I wasn’t sure whether or not to blog about this. But I think I ought to, simply because this is such a cracking example of how badly digital engagement can be, and how easy it could be made much better.
My local authority, South Cambridgeshire District Council, has a modest announcement on its homepage:
Only, on clicking the link to the consultation area, what did I find? Classic local gov: PDFs and an email address. Sigh. Just click that link and look at that page! Hardly inspiring, is it? Not the sort of thing that makes you think ‘This is something I want to get involved with’ – is it?
But it does get worse. Try clicking one of those PDF links. Here’s one you can try from here. Yep, that’s right: they are just excerpts from council meeting reports. That one I linked to opens on page 11. You might want to know where the other ten pages are – it’s a reasonable question. I don’t know the answer.
Not rewriting the content to be more accessible for non-local government geeks is unforgivable. But to not even change the formatting, or the page numbers! to make it more understandable for the layman? Criminal.
In total there are four PDFs to download and read, cogitate on and then respond by email or in writing. The only way you can do this sensibly is by printing them all out, highlighting the important bits and then writing the response. And that’s assuming you can make sense of the reports themselves.
In fact, this consultation is so bad that I wonder whether the Council – shock, horror – actually wants any responses at all.
There are some occasions where providing some weighty PDFs and an email to respond to is an appropriate online consultation method. For example, when dealing with a large organisation, which needs the detail, and needs to incorporate the views of various different people in a response.
But this is most definitely not the case with consulting with what one might legitimately call normal people. For a start, it’s too boring. Why would anyone want to do it, seriously? Another issue is that by making people fire emails off into a black hole, how is anyone meant to know whether their comments actually make sense or not? With no conversation to react to, and very little in the way of context, those less confident at responding to these things just won’t bother because you can’t know whether what you are saying is appropriate or not.
Here’s what I would do with this, and similar attempts at engagement:
- Set up a micro site using something like WordPress.
- Split the material down into five sections.
- Put five big buttons on the site to go to the consultant for each section. Make it clear what they are about.
- Describe that section of the consultation in easy to understand language on different pages, linked to from the big buttons. Don’t use any more that half an average screen’s height to do so. Be informative, but keep it succinct. You can still link to the PDFs if people want to see the detail.
- Allow residents to leave comments underneath. Keep it all public, so that everyone can see, and respond to each others comments. Allow conversations to flow.
- If you like, make sure the relevant officers are on hand to answer any questions or put right misapprehensions.
What’s more, this would be really quick and easy to set up. It wouldn’t even use up that much time to moderate or manage. And you never know, some value might actually be generated.
I’ve emailed Cllr. Tim Wotherspoon, my local councillor, who happens to be the ‘Policy, Improvement and Communications Portfolio Holder’ – perfect! I’m hoping we can talk about making the way the Council engages with its residents just a little bit better.