Although there is an icon on the menu bar above that interrogates the council’s meeting calendar directly, last night’s Digital Future Sub-Committee meeting failed to penetrate my consciousness until councillor Rob Leitch Tweeted about it rather late in the day.
My interest in the subject is centred around disturbing experiences in Newham where they have come close to withdrawing telephone and email access and services can only be accessed via a web form.
There is a Contact Centre but the phone line is voice operated and the only time I managed to reach an operator was when I spoke nonsense into it. ‘Direct Debit’ and ‘Council Tax’ were both unrecognised phrases but all the adviser could do was apologise for being unhelpful and turn me away.
There is no provision whatsoever for the elderly housebound.
Earlier this month in an emergency situation I had to ask my MP if she could forward an email to the Newham MP who forwarded it to Newham’s Chief Executive. It was perhaps an outrageous piece of string pulling but it had the desired effect, and the need for it is totally ridiculous.
Bexley council shows signs of treading a similar path, it is part of their programme of cuts, although experience suggests they won’t be as unreasonable as Newham.
The Sub-Committee meeting was held in a small room which was far from ideal for public attendance but fortunately I was its lone representative. I was invited to join the members and officers on their table which was good of them but such close proximity makes joining the discussion rather too tempting. I resisted it - just.
The omens for a digital future were not immediately good. The laptop feeding the projector was showing an error message and when councillor Steven Hall made a call on his mobile it cut off prematurely. My own mobile received its first call since 26th August when a correspondent called in with the latest news from Tower Hamlets - embarrassing - and my audio recorder kept popping up a ‘Card write error’. To my surprise the recording plays back just fine. The DSLR stayed in its case because it would have felt obtrusively rude to snap away at my immediate neighbours, and in any case you have seen them all before.
Apart from Steven Hall, councillors John Davey, Alan Deadman, Andy Dourmoush, Louie French, John Husband, Cafer Munir and Rob Leitch and a couple of council officers were all present.
The formal election of a chairman took about five seconds but Rob Leitch must have been selected beforehand. He immediately launched into a well prepared introduction to the meeting. Rob is good but probably not that good at taking up the reins unprepared.
The council’s website was an obvious subject for discussion and came in for a certain amount of criticism, the search facility being widely condemned. Bexley’s website has gradually improved over the years but when I occasionally trawl for information around all the London boroughs it is obviously far from being the prettiest or the most easily navigated; neither is it the worst. But it is consistently the slowest.
The following council websites were said to be good examples of the designer’s craft…
|Argyle & Bute||Chichester DC||Hackney||Preston City|
|Blaby DC||Cornwall||Hinckley & Bosworth BC||South Lanarkshire|
|Bristol City||East Riding||Kent County||Staffordshire CC|
|Canterbury City||Eden DC||North Yorkshire CC||Warwick DC|
|City of Cardiff||City of Edinburgh||Oxfordshire CC|
Councillors were tasked with assessing their suitability for Bexley and focus groups are to be asked too. Probably Rob Leitch would be receptive to comments from any interested resident.
From the statistics provided it would appear that Bexley council’s website is eight to ten times busier than Bexley is Bonkers and occasionally a little more.
The jargon for moving service provision to the web is Channel Shift and the impetus for it will be to reduce the opportunity for face to face and telephone access. The justification when budgets are stretched is obvious. The average face to face encounter costs £14 and an on line contact can cost as little as eight pence.
Depending on the service requested, telephones will be answered slowly or maybe not at all. The only two calls I made this year both went to 20 minutes.
Recognition was given to what was termed the Digital Divide, people who are unable to use the web. There are no easy answers.
The Chairman advocated greater use of Social Media but only councillor French currently shares his enthusiasm for it.
The council has been spending up to £50,000 a year printing documents for councillors and employs two men and a van delivering them to each member. Electronic distribution has obvious attractions and not so obvious disadvantages. Imagine 63 councillors at a meeting staring at their tablets and a battery goes flat.
Councillor Hall was sufficiently alert to remember that the public need Agendas at meetings too. The problems are not insurmountable but the solutions unlikely to be as convenient as paper. But even £35,000 a year (the reduced figure following recent efficiencies) printing Agendas etc. is far too much.
There was no enthusiasm for tablets being provided at public expense. Andy Dourmoush said “that is what the allowance is for”. The new crop of councillors can occasionally be a breath of fresh air.
No councillor said anything at the meeting to which any member of the public could reasonably object. With Rob Leitch the digital future may be in good hands, but finding an acceptable solution to the digitally deprived will not be easy. Going to the library as advocated by one council officer is not always possible.