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GUEST POST: Using council websites to help local residents generate social capital

January 12, 2011

I attended the Netroots event last Saturday. there was a real conflict between traditional politics and the developing gov2.0 ideology (here’s a folder with some relevant commentary pieces that discuss this). To explore this debate further, over the next few weeks I’m hoping to invite some of the ‘vanguards’ of this new political literacy to write about how they believe online techniques can be used to strengthen local democracy and better put citizens in control of their own lives, communities and local services.

Mark Pack is Head of Digital at MHP Communications and Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice. Twitter @markpack

Take a look at the list of planning applications on your local council website, and what will you find? Chances are, you will find them all listed, including detailed background information. You probably will also find out how people can submit their views and when planning committee meetings are held. So you may well take a look and think “That’s a pretty good use of the internet to let people know what’s happening”.

Unless you’re me, that is.

Because think about what you don’t see.

Chances are, you don’t see a chance to sign up for email alerts about future planning applications near your home. Chances are you don’t see an RSS feed as an option either. Chances are you don’t see a page designed to come out well in search engine results. Chances are you don’t see a page that encourages people to sharing planning information with others. Chances are too that you don’t see any way people with a particular view can find others who share that view.

In other words, chances are you see a page that does a good job if – but only if – someone already knows about a planning application and has decided to put some effort into finding out about it. And which works if – and only if – providing information direct to an individual for that individual to then act on solely on their own is the limit of your ambition.

Yet chat to people involved in planning and they’ll tell you numerous stories about how they got frustrated that people living near a planned development didn’t start paying attention until late into the process, and then had all sorts of misunderstandings about what was proposed. Chat to others in a council and you’ll find those who are keen to encourage local organisations, who want the voluntary sector to go from strength to strength and who want to build local social capital.

There are bigger and smaller budgets for online work from councils and better and worse staff, so putting all of this down to simply poor people or not enough resources may explain the omissions in some cases – but doesn’t really explain why the phenomenon is quite so widespread.

Rather the explanation lies more with a mismatch between the online world and traditional ways of organising. The opportunities offered online, particularly by social media, do not fit neatly into traditional marketing or IT or other local government silos.

Using the council’s website to help local residents generate social capital by forming a protest or support group around a planning application – whose remit is that? IT? Planning? Marketing? Comms? It is both none and all. (And that too is why so many councils bury so deep on their website the ability for the public to sign up for emails.)

That’s why although getting the technology right is important, getting the mindset behind it right is even more important. The internet allows councils to be more than a passive supplier of information on request: it can – and should – push information out so that it gets to people who don’t yet know they want to know and it can – and should – use information to help bring people together, to work collaboratively to improve their communities.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2011 4:35 pm

    Great piece-your experience of the challenges for LA’s to create a space that does so much more than be a passive repository of (often poorly laid-out) information is very similar to mine.
    I work with LA’s trying to get at least one department doing the kind of thing your last paragraph points towards which can hopefully act as a bridgehead for others to follow. It’s incredibly difficult, and as you rightly point out, it’s all about mindset. However, in the tech evangelist’s defence, getting the right tool that can fit into a multitude of department’s workflows (hate that term, but people know what it means) and align with their statutory duties alongside being accessible both in terms of technology (think IE6 problems here) and skillsets amongst all departments and staff is a very tall order indeed.
    One final thing, in austere times LA’s are increasingly seeing anything like the kind of thing you point towards as being far to big, and far too capacity-hungry to take on. Again, maybe that’s a mindset thing. Not sure how we change it-follow up post on that topic maybe?

  2. January 13, 2011 10:46 am

    Thom: Thanks and the point in your last paragraph is a very good one, especially the reference to “capacity”. The technical costs are (or should be – if a council has a reasonably modern and flexible IT setup) fairly low. What’s much more of an issue is getting time and attention from senior staff who are also being pulled in many other directions, particular given the current budget rounds.

    Perhaps part of what’s missing is shown by your phrase “tech evangelist”. It is on such figures that this changes often rely – and there are many such great people – but as this is about communications, community and involvement, there’s a different and complimentary sort of evangelism also needed.

  3. January 17, 2011 2:53 pm

    I read this post yesterday, just before attending the annual two day debriefing meeting for Better connected, Socitm’s annual survey of the usefulness and usability of all council websites.

    The survey has been carried out every Autumn since 1999 by a team of reviewers, using a process built around a 120-question survey. Half of the questions are designed to test the information content of websites, focussing on topics that generate most visits to council websites, with the remainder of the questions assessing performance on currency, links, transactions, location, navigation, A-Z, search, and accessibility.

    The points you raise about email alerts and RSS feeds are addressed in the Better connected survey. Currently, 56% of council websites offer RSS feeds from their news sections. Only 37% offer feeds from service areas, most often jobs, but also events and yes, sometimes planning. Email alerts are also offered, but we don’t have quantitative data on that.

    As to why these ‘push’ services are not offered routinely, that is a good question. Its partly due to the lack of customer focus evident in too many council websites. It may also be due to many councils continuing with CMS systems whose templates were designed before this sort of functionality became routine. Web budgets – which can be very small or non-existent in some of the district councils that run planning services – may simply not be available for the fixes needed to put this right. On the other hand, third party services like planningalerts.com can solve the particular issue you raise at no cost to the council (apart from the extra workload that may arise from generating more objections).

    Socitm research on council websites shows many are capitalising on web 2.0 and social media opportunities. 314 councils (out of 433), for example, have at least one Twitter account and the most followed council has nearly 10,000 followers. Another council leading on social media has in excess of 16,000 Facebook fans.

    Better connected 2011 will carry a special report on what is being done on social networking sites and how councils are interacting with hyperlocal websites. But as with many other aspects of council activity, practice is varied and so is quality, and it will take time for the best practice documented in Better connected to filter down to all council websites.

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