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.

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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.

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