My colleague Sarah Hartley, writing on Prolific North has uncovered the extent of government spending on advertising with a handful of local papers in some Northern cities – the so called statutory notices. And CLG has at the same time published an interesting document on experimenting with changes to the statutory notices regime.
It’s a topic we have been poking away at for a while here, in particular while working with Carnegie UK Trust and talking to the amazing MySociety about how a modern approach to data could help local people get involved in decision making. And also how to create a level playing field for hyperlocal websites as they try to increase local plurality, but can’t access money that goes to ‘print’. If you have any local information – such as my FOIs to LB Islington Sarah has done a great map you can add it to.
There’s been a lot of blogging on the topic from former council comms guy and now consultant Dan Slee (with several interesting comments from David Higgerson of Trinity Mirror), Rick Waghorn of Addiply and Simon Perry of On the Wight: I am going to separate this out into two issues – firstly keeping people informed about important local things like planning applications etc. so they can hold politicians to account and secondly subsidy or soft money for local media disguised as ads. This blog post is about the first of these, the second will follow shortly.
The old legal provisions that notices should appear in print or the press or a newspaper are obviously out of date today and will be even more so in the future. What is out of date is not so much the medium (print is fine for some) but the mass un-targeted messaging that puts the burden on the citizen to wade through it all.
When you are active in a local community the volume of stuff public bodies or people acting for them spews out is unmanageable. There is far, far too much of it to digest – hundreds, even thousands of items a week for most boroughs. And there will be a lot more to come if Labour’s devolution ideas come to pass. My experience of national legislation from the civil service makes me certain that, when legislators ruled for ‘notice in a newspaper’ they were looking only at that instance of the Drainage Regulation 1978 not the picture in the round after 50 years of aggregation. Essentially the current system is the state creating a massive regulatory burden on citizens and businesses as they try to uphold and enforce their rights.
If the right information appeared in the right place at the right time more people would use it.
Some councils do try to help citizens manage and customise alerts – but in a very clunky way. And we can see that even the best tech companies struggle with highly personalised alerts. Anyone who uses the promising Google Now will tell you how far it has to go before it works on planning applications in Wigan. In my view, the current state of the art of alerting services isn’t precise enough for the complex world of local civic issues to finely target individual citizens without overwhelming them and making them turn it off.
Direct alerting to citizens might actually be a red herring, based on my own experience of community action and grassroots media. In a society structured around representative democracy, I find that the majority of people want to be alerted by those who represent them or whom they trust speak on their behalf. This could be individual councillors, other representatives, activists, journalists, local bloggers, local social media feeds etc. And indeed these people are much better at communicating and alerting people and making judgements about when to do so than the institutions that publish local statutory information.
However, local politicians such as councillors and local activists, the people who run local websites, twitter feeds and Facebook pages and MPs staff and the diminishing number of local journalists are also overwhelmed by the tidal wave of weekly civic data. These vital democratic actors are the people who need the most support with customised alerts and warnings about statutory notices and other civic information.
Almost all the information is available digitally, albeit presented badly online within pdfs or in creaking databases on public bodies’ websites. Each public body publishes it in a different way. To turn this into an alerting service is large data problem: finding, gathering, storing, sorting, interpreting and then presenting data as useful information to people who can use it when they want it. In an ideal world councils would publish their information to common standards so that it can easily be re-used but the tragic reality of bureaucratic politics makes this as likely as Eric Pickles becoming slimmer of the year. The much harder task of scraping and wrangling this information from council websites and putting it into a usable form requires the sort of experience MySociety, Scraper Wiki and their colleagues have.
So this is a large problem, but not an insurmountable one if you know what questions to ask and have great coding talent. We know that sophisticated and expensive commercial data services are available in areas such as planning and land use. But few public facing ones designed and built as a public service that go across the broad waterfront of statutory notices and other local civic information from say the HSE, courts, police etc.
Talk About Local, using our experience of grassroots activism and journalism has been chatting for some time with MySociety and MySociety Ltd, arguably the world’s best civic data talent, to see what can actually be delivered using current technology to help people make sense of the local data avalanche. We think it is possible to deliver some quite startling tools for civic democratic actors in local politics, activism and journalism. In some cases answering questions about what is going on locally that on paper seem unanswerable. We’ll write some more about this shortly and are interested in putting it into the strangely formed CLG EOI process. If anyone would like to partner with us or just chat about it drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org
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