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.