Bit of a hiatus on the blogging – mainly down to the fact that I have a new job. Still at Public-i but have been appointed as Chief Exec (press release here if you want to the proof!). Its a huge privilege as we have an exciting year ahead – but its been a busy start to the year.

The other reason for general busy-ness however is the launch of the Virtual Town Hall pilot sites. The first of these are now live – but we are still sorting out the data migration and will be publishing the URLs as soon as this is done. I will of course blog when this happens but they are really starting to come together.

But this post is one I have meant to write for ages as I wanted to start a thread about co-production – something that I don’t think we have yet spent enough time on as part of the pilot projects (this is just the phase of the project I think but I want to start the thinking).

One of the motivations behind the Virtual Town Hall work is not only the need to respond to the pressures and opportunities that the social web makes for democracy but also to respond pro-actively to the challenges that democracy faces when trying to raise levels of participation and engagement. This challenge becomes more acute as decision makers face the fact that the current and ongoing economic situation for local (and in fact all) government that they will need to make unpalatable choices that will require an actual mandate from the public – not the technical one with a low turnout election provides. To do this we need to think seriously about how we change the nature of the way that we all interact in the democratic process.

Co-production (or co-creation) – the idea of all stakeholders participating equally in the decision making process is one way in which we can re-imagine the relationship between citizens and government. There is a really good discussion paper from NESTA / NEF here.  There are a lot of questions to be answered with respect of the role of the elected representative (which I want to talk the folks at Kirkless about) but there is a lot of think about here.

Within the field of eParticipation the concept of co-creation or participatory design has a dual heritage:

  • The social web is driven by user generated content and the sharing of information and this content is networked together via the viral nature of the online environment. Eye witness reports become our first point of contact for breaking news and these are often un-mediated by the press. People flock to YouTube to watch other people’s home videos and deliberately created content. Political bloggers are gaining ground with the traditional media in terms of access and influence and mass collaboration online is being used by large corporations to support product research and development, by news organisations to create new content and by websites such as Wikipedia to create shared content outputs. Participatory design, whereby all users are involved in the design of a service, feature or outcome, is being used to improve products and services in all commercial fields and the increasing use of co-creation – of shared development of ideas across wide groups of people – online is endemic.
  • Methods of co-creation have been used within offline community engagement projects for some time. Co-creation is seen as an answer to the problem of how to engage citizens with the decision making process and is used with a wide range of citizen groups. Its main antecedent being the Arnstein ladder of engagement which describes different levels of citizen engagement in the deliberative process with a truly co-created discourse where citizens fully engage in deliberation and have power in the process at the top of that ladder and the overall objective of citizen engagement.

So there is a pressure from the social web which leads towards co-production – but as I said at the start I think the real pressure actually needs to be from the democratic process. Co-production reflects the participatory mood of much of the energy for democratic changes and also addresses government’s need to share the pain of difficult decisions.

But what is difficult to imagine is the path and process between where we are now – with an often paternalistic and consumer focused relationship between state and citizen – and a truly co-produced environment. The co-created nature of the social web makes this a good place to start, but as we are finding with the pilot process there are practical and cultural problems which Local Authorities need to overcome in order to build on this. Part of this is understanding and managing risks – both actual and perceived – and other parts is managing the new skills and processes that are needed to underpinned such a shift.

With the Virtual Town Hall we are taking it in steps – and the first one of these is to start listening to the social web conversations and actually interacting with them. We bring them into one place so that this can be done efficiently, so that we can see how people relate to each other and also so that we can establish identity – accountability being one of the biggest differences between social web and democratic decision making. Once this sense of shared space is established then the next step is to actually start connecting this space into the decision making process – but that’s for another post.

PS Much of this post was based on a paper I wrote for the eDem2009 conference in Vienna last year.