cause more concern than they should. The legal principles are the same as in other more familiar contexts, and in practice complaints about improper use of websites are extremely rare.
  • Councillor websites provided by councils must not be used for party political purposes or personal image making. However, using them to comment on council policy and raise controversial issues should be allowed, providing this is done in a fair and balanced way. Nevertheless, some councillors may prefer to use non-council funded facilities where they can express themselves more freely.
  • Links from council sites to external sites containing party political material are believed to be permissible, subject to the use of an appropriate disclaimer process. These links, and most content of council provided councillor websites, should be removed during pre-election periods.

The Department for Communities and Local Government have also made a number of signals that they wish to take down the barriers that prevent Councillors from using social networking sites and blogs in their work:

From "Representing the future – The report of the Councillors Commission" – December 2007

As part of their efforts to promote local democracy, councils must become more active in challenging media perceptions of local government that distort reality. Some of this, as we propose in recommendation 7 can be helped by local authorities actively promoting the role of councillors not only in the local media but in ways that are in their direct control: through council newsletters and other publications, and by harnessing new technologies to reach particular local audiences.

For individual councillors, the internet offers opportunities to extend contact with constituents in innovative ways; the possibilities offered by social networking have hardly begun to be explored., the charitable organisation which promotes ways of using the internet for civic purposes, this year launched Fix My Street – a web-based system which passes on to councils residents’ environmental concerns. Another of MySociety’s initiatives is Hear From Your MP, which maintains e-mail contact between members of parliament and constituents.

An extension of this approach to Hear From Your Councillor could offer a breakthrough in communications.

While we recognise that not everyone has internet or digital broadcasting access or mobile phones, new technologies are producing a communications revolution. Local government as an institution, and councillors, must not take a minimalist approach to this sweeping change but enhance the opportunities to the full. As Professor Coleman whom we have quoted elsewhere rightly comments (Coleman, 2005), e-democratic trends are emerging whether we want them or not.

“The choice is not between governing in an age of the internet or not, but how contemporary governance can utilise and behave in step with the digital opportunities that surround them and the digital expectations of an increasingly on-line generation.”

Extracts from the DCLG White Paper July 2008 "Communities in control: real people, real power"

“1.35 The answer lies in empowerment: passing more and more political power to more and more people, using every practical means available, from the most modern social networking websites, to the most ancient methods of petitioning, public debates and citizens’ juries. In this way, democracy becomes, not a system of occasional voting or an imperfect method of selecting who governs us, but something that infuses our way of life.

“12. But many councils should do more to promote participation. So, we will introduce a new ‘duty to promote democracy’ to help councils promote involvement through clearer information, better trained staff and more visible councillors in the community.

“A new duty to promote democracy

“1.45 As a first step to recognising the principle that political activity is valuable, we will place a duty to promote democracy on local authorities. This builds on the work carried out by the Councillors Commission29 and complements the ‘duty to involve’ that we introduced in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007.

“1.46 This means that local authorities should no longer be seen as just units of local administration, but as vibrant hubs of local democracy, with a statutory duty to promote democratic understanding and participation. We will empower local councils to present themselves as democratic centres, with a new culture which sees democratic politics as respected, recognised and valued.

“1.47 Drawing on the best examples which already exist in councils, we will encourage local authorities to take a range of actions that, together, will achieve this. These could include:

  • better information: council publications and websites should provide clear information about political control, council meetings, councillors’ surgeries and how to contact both councillors and local political parties
  • a two-way process: using local radio, blogs, podcasts and interactive websites to improve dialogue between councillors and local people
  • empowering young people with a more positive experience of voting through young mayors, the UK Youth Parliament, mock elections and school councils
  • getting people involved: explaining to all communities how to be a councillor or take up other civic roles – including school governorships or health board membership – through websites and newsletters 29 Communities and Local Government (2007), Representing the Future: The Report of the Councillors Commission, London: Communities and Local Government.
  • practical support for councillors, including allowing councillors to hold surgeries on council premises, and allowing all political parties to hire council premises for meetings and events
  • training front-line staff so that they can answer simple questions from the public about the local democratic system. People like call centre staff, council tax, housing and planning officers should know which political party controls the council, the date of the next elections, how to register and where to vote
  • promoting democracy: councils could involve staff or former councillors in promoting local democracy through programmes such as ‘Civic Champions’ or ‘Democracy Advocates’. This could include:
    1. ex-councillors becoming mentors for serving councillors
    2. councillors working with local schools, including initiating visits to explain their role and to support active citizenship education
    3. making a positive presentation to local volunteer groups or boards about governance roles and how to apply
    4. promoting the role of the council and councillor to community and voluntary groups
    5. developing links with town and parish councils and supporting democracy activities

“7.5 The Commission established as their founding principles that:

  • local authorities are key to promoting local democratic engagement
  • promoting a sense that an individual is able to influence the democratic process and course of events is the key to engagement
  • councillors are most effective as locally elected representatives when they have similar life experiences to their constituents
  • the relationship and the connections between councillors and their constituents is key to effective representation
  • it should be less daunting to become a councillor, better support should be provided once elected as a councillor and it should be less daunting to stop being a councillor

“7.9 We will amend the ‘Widdicombe rules’ (section 2 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989) which forbid council workers, above a certain salary band, from being active in party politics, so that only the most senior council officers such as chief executives and chief planning officers continue to be barred from political activity along with other ‘politically sensitive’ posts. This is a demonstration of our desire to rehabilitate politics as a legitimate and worthy activity.

“However, there is still too much confusion and reluctance within local government about how far councils should promote and support councillors’ activities. We want to clarify this and ensure that any guidance makes clear the legitimate support which should be given to councillors, including to those with disabilities.

“We recognise the need to review the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Government Publicity93 and other central guidance which sets out which activities are deemed party political or official. We will formally consult on potential changes to the Publicity Code, and associated guidance in the autumn. This will include guidance which relates to support for disabled people.”

Extracts from DCLG Research Report "Online Social Networks" – October 2008

“Social networking and media also help with the localism agenda. It offers another communication channel for local communities to have their say on local issues. It would help ward members as ward champions reach other segments of their community – perhaps those they would not normally reach for example, Norfolk County Council has helped to establish a campaign to get councillors blogging (

“Such approaches provide for a better quality of information about local views and allow debate between community groups on issues. With a more open and engaging way of consultation more people may be tempted to contribute as it doesn’t require them to attend a meeting or even take up a great amount of time.”

Extract from the Department of COmmunities and Local Government consultation paper on reviewing the publicity code

“2.11 To achieve this, the Publicity Code should not prevent councils from producing publicity that explains clearly the political control of their council, who leads the council and the political composition of the council.

“2.12 Nor should it be seen to prevent members having, in the interests of their constituents, a public voice funded by the taxpayer to inform their community about what activities they have been undertaking in their role as councillor, in either any particular role they fulfil on the council, or as a representative of their ward.

“2.13 The Publicity Code should not form a barrier to members using publicly funded publicity to discuss, in the interest of their constituents, matters that are of personal interest to those members, nor should it bar them from providing useful and pertinent contact details and links to other bodies. All publicity funded by a local authority, or which they assist others to publish, is subject to the statutory prohibition that it cannot appear designed to affect public support for a political party.

“2.16 Those who work in local government should feel confident about operating in a political environment and giving elected councillors the support they require. The response to the Councillors Commission report announced the Government’s intention of introducing a new duty on local authorities to support democracy and encouraged councils to take a range of actions as part of their new responsibility, including:

  • better information: council publications and websites should provide clear information about political control, council meetings, councillors’ surgeries and how to contact both councillors and local political parties
  • a two-way process: using local radio, blogs, podcasts and interactive websites to improve dialogue between councillors and local people
  • getting people involved: explaining to all communities how to be a councillor or take up other civic roles – including school governorships or health board membership – through websites and newsletters

“2.18 We want to ensure that councils, and councillors, do not consider themselves unduly restricted in the types of communication that they can engage in. To ensure that councils will not be inhibited in their new duty to promote democracy, councils will need to be prepared to publicise how to get involved in local decision making processes, will have to target publicity at groups that are under-represented in the democratic process and make the most effective use of advertising.

“In summary, the current Publicity Code provides as follows: A local authority discharges its functions corporately and it is inappropriate to publicise the activities of particular councillors except when councillors are representing the council as a whole. Personalisation of issues or image making should be avoided and the publicity should not be liable to misrepresentation as being party political.


Overcoming this barrier may take a while. Are there any ways staff can work-around this barrier effectively until more permanent solutions are in place?

Read more about this project

socialstrategy/legal.txt · Last modified: 2014/09/21 19:14 (external edit)