You have all been too polite to ask but some of you may have been wondering what has been happening with the Virtual Town Hall project that kicked all of this off. This post is intended to explain where are with the project and why things have been rather quiet.

We have been making some progress behind the scenes but things have been delayed for two main reasons:

  • My new job has taken a lot of my focus and I have just not been paying enough attention to the project. As a result things have been drifting for the last 6 months to a great extent. Clearly project management is not just about checklists – its also to a large extent about energy and direction and I have just not had any to spare while we made some fairly big changes in the business. I am always one for biting off slightly more than I can chew and I feel very fortunate that the pilot sites have been understanding of this and still have the interest and energy themselves to take this forward.  Needless to say part of my update process has been to apologise to some people for these delays…they have so far been very gracious
  • We put the technology in the field a bit too early. The initial sites were ok but no-one felt happy enough with them to make a big fuss about the launch. This was really down to UI issues as well as some functionality changes that were obvious once we saw things on the real world

So where does this leave us? Happily – in a much better place. The technology is now in really good shape and we have made a lot of progress – from that point of view the delay has been beneficial. In terms of the pilot sites themselves – I am in the process of visiting them in order to get the project refocused and ready to really go live this time. This week I have spent time with North Lincolnshire, Kirklees and Chorley and in all of those sites I think we have a plan to go forward which I think in all cases is stronger than the original proposition because it is more focused. I will blog separately about what the focus of each site will be but key differences from the initial plans are:

  • A decision to focus on a specific topic or area (be it topical of geographic). We were casting the net very wide in most cases and that lack of focus only added to our indecision in terms of actually getting things working
  • A reduced reliance on the idea of community ambassadors. We still feel that they have an important role to play but we are intending to get the sites up and running without relying on the recruitment and participation of these individuals – instead we will look for them as part of the ongoing sustainability of the process
  • The context of the work has changed hugely since we started in terms of the financial climate and as a result we will be putting a much greater emphasis on two areas:
  • Identifying the costs involved in the process that we are running
  • Identifying areas where our new activities can substitute for more expensive offline activities

In talking to the pilots sites I am very aware of how difficult a time it is to work in local government and I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who prepared to try something new rather than sitting back and waiting to see what happens. I think however that we all agree that someone needs to actually explore and measure what Carl (@gr8governance) calls “Decision making 2.0” and to really evaluate some of the stuff that a lot of people are speculating about with respect to the opportunities that social media and the online world provides to change the way we work with citizens.

So – things are getting back on track with the Virtual Town Hall and I should be able to outline more information on the specific foci for each of the sites in the very near future.

On a slightly different topic – I was at a meeting the other day when I was accused of looking down on some of the ideas that were being suggested as if they came straight out of The Sun newspaper. After I’d re-schooled my face into something a little more meeting friendly I could see what they meant – it seems I don’t have the right expression for ‘I’m thinking about something else’ and had accidentally used my ‘you are talking rubbish’ expression – needless to say I did apologise. However the reason I had mentally moved on to think about something else because in my view it may be interesting but I don’t think that Council’s should be trying to start projects which are best led by the community. However much we want these projects to happen to try and create them for the community is the same attitude of the paternalism which has got us to the point where we have more consumers of services rather than active citizens.

To be clear – this is not to say that community projects are not hugely important and should be supported whenever feasible – more that I don’t think that Council can or should be trying to create them because Council’s don’t do this kind of thing as well as the community can do it themselves. We need to be supporting and empowering local communities and then leaving them to get on with stuff themselves. Harsh but fair.

In the meantime I believe that Local Authorities need to address some of the bigger problems in terms of how we manage decision making across the whole unit – not just at the community level because we apportion resources and make decisions on this basis. I am relieved to think that there are people looking at the really important hyperlocal level around limited and discrete issues because it needs doing and the community needs to step up to the challenge – but my attention is focused on how we bring these small communities together and help them negotiate with each other for limited resources – because this wider negotiation is the issue that local government is really wrestling with.  This is the point of the Virtual Town Hall project and I am looking forward to getting on and making some more progress.

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