City Council To Launch Cambridge Hyperlocal Website


Thursday, June 6th, 2013. 1:35am

ShapeYourPlace Logo

Soon (mid-June 2013) a Cambridge ShapeYourPlace website will be launched for a trial period, presumably at cambridge.shapeyourplace.org.

Shape Your Place websites are run by Cambridgeshire County Council, at taxpayers’ expense. Such websites already exist covering various parts of the county (eg. Ely, Wisbech). The websites aim to enable people to “discuss local issues with their community leaders and local service providers” online, in public, without having to attend public meetings.*.

Benefits

For quite a while now I’ve been lobbying Cambridge’s Area Committees, urging them to provide a way for people to have public input without having to attend in person; particularly to the open forum and the part of the meeting where the local police are held to account for their performance and their priorities for the next period are set.

Hopefully the new site will closely link to Cambridge’s area committees. It may even enable many matters to be resolved before the meetings and simply be reported in public to councillors. In other cases it will make it easier to make a case to councillors, for example providing photos and detailed information, which it is impossible to do in a few seconds members of the public get to ask a question or make a statement at a meeting.

The ShapeYourPlace websites elsewhere in Cambridgeshire have had a “service level agreement” with the police, councils and other bodies such as housing associations and health care providers meaning those raising matters on the sites are promised a rapid response in public. This is not something which has yet been available to Cambridge residents; I think it is potentially very valuable.

Concerns

Being the public sector, instead of going to where people already are, on Facebook, and making use of a service which would be free for them to use, Cambridge’s councillors have gone for an expensive and bespoke system which will start with no public users. Cambridge’s North Area Committee did briefly have a Facebook page, however there was never any formal link between it, and what was discussed at the meetings, it wasn’t possible to use it as a route for raising or following up items if you could not, or didn’t wish to, attend in person.

I hope the Cambridge Shape Your Place site launches with the area committee links, and service level agreements with service providers in place.

The new site will directly compete with those who write about civic matters in Cambridge, like me, with my own websites; as well as with the Cambridge News, and with local residents associations and campaign groups. My view is the state ought only get involved with things it really has to do. Backed as it will be by the power of the state, the Cambridge ShapeYourPlace site may prevent, or make it much harder, for other “hyperlocal” websites in Cambridge to establish themselves. (Or it might well just end up as part of a thriving “ecosystem”).

Those who oppose the council’s propaganda newsletter “Cambridge Matters” may well oppose this foray into online publishing on the same grounds.

If Cambridge City councillors really must spend money on online community engagement (and that wouldn’t be top of my spending priorities) I’d suggest looking to where people already are online, such as the Cambridge News, and the major institutional websites in the city, as well as Facebook and other social media and to working with, and using them, rather than setting up on their own website.

My Exchange with the City Council

I sought to use the pubic speaking slot at Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on Thursday, 14th March, 2013, however I was advised that my question was better suited the Strategy and Resources Committee, which I was unfortunately unable to attend. I published the question I submitted to the central scrutiny committees on this website.

Despite not putting the question to a meeting in person, my question resulted in the below message from Cambridge City Council leader Tim Bick informing me of the intent to launch the Cambridge ShapeYourPlace website:

Dear Mr Taylor

Thank you for your recent question about multi-agency forums. Sorry that you weren’t able to make it to last month’s S&R meeting to raise it as a public question.

I agree that it could be beneficial to provide some additional online means of surfacing an issue outside the open forum at area committees.

In particular, I’m interested to see if we can achieve some collaborative public forum with other agencies like the police, such as you describe. This is important in our complex world where partners work closely on issues like community safety, but where members of the public may not be sure which agency to address an issue to.

Therefore we are going to participate in the Cambridge Shape Your Place site that is being launched in mid-June on a trial basis, and see how this works for us and our residents. We’ll review the extent to which it’s actually enabling more meaningful community engagement after six months or so.

Thank you again for your interest,

Councillor Tim Bick
Leader & Executive Councillor for Strategy, Cambridge City Council

How I May Use Cambridge.ShapeYourPlace.org

I have used the Wisbech ShapeYourPlace website to post a summary of an article I posted on my own website; I have used the Ely site in a similar way I may seek to use the Cambridge service in that manner too. I think this will be particularly useful in relation to matters where a response from the police or county council would be desirable.

For example while neither the police, my local councillor, or the County Council have responded to my concerns about the state of the cycleway markings on Milton Road as a result of an article on my own site, reports on FixMyStreet, tweets and use of the public speaking slot at the North Area Committee, the ShapeYourPlace site may provide me with a way to obtain a response and lobby for improvements.

Key Questions

  • Will there be a service level agreement in place with the police and other public bodies from the time the site launches?
  • How will Cambridge.ShapeYourPlace.org relate to the area committees, will there be a formal link?

13 comments/updates on “City Council To Launch Cambridge Hyperlocal Website

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    Quite if it’s the County or City council actually pushing for the launch of this site isn’t clear. I would have thought it couldn’t happen without the city council’s support though.

    Perhaps the title would be more accurately “City Council to Support Launch by County Council of Cambridge Hyperlocal Website”. One council for Greater Cambridge would make things so much simpler.

  2. Jonathan Whiteland

    The County Council “launch” release provides background for the site when it first launched elsewhere: http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/community/shapeyourplace.htm. (Wonder what he means about ‘”funding”? Could be internal sign-off, or more likely, given initial geography, to be EU Regional Development Fund? But lack of logo suggests not [Telegraph article below suggests "£80K"]). Shame the software has been developed in Warwickshire tho. :-) .

    Hope the councillors have their censor hats in when it comes to the city, e.g.:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8864980/Council-censors-snout-and-trough-references-from-online-debate-after-payrise-approved.html

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    The website has now launched at http://cambridge.shapeyourplace.org

    The first post reveals that Cambridgeshire County Council have appointed a dedicated member of staff, Ashley Whittaker, to act as an evangelist for the site and encourage contributions.

    In an environment of public sector cuts, with the public sector responsible for spending 45% of GDP, and borrowing to fund 6% of that spending I question, and oppose, the decision to spend public money in this way.

    Could the council not have recruited volunteers to the role? Did they try?

    The dedicated officer is just the tip of the iceberg of officers who will be involved in running and moderating the site.

    In true local government style the officer’s role won’t actually be to produce anything, despite being trained at the The London School of Journalism, her introductory post suggests she won’t be investigating and reporting on what’s going on in Cambridge, but encouraging others to so.

  4. Savvy

    The ShapeYourPlace.org website is funded and managed by the County Council, not City.

    The question I ask is, why is taxpayers money being spent in development and a whole team managing and maintaining a website that’s suppose to encourage people to engage using social media, when there is a plethora of FREE social media tools already out there that people are familiar with?

    Same question applies to the website http://www.cambridgeshire.net. The county council is already putting money on http://www.visitcambridge.org/, so how do they justify financing a whole team for a website of similar purpose, but that seems to work even worse?

    Where is the transparency in justifying ROI for websites of this kind?

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    At Cambridge’s West / Central Area Committee on the 20th of June 2013 I used the “open forum” section of the meeting to say:

    Can I ask what formal link either is there now, or will there be, between the West/Central Area Committee and the new ShapeYourPlace website?

    Will it be possible to raise issues on the ShapeYourPlace website and have them then brought to the attention of councillors a bit like an open forum item.

    The advantage being, if the ShapeYourPlace website has been launched in Cambridge with a service level agreement with public bodies like the police, councils and others more information can be found on matters before they are drawn to the attention of councillors.

    Cllr Ed Cearns, County Councillor for Cambridge’s Market Ward (Liberal Democrat) responded. He said: “That is already picked up as part of the project in the sense that an email notification is sent to the councillor whose ward it hits, so if someone says something about Market ward then it comes to the councillors who cover Market ward so there is a way then of bringing that obviously into this forum but it’s not a direct link”.

    Mr Cearns is an ex local government officer. I thought this response, which just presented the official position, rather than commenting on it, was perhaps an indication that he perhaps stills sees himself as someone speaking for the council rather than representing residents.

    Cllr Colin Rosenstiel, one of the City Councilllors for Market Ward, also a Liberal Democrat,
    added: “It’s still far too early days to know how this is going to develop. The idea of a single ShapeYourPlace site for the whole of Cambridge doesn’t like, the concept doesn’t look scalable enough to me to work for the whole of Cambridge as one, and it will be some time before it settles down into a way that allows sufficient granularity for that to be practical.

    I followed up with:

    Elsewhere there is a direct link to committees; in Ely for example there is a direct link between the Ely ShapeYourPlace website and their Neighbourhood Committee which is vaguely similar to this one so I’d just like to suggest to you that you consider a direct link between the Cambridge ShapeYourPlace website and this committee.

    Committee Chair, Cllr Kightley, spoke in favour of enabling those not present to contribute to open forum items at the 2012 Cambridge Beer Festival, I sought to follow this up at the June 2012 meeting.


    Cllr Rosenstiel mumbled about West/Central being only one of the Area Committees covering Cambridge. The Cambridge ShapeYourPlace website already contains some kind of breakdown by Area Committee area though inaccurately, and confusingly, describes the areas as “town parishes”, suggesting they are boundaries relating to another tier of local government at the parish/town council level. They are not.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I’ve submitted an article based on the above to ShapeYourPlace. I’ve asked which public bodies in Cambridge have agreed to respond to matters raised.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    ShapeYourPlace have published my article, and responded to it confirming service level agreements are in place with the councils, police and fire services meaning Cambridge residents are promised responses on matters raised from those bodies within 10 days.

    The article appears to have been “back paged”, it is technically published on the site, but it hasn’t been treated like other new articles and linked from the front page of the site; neither is it listed alongside other video containing articles on the video page.

    This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising from a state run, highly controlled, website.

    The reference to “town parishes” has been “fixed” by removing the above linked page entirely. The “Your Neighbourhood” drop-down does list each of the city’s areas though showing they are recognised by those running the site and items raised via it could be directed to the relevant committee.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    On the 15th of July 2013 Anthony Carpen and @puffles2010 asked the public, and councillors, at Cambridge’s South Area Committee if they’d heard of http://cambridge.shapeyourplace.org; surprisingly many councillors had not.

    Cllr Amanda Taylor (Liberal Democrat) suggested that the ShapeYourPlace website be used as way people could contribute to the South Area Committee without attending in person; however the commitee’s chair Cllr Mark Ashton (Labour) didn’t accept this suggestion and in fact made no comment at all on ShapeYourPlace despite the public question.

  8. Chris Rand

    Let me get this right: the council has appointed a salaried member of staff to promote a website, and councillors themselves don’t appear to know of the site’s existence?

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    Yes. There were councillors present from Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council, it is the former paying the staff salary. The city council is supposedly supporting the website in the city though.

    It may be that councillors who didn’t put their hands up when prompted by Antony Carpen were just completely ignoring him.

  10. Richard Taylor Article author

    The ShapeYourPlace website is now being closed:

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