The revelation last week that Finance Minister and Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong doesn’t use email shone a rare light on how local politicians engage – or don’t engage – with constituents online.
De Jong’s computer habits came under close examination last week after a recent freedom of information request by a Vancouver radio station elicited a document in which de Jong’s chief of staff said the politician “does not participate in email.”
That raised eyebrows and questions about whether the lack of email use was tied to freedom of information legislation that makes such emails public records available upon request by anyone, including the media and opposition politicians. The Finance Ministry issued a statement saying that de Jong’s briefing notes, correspondence and memos are delivered in paper, rather than to an email account, and that such notes are preserved.
Premier Christy Clark was asked about the lack of email use this week, and said there is nothing cynical about it.
“Mike is a farmer,” she told reporters. “And I know that some farmers use email, I know that some don’t. And he is one of them.”
The question prompted The News to ask de Jong and the area’s MLAs and MPs, along with Mayor Henry Braun, how they engage with constituents online, including whether they exchange emails with constituents, and whether they post to, and engage with, them on their Facebook and Twitter pages.
De Jong said he personally doesn’t use email in order to manage the torrent of communication sent his way.
He said constituents’ emails are printed out for him, and he will direct staff – verbally or in writing – how to respond.
“I think this technology is great,” he said. “I’m not hostile to electronic technology and social media, but I’ve made a decision about how I will utilize it or not utilize it.”
Other politicians, though, deal with email in a more direct fashion.
In an email, MLA Darryl Plecas said: “I respond to every email that I receive from constituents in my riding and from ridings around the province, for that matter, except those that are blanket emails that go out to every MLA.”
Plecas, though, said he prefers to meet people face to face, particularly those who are upset about an issue.
“The problem with online communication is that it doesn’t give either party a full opportunity to express themselves, and it doesn’t respect the reality that not everyone is able to communicate well, and it certainly doesn’t capture the extent to which some people are hurting.”
MLA Simon Gibson, MPs Ed Fast and Jati Sidhu, and Mayor Henry Braun all likewise said they exchange emails with constituents.
The politicians all have Facebook and Twitter accounts, although they depend on staff, to varying extents, to manage their social media.
Gibson, for example, personally handles his Twitter account, but his Facebook page is administered by his constituency staff.
Fast takes the opposite approach, personally managing his Facebook page while jointly administering his Twitter account with staff.
Braun, whose social media sites are personal, rather than city accounts, said he manages his pages personally and pays someone to assist him when his schedule is tight.
Both Fast and Braun noted that online tools present a valuable opportunity to connect with constituents, but can also be used in negative and hostile manner.
Plecas’s constituency assistant manages his accounts, providing weekly updates through posts and commentary. She connects those who contact the sites with Plecas, when asked.
Sidhu said a team manages his accounts and briefs him on matters of interest. He said he “sometimes” monitors replies.
Asked if he personally interacts with constituents on Facebook and Twitter, he wrote in an email, “Everyday I’m learning more and more about how to harness technology to engage the public and reach out to Canadians I may not have previously reached. At the moment I may not press ‘post,’ but the conversations are still very real.”
De Jong, meanwhile, has staff manage his accounts, and said he does not monitor the pages or engage with constituents on Facebook or Twitter.