I had a smashing time at LocalGovCamp on Saturday, so thanks to Dave Briggs and the organising team — and everyone that came and embraced the unconference aspect of it. As someone who does a lot of work around how people organise themselves around place and area I often come into contact with Councils and their ideas. Sometimes the thought is to work with them as much as possible, sometimes to just get on with whatever you think needs doing, and sometimes to do something that they (it seems) just aren’t happy with. Work like the Big City Talk project is a combination of all three.
It was welcome for me to talk to people from all parts of the Council machine, everyone there was enthused about the possibilities of social media — in fact a lot of the talk in the sessions I attended revolved around how to either drive take-up within the organisations or to speed up the process of using it, or to shift perceptions.
Towards the end of the day, the people for whom even an unconference is too structured gathered to have an “un-panel” a session lead by no-one, with no focus. That said, the talk soon turned to the lack from engagement for politicians (or “members” as I now usefully know council officers call them). There were two local MPs (Tom Watson & Sion Simon) in attendance, and at least one Councillor from Coventry, but despite Birmingham City Council as an organisation being supportive of the event no local Councillors — and that was the starting point for an interesting discussion about how to encourage that. Or to use a slightly less polite term “force” it.
Andy Mabbett pointed out a tool from MySociety that allows gentle pressure on MPs to force them to use email. It’s interesting as it waits until there is a body of people requesting the engagement (50? I’m sure Andy will correct me if I’m wrong) before contacting the MP in question. Could there be a local councillor version of that? What would the threshold have to be? Would it work?
I thought about using Get Satisfaction, a service with which I tried a little experiment for Birmingham City Council as a whole. That didn’t really come off, as I didn’t publicise it at all and the concept was very new. But I’m now thinking that it didn’t come off beacuse of scale.
To expect “the council” to engage with something as potentially monolithic as “people powered customer support”is a little difficult. At a ward level though, there are people in who’s interest it is to engage: Councillors. Now, of course many already do engage in all sorts of different ways, some even electronically on occasion. But to have the comments, questions, complaints and praise out in the open is a huge step forward.
As I said before:
“Of course lots of problems that we have with products or services aren’t really problems (or are well know and documented) – in these instances other users are happy to help (very much like unofficial forums for software). ‘Users’ are also welcome to point out possible solutions to anything – and of course they do … imagine time saved by council[ors]… if knowledgeable citizens helped answer questions, imagine the resources available”
The added bonus here is that the information and questions have people that are elected to help deal with them, Councillors could treat it as part of a “online surgery” to answer residents questions. Or their political opponents could do, much in the same way as all people standing for local council will claim responsibility for anything good happening.
Or maybe, just maybe we’d find that the community could deal with many of the problems itself and we don’t need the councillors quite so much.
So I’ve set one up for Moseley & King’s Heath in Birmingham where I live (as a product of Birmingham City Council, which may or may not be the best way to do it) – and this time I’m going to publicise it & see what happens.
Will we find out that “local” is enough and “local government” isn’t the answer to everything?
This week’s news that Yahoo are to close and shut GeoCities (one of the first free hosting sites on the web) could be a big disaster for the amount of knowledge available online. Yahoo aren’t offering any options to transfer the sites to new servers, nor any redirection service — this has the potential to break huge numbers of hyperlinks and have a lot of content lost to the web.
While there are few GeoCities that would come top in a search, they can still contain valuable information. They’re often not maintained, which will lead to that information being lost when the plug is pulled.
I’ve been worried for a while about the hinternet (the outlands of the web that are increasingly link-poor due to not being “social”), and thought about tech that could link this stuff up (see my failed 4:iP bid based on geo-search) — but this is the first time a swathe of the web is about to disappear.
We need something akin to a Digital Switch-Off campaign, and help to transfer this content elsewhere (WordPress, Google Pages, blogger?) — look through your linkage for GeoCities, try to contact and help any GeoCitiers you’ve linked to, maybe even as the switch gets close copy the stuff over yourself?
First written May ’09, updated (slightly) April ’11.
Although listening is the most important way of using Twitter for a brand or organisation, you’ll want to do some actual tweeting too — or it’s not a conversation. Here are some generic tips on how this can work well, based on my work with a number of organisations. Again, I’ll assume that you’ve got a basic idea what Twitter is and got an account. I’ll use the example of a theatre venue here, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about, but the principles should be applicable across organisations.
Twitter is all about adding value to other people – on a personal level you get this value back in kind (your questions answered, or being entertained), for a business you would hope that it’s a loss leader for sales (like making the seats in your venue nicer than the absolute basic). In order to make valuable and useful tweets it’s good to think about the “value” of each tweet that the organisation makes — they should be (at least one of):
*The “entertaining” tweets are very attached to people’s personalities — brands don’t have personalities, but the tweeters do. It can depend on the size or your organisation, and the number of people tweeting from it as to how you can best get the personality out.
For a very small organisation, one person bands especially, showing the personality can be quite easy to do — if one person is doing all the tweeting it will happen quite naturally. But if one person is responsible for Twitter in a larger organisation, what happens then they are on holiday or at weekends? If your Twitter contacts get used to a certain level of updates or response, a dead period can break trust — people will drift off and get information elsewhere. Because of this it’s important to share out the responsibility of Twitter (both monitoring and responding), there are a number of different strategies.
One, employed to good effect by Channel Four News (@channel4news) is to decide on an organisational tone of voice — theirs is lightly conspiratorial, and friendly — but then not say at all who is actually tweeting. I would suspect that one of the broadcast assistants is put “on Twitter duty” each day. This is useful for a very well know organisation, but it is a barrier to conversation — Channel Four News don’t have to work hard to build contacts or answer difficult customers (or deliver information), they are there to create a friendly atmosphere and to extend the culture/community around the programmes, they don’t need to build personal relationships.
Another way of letting the personality though is to “sign” some of the tweets — this works well for the asides, the entertaining nonsense that builds networks. By signing the tweets I mean tweeting messages that are linked to real people — you could do this my leaving a name/initials after a circumflex at the end of the tweet (“just seen something odd ^jon”) or better still link the organisation’s tweets to the Twitters of individual people one their own accounts. This can be done technically (by services like GroupTweet or ConnectTweet, or by bespoke filters — I’ve used Yahoo Pipes and Twitterfeed for this purpose) and can work really well when people are already using Twitter for themselves.
An example of a use of GroupTweet is the Twitter stream of my radio show The Big Paws (@thebigpaws) — we use normal (“unsigned”) tweets for information, and GroupTweet fed direct messages from our own accounts for “asides”. GroupTweet has a slight technical issue in that you can’t follow people outside the organisation with the account (as it works by retweeting direct messages), ConnectTweet uses #hashtags, which solves that but does leave brand tweets also in the originators account.
Whichever method you choose it’s still up to all tweeters to understand what’s appropriate to say on behalf of the brand or organisation — but this is no different to them speaking in public offline, and you trust them to do that, right? Spamming isn’t a good idea, everyone must understand that.
Here are a few tips of how to structure tweets, what to include and a few common pitfalls to be aware of:
This is really the same question; each tweet exists separately and due to the ambient and transient nature of how people read Twitter there isn’t really a too much or a wrong time — as long a each tweet is adding something to the people who read it. The tweeter has to ask themselves “why should anyone care about this?” — friends will put up with things from you that people you’re hoping to communicate with as a brand won’t. Tweet useful and interesting stuff and people will want to engage, don’t and they won’t.
As ever any questions, improvements or suggestions are welcome — these can only be very broad tips because each organisation is different, but I hope they’re useful. I’m very happy to talk to you about specific cases (and I’m @bounder btw).
I spent an enjoyable hour with Kate Foley late last week, Kate is Neighbourhood Manager in Lozells Birmingham and runs the Life in Lozells blog. The site has been running since March 2007, and is an invaluable resource for local info — but Kate is interested in building more of a community around it, generating and hosting conversation as well as collecting information.
I suggested that an injection of opinion in to the blog might help that, which is something that it’s difficult for Kate to do in her official capacity — two possible solutions came to mind:
The first relies on use of Kate’s real-world network, pulling voices in to contribute, the second can be done in a more online way but will rely on Kate becoming confident in using search and RSS and building her online connectivity.
Those of you with local blogs, how do you work to build up the conversation?
If you’re doing any sort of professional work on Twitter then the main part of what you should do is listen. Listen to see what people are saying about you or your areas of expertise. You might find useful information, or you might find useful contacts or leads — or more likely you’ll be able to help people who are asking questions about you or things you aspire to be seen as expert about. In this quick guide I’ll use the term “brand” but really, “interest” area is just as valid. I’m going to assume that you’ve used Twitter (if not here’s a quick start guide), and that your “brand” has a Twitter account — if not then then the listening will all be of “interest” type but it’ll still be worthwhile, and will help you get used to how people use it to talk about services or products or subject areas.
I’ll do a “how to tweet on behalf of a brand” guide soon, as I’m doing a bit of work in that area with a couple of organisations — they’re very different in scope and what I find out there will be useful to others I hope. But first to the listening…
Importantly you’ll need to (learn to) use Twitter Search and RSS, and particularly Advanced Search. We’ll use the search to build queries that show you the sort of things about your brand or subject area that you need to know.
You can refine your searches with; Words, People (to, from or about), Places (Near this place,Within this distance), Dates, Attitudes (With positive attitude :), With negative attitude :(, Asking a question ?), or Containing links.
When you’ve got the searches up, you can subscribe to an RSS feed of new results — it’s by far the best way, and it’s the one that will keep you sane.
First up you’ll want to monitor all @replies to you – especially if you don’t have anyone monitoring your account all day. Yes the @replies tab shows you this, but this is mainly about monitoring – not spending all day checking twitter as if it was an email inbox.
You should probably also set up a search (and subscribe to the RSS feed) of any tweets “referencing” your account name – which is mentioning you without it being the first.
After that it’s up to you, pick the combinations and searches that bring up things you’re interested in – if you’re a local business you might try tweets near you matching your work (a plumber could set up searches for “burst pipe” or “plumber” within their catchment area) if you’re a nationwide (or worldwide) organisation then you’ll have to find another way to filter down to
How you chose to respond to the tweets you find is up to you, to simply respond and say “you’ve been talking about X hire me” would be seen as spam. But again, to use the plumber example you could offer advice to help and build trust that way (eg “turn off your water, the stopcock might well be…” or “if your heating isn’t coming on, check the pilot light of your boiler”), chances are helpful tweets will be well received — good vibes for your brand might build business slowly or quickly, but they’ll be worth it in the end.
Make sure your profile offers enough information: website address, even phone number if you like so that anyone you’ve interacted with knows who you are and how to find out more or contact you.
All this works best with RSS, to try to monitor everything in real time (whether in a tool like TweetDeck, or by manually refreshing the search page) would be time consuming and would eventually drive you crazy. RSS is the key to managing information, and it’ll be worth your time to try to get to grips with it.
But if you really struggle, then there is a way to get this stuff by email — TweetBeep
TweetBeep is like Google alerts for Twitter, you can use the site to send you an email when new things match your search terms. For keywords, people or location it’s nothing Twitter’s own search facility doesn’t offer – apart from the email alerts, which can be set to come to you hourly, daily etc.
One of the comments I made on the Cabinet Office’s Power Of Information Report, was that alongside opening up the possibilities for ‘social’ consultation (such as the Big City Talk was) there needed to be a great deal of training and organisational change in the departments handling the comments. They are simply not set up for conversation, either to join in or to monitor it. Here are some examples:
We found it very difficult to talk to the Birmingham Council planning department about feeding Big City Talk‘s ‘social comments’ into the consultation process, apart from the technical questions of how we should supply them (which unresolved by the council ended us with us posting & emailing lists of details) there were problems once they had them.
In conversation the department had expressed concerns about the “formality ” of comments left on a blog post. This despite all of their consultation methods being “free text” (email, post, web form, face-to-face meeting) and our consultation blog being split up to paragraph level. A separate, but related, issue was that the comments on the Big City Talk were (or could be) “in conversation” with each other — that was a problem for the consultation team.
It needn’t have been since their job, and training, is in reading and selecting the relevant points out of any response at all — the blog format in fact made it easier (by tying comments to the appropriate section of the document).
Thankfully, the comments were eventually accepted. Then people who had commented on the consultation via the BT site started to get notification emails from the council’s Limehouse ‘consultation portal’.
Upon investigation it seemed that the officials were entering the comments into a public facing site, with contact details — it seemed that they were doing this with directly emailed comments too, and even letters. This showed a very un”web-savvy” attitude, in that people were being sent not particularly explanatory emails from “consult AT limehousesoftware.co.uk” – without any prior indication.
There must be a system within the Limehouse software to add comments in without creating individual accounts — so there’s a failing of training there (if not, then the software is even less useful). Signing someone up for this system without permission is almost spam-like behaviour, something that anyone experienced on the web would have thought about. We worked out a better way (which ended up with them all being put under an account with my details associated), but I still had to explain how publishing people’s email addresses wasn’t the right thing to do.
It took prompting online for the team to note where the BCT comments had come from — not a problem as such, but another indication that they weren’t experienced enough, or managed or trained well enough to operate in today’s social online spaces. It wouldn’t take much work to help with that though.
This post was written way back in Twitter’s first flush of youth, Feb 2009, but I’ve updated it to reflect some technical changes and other stuff as of April 2010.
Been hearing all the hype about Twitter, but don’t know how to have a go? Here’s a quick guide to starting off, helping you to avoid getting lost and frustrated. I’m not going to tell you why Twitter is great, or how brilliant it is at finding news first or how “following” celebrities will change your life — Twitter is different things to different people and you won’t find out how it works for you until you try it for a bit. For now, let’s assume you’re interested in it but aren’t really sure what to do.
The Big City Talk site collected 274 comments, not a huge number perhaps — but from my point of view they were all helpful, considered, and intelligent. There was also clear evidence of commenters building on the work of others, and better ideas forming. It is also very possible (and I’ve seen from anecdotal evidence) that people were using the plain English version of the site to inform their comments put though the “official channels”.
Pending a FOI request to find the exact number comments generated by the Council’s consultation methods (which also included two large-scale facilitated consultation events, a number of smaller ones and a “consultation bus“) the local paper reported: “more than 1,600 people express views, including over 500 opinions online in the city’s blogging community.”. Whether they’ve been confused as to where blogging comments came from, or have overestimated both, it doesn’t matter — 274 comments out of a total of 1600 is a good amount.
Had we not had to follow the structure of the Big City Plan “Work in Progress” document, or had to provide direct “translation”, or expend a lot of effort making the purpose of the BCT site clear — had we been able to have the site available for the full eight weeks (it took around four to make the plain English, commentable version) — then the number of comments and the standard of them would have been higher. That is not to mention the effect of the expensive advertising campaign pointing to BigCityTalk.org.uk rather than BigCityPlan.org.uk, or the kudos gained from being the official site — who knows what effect that would have had.
The resources needed to produce the Big City Talk site were only time (the domain name cost £2.99, and I used existing hosting), the skills we used would have been readily available within the council structure — and experience if needed is already in the city. The only thing stopping Birmingham City Council running a “social” online consultation was the organisational will. I think there may be more of that now.
The Big City Plan is still a long process, having finished this consultation period the next step is to write a final plan — which again has to be put out for consultation.
I will consider the Big City Talk project a success if that consultation’s online component is a lot more like our way — and I won’t hesitate to repeat the exercise if it isn’t.
These are only my conclusions and views, and the “organisation” that produced the BCT site is a classic case of “organising without organisations” as Clay Shirky puts it — everyone will have thier own opinion. I’d love to see as many opinions and views, and constructive comments on how this sort of thing should work — please leave them here, blog yourself, or link to any you find.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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?
I enjoy my free time, so why did I (and the rest of the team) give up huge swathes of their Christmas break and January evenings to help our local council through a consultation process?
Simply, we are all people who care deeply about our city and also believe passionately in the power of online and offline collaboration. The official online consultation system wasn’t something that we saw as able to provide the best chance to the citizens of Birmingham.
We wanted to blog about it, nay were encouraged to do so by council officials — but blogging would have been a futile and time-consuming exercise. To pick out a small part of the plan (which consisted of many different, some complementary, some opposing, wildly different options) would be to have written something inconsequential and without context.
There was also the problem of explaining the options without editorialising — as the document was very very dense and complex, that it also referenced a large number of other development plans and studies didn’t help matters.
The official “consultation portal” used the Limehouse software, that had some obvious shortcomings (lack of RSS for one) but does allow commenting. However the council department responsible took the decision not to publish comments for the duration of the consultation period — as yet they still haven’t.
As I told them:
“the limehouse software was clearly set up for users to leave comments, and to view the comments of others (there’s a search function just for this purpose).
To invite comments and then for people see no evidence of either:
a) their own comments appearing – as they would on the BBC or any newspaper site or any blog
or b) anyone else leaving any comments – which indicates that this is an unloved (unwanted?) plan
created a very bad impression.
If a site isn’t going to publish comments it should clearly say that they are being “sent to the team for consideration” and not imply that they are going to be shown.
To publish the comments is to invite debate, it could stimulate conversations around the questions — people building on other people’s ideas are more likely to both be constructive (it would lessen the chance of purely anti the “question” comment) and to be better comments “the wisdom of crowds” in effect.”
To be fair their are many people within Birmingham City Council that could have solved these issues, but for whatever reason they were too far away from the decision-making process in this instance.
The comment problem wouldn’t have been as bad if the document was easily understandable to everyone, whereas conversely if people could have used the comments online to help each other understand the document then the inaccessible language it was written in would have been mitigated against.
To fail in both ways made the online consultation — to my mind and to those of my fellow social-media types — very poor indeed. We had the skills and the motivation to do something about it.