Yes, council websites can

The October edition of Total Politics has a piece from me on how local authorities can learn from the Obama campaign’s mastery of the internet to build communities of active and engaged residents:

Why does your local council exist? There are many answers to that question, especially from different points on the political spectrum, but at the heart of nearly all of them is the belief that there are some tasks best done together rather than individually.

That rationale is the same one that drives the creation of political parties and political campaign teams. Yet look at the websites of a candidate or campaign and compare it to that of a local council, and you would be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at different areas of activity which have no underlying similarity.

Close your eyes and think back to Barack Obama’s campaign for the US Presidency. What do you remember of his online campaign? Beautiful and consistent design perhaps. Email, email, email everywhere. Lots of information about what was going on near you or how you could get involved locally. And lots of pleas for money.

And then look at your local council website. Councils certainly aren’t averse to prompting people to hand over their Council Tax. But beyond that? Even if the site scores well on the design side, where does it ask for your email address? While for political websites the email sign-up box is a near ever present home-page feature, on council websites it is almost never there.

In fact, I went hunting before writing this piece and failed to find one on a council website front page other than that of Kingston-upon-Thames. There may be others – in which case please let me know – but they would be the exceptions.

What about local groups and organisations in my area? Can I pop in a postcode and find out who is doing what locally? Again, that’s a very common feature on political campaign websites, but it’s almost never there on council websites. Even where the council does list local groups somewhere on the site, chances are it is hidden away.

Don’t councils have a need to communicate with people by email? Of course not. Don’t they want to let people know about groups such as residents’ associations? Certainly they do. But council websites say otherwise.

Think back again to the Obama campaign. Remember how it encouraged people to get involved locally, to set up branches, to find out about what other people were doing? Remember how often the fun and interest and sharing of skills when Obama volunteers came together made them more effective and more active?

Don’t councils want more neighbourhood watches? Is there some law of nature stating that where councils recruit local volunteers to report on rubbish, graffiti and other grot-spots they must be kept in secret isolation from each other? Again, of course not. And again, council websites say otherwise.

So if you were to get Obama’s team to design your council website, what would it mean? It would mean a site that values building up lists: email lists, Facebook friends, Twitter followers. Whatever.

Both councils and campaigns need to communicate. Communication requires contact information – and you get that by asking.

It would also mean appreciating the idea that expecting people to come to your website is an arrogant and misplaced attitude. Just as in the physical world a council can’t expect everyone to turn up on the town hall doorstep, in the online world you have to take yourself to where the audience is.

Take the example of RSS feeds. RSS is a simple way of making it easy for others to republish and reuse your content. If you publish weather forecasts via RSS, people can reproduce them on their own sites (with the forecasts being automatically updated), reaching a wider audience. Even better, people can sign up to the feed so they get new forecasts automatically popping up on their computer, portable or mobile phone. Apply that example to council information, such as the time and place of meetings, and you get a very different way to approach information.

Nearly all councils expect people to come to their website to find out if there is a meeting of interest to them being held somewhere. But make those meetings’ schedules available via RSS and anyone running a local information website can become a spreader of council information too. It’s easy, cheap and been possible for years – and yet, when I did a recent survey of a sample of council websites, 60 per cent did not have any RSS feed.

The point isn’t just this one technical solution (though if you’re a councillor, stop reading for a moment and check to see if your council uses RSS. If it doesn’t – kick up a fuss). It’s also a general mindset: get information to where the people are. Push out data for people to reuse and redistribute.

Then there is the question of making it easy for people to find out what is going on near them. With Obama it was a matter of put your zip code (postcode) in a search box and find out what’s going on near you, often with the help of a map. There are some scattered examples of councils providing postcode or map-based information – Brent is a notable innovator – but they are rare.

Take the example of public toilets; just the sort of service people want to look up in order to find their location, quite possibly when they are out and about. Lists are hidden away on site, maps are fragmentary and postcode look-ups virtually non-existent. In this case the call of nature may be powerful enough to ensure the toilet location is tracked down, but in many other cases the public will give up or never start looking. Maps and postcode searches – they would be on an Obama-style council site.

And remember all those ways the Obama campaign got people involved in their area? Councils could copy that too: pop in a postcode or browse a map and find the local residents’ associations, neighbourhood watches and myriad other local groups.

More radically, why not bring people together to talk and share? I have volunteered with my local council to report rubbish, potholes and the like. I get a nice pad of paper, a pencil, an invitation to very occasional meetings and an annual awards evening for council staff. So far, so good. An Obama-style approach would go so much further.

It would let me go online and see other similar volunteers near me. We’d be able to get in touch with each other, share information on issues, pass around tips on how best to get things sorted, perhaps even egg each other on with league tables of items reported and issues fixed. We’d become a community, more fun, more vibrant and more effective for being more than a collection of isolated individuals.

None of this requires technology that is new or difficult or massively expensive. It would be foolish to underestimate the resources needed to go from the technological raw materials to making a successful use of them. But the challenge is not one of coding – it’s one of ambition and vision. Do you and your council have that?

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