Lewisham’s ebulletin

You’ll know that (by and large) this blog is a “glass half full” type of blog, but even I find the temptations of oppositional thinking quite hard to resist on occasion.

You know how it goes, you find something that is a bit rubbish and then make a mountain out that particular molehill.

lewisham enewsSo it was when I started thinking about the council email that pops into my in-box once a week. I drew up a list of just why it’s so rubbish and got to 8 points without breaking sweat.

And then I started thinking that the email was indicative of how the council views interaction with the people it serves and started to construct my negative mountain of “evidence” to support my contention. But really it’s just a neglected bit of the council’s communications portfolio.

Anyway, I’m pleased to say I’ve drawn back from the brink of criticising without offering constructive alternatives. So today I’ve emailed the council and said:

I’ve been subscribed to the email service for the last year or so and wanted to give you some feedback which I hope is constructive.

The fact that it does nothing more than reproduce the corporate communications for the week is really starting to grate. I know that the council is more than the sum of its press releases and I’d like to have my attention drawn to that in what you send out.

I also think you might look at how you can make the emails even more locally specific for us. It would be useful to know about public meetings in our area, where our councillors hold their surgeries, and so on.

I’d welcome more choice in terms of allowing me as a subscriber to find out more about particular subjects. For example, I’m interested in education in the borough as a parent and a school governor and if the email brought me news about that area of interest I’d be more interested.

You might also link to articles from Lewisham Life – particularly as our road doesn’t seem to be on the distribution list for the hard copy anymore – which would make the email livelier.

Can I also say that the way the press releases are written may work for the local papers but they just make me irritated. The style is so formulaic and corporate as to make me not feel included.

Finally I find it very strange that the council doesn’t yet have RSS on the site. Particularly for those areas where there are often changes to content (I’d be interested to know what decisions the Mayor and Cabinet are taking for instance).

I’d be interested in hearing whether you have plans to improve the way the council communicates with those of us who have an interest in what it is doing.

Anyone who feels similarly might want to make their own points to the communications team.

About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
This entry was posted in Civic Society, Lewisham and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Lewisham’s ebulletin

  1. kate says:

    As i was reading this i was thinking an online indepth Lewisham life. Then you mentioned it. I didnt know about this service as i think i would have subscribed.
    As for Lewisham life it does seem to have disapeared completely, my doctors surgery hasnt had any and i havent seen it in the shopping centre or library.
    Maybe the councils recycling bins are making good use of them?

  2. Mr Hornsby says:

    All good points Andrew, and I assure you that all of these were concerns of the Communications/Web Team when I worked there.

    Now that I don’t work there, I’m a bit more free to speak my mind. However, I’m minded to defend the website and newsletter in this instance.

    I think that it’s important to understand that the Council has not heavily invested in the website over the last few years. It has, what I believe to be, the smallest local authority web team in London. The site is run with less than three full-time editors, and no technical staff. (Compare this to other Councils that have teams of up to ten people).

    I know that the site has many shortcomings, but I think that at the moment the end-products are very good value for money. The site is certainly of a similar or better standard to other Council sites that have far more money spent on them. (There is hard evidence of this in the annual local authority website reports, conducted by SOCITM on behalf of the Government). That has got to be good news for Council Tax payers, right?

    All of the things that you’ve listed in your post are things that could be done, but all are also things that need to have money and/or time spent on them.

    Sure, it would be nice to have detailed articles about some of the specific areas of interest that you mention. But, the fact is that someone has to write these things, and that takes time, and their time costs money.

    Even creating an online version of Lewisham Life every month (as opposed to the semi-online/pdf version that is used at the moment) would take an editor a day or two every month.

    I pushed for more investment in the website while I was at Lewisham, and there were signs that this might happen in the near future, when I left.

    If the Council does decide to invest more, I think that it needs to take a hard look at what the priorities are for the website and online communications. I agree with you that better communication of local issues would be one of the priorities.

    However, I think that more people visit the website because they need or have to contact the Council, than visit because they are interested in local issues (e.g. they visit because they have to pay their Council Tax).

    For me, the Council has to look at the needs (and wants!) of everyone who visits the site or subscribes to its newsletter, and spend its money appropriately.

  3. Andrew Brown says:

    I do agree that the website and e-communications strategy shouldn’t be written with people like me as a top priority. And I’m sympathetic to the points you make about the limited resources available to implement change.

    But I don’t think that all the things I’ve asked for are really that resource intensive. RSS, for example; wouldn’t that be relatively easy to implement?

    I could even live with piecemeal improvements – linking to the existing pdf pages of Lewisham Life when it comes out would be a start.

    Officers outside of the communications teams spend a good deal of of time and effort writing reports that are seen by a handful of councillors, and an even smaller number of committed (some might say slightly unsane) members of the public. Couldn’t some of their stuff feature from time to time?

    I’m definitely not looking for overnight transformation, just trying to get things moving on from a service that feels (and is) being phoned in.

  4. Lone Ranger says:

    I don’t subscribe to the e-mail service but would like to say…..

    Part of your rant……

    “And then I started thinking that the email was indicative of how the council views interaction with the people it serves and started to construct my negative mountain of “evidence” to support my contention. But really it’s just a neglected bit of the council’s communications portfolio.”

    Could not part of the answer be in the Mayor’s ‘new’ and old website?

    There was a http://www.strevebullock.co.uk website as far back as 2004 but updates were rare and usually only when there was something contentious such as Leisure Centres, New school or Special Needs provision. The new site appears to be cut down versions of stories that have already appeared in the local press and may have originally been written by the council’s communication team?

    It would seem the e-mail service and the new website do nothing more than “reproduce the corporate communications for the week”. The impression I have is the Mayor does not understand or is interested in electronic communication and therefore it is a neglected area?

    Sometime ago I suggested how information could be made more local by reporting what councillors have been involved with in their community, only to be told that’s a no no. If Ward assemblies are introduced, will they go unreported in council communications?

    During a consultation excercise Lewisham Life only gave an example of how a child with special needs benefitted from attending mainstream school, where was the example of a child who found a mainstream school was not the best option? Just to remind you that article appeared during the consultation and prior to a council decision.

    That sort of communication exercise will lead to more and more people feeling it’s pointless having dialogue with a council, as there is a machine in place to divert attention away or ignore public concerns.

  5. Andrew Brown says:

    It can’t be a big surprise that there’ll be significant overlap in the stories covered – after all Steve’s a focus for a fair bit of the visible bit of the council’s work which is the nature of having an Executive Mayor.

    But if the stories on Steve’s website have been written by council officers I suspect there’ll be trouble ahead. If they’ve been re-written by Steve – or his political support team – then that’s a different matter.

    I’d probably agree that electronic communication hasn’t been at the top of Steve’s agenda. But, as you point out, he has had a website for quite some time, and he has used email lists to communicate with Labour Party members for some time, so it’s not quite as clear cut as all that.

  6. Mr Hornsby says:

    Going back to your point on simple improvements: RSS feeds. You’re right, and I should have set up this up while I was there, so I will take your criticism squarely on my chin.

    I’d always assumed that the Content Management System on which the website is built would have prevented me from doing this. I investigated today (my new employer has an almost identical CMS) and set one up within ten minutes. I guess it would take about twenty minutes per week to update (if we were only to update it weekly).

    So, to make amends, I will try to persuade my current lot to publish feed, and if my old chums at Lewisham are willing, I’ll pass on some set-up tips to them. (Though they will be reading this, I’m sure).

  7. kate says:

    Mr mayor is very aware of what is gong on locally in cyberspace. He doesnt only communicate this to labour people but all councillors and the head honchos at lbl.
    AS for his website or the email report i havent yet looked at these.

  8. Pingback: Being Boring « Someday I Will Treat You Good

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