June 2009


For various reasons I’ve been spending more time talking to engagement and communications teams recently.  That, combined with the usual work with democratic services has made me think about the way that technology changes the relationship with the citizen and that the emphasis on interaction requires a ‘coming together’ of communications, citizen engagement and formal democracy around the individual.  As I write this it seems like a statement of the bl**ding obvious however that clearly hasn’t been the case before with these three activities happening in parallel silos within Councils.  It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise – as the one stop shop approach has been introduced for transactional engagement with the citizen it makes sense that this would also be appropriate for democratic participation.

But social media is very different transactional services and the pressures of the network society and the subsequent social web should bring about a change in the way that local government is at least thinking about engaging with citizens democratically beyond a simple (!) reorganisation of council structures.

  • The first change is that each of these teams within an organisation are needing more skills that have traditionally belonged to the others.  Communication teams are needing to learn how to manage interaction and not concentrate of broadcasting messages, engagement people need to think about how to produce engaging content online and all parties need to think about how to use the formal decision making process of democracy to ensure that the public are not disappointed by new interactions with the council – that they have a good democratic experience.  This is not about centralising the work as there are still, in my view, three different strands of work here – but it is about internal knowledge management and skills exchange.
  • The second change is in the expectations of the public.  You will look very foolish if you do not synchronise your public persona across social media sites.  I think its really important that you allow individuals to establish their own voice in the crowd (or tweet in the flock!) but it needs to be clear that they are also talking to each other internally
  • And finally you will need to start your clock running in Internet rather than local government time.  I always thinks of internet years being like dog years – 7 times as fast.  If we then say that Local Government years are like tortoise years and 7 times slower we are after a increase of speed of X49!!!!

Carl Haggerty over in Devon is running a trial of internal social networking tools and says this:

“my view was that if we could learn to professionally experience Social Networking inside the council and start to engage with staff in new and exciting ways, it wouldn’t be too much of a step to engage with the public in similar spaces.”

And this seems a very sensible starting point to get people comfortable with the tools and the develop their voice.  However, once the tools and embedded,  it probably needs more than that – it will need these three teams to sit down together and really figure out how they want to manage the relationship with the citizen.

Its another strand of the work that is needed to take our use of the social web beyond enthusiastic dabbling towards something that we get real value from – all part of the campaign to make it useful!

I took part in an Petitions round table last week run run by the consultation institute. The round table format means you really get chance to talk through specific points and the group was all very fired up about what the new Local Democracy Bill will mean – and specifically what it will mean for every council to have a petitioning scheme and for that to of necessity include ePetitions. Now – the topic is a lot more interesting than that sentence makes it sound so let me see if I can describe some good bits:

  • People get petitions and petitioning – even David Cameron is planning to use one to get a general election (though the labour party might just manage that all on their own). The simplicity and immediacy of the process both in terms of signing and in terms of outcomes means its a mechanism that gets used and ePetitions have been really brought to people’s attentions by the 10 Downing Street system

  • One of the other reasons for that is what I can the Magna Carta effect – British people really feel they have a right to sign some parchment and get a man to ride for days to London to hand it to the Prime Minister – and this cultural belief in the process gives it relevance for all citizens. You feel this especially acutely when dealing with other cultures around petitioning as we are in the Europetitions project – to them its just signing a form!

  • One of the problems you face with the nagging concern that you know that facebook etc has huge potential to get people’s attention is deciding what you will do with that attention. Its not enough to get people to join your facebook group or follow your tweets – if you want to make formal democratic decisions then you need to lure people into a formal democratic process. Epetitions can help hugely in making that transition as they are the smallest formal piece of democracy that we have – its very alluring

  • What’s more, by using epetitions you have the chance to build a democratic mailing list of people who have, to even the smallest extent, actually participated in democracy. It may not be much but if you want to break the inertia of non-participation then you need to start somewhere….

Ultimately I think what I most appreciate is the elegance of the petitioning process(yes – I do have a fondness for elegance). Its such a simple idea which can become integral to your whole engagement strategy.

BTW – to anyone interested in how the gadget angst is going I am currently considering an iTouch rather than an iPhone. It seems like a more obvious replacement for the PDA and as I have never really been a fan of the phone it would make it easier not to talk to people!! However – I would imagine that you would find it rather restrictive not to have that always on-ness and there is something very tidy about convergence. Ah well – lots more musing to be done…..and we still have the palm pre and a potential new iPhone to consider this month!

I realise that I keep mentioning it but haven’t actually described what I mean. Here are the main points of the kind of space I am imagining:

  • Its designed to incorporate and respond to the next online fad and the one after that. Its just not efficient for you to keep reinventing your strategy and infrastructure every time the internet herd starts grazing somewhere new. You need a strategy which gets the best out of new technologies and uses new social spaces but always with the aim of bringing the democratic conversation home to a place where it can be had effectively. This really means a native web 2.0 architecture.
  • It’s a co-created space. This doesn’t mean its all top down – for a space to be truly democratic it needs to be co-created with all stakeholders having a sense of ownership and stewardship over the space. A single destination for all democracy and engagement activities Your virtual town hall is somewhere where the citizen goes online to act like a citizen – to carry out their civic role. This means it has to have certain ‘rules of engagement’ as does any well run debate.
  • Its moderated and managed – by all of the stakeholders.  For the sake of sustainability (you can’t moderate all this content with offices) and to reinforce the sense of co-creation you need to have those rules negotiated with and then managed by members of all the stakeholder groups – yes you need community moderators.
  • Content is accountable and transparent. Council’s (or other democratic bodies) can’t make decisions on the basis of how many people join a facebook group – you need to know who is saying what. This doesn’t mean you can’t use screen names have people stay anonymous to the general public – but there has to be the sense that you are accountable for what you say in the civic space.

This is turning into something of a manifesto!!  I’ll go away and see if I can streamline things a bit more