FACE PALM: When is a Facebook campaign not a Facebook campaign? When it ignores people on Facebook

Almost a decade ago there was a drive to encourage people to have a say about the future of their city.
At first glance, it was bold, imaginative and ambitious with posters splashed across Birmingham. It had a catchy name. The Big City Plan.
It’s aim was to fire imaginations and to capture ideas. It had two flaws. It was written for planners and to have a say you had to send your views to one email address. All that buzz online? Ignored.
So, the Brum Bloggers group built a website with a plain English translation, captured opinion and sent them to the council themselves. Almost 300 of the 1,600 comments came from the site. Birmingham City Council managed to incorporate those comments.  Eventually, the city council copied the approach which made it easier for people to make a comment and for the city council to listen.

Please speak human

Eight years on from the lessons of Big City Plan, a Facebook ad dropped into my timeline one Sunday afternoon from my local council. A good piece of targeting, I thought.
It asked me to comment on the Black Country Core Strategy. I don’t know what this means. Even after eight years in local government and being the son of a planner I don’t know what this means.
So, what would the man on the 404A guess it was? I’ve no idea.
On the site were pdfs. There is much written as to why pdfs are a bad idea. There are email addresses and a list of events. Gamely, I found a survey to comment on. But that didn’t render all that well on a mobile phone.

Please listen to people

Back on the Facebook page there was a lively debate about building houses on the green belt and a host of other things. Debate there had come alive and people were – in council speak – engaging. Or in other words, talking.
dud 1
But as a resident what really got my goat was the council pages’ disclaimer half way down the thread that comments on Facebook wouldn’t be accepted. It had to be the official consultation.
dud 3
Or in other words, a Facebook campaign that wouldn’t allow people to have their say on Facebook.
(Disclaimer: I worked for eight years at Walsall Council which is one of four Black Country councils behind the campaign. I have a high regard for many people who work at all four of those councils.)
Local government does a brilliant job. My council does a good job. My children go to school there. There are good parks and the roads are gritted (thank you!).
So, when I blog this, I do it with love and because I want local government to communicate better with me as someone who lives here.

Please, please, please…

So, please, have a website that speaks human.
Please call the website something more interesting than ‘core strategy.’
But above all and I really do mean this, please listen to what people say on Facebook. Particularly when your campaign is on Facebook itself.
You may need to speak truth to power on this. But fail to do this really simple step and I don’t know what you can tell people when they next tell people their council is remote and don’t care what they think.

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  1. As a researcher / consultation organiser looking at this from the other side; you need a sophisticated consultation solution for capturing Facebook comments, although it can be done. We’ve recently bought specialist software (Atlas.ti) to handle the large volumes of qualitative data social media can generate, but most councils don’t have this. Facebook comments are also annoyingly difficult to capture and incorporate into your consultation data analysis. I have yet to find any way to do this which doesn’t involve copying and pasting into Excel, which is a fiddly job at the best of times and not intuitive. I’m pretty computer-literate, can read qualitative data very fast, and am happy using both Facebook and Excel – not everyone is (that’s another blog post right there).

    I’m tempted to think that whoever is running this consultation knows very well that a lot of their key stakeholders for the consultation – local businesses, housebuilders, and residents’ groups – will handle this approach well. Reading the PDF and commenting on it is what these stakeholders want to do. Should we therefore have two consultations – one for the “skilled stakeholders” and one for the general public? Quite possibly yes, but that again increases the workload and difficulty of the consultation. Which leads to…

    …consultation and research staff posts have been very hard hit by local government cuts. Many such staff have simply gone, meaning that consultations are often being run by one or two very over-worked staff, or, in the worst-case scenario, people with no or little experience or training in how to do it. As such (particularly if you’re pressed for time), you’re going to want all of your consultation feedback in one place so that the system you’ve bought to help you do this can crunch the data as efficiently as possible.

    There’s also an element of “where will it end?” If you accept comments on the consultation through Facebook, do you also have to search Twitter for them? How about Nextdoor? Should we be trawling 38degrees for online petitions? Do online forum discussions count? If people can comment through all of these different routes, are any of them going to bother to actually read the council’s line on what it proposes and answer the consultation questions that have been designed to capture the specific feedback we really need to develop the proposal further? How informed is the level of debate?

    Do I advocate ignoring social media feedback on consultations? Actually no – especially not if it’s in response to an official council Facebook post. You’re right that it’s an open goal to ignore this often very interesting and useful feedback. But this is not a simple situation.

  2. Valid points as always, Dan. Planning-related consultations are still mired in this sort of stuff. It alienates and frustrates people and fails to reach beyond a very narrow group. There are good examples out there though. I supported a consultation on long-term plans for an area a couple of years ago. Using clear English was key to its success and social helped gather and drive a large number of responses.

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