Thanks to the so-called ‘cucumber time’, the municipality of Noordoostpolder drew the attention of the press. I can imagine how that went in Emmeloord. In my mind, I heard the communication lady say to the mayor:
“What a shame, isn’t it? The empty press section.”
“Absolutely! What we do is important, isn’t it? Why do we never see those boys and girls from the press?”
“What if we hire someone ourselves?”
“You mean – our own reporter?”
“Exactly! Our own Council reporter. We will deliver ready-made texts. They don’t have to show up, but we will end up in the newspaper. Let’s call it a win-win situation!”
And so it happened. A job advertisement was made. Some reporter of a local paper wrote a short piece. In Hilversum, they sometimes tend to read those papers and before they heard of it in Emmeloord, national television showed up at their door. Because in ‘het Gooi’, they know how funny it is to let the mayor struggle in front of everybody.’
“Mayor, what is the municipality even thinking, determining what will be written in the local newspaper?”
The local editor-in-chief also has his moment of fame: “Let the municipality pay decent prices to publish her own information first. Then we’ll talk.” Ouch. He was actually right. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
Still, it’s a shame. Despite all predictable reflexes, good thinking was done in the Noordoostpolder. And Heereveen did the same. The thing is, both applied the concept in the wrong way. And that is why Heereveen didn’t continue the experiment. The essence of the concept is very good, as NOP perfectly realises that the work done by the municipal Council asks for translation. Probably all guilelessly and averagely educated citizens visiting the website of a random municipal Council, will feel discouraged by the sight of the website. Even if the visitor finds the topic he was looking for, the text is probably still unreadable. Council information definitely needs translation.
Garbage in, garbage out
What goes wrong in NOP, is that the end of the process is very messy. And by the time the end has come, it is too late. You have to start earlier in the process.
Steven Covey writes about seven habits, one of which is: ‘begin with the end in mind’. This can be applied to Council information as well. If you don’t take the final outcome and the end of the process into account at the beginning of the process, you will not help yourself and you will not help your audience.
Let’s use some typical policy terms. What you need, is an integral approach. Council information is born long before it ends up in Council. From the very start of the existence of this information, you have to keep the outcome of the process in mind. Therefore, a Council information system and a civil system should not be separate; they should be integral.
Dual thinking has slipped when it comes to information systems. These systems should facilitate duality, but they should also keep the higher purpose into account: citizens need to be involved!
Integration also has benefits for the internal process between the staff and the Council. So from that point of view, we truly recommend this.
From push to pull
Nowadays, every organisation is its own publisher. This applies to, for example, the Council and the municipality, each with its own responsibilities and roles, that’s for sure. But now, it’s easier than ever to decide which information will reach your audience, only if you start thinking this through on time.
Before, when the media had all the power, people could only watch the news at fixed times and they could do nothing but wait until the news came to them. News was a push-service. This is changing rapidly. Thanks to online media, apps, messaging and social media, people find their own news, customised. Where I live, Picnic delivers groceries. In my app, I can see what time my groceries will be delivered. That is a typical example of looking for information at the moment I need it. This is pull: power to the customer. If you don’t serve your customers, you will lose them.
That’s where it’s going. The Council and the municipality can profit from the technology to inform citizens at crucial moments. Both in time and in the language of the customer.
That reporter will not come back, unless you will perform a striptease on the Council table as Council. But even that will be considered boring pretty quickly. So get used to it. You can get rid of that press section. Times have changed and it’s okay. They will know where to find you if they need you. So maybe you should leave a little space, just in case the press returns in a small number. And think of it this way: in case of big news, that press section with only five seats would have been to small after all.
This article was published in the meeting report of the Vereniging voor Griffiers conference at the 7th of October 2016.