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How not to do it: Public Transport Authority

31 Mar

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 It’s still no excuse for letting it happen and as a sector we must do better to manage old, outdated or expired content, along with keeping the good content fresh and up to date.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.
  • Citizenscape
    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.

From the collaboration project:

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.


An expeirment in Twitter

27 Mar

One of the easiest things an agency can do is communicate using the tools and sites their customers and target audiences are already using. So it was a no-brainer for me eariler this week, when at midnight and still awake under the influence of cold and flu medication I decided it was time for my agency to ‘tweet’.

Why tweet you ask?

It wasn’t exactly a question I asked myself when I made the decision to go for it. Looking back on it, there are a few good reasons to do it.

1. How long before the twitter username your agency might want is already taken?

At the rate things are going, not very long. The name I wanted when setting up an account for our agency was already taken by the Florida Progressive Coalition. I had to think for a few minutes before I finally came up with something short, suitable and memorable.

Already there’s cases where imposters are taking people’s names on twitter, famous for being famous Kim Kardashian being one, Australian Security Intellegance Organisation being another, a fake account for federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy – the operator recently being outed as an employee of communications company Telstra and contends he lost his job as a result of the harmless fun.

And while fakes may be the order of the day with the username you already want, there are some which are useful. An example of this is the Transperth Bot, which collates all the posts on twitter relating to Transperth, the brand for metropolitan public transportation operated by the Public Transport Authority. Granted it’s not Transperth and it is doing something useful – but what if the Public Transport Authority wants an official twitter service to quickly communicate with its customers?

While writing this post, I came across an article from The Next Web, which is a brief how-to for recovering the twitter username you wanted. But the question is when your Agency CEO/CTO or Marketing/Communications Manager comes to you asking to setup an official twitter service – would you rather have something ready to go for them and keep up the reputation of being an miricle worker, or spend a few days in the muck and mire because you’re trying to get that username you really want. It’s exactly what I advised a counterpart earlier this week when in the process of researching what other agencies are up to in this space, and he’s prepared for when his agency wants to go down that path.

2. Your customers are already using it

This requires no further explanation. If you customers are already using the service, why not communicate with them using these channels, reducing your cost of interaction and getting information to them quicker instead of them having to hunt it down and find it.

A good example of this is Tourism Western Australia, who’s twitter account I found while searching for agencies in my area who were already using it. They are the only once I’ve found thus far, and on a one-way communications method they are using it well to notify people of travel deals and offers available from their tourist portal,

Sure, information regarding the discounts, offers and events of interest is already available from the website – but your customers will only find it if they are specifically visiting the website or looking for that information. Twitter is allowing them to push this information out to interested people, and the results are showing having acheived 562 followers in a space of two months.

3. Highlight hidden web content

Most agencies have pretty large websites, and information regarding updates or new content doesn’t always make it to the main page. Sure, you can have a RSS feed or list of recent changes – but why not write something short about the content and push a link to it out on a twitter feed. Takes about 15 seconds to do, and using a hash tag allows you to mark the content so people searching for that information on twitter can find it quickly.

4. Additional communications channel

One of the features of twitter is being able to send @replies and direct messages to communicate amongst twitter users. Once your twittering becomes well established, users will use these to engage with you and get responses to issues and questions.

If your users start to use with them, make sure you engage and engage quickly. Its a good idea to use a toolkit such as Tweetdeck to monitor these and ensure you reply promptly.

Just remember, be careful when it comes to privacy and confidentiality issues. While you can use the service to give basic information or refer people to the right area, don’t provide services, details or support which is normally reserved for once someone’s identity has been confirmed. If it looks like the users problem is diverting into that area, send them a direct message asking for their contact details so you can refer their enquiry onto a specialist for a direct response.

There are some good examples of how companies have used twitter to augment their service, support and enquiry channels to their advantage and benefit, a great example being much derided US internet service provider Comcast. Used smartly and wisely, twitter can become a powerful tool to respond to the needs of unhappy customers, or just demonstrating that their are real people who care working for your agency.

5. It’s easy

It doesn’t take much to get setup and start using twitter – as long as your agencies’ IT group doesn’t block access to it. If they do, it shouldn’t be hard to get them to remove the block citing your social media strategy, or at the very least get a privilege escalation so you can access and use the site to communicate for your agency.

Anyway, that’s a quick summary of the reasons of why I’ve gone down the twitter road. I’ll be seeing how this little expeirment goes over the next few months and I’ll keep you posted on the results.