Engaging in the Vision for Leeds

Warning: This post was written in a state of frustration, high dudgeon and anger.

I remember advising Chris Johnstone many months ago not to get too excited about the Vision for Leeds process.  I had my own visions of some of the city’s best activists getting drawn into bureaucratic processes that would achieve little, instead of doing what activists do best – organising campaigns, raising awareness and lobbying for change.  I was cynical about who would listen and what would change if we did choose to work with the council on their preferred methodologies of Visioning for the City.

But recently I sensed that perhaps I was wrong.

Council employees started to show interest in what we were doing.  Some expressed opinions online.   To show up at events where ‘we’, ordinary Leeds residents, were gathering to talk and plan about the future not because it was out jobs, but because it was our futures.   The tone may have been generally apologetic and defensive (on both sides) but at least we were talking.  They were no longer just inviting us into their territory to help fulfil some statutory obligations around consultation, but to step into ours.

Perhaps I should at least reciprocate?

So it was with some enthusiasm that I waited for the launch of the What If Leeds… site, which promised to be a place to share views on how Leeds can become a better place to live, work and play.  Not withstanding reservations about branding and design, the intent felt right.

The site launched on Monday.  I wrote a piece.  I was encouraged to ‘Do the Math’ to save.  I did the math.  And my post was lost into the ether.  I tried again.  Same result. I swapped browser.  Same result.

I tried to look at  another debate.  But when I clicked the link I was told the debate I was interested in ‘was not found’.  So I tried to create it.  But no luck.

A couple of us decided to set up a site that would do the job.  A simple grou.ps site and a wordpress blog that would provide all the functionality we needed for free.  It took us half an hour.

But we were counselled to be patient.  Let the council fix the site.  Don’t set up competing sites. (In our mind it was not so much about ‘competing’ but ‘working’.  We thought we might actually be helping…).

The Council site was taken down because of ‘technical difficulties’.

Today, Wednesday it came back online.  I wrote a post and guess what…Groundhog Day.  Deja Vu! More wasted time….

I was angry and frustrated.  I still am.

Not primarily because my time had been wasted and my words lost.  Some will think that no bad thing.  But because:

  • the potential for an interesting use of social media to inform policy in the city, and through which ideas could be developed has been damaged
  • an opportunity to build social capital through online conversations about topics that matter to us has been lost
  • a platform that may allow fresh voices to be heard has so far failed to deliver
  • we have given petrol to the cynics who would make a bonfire of our attempts at online engagement and dialogue.

And the cynics lie both inside and outside of the council.

I know of at least four influential bloggers and tweeters who have attempted to work with the site and would have happily promoted it to their extensive networks, had it done what it said on the tin.

But I also know people who say to me ‘Mike, why do you bother? Even if the site was well designed and worked, do you really think they would listen?’  People who dispense the advice to me that I had dispensed to Chris all those months ago.

And as my daughter said to me this morning. ‘The Council?  What have they got to do with us?’.  And for me this says everything about the work that needs to be done to build the partnership between council and residents.

You can access the What If Leeds site here

If you have something to say, but that site won’t work for you, then you can access the site we built here.

NB This is not an attempt at ‘council bashing’.  I know and respect many in the council.  Good people, doing good work.  They get much very right.  I was an employee myself for a couple for years.  It is just a report of my experience and feelings in relation to this one piece of activity.

And hallelujah that the web makes it easy for me to do so!


  1. Mike

    I cannot argue with your frustration – I am frustrated too.

    More than anything I want to create some proper dialogue about the future of the city.

    I have just agreed with our web developers that the site will be rebuilt- and will be available from 4pm Friday. I could attempt a technical description of what has gone wrong – but I am more interested in the developers getting it right.

    We want the discussion to continue – and the consultation runs till 31st December – so lots of time for everyone to have their say

    That said we have set up a number of channels that are working.
    and on twitter @whatifleeds and #whatifleeds.

    You have now set up your forum and wherever people comment we will make sure we listen to what they say – and that their thoughts and ideas contribute to the development of a Vision which reflects peoples views.

    I can think of little more annoying than carefully typed words dissappearing into the ether so I can see why it produced ‘a state of frustration, high dudgeon and anger’. A state I have shared over the last 48 hours – but there is the opportunity to put it right.


    • It is interesting to observe that all of the free social media type stuff is working reliably and presumably cost effectively. The same route of a social media low/no-cost forum platform for the website would have done the job and perhaps saved a few bob.

      I guess the learning point is that if you do go down the ‘custom built site route’ then some real user testing has to be built into the process.

      My frustration is less with the mechanics of the site however than the fuel it gives to those who are cynical about the role of the web in building better relationships between the council and residents leading to the development of more informed and better supported policy.

    • Martin, your web developers led a well intentioned initiative into a very public failure at its most sensitive moment.

      Leeds has two great public squares where you can string up their bodies 😉

      The default position should be to use free and public communities or to pull in the skills of the many talented people in the city’s various digital communities.

  2. I remember that advice all those months ago. And you were certainly not the only person to give it!

    I can only agree with everything you’ve written on the lost opportunity, cost effectiveness, and fuelling of cynicism. But despite this stumbling block, the general trend you describe rings true; more and more ‘council people’ are coming out of the civic hall, and more and more people are starting to engage with ‘the council’.

    I think there are a few reasons for this.
    > People like yourself have built real relationships with real people. This in turn has built trust on both sides that can allow a dialogue.
    > There is now a very visible space for people’s views on ‘the council’ – the internet. There is also space for interaction online and increasingly offline.
    > A recognition that we haven’t narrowed the gap and there are huge challenges ahead means ‘the Council’ are looking for answers.

    People are listening right now, but what are we saying to them? This is typified by that presentation at Service Design Thinks t’other day where we were told Leeds Love It Share It spent £90k to tell the Council that Richmond Hill is a deprived area. Solutions? Suggestions? None, other than more gardening. You are of course a man of ideas Mike – I wonder how well the rest of us are doing.

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