The end of the public consultation on the Draft Local Plan, due to be completed on Monday, September 22 did not go smoothly. Firstly it emerged that two different deadlines had been published and then that some respondents making submissions believed that their email had been rejected.
Lead councillor Paul Spooner has the governance portfolio and oversees this area of council business. Here he answers some questions on how the problem occurred and the aftermath.
Questions put by Martin Giles of the Guildford Dragon
Cllr Spooner, lead councillor for licensing and governance
Where were you while the problems over the consultation deadline continued into Tuesday?
The timing yesterday was unfortunate. Councillors along with planning officers involved in the local plan were on two mini buses touring the West (half day) and East (half day) [of the borough] as part of an awareness away-day looking at the sites listed in the Draft Local Plan. That meant that many key decision makers in the Local Plan process were unable to catch up with GBC Comms until after 4pm.
One worrying aspect was that on more than one occasion members of the GBC PR team seemed unaware of the complaints of email rejection, as it was seen to be.
I know that the GBC PR team [who deal with media enquiries] as well as Stephen Mansbridge [council leader], senior council officers and I were all reassured prior to the ‘tour’ at 9am that all emails had been and were being accepted and none were being rejected. It was not until I came back into Millmead at 4pm that I understood that the email ‘receipt’ had not been updated and I along with Comms, the GBC Governance team and Cllr Mansbridge enured that was resolved PDQ!
It was also at a meeting at approximately 5pm that a decision was taken to extend the consultation to Friday 11.59pm. The Comms Team worked late to ensure that a press release was issued to reassure residents.
You said in your email, circulated to councillors, that: “Clearly she [Mrs Parker] had been sitting on this information awaiting the 5pmtime-line for her own reasons…” Do you stand by that? If so, what evidence do you have or is it just a suspicion/belief? She has assured me that she only became aware of the stated 5pm deadline announcement at around 4.30pm when she checked The Guildford Dragon.
Looking at the timing and the range of responses across email and twitter starting shortly after 5pm (when the GBC working day was over) it is stretching coincidence to the limit that the timing was merely coincidental butI accept that I have no direct evidence to support my position.
The reason why I struggle to believe that this was merely coincidental is that almost all representations I received after 5pm were from the group of activists linked most strongly with GGG and I find it unlikely that they would decide to or advocate submission of representations after 5pm on the last day of consultation.
Furthermore, it had been widely reported on local radio and other media channels that the consultation closed at 5pm on 22/9. My opinion is therefore supposition. It is also worth adding that very few submissions have been made since the consultation has been confirmed as extended until Friday.
Do you now accept that, while emailed submissions were not in fact rejected, incorrect messages sent between 5pm and 11.59pm, stating that the deadline had passed, led people to conclude that they had been rejected?
Yes, the wording of the email receipts programmed into the ‘auto-response’ was very unfortunate as GBC IT were not available to change the message until the following morning (after the 11.59pm time), and then a decision was not made to extend the consultation until 4.30pm yesterday that did trigger an immediate email message change! The message that is now being used is:
“Thank you for your email.
We can reassure everyone that all comments submitted to the Draft Local Plan consultation up until 23:59 on Monday 22 September were received. They are in our system and will be fully considered.
Because of some unfortunate confusion regarding automated email replies, we will continue to accept submissions up until 23:59 on Friday 26 September.
We are very sorry for any confusion or concerns caused by this error.
Please email email@example.com or call us on 01483 444471 (during office hours) if you still wish to submit any comments.
If your email concerns another matter, we will get back to you as soon as possible.”
Those that made submissions after 5pm did not get an email ‘bounce’ but they did get a confusing acknowledgement message.
Do you continue to claim that Mrs Parker and others (Who are these “others”?) were circulating misinformation?
Regarding the email submission problem itself, was it only that the wrong auto response message was sent after the 5pm deadline, or was the problem that the system was overloaded in some way, or was it a combination of both and perhaps other factors?
It was merely a pre-programmed message (based on the 5pm end of consultation) that was already in the system and Comms could not change during the evening, but GBC never intended to reject messages received after5pm and hence no messages were lost.
There was no overloading issue on Monday evening but I do understand that there may have been a short period much earlier in the day when the system was briefly overloaded and emails would have bounced; then senders would then have been aware through bounce back.
I am sure many will be glad to hear that all the emailed submissions were safely received and will think you did the right thing in extending the deadline.
Thank you. It is important that everyone who wants to make a representation is able to.
I do not believe that governance was compromised but I do believe that a number of lessons have been learnt from this and whether motivated or not I genuinely thank Mrs Parker for demonstrating a problem in the systems and processes at GBC.
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