Is transparency hurting? Maybe more transparency will help…

I’ve posted at the Local Democracy blog about an idea I’m working through with a few friends – encouraging school pupils to take information about their local authority and look at new ways of presenting it.

This is intended to help local authorities engage with lots of people rather than the small proportion of the population who are the angriest – or those who want to push the council into doing something that is not necessarily in the interests of everybody living in the area.

Organisations that dip their toes into social media often find themselves getting their fingers burnt. After all, there will often be a small number of people who have a long-standing grievance with your organisation, or who feel very strongly about a subject that you can do something about.

These are the people who send regular Freedom of Information requests. The ones who turn up to every consultation and write letters to newspapers. Increasingly, they’ve also turned to blogging. They’re at the top of the ‘am I bothered?’ pyramid:

It’s understandable that the tempation to retire hurt arises at this point. But are these people in the red triangle – the active citizens – entitled to any more of your energy than the lower layers? Should their opinions or interests weigh any more heavily than everyone elses?

If you want a quiet life in the short term, the answer is yes. Often they will make good public-interest points, and sometimes, a bit of adversarial argy-bargy can keep everyone on their toes.

But in some cases, you almost have a duty to sidestep the hard-to-avoids to engage with the hard-to-reach people who also have the right to have their interests served. So how can you do this if you are spending a lot of time just answering the (legally enforceable) demands of this group?

If you make your information hard to get / boring to read, only people in the red ‘care a lot’ triangle will ever engage with it. Here’s an four-step programme to get over this problem.

  • Make as much information about your organisation available in a form that anyone can re-use it. So any data you have should be loaded as a .csv file (i.e. just let people download the spreadsheet that you compiled it in) so that others can download it and make their own graphs
  • If you have the resources, spend some time making the information intersting and easy-to-enagage with. A nice infographic will be picked up by a lot of people.
  • If you don’t have the resources to do this, find ways of incentivising lots of people to take that information and create their own account of what your organisation does – if you can encourage people to do it in a manner that is disinterested and not inductive, all the better (thus the idea about getting school pupils involved).
  • Make the infographics you (or they) produce ‘re-usable’ so that they can be discussed everywhere – not just on your own website.This is the thinking behind the Birmingham Newsroom, among other projects.

People can take your information and use it to make data mashups (like this map of businesses that serve the London Borough of Redbridge). They can use it to make an explanatory video, create a powerpoint presentation that is loaded up to Slideshare, or even a classy Prezi among other things.

This will disperse the conversation, involve more people and break the monopoly that the red triangle has over your conversations.

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