Online community engagment strategy: Don’t put up unnecessary barriers to entry

Red faces in Newcastle!

Newcastle City Council recently went online to host selective consultations with their community. Their new online engagement site, which they choose to build themselves rather than using a specialist provider, asked users a series of personal questions (presumably to allow sampling) before allowing access to an area where feedback on issues would be sought.

As a method for online engagement I thought it risked putting users off with the length of the signup process and I believe that progress towards the target of over a thousand users was slow (with about 150 actually signed up in the first few weeks). However, it seems this noble effort to allow people to engage may have been ended prematurely by lack of site security (see Newcastle Herald article below).

Despite my reservations about the sampling process (I think the sample is clearly skewed by participation so why worry about all those personal questions which just put people off), I am disappointed that this initiative has been ended prematurely. I know the Newcastle community is very active online – we have well over 1000 active Newcastle users in our database. I wanted to see if the community would respond well to being asked for a more formal relationship online.

It seems such a pity that the innovative efforts of this Council’s officers to give people a real say maybe derailed by this mishap. I hope they will not give up and I will be getting in touch in the New Year to see if we can assist (even with moral support).

I suppose the other, rather obvious, lesson from this is that you need a high level of security around any site, but particularly one that is seeking views on what may be controversial issues.

Newcastle council website hijacked by porn
By Jacqui Jones
18/12/2008 4:00:00 AM

IN a major embarrassment for Newcastle City Council, an internet forum listed under the organisation’s web address and bearing its emblem and slogan has been hijacked, with links to hardcore pornography.

Graphic descriptions of sexual acts, some involving teenagers, and references to use of sex aids, link to explicit images.

The public discussion board shares the same address as the council’s official home page with the addition of a forward slash and the seemingly innocuous word “forum”.

Both pages have the same masthead, which features the council’s logo, the design of which is based on Newcastle’s famous Civic Park fountain, and the tagline “Great Place, Great Lifestyle, Great Future”.

The forum topic is environment, with secondary topics and questions about water tanks, solar power and saving energy and water.

Computer users who click on these links are sent to a page displaying a list of hundreds of pornographic titles, which include graphic descriptions of sexual acts, some involving teenagers, and references to use of sex aids.

Clicking on the links or the names of members who have joined the forum takes users to displays of explicit images.

A council spokeswoman said yesterday that the civic authority’s site had been hijacked by “spammers”, anonymous computer users who flood websites with junk listings.

She said the site was set up for a council project that ended in June.

“We’re not sure how they’ve managed to bypass the moderation system,” she said.

The council was disconnecting the forum web pages late yesterday.

Photo Credits: Laura Malucchi Photography

Thanks for getting all the way to bottom! Subscribe to our monthly digest newsletter if you’d like to be kept up to date about community engagement practice globally. Take a look at our two product websites: EngagementHQ if you need a complete online engagement solution, and BudgetAllocator if you need a participatory budgeting solution. Or get in touch if you have a story idea you think is worth sharing.

More Content You Might Like