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6 September 2011

Don't use Facebook

By Andrew Clifford

Services like Facebook can be a useful medium for public contact, but using them exclusively is a dereliction of commercial sense or moral duty to communicate freely with the public.

I live in a small village and have four children who go to four different schools. Getting them there would be a logistical nightmare if it were not for the transport provided by the local authority.

My wife and I therefore take a keen interest in local authority policy for home to school transport. When changes were proposed earlier this year, which could potentially have withdrawn transport for any or all of our children, we were keen to contribute to the public consultation exercise and remind the authorities how much people like us rely on the school transport service.

As a follow-on exercise to this year's consultation, possibly because many people like us expressed concerns, the local authority launched a "conversation" about it over the summer.

Now, I have absolutely no idea what they mean by "conversation". I understand writing to officials and politicians to help them understand the impact and strength of feeling of proposals. I guess "conversation" means a less formal consultation exercise, without the same obligation to consider contributions fairly.

Although I could read about the "conversation" on the local authority website, I could not actually contribute to it through the website. I had to somehow find it on Facebook, and "join in".

This is wrong in so many ways.

To start, any involvement in this exercise requires a computer and an Internet connection. Although I welcome use of electronic means as part of the political process, to mandate them is discriminatory. Proper consultation exercises allow contributions on paper.

Second, even if I have a computer and an Internet connection, I have to use Facebook. I have to sign up to another, unrelated, service, and submit my comments through an intermediary over which neither I nor the authority have any control.

Third, even if I am happy to use Facebook, it is nearly impossible to find the information. There is no permanent link. I had to search through pages and pages of self-congratulatory press releases until I found the item about the "conversation" and the comment link on it.

Fourth, having found the item, I could not comment. The comment link went to a sign on page, and after I signed on, the comment link disappeared. I imagine I simply don't understand how to use Facebook, but that should not exclude me from the democratic process. (I did, however, find something that let me suggest changes to the name and address of the local authority, so I did that instead. I am not sure my suggestions were very constructive.)

Organisations should be very cautious of using Facebook, or similar services. Although some might find it convenient and trendy, for others it will be a barrier, much more so than a simple website and email. There is nothing wrong with using Facebook as a channel for communication, but if you use it exclusively you will cut off potential customers, and will not meet moral (or legal) duties to consult fairly with the public.

Next: Rise of the robots?

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