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Municipal government correspondence on websites enables efficient sharing

Pete Quily directed me to a recent story in the Georgia Straight about West Vancouver’s opening up of Council Correspondence (this is their correspondence page for 2010) on their website. Charlie Smith, the author of the article, calls for all Metro Vancouver municipalities to follow suit, in making their interactions with everyone open and available.

There are a few things that are interesting to me about this move. Firstly, I think it’s a great idea. Smith also calls for TransLink to do it. It’s not too far off from some of the suggestions Roland and I batted around on video in TransLinked episode 1. Although the motivation greatly varies, the basic idea is that same: instead of having our collective correspondence go into a virtual black hole,  where we speculate to its place in the queue and we may or may not get a response in the end, why not have the answers to those questions and suggestions of our fellow citizens incorporated into the general pool of knowledge for everybody who’s thinking, experiencing or concluding similar things? Then we would have a a way to look that sort of thing up, as well as to show either consistency (or inconsistency, or evolution) in Council’s responses.

That said, there’s something to be said for execution. Council’s correspondence appears to consist of letters scanned into a PDF image with no selectable text in weekly batches. Names and emails are whited out — unless the person indicates themselves to be representing an organization (it seems). There’s even a couple of “Page intentionally left blank”‘s in there. Aside from being kind of annoying on the eyes to read, this does kind of render one of the previously mentioned benefits of doing this kind of thing useless: these PDFs can’t be indexed by Google, or searched using any of the tools in our newfangled computer machine-things.

For example: if I wanted to follow a councillor’s responses through the months and weeks on any given topic — especially, say, if I were wondering whether I should vote for them based on their record for supporting Issue That Matters to Me — I would essentially have to look at it with my naked eye, or worse, print it out and have a party with some like-minded friends.

While I think this is an excellent step and speaks highly of West Vancouver’s commitment to nurturing the relationship between their elected officials and constituents, I think this could be made 10 times cooler, especially if this means some civil staffer doesn’t have to print out the correspondence, go nuts with the white out, then scan the letters back in. We could then run fun analytics on the correspondence, such as:

  • total volume per issue category
  • total volume per councillor
  • monthly average over the course of the year (to find out which is the slowest month for a councillor’s inbox?)

Honestly, unless councillors are running emacs bbdb or CRM software, I wonder if they even know this much about their own email behaviour. (Can someone who’s worked for a politician enlighten me, perhaps?)

Pete also posted a comment to the article, calling for a system which would allow tracking how our councillors vote on issues. I think it would be rad to see, and possibly involve some crazy hacking-mojo that includes those voting buttons and meeting facilitation lights built into the wood-paneled sitting area for each councillor. I don’t know how old that system is, but I will bet you a beer it’s proprietary, closed, with perhaps some great integration to Microsoft Word.1

I also noticed that TransLink’s Drew Snider commented that TransLink has “something like this,” to which he refers the Buzzer blog and the bulletin-board system set-up for their public study for the UBC Line. Questions get posted and answered publicly on both. While I think TransLink has made some great strides and I think the Buzzer blog is a great example of a consistent online presence for a transit agency, I would say open council correspondence would be more akin to turning the Customer Inquiries e-mail address into a Get Satisfaction website — where people can not only ask questions, but hear about ideas or describe problems and, most interestingly, collaborate on possible diagnoses, workarounds and long-term solutions. Which is a little harder for transit agencies than software, granted, but no less empowering for those suffering because as a result of those issues and difficulties.

1: As an aside, there’s such an awesome ’60s BatMan the TV Show aesthetic. In fact, Adam West and Gregor kinda look alike from a certain angle…

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