#ukvotecamp: an update

attendees at the first ukvotecamp meetup

My last post, on the idea for an unconference aimed at increasing voter turnout, generated a lot of attention and conversation. It feels like there’s a groundswell of interest in, and concern about the impact of low voter turnout.

Around 15 people turned up to our first brainstorming/planning session (picture above); a mixture of digital democracy old hands and new faces. I was particularly pleased to see there were some actual young people joining the conversation (although it later turned out they were there by mistake, having turned up for MySociety’s regular hack night).

The conversation covered a lot of ground. Everyone felt low youth turnout was problematic, but had widely varying opinions on what the reasons for this were, and what can be done about them.

One theme was a belief that one’s vote isn’t worth all that much. This is of course true, but as this clever app from the most recent parliament hack shows, collectively the votes of all the young people who don’t normally turn out could return a very different House of Commons. So there is a job to be done to convince the non-voting public of their collective theoretical power.

This is tempered by the voting system that we have – a vote in a swing seat is worth more than one in a marginal. But short of a revolution, to change the system you need first to engage with it, and that means voting – and then doing more than voting, but campaigning and helping to shape the policy agenda.

And that brings me neatly on to the next theme – that civic engagement is about more than turning up once every five years. The focus on elections alone is part of the problem, so efforts at voter engagement need to be sustainable, and aim to keep people informed and engaged about the ways they can participate in-between general elections.

The young people who attended talked about how they and their peers weren’t registered to vote – some because they weren’t sure how, and others because they believed registering would make them liable for council tax. With the introduction of individual voter registration from June this year, this could become even more confusing, so there’s work to be done to let people know why and how they should register. Because if you’re not registered, you can’t take part at all – it’s like a civic bouncer telling you “if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”.

And there’s simply a lack of excitement. Voting isn’t sexy, and nor are most of the candidates on offer. Unlike the older generation, none of us have lived through a time when democracy was ever under threat, and perhaps we take it for granted. So we need to find ways to make democracy interesting again.

That, however, is a big ask. There’s a lot more we need to understand about what would make participation more appealing.

I’ve since spoken with a handful of organisations about how we can take this work forward, and we’re busy putting together a plan for first a research phase (exploring the reasons why engagement is low) and a means of getting people together to identify and develop some solutions.

The next step is to take this idea to a bigger group of people. James, Alex and I will be holding a session at UKGovCamp this Saturday, 24 25 January where we’ll aim to make this a more solid plan. Come along, join the debate via Twitter or the live blogs, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Podcasting for internal communication

Tools like YouTube and AudioBoo mean we can produce and distribute audio and video more easily than ever. Abi Signorelli, Head of Internal Communications at Virgin Media, has been experimenting with AudioBoo for a few months. She’s been using it to record her thoughts, and for impromptu interviews with people she bumps into.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. Using real voices from real employees can really bring messages to life, and arguably help to break down organisational silos.

Video, too, is cheaper and easier to produce than ever. Where I work we’ve been using the cheap and ridiculously simple Flip Video to record and share interviews and footage from events. The proliferation of mobile phone cameras means people no longer expect well-produced, slick corporate video. The homemade quality of videos from Flip or mobile phones lends a shaky, grainy authenticity that viewers are now used to seeing on You Tube.

YouTube is now the second most popular search engine in the world – which just goes to show people are actively looking for multimedia content.

But are people looking for it at work? Recent research at a large telecoms company found less than 4% of employees are interested in watching online video from their employer, while actual hit rates on their corporate videos are even lower. Similarly, Abi’s Audioboo advertures have stimulated some interesting debate, but the recordings themselves attract comparatively tiny internal audiences within Virgin Media.

All of which suggests that hype surrounding pod- and vodcasting is overblown. But in my view that would be too simplistic.

History shows our media consumption habits at home create expectations of the media we consume at work. So as more of us access online video or podcasts regularly, it follows we’ll expect the same media rich content in our employee communications.

Short videos from our recent community festival had surprisingly high numbers of views, and some great feedback from colleagues who said they appreciated seeing some of the events going on across the borough.

But that’s not to say in a few years time we’ll all be scrapping our staff magazines in favour of audiovisual content.

First, audiences have to jump through quite a few hoops to access podcasts. Even simple steps like having to download the file to listen, or even plug in headphones, are reasons not to bother. In organisations like mine – with a high proportion of non-wired audiences – the barriers to access can be huge.

Even for desk-based audiences, video and audio is more difficult to access than traditional print and online communications. A recording, even if really well made, takes considerably longer to consume than the same amount of information in text form. So while they’re cheap to make, they cost more in staff time to consume.

Those who are likely to take the extra steps and extra time to consume video or podcasts are those who are already highly engaged. Those who aren’t will need some strong motivation to actively access information in video and postcasts.

So how do we do that? Simply: make it worthwhile for the end user.

We need to think why would someone take time out of their day to view/listen to this? Would you take ten minutes out of a busy day to listen to corporate news in audio form? Probably not.

But would you take some time out to watch a video of colleagues at a sports day? Or a preview of a new product? Possibly.

Its certainly not suitable for every kind of message; the disincentives to access mean it certainly can’t be relied on for business critical information.

But nor should we write off podcasting for internal comms just yet. Video and audio can bring colour and tone to communications that traditional channels can’t. With home consumption of online audio and video expected to continue to grow, as well as increasing numbers of people working remotely, audio and video look set to play an increasingly important role in the internal comms mix.

In the meantime, it’s good to experiment. You can listen to Abi’s AudioBoos here. Why not add your own?