Monday 29 November 2010

BWD winter - one Council, two people, a lot of determination

Lots and lots of blog inches have been devoted to bemoaning the direness of local governments reaction to the winter weather we are currently experiencing. I can't rebut them all. I'm tired of rebutting them all, frankly.

So, instead, I'm going to explain what happens when a Council has a Director of Communications who understands social media and lets his staff have free reign (within reason), a Head of Communications who is supportive, endlessly patient and relentlessly cheerleads when needed and a PR Officer who just wants residents to understand exactly what happened last year, why it happened, that we've taken steps to ensure it doesn't happen again this year but acknowledges that if it does happen again, being in an arena where people are discussing that failure is perhaps far more of value than sticking fingers in ears and singing la la la.

Essentially, though, BWD Winter is a labour of love for two people - the PR Officer and me. I know it for what it is - a beautiful opportunity to demonstrate exactly what a combination of digital, social media, mapping, Flickr and YouTube can do when all resources are thrown at it and no punches are pulled. It's definitely love, because it's taken a lot of work and determination to circumnavigate our somewhat elderly Content Managenment System. It's definitely love because the PR Officer is frequently speaking to Highways and Grit Control at  8pm on a Sunday evening. Services between 9-5pm? Not in winter. So the communications systems have changed to reflect that.

It started with a Winter Services hub page on our website. Just, you know, bog standard really. Info about gritters somehow made interesting, awesome pics of gritters doing their thing (if you're into that kind of thing, some people are, who am I to comment). Then an internal email newsletter appeared, keeping Directors and Members up to date with developments and concerns to forewarn them of incoming issues, but also to celebrate successes. Lovely internal comms but no use to the residents.

Then, one morning, the PR Officer came bouncing up to me and asked if we could have a Facebook page. Yeah, course, I said. 48 hours or so later, we'd got a BWD Winter Facebook page. And no Likes. So off we went, all of our team, merrily commenting and throwing it into our friends streams. I'm sure there is a better way of seeding a new page or group into peoples consciousness - but we were experimenting. It snowballed quite quickly (ha ha ha) and 100 Likes later, in the middle of September, when snow was but a distant cystallised twinkle in the eye, we thought we might be onto something. The grit got delivered, pictures got taken, up they went. People talked and chatted and commented between themselves, and our PR Officer replied every time a question was asked. She still does. If she doesn't know the answer, she asks Highways. If she doesn't have any pictures she wants, she asks the gritters to take some. No professional shots here, just staff taking two minutes to pop outside with their 5 megapixel snapper. Content, magically appeared.

Then we figured tying it to Twitter might be an idea. It's tied to the FB page because we're broadcasting, of course we are, but we check for replies. Check for questions. Make sure no one is missed. But Facebook is the hub of the dynamic content, which in some ways considering the demographics of our area, is exactly the way it should be.

So, what else are we publishing on our Facebook page? Pictures aren't information, pretty as they are. So there's Met Office updates, school closure updates. There will be service updates on refuse and recycling collection should we get to the point, as we did last year, where the Head of Environment decides at 7am to pull the service. We'll explain that decision, we'll explain alternative collection points if we need to implement them. We'll also map them. We'll come back to that later. We'll explain about burst pipes in schools, we'll relay traffic hotspots and accident blackposts courtesy of the Gritter Control who will receive up to the minute traffic information - from the people driving up and down the roads - the gritter drivers.

It's not all data though. Not all boring stuff. There's a call for scenic photographs on the Facebook page at the moment so we can share the pretty. When the snow comes down properly, we'll hopefully be holding a best snowman competition - no monetary prizes though, only that all submissions will be published on the Council Flickr page in a specific set, and that the winner will go in a simple frame and be displayed in the Town Hall foyer. Momentary fame but a reward for bothering, nevertheless.

A few week ago, it came to my notice that people were publishing lots of gritting route info down in the West Midlands. @danslee and @sarahlay being the prime suspects. So off we went on an epic journey through 2 Departments and assorted meetings and negotiations, to get permission, get them hand drawn, get them to display properly using basic Google maps and get our aging Content Management System not to throw a complete hissy fit on loading something other than text, image or documents. It took relentless negotiating with people and tech to get those maps up. They're up. By any means necessary took on a whole new meaning. Mapping the grit bins has been simplicity itself in comparison, but a shining star in Transport still needed to run 3 revisions before being confident that most of the markers were in the right place, if not on the right side of the road. It's certainly brought asset mapping and tracking into the forefront of Highways mindset, which perhaps is a good thing? Certainly the bins will be numbered cheaply next year, and thanks to a discussion spawned by that, lampposts will be QR coded too, quite probably. Because perhaps the magic of social media collaboration between Communications and other Departments is not the actual conversation, but that the conversation on such things has been started at all. Bridge building.

So, now, our web hub has:
  • Basic information on gritting, why we do it, when we do it and how we do it
  • Maps showing the locations of all grit bins within the Borough which people are encouraged to feedback on if we've got it wrong
  • Maps showing all our gritting routes as a term of reference for those bothered to find out when we say on our Facebook page which routes we're gritting, primary or secondary
  • A link to a Facebook page with over 450 likes and 4000 impressions a day on busy days, where conversations, two way conversations are happening
  • A link to a Twitter stream being checked regularly for feedback
  • A Flickr gallery of gritters pictures, which will shortly be updated with residents scenic photographs
So what's the value of all this hard work and constant liasing and updating? Well. I guess this is where we find out.

With thanks to the PR Officer who started all this, @luciehigham, the Head of Comms who's been immensely supportive, @marcschmid, the Director who allows us a bit of lee way, @tomstanard and most of all to @leejorgensen, the bloke who puts up with me sitting at my desk clapping my hands excitedly when it works, and who helps me fix it by being calm when it doesn't. And whose righteous google maps hack means those grit bins are all on the same map instead of being paginated.

Teamwork. Even when we're heading towards having no money at all, that costs nothing at all. And some days, some times, on things like this, we've got it in spades. Cost of doing above = nothing. Happy residents feeling informed? Around 4,000 but we reckon word of mouth might mean just a few more.


  1. Congratulations on this. Hopefully more councils will see it and follow your example - and yes I know quite a few already are, but too many are not. Part of the reason why people don't do this stuff is they think it is too difficult. Well, it is VERY difficult for the early adopters like you, but you trailblaze to make it easy for those who follow

  2. Well done! lighting up our world. Getting shinier by the day. You lot rock. Salt.
    chris x

  3. @johnpopham we're not trailblazers, Kirklees and others were last year. But we wanted to tell people exactly what we are doing and will do and offer help and advice so they can understand what we're doing and that it's not voodoo, just planning, determination and execution.
    @chris Rock. Salt. LOL.

  4. this is great work - sent all my staff the links today as part of our contingency planning for the weather this means
    1. we get to plan cover
    2. we all get same message/info
    3. we keep the service up and running

  5. What a terrific blog! Somebody tweeted this, I had a look, then I read it and then I thought brilliant use of Social Media. Nicely done and hope you wrap up warm.

  6. Ah, the old talking up Likes strategy; love it!
    However Likes about to be copyrighted by Fbook apparently. Think we need a Facebook for Civil Society...

  7. Brilliant post and a great example of proactive work which is well planned and executed - definitely buy yourself a box of chocolates as a reward!

  8. Brilliant - great to read of good use of SNs - and a management happy to support it. Virtual hot toddies all round I think!

  9. Well done!

    It's also very helpful to have such posts explaining what, why and how you've done it so others can point to your example and say "Look! They've done it, and it works, and the sky has not fallen in nor the ground opened up under our feet (but if it did, we can get word to the community quicker & respond to their questions)."

    I know that your post is going to help other public services elsewhere.
    PS I enjoy your writing style too :-)

  10. @julie I'm really glad it's of use.
    @fred6368 Our page impressions are far higher than our Likes, what are you on about? :O) Liking something means clicking a button. Coming back and checking what we're saying and how we're saying it means more. Relieved doesn't even come close, to be honest.
    @welove I'm on a diet shhhh! (it started today to be fair)
    @SN I'm not going to say no to a hot toddy. One must have some pleasures left in life :O)
    @janetedavis Thank you. That's exactly why I wanted to write it. It's not about us, or me. It's about a replicatable model for approaching SM in local gov. Pick it up, pass it on :O)