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!