The biggest mistake councils made with online engagement

It’s frequently costly. It almost always achieves little. It lets people tick the “use the internet to engage with the public” box without actually achieving much.

I am, of course, talking about webcasting council meetings. The idea has honourable roots. But the world has moved on.

Both print and broadcast media have steadily moved away from providing lengthy, verbatim reporting of what goes on in elected bodies. That’s despite such coverage being very cheap and easy to produce. Stick a journalist in front of the Parliamentary TV channel, give them a bookmark to Hansard and you’re away. Yet the volume of such coverage has fallen hugely in the last few years – because it’s not what the public wants.

We may wish the public thought otherwise, but when the public is so clearly turning its back on being interested in such verbatim coverage, it’s rather implausible to think that they would lap it up for their local council, if only it were available.

It is therefore no surprise that the audience figures for council webcasting are almost always low. It is a telling sign that it is extremely rare to find a council boasting about the size of its webcast audiences. To be fair, there are some niches and exceptions, but overall the picture is clear: webcast council meetings don’t get much of an audience.

That has been consistently the case, as the systematic evaluation of pilots back in 2005 as part of the Local e-Democracy National Project showed. None of the pilots got a large audience.

It is true that the number of members of the public turning up in person to council meetings is often so small that a tiny online audience can seem quite large by comparison. But it is not an audience that comes for free.

Webcasting costs. It costs money that could be spent elsewhere. Council webcasting is relatively cheap compared with big council IT projects, but it’s relatively expensive when compared to the costs of exploiting social media tools. For example, Croydon’s £33,000 budget for its 2006-7 webcasting pilot could have paid for a substantial social media campaign.

It isn’t just the immediate audience that is limited, so is the follow up audience because by locking up content in audio-visual format webcasting hides it from search engines. That is starting to change, with some speech to text conversion technology starting to creep in to search tools, but for the moment the money spent on webcasting usually could more effectively be spent on putting other content online in search engine friendly ways that serve the public.

A few less minimalistic pdf files of agendas and a few more pages rich with background information and links would go much further than many a webcast.

Webcasting does, perhaps, have one plus point. Councils often cover the basics when it comes to promoting webcasting: mention in the council newsletter, mention on the council website, mention in their email list. Added up this marketing still doesn’t provide a decent audience – which is a healthy reminder of how not only does the substance have to be attractive but also how hard you have to work to build up a decent website and email audience to which you can promote activities.

But overall, whilst piloting webcasting made sense, now we know the lesson: it rarely delivers.

Mark Pack is Associate Director, Digital at Mandate Communications (www.YourMandate.com). Previously he was Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats, heading up the team which arranged the first use of Google Video by a major UK political party, the first UK party leader on YouTube and the first UK election campaign to use Ustream. He blogs about politics, history and technology at www.MarkPack.org.uk. He’s on Twitter at @markpack.

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Published by

Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.