Personal Reflections

I usually spend the first week of the New Year hibernating and this year was no different.  I like to spend the time at home doing various forms of domestic organisation and getting projects started and ready for the year.  This year I have been spending most of the time of the edits of the final version of my thesis as I seem to be nearly ready to submit it (whoop!) which I can hardly believe.  In fact I won’t until it’s done so no more of that.

As part of my mental spring cleaning I have been thinking about some of the things I want to help make happen this year and this sort of leads into thoughts about UKGovCamp  and also Councillor Camp  – both of which I’m looking forward to being in the next few weeks.  It also feeds into the prep for the Master of Networks event   I’m off to with @Demsoc and some folks from GDS later in the month.

There are four main themes that are buzzing around in my head at the moment:

  • Collaborating as the new normal – not just when its easy:  I touched on this with the post I wrote before Christmas (Networks and Culture Change) but I want to spend some energy thinking about how both internal and external collaboration can work better.  Part of this is the old chestnut of breaking down silos – but I think we need to understand this in terms of dismantling and amending mental models and changing people’s relationships with their colleagues – not just blowing up the storm shelter.  We also need to think of this in terms of mutual respect.  If we are moving to an asset based model for community engagement then we need to do the same with colleagues and respect what people do know rather than criticising them from the POV of our own expertise – we need to be open.  Is also involves having the ability to be both single minded at the same time as being authentically open and inclusive.  Tricky.
  • Being clear that we do expect our politicians to be effective online:  I also want to spend time developing the work we are doing in the east of England researching what a networked councillor might look like and how we can better support them.  It ties in with the councillor camp event next week but also with the work we have been doing on PCCs (I’m off to catch up with some of the new PCCs in the next couple of months so I will report back!).  I think we have to be more demanding of our democratic relationships but that means supporting them more effectively.
  • Using networks to effect behaviour change:  I am fascinated by the work we are doing with Leicestershire Police and others to look at how we move social media from a communication to a more operational basis within the force and I can’t wait to get into some of the ideas that we came up with the workshop before Christmas and also to see how these might translate for other parts of government.  Once you have started to use network effects then looking at their ability to influence behaviour is the next step as long as we remember that that influence has to be two way – we have to be open to being influenced.
  • Digital as culture change: These all link to a bigger theme which is the framing of the digital channel shift as a cultural rather than simply a technological one.  We’ve just started a couple of projects which I think get right to the heart of this so more on that later this month.

Digital Civic Spaces

I’m really excited about the fact that we have been making huge progress with Citizenscape over the last few months and we have some exciting things planned to push this further.  I also want to circulate my research findings around Digital Civic Spaces a bit more (now they are finished!) and start to connect this to some of the conversations we see happening about Smart Cities – I want to make sure we are building a social element into this thinking.  And more generally research wise – once I actually push the submit button and start stressing about my viva – I want to look at two different areas.  One is to pick up on some of the thinking about digital identity and to poke how ‘fit for purpose’ some of the thinking/doing is when we consider democratic not just transactional needs.  Happily we are part of an EU research project on this so lots of opportunity to get into this.  Secondly I want to expand some of the network theory work I have started in the thesis and see if it can be operationalised more systematically   This connects both to the @Leicspolice work but also to the Master of Networks event where we are going to be looking at how you model content ingress from multiple civic sources.
So – interested in hearing if other people think these themes resonate with them as well – and also if anyone thinks these look like a #ukgov13 session – or not!

Happy New Year folks

PS  Re-reading this is seems like a set of New Year’s Resolutions – we’ll have to see how that goes!


I find myself using the phrase ‘open by default’ more and more frequently. This post is an attempt to explore what I mean.

We use so many of these terms so rather loosely so that they start to lose their meaning – engage, participate, innovate, open – if we want to keep the power in the language we need to drill down and be clear on what the meaning is and why the term is important. With a phrase like open by default this is even more important as it has that special quality of elusive meaning that means it is perilously close to being spin doctor jargon rather than being something that is making a difference to people’s lives.

I think the meaning breaks down into 4 different aspects:

Open information – not just data
Open data – the idea that government originated data should be in the public domain in an accessible and useable way is now a fairly established idea even if its implementation is as yet rather patchy (Have a look at LinkedGov to understand the work involved in getting this right). There are two motivations behind open data, the first is a desire to make government more accountable. This would be enough of a reason in its own right as without transparency its very difficult to imagine how we will rebuild trust in the democratic process without a shift away from the idea that information is something that needs to be controlled in its contact with the public.

More than that – there is an injustice in the idea that we pay for the creation of this data, its data about us and yet we don’t have access to it all because the systems assume that information is in a sealed file in a dusty drawer in the basement. I feel this point very strongly with respect to research data – we pay for our higher education system through taxation and then we pay through the nose to read the results of the research process (There is an interesting debate about this on the LSE Politics Blog).

Secondly, the motivation is the growing understanding that if we are going to reboot the economy we will need knowledge based businesses to pay a major role in this. In addition to the specialist manufacturing and design innovation that the UK can provide we need to create a new kind of Digital economy that goes beyond using the internet to sell stuff and uses it to create real value. The raw material for this value creation is information – and a lot of it is locked up in government data silos.

There is a movement building behind the idea of open data, brilliant stuff from CountCulture, innovation from the London Data Store and the first OpenData Cities conference in Brighton.  I would argue however that open data is only part of what open by default really means.

Open process
Again, there are two sense this is important firstly with respect to trust in the democratic process and secondly with respect to the benefits of more open processes generally.

Trust in process is created by being clear about what the process is. A good democratic experience is one where you are happy that the outcome is fair even if it isn’t your preferred outcome. At present many of our decision making processes do not feel open to the public as they assume that the public have access to the only through their representatives and the public do not feel connected to politicians. We have a choice – amend the process or improve connections between citizens and politicians. The answer may be a combination of the two.

More generally, open processes enable far wider participation and also build in the possibility of creativity and innovation far more effectively than a process which assumes that the process managers have all the answers in advance. Look at events like CityCamp Brighton  to see what happens when you bring interested people together with no agenda and some basic resources. Personally – I don’t ever want to see a community meeting agenda again which has more than 50% of the time taken up with speakers as opposed to participants.

Open access
Open access is really about making sure that Government is ‘available’ to the public – as are politicians. This means taking the conversation, and the decision making process, to the places where people are and having the debate on their terms not at the convenience of government. Its also about using new channels to make it possible for far more people to connect directly to politicians. There are some things which need a face to face conversation but new technologies and the social shift around the way in which we use them means that we should insist that politicians and government actively engages with us using these channels – this is an entirely solvable problem.

Open standards
Technical standards allow interoperability and ultimately support collaborative behaviour online. By adopting an open, by implication shared, standard the developer is open to the idea of wider connection and cooperation between their work and others. Quite apart from the practical benefits this is a cultural statement. Taking this further and adopting open source licence models which encourage reuse and further development the use of open standards is a power – if technically sent – message. The Public Sector often talks of open source as being a cost saving measure with very limited understanding of the whole open source lifecycle and the real costs for making it successful. The real benefit of open source and open standards in my mind is the design signal that it sends in creating online experience.

If we want to be “open by default” then we need use open standards to build our civic architecture.

Open mind
There is a final sense in which I think we need to consider ‘open’ and ask ourselves how open we are to new ideas. One of the side effects I believe, of living a more digital and as a result public life is that your thinking is exposed. This blog is an active attempt to explore this – as an action researcher I am documenting my explorations and you can find numerous influences and contradictions in this. If we are open by default we have to be open to external influences as well as being open with our thought processes.

Is there a choice?
I am not sure that there is. The data and the content is all out there and I have no confidence that the people holding it – government and corporate – are going to keep it locked up properly even if they want to. I think the world is changing and that it is far better to move towards this actively rather than letting it happen.

Open by default doesn’t and shouldn’t mean completely open. I believe very strongly in our right and the importance of privacy and also in the importance of discretion and privacy within some conversations. However if we don’t start to redraw some of the legal and behavioural frameworks around these issues then the important elements that we want to preserve risk being overwhelmed as people just set data free. We need a proper conversation about this that accepts, the new reality, the risks and the opportunities and starts to shape what being open really means – we need to recalibrate our privacy machine.

I sometimes ask myself to what extent this is this a moral rather than a practical position for me. I am increasingly drawn to greater openness and transparency as I think that people function better with all the information and that people are able to make reasonable judgements about what they learn. I also think its easier – to be open means that you don’t have to remember who you have said what to and also minimises internal politics and builds trust. Ultimately I think its the right thing to do – the fact I have logical reasoning for believing this does not make it less of a moral position.

Being ‘open for by default’ – in the rich sense that I have outlined here – is what open practice means to me. Its more than just opening up the data or the standards and more than just being open minded. It is an effect of the publicness of a digital life but also a practice that allows you function well in open networks where there are not fixed and contained boundaries.

I have been speaking to people about the new Police and Crime Commissioners recently and asking questions about how we can build a good democratic experience into these new roles. I am advocating the use of open practice – of being open by default – and it feels risky and bold to the people I speak to. But I keep asking – because I want politicians to be risky and bold – and I want them to be open by default – and I think this is both a moral and a practical belief to hold.

  1. If you pitch 4 sessions you will have a lot to write up
  2. We have moved on from last year – more stuff is mainstream and big ideas are being taken seriously.  However we now need to focus on building a proper evidence base to stop ourselves running away with ideas that we have not yet proved
  3. At some point soon GovCamp will need to reconcile its relationship with ‘the suits’ and accept that it is difficult to get stuff into the mainstream without it being diluted.
  4. We really need to agree on the new context so we can help our projects support each other
  5. If we are in a network society then we need to start using the power of that network – and not just talk about it at GovCamp
  6. Agile projects need agile management – not Prince2
  7. Lists are much faster than text – thanks Dan
  8. Dave and Steph do an incredible job with the organising – thank you both
  9. Lloyd Davis is an excellent facilitator and I got a huge amount from his Human Scale conversation
  10. Carrie Bishop is the best and most positive disrupter I know – I love the way she thinks
  11. One aspect of a smaller state is less concern for edge cases – I am not sure how I feel about this
  12. Its great to have the wisdom of @tomsprints at our disposal
  13. I am really glad that @pubstrat is running a huge project – its reassuring
  14. Every time I think I know enough people I meet a new ones who are fantastic
  15. When is the centre  going to realise that Government doesn’t mean Whitehall?
  16. I liked the 2 day format – but I think we should try running some sessions explicitly aimed at new people
  17. I talk too much
  18. Information is going to drive the new economy – we need to treat it like a valuable raw material not a finished product
  19. Its a huge shame that only one politician appeared in two days – hats off to @cllriansherwood for being the one who bothered
  20. Its not about digital – its about social change

I’m not going to try and comment on what has been happening in London and beyond over the last few nights – I don’t feel qualified apart from to express the outrage and sympathy that so many people thankfully share – I do want to add my view though as I think the wider the debate about the causes and solutions the better.  The first step to a good solution is a good analysis of the problem – and the idea that social media is part of the problem that seems to be the implication from the debate in the Commons yesterday is very flawed – I want to explore that here.

There is no single answer to a situation like this and one of the things that strikes me about the news coverage is the way in which commentators are grasping at ideas in order to try and create some kind of understandable narrative – each expert being convinced that its their field that has the answer but not being able to fit their story neatly on the situation.  I think what is being revealed is a narrative of two completely distinct cultures within the same society.  The point is the fundamental lack of understanding between the two groups – and if you listen to the youth and community  workers who are being interviewed this is the most important point they are trying to get across – we can’t possibly solve anything without a more real understanding of the other group’s position.

If we are going to use the frankly insulting metaphor of a sick society then lets at least use it properly.  These riots have been a symptom and not a cause and medicine moved on from just treating symptoms a 100 years ago – you would hope that politics could reflect a similar modernity.  People need to be punished, symptoms need to be treated, but we also need to change the context and remove the causes.

You always view these events through the lens of your own preoccupations and experience and so hopefully its not surprising that I am looking at this with respect to the networks and the network behaviours that it reflects.  This analysis is one contribution as to how we address the issues that the last few days have revealed.  That’s right – revealed and not created – these issues were there already but have been made unavoidable with the speed and violence with which they erupted.

I think what is needed at this point is not for all of use to speak from our individual perspectives but that different experts and people with real knowledge of real communities can come together and create some solutions that don’t just work well when we say them in the media but work well on the messy, difficult human ground within communities.

Network one of two:  Technology

Its been much quoted in the media that the rioters and looters have been using the Blackberry instant message network – BBM – to communicate and organise.  This is significant because the BBM is a technologically closed space.  The security on the network is excellent and has been built with an assumption of security and privacy which is a marked contrast social media tools like twitter which have a diametrically opposite set of design assumptions.  It was built with enterprise business use in mind – bankers with secrets – and so its designed to keep messages within the audience you send them to.  This has been of major concern to governments in the middle east and you may recall the reports about Saudi Arabia and India wanting some assurances that they could extract messages and intercept messages before Blackberry’s owner RIM got permission to trade there.

Blackberrys have been the dominant handset in the 16-24 demographic for a while now with 96% of 16-24 year olds having a mobile, half of them having a smartphone and 37% of those smartphones users having a Blackberry (Source:  Ofcom 2011 Marketing report).  Overall take up of mobiles is similar in the 25-34 and 35-54 groups but with a lower percentage of smartphones.

There are a number of reasons for this and the main one is probably the fact that the Blackberry was one of the first smartphones to offer a pay as you go option – but its difficult to imagine that  RIM expected this to be the outcome – its an odd brand situation to say the least with the devices being used at the top and the bottom of the market (in terms of spend).  The thing to note however is that its unlikely that, given phone replacement cycles, this will change over the next few years without intervention.  And the implication of those same phone replacement cycles will be that parents and grandparents will then get these handsets handed on.

The fact that these message exchanges are free at point of use means that they are obviously going to be a channel of choice for a young and low income group.  We know this is also a demographic that is less likely to have access to the internet in other ways and so we have to accept that this closed communication circuit may be in place for some time.

Network two of two:  Social

Why does this matter?  Apart from the obvious implications of an anti-social crowd being able to mobilise quickly and secretly which is probably enough of a concern to anyone trying to police increasingly agile crowds of course….lets not forget there is a practical problem here as well and acknowledge this difficulty.

All of the work by practitioners around the use of social media for community engagement- and much of the optimism that many of us feel – is really predicated on the open and collaborative culture of the social web.  Where we talk about the use of mobiles it around the use of mobiles for internet access and SMS.  We know that young people engage with Facebook and other tools from their phones and we see this as a route to engage with them in turn.

The use of BBM explodes this paradigm – the culture is not the same and the network is closed and not open – the optimism that many of us feel with respect to the possibilities of the social web to engage people in constructive and deliberative debate is less founded with this technology.

The strength of weak ties

Cultures will always form sub-cultures and groups need and should have some degree of privacy.  I think the issue here is more that there is no connection with the BBM using younger demographic and a great portion of society.  We really have no idea of how this sub-culture functions online and we have few points of connection to it – to the extent that it was notable that a Guardian journalist actually made any connections at all.

Contrast this with way in which twitter was being used to organise the cleanup and to dispel rumours.  Even when you step out of the cosy intellectual, middle class bubble that many of us live in online there was outrage and anger about the rioting.  We can’t forget about the idiots who posted their loot on their Facebook pages – but we can note that this is also perhaps a cultural stupidity with them being more used to the closed systems of the BBM and text messages.

The problem here is so obviously not the technology – to say so is to take a technological determinist view of the world that ignores the fact that we have been on a path to a more networked society every since the telegraph enabled us to reach across the planet.  You can no more remove the networked behaviour at this point than you can stop people talking on street corners (or are we planning that?).  Yes – shutting down technologies will slow the spread of information – but that means good and bad information.  It would of course make us new friends in the form of all kinds of oppressive regimes who we have been criticising for just these reasons.  The revolution in the middle east has not been tweeted but it has surely been helped (read Gladwell and Shirky on this).

We need a culture of openness and we need to make connections across all of the networks in our society if we are going to build communities to live in that we can trust and feel safe in.  Networks are not the only analysis here but one small way forward could be to consider how we become part, or at least known to, the networks and groups that have been organising violence and looting over the last few nights.

This isn’t an online issue – the technology is not the problem – but the underlying lack of connection between two segments of society which is illuminated by the technology is I think a root cause and could give us an entry point to try and make things better.

I am rubbish at #ff partly because I never get round to it, partly because I never remember on a Friday and partly because I have yet to find an iphone client which makes it easy to pick a list of people (suggestions on this very welcome).  Anyway, I read content from some really interesting and talented folks and I wanted to appreciate them properly here so –please accept this as a massive #ff catch up.  There are rather a lot but then I don’t do this very often.  As I was writing this I realised that I was over using some words – I started to edit these out but then I realised that I was highlighting the qualities that I most value, thoughtful, informative, evidence based, human  – for please forgive the prose as I didn’t think it was a good use of time to go and hunt through the thesaurus.

Mighty bloggers (who mainly also tweet)

  • Demsoc – and not just because I work with him – Anthony’s blogging is thoughtful and incredibly knowledgeable and I always look to his stuff to give me a wider perspective on the democratic consequences of current affairs.  He finds excellent stuff on twitter and is also extremely funny.
  • Dave Briggs – Dave is a collector of ideas and people and if he recommends anything then I read it as he spots the good stuff – which is why I am always immensely flattered when he highlights one of of my pieces.  I think it’s because it’s obviously reads and thinks about stuff rather than just sending it on.  He’s also rather funny as well – though often considerably ruder than Anthony
  • Michelle Ide Smith – Michelle’s stuff is thoughtful, well researched and thorough.  As a researcher I really appreciative the fact that her pieces are reflective and informative.  I also have a weakness for fellow dog owners
  • Paul Clarke – I love the lyric tone that Paul brings to really technical stuff and how he manages to show it’s enormous relevance to everyday life.  I also like the fact that he always tries to see things from all angles.
  • Toby Blume – Toby is a new find for me but as I start to think more and more about the economic impacts of change it’s great to be able to read his thoughtful and principled writing
  • Ingrid Koehler – Ingrid’s blog shows her acres of experience and deep knowledge of the sector – and it’s an excellent read
  • LouLouK – I love Louise’s blog – it’s very real, very honest and very practical in many ways.  It’s a view from the sharp end of a lot of the stuff that I spend time pontificating on and a great read
  • Matthew Taylor – I know – he comes across often as rather pleased with himself and a little insecure but his thinking is on a grand scale and I really appreciate the ambition and the sheer scale of what he is trying to do – and it’s always good to read stuff from people who write that well
  • Chris Taggert (AKA CountCulture) – Chris writes passionately and uncompromisingingly about open data and transparency as a whole.  I’m just really glad he does
  • Emma Mulqueeny (aka Hubmum) – I’m always glad to see a post from Emma – like Paul Clarke she has a knack for showing the everyday impact of the social web in an informed and reflective way
  • Gr8governance – Carl is working really hard to transform democracy in kirkless.  He’s someone who has a real faith in the democratic system at the same time as knowing its needs to change and his blog is about this journey.  His post about his father was one of my all time favourites and finally made me get a glimmer of what this football business is about
  • Carl Haggerty – great blog to show the way in which public sector needs to change – human and technical at the same time
  • Christine Smith – Christine is a social media expert fro Sussex police and a special special – its a relatively new blog but excellent – if you are interested I what it’s like to be a special then it’s a must
  • Dan Slee – Dan writes is another practitioner who provides that valuable balance between analysis and practicality – and always very well phrased…
  • Danah Boyd – Academically I want to be Danah when I grow up – in real life I fear I may have started too late….incisive, knowledgeable and questing she is leading the way in terms of thinking about what social media means

And now for something completely different – I present the twitterati (who mostly also blog)

  • Kathryn Corrick – Kathryn is political and interested in democracy but from a much more journalistic perspective.  She’s an excellent curator of content which means I’m always clicking through on her links.
  • Janet e Davis – I met Janet at city camp London and I’m so glad I did – she brings a different perspective to my twitterstream and her photographs are lovely
  • Podnosh – nick’s been fairly quiet really – and I miss his very sharp, funny and honest view on things – all in 140 characters
  • Noelito – I just don’t know how Noel covers the ground that he does but his electric and informative tweets are a huge asset
  • Nick Keane – Nick knows everyone connected with social media and the police and he is open, warm and generous in the way he shares this knowledge because he has a real passion for helping the police force evolve
  • TomSprints – conversational, informed, generous and informative – with a well developed sense of irony


that’s it for now – though there are always more to find…..