Though I am getting very excited about the technology for the virtual town hall (sad I know) the real challenges are I think in the social elements of creating a permanent civic space – a local public sphere (yes – lots of Habermas read this weekend).   There are three main social challenges in my view:

  • The need to involve community ambassadors and all the challenges that working with volunteers and community activists brings (as well as the challenges for them of working with government!)
  • The need to find a way to unlock the dual roles of the council officer /  citizen and to help them to find a voice and a role in these new spaces
  • The need to put in place a social contract that will let the civic space include unmoderated comments from external sites without compromising the quality or effectiveness of these spaces – and without becoming an unmanageable risk for government

This last one is the issue that I am focusing on most at the moment as we are currently finishing the social web audits for each pilot site and this means that we are starting to get a picture of the social web activity at each location.  With that in mind we can now start to approach community groups and individuals to ask them if they want to be involved and have their content connected to the Virtual Town Hall (VTH) – at the same time as accepting a ‘democracy widget’ for their site.

Now – I think it is critical that this content is not moderated in any way by the host (in this case the local council) as it is essential that the VTH space is co-created and not ‘owned’ by government.  All of the pilots agree this but there are still issues of risk and appropriateness to be managed as it is naive to think that the council can host this without some kind of  process in place to managed to type of content.  It’s all about balance.

Our solution will be in social web contracts which will be agreed with each of the sites which have a presence on the VTH.  The main elements of these contracts will be:

  • A common code of conduct in terms of language and behaviour – all the usual stuff about not swearing , being constructive and not getting personal
  • Something about the degree to which party politics should be involved – clearly these sites are political but one of the biggest concerns that we are hearing is the idea that the sites will fall into the trap of party political point scoring – and this is a legitimate risk that needs to be managed in some way
  • An indication of what the social contract will achieve – what the council is offering in return.  This will be in the way of confirming access to politicians, assistance with process or perhaps just better feedback and information.  I think this element is one of the most important but will need a discussion on a site by site basis.
  • A clear process for what happens if the contract is breached
  • Some due diligence about IP and copyright etc

We will be basing some of this work on the existing social networking policies which are already in place (see post below) but obviously this is all fairly new and any views would be very welcome!

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