Spent the day in Chelmsford today meeting loads of people re: Virtual Town Hall.  This is by way of some observations and notes for me to remember for research purposes:

Meeting the districts:

  • We spent the morning with 3 districts who are considering getting involved and we had a very in-depth discussion about the concept of the VirtualTH as well as the specific project details.  Once again the basic proposition held up to scrutiny but there was a lot more concern about risk management than we have had in other meeting – this is perhaps because I have spent a lot of time talking to social web people who are more relaxed about the idea of content being unmoderated – but highlights the need to talk about risk when I start interviewing officers/members about their experiences of the project.
  • It was also clear that there is a considerable amount of additional complexity added by working in two tier areas.  Questions of where decision making will sit, relationships between the two sets of members and concerns about what might happen if two participating organisations found themselves in conflict over an issue where raised.  It will be interesting to see which (if any) of the districts decide to get actively involved and which decide to wait on the sidelines until it is clear how things are going (have put predictions in an envelope and we will see how accurate I am!!).
  • There were a couple of folks there from the LSP and they seemed very interested in the project.  LSP involvement could be really important in terms of connecting citizens to the right decision makers for specific issues so it was good to have their involvement
  • Overall it was a very useful morning with lots of good discussion – hopefully it will lead to some active involvement from districts – if not immediately then early next year

Getting the internal infrastructure working

The afternoon was spent with the Essex CC team discussing more operational issues such as:

  • Social web audit:  We have yet to really crack the social web audit as Essex and we spent some time discussing ideas of new places to look for activity.  Lots of new leads here which was very useful.  We also defined some more of the useful questions which we can apply to other sites.  it is increasingly clear that this is a process which will never be finished – we need to build it in as a regular maintenance task
  • Social web policy:  We discussed the process of getting this into place and also went through the key points for inclusion – next up I have to deliver a draft.  Part of this will be defining the commitment which is made to participants in the site and as part of this I am going to suggest a list of democratic activities which could be offered here – I will post this list later in the week hopefully.
  • Defining the democratic promise – we need to be very clear about what people can expect in terms of democratic outcomes from participation
  • Recruiting Community Ambassadors:  We had a good discussion about where to find the right kind of people and came up with some existing internal mechanisms which can be connected to

Conclusions

We made a lot of practical progress today and it was also very useful to talk through the project with the districts.  As I was driving home however I was thinking about the scale of what we are trying to do here – in terms of fundamentally addressing the nature of the relationship between council and citizens – and though it is clear to me in every way that this is an essential process if we want to use the social web to do democratic things – it may be as well to try and break this down into more understandable stages (as per the ladder of engagement) so that we can focus people on more immediate goals.  Will need to think about this.

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