Local Government — does the ‘Government’ bit matter?

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?

The Big City Plan – Part 5 – Processing Comments

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.

See Also:

    Can you Get Satisfaction from your local Council?

    I’ve been quietly impressed with Get Satisfaction, which is sort of best described as a “social customer service” site. Twitter and some other big-name players on the internet use it for their official support channels – the idea of the site being that employees of the companies join in with discussion of “problems” that people are having. Some employees just join to help, others are granted “official” status and can speak on behalf of the organisation.

    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.

    So, I thought, could this work for a local council? Imagine time saved by council officials if knowledgeable citizens helped answer questions, imagine the resources available (once someone had explained how to apply for a licence, the information would be there for everyone), imagine a monolithic body “joining the conversation”.

    Rather than deciding to attempt to persuade my local council (Birmingham City Council – one of the largest in the UK) that this would be a good idea, I discovered that – as the site is “a space for an open conversation between you and other people with interests and passions in this organization.” – anyone can set a company page up. So I have.

    I don’t have anything to ask at the moment, but I’m hoping that it might get used.

    “Sometimes representatives from the company or organization may take part in the conversation too.” says the blurb — wouldn’t that be great?