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.

8 responses to “The biggest mistake councils made with online engagement”

  1. Interesting piece. I wasn’t aware of the data showing that webcasing of council meetings has generally failed. Do you have any suggestions for alternative methods of public engagement that have a better record of success or that you believe may be a better way of reaching the public?

  2. Good question Ann-Marie. I’d suggest looking in two places for the answer for any particular council. First, email is used by far more internet users than use social networking, read blogs or watch video clips. Yet nearly all councils do very little to communicate with residents via email other than responding to emails that come in. Large, virbrant newsletters and email lists are very rare in (UK) local government.

    Second, ask what it is that people might want to know about the decisions made at council meetings. Often it’s the detail (e.g. exactly where will the catchment area for the new school fall) that’s locked away in hard to find (and search engine unfriendly) pdfs rather than hearing the debate. Take documents, provide them in user and search engine friendly ways and link through to the background information. Again, it’s far too common for the meetings pages on council websites to be listing of pds of council agendas and minutes, with pretty much no other information nor any other assistance to help find the related documents which give background and further detail.

  3. Sean: what both those examples seem to miss out on is evidence that webcasting is consistently a better way of spending money than the alternatives. In itself, saying that those people in Cornwall watched the event doesn’t make it a success; the question is whether there’s been more engagement doing webcasting than if the money had been spent in other ways.

    The Bristol example is also a rather unusual case as pretty much anything involving local football club fans is going to get lots of interest – and those cases are very rare. If you’re paying for webcasting all year round, you need to look at not just the most popular time it has been used, but also what it does or doesn’t achieve the rest of the year round. (That said, I know a Bristol councillor has posted up some interesting stats elsewhere about year-round usage, which I’m taking a look at.)

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