Council websites are a bit of a mixed bag. They contain a lot information, but often require a lot of navigation to traverse the sites to find out what you want to know.
Where is the nearest amenity site, and does it recycle the widget you want to throw out? On which day will your rainbow coloured bin be collected? Can you get a compost bin? When will your local District Policing Partnership next meet? And where? What time’s the next full Council meeting?
It’s one thing publishing information. It’s another making people aware that the material is now available, and quite another to publish it in a usable format.
Let’s pick on Lisburn. Seems fair since that’s where I currently pay rates. Having moved back to the
town city earlier in the year, I wondered what the local council were getting up to.
Despite complying with the Freedom of Information Publication Scheme and producing a Definition Document outlining the range of information that will be voluntarily published and kept up to date, what you find is not always fit for purpose.
At the time of posting (24 August), Lisburn City Council have only published on their website the minutes of their January and February full council meetings on their website. (In total four sets of minutes covering two monthly and two special meetings.)
Nothing for March, April or May. (I wouldn’t expect June’s minutes to have been signed off before the full council meeting in September.) That’s three months of Council business that’s unavailable to local ratepayers. Update - Tuesday 6pm - April, May and June now online - still no March 2009.
The date of the next meeting is apparently 13 May 2009. (The link to the Calendar is broken. And just noticed that the phone number is incorrect - "082" instead of "028" on the How to ask questions page.) So the public August meeting may well have been and gone, without been promoted on the organisation’s own website. Not really good enough.
Surely minutes should be made public within 24 hours of being signed off.
If that covers making the material available, then there’s the matter of being in a usable format.
While most of Lisburn Council’s committee meetings are published as PDFs, the full Council meetings that I’ve looked at thus far are a mixture of Word and PDF. The majority of the PDFs that I’ve looked at are scans of the printed documents. Not sure why, as there are no signatures. But the upshot is that the scanned documents are not machine searchable.
Surely council publications should be in a usable format, ie, searchable?
What about letting people know what’s happened? Local resident can’t all be expected to buy their local weekly papers to read about the council meetings and committees (if they’ve been covered in any detail).
Thinking about it, Council’s should consider two methods of notification for new events and publications: RSS and email. There would need to be feeds to cover:
- Notice of council and committee meetings, and agendas nearer the time. Lisburn City Council have a regular pattern of full council and committee meetings on various nights of the month, there are extra special meetings and data changes due to public holidays. So although LCC have a calendar - recently updated, cough! - for the next four months worth of meetings (which omits the Full Council dates), there’s no way for the public to find out about extraordinary meetings.
- A feed of minutes published to the council public document repository. Minutes often lag the meetings by a month or three (depending on the signoff procedures and whether they have to be taken to the full Council for ratification). So would be good for the council to push out to online ratepayers when information is available.
If Councils are serious about accountability and transparency, and they intend to use online tools as a way of promoting what they are doing, then I reckon they need to put a bit more effort. At the moment, it’s another example of the medium obstructing the message.
If you’re living in another council area, why not look up their website and post a comment below to say what you find. Are their minutes up to date? Can you tell when and where you’d have to go to sit in and watch the next meeting of their planning committee? Does your local DPP keep their site up to date? PS: Very happy for Lisburn Council to take up their right of reply by email or in a comment!
Update - Wednesday - There's a follow-up post ...