We need to remember that if we are going to make the virtual town hall work we have to always remember that its all about the people and we need to make this work in the messy realm of people compromises rather than the tidy world of technology.

One of the underpinning assumptions of the virtual town hall pilot is the idea that we will work with members of the community and train them to be moderators of CitizenScape sites. There are two main reasons for this:

  • Communities will respond far better to moderation from within than to moderation from government

  • There is no way that Local Government can take on the work of moderating a successful social environment so its best not to build with this as a requirement – it will just limit growth in the future

I have been discussing and thinking about this role a great deal recently and want to capture some thoughts before they disappear into next week’s todo list. We need to come up with a repeatable process for recruiting and then managing these moderators but before we do that we need to clearly define the role and manage the risks as this is a new type of engagement in an online context.

In an offline context there are precedents for working with community representatives which connect back to the ideas of the Arnstein ladder and its top rung of community control. Community representatives have been used extensively to intermediate with the decision making process and connect to the formal environment. This is not a straightforward process as you need to engage with the right people, keep them motivated and then, one the relationship is working, avoid the ‘Usual Suspects’ problem where the community representatives become more similar to your organisation than to the community they are there to represent. You also need to be clear that this is community and not democratic representation and ensure that you are still including elected representatives in the conversation.

[as an aside I really want to look into more detail at the way that these citizen relationships are handled in councils – isn’t it odd how far adrift community engagement is from democratic engagement?].

In the online context there is a slightly different role – called moderators – who are responsible for managing and encouraging the online conversations in a particular space. Often people are given moderator status once they have shown themselves to be ‘good citizens’ of a web space and many communities function brilliantly essentially self-moderated by volunteers.

It is this idea that was in my mind when I designed in the idea of community moderators into the Citizenscape proposition and I still think its the right idea. However I was asked an excellent question about the role the other day that really clarified things and made me realise we need to do more work on this: Will they (the moderators) be filtering or moderating content? Of course I thought – in a democratic context there are two roles, as per the community moderators, and we will need to be very clear as to whether the participants are community representatives or community moderators. Apologies if this seems screamingly obvious to you.

So, here is a first description of the role which I will next discuss with the Virtual Town Hall project team:

  • Firstly – lets not call them moderators and representatives – the role is something between these two ideas and calling it either things confuses things. At the moment my thought is that we call them Community Ambassadors

  • Current thinking is the Community Ambassadors would do four main things:

  • Help with offline publicity

  • Help to raise awareness of the space out in the wider social web and take part in existing conversations

  • Invite relevant conversations from the wider web into the democratic space to connect to the formal process

  • Moderate any discussions which are being held on the Citizenscape space

  • We need to make sure that succession planning is built into the role – partly to keep things fresh and avoid overburdening individuals but also because we want to avoid the usual suspects problem

  • We need to get contracts in place – they will be acting for the council so we need to get the parameters clearly in place

  • We need to do the social media guidelines in place as well as the code of conduct so the Community Ambassadors have a clear picture to moderate against

  • We need to put some structure around training and ongoing mentoring. The idea is that someone from the council will co-ordinate a team of Community Ambassadors and so we need to figure out the infrastructure needed around this

  • We need to ensure that we don’t trip over other community engagement programmes

We probably also need to come up with a profile for the role to help us recruit. I think the basis of this is:

  • People who are natural communicators – viral marketers call them sneezers and Robert Putman talks about them as people who provide social glue in Bowling Alone.  We want people who naturally tell their friends and families about what they are doing

  • People with existing community networks. Ideally we are plugging into existing networks rather than building new ones

  • Civic minded people – they have to see the value in connecting people to the formal process and be able to deal with the frustrations this may bring!!

  • Comfortable though not necessarily familiar with technology – we don’t expect to find experienced social networkers (though that would be a bonus) – but we do need them to be willing to learn

I think this forms the backbone of this strand of the project – we’ll flesh it out more when we start work next month.

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