I Despair…

This is, I’m afraid, another political post. There’ll be both comics and Doctor Who ones tomorrow, all being well – I’m acutely aware that whenever I write a long stream of posts on one subject, a whole chunk of my ‘audience’ (such as it is) switches off (my only consolation here being that comparatively few of you are *only* interested in my opinions on one of the things I write about to the exclusion of the others. I am lucky to belong to a political party where if you say “Be pure, be vigilant, behave!” or “Your ideas are too narrow, too crippled. I am a citizen of the universe, and a gentleman to boot!” people will be able to join in…) and I do try to balance what I post here, but sometimes one thing is in my head more than other things.

My pet peeve today is Liberal Democrat communication skills.

The Lib Dems include some extraordinarily talented writers, experienced designers, and intelligent thinkers, so why is it never them who are put in charge of communicating messages both from the party and from groups within the party to the public? Individual Lib Dems can produce blog posts that could serve as manifestos for change that could inspire the world. Put two or more of them in a room together though and they turn into the Committee For Equitable Plebiscite Administration and start producing badly-photocopied pamphlets full of misspellings, exclamation marks and clip art.

Now, as anyone reading this can see, I’m all for content over form, but there comes a point where the form is so bad that the content can’t be understood, and this happens all too often.

As an example, I decided today I’d like to find out more about Land Value Tax. This is one of those ideas that seem to preoccupy Liberal Democrats (roughly speaking you can split the party three ways into those obsessed with Land Value Tax, those obsessed with decriminalising or legalising all drugs, and those obsessed with electoral reform) but it’s not something I know a great deal about – I understand the basic concept (the name Land Value Tax is fairly self-explanatory) and something of the history of the idea (at least to the extent I associate the concept with the name Henry George and so on) but I certainly don’t know what the answers are to the immediate intuitive objections (I presume they do have answers – immediate intuitive objections almost always do).

So I decided to visit the website for Liberal Democrats ALTER (Action for Land Taxation and Economic Reform – an unwieldy title but one that is at least a reasonable acronym), the pressure group within the party for Land Value Tax. Now this is an ‘independent’ pressure group, but one that has as its President Chris Huhne (our Home Affairs spokesman) and as two of the Vice Presidents Nick Clegg (the party leader) and Vince Cable (our economics spokesman and deputy leader), so it would be reasonable to expect this to be a strong effort to persuade the party (and the general public) of the ideas of Land Value Taxation.

Go and have a look at the website. I’ll wait.

Now, there are a myriad small problems with the site, but a few major ones – so major, I decided to take the very unusual step (for me) of emailing info@libdemsalter.org.uk , the address given on the front page of the site. This is the email I sent:

Just thought I’d pass on a small (well, actually, rather large) criticism of your site. I’ve been a member of the Lib Dems for a few
years, but have never been hugely interested in economic ideas (I joined primarily because of civil liberties concerns, with
environmental causes a close second). However, I’ve heard a number of people talk about the idea of Land Value Taxation, and I was interested enough to look at your site to try to find out about it. I couldn’t. The front page has news that is only of interest to people who already agree with you, while the FAQs are split into several sections with no indication as to which section should be read by someone who wants to discover the basics of your ideas. Not only that, but they’re apparently in PDF format – a much more cumbersome format than plain HTML. However, that doesn’t matter, as they’re not actually
there – I get file not found errors when I try to look at them.

Please understand, this is not meant as an attack in any way – I am genuinely interested in finding out about your ideas, but your site as it is provides me with no way of finding out what they are. It appears designed for those who already agree with you, and who already know they agree with you, rather than being aimed towards informing people of your ideas (which may well be good ones – I am an admirer of several of the politicians you list as supporting your cause). If you actually want to increase support for your views, perhaps you could replace your home page with a simple summary of what they are, and
keep the news about Lib Dem policy motions on a separate news page?

And here is the reply I got:

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at http://www.r-hosts.com.
I’m afraid I wasn’t able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
This is a permanent error; I’ve given up. Sorry it didn’t work out.

info@libdemsalter.org.uk:
This address no longer accepts mail.

Sometimes only this post by Jennie can really sum things up…

(ETA Not *all* Lib Dem communication efforts are at that level – the Social Liberal forum I linked to the other day is pretty much exemplary in that it has a single paragraph explanation at the top of every page, and links to “Who we are” and “what we stand for” prominently displayed on every page, as well as some other useful navigation features without appearing overly cluttered. But it’s definitely in the minority, sadly…)

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2 Responses to I Despair…

  1. Jennie says:

    I should get you to apply to Moodie to be the recruitment officer for The Fan Club…

  2. Dave Page says:

    Part of the problem is a general lack of geek-fu among many Lib Dems. There’s a huge digital divide within the party supporters – for every whiz-bang Web 2.0 interactive hyperblag site like Lib Dem Voice, which is largely used for internal mumblings, there’s a site like the ALTER, or even the Lib Dems main site, which is bloody hard to navigate, looks like it’s from 1993 and is out of date and broken.

    I hate the fact that news stories on libdems.org.uk expired, even before the revamp – links from my old LJ posts went 404 after a few months. Recently I was told by a Lib Dem councillor (and Debian developer) that the party had adopted a policy opposing software patents at a previous Federal conference, but I was unable to find any evidence of this on the Party’s own site.

    Hundreds of local parties and SAOs pay quite a lot of money to Prater Raines for a pretty rudimentary CMS. They’re nice people and the support is pretty good, but for that money the Party could hire a sysadmin on £30k whose sole responsibility is to provide web and e-mail hosting for party bodies, and make sure those sites stay up to date.

    I am entirely volunteering for this post, given that I already provide CMSes for NO2ID groups and run mailservers and list servers, if anybody’s reading this… ;)

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