Can someone explain to me what an eMagazine is, please

An item on the local TV new bulletin alerted me to Cambridgeshire County Council’s effort at citizen engagement on transport issues, as part of the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission. They’ve got a website and everything:

Well, I think it’s a website, only it describes itself as an “An environmentally friendly e-magazine”. If anyone can tell me what that actually means please send me a postcard, or at least leave a comment.

Though nothing like as bad as the other example I covered recently, there are stacks of missed opportunities here. There’s a lot of text on the site, which could so easily be augmented with some short video clips explaining what the whole thing is about. The participation element is slightly better done than just providing an email address, with a survey asking for views on a range of different issues.

This is fine, as far as it goes, but where is the conversation? One off responses are all well and good, but surely greater value will be achieved by bringing people together and letting them discuss the issues that are important to them with others that may or may not share there concerns. More could be done too, perhaps along the lines that Barnet have done, in taking vox pops by actually proactively asking residents for their views and recording them on video for others to see, and comment on.

This isn’t the first e-magazine Cambridgeshire have produced though – Paul Canning recently exposed me to something called Weather the Storm – a website to “help Cambridgeshire through the economic downturn”. Have a look round and see what you make of it – I found it full of useful information but seriously, seriously lacking in any kind of interaction. What helps people through difficult times is a sense of community, working together – but this website doesn’t help to do that at all, and it so easily could have.

Take this example – on the front page, those who heat their homes using oil are advised to organise themselves into fuel clubs – effectively getting discounts on oil by buying in larger amounts. Sounds simple. The website’s guide on how to do this features this as the first tip:

  1. Find other people locally who would be interested in joining a fuel club.  Ask friends and neighbours, speak to community groups or contact your Parish Clerk.

Erm… how hard would it be to have some kind of social functionality here, to help people create and join fuel groups online? The answer is, of course, ‘not very’ but obviously such useful features don’t come with e-magazines. A shame.

So Councils could be doing this sort of thing much better. Whether they should be doing it at all is another matter. Perhaps the possibilities that the web create in terms of self organising mean that, actually, it would be better if civically-minded folk were enabled to do this stuff themselves.

Big City Talk has shown that active, enthusiastic residents can make Council consultations more fun. Perhaps this model could also be applied to Cambridgeshire’s traffic engagement activity. So what if their site doesn’t let us upload videos? – let’s do it ourselves.

Likewise, people sharing stories and guidance about how they get through difficult financial times might better be done by themselves, bringing content together from all over the county from those that wish to submit it. After all, nobody knows all the answers, and the more voices we have, the closer we might get to have a really useful collection of material.

Both these websites could have been done so much better if more appropriate technology has been used. I’m really interested in how much this stuff cost, so I have put in a freedom of information request via WhatDoTheyKnow.

Be less boring

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:

Your views count!


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:

  1. Set up a micro site using something like WordPress.
  2. Split the material down into five sections.
  3. Put five big buttons on the site to go to the consultant for each section. Make it clear what they are about.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Quick and easy consultation with PBwiki

I was presented with a little challenge last week at work. There was a requirement to change the information provided on various pieces of data, and to do this around 100 forms had been produced with the new information on, one for each field, and the aim was to get these forms in front of a selection of people so we could get their feedback on them.

This presented a number of challenges:

  • Emailing out all the forms to people would probably bring down the mail server, and would make it confusing for consultees to manage, and very difficult for us to organise the responses
  • Putting the forms on a network drive would undoubtedly have issues around access, and again responses would need to be emailed which would be a pain
  • Printing all the forms out multiple times would be rather wasteful, and once more collating responses would be nightmarish

So, the solution was devised to put all the forms on a wiki, one per page, and allow consultees to be able to edit the page to leave their feedback. This means that there is only one copy of each form online, and everyone reads the same one, and all the responses will be on the same page, so the collation will be done for us. Of course, the word ‘wiki’ wasn’t actually mentioned – it was just referred to as ‘a website’…

There are of course quite a few different wikis available. The short term nature of this exercise meant that a hosted solution would be best in terms of the speed at which it could be put together, and usually at this point I would be reaching straight for WikiSpaces. Instead, though, I went for PBwiki.

The main reason for this is the way people access the wiki. With WikiSpaces, consultees would have to first create an account with the site, then request to join the wiki and only once allowed in could they edit the pages. Not having any access control was out of the question. But PBwiki has a cool access restriction, which makes it possible for anyone who knows a common password to be able to edit the wiki. This was perfect to us, as we could email all the consultees with instructions and the password. Perfect.

This proves quite an interesting point – that even once you have identified the precise tool, it takes some serious consideration to decide precisely which platform you want to use. Also, while it’s good to have favourites, don’t let familiarity blind you to what other services have to offer.

More DIUS innovation

Another bit of top notch, innovative digital participation work has come out of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and again it is WordPress magic. This time though, there are all sorts of different bits built into it.

Steph Gray, the main social media man at DIUS explains more:

Some consultations are basically dull. Some are politically-charged. Some are hurried. So when the Science and Society consultation came sauntering along, it was clear this was an opportunity too good to miss. It’s a genuine call for ideas, casting the net wide to improve the way that science is communicated, understood, taught, and recruited for. What can we do to improve trust and confidence in scientists? How can we get more high quality science broadcasting and more intelligent media coverage of science issues? How can science be taught in school in more engaging ways? Interesting stuff.

The main difference between this site and the Innovation Nation one, it seems to me, is that in the latter’s case, the white paper had been written and the consultation done, so the online exercise was more about fine tuning and maybe developing some ideas on how things might be progressed. What Science and Society offers, though, is the chance to have your say before the document is written.

As Simon Dickson notes, one of the key bits of new media funkiness on show is the ability for folk to widgetise the consultation for their own websites. DIUS is asking a whole range of different questions about the way science is taught in schools and elsewhere and provides the platform for others to republish the questions they are interested in so their readers can feed back into the process. It’s a great idea, and fits in totally with my thoughts on trying to improve participation by making government a bit more interesting.

Simon says:

It’ll be fascinating to see what kinds of responses this move produces. I’m still a bit wary of the whole Big Questions approach to consultation: my own feeling is that the constant, small-scale exchanges around a well-managed blog will build something more valuable. But if Big Questions are the way you’re going, this is a very clever way to drive them further.

Other cool bits include a Twitter account, for a bit more responsive interaction, and an embedded Google Calendar so people can find when related events are happening.

Tim Davies also picked up on the site, and noted approvingly:

This approach of enabling citizens to easily take, remix and re-publish government consultations to their networks is worth exploring in many more contexts – not least in promoting positive activities, enabling young people to take, remix and share information about positive activities in their areas with their networks.

DIUS are clearly leading the game in government when it comes to digital participation. The reason they can do this, as Steph has noted elsewhere is because they have the resources to do so. The tech stuff is free or at least damn cheap, but you need the man-power to get it approved and embedded. There is plenty for everyone to learn from DIUS’ example.

Consultation Update

Last week, two different consultation exercises were launched by two Whitehall departments, each tackling the issue of how to engage people through the web slightly differently. Firstly, there was DCLG with their blog/twitter/forum combo; second was DIUS, with their funky little CommentPress number. Which is faring better, I wonder?

So far, Hazel Blears’ blog on the DCLG site has seen four posts, one of which included a bit of video, which was nice. The first post has seen the most number of comments, with 14. The subsequent posts have had a comment each, and the latest one none so far. The forum has seen seven replies. On the plus side, though, the Twitter feed has 83 followers, most of whom have been followed in return. This is a useful number and I would hope that the Twitter experiment, if nothing else, continues after the initial 7 days.

What could be done to increase the levels of participation on the blog, though? Here’s a couple of ideas:

  1. Find out who is writing online about the White Paper – Simon Berry’s Pageflake will do well, otherwise, just try Google.
  2. Respond to what people are saying on their blogs by leaving a comment, or
  3. Write a post responding to what people are saying on the Empowerment blog, linking and quoting each post

This would open people’s eyes up to how this type of online consultation and collaboration could work, reassuring the bloggers that they are being listened to and allowing people to join in conversations started elsewhere.

One disappointing thing is that so far, no-one from the department has responded to any of the blog comments, nor the forum entries. But while several people have been pretty scathing about this short term experiment in online, I still hope that it can succeed as a way of bringing in the views of those who might never normally be involved in this sort of consultation.

Over on the DIUS site, there has been a little more activity, and even better, some of it has come from policy officials. In total, 115 comments have been left on the site, with regular responses from one David Rawlings, who a quick Google reveals is Head of Innovation policy at the department. Great stuff.

The DIUS site will be running until the middle of September, so if it continues at this rate, the Innovation team could have a hell of a lot of stuff to wade through. That’s a good thing though, right?

More online government innovation

There seems to be a head of steam being built up here, folks.

The Department for Innovation, University and Skills – who ought to be good at this stuff, really – has launched a new minisite called Innovation Nation : Interactive. It’s a consultation exercise around the Innovation Nation strategy, but is much more fun than the usual “here’s a PDF and an email address” approach. Here’s how they describe it themselves:

We’d like to hear your views and feedback on the Innovation Nation strategy that we published in March 2008, to help inform the implementation of the strategy. This is an interactive version of the Executive Summary of the document, where you can comment on each paragraph individually, or on sections as a whole.

It runs on WordPress (natch) and the CommentPress theme – one of a new breed of templates that change the way that sites work as well as the way they look. It’s a really nicely put together site.

Steph Gray, the blogging Social Media Manager at DIUS, puts it thus on his site:

In terms of the technology story, it’s amazing how CommentPress transforms a plain vanilla blogging format into such a dynamic tool for analysing a text, and just how easy it is to implement. Inspired by Glyn from Open Rights Group at a TeaCamp a while back, the site was put together in less than a day (though we’ve done less fancy customisation than ORG’s impressive implementation). The project is also one of the first public outings of our sandbox server, designed to be at arm’s length from the corporate site and with greater scope to test innovative tools and approaches online. Finally, we also used the excellent MailBuild email distribution system to help alert key stakeholders and contributors to the initial consultation about the new site via a branded email.

But we hope the bigger story will be the breaking down of the classic consult/deliver dichotomy which we’re challenging policy teams to overcome. We’d love this interactive document to become a place where policymakers, stakeholders and interested citizens come together to help move a policy forward, and we’ll be doing our best to act as a bridge between commenters and the civil servants who are working hard to change things. Don’t underestimate the scale of the cultural challenge here: we’re asking seasoned, busy public servants with a familiar way of working to take extra time and effort to make engagement a continuous process – and to do so in a whole new way.

I certainly encourage anyone with an interest in innovation in the public, private or third sectors to visit the site and leave constructive feedback where you can.

On consultation

On Thursday night I was lucky enough to be invited to Number 11 for a few drinks with various online luminaries, including a bunch of guys who went on Web Mission 08 and lots of lovely government webbies too, courtesy of Tom Watson, the Minister for Doing Fun Things with the Web. William Heath describes some of the oddities of the evening on the Ideal Government blog.

One of the cool people I got to hang out with was Harry Metcalfe, who I met very briefly at BarcampUKGovWeb, and who is the guy behind Tell Them What You Think, a MySociety sponsored hosted project to bring government consultations to the masses through the web.

Essentially, Tell Them What You Think scrapes consultations that are published on various government websites, and sticks them in one place. The potential consultee can then browse or search for stuff that interests them, and respond as appropriate. Screen scraping isn’t ideal, and is a bit of a brutish way of doing things, but is entirely necessary when data is published in a way that isn’t easily reused. As always, Wikipedia is your friend.

This chatter with Harry coincided neatly with an item that popped up in my RSS feeds last week, from my local authority, Kettering Borough Council (yes! They publish news in RSS!). This stated:

The Borough Council would like to gain the public’s views on the East Kettering Strategic Design Supplementary Planning Document. This draft document will form a key part of the Local Development Framework for the Borough, a suite of documents that contain planning policies and will guide future development. The Supplementary Planning Document aims to proactively promote high quality design within the Urban Extension.

The Council is taking people’s views in through three different methods:

  • Face to face events in various different locations throughout the affected areas
  • By taking postal responses to the consultation documents which have been published online
  • By using the online consultation facility called ‘Limehouse’

Limehouse does sound rather interesting, and a quick google shows that plenty of other authorities are using it too. Would be interested to hear any reports on how well it works in the comments.

Even if Limehouse is lame, at least Kettering are trying, and also blending off and online methods to ensure as many people can get involved as possible.

My concern though is that we shouldn’t be thinking about consultation any more, and instead the word we should be using is ‘participation’. This ties in with my post a little while back on taking the boringness out of engagement. Tell Them What You Think is great, a brilliantly put together service, but I wonder whether having a place for people to go to is really the answer to this stuff.

Shouldn’t we be using the power of the social web to deliver interesting stuff to the people who might be interested in it? Do we really want everyone to be engaged on every issue, or just those that have an interest and an understanding of it?

This is why the identification and engagement with existing community groups is so vital in this area. These are people who could actually be bothered to organise themselves around an issue of shared interest or concern. The social web has a tremendous abiity to aggregate people together, but first the issues must be disaggregated until they are small enough for people to be able to get to grips with them in a meaningful way. They then need to be delivered to those people directly, and be able to receive responses in a number of formats to fit with the way the people, or groups, like to work themselves.

Social networking in the public sector

Interesting report published by Quocirca on behalf on IBM, on the topic of the opportunities web 2.0 and social media offers the public sector:

Social networking can help public sector bodies interact to a far greater extent with citizens as well as with internal and external resources. Full policies are required to be put in place to mediate social networking, and back-end technology needs to be chosen carefully to include support for the majority of clients likely to be found within a consumer-focused end-user environment, as well as kiosks and other systems aimed at the non-computer owning citizen.

Usig web technology presents a huge opportunity to engage with people on a scale that wasn’t possible before. But we do have to acknowledge that it can only ever be a part of a consultation strategy. Too many people don’t have web access, or don’t want to engage with that medium, for more old-school methods to be ignored.