June 2011

So – this is the write up from the agile session I led at #localgovcamp. Much of the preamble I started off with can be found in other blog posts but the core of the session was trying to move the conversation that was had at UKGovCamp in January on a bit further – so am going to assume that you know a bit about the context and not cover earlier stuff again here. In terms of direction of travel I was particularly trying to focus not just on barriers but on the actual shape of a more agile organisation.

@LoulouK has written a really good response to the session which looks at this from the point of view of someone who is trying to be more innovative within her organisation so you should have a look at that as well. Not come across any other write ups – but please shout if you have.

I should say here – I think there is some crossover in terminology and often when I am talking about agile I could be talking about any kind of innovative structure – and I felt the group also moved between definitions. However there are two main reasons why I tend towards using agile as a personal shorthand for a more innovative and future proofed organisation approach:

  • the challenges that caused the software engineers to move towards agile style methods are similar to those faced by whole organisations now; absence of fixed context, speed of change, challenge from the environment to list a few
  • Many of our organisational structures are going to be technology faced – it helps to share thinking with the developers of these solutions

However as the session concluded (with some good thoughts from @harryharold on this) its important to accept the limits of the metaphor. Perhaps most specifically there is a limit around testing. Unit testing is a bug element of the software approach which is perhaps not replicable in an organisational context.

We also discussed another potential limitation which is the difficulty of operating in this way in a political context where the leadership have their eyes simultaneously on the next election and the next headline. We concluded that you would need strong alignment between political and officer leadership in order to deliver innovation on this kind of scale.

Its a guerilla war

In an agile organisation you should be able to push decision making out as close the project delivery frontier as possible – once again its about trust. We felt this implies an organisational structure which relies on small teams which are formed around the project requirement and then are dissolved back into a talent pool when the project is completed. These teams need to be trusted empowered and informed.

There are some ramifications to this statement:

  • You need to focus on people’s skills as much if not more than their experience or their grade
  • You need to spend time developing team working skills to give people the tools they need to be effective in this environment.

More than that you need to both recruit and performance manage to support these kinds of skills – this is potentially a long term change. The question is how you get it started – but imagine if you started creating these agile teams via 3 month secondments within your organisation.

There is also the question as to how you integrate innovation back into the organisation – this secondment idea could address this.

Our most important conclusion around how you create an agile organisation was the belief that we need leaders not managers – there is a big difference.

Failure – how interesting…..

We spent a while talking about failure. The mantra of agile software development is fail fast, fail cheaply. The fast project cycles mean you try things and rapidly discard them if they don’t work. We agreed this was one of the most difficult ‘values’ to put into place in the rest of the organisation with failure being seen as something with politically and organisationally difficult to accept.

There is no quick answer to this but we discussed a couple of useful tactics:

  • Take risk management seriously – have a proper conversation about what the level of acceptable risk is and stay within those boundaries. Over time you should be able to change this.
  • Create a body of evidence – we have a responsibility to show this approach works rather than expecting people to take it on blind faith but instead be open and honest about evaluation
  • More challengingly – don’t pretend everything is a success – but communicate failure as progress – because it is
  • Innovate at the edges – do the duller less risky stuff first. It may not be the most exciting stuff but it makes a big difference and it allows you to learn and build evidence in parts of the organisation where the issue of failure is less acute

We also talked about collective and individual responsibility – an reflected on the fact that a lot of lone innovators end up accepting organisational risks. We also talked about the more negative coping tactic of ‘consultant scapegoating’ where you get external contractors to do your failing, or innovation, for you. The issue here is a need for organisations to take responsibility for innovation but in the context of agile we are back at the question of trust – are you trusted to innovate?

Trust me – I’m an innovator

As ever with an open ended session we are left with questions:

  • Do we have enough trust in the people within our organisations?
  • How do we need to change not just the organisations but also the people within them to create a culture of innovation?
  • Do innovators do enough to earn trust?
  • Can we change attitudes around failure to embrace more learning and more innovation?

These are not unusual questions – the additional question is whether the agile metaphor is still useful in exploring and addressing them. My view of the session is that the answer is yes. We need to keep in mind the limitations that I stated at the beginning of this piece but I still think this is worth pursuing.

As ever – please let me know if you don’t think this reflects the session or if you have comments – thank you

I sometimes use the description of the internet as being very like a teenager, messy, difficult, and creative and with a tremendous energy and excitement that is not always focused constructively.  The shifting cultural norms online feel as if they are driven by that generation and it’s not surprising – anyone born after 1993 has only know a networked world.  The issue for all of us is how we integrate these new behaviours into our organisations and how do we influence them towards more traditional ways of doing things – how do we respond the cultural challenges of a networked society?

You can’t find an answer before you have a really good question and I think we need to ask ourselves what are the unique pressures that we are seeing right now that mean we need to respond with culture and behaviour change rather than process re-engineering and re-structuring?  Personally I think there are three main effects we need to consider:

  • Real time information
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Not surprisingly I see all of these as a product of a more networked society and I see the answer as bringing greater agility into our work practices.  ‘Agile’ is a software development approach that has core principles which can be applied to other business processes, it reflects the speed and pragmatism of the web without forgetting the need for control and quality management.

Responding to a changing world

Real time information is something that we increasingly take for granted – I use twitter for this but mainstream news is also moving to real time reporting with eye witness accounts and user generated content.  The question for me is how your organisation becomes part of this information flow without compromising on process and accuracy – fast shouldn’t mean sloppy.  The example that springs to mind was from some officers who are taking part in our Virtual Policing study who had to stand next to journalists who were tweeting inaccurate information because those officers had not had the story officially confirmed to them.  Clearly you can’t have officers making up the official line on a story on the spot – but they do need some real time responses they can use and they do need a closer to real time response from the communications team than having to wait for the Press release.  I am sure that this is a process issue that is echoed in many other organisations – the question is how do you make it more agile?

Our process thinking has been massively influenced by Just In Time production management approaches – we have industrialised production of content and services in the same way as manufacturing modularised and productised its processes of production.

I am suggesting that this is no longer the most efficient way of working and that in a networked and conversational world its no longer the most efficient response to write one really thorough response that may take a while to prepare – you need to communicate a little and often and make it clear what you do and don’t know.

Transparency leads a necessity to be much more clear about knowledge bounds – you can’t claim expertise and authority without being able to back these claims up as people expect to be able to be able to ‘click here to find out more’.  We write ourselves into being online and we do this by transparently showing our views, ideas and feelings.  The consequence of this is that we are pushed towards thinking institutionally in public – which means that we won’t always have the final answer.

Transparency sits very closely with collaboration.  With reducing budgets there is a clear need to consider how to collaborate with partners and with the public more effectively.  You can’t collaborate effectively without trust and transparency is one way of fast tracking establishing that trust – not to mention making working together more effective as you can clearly see what the other people are up to.

I was speaking at conference recently and was asked ‘who is losing power if the people are gaining it?’ – The answer is the state.  More co-productive ways of working mean that the people at the top of a top down structure are losing power and this needs to be faced.  I think this shift is best articulated as the fact that more transparent and collaborative ways of working mean that ‘the people’ collectively gave a greater sense of their own power – you get the confidence to act because you know that other people feel the same way.  The point is that this can be true internally as much as externally – don’t we want our staff to have a sense of what they can achieve and the ability to get on and do it?

This is what brings me back to thinking about culture and behaviour change.  These pressures are opportunities to effect change internally as we respond to externally circumstances – indeed if we don’t transform ourselves then we reduce our ability to deal effectively with that external world.  If the world is changing then we need to change as well.

Organisationally I think agility really comes down to two things – having a shared set of values and a clearly understood vision of what you are trying to achieve – a well-articulated objective.  Is anyone else flashing back to about a dozen leadership books and motivational speakers?

An agile process is slightly more than that – it releases on that vision and values but it then responds to the changing environment.  Agile processes work in short iterative cycles that allow you to act immediately in a controlled way – going back to that Police example the press office could be asked to tweet a holding message – and then short updates that make it clear what is and isn’t know at that point.  The immediate objective here is to reassure the public and to make it clear you have the situation in hand – not actually to pass information so this doesn’t need a lot of thought or a full press release.  Communicate a little and often with a clear view on who is able to do this in real time in a crisis situation.

How do you influence behaviour? 

I am coming from a point of view that says that the developing network society is one of the main pressures here and so my suggestion is the adoption of the tools of the network society is a useful first step to do this.  Use yammer internally, blog your management minutes rather than sticking them in a word document and use tools like basecamp to create collaborative workspaces.  Technology does not change people – but it can change behaviours and it can expose the attitudes and assumptions of the people who are creating it.  The network society is a more conversational, collaborative, transparent and real-time space – use its tools to explore what that means.  It’s also not a change that can happen without some kind of experiential element – you need to find the usefulness within these tools so that they become relevant – otherwise you’ll be asking your staff to join the LOL cat movement.

Build relationships

Its also worth thinking about how you build networks within your organisation – you already have people who are using these tools to talk about their hobbies, manage their photos or keep in touch with family and you want them to transfer these skills internally.  More than that you want to open up the possibilities and creativity that a more networked way of working can facilitate.  This is going to need a different kind of mentoring and support than more traditional structures – you want to break down barriers of hierarchy and also of organisation. Run internal social media surgeries, encourage staff to attend unconferences and city camps in order to connect to the people who are already working in new ways and let these networks grow organically – you can start to think about structure and order when there is actually something there to organise – in the first place you need to find and support the people who can already work in new ways as it can be a lonely business trying to bring about cultural change on your own.

Ultimately its all about making better decisions.

I believe is that you aim here is to be able to pass the decision the place closest to the issue so that you have faster and more effective organisational reactions.  However to do that you need to also get the information and the strategic there so that those decisions are backed up by the right organisational knowledge.  You also need to make sure that staff have an understanding of your organisation that goes beyond being able to recite the strategy – they need to understand your values and your purpose as well.  You need to wrestle brand off the design people and give it some heart.

But we’re not out of control yet

This does not have to mean a loss of control by the organisation it just means that the control moves – an agile process is not undisciplined.  Testing and evaluation is an inherent part of the mind set and you are trying to create new processes that are fast but measured in the way that they work.  In software terms you use unit testing to check each element is working – in policy terms you need to check each deliverable against the actual objective – does it move you forward?  If you bring this unit testing idea to policy making and implementation that you have to push the understanding of the objective out to the whole delivery team so that they can effectively make this judgement as they encounter variations and impacts from the environment.

Where do we go from here?

If you have got this far and appreciate the sense of urgency then you need to think about some tangible actions – you can’t change your organisation without changing your own behaviour

  • Get started – use the tools of the network society, communicate the objective as well as the plan and work both transparently and collaboratively so that it’s easier to learn from your experiences.  The social web tolerates and expects experimentation and you can’t learn from this environment unless you use it – get in the game.  If you are already online then think about how you mainstream your involvement – don’t let it be a side line that you fit in around your day job.
  • Accept complexity and plan for it – Agile assumes that we are not working in a closed system and that the environment effects our outcomes.  We know this is true so it makes sense to have an approach that accommodates changes and complexity rather than futile attempts to manage it out of existence.
  • Establish your relevance and communicate it – in a transparent world you need to understand where you fit and make sure everyone else does as well.  If you are pushing decision making out to the edges of your organisation then you need to give them the framework to work within

We are coming up fast to the point where the majority of people will be online and engaged digitally.  There will always be pockets of people that will be hard to reach but the people working within your organisations will be living networked and digital lives.  It becomes impossible to keep this fact out of your organisational culture – the question is how you change to get the best out of the new skills and opportunities without losing the essence of who you are.

I drove up to Birmingham on a very wet Friday night with the feeling I usually have before an unconference – a mix of pleasant anticipation and mild resentment for giving up my weekend.  As ever I left feeling stimulated, challenged and warmed by the people I spent Saturday with.  Thank you all – and especial thanks to @siwhitehouse and @davebriggs for all the work on organising it. I have already written up the session on identity here and will also write up the agile session when I have time – this post is really some more general observations…so here we go…

  • We need to be mindful that we need to make these events work for both the first timers and for the people who have attended many.  I don’t think this is difficult – but perhaps a bit more prep / continuity from those of us that attend frequently would give us the sense of building something bigger rather than having the same, albeit valuable, conversations again and again
  • There is something to be said for reaffirming your energy and engaging with other innovators -but we also need to take responsibility for building the evidence base for our beliefs collectively if we are going to be anything other than positively disruptive outsiders
  • So much comes down to culture change within organisations – which is where I am trying to focus my efforts now.  Thankfully we seem to have moved past the ‘tools are cool’ stage to talk about real change.
In addition to the two sessions I ran I also went to a few others. Hopefully someone else will write up the session on innovation games – and hopefully they will focus on the ideas around gamification that we talked about rather than the slightly duller stuff around games as facilitation tools. Also hope they focus on some of the co-productive opportunities here.
@TomSprints session on Yammer was good – and also pointed me back to think about culture change and I enjoyed digging more deeply into a subject – hopefully he will write up some thoughts on this.
The other session I went to was on emergency communications which after a slow start was interesting. Best summary of the main learning from this was from @Nickkeane with the advice to ‘practice in peacetime not in war’ and make sure that you have a trusted online presence BEFORE a crisis. I was also appalled to hear how few organisations seem to have social media in their emergency plan – sort that out people.
Thanks all for your thoughts and ideas – when can we do it again?
PS  I have no idea what has happened on the font in the second half of this post as there is nothing in the HTML to explain it – oh well

This is a write up of a session that I facilitated at the excellent LocalGovCamp yesterday. I wanted to run the session as an extension of some work I am doing around identity that you can read about here – and luckily a bunch of people where also interested in discussing the topic and provided some real insights. As ever its a huge pleasure at these things to talk with knowledgeable and informed people who can challenge your own thinking. No real conclusions but that’s fine – its going to be a while before we can possibility understand what it means to have a digital wrapper around our lives.

The session really focused on two key themes:

  • Can we control our online identity?
  • What are the requirements of identity with respect to civic and democratic participation possible

There were a couple of overarching thoughts however, one was the importance of trust and reputation with respect to being effective online and the other was the need for audiences and organisations to reconcile with the fact that it is perfectly possible for your personal opinions to differ from that of your employer and for you still to be effective in your job. This last point is perhaps the greatest tension resulting from the fact that the different parts of our lives tend to blend into one online.

Who am I anyway?

There was a general agreement that online identity creation is a conscious act with us producing a more polished version of ourselves. However there was also agreement that it is extremely difficult boarding on the impossible to keep personal and professional identities separate online. One participant who is recently redundant talked about the need to consciously clean up and re-manage his online identity to reflect his new state and a number of people in the room agreed that they would need to do the same

The place where this seems to be most difficult is twitter where only one person was successfully managing more than one identity (and no suprises that @reinikainen also may or may not engage in some mischievous trolling as well). Its possibly not surprising – twitter is the most conversational of the social media spaces and for many people the effort of conversing in two different styles was too much bother. Its different to something like blogging where people spend more time considering tone and audience (this is reflected in my survey data so far as well). However the consequence of this was a hastening the the ‘life leak’ that has people answering work queries from personal accounts.

My own view on this that its a reflection of the fact that these tools are not yet mainstream in many organisations and in many cases corporate accounts become the responsibility of a single user. If we had more effective cover and clearer responsibilities then people would not feel so compelled to answer in their own time – but that’s perhaps for debate. This will also be an issue as organisations start to take account of the social capital value of twitter and other networks – but again possibly a 2012 rather than 2011 problem.

Facebook was another environment where people have just one presence but with greater attention to privacy settings – however this is a problem when using Facebook for work purposes. Blogging was seen as a much easier space to control online identity – again echoing what people are telling me in the questionnaire.

Carrie Bishop brought up the excellent point that we also need to think about the ‘secret data’ that organisations such as Amazon, Tesco and even the NHS have on us. At some point we may need to consider what these data sets say about is when we consider that digital wrapper.

Overall the conclusion here is not surprising – we all felt that we need to be more sophisticated in the way in which we manage online identity – the problem perhaps is that we are not yet sure what that means as we need to do so in the context of huge amounts of social change around this issue. As people who are probably already more sophisticated than most about this as a group this probably means that when we train and evangelise about the social web we need to include a section on digital identity and teach awareness of some of the risks as well as the opportunities. There are clearly shifting norms of behaviour around what is acceptable but we still need to be aware that the blending of the different parts of your life online means some that it needs some degree of awareness and active management.

We talked for a while about the important of context and also the way in which we judge the provenance – these are also skills that need teaching as we encourage more people online.

Who are you and why should I listen to you?

We moved on to talk about what this means in a democratic and civic context – what do you need to know about someone in order for them to be an active participant is online debate about local (or national) issues.

The thing I took away from the session (again thanks to an insight from Carrie Bishop) was the fact that debate and decision making need thinking about separately with decision making processes (such as voting) being legitimately anonymous at times where debate and more general participation benefiting from having knowledge of who you are talking to.

The conclusion was that for any kind of decision making, or to support a decision making process, the important fact is that you are able to apply a test of representativeness to the opinions that you are seeing.

There was again a discussion of how, when you live and work within the same local authority of any part of government, you reconcile your citizenship with your professional role. The conclusion here was that we need to see a shift in public (and media) perceptions to accept firstly that people are more than just their job and secondly that organisations are made up of people and not a single faceless entity. This is a peculiarly public sector problem – until we link it to a social capital evaluation of brand and realise that once we are in a social and conversational sphere then we are all the custodians of brand value.

I started the session with a bias towards a need for accountability and transparency around identity – as well as a recognition that this will be a challenge until we have a better cultural understanding of the implications of the ‘publicness’ online. Carrie again brought up an important counter to that position which we formed as follows: How do we allow space and discussion of more extreme positions in an environment where we need to show a polished and perhaps more bland overall self?

Intriguing – its another sense of the word open and also a counter to what can be a tendency to homogeneity online. Can we be open and exploratory with debate online when even our whimsical or transitional views become part of our identity?

Context matters

Identity online is about content – its meritocratic – this means we make conscious decisions about what we create. At the same time we are unguarded in the face of the publicness of the social web and we do not yet understand the consequences of this.

However if we can’t separate our different personas online what we can do is to create an appropriate context for our comments that allow people to see that we are – and we can help to develop context clues that will help readers and viewers form accurate pictures of who we are and what we mean. Who knew the future was all about better emoticons?

I hope this reflects the session for everyone else – very happy to update / correct if people remember it differently or if I have missed something. Thanks to all for their contributions.

PS  Would also be very grateful for more survey responses – if you have a moment…..

As regular readers will be aware….I have a bee in my bonnet about the need for someone to start building civic spaces online – spaces which are designed to support civic and political discourse rather than designed to sell us stuff. However it’s all very well having the idea – you then have to figure out how to build it.

This post provides an overview of the social media audit – a piece of research that is carried out before you set up a civic space in order to gain an objective view of who you should be including in the conversation. I use ‘we’ a lot in this post as though I had the bright idea of doing the audit and put some structure in place its my team at Public-i who have done most of the detailed development of the process.  We’ll be blogging more about this over at the Public-i blog but here is the first draft of the overview that will end up in the thesis.

In essence what we are trying to do is to find the conversations which are already taking place in the local online space.  More importantly we are trying to find the active individuals in order to create a network response to civic interactions – civic spaces are going to be defined by the networks that share them as much as by the content.

A bit of background

When I started looking at this I thought about this idea in terms of government building these spaces. I was influenced by Stephen Coleman’s thinking around ‘A Civic Commons in Cyberspace’ and also Castells’ work that shows the insidious power of media conglomerates and negative impact that gas on objectivity in the press that this brings to the fourth estate (Castells, “Communication Power”). This, combined with the fact that I have been immersed in working with Local Government for almost the last 10 years led me design the “Virtual Town Hall” pilot which you can read about here. The name really gives it away – I was imagining a civic space built by government – echoing real world civic architecture – and then used by the public.

I persisted with this idea for a while and blamed the fact that we were being slow to implement the technology for the fact that the pilot sites were not taking flight. There is no doubt that we were being slow with the technology implementation but I now believe that the reasons for the pilot sites not getting off the ground were more complex than just that and that there were a number of issues with the way I had originally designed the virtual town hall solution, the main one being that the original project design didn’t have the right role for the community. We envisaged using unmoderated community content and then using community moderators or champions to widen involvement but this was really a compromise en route to what has become the inclusion of the affordance of co-production in the final pilot sites. We have to accept that we can only work effectively with the public online if we don’t try and control the conversation that the community moderators were in some way an attempt to manage risk from the point of view of the Council without truly considering their wishes in this.

However once it became clear that these spaces, even if facilitated by government, needed to be equally owned by all stakeholders another issue arose; who do we include in the conversation? The community that you contact to create the civic space is going to integral to how it behaves and even though we would expect participation to shift throughout the life of a civic space that initial group is significant in terms of how likely you are to get an independent conversation started and also in terms of what tone is set for the space from the outset.

Its turns out that picking this group was causing project paralysis – no-one could get started until they knew who to include in the process. I’m going to do some follow up interviews on this point but I think that the issue here was a mix of risk and representativeness. The first was a concern about making the ‘wrong’ choice because we weren’t aware of the full picture. The second is more complex – but I think highlights the real democratic tension here which is the fact that the people who are active online are not representative of the general population and this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that they are more likely to be civic and active offline as well (OXIS, Coleman) but bad in that they are not well…representative. The solution here is fiendishly simple and fiendishly difficult – involve the elected representatives – but that’s for another post.

Social Media Audits – a solution to the problem

The starting point as the fact that a civic space can’t be initiated until you have some idea as to who might be participating.  The social media audit is a response to this problem – its a systematic piece of research that provides a representative snapshot of the local informal civic conversation so that you can make am informed decision about who to include in the initial iteration of the civic space. Not only that – practically speaking – it gives you the list of people to contact , the conversational lures they are interested and a view of the interactions which are already going on.

We wanted to create an objective view of what was happening so that we provided a starting point for engagement with the local civic content creators. We can’t expect to find everything – and the content will change from week to week – but we were looking for a way to provide a starting point that would then be built on rather than freezing the results in time. Its important that the output of the audit also provides the means to extend and continue to search so that the civic space is created in a state of always being open to new voices.

Objective is a difficult thing to achieve as ultimately this process comes down to making value judgements about which sites should be included in the civic space. What we have therefore done is to create as robust and re-creatable process around the creation of the data set and then been as transparent as possible in terms of qualification of that data set down to something which is manageable for analysis and then for engagement with individuals.

This has deliberately been designed in this way rather than a piece of more quantitative analysis around the number of sites located in a specific area for example as we are trying to uncover individuals with specific intents rather than just to content that they are creating online – we are trying to connect to people as well as places.

What are we looking for?

The audit is designed to find not only an overview of the informal civic participation in the area but specifically to focus in on the significant content creators who will be the most vocal contributors to the civic space. The choice of the word ‘significant’ is deliberate here – we’re not trying to judge influence – just activity.

Significance is a fairly subjective term and so we try and define this with the site hosts to make sure we have a clear idea of what we are looking for. Once a site has been found via the relevant search terms then broadly we are after:

  • Persistence – we are looking for sites and individuals that are active over a reasonable period of time – or are linked to a specific campaign – not 2 post blogs that have been set up with the best intention
  • Audience – we can’t easily judge audience but we are looking for indications that the creator is aware of an audience and wants to interact with it
  • Constructive – we are looking for voices that want to improve their community not just complain

This last one is the most difficult – judging intent from content is extremely tenuous. Another way of looking at this is to say that we looking for content and creators who would satisfy a simple code of conduct test for any community website. Codes of conduct exist to ensure that interactions are respectful and do not insult some basic principles. The point of this filter is to try and rule some of these people out from the start. I see this as largely a pragmatic decision – no council is going to put together a civic space which includes inappropriate content from the start – but its one that needs to be kept under consideration to make sure that the space remains inclusive and open.

Its also worth noting that we usually issue a health warning with respect to language – the language online can be robust but this needs to be included. This issue of language is a cultural one where you need to understand that the social web can use a different tone to that which the more formal world is used to.

What’s the process?

To state the obvious – the internet is huge – and if you try and do this on a rolling basis then you just keep searching forever.  Instead we create a snapshot which we know will not include all the content but will be representative of the local civic space to an acceptable degree.  Here is how we go about creating that snapshot:

  • Define a matrix of search terms: This point about language is relevant from the onset of the audit. The process starts with a definition of search terms based on place and topic. We are trying to identify the language that the local residents are using to talk about where they live and about current affairs. We are seeking the stories that are currently active as these are the ones which illuminate activity.
  • Create a data set: we then use a combination of advanced use of google and link analysis to create an initial data set. This can be done largely automatically and then gets deduped and cleaned up. This second step may create a data set of over 1000 sites.
  • Qualify the data set: Once we have the data set narrowed down to around 3-400 then there is a manual qualification task which is the really time-consuming bit as we check each site against the significance criteria and also categorise it for place, topic, type of site and a few other metrics. We also highlight interesting examples – and also the downright odd stuff that you find online.

At this point we would hope to have a well qualified data set of around 200 sites that give us a good overview of the local informal civic activity. We do not know if these numbers of going to provide a useful benchmark – we’ve run the process a number of times now and they seem consistent but we expect them to keep increasing. However – at the moment – we believe that the 200 sites for a County or urban area is a reasonable benchmark to work against.

And the analysis

This is my favourite bit…

Once we have a coded up spreadsheet then we can do some straightforward statistical analysis and look at the spread of sites and content creators in terms of location and topic. We can see what proportion of activity is on Facebook for example (yes – we even search there), examine interactions on local media sites and see if there are pockets of activity around a specific place. We then use this to identity clusters of sites for a short case study analysis – which is really focused on looking at what is causing the cluster and how it might be used to introduce the group into the civic space.

The other piece of analysis is to use twitter as the starting point of a social network analysis of the space. This is really just a starting point for this and can be considered to be a snowball approach to an open network (Wasserman) rather than a real piece of SNA but what is does show is the potential reach of the civic creators. For my own research purposes I then ask the civic creators we have found to complete a more through social network analysis questionnaire which looks more deeply not just at their online but also their offline networks.

What don’t we do?

In developing the audit process we considered using semantic analysis tools bit in the end concluded that they didn’t offer the sophistication of search combinations that we were after and, more importantly, are designed to find content rather than individuals.

I think we could probably use more of the mainstream analysis tools but to date have not found anything that delivers what we are after – we’ll keep researching this however I will post findings on that when I have time.

It may be possible to have the same result through word of mouth as opposed to this fairly labour intensive research – ie by asking community participants to self report activity. My concern with this approach is that many of the sites that we find are not really describing themselves as civic – they are just people who are doing something that they think is interesting and they don’t feel the need to define it.

And the impact?

Its too early to say what the overall impact will be on the civic space but we have definitely succeeded in overcoming the project paralysis issue and have also been able to shape appropriate approaches and messages in order to involve these content creators in the initial proposition of the shared civic space and I wouldn’t want to try and instigate a site without doing this kind of research as we have not yet failed to turn up content and individuals that the host was not aware of before.

Even without knowing what impact it will have on the civic space its clearly a really effective way of getting a feel for the local activity in order to shape any kind of intervention online.

Its also an excellent way to deal with the people who are still saying that they don’t need to engage online – this is as robust a process as we can make it and is carried out based on search terms that the host defines – excellent and relevant local facts to put in front of anyone who thinks digital engagement is still optional at this point.

We are going to continue to work on the process and also on the automation of the process where possible. We are also trying to build in the idea of ‘discovery’ where we start to set the civic space in listening mode in order to uncover new civic voices but this is still early days – I’ll keep you posted.

As ever comments on this are very welcome.

I couldn’t seem to find a quick description of what I mean by online civic space and thought I’d better pop up a definition.  The purpose which I prescribe for a civic space is: 

to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making

However we also need to look at the affordances of that space to define it – what does it do.  Affordance is fancy way of saying ‘ the effects that you expect something to have’.  Rather than a quality which is largely descriptive an affordance is something that you expect your design to have.  Below are the affordances which I expect an online civic space to have:

  • Publicity– you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives
I think I may be being a bit slack with my use of the word affordance here and may need to tidy up this language – comments on this very welcome.I am also considering whether or not I need to add in the idea of representativeness into this list – or whether the fact that identity is here means that the representativeness is something that needs to be considered in the context of the decisions being made rather than an affordance of the space.  More on that when I finish mulling.