Happy New year! I have been off in a Christmas and PHD (and drink) filled bubble for the last few weeks but as I am back in the office on the 9th I need to catch up on some blogging – which is a welcome change from the tedious but necessary process of brutally editing the thesis. First up is a belated action research post about We Live Here – so Here we go….

Status update
We are still in the process of mapping the communities that we are working with and moving on from the first iteration of network analysis which documented the networks and names known by the immediate project team and engagement officers as well as the first online search. We are now starting to conduct interviews within the communities we want to work with as well as doing walk arounds in order to locate civic space and generally observe what is happening in the areas. These walkabouts should be a good way of finding relevant local businesses and also understanding how ‘public’ the community is with respect to shared space – more on that when I have got my coat on and had a trot about….

The interviews will involve the following steps:
1) Introductions based on the research statement from the last post
2) Semi-structured interview broadly along the same script we used for the first iteration
3) Social network analysis – checking the connections from the first group and then expanding this with new names

Broadly what we expect to happen is that the star burst pattern shown below will become something more like a tangled ball of wool (or not – it could be that no-one is speaking to anyone else who knows!!).

B&R First iteration network map

From our knowledge of the three pilot sites we are speculating that we will have one fairly tight network with outliers and one site with much more diffuse participation. The third pilot site is a community of interest rather than place and the project teams don’t have enough contacts to make the same mapping approach to be viable so the first step with this group will be for me to sit down and do an exploratory interview with a couple of the names who we know are central to the network. We’ll do some online research first so we don’t turn up completely clueless.

I have to say I am looking forward to this next step as it makes it inevitable that we need to step above the parapet and make the project more visible in the City. I have written before about our hesitancy about this and one of the things I want to do is to get comments from the project team as to why they think it is. Its been going on a while now and I want to try and understand if there is an underlying issue that I am not understanding.

Community directories – very much an alpha
In parallel with the mapping work we are starting to develop our thinking as to what the first version of the community sites could look like. We intend these to be a straightforward directory in the first instance which just shows the research results from the area (with all the data protection thinking that this involves) and they will be based on our Citizenscape platform (the nearest example is currently here bit we have got some development work planned in January so expect this to change).

We are in the co-production dilemma here – we don’t want to be prescriptive and close down ideas from the community but we do have a view on them and we also know that if we turn up with a blank piece of paper (or digital equivalent) then we will struggle to get anything ready in a reasonable timescale.

Our approach is therefore going to be to put our suggestion on the table and then get comments and amend accordingly. As we roll this out the next set of sites will be based on the comments of the community that we have worked with in the previous iteration and so over time we should mitigate our influence and get a better balance of ideas in place. I am in two minds about this – in some ways I am with Steve Jobs who used to say that customer often doesn’t know what they want until they see it. On the other hand underlying design assumptions and attitudes infect code and therefore digital spaces (lex informatica) and we need to be careful that these spaces really are owned by the public.

CO-production
I think one of the issues that this internal discussion has highlighted is one of the inherent misunderstanding that people have about co-production. Put simply – it doesn’t mean you can’t, as the instigator of a conversation, have an opinion. The idea that we go values and opinion free to any interaction is one of the misconceptions which has got politicians into such a pickle and destroyed so much trust in the process. OF COURSE WE HAVE AN AGENDA!!! No-one believes we are just turning up for the sake of it – we want something to happen.

More seriously – this is actually more than just a misunderstanding. Firstly – I think that community engagement practitioners are rightly oriented towards getting people’s voice heard not speaking for them. Taking part in the conversation rather than facilitating I think firstly exposes practitioners as overt actors in their own right and this is not necessarily a comfortable place to be.

Secondly it risks reducing the power available to the community – there is only so much conversation time. This is not a new issue – its something that practitioners in the developing world are very familiar with and this where a lot of co-production theory and practice comes from (Gavanta, Cornwall).

The fact that we have an agenda doesn’t mean that the outcome we initially set out is what is going to happen however – we are very committed to the need for communities to shape their own spaces and we are very aware that anything that we create or impose of them will not work (Ref: eParticipation – if we build they really won’t come). This is really where co-production ‘lives’ – where you come with an objective and an suggestion and then enable the participants to take that where they want to go. Further into the project the balance in this should be redressed with conversations being instigated as often by the community as by the project team but this is currently aspirational.

For this to work we need to be very open and transparent with our agenda – which we are calling our Statement of intent. We also need to be very open and accepting of change to this intent both from the results of the actual practical process and also with as we start to get more input from people outside the core team. Our first step towards this happened before Christmas with a meeting of our “Non-Steering Steering Group” who are a varied group of active individuals, practitioners and subject experts from around the City. The most reassuring aspect of the meeting was the fact that everyone was clear about what we are trying to do and broadly in agreement. In terms of adjusting our thinking – the discussion showed a much wider opportunity for using the civic spaces we hope to create for engagement with other governmental organisations (in the first instance the Police and NHS) and we were also steered towards thinking more creatively about how we interact with the business community something which needs to be developed a bit more.

Statement of Intent
This is my first draft of this for discussion with the team – the idea of this is a simple statement of our values and objectives:

  • We Live Here has been created to try and strengthen the democratic process within Brighton and Hove. We want to get more people involved in a way which is meaningful to them and we want to ensure that the elected representatives are going to work effectively with this increased participation.
  • We believe that the first step to doing this is to connect the different networks which are situated within communities together so that they can create an more effective voice for their community. To start this process we are researching what networks already exist within the communities in the City
  • We think that these networks, when connected, create a civic space which should mean that civic society is more visible in our communities. We believe that the governance of the civic space should be in the hands of the participants and not with the Council either with respect to officers or Members.
  • This statement is our initial objective – we believe for this project to work we need to allow communities to shape the objectives for themselves and that we need to create a transparent and accessible process for this to happen.

We’ll be tweaking this a bit / a lot and will publish our first proper draft on the website.

Curation
This question of governance of the Civic Space is something that is currently in ‘the ring of uncertainty’ which is project team speak for something that we hope will be easier to answer the longer we wait. We are clear that these spaces need to be curated and not moderated and we are also clear that this needs to be managed by the communities that they represent (with a small R). However – at this point a deep unease and worry sets in – what does this actually mean? Who are we empowering, how can we stop this going wrong? Should we stop it going wrong or even have an opinion about what wrong means?

At this point we all step back and take a deep breath – this is not as complicated as the worst case scenario analysis would make it look.

My background is with online rather than offline community and I am perhaps on the more robust end of the spectrum on this. I think we need to leave it to communities to figure it out and if their civic spaces become unpleasant places to be then we need to make sure that we have a robust path of appeal and peer group review. Actually – most communities (and in particular online) tend towards the reasonable and self-manage brilliantly but that doesn’t stop the free floating anxiety around the idea that we are going to put people in a bag and suggest they fight it out like ferrets.

What can we do for you
One of the elements we come back to repeatedly is how we reciprocate for effort within the community. We don’t just want to turn up with a list of demands and get people to do stuff – the idea is both that we are helping them to achieve ideas that they already have but also that we are using the energy and interests of the community to fuel the civic spaces. We will of course be funding community meetings and buying tea and buns when necessary but more meaningfully we hope to be able to make connections to other resources in the Council that might not be transparent or accessible to people outside of that environment – we are calling these positive byproducts. One of the aims of the mapping exercise is to start to highlight some of the reciprocal benefits that we can bring to these communities but this highlights a big elephant in the room. Should any of this reciprocity be in the form of funding?

There are some brilliant projects that have been funded by Councils in the past but they won’t all be funded in the future. This is an uncomfortable sentence to write but the reality is that the funding is not there and the current economic and political climate is not going to change within a short enough timescale to save many of them. We risk losing an amazing infrastructure at the same time as we rid ourselves of some dead wood.

The We Live Here project is a response to what we perceive as a new context. This context is not just financial – I think that the social changes that mean that we have more people voting for Big Brother than the General Election (Coleman) are more significant even if they are not as immediate. However it is the financial landscape which is driving immediate change and this is what is at the front of people’s minds. Its a question we should come back to in 5 years time – are we going to see greater levels of innovation and as a result better social outcomes within this new context as a result of the austerity measures or are they going to stifle our ability to act so that innovation becomes destructive and we are forced to change so as to be unrecognisable? Hmmmm……

With respect to the funding / We Live Here issue we have a practical problem as to how we manage the transition and ensure that we help organisations and we also have a philosophical question with respect to what actually should be funded in this new context.

This forces us to consider what we believe the benefits of the project will be – beyond the slightly intangible ambition to strengthen the democratic process which is difficult if not impossible to translate to the balance sheet.

Our working assumption is that more networked and visible communities that are actively self-managing will hold more social capital and as a result be more resilient. Resilience is something that we can put a value to.

This is something we need to establish over the course of the project. In the meantime I expect we will do some tricky financial horsetrading with the organisations that want to work with is – all the time hoping that we are not setting any precedenets that we can’t live with.

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