DORSET Council has apologised after it was revealed that a member of its staff joined a private Facebook group to monitor discussions between campaigners against the proposed Portland waste incinerator.

The Jurassic Coast Against Incineration group was set up on Facebook in response to the controversial incinerator plan, with a planning application due to be considered by Dorset Council.

Members are asked to identify themselves upon requesting to join the group - however a Subject Access Request made to Dorset Council by the Facebook group's founder, Dave Warren, revealed that a member of the council's Communications team had been monitoring the group for around 18 months, and had not declared their professional capacity.

Dorset Echo: The Jurassic Coast Against Incineration Facebook group states it is privateThe Jurassic Coast Against Incineration Facebook group states it is private

An email conversation between the Communications Officer and another council officer revealed a decision had been made to join the group in order to keep an eye on it.

Dorset Council has apologised and said it is reviewing its social media policy as a result, and confirmed the Communications Officer left the group "immediately."

'Violation of trust'

But while Mr Warren said that the council's acknowledgement of the error is to be commended, he claimed public trust in the organisation has been undermined - describing the incident as a "violation."

He said: "The incinerator proposal is such an important issue for Weymouth and Portland - if built it will permanently change the landscape; cause significant extra traffic on our roads, and will have a detrimental impact on one of the country's most deprived areas.

"But rather than choosing to engage with the public directly over this issue, it appears that Dorset Council has chosen to watch us as a community, rather than work with us, and I think that completely undermines any trust in their ability to be neutral."

Dorset Echo: The controversial plans have been met by local oppositionThe controversial plans have been met by local opposition

He added: "It's a violation - the group is set up to be private, which is clearly stated - even the screenshot of the Facebook group (sent by the Dorset Council employee to another council officer) shows the group has the word 'private' underneath it.

"The reaction of group members is genuine shock and feelings of anger. We trust our council to look after us and that trust is completely undermined - I think it is shameful. They have proven themselves to be unhelpful in the extreme."

Response criticised

Although the council has responded to requests for comment from the press and to complaints from the public, Mr Warren says this does not go far enough, and that the organisation should have proactively issued a media statement apologising for the error as soon as it came to light.

Dorset Echo: Protests against the incineratorProtests against the incinerator

However he also expressed sympathy for the council employees involved, and claims those higher up in the organisation are at fault for creating a work culture that led to the incident.

"I feel desperately sorry for the individuals who were involved - this is a failing of the organisation, but it is those individuals who are going to be thrown under the bus and have the fingers pointed at them," he said.

"It is the higher levels of management who should be hanging their heads in shame for creating a culture where this can happen.

"If this was my company I would be mortified - I would be going public and issuing a proactive apology to all the media - I would want people to hear that 'we've got this wrong - big time - and we're sorry,' and really demonstrate contrition. Instead it feels as though it is inconsequential to them."

Lessons learned: Dorset Council responds

A Dorset Council spokesman said: “We can confirm that a member of the council’s Communications team joined the Jurassic Coast Against Incineration Facebook group. We agree that the officer should not have joined this group without declaring their professional capacity. The council’s social media policy at the time was not sufficiently clear on this point.

Dorset Echo: Campaigners protesting against the plans last year Campaigners protesting against the plans last year

“Dorset Council gave a full apology to the individual who set up the Jurassic Coast Against Incineration Facebook group when this came to light, and the Communications Officer involved left the group immediately. We have learnt from this case and we are currently amending our social media policy and training staff to ensure this does not happen again."

The spokesman added: “Planning applications are considered in line with the National Planning Policy Framework. Decisions on applications are made in a completely independent and neutral way. Comments about a particular application made on social media do not influence planning decisions.

“A key part of the council’s activity on social media is to listen and engage for the benefit of the public. These platforms play an important role in providing the council with feedback about council services and the broad range of decisions we regularly make. Social media provides insights into the types of issues that are of particular concern to diverse communities across Dorset, and in turn we tailor our communications to address issues that matter most to people.”