MORI reserach showed that the public want councils to listen to people moreThanks to a national e-government program, citizens can now access public services through their local council's website. This is quite an achievement. But in the race to meet the 2005 deadline for total service e-enablement - from allotments to council tax to waste disposal - have councils fallen behind the times in providing an engaging interface for their residents?

Interactivity on the web is proceeding at a cracking pace, as demonstrated by the BBC's introduction of a self-moderating comment system for its Have Your Say pages, and the Daily Mail's addition last week of a comment facility to every news story.

Citizen journalism is the new buzzword, and the web is finally fulfilling its promise of being a fully democratic publishing platform.

As part of recent research conducted by MORI's local government team, communities were asked what would improve their impression of their council. The top three messages were: 'be more visible'; 'be accountable'; and 'try to listen to people more'.

The traditional, one directional publishing model, where information is pushed out to an audience, is being moderated to incorporate a more participatory and collaborative approach to content creation. And this approach is no longer the preserve of the technorati - participatory content has gone mainstream.

The boundaries between content that is generated by the public and by institutions and businesses has blurred. News agencies are using images from mobile phones submitted by individuals, and the self-sustaining online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has joined Google and eBay in the lexicon of universally recognised web brands.

The general public has come to expect a degree of interactivity from websites, and councils need to address this. Preoccupied as they have been with integrating technologies and back-end systems, their front-end web communications run the risk of looking outdated and unappealing.

What better way to demonstrate a commitment to democratic renewal - a priority outcome for e-government - than to stimulate a conversation between residents and their council? This democratic renewal priority stipulates that councils need to promote 'greater public involvement in local decision making'. This is already being addressed to some degree by web-based consultation projects, campaign-specific microsites, and the provision of a web presence for local councillors. But many council websites - the gateway to local services - remain as foreboding as a Victorian town hall.

In practical terms, introducing an element of interactivity is not easy. The idea of letting the public loose on council-run websites would probably loosen the bowels of even the most radical chief executive. Naturally, these much-lambasted organisations will be reticent about publishing public opinion. After all, when did you last hear local people or the local press say anything good about their council?

But the Wikipedia project - which allows anyone to publish or edit material on the website - has proved that web vandals can be counteracted by peer review and monitoring. And there are plenty of safer halfway houses - like monitored discussion forums and weblogs written by senior staff - which still go some way in providing a forum for discourse between residents and council.

Providing a platform for interaction between councils and residents will counter the most common accusation levelled at local authorities, which is that they do not listen. Residents want to feel that their opinions and anxieties are being acknowledged, and demonstrating this could significantly improve the reputation of local authorities.

As part of recent research conducted by MORI's Local Government Team, communities were asked what would improve their impression of their council. The top three messages were: 'be more visible'; 'be accountable'; and 'try to listen to people more'.

Publishing resident feedback will significantly improve a council's image, showing it to be a transparent and personable organisation, rather than an oblique and faceless institution.

And this message is not just for councils. Both the public and private sector - from small local outfits to multinational corporations - will need to be rethinking their web communications with these higher expectations of interactivity in mind.

Another e-government priority for local authorities is the provision of 'community information'. The potential here for devolving publishing to the community is clear, with the council taking responsibility for the facilitation and monitoring of the web services, and residents and local businesses providing the information. Running and staffing these web services could be costly, but this could be offset by the considerable savings that user-generated content can offer.

But are residents not happiest when they do not have to engage with their council? Do they not just want to complete a task or transaction and leave the website as quickly as possible? Valid as it was, this argument predates the mainstreaming of interactivity on the web. Participation is a user expectation now, and rather than baulking at the proposition, councils could be using it to their own advantage.

Producing dynamic content that reflects the personality of the community proves that councils understand and care about their locality, and are not just skulking behind the closed doors of the town hall.

The web has provided councils with a clean slate - a unique chance to reinvent themselves. If councils want to dispel the image that they are faceless, bureaucratic monoliths, they need to create something more than a plain piece of e-government functionality.

Christian Walsh is a freelance journalist and editor of IDeA Knowledge, local government's primary source of improvement news and good practice.

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