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.


So – it turns out that my inability to fix my research methods chapter had the effect of rendering me unable to write anything else – who can understand the workings of the human mind??? Chapter 4 now dispatched I am now trying to catch up on backlog (this includes 3 UKGC12 posts – oh how I rue the day I pitched so many…). Anyway. This post is jumping the queue because I have been doing a lot of mulling recently, for various reasons, about organisational culture – its an attempt to synthesise these thoughts and organise them a bit.

The first thing that brought this on is that fact that Carl Haggerty is going to be joining Public-i 2 days per week to work as Product Manager for Citizenscape. Carl has written about this here so this is my turn….I’m delighted Carl is joining us for all kinds of different reasons.

The first is the simple fact that Carl is great to work with – having worked with him on the Virtual Town Hall pilot, as a client at Devon County Council and also in various GovCamp sessions I know that he combines expertise and forward thinking with the ability to challenge your thinking in a really positive and constructive way.

This ability to issue constructive challenge is going to be crucial to someone who is coming into a project – Citizenscape – which has been very a huge amount of work for a lot of people for the last couple of years. The product has developed hugely from the initial EU project and then Virtual Town Hall pilots and has now been deployed across our core Connect sites as well – but we still it can go a lot further. Its live, stable and useful but so much of the functionality is lying below the waterline – in the code, locked into the UX and in the admin functionality. We are hoping that a fresh pair of eyes – from someone who understands what we are trying to achieve with Citizenscape – will help push it forward.

The second reason I am delighted to have Carl join is about the blurring of boundaries. The fact that we will be sharing him with Devon County Council makes this a fairly unusual arrangement but one which I think reflects the new ways in which public and private sectors need to be working together. I hope that we will learn a lot from working with Carl but I also hope he will learn from us. I am very grateful to Devon CC for being willing to support this kind of working and I hope that the institutional learning goes both ways as well.

There is a lot of talk about the Public Sector needing to be more business-like, to behave more like the private sector, but we don’t often reflect on what this actually means. This kind of shared working is a way of exploring the cultural qualities that might flow in both directions. I am hoping that Carl will have a positive experience of working a small business which is able to be far more agile and innovative than a local authority just by dint of its size but that also needs to be constantly thinking about selling as an essential part of its lifecycle.

There. I’ve said it. The ‘S’ word. Doesn’t it send a shiver down the spine?

Dan Slee posted a very pithy piece which explained very clearly why the public sector is right to have a poor impression of the private sector sales process and, as someone running a company, made me cringe. However I believe its possible – and perhaps even advantageous – to build innovative and useful projects that are sold and then co-created between public and private sector organisations. I also think that discussing value exchange – money – upfront in a project is one way to ensure that you keep the attention of all the project participants. In my experience doing stuff for free doesn’t really convince anyone that they need to take what you are doing very seriously – though on the other hand you do need to be sure that the value exchange is fair and defensible. I don’t want to public sector wasting money and I don’t want to be part of helping it waste money.  This point of view has taken me a while to come to which is perhaps another story.

Its possible that the only way that we will substantively shift government practice is with these kinds of co-created projects and relationships. If this is the case then we need to learn how to work together – systemically – and the kind of cultural exchange that we are starting with Carl could form a valuable part of this learning. As we are both avid bloggers I am imagining you will hear more about this whether you want to or not.

There is a lot of challenge in the idea of opening up your organisation to have a client working with you as part of the team – not just on one specific project where they can be contained. Any organisation will have a degree of paddling below the water going on and it takes confidence in what you do to open this up to scrutiny. One of the reasons we are doing this, apart from the fact that you can’t learn without risk, is because we think that any business that works closely with the public sector needs to be setting itself at least the standard of openness that we demand of our government organisations. Projects like Chris Taggert’s Open Corporate is part of this but I think the blurring of organisational boundaries to create the most effective project teams is another. We have all worked closely with other organisations but this blurring of boundaries is something else.

I also think these qualities of confidence and openness are essential in a networked organisation but I will come back to that thought another time.

The second reason I have been mulling organisational culture was as a result of a twitter conversation discussing whether or not context is significant in terms of defining and understanding innovation. The consensus was a strongly felt ‘yes’ – you can’t describe something as innovative without understanding the context in which the work is done and projects which are innovative in one context may be fairly mundane in others. @Pubstrat has excellent things to say on this subject.

This got me thinking about how you might more actively set the context for a future project. We are I hope – subject to various practicalities – about to kick off another Citizenscape pilot in the fairly near future. How can we set the right context for this project? The first and obvious point will be creating the right project team and relationships but I think the critical element of this is in creating a shared context between ourselves and the client. Creating this initial shared understanding and actively discussing the fact that project which is focused on ‘doing things differently’ means that the project itself needs to…well….do things differently.

I am trying to put together a more organised set of thoughts around the question of ‘agile project management‘ which I keep coming back to. I think this idea of setting the new, shared, context for a project – or an organisation – is part of that but I also think its part of what it means to participate in a ‘networked’ project which takes place across organisational boundaries. It is more and more frequently the case that we are working in loose coalitions or temporary teams and partnerships and that our different work contexts are colliding. This is happening across internal and external organisational. I think we probably need to be thinking about what this means and trying to capture some of the approaches that make it all work more smoothly – capturing the context is one part of this.

The final reason I am thinking about organisational culture is because I find that so many of the conversations that I have with clients that start of talking about social media, engagement and democracy end up really being about organisational change. I increasingly come to the conclusion that we – practitioners – can’t continue to make incremental progress to unlock the real potential of the social web if we don’t start to actively discuss the way in which our organisations will change as a result. This is not saying anything new – we all know this to be true – but how many people are just below the parapet in terms of really talking about this fact within their organisations? How many senior teams are thinking in these terms? Time for a more public discussion and a lot more mulling I think.

One of the reasons I started this blog was as an action research diary to support my PHD.  I’ve found it hugely useful and having just gone through the process of analysing and writing up my reflections on the Virtual Town Hall project for my thesis I am reminded how valuable it is to reflect on your experiences through a process in as open, honest and objective way as possible.  We’re just at the start of another big project – We Live Here – and I want to use the blog to capture learning and reflections on this process as well.  Hopefully other people will find this useful as well.  If you want to read more about action research as a method then I wrote an intro here.  In my short bit on the film describing the project I talked about the need to fail intelligently and transparently in order to learn and share learning and get it right next time.  That’s what I hope to do here.

Also – this blogging business is addictive and as the PHD is at polishing/completing stage (I hope) I need something else to write about…

We Live Here is the Brighton and Hove City Council’s project within the Nesta Creative Council’s programme and I’m involved both through Public-i and through the Democratic Society as both are partners in the bid.  However I write on this blog very much as myself, as a researcher, so all the usual disclaimers about this not reflecting the views of anyone other than me apply….

This post is a write up of our first project team meeting (1/9/11) and also an attempt to encapsulate what the project is about based on that meeting.  You can read the details of the bid here on the Simpl platform  but one of the things that was obvious from the meeting that bid writing and shared vision are often a little different and we needed to talk around the proposition before we all felt comfortable.  I’m using this post to suggest some of the principles that we might need to guide the project development – please expect these to change once the rest of the team get their hands on them!

We Live Here is about three things:

1) Exploring how localism can actually work on the wild – what does it mean to share power more effectively with communities and neighbourhoods and what change is needed both culturally and practically to make this happen

2) Creating the online and offline Civic spaces that are needed to make it possible for people to be able to find and enter into conversation with their community (more on what civic spaces are later)

3) Thinking about what is needed in order to connect these community conversations to democratic decisions – how do we make neighbourhoods more democratic without burying them in moribund committee papers

The point about cultural change is important – this is not about grafting new technologies onto old structures and behaviours – for this to work we believe we need change behaviours in all of the groups and organisations that are involved.  We will talk about social media but what we are really talking about is introducing more agile and networked approaches.  One the weaknesses of the bid in terms of how it then gets transformed into action is the fact that it focused too much perhaps on technology rather on the behaviours and networks that new technologies can support.

Why social media?

There are three main reasons why we are making technology a central part of the proposal despite the very valid concerns that a lot of the people we may involve with will not be regular users of things like twitter or likely to blog:

1) Networks.  Social networking technologies are created to facilitate…social networking.  Creating networks and connections between existing networks is one of the aims of the project so the fit between technology and desired outcome is very strong.  There are huge advantages to trying to work within an environment that is designed for to support your purpose.

2) Publicness.  We are going to ask people to join a community conversation – to connect to other people.  One of the benefits of social media is where we capture the conversation its public, audible and auditable.  You don’t have to tell people that you are being open you can show people are being open and you can create an ongoing record of what has happened so that people can join in at any point.

  1. Learning as a positive byproduct.  Getting people online and able to use new technologies is a good thing.  Look at Martha Lane Fox’s work to read about the positive impacts of getting people online.  We also believe that the public sector – including elected representatives – need to adapt more rapidly to a more networked and social environment.  Even if we fail miserably with the ambition of creating civic space then we can feel confident that getting more people online and able to express themselves, and the council better able to listen, is a positive byproduct.

So – here comes our first principles:

Principle One:  This project is not about technology and if we find ourselves being seduced by code and shiny objects we will stop (most likely someone else will have to stop me as I do have a tendency towards technology thrall)

and in fact our second as well:

Principle Two:  We know we are trying to change our own behaviour possibly to a greater extent than that of the community and so we need to be observant about ‘old behaviours’ and adjust.  (After a slightly tangential remark in the meeting this principle this may become encapsulated in the phrase “Stop! stop! – you’ve come over all council”)

Civic what???

It was clear from the meeting that the idea of a civic space is very wooly and needs to be made far more accessible and useable – its too abstract for people to find it immediately useful.  The text below outlines where we got to after talking the concept over within the team:

The civic space is an informal place where people go when they want to talk to their community rather than just their friends and family.  Different communities will convene in different places – online and offline – and we have to remember that a physical location will contain many different communities with overlapping narratives.  The ambition of the civic space is to create a curated (not moderated) space where these narratives can come together so that communities can connect to each other and create a shared conversation about the geographical location.

Curated is a word that breaks principle one – its means finding and presenting content rather than editing and creating it.

Community is perhaps too loaded a word in this context as it brings with it all kinds of assumptions about what community means.  More simply we are really talking about identifying and connecting networks within a locality and then facilitating conversations across those networks in a way which makes those conversations public and accessible.  And here comes another important principle:

Principle  Three:  We are not trying to direct the conversation – we are trying to create an environment for it to happen within

This point is important with respect to scope – its very easy to start to see this kind of community focused approach as a panacea for all interventions in a community – its not – we are trying to create an environment that can feed and support external processes.  The most important (from the pov of the project) is supporting democratic decision making – but not necessarily actually hosting deliberative debate.  Democratic decisions can be fed and supported by the conversations in this civic space but the primary purpose of it is to knit that multiplicity of narrative of a place into a shared story.

It won’t always be possible.

We are not expecting to get everyone involved in every community.  Some people will choose not to participate and that’s up to them.  What we want to do is to extend involvement past the people who are prepared to attend meetings and serve on committees to involve the people who may want to dip in and out of the process or who want to engage in their own way (will be coming up with a model for this to map different levels of involvement – needs more work).  We want to find both the Hansard “Willing Localists” and also the people who don’t get involved because they don’t see the point.  We are looking for the civic minded busy people who may just be able to share information and the ones who have ideas that they are passionate about but have no idea how to get them working.  We are looking for the people who just like the idea that they have some kind of connection with more people in their locality because they know it may be useful one day.

Principle Four:  We don’t assume everyone in an area will get involved but we do want everyone to know where they can get involved

I’ve written a lot about civic spaces previously as they are fairly central to my research work – but the underlying concept here with respect to democratic renewal is the belief that an effective democracy needs a ‘public sphere’ where it is possible for citizens to come together and express their views and values.  The public-ness of this public sphere is essential in that it enables politicians to be able to understand the preferences of the public they are representing.  Government undoubtably needs to be better equipped to listen and react but without an accessible public conversation its very difficult for politicians to act and also very difficult for citizens to have a sense of their shared (or unshared) beliefs and their resultant power.  Another way of putting it is that we can’t have demo-cracy without being able to identify and relate to the demos – the people.

There is a parallel social capital analysis to this situation but I am not planning on exploring it right now.  However with respect to the civic spaces here is another principle:

Principle Five:  This will not succeed if it behaves like or is seen as a council project or space.  If we are trying to give greater power to the communities then they are critical to the shaping of the civic space from the start.  Co-production is doing with not to people.

And this final point is perhaps one of the most interesting with respect to the democratic aspect of this project which is an exploration of what it means for a locality to be both more co-productive and more democratic – and whether there are structural limitations in the way that local democracy works that will make it difficult to make this work.  This is very much the focus of the Democratic Society involvement in this project.

One of the things that has struck me as I write up the thesis is the separation between the participation and political literature.  The idea of the public sphere marries to two together conceptually but not practically and I am looking forward to spending more time thinking and reading about this particular connection.  There is a whole other post in that statement so will leave it there and come back to it.

In more immediate and less abstract terms there is a risk that we develop an open and engaging civic space and then are not able to follow through in terms of the decisions that the participants can effect either because we are raising issues at the wrong point of the policy cycle, the issue is outside of the control of the participants or – and this is the elephant in the room – when it comes to it the politicians do not listen to the community.

Co-production is about sharing power – this is easy for the people who currently have little and rather more challenging for the people who already have it. I am cautiously optimistic that the political leadership in BHCC genuinely want to engage with this issue and make radical change but it would be foolish not to acknowledge the many barriers and challenges that exist to changing the balance of power in favour of the community.

This is really what we mean by confronting the ideas of localism in the wild and perhaps where to most important learning for the rest of local government will come from if we are open about this exploration.

Scenarios of doom

We have not yet done a full on scenarios of doom session (this is where we all sit around and talk about our biggest concerns for a project – however mad – so that we can build a manageable risk register that separates  fear from risk – I do hope we do one) but there are already a few concerns:

  • The main one is the fear that we don’t manage to practically unlock the decision making process and pass power to the community
  • There is a concern that because its easier to work with the community groups we know we fail to reach past them into new bits of the community – or to bits of the community that we already find difficult to work with
  • Internal wrangling – because there is a lot of internal change for the Council here as well – stops us making progress externally
  • I think its always a good idea to worry about technology whenever you are using it….

Finally, there is an elephant in the room when it comes to this kind of power shift – what happens if we give more power to communities and they start making really really rubbish decisions?  There – I’ve said it – there is every risk that communities may make bad decisions.  It’s this fear that puts limits and conditions of co-production and ultimately neuters it to the point of it being meaningless.  I think this is a real risk that cannot be avoided – decisions I think are good will be judged rubbish by others – and its the same for everyone.  There is an act of trust in changing the balance of power which needs to embrace this risk and then reflect on the fact that actually the evidence is that communities actually make really good decisions from their point of view – the issue is how do we make these decisions work together across different communities and this is why this a project about democratic renewal as well as a project about civic spaces.  Easy to say and incredibly hard to do it seems.

None of these concerns are unmanageable but we need to keep them in clear view so that we can work to mitigate them.

And things we need to get done

Our proposed approach at this point is to try and use the time from now until February (when the final bid needs to be submitted) in order to test some of the underlying assumptions in the project and pilot some of the ideas.  We have not agreed the scope of this yet but my hope is that we will look at these issues:

  1. I think we need a very clear view of what is actually going to be devolved with respect to decision making over the course of the two years of the project.  It doesn’t need to be confirmed but we need a roadmap to work with so that we can explore what’s involved.  This also needs some commitments from the politicians.
  2. We are not going to go to areas and just make stuff happen – this approach responds to localities as they already are.  So – the project is not so much about “We Live here’ at this point and more about ‘where do we live?”.  We need to understand where conversations, communities and networks already exist so that we can shape an approach to these areas and we need to fine tune the tools that we use to find these in order to make it finding them affordable and repeatable (will write about this separately as its about extending the social media audits and taking them offline as well).
  3. We need to come up with a way of talking about and describing the project that works when we talk to the communities we want to work with.  If we can’t do this then we are going to fall flat on our face at the start.
  4. The description may well be different in different places so we need to agree on some values for the projects – a new culture if you like – so that we can test our ideas against these values as we innovate and develop the project (this is like the unit testing idea in agile – we need to agree on our values so we can test against them when we make changes).  The principles in this post are the start of this from me
  5. We have to speak to some of the communities we want to work with – we must involve them from the start
  6. We’d be idiots not to try and tap into the wider community resources that a place like Brighton has – we need to speak to the CityCampBrighton network and others like it
  7. I’d like to get the project team committed to writing action research diaries – not just because of the wealth of material it brings but because I think it brings a lot of personal value.  Its also a way of embedding communication and transparency on the whole project.  We also need to agree on some ongoing data collection mechanisms so that we are capturing learning as we go along in other ways
  8. We need to agree on what success looks like
  9. Budgets / project management – all that stuff of course…

One of the project partners who was not directly involved in the bid writing process asked if  (more hesitantly than she needed to) if what we were planning on doing wasn’t in fact the way in which community engagement was supposed to work – and she is right – it is.

Where We Live Here is different to business as usual is in our ambition to use technology to reach beyond the usual suspects of engagement and connect to people who have a place in the public sphere even if they have no interest in politics at the same time as looking seriously at how we devolve power to neighbourhoods who are ready and willing to take on local decision making.  At the end of the project the areas we work in should all look radically different but each be more connected, more aware of how to be connected and more in control of decisions that effect where they live.  Lets see how we get on shall we?

This post is a good example of where my work and research start to come together.  Over at Public-i we have been working on a number of social media audits for clients and I have been working on a more formal framework to deliver this (white paper on this soon) and so I have been thinking more detail about the content that we are interested in when we talk about the local civic conversation.

Much of my interest in the social web stemmed from the fact that useful content started to emerge.  Now – useful is an extremely subjective term but in my context I am talking about content that is both pro-social and constructive.  The fact that people would set up websites to talk to and with their community is useful, the fact that I can read blogs of people who are thinking about the big political issues is useful and the fact that I am more likely to find a solution to the rather off-colour state of my wisteria on a gardening club website rather than a reference book is useful.  I did say that useful is a subjective description.

My PHD research is about trying to narrow down and describe one element of this content which I am calling civic creation.  This is content that is informal and user generated but is aimed at talking to your community – not just to friends, family or your peer group – it has an assumption of and desire for public-ness from the author.  Even more specifically this is content which has the intent of talking about how your locality works and should work – its content which is rooted in place even if that is secondary to a particular interest or issue.

The first step therefore in finding civic is defining the geographic scope for your definition of local and this needs to be done using the language and definitions of the citizens – not of the state (more than that here).  Once you have this scope then you need to look at what people are doing – you can read more about this here but I categorise participant’s behaviour into four types:

Category Intent
Informal social I use social media in order to socialise with my friends and family – I just want to keep in touch with people
Informal Civic I use social media in order to connect to my local community and talk about issues which I think are important to us
Formal Civic I use social media to make sure that the views of my community are considered by decision makers and are part of the final decision. I want to influence things
Formal Democratic I want to be part of setting the agenda for my community – I want to change things

All of these behaviours exist in the local digital space and individuals and groups will move between these behaviours – its another aspect to the malleability of the social web where people participate as people usually in the full range of their interests.  However I am focusing on the informal civic behaviours and the question for this post is how you go about finding evidence of the informal civic content which I am proposing should be the starting point for local democratic debate and decision making.

Intent may be descriptive but its very difficult to ascribe to someone else’s content reliably – which means it is not useful in terms of how we might find this informal civic content – its only useful in retrospect.  This question of finding informal civic content is key if you are thinking about how to create a shared civic space – somewhere where you gather together the different civic voices in a community and connect them to the formal decision making process – and you can’t find content unless you have defined what it is and you know what to look for.

Its important to remember however that we are not really looking for the content – we’re looking for the people and communities who are creating the content.  If we’re looking for evidence of Civic Content creation then we are looking for Civic Creators.  One of the challenges in identifying any kind of informal content is the fact that identity of not public which makes it difficult to be sure that you are connecting to the right people.

Our definition of civic creation so far involves intent and is based on location but it also needs a third element – topic – and this is the way in which we find the people who form the local civic conversation.

The exception to this is of course hyperlocal communities – which I have talked about here – these are place based communities which have a public stated intent of ‘ I want to talk to my community’ and where they exist they are potentially the backbone of the local digital civic space.  The issue is that they don’t exist universally and even where they do exist you cannot assume that they are representative or that there are no other forms of civic creation in the area.  You need to look further than the hyperlocal in order to find a lot of your local civic conversation.

The question therefore is how to illuminate the civic activity that is going on so that you can connect to the civic creators who will form your civic space.  We can’t find them just from their location (hyperlocal sites excepted) as this gives no sense of intent and we can’t search based on someone’s intention.  The entry point for finding our civic creators is therefore issue based.

Topic is vary across time and doesn’t define a community – though it may dominate for a while.  Topic is useful in that it helps to highlight intent and can also generate synchronous activity from participants who do not usually come together.  This makes them easier to find and more likely to connect to each other when you do find them.  This is not going to be an infallible method of finding civic creators – not everyone is interested in everything – but its a useful way of getting started and can provide something to build on.  As places get deeper and richer digital footprints then this process will become easier – but as specific topics act as a catalyst for informal civic participation they can also be a way of finding the networks who are talking about them and drawing them into the wider civic space.

How does this differ from social media monitoring?

The main difference is the fact that we are looking for people and networks rather than content – the content (like the topic) is a means to an end.  Social media monitoring focuses on finding content – how many times is you brand is mentioned and whether the mentions are positive or negative in tone.  To help explain – below are the benefits listed by a well known Social Media Monitoring tool:

  • Scan and sort viral posts related to your brand(s) and immediately know which online content is making an impact.
  • Look out for online conversations that could be damaging to your brand(s).
  • Track volume of buzz tied to a specific campaign and identify sites with the most influence in order to tailor your outreach.
  • Uncover potential customers or partners at their “point of need”.
  • Keep an eye on competitors and use a comparative graph to track share of voice.

These are all useful things to know and when applied to topic rather than brand then they can help us to find our civic creators – but if just limited to brand then you are not uncovering your local civic conversation – you are just finding the usual suspects.  We want to use these tools to find the people, capture the individuals and then track their activities on an ongoing basis and use them to discover new community generated topics.

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

Coming back to the point however is the issue that we cannot search for content merely on the basis of intent – we need to look at actions.  I have previously defined Civic activities as:

“as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community. One major area for examination within this research is within this civic category where it is important to define and measure specific actions within this so that we can look at the the further transition from civic to democratic behaviour. There are many parallels between civic activities and the Public Sphere described by Habermas.”

And here is updated version of the long list I put together of civic behaviours online.

Formal Informal
Creators Start a petitionTake part in a Participatory Budgeting process (not just play with a slider!!!) Instigate / Run a campaignSocial reporting (blogging / tweeting re: local issues)Managing a hyperlocal website 

Organise a community meeting

Conversationalists Interact with an elected representative Share something from the civic space with someone elseTweet civic space topics
Critics Rate a comment on a discussion boardRate a comment on a blogComment on the discussion board 

Rate a webcast (or a meeting)

Comment on a blog

Comment on webcast

Comment on a blogComment on a relevant discussion boardRate a comment on a discussion board 

Rate a comment on a blog

Rate a video clip

Comment on video clip

Collectors Save something to your user profile 

Sign up for alerts

Subscribe to an RSS feed etc from a social reporter 

Social tagging of content

Joiners Sign up to attend an event 

Sign a petition

Create a user profile

Contacted a political party

Donated money to a civic organisation or group

Joined another civic organisation or association

Donated money to a political organisation or group

Join a discussion forum 

Taken part in a lawful public demonstration

Spectators Watch a webcast eventAttend a formal meeting ·
Inactives Not voting…..or anything else….

This list is based on the Forrester Groundswell categorization of user behavior and incorporates the civic actions used by the OII Internet report 2009.  (PS  Sorry the table is horrible – will work out how to format it properly at some point).

Further to this we (at Public-i) have been working on creating the following catagorisation of local civic sites:

Site type Description
Active individuals broken down by: 

Local / General

Local / Topic


These are blogs, websites and twitter feeds which are created by one person and reflect their voice and opinions.
Political blogs These are sites which are party affiliated and are either created by the party, a candidate or an elected politician.
Hyperlocal community websites Hyperlocal websites are set-up and run by members of the community in order to connect with and discuss local issues.  They use social media tools and are probably the clearest expression of the “I want to talk to my community” intent.
Traditional websites These are similar in intent to hyperlocal sites but don’t use social media tools
Communities of interest sites These sites are connected to the place concerned by either the people or by the content but will be focused on a specific issue or topic.  These sites are run by clubs (local sports clubs for example) or perhaps by third sector organisations (such as AgeConcern) and are included here where they meet the critieria of either place or topic.
Facebook We look at Facebook groups, pages and individuals are a type in its own right because the different approach recommended to deal with interactions on Facebook
Local news coverage in newspapers and radio These are sites that are created by mainstream media outlets and may or may not include social media elements
Formal Civic or democratic sites These are the sites of government and related organisations that touch on either the place or the topic.

So – civic creation is that list of activities applied to this list of sites as bounded by location and topic.

At present finding this content is a largely manual process – or rather a series of manually managed automated steps.  What I want to develop are more sophisticated semantic analysis tools that will enable us to find this content more directly – but this is a bigger project.  Would welcome comments on any tools people believe already carry out this task well in the meantime please.

What’s Significant?

But let’s not forget it’s actually all about people – as stated before we are really interested in finding the people and communities who are creating the content.  These are individuals who may fulfil a number of different roles which are not mutually exclusive:

  • Local blogger – writing about either the location or a specific topic.  This group includes citizen journalists
  • Twitter user – because of the highly networked and real time information sharing qualities of twitter it is useful to look at local twitter usage when examining the local conversation
  • Community or Website manager – anyone who is involved in creating/curating/convening a local or hyperlocal site constitutes a local civic creator
  • Active Contributor – someone who does not necessarily act on their own but it a frequent contributor to sites and forums in the area

We know that a small percentage of people create the majority of content on the social web (Forrester, OFCOM) but these figures are all based on the vast majority of content which falls into my informal social category of content.  My working assumption at present is that this percentage will be similar with respect to informal civic content as well but this is an assumption that needs testing through my data collection and analysis.

Its important to find these people as if you are going to start shaping a local civic space more actively then this are the people that you want to be working with co-productively to do this.  As the idea matures they may be providing curation for the wider civic space and also could be part of the process of deciding who is included in the space in the future.

When I was shaping my data collection and trials I talked about this people as community ambassadors and you can read a fairly long post here about why I changed my mind about this role.  I think its extremely important to remember that these are people who are doing something by choice and that any benefit to the democratic or civic process is at the moment a side effect rather than something that is necessarily planned for until such a time as we have connected this informal activity effectively to the decision making process.

When I started this post I was framing these individuals in terms of influence and talking about them as influential civic creators.  However influence is a tricky thing to measure and I don’t want to use the term inaccurately.  As part of the social media audit process we are carrying out basic Social Network Analysis on the networks that are returned from research into a localities informal civic content but without interviewing the civic creators and also looking at who they reach it is difficult to come up with an accurate measure of influence.  This is slightly out of scope for my work at the moment so I am parking the thought that it would be interesting to look properly into exactly how influential these people are and instead look at how we decide who is significant in terms of forming the local civic conversation.  Anyone who is highlighted here will have met the criteria for civic creation listed above but in terms of identifying who is significant I have a number of specific criteria that I am looking at here:

  • Reach – do they have an audience?
  • Representativeness – do they represent a larger group either as a site moderator or as a connector to offline networks?
  • Responsiveness – do they listen as well as talk?
  • Constructiveness – are they coming up with solutions or listing problems?

This last one is highly subjective – but I wanted to include some measure of intent beyond the “I want to talk to my community” and to extend this into “I want to change my community for the better”.  This is perhaps the point on which my definition of significance hinges – for the purposes of creating an online civic space the desire to improve your local area rather than just talk about it is clearly significant.  I’m not expecting a shared vision of what ‘better’ and I am in two minds as to whether its correct to use such a value laden term in here as it is important that we people maintaining as well as improving civil society.  However, my final conclusion on this point is that if we are trying to create something new and knit together a local civic conversation from civic creators then significance is lent to people who want to actively change the status quo.

I don’t see this as grading to a curve – there is no limit on the number of voices that are involved locally but as I gather more data about these people I am hoping to be able to start to draw some wider conclusions about them so that its possible to start forming a view about how the behaviours compare to informal social activities online.

So – what does it all mean then?

In writing this I was aiming to put some more meat on the bones of the idea that there is an emergent type of activity that goes beyond individual content creators that can be described as ‘informal civic content’.  We have seen this in studies like the network neighbourhoods community website study and we can see it in increase in citizen journalism and hyperlocal websites.  There are two reasons for doing this, firstly to capture a snapshot of conversation about a specific topic and secondly to start to understand local participation in a very different way to the top down approach do traditional consultation tools and methods.

Once we have a clear view of this content and its creators then we are better able to look at how we connect this into formal decision making processes and start to connect informal and formal conversations together – and that’s where the civic spaces come into it.

This is a write up of a session that I was part of at UKGovCamp11 – I’ve written it as a separate post as I want to take these ideas forward in some way and need to think about how to do this. A few of us have been speaking about the use of Agile in the Public Sector – most notably Public Strategist and Michelle Ide Smith (who live blogged the session here) so we knew we wanted to have two sessions on this – one to focus on the use of Agile for its originally purpose – software development – and the other to explore the aspects of Agile that might be relevant in a reworked Policy process.

Michelle did an excellent job facilitating the first session and if you are interested in this area you should take a look at her slides (I can’t dig out the link to them so will add them next week). We use Agile over at Public-i and as you can read from Ady’s blog this is really a work in progress for us – we are constantly deepening our use and understanding of the process but we have found it invaluable not only as a way of coding more effectively but also as a way of making sure that the development team are focusing on the things that the business needs most acutely. We have loads of improvements still to make but I am very much convinced that this is the right path.

Why Agile?

We tend to treat Policy as a constant – the point of this post is that it shouldn’t be. The objective of the policy is the constant – the policy itself needs to vary in face of changing context and the delivery plan needs to vary even more and we can deliver better outcomes more effectively if we allow this to happen.

I have written before about the need to move from Waterfall to Agile thinking for Policy delivery and Stefan has also written about this here. As a precurser to the wider reading I want to do to support some of this thinking its really worth having a look at this 1985 paper by Fred Brooks where he really introduces the flaws in waterfall thinking: No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering. I also want to catch up with Fred Garnett who mentioned he has already written some related ideas up and had come from a parallel session on agile for learning – so there is definitely something in the air. Next step will be to see if I can get some proper sit down time with Public Strategist to see where we think this could go. If you have any interest or thoughts then please let me know.

In explaining how Agile approaches could help change the way we create and implement policy its worth reflecting on the why the software industry made the shift to agile type methodologies. Its really about three things:

  • An increased awareness of complexity and the lack of a definitive answer – – and we need to build for complexity. This means we need incremental progress towards an objective rather than thinking we can capture everything at once
  • An awareness of the impossibility of developing anything in isolation – we exist in open not closed systems and no idea exists in isolation – which means we need a process that is not a black box
  • A shift from engineering to systems thinking

And of course the fact that everyone hates writing specifications – not the least because you never get them right. There are other more code related motivations that are the results of developers working further and further away from the machine layer but lets not get into that now.

The important thing for me in exploring the connection between agile for code and agile for policy is the fact that policy delivery is failing for much the same reasons. As the purview of the state has increased it is impossible to implement policy without affecting other areas and there is a realisation that we have to start thinking about people’s lives and communities rather than trying to modularise our existence into tidy manageable chunks.

The aim of the session was to try and explore what elements of an Agile software approach could be applied to the policy process and to this end I sketched this to work from:

Agile Policy Sketch

The sketch seemed to stand up to debate which was good and there was some useful debate. Here’s my take on it:

  • Keep the bigger objective in mind – the plan is not the goal: This is vital as far as I am concerned – in that old army adage no plan survives contact with the enemy and any good project manager is highly resilient and adaptive. You need to focus on the objective and adapt as necessary to achieve it. This means that politicians need to set the goal and trust highly agile teams to get on and deliver it. The plan in not the goal.
  • New attitudes to risk – break it down and make it manageable: Lots of nodding on this – we consensus was that its better to fail fast and fail early and as Dennis North said – fail cheaply. There are no end of examples where this advice should have been heeded. However we have a political and media culture where failure is not tolerated – which is an impossible position which leads us to either hide or spin all outcomes into something positive and then further fuel the idea that everything succeeds. Tolerating failure is not weakness and we need to find a way to have a more mature debate about this – not only to support wider innovation but more importantly to stop failure on any large project.
  • Small incremental improvements rather the big bang: Big switch on implementations are like launching the Titanic and they are a hangover from an engineering mindset which is supported by a media who pander to an attention deficit public (I know that sentence sounds cross – turns out I am cross about this). We can and should be able to see what happens when things are released in manageable stages which we can learn from as we go along. We do not need to crack a bottle of champagne and create a mythical onswitch for a new policy – we need to show constant incremental improvements with no big failures.
  • Test as you go along – build evidence rather than theories: Harry Harold quizzed us on the value of testing in the policy process and questioned if the fact that many things just can’t be tested meant that the agile metaphor breaks down here – which was a good point to explore. My view – which seemed to be accepted was that testing is as much about reducing risk as about meeting acceptance criteria. Testing of policy has less effect on risk than testing code as there are fewer things that can be tested but instead I suggest that you take an action research approach and layer and build evidence as the work proceeds. How you do this will depend on the area in which you are working but the idea is to move from the anecdotal and theoretical point at which so many programmes start towards an increasingly robust evidence base.
  • Adjust in the face of new evidence: This idea of making evidence gathering part of the ongoing process also supports one of the other principles – that you need to adjust your plan in the face of new evidence. Good ideas can turn out to be the wrong solution and serendipity can happen.
  • Everyone is responsible for making it work: As I said at the start – one of the things I appreciate about agile in our business is the fact that it can help communicate strategy to the development team. Agile is essentially a very flat and very teamed based approach which values everyones skills – and as a results increases accountablity.
  • Use the users: Agile constantly refers back to the user stories and to the client. We need to keep real people at the heart of the policy process rather than design for a Westminster or even Town Hall bubble.
  • Communicate All The Time. Agile relies on a team being kept up to date on progress in all areas every day – because things change everyday. And make sure you communicate failure as a saving.

Some observations

I am not suggesting that we have a scrum master in Downing Street – or that we Kanban road mending in councils (though that might work ?!). I am talking about adapting principles at the moment but process and tools could follow and they probably won’t look like the tools that developers use – as Loulouk pointed out you can’t just knock walls and create whiteboard space in Council buildings – you need to adapt to the environment. You also need to accept that this would by no means the only shift that you need to make – we briefly discussed the need to work more co-productively in order to be able to really ‘use the users’.

There is no point in downplaying how difficult it will be to wean government off big programme thinking – much of the state machine is architected to put large programmes together than then deliver them – its how the funding and structures work at a very detailed level. There is also the need to bundle things up into tidy packages for the press and to link statement A with funding B and result C in a way that does not allow for tactics to change when you learn more. There is a need to allow for the idea that the plan will change and that this isn’t of itself a failure – its a reasonable adjustment to changing context. To allow this we need to allow politicians to be able to be seen to change their minds rather than having a knee jerk accusation of ‘u-turn’ leveled at them.

We probably need to remove artificial uses of time as a constraint – its almost impossible if you are talking social change and instead start to measure progress against our wider objective.

All this looks for a more mature politics than we currently have and a lot more trust and cooperation between politicians than I often observe. However if we are going to work more co-productively because we can’t afford to do anything else then these relationships will of necessity change.

However the fact is that the pressure to change is being created by the social change brought about by the deep embedding of technology in our day to day lives – by the network society. If nothing else the transparency that the social web embodies and that government says it wants to deliver with #opendata means that we will no longer be able to hide our policy programmes in big black boxes that we only open up on launch day. We will be scrutinising not just results but also processes and progress – which means these processes need to be robust and defensible. Armchair auditors will not stop at the results – they will track failure and problems back to the delivery process if they are any good and that puts the way in which we make policy as much in the frame as the outcomes of those policies. This means we need processes which will stand up for a network society.

I will be musing more on this and bothering other people to discuss it. If you came to the session would also be keen to hear whether or not you are happy with this overview. Thank you.

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…..

Much of the thinking within my thesis is highly influenced by the behaviours and effects of communities – specifically geographically defined communities. However to limit my research to just this kind of civic activity is to ignore much of the online participation that is reaching beyond the purely social. Digital activism covers a range of activities, usually focused around single or at least tightly focused sets of issues. In this post I am really looking at four areas:

  • Large scale campaigning specialist campaigning organisations
  • More general digital activism, perhaps from traditional groups like Amnesty
  • Political bloggers
  • Social reporters


This post is a Dave Briggs appreciation post for two reasons – one is that I promised him I would read and blog about this book and I am a woman of my word and the other is that its thanks to him that I read it on my shiny new Kindle. I am a self-confessed gadget fiend but was hesitating about the Kindle as I am hoping Father Christmas brings me an iPad and having both seemed profligate even for the most techno lust driven individual. However Dave was quite right when he told me that the two things hold different places in your life and that the Kindle is brilliant for the kind of ‘deep reading’ the PHD is requiring where I am trying not to be distracted by the myriad possibilities of the internet. After 2 years using the Sony eReader the best thing is the excellence of the notes and highlights feature as well as the software interface – though the ease of purchase with the Amazon integration has meant this is in the same category as eBay and twitter in terms of best avoided after a couple of glasses of wine (this was valuable learning after I nearly ended up owning a canoe – but that’s another story). So – Dave – right as ever – thank you – and does anyone want a second hand Sony eReader??

But back to the book – The Myth of Digital Democracy by Mathew Hindman – published in 2008.

The myth in question which is central to idea of the internet as a tool for democratic renewal:

“Most talk about Internet-fueled democratization has been quite specific about the political changes that the Internet ostensibly promotes. In these accounts, the Internet is redistributing political influence; it is broadening the public sphere, increasing political participation, involving citizens in political activities that were previously closed to them, and challenging the monopoly of traditional elites. This second definition of democratization presumes first and foremost that the technology will amplify the political voice of ordinary citizens.”

Hindman is looking to examine this underpinning belief that the internet is of necessity a democratising force in the world. He goes on to talk about the fact that this belief is also connected to an evolution of our democracy from a representative to a deliberative one.

“Political philosophers have also worked in recent years to expand the notion of political voice, with a torrent of scholarship on what has come to be called deliberative democracy. Much of the initial credit for refocusing scholarly attention goes to Jurgen Habermas (1981, 1996); yet what John Dryzek (2(X)2) terms the “deliberative turn” in political thought now includes numerous prominent scholars (Rawls 1995; Cohen 1989; Nino 1998)”

Going on to say:

“Despite their differences, these deliberative democrats all agree that democracy should be more than just a process for bargaining and the aggregation of preferences. All suggest that true participation requires citizens to engage in direct discussion with other citizens. The Internet’s political impacts have often been viewed through the lens that deliberative democrats have provided. The hope has been that the Internet would expand the public sphere, broadening both the range of ideas discussed and the number of citizens allowed to participate.”

So the specific claim here is that the Internet is increasing the volume of citizens talking to each other – which is a vital democratic activity (particularly if they are talking to the people they disagree with). However the myth busting starts here with the thought that:

“Using longitudinal data, M. Kent Jennings and Vicki Zeitner (2003) found that Internet use had little effect on civic engagement. Pippa Norris argued that the Internet “probably has had the least impact on changing the motivational basis for political activism” (2(x)1, 22). Markus Prior (2007) found divergent effects depending on one’s political engagement: Internet use increased political knowledge among citizens already interested in politics, but had the opposite effect among the previously apathetic. Bruce Bimber similarly concludes that despite some organizational innovations, “it does not appear, at least so far, that new technology leads to higher aggregate levels of political participation” (2003a, 5)”

However this was all a bit of a smokescreen as what Hindman really wants to pursue is not whether the internet is achieving a new form of democratic utopia but whether it is competing effectively with pre-existing media forms. And this is where I first disagree with him – I think this is an attempt to find a solid place to stand in a constantly shifting environment – which is fair enough – but I don’t think you can talk about the media without also talking about the pressures that the network society puts upon the media – for example look at Castells analysis of media ownership and the effect on political discourse.

“But as Yochai Benkler observes, “We need to consider the attractiveness of the networked public sphere not from the perspective of the mid-1990s utopianism, but from the perspective of how it compares to the actual media that have dominated the public sphere in all modern democracies” (2006, 260)”

And this is where Hindman gets to the meat of his argument which is an examination of how political activists, in particular bloggers, interact online through a thorough examination of the links and influence of these people – and his conclusion is that the internet is an amplifying rather than expansive environment and that “The link topology of the Web suggests that the online public sphere is less open than many have hoped or feared.” – he is talking about the emergence of a new elite.

“For political scientists, the demographics of Web users have seemed consistent with a familiar and disturbing pattern. In Voice and Equality, for example, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) argue that differences in political resources result in a systematic distortion in the perceived preferences of the public, and that this distortion favors traditionally privileged groups and those with conservative views. If the Internet is itself an important political resource-a powerful tool for political organizing, fund-raising, and information gathering-placing the new medium disproportionately in the hands of advantaged groups might perpetuate or even exacerbate a conservative bias in U.S. politics. Yet survey data seem to tell dominate the audience for politics online.”

He takes this link analysis and comes up with the fabulously named theory of ‘googlearchy’

“Taken together, the insights in this chapter add up to a new theory that my collaborators and I call Googlearchy: the rule of the most heavily linked. Building on previous research and the data referenced above, this theory offers several claims. First, Googlearchy suggests that the number of links pointing to a site is the most important determinant of site visibility. Sites with lots of inbound links should be easy to find; sites with few inlinks should require more time and more skill to discover. All else being equal, sites with more links should receive more traffic. Second, Googlearchy indicates that niche dominance should be a general rule of online life. For every clearly defined group of Web sites, a small portion of the group should receive most of the links and most of the traffic. Communities, subcommunities, and sub-subcommunities may differ in their levels of concentration; yet overall, online communities should display a Russian-nesting-doll structure, dominated at every level by winners-take-all patterns. Third, Googlearchy suggests that this dependence on links should make niche dominance self-perpetuating. Heavily linked sites should continue to attract more links, more eyeballs, and more resources with which to improve the site content, while sites with few links remain ignored.”

He really sums this up by saying:

“Yes, almost anyone can put up a political Web site, but this fact matters little if few political sites receive many visitors. In the areas this chapter examines, putting up a political Web site is usually equivalent to hosting a talk show on public access television at 3:30 in the morning.”

Now I have some concerns with the idea that link analysis gives a good analysis of influence – but that’s another matter. The real issue is that once again he is embedded in the idea that the potential of the internet is its potential to challenge traditional media – he is putting an old world analysis on the new world order. And here is more of it:

“Discussions of the online public sphere have imagined that political blogs, advocacy organizations, and other noncommercial outlets would challenge the monopoly that commercial media have had on public discourse. Judging by traffic, this challenge does not seem to be especially strong. News and media sites still receive thirty times as many visits as political Web sites do. That level of readership is large by the standards of traditional opinion journals, such as the Nation, the New Republic, or the National Review, all of which are minor print publications. Yet political sites remain a small niche amid the larger Web.”

My fundamental objection to what he is putting forward is his narrow definition of political and the lack of inclusion of civic participation – the kind of hyperlocal activism which happens below the radar of the mainstream media in many cases but has the potential to have far greater impact on our political landscape – his is an analysis which is really describing the conditions of democratic defict – which is useful – but does not look beyond a political analysis to bring a social analysis to bear.

However its extremely useful to look at his analysis in terms of the digital divide and where new forms of activisim are rubbing up against the old elites:

“Yet perhaps the most striking characteristic of this group is its educational attainment. Of the top ten blogs, eight are run by people who have attended an elite institution of higher education-either an Ivy League school, or a school of similar caliber like Caltech, Stanford University, or the University of Chicago. Seven of the top ten are run by someone with a JD or a PhD-and one of the exceptions, Cox, did graduate work at Berkeley and worked as an editor at the Chronicle of’Higher Education. At least three of the ten bloggers-Marshall, Reynolds, and Drum-are the children of academics. All of this raises the question, How different are bloggers from what many bloggers derisively term the “elite media””

“The culture of blogging may somewhat ameliorate the elitism inherent in having blog readership focused on a few bloggers who are unrepresentative of the general public. Still, there are limits to what the openness of blogging culture can accomplish. The top bloggers may read more blogs than the average citizen, but their reading habits are likely also skewed toward popular blogs. It is one thing if the top ten bloggers, who serve as filters for the rest of the blogosphere, come from relatively elite backgrounds. But what of the second- and third-tier bloggers? If we are to take seriously the trickle up theory of online debate, we need to know who these ideas are trickling up from. We need systematic knowledge about a broader swath of the blogging community.”

And this is pithy reminder of Virginia Woolf’s point about a room of ones own:

“In the blogosphere, as in the Athenian agora, those who devote themselves to public debates are those with social autonomy.”

and he is spot on when he says:

“These findings raise the question of what, exactly, the phrase elite media means. These top bloggers have educational backgrounds that exceed those of professional columnists. The readership of the top blogs rivals the nation’s top op-ed pages. Moreover, the blogosphere has succeeded in re-creating some of the traditional punditocracy’s most worrisome elitist characteristics. One of these is a dearth of gender and ethnic diversity.”

I think my concern is that his argument is skewed towards the idea that politcal blogs are the point of entry for greater democratic participation online and I just don’t think this is the case – I think people are becoming civically engaged before they are becoming politically engaged and that that’s the big change here – hence my desire to catagorise and measure this in the PHD. Hindman talking about a ‘missing middle’ of the public sphere – I think that can be found in hyperlocal or campaign focused civic activism.

But he does highlight one big danger of political activism online being dominated by the highly articulate and educated bloggers:

“But if online debate has not achieved “true” deliberation, it has given new urgency to the fears of deliberative democracy’s skeptics. Lynn Sanders argues that deliberative democracy fails because “some citizens are better than others at articulating their views in rational, reasonable terms”, those whose voices go unheard “are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people” (1997; 348, 349) Peter Berkowitz (1996) concludes that deliberation empowers an even narrower set of citizens: Since it shifts power from the people to the best deliberators among them, deliberative democracy… appears to be in effect an aristocracy of intellectuals. In practice, power is likely to flow to the deans and directors, the professors and pundits, and all those who, by virtue of advanced education, quickness of thought, and fluency of speech can persuade others of their prowess in the high deliberative arts. Something very much like Berkowitz’s vision has already taken hold online. The online public sphere is already a de facto aristocracy dominated by those skilled in the high deliberative arts.”


This is a really useful piece of work in that its a serious examination of one important element of political engagement online and it has some really useful facts on the dangers of elitism and a strengthening of the problems and weaknesses of our current democratic environment – the one that has delivered us a massive democratic deficit.

However – by failing to expand the scope to look at other forms of participation beyond blogging and by keeping such a narrow definition of political activism to exclude campaigning and civic involvement the book ultimately falls down for me in its analysis of the potential of digital democracy.

I should be writing my research methods chapter at the moment but to be honest I am finding that a combination of dull and demoralising so am just quickly putting this together instead. I am trying to resist the urge to write about the policy making cycle as part of my thesis because I really need to focus at this point and my focus is around that formal / informal transition that turns civic activity into democratic participation. However – there is clearly a huge need for reform around the policy making process – mainly with respect to transparency and speed. That post on transparency is still on the todo list so this is more a post about speed and process.

This is not a fully formed thought but the similarity between the evolution in software development methodologies and the needs of government keep occurring to me. After all – software developers have been adjusting to the pressures of the network society for some time now so they may well have something to teach us. But firstly – unusually – a picture:

Look familiar? This is the waterfall model of development (thanks to Conrad Huang for the picture) See how we have a nice tidy progress from the requirements to the delivery – with no change of context on the way? No new information is allowed to intrude on the sanitised process of development. This is how I think of our current policy process – though of course we don’t actually use it like that as we give it little political nudges enroute as per my last post. Look instead at this agile model of development:

Thanks to Neil Perkin for this one The thing that strikes me is that the idea of iteration is central to the Agile model (as is the idea of continuous testing and constant progress against a larger goal) and this is where it differs so much from the waterfall model. Instead of assuming that we can write the omnipotent specification document Agile (and associated methodologies such as RAD for example) assume that there is some kind of learning during the building process and that we can adjust to accommodate this without some kind of weighty change control process – we build the idea of change and learning into the process. There are many reasons why software developers have adopted this kind of approach but the main one is that the speed of web development means that its quicker to try things out and see what happens rather that fully describe them first. This may not be what we want from the people who are building roads and hospitals but as digital simulation technology improves it will become easier and easier to model policy before implementing it and the network society means that we can get more and more detailed reactions from the public before committing.

One of the byproducts of this kind of approach is also a shift in the attitude to failure as it becomes a learning enroute to our destination rather than an insurmountable problem. Isn’t this what we need to do with political decision making? Build a little more humility in and ask people as we go along? The risk here is that of never delivering anything as we constantly creep the mission – and its a mistake to think of Agile as a less disciplined approach than the command and control style of the waterfall approach.

If we were to translate this to government then we would need far better decision support tools and also a more transparent discussion as to our destination – our shared vision. There are some really strong parallels between the pressures that have moved software development from an engineering / waterfall type model to a RAD or Agile method that could be used to discuss the changes need to the policy forming process to both involve citizens more directly and also to speed up the process. One big barrier to this is the get popular acceptance for the idea of a non-perfect policy enroute to a good one – ie that mistakes can happen – but as people grow up with a digital footprint of youth indiscretions we will have to get more tolerant of ‘mistakes’ on public life generally.

Anyway – this is a rather wide ranging and undisciplined post – but its really a marker for a larger piece of work that needs to wait for the thesis to be a little bit more formed. Oddly it does also relate to the reading I am doing at the moment on action research methods so perhaps I will try and join this up as well.

I was at the excellent Policing 2.0 conference on Monday – big congratualation for the team for a very well planned and executed event – and especially for keeping the webcast participants involved as well – great job.  Here as promised are my slides from the event:

I focused on talking about the challenges that pressure from the network society brings for all of government and tried to frame this within the pressures of budget cuts – have a look and see how well I managed this.  I also trailed some research we are doing on Virtual Community Policing – I promise to blog properly on this once we have had the kick off meeting in a couple of weeks.

It was in interesting day all round with Gordon Scobie given us all context for the event and both him and Nick Keane talking about the fact that use of social media and new forms of engagement really seem to be getting traction with the Police and there are lots of examples of good practice now. As Gordon says, the trick will be to ensure that we keep momentum while the CSR reverberates around government.

It was also interesting to see the localism agenda as described by Cat Drew from the Home Office and a lot of the messages were very consistent with what I heard last week at Solace which is encouraging. I am increasingly feeling however that the dull but vital subject of boundaries may be the huge elephant in the room with all of this talk of Localism – are we able to define Local across all areas of Government consistently?

Star of the show was Kevin Hoy from Greater Manchester Police talking about their day of tweeting. Will not talk much about this as Andrew has covered this here but it was interesting to hear about the detailed nature of the planning undertaken – will be great to see what they come up with when they have actually analysed the data.

The presentation led to brief back channel chat about whether this project could be described as co-production. I think the final conclusion was a tentative yes, if we start to see the hashtag used independently to run a conversation without the Police being involved – or if you take Dave Briggs point that all 999 calls are co-produced anyway!!

Other good stuff included:

  • Really nice in-depth discussion of the use of Google tools by Nathalie Profitt, Head of New Media at Leicestershire Police.  My enjoyment of the content was only slightly marred by the fact that you constantly have to have in mind that Google’s goals with these tools are all profit orientated and you have to stay alert to make sure that you are not compromising your civic purpose – or in fact anyone’s privacy
  • Great session from Christine and Kate from Sussex Police on the success of webcasting recent public meetings
  • Good session from Amanda Neylon on the Met’s Crime reporting tool – nicely argued with proper cost savings involved as well

I greatly regretted not seeing the MyPolice demo or hearing from the famous @hotelalpha9 but such is the nature of parallel sessions – have heard good things about both of these.

Overall very useful – though the thing that I was musing about in the car on the way home was this place issue.  After weeks of listening to people at conferences talk about the Big Society in parallel its even more clear how much we need to start thinking either of true partnership working or about how we equip the local community to manage what will be increasingly complex relationships with the different parts of government who will want to engage with it.

Next up the CIPR conference and then I’m staying on the office for a bit…..and writing up that co-production stuff I promised ages ago.



Next Page »