I have had a really interesting week and wanted to write a note on it before it drifted off and got filed somewhere in my memory for later retrieval as a few things have happened which have really helped tie together some thoughts around community building with a social purpose – in essence what we need to do in order to underpin the Citizenscape work. This is a slight tweak on the CitizenScape methodology which is why I wanted to note it.

The initial plan with a Citizenscape site was to speak to ‘stakeholders’ and to find out what they were already doing online and then use this as the initial content for the site. After spending more time in the field actually talking to people this seems hopelessly optimistic as a starting point as so many of the people we want to engage are either still just shopping and surfing rather than participating or, in the case of some 14-16 year old that I spoke to last week, not inclined to participate outside their social network site (in this case Bebo) as they have such a strong affiliation to that as a location and a sense of what is appropriate in what place.

The question is; does this undermine the key principle of Citizenscape which was to use existing participation to guide people towards democratic engagement? I think it certainly calls it into question and this will need to influence some changes to the benchmarking questionnaire around how we measure online participation – I may need to start earlier in the process of participation. What it does mean for Citizenscape is that we need to amend the starting point – or rather introduce more flexibility at the starting point of the process. This should compensate for the fact that though people are shown to be online, we are not getting access to people who are already socially active online in a way which they can initially connect to the Citizenscape process.

So – I am proposing that the first ‘stakeholder’ meeting be used to set the rules of engagement or code of conduct for the site and that this meeting it used to introduce citizens to the discussion board element of the site – ie we jump start the social networking from there. Once we have established this as a place for them to interact then we can look at taking that interaction out to other parts of their online life. If we do find an initial stakeholder who is already active online then we will use this on the site – but we cannot rely on this as a way of getting the site up and running. This also gives more structure to the local authority teams in getting started which might also help things. What we will need to ensure is that in doing this we don’t end up abandoning the idea of co-creation of the citizenscape sites. We need to ensure that we are truly enskilling the participants and not controlling the process.

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