I’m going to start a semi-regular feature piece here, at the moment under a working title of how not to do it.
I want to make it crystal clear from the outset – I’m not trying to embarrass the agencies, companies or parties featured in these posts. The intent is to highlight some of the mistakes we’ve made as collectively as a sector in the citizen engagement arena, and hopefully suggest solutions to help us not repeat it.
It’s not going to be a cure for our problems, but at least it might start us talking and put us on the road to finding one.
It also might seem a little odd for me to open this series with the Public Transport Authority (PTA), considering I have given them kudos for their efforts in some areas such as open data access. However, while they have been a leading light in some areas, they are let down by their performance in others.
The two examples from the PTA I wish to discuss for this first edition are:
Old information is just as bad as no information
Recently, the PTA held a competition asking the public to suggest a name for their new ferry due to be commissioned sometime this year. I only found out about this while on the PTA site doing some research for an earlier posting.
The PTA’s media article didn’t mention the closing date of the competition, so naturally I clicked on the link to the Transperth website to enter and find out more. Having some ideas, I started to complete the entry form and while doing so looked at the text on this page.
The competition closed on March 16, 2009.
It’s been two weeks since the competition closed, so why is the page or at least the entry form still there? An update to the page advising the competition has closed and winners are to be announced shortly would have been a simple to achieve. This however goes to the core of some agency web operations, my own included, where we don’t keep good action calendars or don’t have a decent content management system (CMS) in place to do these things for us busy web managers and maintainers.
I’ll admit openly that I’ve been guilty of this with the websites I manage more frequently that I’d like (job listings being a primary offender). It’s still no excuse for letting it happen and as a sector we must do better to manage old, outdated or expired content, along with keeping the good content fresh and up to date.
Participation, participation, participation
Something else I found out while on the PTA site is that their enabling legislation is up for review. Section 70 of their act requires a review of the operation and effectiveness of the Act be carried out every five years. No problems there, their act is up for review and I might consider making a submission considering I use their services every day as part of my commute to and from work.
Where they have missed the opportunity here is to use the full suite of tools and services available to them, to provide every opportunity for interested parties to become aware of the review and have the opportunity to participate and contribute.
Some of the avenues available for use included:
- Utilising their major websites for awareness
I would reasonably assume that not all customers of the PTA visit their main corporate site on a daily basis. I suspect they’re more like to visit one of their brand sites for information relevant to them. Why not spend a short amount of time drafting some copy for the brand websites targeting these consumers, and inviting their participation in the process. It could even give them ideas for the types of feedback that are relevant to the review, and offer alternative channels for submitting that feedback.
- Mailing lists
The Transperth brand has access to a number of mailing lists, including the TravelEasy announcements and registered SmartRider users. Again, utilise the power of these lists and directly invite consumers to participate in the review – an email with a good enough hook or reason to participate in directly influencing the direction of public transport shouldn’t be hard to draft.
This is a tool available to every WA government, and I personally get annoyed as a customer when agencies consulting on issues relevant to my needs don’t use it. This site was developed with the purpose of being the one place to go when citizens want to know what is happening within government and how they can directly participate. I’ve searched this site and there’s no reference to the PTA Act review in there at all.
Now why do I suggest these three items and not some expensive, costly, time consuming solution? Simple, all three of these options are already available for use and the time and costs of utilising them is non-existent to inconsequential.
When it comes time for the review report to be tabled in Parliament, it enables the PTA to demonstrate they have used the breath of tools available to them for consulting with the public, and raising awareness of the review – a proactive use of public funds and resources to try and achieve the best possible outcomes.
I personally plan to ask the question if and when I sit down to submit my own comments on the review, likely discussing some of the points I’ve raised in this article. I’d also love to see a representative of the people ask a similar question in Parliament when reviews are submitted, asking agencies why they didn’t use every avenue available to them to raise awareness of and encourage participation.
Now let’s get positive
So there’s a couple of example where we’ve not exactly done well as a sector, so let’s find some positive efforts to hopefully inspire us.
One of the best examples in recent history comes from my trans-tasman colleagues in the New Zealand Police Service, who in 2007 undertook wholesale public engagement to deliver a redeveloped version of their Police Act, last revised in 1958.
They decided to go online to encourage wide public participation, and the entire act was placed on a wiki. It took four full time staff to monitor, but for these rather minimal costs the outcome was an act that better delivered on constituent needs that also generated new ideas.
The Police Act review team met consequences as well as successes when the wiki became a forum for the public to express its displeasure with speeding ticket enforcement and other unpopular laws, despite their necessity for public safety. A participatory legislation model such as this requires a more extensive trial to determine whether this sort of collaboration can create reasoned legislation that would include not just the public’s desires but their careful considerations of the limitations inherent in governance, such as budgets, regulations, and obligations.
Ultimately the wiki served to build consensus among ideas for the new legislation which the review team offered to legislators for consideration in their own drafting of a new act.
The community consultation efforts of New Zealand Police to revising their act received worldwide attention, with positive reports in the mainstream media and support and praise from the online community.
Ok, not everyone has the time or resources to set up a wiki, but what we do have the time to do is think about the resources and services we have available to our agencies and use them for their benefit when opportunities like this arise. It helps cement our position as a provider of solutions, and a group of people who are actively seeking to improve the triple bottom line outcomes for our employers by reducing costs and increasing community participation.