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” – 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.

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