Feedback and thoughts 2

It was pleasing to receive another response to our report, mostly because of its format. The responder’s email address clearly indicated his/her position (a CC member) and name, and the actual community council. Better still, the header and footer reaffirmed this information, and included the CC’s contact address, web address and a phone number. This CC is in a relatively large town – the header and footer stated which part of the town this CC represented.

The information was clear and informative, topped off with a relevant graphic and styled to match this CC’s clean, simple website layout. Better still, the information is presumably automatically added to any email sent by this CC.

It was clear that the email came from a specific human being, and that this CC member and/or CC wanted contact with citizens. The CC has obviously thought about its image – to me it came over as organised and efficient but not overblown.

My only quibble about the format was that the information was in a PNG graphic, so the web address wasn’t clickable. Similarly, at least one popular smartphone allows users to tap phone number in emails and web pages to call those numbers. This feature will not work with this graphic. But these are minor, possibly nit-picky points.

While other CCs may not have the design resources to create ‘designery’ headers, I don’t know of any email programme that does not enable signatures – pieces of text automatically included at the end of emails, used to give senders’ contact and organisation details, often along with corporate messages. Signatures can also be used to portray coherent images, assuming all CC members use the same format. Email programmes also allow use of several email accounts. So it should be no problem to use the same programme and computer for both personal and CC email, and to have different signatures for the two.

It also shouldn’t be much of a problem to obtain email addresses for at least office-bearers – whenever I’ve bought a domain I’ve been offered around 5 email addresses based on that domain for a few pounds more.

My only other quibble with this CC’s email solution was ‘what happens when this CC member retires?’ My concerns here are that citizens may still try to contact CCs via retired members, and that information relating to the CC may be locked up in retired members’ accounts which successors cannot access. I don’t think the latter will be a problem in this CCs’ case – its webmaster should be able to access and manage all accounts based on its domain.

However, problems are more likely if personal addresses are used instead of CC addresses. For example, retired members may continue to be emailed by citizens, to the frustration of both. Retired members may be unwilling to search through their personal accounts for information requested by their successors. Lists of email addresses on CC website will need to be updated at each change. If a member has been removed from the CC, he or she might continue to email as if this had not occurred.

Instead of using personal email addresses, I prefer addresses of the form office-bearer@CCname.abc. No need to change contact details on websites, no confusion about the position of the CC member (and signatures can give their actual names and contact details), no information lock-up or other continuity problems when office-bearers retire.

This format isn’t without potential problems. At each office-bearer change, the incomer will need to set up a new account and signature in his or her email programme(s), while the outgoer will need to stop using (or be prevented from using) his or her former CC address. Hopefully it will be simple for the CC webmaster to arrange for the incomer to use a different password, so that communications are known to be confidential, even if there is no chance of the outgoer being malicious. None of these are ‘rocket-science’ problems.

I’m fairly sure that 5 email addresses is enough for a typical CC: chair, secretary, treasurer and maybe a couple of committee convenors. As several CC schemes point out, most communication with CCs will be via the secretary, so I doubt that it’s necessary for all CC members to have CC email addresses. If more are needed, my experience is that domain provides will provide them, for more money of course.

In summary, I commend email addresses and formats that inform and invite engagement with citizens. I’m sure that it’s relatively easy to set up such addresses and formats. And they can make a real difference to how CCs are perceived – the email that sparked this piece has hugely raised my feelings about that CC. It’s a great advert for voluntary local democracy.

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