After sounding out interested parties, mainly via twitter, a number of us met up at December’s Birmingham Social Media Café — at this point the clock was already on us, we’d only been able to see the Council’s online shortcomings once the official consultation period (legally pegged at eight weeks) had started.

It quickly became clear that we would need to produce a site that was independent from any current web presence — to counteract any fears of us attempting to unduly influence the process. I had already quickly produced a WordPress site to use — intending that “we” (whoever was interested) would use it to produce a translated version.

Big City Plan Talk
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

My partner Julia, has done a lot of work using “plain English”  and she convinced me that it was a suitable framework for us to use — she even spent a long evening translating part of the “work in progress” document as an example. The plain English campaign also offer advice and guidance via their website that would prove useful.

I chose WordPress not only because I am very confident with producing sites with it, but because its back-end interface was well known to many of the potential bloggers/translators — there wasn’t time to train people in new skills. There were other options (including CommentPress, a forked version of WP just for online document commenting), but we also had the problem of attempting to show both the original document and the plain English Version alongside each other — something that I wasn’t confident of achieving quickly with a (to me) untried system. It quickly became obvious that WordPress was the only choice in the short term.

In the meeting we decided that:

  • we had to break the document down into as small a chunks as was possible
  • the plain English version had to be absolutely free from any opinion
  • the version we produced had to match the original document structurally, so comments could be easily sorted
  • both versions needed to be viewed simultaneously
  • our version needed to be as searchable as possible, utilizing tags, metadata and whatever tools we had
  • we would collect links to information not stored within the original document, and invite further explanation from users
  • comments would not be held in moderation, and only offensive comments would be removed (in the event none had to be)
  • comments would be threaded – to facilitate debate amongst commenters
  • and it had to be done as soon as possible.

At this point we didn’t worry too much about how to feed the comments back into the official process — the opinion that we would “print them out individually and post them if necessary” was voiced. Time, with the Christmas break upon us, was the main factor.

Micheal Grimes and myself volunteered to take time over the holidays to break the consultation document down into manageable chunks and pull it into the blog structure — in the end this was more difficult to do that we anticipated due to inconsistent numbering styles and the sheer size of the piece. It also took a fair bit of WordPress hackery to get the document to sit properly in order.

Stefan Lewandowski had been part of a group of people consulted at a much earlier stage about the Big City Plan, and his contacts would be useful in smoothing the way as we were all concerned that, whatever our personal views, there was no sense in antagonising the powers that be. In fact there was tacit agreement not to talk about the plan in anything but glowing terms until the site was finished.

The Translation

The Birmingham social media community is wide, and contains a lot of talents, but for differing reasons (personal or work commitments, conflicts of interest) — while there was a lot of support and advice available to us — the number of people available to take on the translation was more limited. In the end myself, Nick Booth, Nicky Getgood, Julia Gilbert and Michael Grimes were the ones that took on the task.

Each will tell you that the job was not easy, that it was not a simple job of changing long words for shorter. I heard the Big City Plan being referred to as having been written in “regeneration-speak” and that’s what it was. Full of passive sentences (which are bad for readability), as well as unexplained acronyms and references to unexplained policies and documents. I would estimate that the team spent around 5-6 hours each an evening for three weeks working on it, which is on top of the work done on the website itself.

Testing and release

As soon as the translation was complete (and in fact just before) we released the site to a few people to test — and to comment, aware that there’s nothing as intimidating to a commenter as a blank “page”. From this we gained a lot of valuable feedback (especially from Mathew Sommerville and Tom Martin) and a good sense that the site we’d produced would be easy enough to use.

Once tweaks were made, and people blogged about it there wasn’t much turning back — we hadn’t explicitly told the council what we were doing, nor had much idea of how they’d react. Personally, I know I was worried about how it would be received — Birmingham is still quite a small town as far as personalities go. There was (still is?) a chance that it could have damaged our reputations.

Feeding comments into the consultation

At first we were pleased with the “official reaction” to the Big City Talk site (we gained links from both the offcial site and the council-run Facebook group), but attempting to organise how to feed the comments being generated into the consultation proved more problematic.

The site quickly and steadily gained a lot of intelligent comments, that it was possible to see were building on each other — in a way that the official process (online at least) didn’t facilitate. We were aware that submitting a large volume of comments needed special handling, and so tried to make it as easy as possible for the consultation workers.

It seemed that despite direct contact that there wasn’t a lot of will in the BCP team (those eventually to deal with the comments)  to work with anything that that they hadn’t already planned for. We repeatedly offered to format and deliver comments from the Big City Talk site in any way that could be done, but we received no guidance. This was disappointing, but the instructions for submitting comments formally were very clear — we were able to submit the comments on paper and also by email. While this was not as convenient as it could or should have been, all the comments were delivered in a manner that ensured they were part of the consultation. Help from the Council’s Communication Team was valuable at this point.

But, has it had a worthwhile effect?

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