Using council websites to help local residents generate social capital

Last week I had this guest post over on the Local Government Information Unit blog:

Take a look at the list of planning applications on your local council website, and what will you find? Chances are, you will find them all listed, including detailed background information. You probably will also find out how people can submit their views and when planning committee meetings are held. So you may well take a look and think “That’s a pretty good use of the internet to let people know what’s happening”.

Unless you’re me, that is.

Because think about what you don’t see.

Chances are, you don’t see a chance to sign up for email alerts about future planning applications near your home. Chances are you don’t see an RSS feed as an option either. Chances are you don’t see a page designed to come out well in search engine results. Chances are you don’t see a page that encourages people to share planning information with others. Chances are too that you don’t see any way people with a particular view can find others who share that view.

In other words, chances are you see a page that does a good job if – but only if – someone already knows about a planning application and has decided to put some effort into finding out about it. And which works if – and only if – providing information direct to an individual for that individual to then act on solely on their own is the limit of your ambition.

Yet chat to people involved in planning and they’ll tell you numerous stories about how they got frustrated that people living near a planned development didn’t start paying attention until late into the process, and then had all sorts of misunderstandings about what was proposed. Chat to others in a council and you’ll find those who are keen to encourage local organisations, who want the voluntary sector to go from strength to strength and who want to build local social capital.

There are bigger and smaller budgets for online work from councils and better and worse staff, so putting all of this down to simply poor people or not enough resources may explain the omissions in some cases – but doesn’t really explain why the phenomenon is quite so widespread.

Rather the explanation lies more with a mismatch between the online world and traditional ways of organising. The opportunities offered online, particularly by social media, do not fit neatly into traditional marketing or IT or other local government silos.

Using the council’s website to help local residents generate social capital by forming a protest or support group around a planning application – whose remit is that? IT? Planning? Marketing? Comms? It is both none and all. (And that too is why so many councils bury so deep on their website the ability for the public to sign up for emails.)

That’s why although getting the technology right is important, getting the mindset behind it right is even more important. The internet allows councils to be more than a passive supplier of information on request: it can – and should – push information out so that it gets to people who don’t yet know they want to know and it can – and should – use information to help bring people together, to work collaboratively to improve their communities.

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