virtual town hall

The folks at Kent very kindly asked me to guest blog over at their innovation site – The post goes into some ideas around choice architecture and what this means for democratic spaces – all very relevant I think to Virtual Town Hall stuff.  Full post can be found here.

I meant to blog this at the weekend but annual tree decorating party got in the way. As the halls are now fully decked with boughs of holly (and a lot of paper chains thanks to extensive child labour) normal blogging resumes…..

I wanted to capture some thoughts about the community ambassador role which is fairly central to the whole Virtual Town Hall concept. In short – we are planning on creating a network of community ambassadors who will mediate between the wider social web and the civic space which we are creating. We want to do this for a couple of reasons:

  • If the whole point of this is the fact that there are existing conversations that we want to invite into a shared space we should be connecting the people having these conversations!
  • We think the public can moderate themselves – they don’t need government to do it for them
  • It’s a lot more sustainable than expecting huge resources from council’s to do this work

You can read here what my first thoughts on this role and I don’t think the person description has changed much – buts but needless to say – having met some potential ambassadors it is clear that I had both over complicated and over simplified what might be needed.

This thought comes from a particularly useful meeting at Essex last week where I met some potential ambassadors and got their view directly on the project. They were largely positive – though expressing some concerns as to whether the Council really understood what they were getting themselves into and whether, if the project is successful it will be resourced properly. Hopefully we were able to reassure them – but I think it is a very legitimate concern as we are asking for them to commit time to the project. This also built on the work at the North Lincs meeting where we met some other potential ambassadors.

Before I get into details though a big piece of feedback that has come from all of the community folks I have spoken to which will need to be resolved by Councils I think:

  • Be sociable: This is a person driven environment so make sure that you have identifiable individuals
  • Postal based turnaround times will not be good enough – you need to think about how you can respond quickly – even if it is just with an acknowledgement

However the main point of this post is to highlight the fact that a community ambassador could be far more things than we originally started imagining it as. The diagram below shows the map so far but I expect this to grow:

Mind map of the community ambassador role

A few observations about this:

  • Why not. The reason we tried to define a role was to recruit people – we don’t need that definition if we are able to find people who are interested. We should perhaps instead focus on defining tasks and then ask for volunteers to do those
  • That being said there is a need to give people an actual role of some kind so that they know when they are speaking for the Civic Space. Someone at the meeting suggested ‘Advocate’ as someone who would help other citizens navigate the democratic space
  • If we start to rethink the community ambassador role we perhaps start to relieve some of the tensions that might have been set up between this and the role of the representative. If we think of tasks and not people then the role is not a representative one – though if you carried out all of the tasks you should arguably be standing for election. Perhaps this is where our 21st Century Councillors come from as we start to break down the process of democracy into measurable and discrete tasks and parcel it out – anyone who is prepared to take a large share of this should be able to stand for election!
  • There is a marked difference between how we should be dealing with effective individuals – the social reporters – and people who are managing local community sites. Their motivations and concerns are really different and we have to reflect this in the roles that they have within the Civic Space.

Ok then – this is the last of this year’s workshop posts as I think the Redbridge session will fall into next year now.

We had an excellent day at Kirklees which also spent some time talking technology and trying to develop the fit with the existing 21st Century Councillor work which is being undertaken.  Lots of opportunities there we think which I will detail once we have firmed it up a bit.  We also then ran through some detailed project planning and ideas for how we connect the Virtual Town Hall to other agendas which was very useful for me in terms of seeing the project rather than from my socio-techno-evangelist bubble.

We then had a workshop session with officers which was great – they really engaged with the idea and we talked out some of the nuances of the relationship between this work and the way that they are already looking at innovating around the customer relationship.  As a group they managed to balance a proper appreciation for exactly how radical this idea potentially with a sense of how to move it forward in a managed risk kind of way.  No surprise then that we had an excellent ‘scenarios of doom’ session and we have a first draft of a really manageable risk register for the project – I will do a post of the project risk register once we have got it all agreed with the participants and I check which of the risks they are happy for me to talk about here.

We then met with a few of the members who are part of the 21st Century Councillor project.  We had a good debate here as well but I was very rightly pulled up on excessive use of jargon – I must find a way to talk about widgets which makes sense to people who are not into this stuff.

I think this really links to my thoughts after the North Lincs session and is a really timely reminder that we have to think through what this all means for people who are not digitally engaged as well as the people who are.  There is no point in a renegotiated citizen / government relationship with only part of the population.  It is all very well with a pilot project to look at the people who are already ‘opted in’ but we also need to be clear about the limits and boundaries of this approach in that you cannot expect everyone to want to engage in this way.

More academically I think this links to something that I need to be really careful of in my research work – it’s important that my enthusiasm for this idea and this approach does not effect what should be a neutral assessment of the factual outcomes of the pilot.  I need to ensure that I do not introduce bias into this process though my own (strongly held!) opinions.  I think this is one of the things which makes it much more difficult to be a practitioner / researcher than to be a more neutral academic – but I also think it can lead to a much richer understanding of  the results.  I have some driving time this week and I think it will be spent thinking about a bigger picture which encompasses online and offline and starts to look at this as one of the boundaries we are trying to effect along with the move from informal to formal participation.

The workshop at North Lincolnshire was slightly different to the others because it also involved some potential community ambassadors for the first half of the day.
The team had put out a general notice about the event and so we were joined by a range of people from the council (including someone who works with local volunteers which was great), a couple of town/parish councillors, a local blogger as well as a Local PCSO. This made for a really different debate as a lot of the focus was on discussing the right mix within a team of community ambassadors. We looked at the following factors within this discussion:

  • Socio-economic background
  • Life circumstances – we want people with young families, retired people, single people etc etc – a real mix of service users
  • Age
  • Rural / Urban – basically a good geographic mix across the area
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender (this one was mine but the team let me keep it in!)

I think there is a real debate to be had as to how the community ambassador role interplays with the role of the member – and I know the team at Kirklees are looking more closely at this. In terms of having town councillors there I think this could be a really interesting development as their role is fairly limited at present and could be really enhanced with more online engagement – though this may then set up tensions with other members.

Once again we had the reassuring experience of all the participants agreeing with the basic premise of the project – but as this is a self-selecting group it is perhaps not surprising. Once the sites are live then I think we need to do more work around how we find the people who aren’t immediately sold on the concept and to find out how (and if) they would want to be involved. Once idea has been to have an online representative of a community that prefers to stay offline. This makes me think of the work that Peter Cruikshank is doing on self-efficacy which worth taking a look at as we start to try and understand why some people choose not to participate at all – let alone online.

The team at North Lincs had done a great job with the social web audit – partly because they had really dug down to use ‘real’ words for the location searches.  Their report shows the increased activity if you drill down from North Lincolnshire, to North Lincs, to Scunthorpe and finally to Scunny – which is where they found most results.  I think this is a tip that all the other sites should take advantage of.

We also had a really good discussion of the social web contract – which will be shared by members, officers and citizens who participate in the space – and I think we will have a working draft of this very soon.

The day finished with a crazed 20 minute brainstorm which has resulted in a name for the site – we all agree that “Virtual Town Hall” is good for the project but not for the specific sites – more news later on what this actually is!

Just a quick note on my excellent day in Chorley on Monday. We were running through the internal workshop agenda for the Virtual Town Hall project which is aimed at:

  • Project management stuff:
  1. Getting the internal team fully briefed on the project
  2. Getting support from senior managers and from key members
  3. Giving an overview of the technology and thinking through which widgets are to be used
  • Trying to decide what to call it!!!
  • Reviewing the social web audits
  • Discussing the social web contract – this is a single document for Members, Officers and Citizens which also covers details of what the actual democratic promises being made on the site are
  • Deciding on who to approach to be community ambassadors

This question of what to call the web spaces is increasingly vexed. Virtual Town Hall works really well in very defined areas but has a risk firstly of sounding too ‘council’ and secondly of alienating anyone who feels that live in another town that we are trying to reach and ‘Citizenscape’ is rather esoteric. I am trying to issue a moratorium on using words and phrases like ‘Involve’ and ‘Have your say’ as these have been rather done to death but at this point we get stuck!! Next plan is to speak to the community ambassadors and ask them what they want to call it.

In terms of the social web audits – we are currently breaking these down into these areas:

This is to try and make a distinction between formally managed content and citizen generated content as well as making a differential between active individuals and active groups. These are further divided into ‘networked publics’ and online communities as these have very different characteristics. I will post more another time about how we do the research for these.
Part of the session discussed the issue of digital identity and what would be needed in order to free Officers in order to be able to participate firstly as officers but also as members of the community. This is an issue across all sites and at present we are moving forward cautiously. This first step is to ensure that the project teams can all engage online as representing the council – the next step will be exploring the use of ‘experts’ within the council in order to respond to specific topics and consultations. The thorny issue of officers actually being able to respond freely is yet to be addressed but will stay on the agenda.

Good session with members which as ever helped to remind me that these spaces are going to be, and should be, political and that we shouldn’t be afraid of this.

We finished with my favourite ‘scenario’s of doom’ session were we all try and think of the worst thing that can happen so we can get a risk management plan in place – excellent doom from Chorley all of which is now in the risk register!!!!.

Spent the day in Chelmsford today meeting loads of people re: Virtual Town Hall.  This is by way of some observations and notes for me to remember for research purposes:

Meeting the districts:

  • We spent the morning with 3 districts who are considering getting involved and we had a very in-depth discussion about the concept of the VirtualTH as well as the specific project details.  Once again the basic proposition held up to scrutiny but there was a lot more concern about risk management than we have had in other meeting – this is perhaps because I have spent a lot of time talking to social web people who are more relaxed about the idea of content being unmoderated – but highlights the need to talk about risk when I start interviewing officers/members about their experiences of the project.
  • It was also clear that there is a considerable amount of additional complexity added by working in two tier areas.  Questions of where decision making will sit, relationships between the two sets of members and concerns about what might happen if two participating organisations found themselves in conflict over an issue where raised.  It will be interesting to see which (if any) of the districts decide to get actively involved and which decide to wait on the sidelines until it is clear how things are going (have put predictions in an envelope and we will see how accurate I am!!).
  • There were a couple of folks there from the LSP and they seemed very interested in the project.  LSP involvement could be really important in terms of connecting citizens to the right decision makers for specific issues so it was good to have their involvement
  • Overall it was a very useful morning with lots of good discussion – hopefully it will lead to some active involvement from districts – if not immediately then early next year

Getting the internal infrastructure working

The afternoon was spent with the Essex CC team discussing more operational issues such as:

  • Social web audit:  We have yet to really crack the social web audit as Essex and we spent some time discussing ideas of new places to look for activity.  Lots of new leads here which was very useful.  We also defined some more of the useful questions which we can apply to other sites.  it is increasingly clear that this is a process which will never be finished – we need to build it in as a regular maintenance task
  • Social web policy:  We discussed the process of getting this into place and also went through the key points for inclusion – next up I have to deliver a draft.  Part of this will be defining the commitment which is made to participants in the site and as part of this I am going to suggest a list of democratic activities which could be offered here – I will post this list later in the week hopefully.
  • Defining the democratic promise – we need to be very clear about what people can expect in terms of democratic outcomes from participation
  • Recruiting Community Ambassadors:  We had a good discussion about where to find the right kind of people and came up with some existing internal mechanisms which can be connected to


We made a lot of practical progress today and it was also very useful to talk through the project with the districts.  As I was driving home however I was thinking about the scale of what we are trying to do here – in terms of fundamentally addressing the nature of the relationship between council and citizens – and though it is clear to me in every way that this is an essential process if we want to use the social web to do democratic things – it may be as well to try and break this down into more understandable stages (as per the ladder of engagement) so that we can focus people on more immediate goals.  Will need to think about this.

We had our second VirtualTH project meeting yesterday so this is just a short update on that.  The pilot is now full with Kirklees and Redbridge joining Chorley, Essex CC and North Lincs as pilot sites.  We are also lucky to have Carl Haggerty participate as a ‘critical friend’ on the technology strand which is hugely helpful.  We have got an excellent balance of sites in the pilot now and I will document them in more detail at a later date.  The addition of Kirklees is of particular interest as we are running the VirtualTH alongside their 21st Century Councillor project – which is a great fit.

For th pilot however the focus right now is on two things:

  • Technical build – getting the pilot sites up and running
  • Recruiting the community ambassadors who are going to actually make these sites work

The technical stuff is moving along well and we had a fairly complete demo – including Ady making good on our claim that you can build a new page in 10 minutes.  More on the sites in a month or so once the team have had chance to get each of the pilots properly set up.

However interesting the technology is (and it really is if you like that kind of stuff) it is, in my view, clear that this is not the difficult part of the project.  The real issue is of course in the social stuff.  We are approaching this as follows:

  1. Carrying out a ‘social web’ audit so that we can get a picture of what is going on already.  We’re breaking activity into News / Council content  / Blogs & social reporters / Social networking.  This exercise has clearly shown which sites already have relationships with the social web presence in their area and where we need to start making those connections
  2. Once we have this in place then we need to identify the community ambassadors – real people who are going to be involved in spreading the word about the project using social tools as well as moderating some of the content.
  3. We then need to get a draft social web policy in place for use with citizens, officers and members

We are now planning workshops at each of the sites which will help bring internal and external teams together as well as briefing members and generally getting people ready to use the sites.

There were a number of interesting debates during the day but the one which really struck me was around the social web policy.  Firstly, we have decided to have the same document for use by the external content providers as for officers and members.  I think this is an important change as it points towards the sense of co-creation which we are trying to achieve but by combining the internal and external audiences we highlight the issue as to how possible it is for officers to participate as citizens.  When we asked whether people felt that they could express their personal opinions online there was, I felt, a real sense that whatever the policy said about officers being free to express their opinions if they did it in the appropriate way that no-one thought that it would ‘work’ to take a position which was, however constructively, in opposition to council policy.  And this is a huge problem – officers are amongst the most community minded and engaged individuals in the community and if they are effectively silenced online then not only is that not democratic it is also missing a big opportunity to encourage and increase democratic activity.  I think this is an issue which we will return to as we tease out what the idea of virtual civic space really means.

Finally, we all agreed that part of the ‘education’ process that we need to undertake is around digital identity management – it’s about helping people grow a civic persona and make some choices as to how they do that.  A more sophisticated approach on this will mitigate the officer/citizen dilemma as well as help allay concerns which also emerge around the customer/citizen axis.

Thanks again to all who took part – am looking forward to the workshops and also the promise of sausages and mulled wine at our next meeting!!

I had the excellent pleasure of someone not only having read my post on life leaks but then having them point out that I was contradicting myself at the very moment we were discussing it – it was such a good point that I didn’t even mind not having made it myself!!

We were talking about the fact that we plan to use OpenID as the login option on the platform being built for the Virtual Town Hall – and the fact that this will actually encourage life leak rather than helping control it. Good point!! But then I thought about it some more….

Personal Identity Management is exactly what it says – personal. It is your own responsibility and something which everyone will want to manage differently. OpenID is a tool for bringing your identities together into a single login which you can then control far more easily (just one password change and not dozens when you lose your laptop) but it doesn’t allow for much subtlety as yet as it really only deals with the registration part of things – it doesn’t allow you to present different part of your core data to different people and places which is what you really need to avoid the life leak problem.

Is this a reason not to use it? Absolutely not – it is an excellent development and a natural step in the evolution of proper identity management. But we should be very careful to make sure that people are away of the implications of using such a system and I think it throws more responsibility on us as architects of a new system to help people understand those implications.

I’ve been rather focused this week on getting the paper I needed to get finished in order to explain the Virtual Town Hall concept and finish recruiting people for the pilot.  I’ve spoken to a lot of people in principle and had some very positive noises – now is the time to actually get the detailed sorted out.  I then of course had to write a two page summary document as few people will want to read the whole thing!!!

The pilots should get going in October and we are looking for 4-6 councils who are happy to join a shared project where they can learn from each other during the 12 month period as well as trying out the Virtual Town Hall idea. I am hoping to create a good mix of participants from different types of councils on a number of different criteria:

  • Type of council (District/County/Unitary etc)

  • Geographical location

  • Size

  • Urban / Rural / Suburban

I’ve also been working on the initial questionnaire and one of the things which is currently exercising me is coming up with a list of formal democratic actions that I can then measure any increases in over the course of the project.  So far I have:

  • Vote

  • Attend a council meeting
  • Attend a public meeting
  • Attend a local community meeting

  • Stand as a councillor
  • Respond to a council consultation

  • Respond to a council question

  • Respond to a government consultation

  • Sign a petition

But this does not seem quite right so I am now looking for pre-existing lists of such things as I can’t believe such a thing doesn’t already exist – I would be very grateful for suggestions on this.

Brace yourelf – its a long one…..

I am working on the theoretical framework for my thesis at the moment and so trying to establish its firm roots in the idea of a ‘network society’. The idea that we have moved into a post-industrial information age is well entrenched in current thinking (Webster 2006) with the ‘informationisation’ of the world advanced and increasing in pace and I am clearly positioning my work well within this sphere. The choice of technological, spatial, cultural economic approaches to this space are all appealing in different ways but I feel that the physical metaphor of the virtual town hall is leading me towards a spatial approach where I look at the network effect and its relationships in spatial terms rather than in economic ideas of exchange or a purely technological reading of the world. I think this allows me to more easily connect the ideas associated with localisam which I think are essential to the reinvigoration of democratic participation. This is not to say that I ignore cultural or indeed economic interpretations (though I may well trash the idea of a technological filter for the world) but the main thrust of the way that I view the network society is via the lens of connections between people and the changes in barriers of time and place. Cultural changes such as the malleability of identity can, I believe, be viewed mainly through that lens as a consequence of the spatial changes rather than a first principle effect. People use identity in a more malleable way online primarily because they can’t be as easily observed – i.e. a spatial effect – rather than any economic benefit for example.

But I also think that we need to look at more than a spatial analysis and consider the impact of changes in the way that timings of events can be changed. I have referred before to the idea of internet dog years – the point being that ideas move faster online in the same way as a dog year is the same as 7 human years – because I think that this speed effects outcomes. I talk about the ‘wildfire’ effect which is the way that the viral nature of the online world means that when ideas do take hold they move faster from person to person and as a result rapidly bombard us from multiple locations – and perhaps get greater credence as a result of this. And to move back to a spatial analysis objectives moving quickly startle us because of their speed and not necessarily their size or shape.

But what does this mean in terms of how I would go about building the virtual town hall?

  • Firstly I think it means that we need to consider time as well as place when we describe the virtual architecture. In trying to create the ‘lift off’ effect needed in the sense off enlivening an online community it is not only the number of posts that needs considering but also the temporal proximity.
  • We also need to build for the terribly short length of current attention spans online – at the same time as drawing people towards longer and richer interactions.
  • One of the other consequences may be that I need to pay careful attention to within the metrics is the time spent on specific activities and that things taking longer are valued more highly enroute to engendering the more active citizen – interesting when you think that one of the benefits of petitioning is the speed with which you can do it and that one of the drawbacks is the dangers of mob rule over measured debate.

All of this may boil down to the fact that I think very visually and tend to imagine ideas in terms of shapes and relationships – and that I prefer the idea of evolution of society in the same way as I choose to live in a really old house with really good broadband to a new build with the same technology. Either way I think that a spatial / temporal analysis of the world will help to visualise and connect the ideas of the virtual town hall to actual communities as I start to develop the framework of engagement.

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