Live Q&As – getting people talking to their council on Twitter

by | Jan 16, 2011

Here’s a summary of how/why we do our live Q&A Twitter session with cabinet members.  I would love any suggestions on how we can improve or comments of any kind really, the beauty of social media is being able to learn from you all.


Councillor Twitter Q&As


The idea began last September when our local democracy officer asked for help with Local Democracy Week.  He wanted to raise awareness and encourage participation in democracy

Our team came up with some events aimed at 16-18 year olds, like a speed-dating event with councillors and sixth formers and stories in our residents’ magazine.

I’m the social media obsessive of the team and I’m always keen to get people talking on our Twitter account so came up with a competition where people tweet about qualities that make a good councillor and a live Q&A session.

Our followers on Twitter are generally very bright, supportive and appreciate an opportunity to talk to their council in a convenient and informal way, so I knew that the Q&A would at least have a few people join in.

One of Monmouthshire Council’s values is openness and it shows when ideas like this are bandied about. Not every council would allow us to try this. The key to using social media and embracing openness is to really value those people who bother to share their views with the council.  The benefit to us is, when we answer them, that person can inform the people they know too.  And of course, once the answer is up there on the blog, anyone can look at it whenever they want.

A personal objective was to give councillors a better understanding of Twitter.  Members don’t need any expertise in using Twitter as I facilitate the session and do the blogging/tweeting and project it on two TV screens for them to see. A few had Twitter accounts then but they were tentatively tweeting and there’s nothing like seeing conversations happen in front of you to help the penny drop about Twitter’s potential for better engagement. 

What we did

We decided to run it as a cabinet Q&A rather than risk answers turning into political wranglings by inviting all councillors. Cabinet members can speak on behalf of the council, have great insight to the issues in their portfolio so could handle a wide range of subjects.

Cabinet members were invited to turn up to a meeting room in County Hall to answer the questions.  When we received a question, I typed their answers into a blog and then tweeted a link to that answer to the person who asked.

It was fine – it worked and the feedback from followers on what we were doing was entirely positive.

People will occasionally question if this is a good use of our time in a time of budget cuts but I think we’re able to answer that, especially since we spend no money on using social media, it’s just officer time.  In fact, we’re trying to give people an opportunity to get involved more in budget issues by YouTubing our Cabinet member for Finance explaining proposals. Informing people and really listening to them is not a waste of time.

You can read the questions and answers from the first two sessions on the council blog:

October 2010 Q&A

Jan 2011 Q&A 

What we learned

Use nice, open people: The councillors who have turned up are confident enough to take questions as they come in and take critical questions on the council’s work on the chin.  It wouldn’t work if they weren’t game and good-humoured.

It helps to evaluate: Along the way a few staff have wondered if this is a lot of effort just to answer one person’s question, especially the ones that aren’t very serious (see the snowman Q and the X Factor Q). 
Well, it’s difficult to know.  But first, it wasn’t actually that much effort and other than our time – and the whole thing was free. It’s difficult to explain to those who don’t use Twitter how potent a tweet can be.  For example, we have a few ex-pat followers
who have said they pass on information to their (non-tweeting) family members still living in the county and if they didn’t tell us that, it’d be hard to measure. 

So I’ve learned that I need to implement a much more robust evaluation process to justify why this is worthwhile.  Applications like BirdBrain, Hootsuite and Tweetlevel give us some idea of numbers and how we’re doing but real analysis is hard and time consuming when the ‘day job’ of other communications work has got to be done.
On the ‘not serious’ questions: I’d argue that it’s quite useful for councillors to
show they’re real people answering these, that they’re approachable and not just boring politicians.

Get help from willing volunteers: After the first session I, the facilitator, was exhausted. Asking the questions as they came in, trying to type an accurate record of how members were answering questions and then blogging them and tweeting them back to the questioner – it’s all a bit hectic!  And I am a two finger typer. Having my two communications colleagues share the work made the second session a much more relaxed affair and we even managed to have a cup of tea while we did it.

Get as much constructive criticism as possible: Hence this blog.  It’s always a good idea to try to improve on what we’re doing so any comments you have will help us learn and give a better service to our citizens.

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  1. garethjphillips

    Great idea! Glad to hear the members being engaged too. Do you think it is particularly suited to Twitter or would it work on Facebook? And how about themed ones such as cuts, school re-organisaton and things like that?

  2. Helen Reynolds

    Ta Gareth! I don’t see why it wouldn’t work on Facebook – go wherever the people are I say. The blog’s handy as it means even if residents are not on a social network you they can still join in. Themes would be good as far as getting specialist members/officers in to answer. We haven’t done it yet as we didn’t want to discourage anyone from asking whatever’s on their minds (we’re just getting people comfortable talking to us in that way in the early stages) but if the demand’s there I think it’ll work well. Cheers for the kind comment!

  3. pamelawelsh

    Hi Helen! I know I’m commenting on a thread that’s essentially three years old, but I stumbled across it and wondered if I could pick your brains. I work for a housing provider in north Manchester – we have a lot of tenants (13,500) but we’ve struggled to get engagement for live Twitter/Facebook Q&As.

    Part of me wonders if it is just the nature of our business – we’re very specialised across a particular geographic area, so I suppose we wouldn’t have the same reach as a council. But it’s been a bit of a deafening silence when we’ve tried this sort of thing in the past.

    I wonder if you can give us any advice on how you advvertised/promoted the event in the first place?


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Hel Reynolds

Hel Reynolds

Author of this post

Hel is social media trainer and boss of Comms Creatives. She has been working in comms since 2005, and has been brushing up her expertise in social media for brands since the good old days of MySpace. She also draws the Comms Cartoons, and is usually attached to a mug of coffee.

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