Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is your council website only giving the illusion of transparency and public accountability?

Lisburn City Council

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.

District Policing Partnership logo

What about the Lisburn District Policing Partnership? Another local body associated with the City Council. Even worse. No minutes published online for 2009. Some of the 2008 minutes still missing.

Lisburn District policing Partnership calendar of meetings ... broken

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.

Snippet of Lisburn City Council minutes ... a scan published as a PDF

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 ...


Timothy Belmont said...

I wonder if Lisburn councillors can be contacted by email? I think Belfast coucillors - or some of them - are slowly entering the cyberworld!


Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Yes - email addresses are included in the per-area PDF files (random example) listing who's who.

Anonymous said...

Just try contacting them by the e-mail address they give - most of them haven't got a clue and have never responded to an e-mail in their lives.

The truth is that our local councils don't actually care about your criticisms, they are gearing up for the big changeover when it will be somebody else's problem to sort out, even though in most cases it will be the same people working under another council name.

But service is a dirty word in NI, nobody gives a toss about anyone else as long as they get their pay check at the end of the week/month whatever.

Mark said...

I have almost given up on finding useful information on Lisburn Council's website.

If you try to find things by clicking around, the site structure seems like it exposes only a very small amount of information. If you're lucky and click the right link you might find a bit more.

There is a PDF that lists phone numbers and email addresses for contacts in all the various departments. I've found it to be the single most useful thing on the site, but every time I go looking for it I have to hunt for at least 5 minutes.

There is a search on the site, but I've found it, too, to be a long way from usable.

I wonder if a council somewhere would try architecting a site according to what the users are after rather than by their own corporate structure? Then, rather than saying "I need to get in touch with environmental services" you could say "I have a problem with my house/street. It's the bins."

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

@Anonymous - To be fair to LCC, when emailed about bad links they did come back after a few days with the links fixed. And they uploaded most of the missing full council minutes (except March and a special one in April) within 24 hours of being told.

Much better than Margerafelt District Council who don't appear to publish any minutes online, don't appear to list dates of (public) meetings online, and whose email addresses were all bouncing emails sent from gmail last night.

Jenny said...

I think at least part of the problem is the state of IT departments in the public sector. In most of the local councils (in England) and universities (NI, SCotland and the Republic) where I've worked, it's incredibly difficult getting anything posted onto a web site, and as for getting something designed from scratch to be user friendly, you'll be collecting your pension first. IT staff just don't seem to be managed at all.