We had our second VirtualTH project meeting yesterday so this is just a short update on that.  The pilot is now full with Kirklees and Redbridge joining Chorley, Essex CC and North Lincs as pilot sites.  We are also lucky to have Carl Haggerty participate as a ‘critical friend’ on the technology strand which is hugely helpful.  We have got an excellent balance of sites in the pilot now and I will document them in more detail at a later date.  The addition of Kirklees is of particular interest as we are running the VirtualTH alongside their 21st Century Councillor project – which is a great fit.

For th pilot however the focus right now is on two things:

  • Technical build – getting the pilot sites up and running
  • Recruiting the community ambassadors who are going to actually make these sites work

The technical stuff is moving along well and we had a fairly complete demo – including Ady making good on our claim that you can build a new page in 10 minutes.  More on the sites in a month or so once the team have had chance to get each of the pilots properly set up.

However interesting the technology is (and it really is if you like that kind of stuff) it is, in my view, clear that this is not the difficult part of the project.  The real issue is of course in the social stuff.  We are approaching this as follows:

  1. Carrying out a ‘social web’ audit so that we can get a picture of what is going on already.  We’re breaking activity into News / Council content  / Blogs & social reporters / Social networking.  This exercise has clearly shown which sites already have relationships with the social web presence in their area and where we need to start making those connections
  2. Once we have this in place then we need to identify the community ambassadors – real people who are going to be involved in spreading the word about the project using social tools as well as moderating some of the content.
  3. We then need to get a draft social web policy in place for use with citizens, officers and members

We are now planning workshops at each of the sites which will help bring internal and external teams together as well as briefing members and generally getting people ready to use the sites.

There were a number of interesting debates during the day but the one which really struck me was around the social web policy.  Firstly, we have decided to have the same document for use by the external content providers as for officers and members.  I think this is an important change as it points towards the sense of co-creation which we are trying to achieve but by combining the internal and external audiences we highlight the issue as to how possible it is for officers to participate as citizens.  When we asked whether people felt that they could express their personal opinions online there was, I felt, a real sense that whatever the policy said about officers being free to express their opinions if they did it in the appropriate way that no-one thought that it would ‘work’ to take a position which was, however constructively, in opposition to council policy.  And this is a huge problem – officers are amongst the most community minded and engaged individuals in the community and if they are effectively silenced online then not only is that not democratic it is also missing a big opportunity to encourage and increase democratic activity.  I think this is an issue which we will return to as we tease out what the idea of virtual civic space really means.

Finally, we all agreed that part of the ‘education’ process that we need to undertake is around digital identity management – it’s about helping people grow a civic persona and make some choices as to how they do that.  A more sophisticated approach on this will mitigate the officer/citizen dilemma as well as help allay concerns which also emerge around the customer/citizen axis.

Thanks again to all who took part – am looking forward to the workshops and also the promise of sausages and mulled wine at our next meeting!!

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