Fingers in our ears

Constructive criticism isn't found in the sand

We’ve all heard people criticising the council before. Whether it’s been through corporate complaints and members enquiries, through standing behind someone in a queue at a Council office or even just sitting at home listening to a friend or family member maon about the potholes in the road; criticism is everywhere.

This also isn’t restricted to ‘real world’ settings. Increasingly people are criticising councils digitally, through e-mails, Facebook postings and groups, Twitter, forums and other online spaces, people more than ever are telling us and the rest of the world what they think.

So what do we do with all this valuable feedback? Do we thank them for this information, even if it’s usually negative, and go about righting wrongs where possible and explaining our positions when not? Do we collect it all and analyse it in a darkened room, adding it to reams of resident survey findings and referring to it in reports?

Or do we pointedly ignore it, refusing to do anything unless prompted to directly and making sure that no online space provided by us has anything other than positive news on it?

I’ll give you one guess.

The overwhelming majority of councils in the experience of this blogger sadly seem to be making the final option presented there their preffered MO. Whilst individual officers may go out of their way to search out and collect this information in the full knowledge of how useful it may be, collectively as organisations we tend to take the ostrich approach instead.

When I have challenged this internally I’m presented with two answers. Firstly is the impression that we get enough direct feedback to be working with anyway, and that anyone who has something significant to feedback can do so via phone, e-mail, post or through official online forms on the corporate website. Secondly is that there are so many places to look that it’s difficult to pick out the wheat from the chaff. Officers have got more than enough work to do without going out and finding more.

To me both of these excuses are poor. We need to listen to people wherever they are and wherever they want to share information, for our own good as much as for our residents. If they have something to say and are saying it loudly and clearly in the public domain then there is no real reason why we don’t get the message. With simple tools available for free online this also needn’t cost too much in terms of time and effort either.

What it often boils down to is that we are actually afraid of people saying bad things about us in public and us then needing to respond. If cornered in a public meeting most officers will do all they can to defuse the situation and deal with things quietly without attracting undue negative attention. Doing so online is more difficult, especially if the person we are trying to deal with insists on keeping the conversation in the public domain. Officers are often wary of being misquoted or having their words used against them at a later date.

In truth this happens all the time; we trust officers to do their best in face to face situations when dealing with challenging situations and members of the public, and understand that they will do their best to help but that sometimes things will be out of their control. For some reason this all seems to change when social media is thrown into the mix; we get overly paranoid and concerned about the potential impact of our words and online actions.

It seems that this fear is cranked up a notch should the space in which people are criticising the council is actually run or set up by the council themselves. Whether it’s an online forum, a Facebook group or any other form of social media, officers seem to have a burning need to make sure that only positive comments are shared, and that negative thoughts are moderated out of all existence. For some reason it is thought that criticism on a council run site or space carries more weight than the same criticism displayed elsewhere.

If a tree falls down in the woods it definitely still makes a noise, even if no-one is around to hear it. Likewise, if criticism – constructive or not – is shared online by a resident then it is valid whether or not the council themselves chooses to address it.

Our residents are having conversations all day every day, up and down the country, about the services we provide and the staff who provide them. Some of these comments are positive, many are not, but they are out there and easily accessible. By ignoring the bad in the hope that we won’t give weight to it we are actually doing a huge disservice to these residents by implying that their views are not important unless they go through our processes to tell us, processes which incidentally seem designed to put people off from commenting rather than making it easy.

If I’ve got a criticism about my council I might tweet it, I might post it to Facebook, I might even follow the lead of some famous complainers and put a message on you tube. What I probably won’t do is contact the corporate complaints team and start formal proceedings, as I have no confidence that I’ll get anything other than a defensive explanation of why things happened as they did. My criticism will be downplayed and marginalised, and I will leave the process having lost several weeks and achieved nothing.

We need to wake up to the possibilities that the modern internet is presenting us with and take advantage of the opportunities rather than simply use new technology to react in the same old ways. If we stop trying to control what people say about us online we might just learn a few things about ourselves and shape our services so that the next wave of comments we find are a little more positive.

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10 Comments on “Fingers in our ears”

  1. Tom Phillips Says:

    Very good piece, especially the penultimate paragraph.

  2. Mark Stanley Says:

    Very thoughtful post – I propose an experiment.

    Lets pick 10 or 20 “great customer service” organisations in the UK, and 10 or 20 local authorities. Lets make a standard complaint tweet – same words, different organisation, and see who responds.

    • localgov Says:

      An excellent experiment proposal, although I fear we can all predict the outcome.

      If anyone else is up for it and can suggest the organisations we’d get involved in that!

  3. @alexsbacon Says:

    Good blog post. Very true, but as well as listening we need to be engaging and visably be seen to respond to feedback. Perhaps not all, but picking some of the big issues or targeting influencers who have lots of followers is a good way of improving reputation.

    Unfortunately I think it comes down to the age old excuse of resource and responsibility – who is going to do it!?

    • localgov Says:

      I agree, not everything can be responded to but some certainly can, and as you say if influencers can be engaged with this has an immensely positive knock-on effect.

      And doing it in public is key: people will be far less trusting if a vocal critic is then asked to discuss it offline, only to then turn into a vocal supporter. Regardless of the quality of interaction and hard work done to turn them from one to another, if it’s done entirely in private it raises eyebrows and questions in equal numbers.

      As for the last point about who should do it, perhaps this is something for another post. I may be alone in thinking this, but I see this as a responsibility for anyone delivering a service, not just the corporate communications team (where it usually sits). We all use the phone, meetings and e-mails to communicate with the public, social media is just another tool to do so.

  4. Performance Officer Says:

    Wow, that would be a whole new world! from my experience, we need to start even listening to what we get at the moment, before we start to think about looking for more (not that I disagree with that, but there’s no point unless we’re going to deal with it right).

    I’ve just won a long running battle to measure the number of complaints we receive (from which I hope to be able to point out areas/issues that need looking at) rather than the time we take to respond to complaints. I doubt that this experience is unique – we need to get our heads round comments and complaints being useful.

    But then again, we have a pretty cavalier attitude to our customers on the whole. Most services aren’t sure who their customers even are – why would they listen to them?

  5. Gail Knight Says:

    The council where I live is engaging with residents’ discussions through an independent community forum.

    So us residents will begin a discussion about garden waste / parking / recycling and the council will pop up and answer some of the comments/complaints where they can (I think by the comms team, passing on answers from other depts)

    To give an example, and from an engagement angle, I find this thread (one started by the council) quite funny:

    It’s not just about responding to comments because they’re out there – there are benefits for the council too. I read a white paper where a council spent (from memory) £12000/yr running a user forum. Yet on this internet forum there will be two dozen people discussing/debating/arguing the council’s parking policy for fun! Not a replacement perhaps, but certainly a jumping-off point.

    Personally, since I’ve been able to read these 2-sided debates online, the one-sided press releases that appear in the council newsletter seem a bit comical.

    The more controversial threads do get ignored though, particularly those debating policy. I wonder if those are more councillor territory than council officer?

    Re: negative comments – negative feedback should definitely not be ignored, but sometimes it seems councils/cllrs are put of engaging because of negative behaviour, i.e. rudeness on social media. People do become quite bulshy on the internet, or are misinterpreted as such. Likewise some topics are worth getting wound up about. Whilst I don’t expect anyone to reply to a rude poster, no one should ignore a platform, or even a thread on it, because of the behaviour of a few.

  6. […] week we took a look at how Council’s respond (or not) to social media.  Our argument was that generally we don’t, and the comments received pretty much back that […]

  7. Tony H Says:

    In an ideal world it would be great if we all had the resources to data-mine the internet of everything. However, there are only so many things that are possible from both a resource and a technical point of view.

    Our (small but professional) comms and customer service teams are doing their level best to address these new ways of complaining about, sorry interacting with our council, but when budgets are being cut left, right & centre, pay frozen, recruitment frozen, etc. questions are (quite rightly) being asked about what is affordable.

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