Research diary


This is going to be one of those annoying posts which strays between research stuff and more practical things. I’m writing it to tease out an inconsistency in my thinking around both the thesis and also our design work for Citizenscape. It really is thinking in public so please feel free to look away and leave me quietly muttering to myself……

I am just neurotically tweaking (with heroic help from the amazing @GeorgeJulian and others) my thesis which does two main things:

  • Describes and describes a method for reliably finding informal civic activity online
  • Suggests some design criteria for creating Digital Civic Spaces which would enable this participation

I hasten to add that at 90000 words I sincerely hope it does a few other things as well but we shall see…anyway

I define informal civic activity online as being content which is created with an intended primary audience of the wider community as opposed to informal social activity which has an intended primary audience of friends and/or family. I use the term ‘primary audience’ as the publicness of the online world means that this content will also have unintended secondary or further audiences as well. Community might refer to community of place or of interest but my work focuses on community of place. In more practical terms I am talking about community websites, hyperlocal sites, Facebook groups or active individuals who are using the Internet either to talk about or organise in their local area. One of the points I make is that we can’t just frame this content as being citizen journalism – while some content creators fit this description there are more who are using these tools without any intent that they are creating an authoritative record or commentary on events and are better described simply as community activists or active citizens.

This ambiguity about audience for informal civic activity creates a dilemma for policy makers and politicians. While this content is in the public domain it is not necessarily intended as part of any political or democratic process. We can argue that because we should all be aware of the publicness of the social and the possible existence of secondary audiences that this information is in the public domain but without the active intent to participate its role in public debate is – well – debatable.  This debate is around the nature of Social Media with respect to the concept of the public sphere and its role in political communication – will pick this up separately.

Its fairly standard practice for communications teams to monitor sentiment and significant influencers online and this is part of the advertising tax we all pay in different ways to keep social media free in the main part. I am amazed that more politicians don’t do the same thing. However this kind of monitoring, while useful, does not seem to me to be a solid foundation for a different and more co-productive relationship with the Public – something I would argue strongly that we need. (There are some interesting parallels with academic research ethics around social media here which I might pick up at a later date).
The existence of informal civic activity online speaks of the potential for a more meaningful role for this in the democratic process as it opens up a connection to community groups and networks which are often outside of the ‘usual suspects’ of community engagement and political campaigning. However on the other end of things we don’t as yet include social media content which has not been created in response to a specific question in consolation or engagement processes and this means we are closing down the potential for agenda setting and proactive engagement in the policy making process other than by traditional routes.

So, we have meaningful activity online and no clear route for how we actively rather than passively include it in the democratic process.

This is where the design criteria for digital civic space come in (sorry folks – this is repeat from other postings):

  • Design Criteria 1: The purpose of a digital civic space to is to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making – it is a Public and open space that is available to any interested Citizen.
  • Design Criteria 2: The space should facilitate a co-productive relationship between Citizen and Government. This should extend to the content curation and management of the space
  • Design Criteria 3: The geographical reach of the space should be self-defined by users with administrative boundaries being subordinate to ‘natural place’ described by the Civic Creators.
  • Design Criteria 4: The space should support the principles of open government with respect to data, process and transparency
  • Design Criteria 5: The space should be able to authenticate the identity of participants to a standard which makes their contribution available to consultation and policy making processes.

The thesis will (I hope!) tell the story of where these all came from but we (at Public-i) have been working on creating Citizenscape on this basis (this is where the action comes into the action research!!). We are about to be ready to beta the next version of the platform and this post was triggered by a need to really think about the point of connection between the informal civic spaces created by citizens (as described above) and the more formal but still open space which is described by the criteria above. We will be testing this thinking as well as the UX in the beta tests so I will report back at some point.

We can (and do with Citizenscape) take a step forward from the surveillance scenario described above by making sure that anyone whose content is being used is informed and by ensuring that the platform ensures that platform shares the same metrics and measurement with both the audience and the administrators. However in terms of creating a democratic space the key is I think in active participation – which is linked to criteria 5 – identity. While a Digital Civic Space might draw on ambient or passive activity which has the wider world as a secondary audience some act of active participation is needed in order for this to be included in democratic debate. This might be a response to a specific questions (as is the case with online consultation) or it could be the sharing of identity with the Space in recognition that you want your content to be ‘counted’. I don’t see any issue at all with making it clear that democratic debate needs to understand how representative the participants are and also have a degree of accountability which is not possible without a sense of who is participating (note: this doesn’t mean your identity needs to be public – it just needs to be known).

So – I am proposing that the that missing connection between informal and formal digital civic activity must be a conscious act of participation. We cannot consider media monitoring to be a substitute for democratic participation – even though that is the more straightforward approach. In practical terms this means inviting people before including their content and being completely transparent about how its being used – I don’t think either of these points are either difficult or unreasonable.

Government can learn a lot from monitoring activity online – but it can gain a lot more by collaborating with the content creators.

One other thought – if therefore we are going to ask people to identify themselves to the Digital Civic Space in order to participate in the democratic process then we are going to have to ensure that there is some kind of democratic promise in place. If we want people to be actively participating then we need to be actively listening. The nature of that listening is another post – perhaps a discussion about Networked Councillors as well as a discussion about new forms of Policy Making.

In my last post I talked about why I believe our leaders need be able to think strategically about what it means to be digital by default if we are going to use the power of digital networked technologies to transform the way we live. This post is about the the counterweight to this – the issue of digital exclusion. I am often out in the world evangelising about the opportunity which the network society offers us – but this work needs to be balanced by an equal effort to make sure everyone can participate. Having done a lot of presenting recently I wanted to reacquaint myself with the facts about digital exclusion to make sure that I am taking both of these messages out and about with me.

For the majority of us digital exclusion is not an issue as internet use continues to rise. According to the latest ONS figures (Internet Access Quarterly Update, 2012 Q1) only 8.12 million adults (16.1 per cent) had never used the Internet and this is about 1 per cent lower than 2011 Q4 and 7 per cent lower than 2011 Q1.

“At 2012 Q1 there were 42.16 million adults in the UK who had ever used the Internet, representing 83.7 per cent of the adult population. The 8.12 million adults who had never used the Internet represented 16.1 per cent of the adult population.”

However within these figures is the real issue:

“Of those adults in employment whose gross weekly pay was less than £200 per week, 6.9 per cent (367,000) had never used the Internet. Internet use has almost reached full coverage for those earning in excess of £500 a week, with Internet use nearly 99 per cent for all adults with weekly pay rates above this level.”

Digital exclusion, as with any form of exclusion, is a complex issue but clearly income and the ability to purchase access is a central element. Other elements include educational attainment, technical skills, social pressures, physical ability and at the heart of it your motivations (or lack of) for going online. This last one is critical – many people will fight to overcome other barriers if we help them find a reason to go online – this is one of the many reasons why I think the Social Media Surgery approach is so brilliant as a way of getting people online.
The 2011 OFCOM report into media use and literacies (next one due in August) indicates the growth in internet use and shows increases in the variety of uses made of the internet but also warns:

There continue to be significant differences by age and socio-economic group across a variety of measures. And those that aren’t online are more likely to be older and from DE socio-economic groups – some 51% of those aged 65+ say they don’t intend to get the internet at home, and 29% of those in DE socio-economic groups, compared to 15% of the UK population as a whole.

The concern about new kinds of digital exclusion is being explored as part of a Nominet Trust funded project at the OII. The project is looking into ‘lapsed’ internet use in what they believe is around 10% of young people in Britain. The research is ongoing but you there is a really useful literature review here:

What does this all mean?
Looking at this issue again it is fairly striking that the policy research on this that is being referenced in Government is a couple of years old. We are talking about 2008 in terms of the CLG and 2009 in reference to the background info that formed the evidence for the Race Online Campaign (you can see the report here). I have not been able to find anything more recent and would be grateful if anyone can point me in the direction of anything more relevant.

This point is picked up more broadly in this post by Ellen Helsper on the LSE Politics Blog . Ellen concludes:

“To achieve a digitally equal Britain as well as a digital Britain, policies need to set targets for the whole spectrum of digital inclusion: quality of access, skills, motivations and effective, sustainable use. It is irresponsible to think that the latter can be handed over to industry or the third sector completely. Just as standards are set for education standards need to be set for digital inclusion across government departments and policies.”

There is a game changer at hand however in the form of the smart phone: 45 per cent of Internet users used a mobile phone to connect to the Internet (ONS / ONS Internet Access 2011) and we know from OFCOM data that smartphone purchases are on a sharp rise to over 50% of contracts now being taken up (this data is all referenced here on the facts glorious facts page).  The smart phone take up is also vulnerable to financial pressure and the adoption curve for new technology may well slow in the face of economic hardship – though I have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence from practitioners who say that they are finding that people will continue their phone contract in preference to their rent or food which is worrying.

Sitting behind all of these factors are questions of broadband and 3G coverage – you can be rich as Croesus and have 3 PHDs but this will do you little good if you can’t actually connect to the internet.

Some conclusions
The strategy of being Digital by Default is undoubtedly supported by the evidence base – its also in my view vital if we want to ensure economic relevance for the country in the future. If we look at the evidence in the round I think we can have reasonable confidence that the increase in smart phone technology and the consistent pattern of increases in internet use make this a diminishing problem – albeit one with a long tail. However there are also signs that there will be a group of people who are persistently excluded for a number of complex reasons as is the case with other forms of social exclusion. What does this mean for policy making?  I have three thoughts on this:

  • We need to make sure that we have 100% fast broadband coverage throughout the Country otherwise digital by default is an empty promise
  • We need to keep the question of digital exclusion alive in the planning and policy process and to look at specific groups who will be effected – we are not yet at the point where we can assume everyone is online
  • I think we need to refresh the evidence base in order to understand exactly what effect smartphone take up is having on digital exclusion

I think my final question is to ask where we think that this responsibility is sitting? The Race Online project was an effective start but I am not seeing that work being picked up with the same energy now and I am also seeing some fairly limp broadband campaigns from a number of Local Authorities (naming no names) which says to me the message has not really hit home. I am hoping that I am missing some and that there is good work going on to address this issue – if you know of something can you let me know?

I think we are at a really pivotal moment with respect to where technology might take us. The promise of Open Data and Digital by Default on the one hand, the fact that the online space is still dominated by commercial rather than social forces and as a result excludes people on the other. Linking back to my post of earlier today – we need to make sure that our leaders really are thinking digital on behalf of the people who are not yet there.

The Fremont Troll – Community co-production at its finest.

I went to hear Jim Diers speak last week – it was brilliant – many thanks to Colin Miller and BHCC for arranging it. I am still trying to get hold of the slides and will share them when I do but I wanted to blog about the event while it was still fresh in my mind.

Jim Diers  was Director of the Office of Neighbourhoods in Seattle, created in 1988 as a response to citizen dissatisfaction in the City. He has had a number of other community development roles and now lectures at the University of Washington as well as at the Asset Based Community Development Institute at NorthWestern. He has also been invited to talk to the UK Government and was consulted by the UK Government as part of the People Powered Change programme – happily he has avoided the brand toxicity of big society association by having a hugely credible track record.

I was live tweeting the event and below are the comments I tweeted which had the greatest resonance with me and with the people using the #jimdiers tag that evening:

  • If you call me a taxpayer I will demand service – call me a citizen and I will act like one
  • Too many organisations- not enough networks or communities. Build relationships not structures
  • Give communities the data that describes them and make representativeness a condition of funding
  • The council needs to think of all of its comms as a way of building relationships. Don’t put engagement in a box on its own
  • People learn best from the people who have done the work – its effective and empowering
  • Local regeneration is about the community attracting the business they want not just waiting to see what turns up
  • If you describe the community in terms of needs not strengths then all the power is with government

The stories Jim told from Seattle were inspiring because they spoke of communities finding their own power and taking a central role in their own development. Jim described a co-productive environment where the City officials had moved out of the way and strongly saw their role as facilitators, connectors and enablers for the community. He also implied a huge level of commitment from the City and from politicians – in particular the Mayor.

In the Seattle projects the question of representativeness was passed to the community to answer and was made one of the conditions of funding. I asked how the team had gone about detoxifying politics for the communities to the extent that they were positive about this kind of democratic approach and in his answer he talked about the need for persistence as well as the need to demonstrate the commitment to democracy with actions not just words. Jason Kitkat (leader of BHCC) added to this by pointing out that there is a place for politics – I think the unspoken codicil to this is its probably not within community development work.

However it is a bold decision to step away and let the community act and there is an explicit need in this approach to give power away to the community.

Part of why this was possible in Seattle was because the situation in 1988 was dire with many neighbourhoods needing significant regeneration and much citizen dissatisfaction – which sounds familiar in the UK in 2012. The response from the City was to do bottom up planning “because we don’t have any money” – for them effective community engagement was not a luxury.

It was also possible in Seattle because they took an asset based view of community development – they looked at what communities could do not just what they – the state – felt they needed (Have a look at how Wiltshire have been exploring this approach thanks to Steve Milton  ). This asset based model has been developed by the Institute at NorthWestern and the website is worth a read to explore some of the other case studies as well.

There was a challenge within Jim’s ideas about the need to transform the ‘usual suspects’ as well as our politicians – the challenge being that transformation in the way in citizen/state relationship to achieve more democracy and more shared power will require us to change all aspects of that relationship – not just a top down attitude approach from politicians. Jim explicitly said he felt that much of the Community development function has lost its direction and that its contributing to the culture of dependency. This was challenged as being a difficult message to give to people who have been ‘banging their heads against a brick wall’ in their attempts to create more citizen-led initiatives but Jim pushed back with the need to transform all elements of the community development dynamic in order to really achieve co-productive results. He is challenging community development professionals to take a really hard look at whether they are needs or assets led and whether part of the transfer of power to communities is in this reframing and not just with changing the attitudes of the politicians.

I have to say that I share his belief that all of the actors involved in the community development relationship need to change. In some ways this is a companion thought to the piece which I wrote on the absence of politicians in the digital space recently in that I expressed a similar feeling of appreciation for the enormous contribution but frustration for the failure to engage with a changing agenda. The challenge to change can’t just to laid at the door of politicians – the rest of us need to adapt as well and we need to do it in step with wider social changes.

Diers’ emphasis was on action, on doing and empowering. In many ways he was seeing community building as a by-product of community action and this is intriguing. Many of us would agree that this is the case and it certainly echoes the positive by-product approach that we have taken with We Live Here  but this principle of benefit by obliquity  is very difficult to argue for in a business case constrained development environment. However focusing our metrics on the measurable is a very sensible thing to do – for example looking at network reach and depth rather than social capital as a way of measuring community cohesion.

So – I have said before that evangelists are really irritating and I know that I can be counted as such on both counts and you can probably tell I found the session huge energising and inspiring. However. The caveat for me was the absence of a role for digital engagement to play a part in this work. This is probably not surprising as many of the case studies were from over the last across the last 20 years and probably predate the exponential take up of social technologies from the last 5 years. But when asked Jim was fairly dismissive of social media  – and I think this is a missed opportunity not just because of some of the efficiencies and relevance that new technologies but bring but also the positive social pressure that citizens already participating in the network society can bring. We see this in the CityCamp Brighton and this asset based approach is exactly how we have been approaching We Live Here.

The social network research that we use to instigate the We Live Here sites is an attempt to, cost-effectively, find the community assets who already have some of the digital skills which I think will be essential to community development in the future.

Why? Because as Jim Diers said it’s not just getting communities to take over services – its about enabling them to redesign those services to fit their lives. You will need digital skills to reinvent services in the future and you will need networked behaviours to do this within the network society.

But the thing I really noted from the session was a reminder of the importance of starting the engagement process with the community – not with your own organisational needs – and taking the time to build the relationships and shape the response around them. This is such a difficult thing to do when the pressure for change is immense and the natural response when in a hurry to to revert to a controlling approach. I think this is another way in which digitally led approaches can help with the amplification and viral nature of online network building speeding up this process – as long as we can then go on to take these networks offline and into the community.

I think there is something really significant in a combination of this kind of approach to community development with the rigour and scale that you can achieve with successful digital projects and the cultural change that a more digitally native approach can bring. Part of the point of the action research programme I want to set up around the We Live Here work is to look at how digital techniques can complement this kind of asset based community development approach and I will also now bring in some of the CityCamp Brighton experiences and see if I can gather evidence from this network as well.

I am fascinated by the cultural collisions that are brought about by really good community development work and really good use of digital as more than just a communication tool. I am impatient for these cultural collisions to start changing our political landscape and hope to do my part in bringing some of these collisions about. I am most excited however by the huge potential that I think is in our communities if we can figure out a way of unlocking and seeing first the assets and not the needs of communities.

As I said when I signed off on twitter after the event:

Inspired. Now off to find assets, remove structure to build relationships and democracy

 

PS  for those of you who like this kind of thing – SNA map of the tweets from the event:

 

Total reach of nearly 40,000 with a contribution from the Netherlands – it is indeed a small world….

So – yesterday’s post on civic architecture was I have to confess a little text heavy – below is the diagram which I think encapsulates the different areas of the digital ecosystem which we need to consider the need to create civic architecture online:

Civic architecture diagram

The Machine layer refers to protocols and TCPIP or the convention of things like HTTP. The infrastructure layer refers to choices of operating system or web server (for example the choice of open source Apache vs a proprietary web server). The Application layer refers to things the specific service such as Facebook or Twitter and the Content layer is as it says – the content – and includes the semantic information needed to make this portable and accessible.

. Running through all of these layers are on the one side the rule of law and the organisations managing this and on the other the influences of culture and identity which effect choices in each of these layers.

I am proposing a civic communicative layer which fulfils a number of needs:

  • To ensure information and cultural exchange between applications and operating systems which are currently controlled by market forces often in proprietary systems
  • To ensure that the conditions of a healthy public sphere are met in terms of ensuring free exchange of information and views rather than a reliance on market managed media sources
  • To ensure balance between social and financial outcomes

There are alternatives which might also deliver civically vibrant online space; for example the new economy might create collaborative and open norms or improved take-up of open source technologies by content creators might swing the balance in favour of a more civic digital ecosystem. However, while waiting for these outcomes to happen and while matters of identity and culture develop I am proposing we ensure the robust existence of a civic communicative layer.

My thesis is (currently but persistently) titled “Civic Architecture in Cyberspace” and this post is an attempt to explain what I mean by this. Be warned that this also a draft for a section in the final document so may be a little slow….

When William Mitchell described his ‘City of Bits‘ in 1996 he recreated the physical city with retail, educational civic and commercial elements. He was in many ways talking against the zeitgeist at the time as the focus was on the potential of new technologies to break down barrier of time and place and create virtual communities as described by Howard Rheingold (Homesteading the Virtual Frontier, 1994). However now, as we see internet use near pervasive and mobile devices offering the potential for an augmented reality with real time, real place information it may be time to reconsider how we want to build our City of Bits. If market forces are taking care of retail and commerce and the education system is taking care of itself – who is building civic space online?

In a 2003 paper Benkler suggested the need for a common infrastructure to complement the proprietary one created by the market – he in fact refers to the commons as a place which is free of the market and in common with Lessig talks of these shared spaces as being a place of open innovation unfettered by market forces. These ‘commons’, an echo of the mediaeval idea of common land, require a number of conditions according to Benkler who I paraphrase below:

  • An open physical layer should be built through the introduction of open wireless networks, or a spectrum commons.
  • An open logical layer should be facilitated through a systematic policy preference for open over close protocols and standards, and support for free software platforms that no person or firm can unilaterally control.
  • An open content layer. Not all content must be open, but intellectual property rights have gone wildly out of control in the past decade, expanding in scope and force like never before. There is a pressing need to roll back some of the rules that are intended to support the twentieth century business models.
  • Reforming organisational and institutional structures that
  • resist widely distributed production systems.

To create such a commons we would need to align legal, technical and governmental structures as well as market forces and corporations who are currently very happy to be have the freedom to create walled gardens in the way many of us criticised AOL and others for doing when people first started going online domestically.

There is in my view another layer that needs to be considered – perhaps best described as social and cultural. Boyd’s description of networked publics and the way in which people use web 2.0 spaces makes clear the importance of the audience in forming the nature and behaviour of the space and Donath’s work on social signalling online further extends this. Online the participants have a far more active role to play in the creation of the space than is possible offline.

The networked publics that Boyd describes, places like Facebook and Myspace, suffer from the structural flaws which Lessig and Benkler explore and as such I would challenge their ability to be truly and persistently civic.

Stephen Coleman and Jay Bluhmer have suggested the need for a civic commons online – a mediated democratic space – and this has been echoed by Sunstein in his book Republic 2.0. In this conception of civic space online their is an agreed space for democratic debate which has been created for this purpose and is linked to the formal decision making process.

So – what do I mean by civic architecture online?
Our built environment now produces a vast amount of data and as individuals the content we created is increasingly geo-located as we create more of it from smartphones and similar devices. I would like to see more that being open and available as feedback to the people. My work examining hyperlocal social media sites shows huge numbers of people using these technologies with the purpose ‘I want to talk to my community’ but in many ways these individuals are talking blindly as the civic infrastructure which could knit these contributions together is not there – this absence is what I refer to as the ‘civic communicative layer’.

There is not obvious gathering place of place online. Where the town hall, village hall, pub, churches or the commons all serve as focal points in the physical world there are as yet no online equivalent and also no infrastructure to bring these together. Coleman’s civic commons is one element of this but that is formal – we also need the informal spaces where communities meet.

I agree with Benkler who proposed an open legal and structural layer and I also agree with the need for process and organisational reform to achieve this. I would like to see open standards around the transfer of civic data and I would like to encourage the creation of focal points for civic discourse which are not mediated by the state.

This could be simple – imagine that on connecting to the internet in a new area you were asked if you wanted to know what was happening in the community. Imagine that as you walk down the street you are able to see examples of civic projects and active citizens rather than the advertising that would currently be the only thing to flood an open phone. How about a civic weighted search engine which prioritised content which is relevant to the social fabric and not to commercial interests?

Evangelists are tedious and I would be the first to admit that I am an evangelist for the potential of the social web. But much of this is rooted in my experiences 15 years ago when I first discovered these technologies and where the balance between commercial and civic content was I believe very different and when the hacker/academic antecedents of the social web were stronger. We have diluted this culture and though I think change and adoption is good now is the time to temper this by returning to those more civic roots and demanding that if we are building a City of Bits we should make sure that it includes civic space as well as a really big shopping mall.

In common again with Benkler and others I freely admit that this is a moral as much as a researched position for me. However I don’t think its uncommon. What needs to be considered is the depth of this issue – practitioners in many different disciplines feel the absence of civic space as is discussed above but without often without the technological and legal perspective and writers like Benkler and Lessig bring. To be concerned about democracy online also means to be concerned about the fabric of the internet – the technical and legal standards which protect the openness which is so essential I believe to democracy.

There is of course an alternative position which is the optimism of a benign market which talks about collaborative consumption and crowdsourcing of solutions. If true then this is an exciting thought but I currently fear that this is a closed wolf in open sheeps clothing and that commercial organisations need to be compelled to behave with more open practice. Its possible that local market forces might achieve this but not I believe without some strucutural intervention.

Finishing with a Benkler quote the potential of a strong common infrastructure is there:

Building a core common infrastructure is a necessary precondition to allow us to transition away from a society of passive consumers buying what a small number of commercial producers are selling. It will allows us to develop into society in which all can speak to all, and in which anyone can become an active participant in political, social, and cultural discourse. (2003)

We can and should continue to focus content and civic activists and I believe we will continue to see citizens creating civic spaces online with their hyperlocal activity. I hope we will see politicians interacting with them there. However, without addressing the structural restrictions described above this activity is limited as is our freedom online.

Here’s the thing. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for people who choose to stand in local elections. Local politics is a fairly thankless task however with a few exceptions we see exceptional public service from our local politicians. At the same time I find it screamingly frustrating as to how slow the adoption of new approaches and behaviours can be within this group.

This is an action research diary post for me and as such important that I state my personal bias on this subject (if the above doesn’t make it clear!!). I am a very strong supporter of the importance of having a representative democracy but I believe that elections do not deliver a perfect mandate and that politicians have an obligation to have an ongoing dialogue with their electorate to help shape their views and understand their preferences. I also think that this dialogue needs to be carried out openly and in places where it is possible for as many people as possible to participate. I think that today, to make this possible,  politicians will need to make far better use of online tools.

I spend a lot of time with Councillors and I am fairly regularly asked to do social media workshops of one kind or another with them – usually by Officers motivated by the same combination of feelings that I expressed above. I no longer use these as an opportunity to talk about tools as I have reached the conclusion that any idiot can learn to use twitter if they choose to (the evidence is there!) and these people are (in the main) not idiots. My belief is that the reason we don’t see wide scale adoption of social media tools is that most members lack the sense of urgency and purpose which would lead them to go online and talk to people.

When you dig a little deeper in this there are a few reasons underneath this lack of urgency which I think we can pithily sum up as confidence, ignorance and arrogance.

Confidence or lack thereof
The confidence point is of course about lack of confidence. Many of our politicians are older and often have not had to make a professional adjustment to new technologies in their working lives. In the same way as any other digitally excluded group they need to be given the confidence to try some of this stuff out. This is not about ‘training’ people though basic skills are of course needed. This is more about sitting down and giving people one to one support (in the way its done in social media surgeries) to help them achieve the things they want to do. Yes – this is more time consuming that running a course but ultimately it is hugely more effective. While on the subject of time – the other thing I try and is to help people think about how this will work with their wider workflow rather than as an extra task in its own right. So, if you have people like this in your council then sit down with them and talk about what they might want to achieve online.

Ignorance?
For some Members it really is as simple as pointing out the growth and centrality of digital technologies for civic use. Those of us who are fairly immersed in this stuff and see the growth in hyperlocal sites or community projects online get frustrated about the pace of change but one of the effects of the online space is the homogeneity of our experience – we tend to see what the people we follow see and this creates an amplification effect around the perceived centrality of social media. The truth is probably balanced somewhere between us evangelist types and the people who are not online at all. Simply pointing out the facts (and there are loads) on online adoption and the behaviour shifts seen with smartphone and tablet take up is often enough to get people thinking differently. By drawing together some of the offline social changes around for example in the shift towards less hierarchical and more networked organisations, or by looking at the public desire for greater openness which is so central to the online world, you can present the growth of social media as a symptom as much as a cause and so give it the relevance it needs if people are going to dedicate time to using it. Want to do something to help these people? Show them the facts.

Apathy or arrogance?
However, there is another group of members who I encounter who object to social media not because they don’t see how it could help but because they don’t think the public want to participate. This will either be spoken of in resigned terms – “I wish the public were interested but they just aren’t” or in a slightly more aggressive tone of “my voters are perfectly happy and don’t need any more contact with me”. The members who make this point are often fairly cross about the idea of more participation being needed – I am not sure if they are threatened or just a bit insulted by the idea. What I am not sure about with respect to the group is whether at the heart of it they are rejecting the idea that we need to change the way we are ‘doing democracy’ which is implicit in my belief that we need greater participation between elections. This group put the problem of democratic deficit fairly squarely on the shoulders of the public who are not turning out to vote. I find this group particularly disturbing because I meet a lot of them – I am not sure I have a suggestion for how to make a difference here apart from persistence and robust debate.
Most groups I encounter will have a mix of enthusiasts and openminded learners but there are always some of the these rather angry people who just don’t want things to change. Some of them have a thought out position on this but many that I encounter don’t.  It is the balance of these groups within a Council that is critical to moving forward. The more I do these sessions the more I let my frustration show (which is possibly not a good thing) because I think the evidence of the need for change in the democratic process is mounting and we are also close to a burning platform of financial crisis in Local government which, irrespective of ideological concerns will make it essential that we evolve the citizen/state relationship because we will need to the public to do more for themselves. And you know what, there is also evidence that in the right circumstances that they are prepared to do more.

This post is really the result of nearly 10 years of observations with respect to asking Politicians to consider how technology can change democracy. When we started suggesting that people webcast their council meeting we were met with a similar set of objections (and the far more relevant challenge of the fact that video over the 56kbps modem really did test your democratic resolve) and in some ways this has not changed. What has changed is the politics around this. We find far fewer Councils where the idea of using technology to make the Council more open and transparent (which is I believe the thrust of the webcasting project) is being rejected or being made to be a political issue and the battle ground around technology in the chamber has shifted to the degree of public participation. Even then we don’t see this splitting along party lines as we did with the webcasting and this is more likely to split along luddite / evangelist lines – with these two groups each having good and bad reasons for their positions. This makes the task of trying to create change programmes with members even greater as we are seeing two different interlocking dynamics as the party / technology groupings are different.

Returning to the question of participation, we are seeing more and more social media active members we are not seeing a step change in the way in which Councillors behave and I doubt we will with the current mix of enthusiasts, learners and naysayers. We will continue to see incremental change and improvement in this space but we won’t shift this as quickly as many of us would like without raising the level of urgency about this agenda.

What can we do this?

This isn’t about getting members online – as far as I am concerned this is about evolving our democratic process to respond to the social changes that we see with a more networked society. Getting members online and using social media could be seen as a positive byproduct of this process which is why the focus has to be on giving them a reason to go online rather than just teaching people tools.

There is also the question as to whether you should prioritise democratic reform when the rest of the system needs attention? I think we have to. There are financial savings to be had in changing the way that we manage our democracy and social gains to be made by creating a more connected community.

One way of moving forward on this is to remove the buffer zone of community engagement work and start to educate the public about politics. This is problematical as the public demonstrably dislike politics and process (Hansard) but by building the demand for change outside of the usual suspects group of digital evangelists we increase the chances of being heard.

Another way is for a body like the LGA to take responsibility for pushing this agenda, or for Political parties to take this on.  Another possibility is that we see something like the Pirate Party start to have the disruptive effect that has been seen in other EU democracies.

There is an inherent problem with democratic reform in that the time we get to spend on it is limited by the event horizon of the next election.  Perhaps the most important thing that may need to happen is for this issue of greater participation between elections needs to gain the kind of persistence in political circles that the idea of openness and transparency seems to have now done so that this debate can grow past the next vote.

Last night we held our second community meeting for We Live Here in the lovely Electika Cafe on Western Road (yes – that was a plug – it is lovely and they were kind enough to open for us in the evening – they also followed through on our project meeting promise of cake at every meeting). This was for the Brunswick site – which was originally Brunswick and Regency until we realised (though the research process) that this was two distinct areas that would probably work better as two separate project sites.

Brunswick is a real mix of demographics with high density short term occupancy alongside beautiful and much loved Regency Terraces. We found a huge amount going on online and offline but we also found it was fairly disconnected with relatively few linkages between groups and projects.

Learning from the first community event we held, this was never intended to be a huge meeting but instead a chance to test our ideas on residents and get permission to carry on developing them as we feel at a point where we can’t continue without active participation from the people who live in the areas we are working in.

We therefore contacted participants based on people we had met through the research and the event was a bit like Brunswick in that it turned into more creative and free form drop in session than a formal meeting. We had a good turn out however with one ward councillor and 4 local activists over the course of the evening.

From the WLH here team we had Anthony, Nicky, Susie and I – with me facilitating, Anthony pitching the project and Susie describing the research as she has the most in-depth knowledge of the area.

The advantage of the drop in format was that we got to test the pitch a few times. Specifically for Brunswick we put forward:

  • We think that there is a lot of participation in the area but it is disconnected and not well networked
  • It is difficult for new people to get involved because there is no visible way of connecting to ‘the community’
  • We think that technology can help connect groups and activities and make civic society easier to participate with
  • This doesn’t mean doing everything online – it means using digital to connect and communicate and make it easier for people to participate on their own terms

As with other meetings the idea came alive for people when we showed them the prototypes sites and also when we explained that this was a tool to connect existing content rather than a new website that would need feeding and updating.

Overall the analysis of the area and the proposition was received really positively (including by the Ward councillor) and the group clearly ‘got it’ and left the session generally feeling enthused. Which happily meant that they raised some interesting points:

  • There was some interest in how an approach like this could help cooperation between established groups. There is a fair amount of ‘volunteer fatigue’ and it would make a big different to mitigate this
  • The participants felt that their local ward councillors were doing a good job and they were really positive about their responsiveness and profile with activists. Both Councillors mentioned are extremely digitally able and we explored whether this was a good opportunity to look at tools to strengthen the representative function. Intriguing. Ideas discussed included Realtime FOI on local issues, Integration with fix my street to include escalation to members, Audit trail of case work and ‘Crowd sourcing’ answers to questions so that members only have to respond once
  • The emphasis on this was on providing a good democratic process – this was a reasonable group that don’t just want to get their own way but they want to stop being bounced between officers and members and they would like more transparency about the decision making process. This is not really in relation to the big decisions – the example repeatedly cited was with a question about getting white lines painted.

We also had a very legitimate challenge about digital inclusion – something that frequently comes up and we think has three elements to the answer:

  • We don’t see this as an online only project – the technology can help connect people and make offline events better at the same time
  • We need to find ways to reach offline spaces – with noticeboards and community venues
  • We have to be realistic and clear that we believe that the social shift is towards more online activity and we have to respond to this

Reflecting after the meeting we think there is a possibility to network groups together here and create a kind of shared governance which is available to manage both cooperation and conflict.

I also keep coming back to the lack of understanding of the officer role within the community – even with a group as informed as this one there is a sense of not understanding where responsibiloty sites between officer/member and there was also a frustration that including a councillor seems to stimulate activity even when it appears to be an officer job to sort. We know that this is not what officers intend and also that the boundaries between them and the members feel unclear to them as well. My other observation is that all three parts of this triangle officer/member/citizen just don’t understand enough about the other’s perspective or context and don’t take what seems to be an obvious step of just treating people like people and asking. This is a poorly formed observation at the moment but one I will mull over more – but it is part of where we want to reach to with We Live Here. I think the answer lies in the idea of being open by default – more on that here.

Back to the meeting – most of the people who attended would like to continue to work with us and we have had offers to take the project to others in the community to widen the group. We have agreed to try and attend a couple more local events to widen the message about the work with a few to having a more formal planning / development / ideas meeting in June.

In the meantime we will be continuing with the social media surgery programme as this has been really well received – and it is a really important element of the overall approach.  The fact that we are there doing something useful makes a big difference to how open the people we speak to are to our ideas.  This should be obvious but I am not sure how often engagement starts with simply offering to help.  With the social media surgeries the suggestion from the meeting is that we do leaflet drops in specific streets before each surgery. As my office is right in the middle of the area I have said I will help with this (digital commitment to make it easier for Susie to get me to do it!)

This is really the first step in properly passing ownership of the project to the community and we feel we have permission from a few key people to continue to develop the idea in the community. It would be so much faster just to dive into a build phase on this but it would be wrong – this has to be co-produced and not designed from the outside and so finding active participants who see the value of it is a vital step. There is loads more to do but we have a strong start I think.

Thanks to all who took part.

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