Big City Talk

Before Christmas Birmingham City Council released the Big City Plan, a lengthy consultation document about how Birmingham should be developed over the next twenty years.  The document was also put onto the Big City Plan website for members of the public to comment on.

But there were more than a few problems with it.  The document was not only massive but written in impenetrable management speak, it made me glaze over after a couple  sentences – hardly writings that would capture peoples’ imaginations and motivate responses.  It as also full of unexpanded acronyms and references to other key documents that weren’t explained.  It had weird ‘options’ at the end of each chapter that seemed to be mutually exclusive, ‘pick one’ choices but apparently weren’t.

The Big City Plan’s website initially gave the impression that all comments posted would be  published, but they seemed to think better of that later on, so only a few selected comments were published.  This meant that people had no idea if their comments were being listened to and, more importantly, that no conversation around the document could take place – no-one could react to a point another respondent had made and have a discussion that others could join in with.

The way the consultation was conducted bred a fair bit of cynicism.  I often heard people saying they felt their opinions didn’t matter, that ‘decisions have already been made’.  Some felt it was more of a PR exercise than a genuine consultation and incidents such as missing the promised consultation bus didn’t help. People I spoke to felt alienated rather than engaged – a comment on Digbeth is Good calling it a ‘pointless “consultation” scam’ spoke volumes.  I really don’t believe that was the intention, but I can understand why people felt like that given the flawed way in which things were executed.

The Birmingham blogging community felt that something needed to be done to enable a better understanding of the Big City Plan and an open discussion around it.  A few of them knocked their heads together at the Christmas Birmingham Social Media Cafe and it began to take the shape of Big City Talk – a blog with all the sections as individual posts with a plain English translation alongside.  All comments (within reason) were published so people could discuss other people’s responses and ideas.

When I heard about Big City Talk I thought it made perfect sense and offered to help out.  So, along with Jon Bounds, Nick BoothJulia Gilbert and Michael Grimes I got started on translating sections of the writing into plain English text.  I kept my translations pretty much local, working on the Digbeth, Eastside and Highgate chapters.

It was horrible, slow work, I don’t mind saying.  Not just translating the words into plain English, something I’d never done before, but also trying to work out what they were meant to be saying in the first place.  I’ll never forget me and Michael Grimes, who listened to my cries of woe and helped me out with the Digbeth section, spending half an hour trying to translate one sentance.  It took a phone call to Jon Bounds to finally get there.  I was incredibly relieved when it was all finished.

I was even happier to hear that the work hadn’t been in vain.  Big City Talk collected 274 comments, all of which will be fed into the Big City Plan.  Debra Davies, Birmingham City Council’s PR Director, thanked us for going the extra 9 yards and was pleased at the level of input and discussion.

Here’s related posts from the others involved in Big City Talk:

Jon Bounds has written about the whole process in a series of 4 posts:

Michael Grimes talked about exactly why it needed doing.

Nick Booth talks about how it’s a perfect example of Brummies using social media to make a positive difference.



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