Councils going direct with apps

By Julian Bajkowski and Paul Hemsley

Australian local governments are poised to rapidly become public sector front-runners in using innovative smartphone applications and the web to directly engage their communities in consultative processes on issues ranging from social policy to development applications.

Over the weekend, the City of Sydney revealed plans to build apps that will give ratepayers and constituents a far more accessible and direct say in matters local, including building plans, as part of moves to push community engagement into the digital age.

Sydney’s moves to solicit official feedback directly from hand-held devices is highly significant because it has real potential to shake-up how council decisions are both made and influenced by giving a direct say to people who might otherwise find it too difficult to engage with local government.

The development of Sydney’s new app builds on the existing dedicated feedback “Sydney Your Say” website which a council spokeswoman said had been “very effective in generating community comment on projects large, medium and small – from playground refurbishments to open space at new commercial sector housing developments projects, to the Night Time Economy policy and City Farm.”

“Online and digital communications compare favourably in terms of cost,” the spokeswoman said. “They represent an additional portal, not an alternative, to traditional methods of community consultation such as printed letter drops, face-to-face meetings and roundtable discussions.”

In July 2012 Randwick City Council, in Sydney’s east, launched what it claims is an Australian first in giving its constituents an iPhone app that plugs into council functions ranging from development notifications to booking rubbish collections.

The indication of Sydney’s latest intentions comes on the eve of the CeBIT Gov2.0 conference in Canberra where more government agencies will reveal their plans for mobile apps and social media engagement.

However the development of council smartphone apps is certain to be watched closely by key interest groups, particularly in property and commercial development. Industry lobbyists have for decades plied a lucrative trade in trying to influence favourable outcomes that at least in part rely on community feedback – and sometimes the lack of it.

A big unknown factor for councils, stakeholders and interest groups is whether in increased access to community sentiment through apps and communication with the community will increase consensus on thorny issues or just create new divisions.

Another key test will be whether community and issues groups who already harness social media and so-called Web 2.0 technology will be able to translate the interest they generate into actual feedback that can be put to official use.

In August 2012, the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government published the first official snapshot of councils’ use of social media based on a survey of 560 local governments.

Significantly, the paper found that while 68 per cent of councils had some sort of social media presence on platforms like Facebook, the majority of respondents saw most value in using it to promote events (87 per cent) and “general community engagement” (79 per cent).

The ACELG paper found two per cent saw value or had plans to use social media tools for functions related to development applications, such as alerts. And at the time of the survey, it found that only one local government had built an iPhone app for residents to download.

But such nominal uptake rates for consultative technology could be upended if Randwick and Sydney City’s experiences prove rewarding.

A big drawcard of smartphone apps and social media communications is that councils and councillors can interact far more directly and economically with the community on issues, thus bypassing or countering the often negative impact of so-called opinion makers like inflammatory talkback radio hosts.

The power to put council information straight into the hands of communities is a clearly appealing prospect, at least from the ACELG’s point of view.

“While the mainstream media of the press and the broadcast media have always been integral to a council’s communication activities, social media is both extending the potential reach and enabling councils to communicate directly with particular target audiences,” the ACELG paper said.

“Council officers … noted that the media adds its own interpretation, or ‘take’ on the story, which may or may not be welcomed by the council. Also, the media is able to present a particular viewpoint and will publish other opinions. Previously, if reports were inaccurate, council had little opportunity to correct the misinformation.”

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