December 2009


You’ll have noticed its been snowing….and there has been lots of twitter action at #uksnow (interesting article on this here).  I have been keeping a vague eye on the the council’s using twitter to communicate snow information as these kinds of ‘crisis comms’ needs is one of the ways we see the Virtual Town Hall being used.  However I wanted to note what Chorley have been doing as its the best practice I have seen and I am wondering if there is anyone else using twitter in the same way.  I’ve grabbed a couple of excerpts below (full feed at http://twitter.com/ChorleyCouncil but things I have noted are:

  • The tone – its informative but also informal – just right I think
  • They are responding to incoming tweets – and look at the times – this is not just 9-5
  • They are giving real time information!
  • There is a real sense of a human being here which I think makes all the difference – but they are not actually offering different info to the Council website – just doing it in a way that makes sense in the context of twitter

And also this:

I am sure that many people have seen this but I just wanted to keep a note of it as its such a good example.  I thought of doing this as a compare/contrast piece as there are a lot of council’s using twitter to put out press releases etc which I don’t think is nearly as effective as what Chorley are doing – and I started to get fairly judgemetal about the fact.  However given that far more council’s are not using it at all I think anyone who is giving this a go needs to be thanked – and I think its better to note the best practice and hope we can learn from it – must be the Christmas spirit!!

I had a really interesting morning last week at the Policing Pledge conference which was aimed at best practice around the new policing pledge.  I ran two workshops and I wanted to share the slides here:

The groups where both very tolerant of both my crazed enthusiasm for the subject and also of my relative ignorance of the policing world, however as we got going it became clear that, not surprisingly, many of the concerns and issues are shared with Local Government.

You’ll see in the presentation a couple of excellent examples of best practice in this area.  You should definitely check out this video and have a look at http://twitter.com/hotelalpha9 from Podnosh

The big difference between the Police and Local Government is of course the democratic aspect – talking to these folks was far more ‘operational’ and while there is a real need an appetite for getting feedback from the community it is a very different prospect when this is not political (at least not to the same extent).

I also felt there was a different attitude to risk. We were all clear that there are real reputational risks that come with social web projects – however for most of the people in the room these were manageable and a necessary cost of ‘doing business’ in this way and for one contributor a lot more manageable than having to attend 600 community meeting a year! Perhaps this is a function of the fact that a PCSO is far more autonomous than many Council officers but I felt there was far more willingness to make these tools available to front-line staff than I see in many Councils. Now – this may be grossly unfair – and it certainly is if I think about the Virtual Town Hall pilot sites, and others, who are very bold in experimenting with social media – so I will need to think more about it – I reserve the write to edit myself once I have considered this more and met some more police folks….

I also want to point you at Mark Payne’s blog who is a Chief Inspector @ West Midlands Police Authority. This post really sums why the public sector need to get involved in this:

“Can anybody really look five years ahead and say that their force won’t need to be using social media? A whole generation of people – our communities – are growing up (or growing older) using social media as their primary communications tool. They are not going to stop. By failing to engage with them in this area, we are allowing people to become more and more remote from their officers.”

I meant to blog this at the weekend but annual tree decorating party got in the way. As the halls are now fully decked with boughs of holly (and a lot of paper chains thanks to extensive child labour) normal blogging resumes…..

I wanted to capture some thoughts about the community ambassador role which is fairly central to the whole Virtual Town Hall concept. In short – we are planning on creating a network of community ambassadors who will mediate between the wider social web and the civic space which we are creating. We want to do this for a couple of reasons:

  • If the whole point of this is the fact that there are existing conversations that we want to invite into a shared space we should be connecting the people having these conversations!
  • We think the public can moderate themselves – they don’t need government to do it for them
  • It’s a lot more sustainable than expecting huge resources from council’s to do this work

You can read here what my first thoughts on this role and I don’t think the person description has changed much – buts but needless to say – having met some potential ambassadors it is clear that I had both over complicated and over simplified what might be needed.

This thought comes from a particularly useful meeting at Essex last week where I met some potential ambassadors and got their view directly on the project. They were largely positive – though expressing some concerns as to whether the Council really understood what they were getting themselves into and whether, if the project is successful it will be resourced properly. Hopefully we were able to reassure them – but I think it is a very legitimate concern as we are asking for them to commit time to the project. This also built on the work at the North Lincs meeting where we met some other potential ambassadors.

Before I get into details though a big piece of feedback that has come from all of the community folks I have spoken to which will need to be resolved by Councils I think:

  • Be sociable: This is a person driven environment so make sure that you have identifiable individuals
  • Postal based turnaround times will not be good enough – you need to think about how you can respond quickly – even if it is just with an acknowledgement

However the main point of this post is to highlight the fact that a community ambassador could be far more things than we originally started imagining it as. The diagram below shows the map so far but I expect this to grow:

Mind map of the community ambassador role

A few observations about this:

  • Why not. The reason we tried to define a role was to recruit people – we don’t need that definition if we are able to find people who are interested. We should perhaps instead focus on defining tasks and then ask for volunteers to do those
  • That being said there is a need to give people an actual role of some kind so that they know when they are speaking for the Civic Space. Someone at the meeting suggested ‘Advocate’ as someone who would help other citizens navigate the democratic space
  • If we start to rethink the community ambassador role we perhaps start to relieve some of the tensions that might have been set up between this and the role of the representative. If we think of tasks and not people then the role is not a representative one – though if you carried out all of the tasks you should arguably be standing for election. Perhaps this is where our 21st Century Councillors come from as we start to break down the process of democracy into measurable and discrete tasks and parcel it out – anyone who is prepared to take a large share of this should be able to stand for election!
  • There is a marked difference between how we should be dealing with effective individuals – the social reporters – and people who are managing local community sites. Their motivations and concerns are really different and we have to reflect this in the roles that they have within the Civic Space.

Ok then – this is the last of this year’s workshop posts as I think the Redbridge session will fall into next year now.

We had an excellent day at Kirklees which also spent some time talking technology and trying to develop the fit with the existing 21st Century Councillor work which is being undertaken.  Lots of opportunities there we think which I will detail once we have firmed it up a bit.  We also then ran through some detailed project planning and ideas for how we connect the Virtual Town Hall to other agendas which was very useful for me in terms of seeing the project rather than from my socio-techno-evangelist bubble.

We then had a workshop session with officers which was great – they really engaged with the idea and we talked out some of the nuances of the relationship between this work and the way that they are already looking at innovating around the customer relationship.  As a group they managed to balance a proper appreciation for exactly how radical this idea potentially with a sense of how to move it forward in a managed risk kind of way.  No surprise then that we had an excellent ‘scenarios of doom’ session and we have a first draft of a really manageable risk register for the project – I will do a post of the project risk register once we have got it all agreed with the participants and I check which of the risks they are happy for me to talk about here.

We then met with a few of the members who are part of the 21st Century Councillor project.  We had a good debate here as well but I was very rightly pulled up on excessive use of jargon – I must find a way to talk about widgets which makes sense to people who are not into this stuff.

I think this really links to my thoughts after the North Lincs session and is a really timely reminder that we have to think through what this all means for people who are not digitally engaged as well as the people who are.  There is no point in a renegotiated citizen / government relationship with only part of the population.  It is all very well with a pilot project to look at the people who are already ‘opted in’ but we also need to be clear about the limits and boundaries of this approach in that you cannot expect everyone to want to engage in this way.

More academically I think this links to something that I need to be really careful of in my research work – it’s important that my enthusiasm for this idea and this approach does not effect what should be a neutral assessment of the factual outcomes of the pilot.  I need to ensure that I do not introduce bias into this process though my own (strongly held!) opinions.  I think this is one of the things which makes it much more difficult to be a practitioner / researcher than to be a more neutral academic – but I also think it can lead to a much richer understanding of  the results.  I have some driving time this week and I think it will be spent thinking about a bigger picture which encompasses online and offline and starts to look at this as one of the boundaries we are trying to effect along with the move from informal to formal participation.

The workshop at North Lincolnshire was slightly different to the others because it also involved some potential community ambassadors for the first half of the day.
The team had put out a general notice about the event and so we were joined by a range of people from the council (including someone who works with local volunteers which was great), a couple of town/parish councillors, a local blogger as well as a Local PCSO. This made for a really different debate as a lot of the focus was on discussing the right mix within a team of community ambassadors. We looked at the following factors within this discussion:

  • Socio-economic background
  • Life circumstances – we want people with young families, retired people, single people etc etc – a real mix of service users
  • Age
  • Rural / Urban – basically a good geographic mix across the area
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender (this one was mine but the team let me keep it in!)

I think there is a real debate to be had as to how the community ambassador role interplays with the role of the member – and I know the team at Kirklees are looking more closely at this. In terms of having town councillors there I think this could be a really interesting development as their role is fairly limited at present and could be really enhanced with more online engagement – though this may then set up tensions with other members.

Once again we had the reassuring experience of all the participants agreeing with the basic premise of the project – but as this is a self-selecting group it is perhaps not surprising. Once the sites are live then I think we need to do more work around how we find the people who aren’t immediately sold on the concept and to find out how (and if) they would want to be involved. Once idea has been to have an online representative of a community that prefers to stay offline. This makes me think of the work that Peter Cruikshank is doing on self-efficacy which worth taking a look at as we start to try and understand why some people choose not to participate at all – let alone online.

The team at North Lincs had done a great job with the social web audit – partly because they had really dug down to use ‘real’ words for the location searches.  Their report shows the increased activity if you drill down from North Lincolnshire, to North Lincs, to Scunthorpe and finally to Scunny – which is where they found most results.  I think this is a tip that all the other sites should take advantage of.

We also had a really good discussion of the social web contract – which will be shared by members, officers and citizens who participate in the space – and I think we will have a working draft of this very soon.

The day finished with a crazed 20 minute brainstorm which has resulted in a name for the site – we all agree that “Virtual Town Hall” is good for the project but not for the specific sites – more news later on what this actually is!

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