Web 2.0 musings

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

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

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

However within these figures is the real issue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When I say Facebook is evil its firstly a cheap shot aimed at getting an immediate laugh out of the audience – I have to say that it usually works. I think it hits a chord with people as all good jokes should. While evil is perhaps an overstatement its true that my values and those of Facebook are not aligned – they are making decisions which effect me which I don’t agree with – over which I have no control.

 Lawrence Lessig (http://www.lessig.org/ ), a Stanford law professor, wrote this about internet architecture in 2005:

 The first generation of these architectures was built by a noncommercial sector—researchers and hackers, focused upon building a network. The second generation has been built by commerce. And the third, not yet off the drawing board, could well be the product of government. Which regulator do we prefer? Which regulators should be controlled? How does society exercise that control over entities that aim to control it? (Lessig, Code v2)

 The architectures that he refers to are the fundamental underpinnings of cyberspace – our virtual plumbing of transfer protocols, the addressing, the packet shifting that turns bits and bytes into space and place. Lessig points out the very simple truth that what is good for commerce may not be good for government – and I would go further than this and ask whether what is good for government is also good for democracy. You only have to look to the Middle East to see a clash of government and democratic and in the West we see the cultural and practical effects of cyberspace colliding with our formal decision-making – for example the role of twitter in the recent super-injunction furore and the ongoing shift towards open data in government. We need to start making some conscious decisions about how this new world is going to function.

 Transparency and ‘public-ness’ online is both a cultural remnant from the academic antecedents of the current social web and a practical result of the depth and availability of our new digital footprint. The identity play of the first social spaces (Life on Screen, Turkle) is at odds with the commercial drivers that want to join up your data so that the sites you use can sell it. Facebook isn’t really free you know – we just don’t yet really appreciate the currency we are paying with.

 There are two thoughts I want to capture in this post – both related to the need for government to start building civic architecture online. This first is an observation that if we want to understand what we want from civic space online then we should look at where people are already creating their own civic spaces. The second is to consider the differing needs of government and democracy.

 What are these civic spaces anyway?

I tend to get in conversational trouble fairly early on when talking about civic spaces – particularly online ones – exactly what do I mean? The word ‘civic’, at least with respect to space, has become associated with municipal architecture – civic centres – but this is a limited application and perhaps an attempt to claim effect and ownership through naming.

When I talk about Civic spaces, both online and offline, I am referring to those spaces which support the user motivation of ‘I want to talk to my community’ where ever they are formed. Offline we are talking about spaces where communities come together for a variety of reasons – social and civic. This could be community centres, sports halls, local schools, pubs or libraries – these are places where you can connect to and ‘touch’ civic life. There are many other examples of civic connection – neighbourhood watch, meals on wheels and countless forms of the co-production that Tony Bouivaird has identified (Bovaird et al 2009) with varying levels if intervention or involvement from the state and civic spaces are also not necessarily provided by the State.

Online these spaces are being created by the people who choose to build community websites, hyperlocal sites or who blog and report on their locality. We have people contributing to FixmyStreet, The Good Gym connects runners with isolated people in their community, and there are countless examples of support groups and community of interests based in localities such as Mumsnet or even the RSPB. People are digitising some of the offline activities as well – neighbourhood watch networks using email, schools with facebook pages and community centre blogs –places where you can ‘touch’ civic activity online.

These spaces are an important element of civic life – community works better when you know where to go and find it – and its a central social capital argument that says that stronger communities have higher levels of participation in these informal groups of community life (Putnam, 2000). I would argue that online these spaces are also potentially a location for democratic debate.

One the central elements of my thesis is the belief that these new online civic spaces do not meet one of the criteria of democratic decision making which is an understanding of the degree to which the participants and their views are representative of the wider community – new spaces are needed in order to knit the different networks of a community together and create a more representative and shared space. In an offline, traditional context this doesn’t matter to the same extent – we have offline democratic structures and a representative democracy that should address exactly this point. However we know that citizens are increasingly disconnected from the democratic process (Hansard Society, 2011) and this has been a consistent trend for decades now.

Is there a good reason to consider online civic participation differently?

Earlier writers about cyberspace were immensely optimistic about the ability of the social web to create a new kind of democracy and universal conversation. Look at the rather grandly titled “Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace”:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

I am not sure its happening like that. That statement is an artefact of that first phase of cyberspace architecture and doesn’t reflect the deep embedding and connection of our online and offline lives. However I do believe that there are different qualities to online civic participation to participation in the offline world and it is one of the things which I am examining with my research.

One of these differences is the depth and breadth of access to debate which comes about when you remove barriers or time and place – reach and access is far greater online. This makes no difference if people don’t want to get involved but the recent Hansard research that talks about 28% of people wanting to be more involved in local decision making and the membership growth of organisations such as Avaaz and MoveOn shows some indication of an audience for online civic activism which could, in the right circumstances, support increased democratic participation.

What are the right circumstances?

However there is a core concern here – that the people creating the legislation and enabling commerce seem to have little or no appreciation for the consequences of what they are doing – and there is no discussion of the implications of government activity online beyond the vital debate around privacy.

I think we need to move this debate beyond privacy and start talking about identity and we also need to start thinking about the needs of democracy as being beyond the needs of the State to govern.

The classical view of the territorial state finds architectural expression in the government assembly buildings (usually augmented by bureaucratic support structures) that traditionally have been erected at the hearts of governed territories……..clearly the technological means are now emerging to replace these spatial and architectural arrangements with electronics and software, and it isn’t hard to construct plausible arguments in favour of such a substitution (Mitchell, City of Bits)

I agree with Mitchell, and also with Stephen Coleman when he talks about the need for a civic commons in cyberspace. However its not enough and it also doesn’t separate the process of democratic debate from the process of government.

Identity and an understanding of representation is just one democratic requirement. Information is another. Sunstein’s concerns about the ‘daily Me’ (Sunstein, republic 2.0) and the impact of the information personalisation being the fact that we only choose to read content we agree with is the automation of the ‘dailyme’ is writ large in current technology which focuses us on content selected not only on our preferences but on the preferences of our friends. Google is filtering our searches to show us results tailored to their belief in our interests – our information is being filtered to show a rose-tinted view of the things that we agree with. Eli Pariser talks about this as “The Filter Bubble” (worth watching the RSA talk on this) which he wrote after realising that the same search terms do not provide the same results. This is not just a google issues – as Pariser says there are a lot of topics that are important that you don’t ‘like’ – the simplification of reactions in Facebook mean that our cultural drift toward this as a major networked public (Boyd, 2010) is robbing us of our ability to have a meaningful public discourse. We have noticed this at a local level with the social media audit work – google does not reliably rank significant civic sites in the top 10 or even top 20 results and what this means is that you will only be directed at the groups you are most likely to agree with.

Code is law online

Returning to Lessig: code is law online – Lex informatica. The worry is that the law makers and code makers are not currently speaking to each other in a way that we can see or understand. We are legislating on the fly and in reaction to changes because we are responding the commercial imperatives and expecting the market to sort this all out. It won’t because though strong government is in the interest of commerce democracy is being seen as a by product of that government rather than the engine on which it runs.

Commercial providers believe that they can offer us an answer to this – I am not sure they can. If we want privacy online then we’re going to need to find another business model and if we want democracy online then we can’t always direct people to the content they agree with.

People are creating civic spaces online, however they are doing it within the constraints that the commercial platforms put upon them – for example a definition of openness that goes only as far as the data needed to sell advertising. If we want to make these civic spaces truly open and democratic then we need government to start thinking about what democracy needs online – not just what it needs to govern.

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.

Identity matters – it’s a vital piece of context in conversation whether it’s established by digital footprint or physical presence.  One aspect of moving conversations from the informal to the formal sphere is the reconciliation of your online persona with your legal citizenship.

People, like places, have a digital wrapper which extends their identity from beyond their physical presence in to the online environment.  This wrapper is asynchronous and pervasive but is also malleable and manageable if you choose to make it so.  The more alarming consequences of this is laid out in this article on Münchausen by internet where the author describes in detail the ease with which someone can create a false identity and the impacts of them doing this.  Few people take the possibilities of online identity in this direction – but its important the remember that this represents the risk of online identity – you don’t really know who you are dealing with.  The question is whether or not this matters.

Your identity online is currently a dynamic and self-reflexive creation with necessary external reference to the physical world.  Its part of the seduction of the online world that you do as Boyd says ‘write yourself into being’.  Few people do this consciously – most react to content and follow our friends behaviours rather than actively trying to create an identity which is distinct from your offline life.  As use of social media grows beyond the personal sphere where you are talking to your friends and family and into the professional and civic space where you are talking to your communities its clear that there is a growing awareness of the impact of the content that you create on your reputation and public persona – it recently cost a Caerphilly Councillor £3K plus costs.

This self-reflexivity can be seen as a consequence of modernity rather than just technology – Giddens describes it like this:

“Self identity becomes a question of reconciling the different narratives that we have in abstract systems.”

Giddens argues this from the perspective of a breakdown of traditional structures and agreed value sets rather than as a result of the network society but the effect is the same – the stories and ideas which express our sense of self may be different to different people but they collide online in a way which either requires enormous self-discipline to keep separate or a new kind of authenticity and openness in the way in which we create our self-identity.

We don’t yet know what the impact will be of having huge amounts of the narrative of your life being available to publicly look back on in years to come but its clear that we are en route to finding out as we build up the digital narrative of our lives.  Of course for many people this narrative, in this country at least, is largely if not entirely on Facebook – an environment that has a publicly stated lack of belief in privacy and an commitment to openness which means that you don’t even own the data that you post there.

Whether you like it or not it is increasingly difficult to keep your personal and professional lives separate – what does this mean for your democratic identity – you citizen-self?  Do you even have one?

Researchers such as Sherry Turkle (Life on Screen, 1997) have established the fact that online environments can play a central role in people’s lives with individuals considering online interactions to have at least the same significance as those that happen in their physical world.  She has also explored the fact that for many people the potential for anonymity and role playing which the online world brings is its greatest attraction, with participants exploring aspects of themselves, trying out different opinions or working through problems.  In this context the participation of other people is irrelevant except as a mirror to see their own actions – the issue of course is that other people are real – even if you don’t see the consequences of your actions upon them.  However Turkle’s more recent work focuses on her concerns as to the implications of a life on screen.  The following is take from a 2007 article she wrote for Forbes magazine called “Can you hear me now?” (she develops these themes in her recent book – more on that when I have finished it)

We have become virtuosos of self-presentation, accustomed to living our lives in public. The idea that “we’re all being observed all the time anyway, so who needs privacy?” has become a commonplace. Put another way, people say, “As long as I’m not doing anything wrong, who cares who’s watching me?” This state of mind leaves us vulnerable to political abuse. Last June I attended the Webby Awards, an event to recognize the best and most influential Web sites. Thomas Friedman won for his argument that the Web had created a “flat” world of economic and political opportunity, a world in which a high school junior in Brooklyn competes with a peer in Bangalore. MySpace won a special commendation as the year’s most pathbreaking site.

The awards took place just as the government wiretapping scandal was dominating the press. When the question of illegal eavesdropping came up, a common reaction among the gathered Weberati was to turn the issue into a nonissue. We heard, “All information is good information” and “Information wants to be free” and “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” At a pre-awards cocktail party one Web luminary spoke animatedly about Michel Foucault’s idea of the panopticon, an architectural structure of spokes of a wheel built out from a hub, used as a metaphor for how the modern state disciplines its citizens. When the panopticon serves as a model for a prison, a guard stands at its center. Since each prisoner (citizen) knows that the guard might be looking at him or her at any moment, the question of whether the guard is actually looking–or if there is a guard at all–ceases to matter. The structure itself has created its disciplined citizen. By analogy, said my conversation partner at the cocktail hour, on the Internet someone might always be watching; it doesn’t matter if from time to time someone is. Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon had been a critical take on disciplinary society. Here it had become a justification for the U.S. government to spy on its citizens. All around me there were nods of assent.”

Publicity and openness need to be considered carefully by the state and we must not risk the cyber-evangelism which Morozov and others have been writing about overwhelm a more through debate as to what online identity means with respect to democratic decision making.  What does a digital citizen look like?

Digital Citizens

Citizenship is a formal legal construct that defines your relationship with the state.  Its based on where you were borne and where you live – its rooted in the physical world.  Citizenship brings with it rights and responsibilities and in our society is a gateway to your participation in the democratic and political life, its taught in schools and its celebrated in ceremonies where we confer it actively.  However, there is little narrative of citizenship and we in fact only act in an auditable way as citizens when we vote.

Our citizenship today is formed as part of a representative democratic system – our citizenship gives us the right to vote for our representatives and in doing so we cede much of our decision making power to them.  The intriguing question that comes with the social shift described by the network society – or at least by the techno-determinism of the cyber-evangelists – is whether technology offers us the the opportunity to return to a more direct form of democracy.  This is a different question to the issue of online and democratic identity and so not for this piece – but it is lurking in the background….

Consultation is not democracy

There is a temptation to say ‘why bother’ when thinking about democratic identity.  There have been a number of forays into widescale online consultations with a variety of identity management approaches from none at all to physical identification in order to participate in citizens panels online and these have been fed very happily into the decision making process in the way that consultation outcomes often are.    I wrote a much longer piece on this a while ago here but the point to stress is that there is nothing democratic about consultation unless the elected representatives choose to listen to them – and I would argue that this makes respondents who get included in this lucky rather than democratically participative.

I would argue that the absence of a robust identity management system relegates recent treasury consultation experiments into the crowd pleasing rather than crowd sourcing category – that and the lack of integration with the actual policy process.

If Citizenship is a legal construct then at some point you need to be able to legally identify yourself to participate.  We do this offline with voter registration and the electoral role – how will it work when we want to participate democratically online rather than just answer some questions on a consultation?

A sliding scale of identification

Identification is in fact a sliding scale from the weak turing test of the RECAPTCHA that proves that its a human being through to the bio metric data of iris recognition attached to my passport.  The scale goes like this:

  1. Are you a real person?
  2. Are you a real person who tells us that they live somewhere relevant?
  3. Are you a real person who can prove that you live somewhere relevant?
  4. Can you prove that you are a specific person who has rights of citizenship?

Peter Cruickshank has an excellent post on this here with respect to the ECI. One of his proposed solutions is a statistical sampling approach – i am not discussing that here as its not appropriate for the smaller samples we see for most democratic conversations.  As we open up democratic processes online we will need to decide where on this continuum we want identity to sit.  At present most organisations stop at (2) – self reported data – to support consultation but we will need to examine whether this is far enough when you are talking about formal democratic decisions.  Or put differently – should our identity management be less stringent for democracy than it is for managing our bank account?

Its perhaps not an immediate issue if you believe that Citizen participation in actual democratic processes will continue to be concerned with voting either in elections or even in referenda as the technology to support this has been tried and found to be more cumbersome in many respects when compared to the traditional methods.  It may be that this is going to be a non-issue until we have a more coherent response to online identity management and yes – ID cards.

However if we want more people to participate in the minutiae of actual decision making – ie if there is a real move towards more direct democracy through mechanisms such as Participatory Budgeting then we already know that this increased participation will need to be led digitally because the ease of use and the costs of transactions.  We will therefore at some point need the strengthen this process of identification to make it possible to be sure that someone is in fact who they say they are and have the legal right to influence a decision.  Without this we can never be certain that our decisions are representative – it may be more difficult but its important to get this right.

Do you always want the state to know who you are?

The fact is that we have already addressed this issue within some areas of government – government gateway manages the process of your online tax return very competently.  The question is whether it is appropriate to connect your transactional relationship with the state with your democratic relationship – or indeed if it is possible to consider these as being separate?

There are many many reasons why the identification of the individual to the state may inhibit your democratic interactions with that state – fear of intimidation, lack of self-efficacy or just a lack of trust in an unbiased outcome within your transactional interactions with government if you were to show a negative view.  There is also the need to make it possible for civil servants to voice views that may differ from their political leaders and the need to separate their personal from their professional lives in order to ensure that they are not disenfranchised.

The fact remains that we are after all just one person – whatever web based sophistry we employ to extend this and perhaps we should therefore consider other solutions to these democratic barriers rather than an artificial construct of democracy.

How many people are we anyway?

Ultimately I do not see any alternative to connecting these identities together into one – the freedom that the social web has to date given us to experiment with different personas will, if we start to move more of the business of government online need to be reconciled at some point because the openness and transparency of the online world will not allow for anything else.  It will be possible but extremely cumbersome to keep up multiple coherent identities and my prediction is that people just will not bother.  The shifting norms of online behaviours will slide towards a single identity because we are after all just one person.

Aren’t we?

Or do we in fact want to present different personas in different contexts?  Isn’t the reality of the self-reflexive creation of identity the fact that we undergo a constant evolution of self and the risk with the digital element of this is that we hold on to past versions of ourselves beyond the point at which they are relevant to your identity today?  Life transitions such as a new school or a new job, or a new country or even a new relationship used to let us jettison past behaviours and start afresh – now we carry this narrative baggage with us in a digital world.

In the context of democratic debate this really means that we will need to adjust to the idea that people change – and that this is a legitimate behaviour even with politicians.  However we also need to adjust to the fact that we hold multiple personas as we deal differently with different elements of our lives and to force us to have just one public face may not actually best reflect the reality of how we live.

Think about Facebook and the way it forces you to bring everything together – I am not sure this reflects how I want to present myself and though I see the drift in this direction I can’t help but feel that what I really want is the ability to have just one identity but to be able to present it in different ways in different contexts.

Accountability does not need to be transparent

I was very struck by a comment from Jimmy Leach about digital diplomacy – he said the foreign office are not unnecessarily secretive but they are professionally discrete – I thought this was a really important distinction.  It is possible to have accountability without making your identity transparent – you can be discrete about who you really are.  Screen names are common place online and serve a valuable function in allowing people to participate in instances where they actively seek to conceal who they are in ‘real life’ – have a look at Michelle Ide Smith‘s research findings for more on this.  As long as we have some processes that validates these screen names against a legal real world identity then all forms of identification could be accommodated within this model and individuals would have the freedom to participate without the risks of connecting all elements of their online and offline identities together in an externally transparent way.

Is this discretion or obfuscation?

There is an inherent tension here for me – the scenario I propose above is a reaction to the fact that at the moment social norms in the political sphere do not accommodate a modern view of identity where the individual naturally and rightly changes their mind over the course of time and where the public does not have have trust in the political system (quite apart from issues of trust in the governments ability to run the technology which is quite another issue).

Ultimately this is for me another area, like online civic architecture, where I believe that government needs to start actively thinking and shaping the technological outcome – we need an active debate about citizenship that digs into our identity as citizens and starts to draw out how closely we want to associate this with the other kinds of self that we find online.  The big philosophical question here (which you will be pleased to know I’m not addressing) is whether multiple online identities is exactly what is needed in order to make the ongoing self-reflexive project of identity ‘work’ in a digital world and whether it is counter productive to try and reconcile our digital selves back into an analogue state.  In the meantime we need a practical solution.

So – what are we going to do about it?

While it will be interesting to sit about and ponder what might happen that’s a more old school way of doing things – I prefer to react in a more agile way and to move start to move towards an objective in stages from now on.

So what’s the objective?

We need to be able to identify people online to the extent that we are confident that they are citizens and able to participate in decision making.

In doing this we don’t want to add to the confusion of identities and the self-reflexive sense of self and so will need to allow for the use of screen names rather than insisting on real names.  We are enabling people to create a democratic identity for each of their citizenships where they are building a composite picture of their democratic engagement with a democratic body such as a council that can be used both by the citizen, their fellow citizens and by the state.  And there is some detail:

  • Beyond this we also need to be realistic in the way that people already choose to identify themselves and interact with systems such as Facebook, Twitter and Google where people choose to make this their democratic persona.
  • The key question in all of this is therefore – how do you prove you are a citizen?  At a national level our proof of citizenship is our passport, at a local level we are really looking at the rather weaker test of the electoral role.  So – to do this thoroughly we would need:
  • An ID management system that authenticates against the electoral role and perhaps passport records
  • Within this a way of managing multiple personas so that you can have different screen names within different contexts (though I would assume only one with each democratic body you are interacting with)
  • The ability to authenticate social media content against this ID so that you can either attribute for example Facebook content to your democratic ID or vice versa

In real terms this is an issue that will continue to be fudged for some time – at least until there is real pressure on the online decision making process and we are forced to examine exactly how representative some of the feedback is.  In which case item (1) more than likely becomes the ability to store answers to democratic ‘gateway’ questions such as your postcode so that you can infer residency.  The rest of this is fairly simple to achieve.


The existence of a digital footprint effects our identity by making our actions, and views, public and audit able.  It gives us the opportunity to create multiple identities online which are democratically rootless unless we start to reconcile them back to the legal fact of citizenship.

We have to move past the point where we are grateful for any participation in the conversation with the state and start to ask what happens when we really have mass participation because we risk achieving this.  If we don’t have a way to ensure that these responses are representative then we are undermining the democratic processes that we are trying to promote.

I always feel like a special kind of social media arse when I talk about online spaces rather than websites but I nonetheless believe it is a meaningful distinction (or I really am that social media arse – you judge). I wrote this piece on the website / webspace terminology dilemma and I would still stand by it. In particular I believe the evolution to the language of space rather than talking about websites reflects the fact that we are creating online environments that are more than just the HTML furniture and that a lot of the reason for this is the fact that the participants write them into being – this social, human elements means these are spaces and not sites. And once again my favourite Massey quote:

Multiplicity is fundamental….Space is more than distance. It is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities. Given that, the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by ‘the communications revolution’ and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations.” (For Space, P.91).

As soon as you talk about space then you talk about the design of that space – because design matters. The attributes of any environment contribute to the way that people treat it and the way that they interact with it and with each other.

My concern therefore is about online civic spaces – and how we build the spaces where we will ‘do democracy’ in a networked society. This links into an earlier post on hyperlocal sites and I don’t intend to repeat myself (if I can avoid it). However – just for context – I am building on the ideas that were expressed there around a definition of ‘hyperlocal’ – by which I am talking about user defined spaces which are focused on a narrow geographical area. The post is (as ever) fairly long but my conclusion is:

In deepening our understanding of this phenomena it is therefore important to note that the term hyperlocal then has a richer meaning that the practitioner use might initially give it. It refers to Massey’s multiplicity with the narrative of place and the intrinsic involvement of the community relationships which it holds. However its unbounded nature, in common with any space, brings with it conflicts of competing interests and competing definitions of local that will at some point need to be reconciled if we are to be able to managed to co-existence of many hyperlocal communities living alongside each other.

What I am trying to do here is to move this forward to talk about the Civic Space that allows us to join multiple communities together into a decision making unit and interact accordingly. But before I do that I need to point out that one of the issues I have just not addressed so far is the existence of other types of communities within decision making units. So this is really a marker for a future piece that starts to describe the eco-system of communities that can be found within any larger organisation. My brief breakdown of these includes:

I have not expanded the list to look at other bits of government in an area because I am trying to keep the scope tight – but arguably I should be adding in the Police, Health and sundry other decision making bodies at this point. However – lets imagine I have already gone to the trouble of describing the last of these as I want to look at how we bring them together.

And now back to the matter in hand…civic space….and how we build it.

The publicity of the social web

Firstly – any civic space is going to be public and not private. Publicity is something which sociologists spend quite a lot of time thinking about – because it is by the existance of public interaction that much of our society becomes auditable. I am not attempting a full discussion of this idea here but I do lean heavily on Habermas’ thinking on this because as I originally wrote here:

The concept of the Public Sphere is a compelling one – he argues that the rise of capitalism and the departure from feudal / tribal living brought about the development of arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues. In terms of the network society we are talking about the ‘publicity’ of information and government .  There are many ways to criticise this idea of the public sphere but the idea that we require a sphere of interaction where we talk about the public issues of the day is a compelling one.

However when we think of this idea of publicity in the context of the network society we need to also acknowledge the difference that the interconnectedness of our world brings. Danah Boyd has done a lot of work describing something she calls ‘networked publics’. In doing so she is extending the idea of ‘publicity’ and examining it in the context of the network society. In her paper Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications she talks about networked publics as follows:

Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics serve many of the same functions as other types of publics – they allow people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family. While networked publics share much in common with other types of publics, the ways in which technology structures them introduces distinct affordances that shape how people engage with these environments. The properties of bits – as distinct from atoms – introduce new possibilities for interaction. As a result, new dynamics emerge that shape participation.

In many ways I could leave it there – its an excellent definition of this shared space especially as she goes on to talk about the importance of design and provenance in the creation of these spaces:

Both William Mitchell (1995, p. 111) and Lawrence Lessig (2006, pp. 1-8) have argued that “code is law” because code regulates the structures that emerge. James Grimmelmann argues that Lessig’s use of this phrase is “shorthand for the subtler idea that code does the work of law, but does it in an architectural way” (Grimmelmann, 2004, p. 1721). In looking at how code configures digital environments, both Mitchell and Lessig highlight the ways in which digital architectures are structural forces

or put more simply:

Networked publics’ affordances do not dictate participants’ behavior, but they do configure the environment in a way that shapes participants’ engagement. In essence, the architecture of a particular environment matters and the architecture of networked publics is shaped by their affordances

(BTW – an affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action)

So – architecture matters even if it is bits and not atoms

And if we accept this idea that the design and purpose of a place effects it function and behaviours of participants then it is not unreasonable to start considering what the affordances of a civic space might be. Once again Doreen Massey has something helpful to say:

“For instituting democratic public spaces (and indeed the spaces of places more generally) necessitates operating with a concept of spatiality which keeps always under scrutiny the play of the social relations which constructs them” (For Space, Massey; P.153)

So we therefore have to consider is that makes the space democratic are the relationships that are contained within it as well the design assumptions that have been built into the architecture.  Its not enough for this to be a networked public – it needs to be a democratic networked public – an online civic space.

So what is an online civic space?

Getting back to the point then – my online civic space is in some ways a networked public in that it brings together public content from a variety of locations into a single space. The shared narrative of that space is the story of the physical space that it corresponds to the problems and challenges that it faces. Because those social relationships are crucial to its functioning its a space where identity matters and where people interact as citizens or that space and not as unconnected or anonymous individuals.  Building on other posts again it is a co-productive space where all participant’s are able to speak on equal terms though there is an acknowledgement of different roles and responsibilities.

In more practical terms the civic space is aggregating the civic content from the decision making unit not in terms of data but in terms of establishing and reflecting the social networks which facilitate the creation of content. But in order to meet the fundamental condition of democracy that identity does matter the space also asks for participant’s demonstrate that they are citizens with the rights and responsibilities that flow from this.  There is no moderation in the civic space but there is a process of curation in order to find and refresh the contributing networks and individuals – the process and governance of this is something I will pick up in another post.

What are its attributes?

So – the attributes – or affordances if we want to get a bit more picky – are going to be:

  • Publicity- you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives

But perhaps the most important thing has to be the agreed purpose of the space – which I am suggesting is as follows:

to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making

This participation could range from just having access and contact with your representative to actively participating in the true co-production of outcomes – the space needs to support the full range of democratic engagement.  This is all very close to Stephen Coleman’s Civic Commons in Cyberspace (Coleman, Blumler 2001)

Our proposal for a civic commons in cyberspace aims to create an enduring structure which could realise more fully the democratic potential of the new interactive media. This would involve the establishment of an entirely new kind of public agency, designed to forge fresh links between communication and politics and to connect the voice of the people more meaningfully to the daily activities of democratic institutions. The organisation would be publicly funded but be independent from government. It would be responsible for eliciting, gathering, and coordinating citizens’ deliberations upon and reactions to problems faced and proposals issued by public bodies (ranging from local councils to parliaments and government departments), which would then be expected to react formally to whatever emerges from the public discussion. This should encourage politicians and officials to view the stimulation of increased participation not as mere `citizens’ playgrounds’ but as forums in which they must play a serious part.

But the key difference is around how the space might be managed. Coleman describes the process as follows:

The proposed organisation would be charged with promoting, publicising, regulating, moderating, summarising, and evaluating the broadest and most inclusive range of online deliberation via various new media platforms, including the web, e-mail, newsgroups, and digital TV.

However my proposal an online civic space does not include agency moderation and I believe that the co-productive nature and the fact that I suggest it needs to be curated by participants rather than governed makes it a more fluid and more communal space than he was suggesting. The idea of building it from the ground up with the participation of unmoderated hyperlocal communities is another key difference. This last point is critical – these should not be spaces that are owned by government because this ownership indicates power and in the network society this power is shared and distributed rather than being vested solely in the state.

Why bother?

William Mitchell (City of Bits, 1996) puts it like this:

“The classical view of the territorial state finds architectiral expression in the govemnet assemly buildings (usually augmented by bureaucratic support strucutures) that tradditionally have been ereted at the hearts of governed territories……..clearly the technological means are now emerging to repalce these spatial and architecutiral arrangements with electrornins and software, and it isn’t hard to construct plausible aruguments in favour of such a substitution”

Is this an over-engineered solution to a problem that people will solve for themselves? Can people just carry out democratic debate in any corner of the social web? To some extent yes – the network society provides many opportunities for public debate but my point here is that design matters, architecture matters and the spaces we choose to operate in have an effect on the actions we carry out there. If we want to conduct democratic debate we will do a better job of it if we do so in a space which is designed to support this. Facebook wants to sell advertising (see viagra of the first sentence) – its not really interested in whether or not we have local citizens debating local issues except as a by-product of that core function. Newspapers sites want to drive traffic and thrive on conflict not consensus. For an online civic space supporting constructive debate would be the core function.

People are already debating democratic and civic matters online – particularly at the hyperlocal level – but at some point I believe we will need to join the smaller communities which form online into something that reflects the rather unwieldy shape of the decision making units that we apportion resources to. If we don’t consider joining them up then we are consigning government – and in particular local government – to an ongoing role of mediator and negotiator carrying out shuttle diplomacy between the different conversations and this is not all that democratic if we have not found a way to embed the elected individual in the process in a meaningful way.  Aggregation of data and clever technology does not solve this – democracy is social – we need to build spaces where people not data come together.

Where can I get one??

Mmmm……nowhere as yet….but democratic activity online is growing and as the government moves ahead with open data plans it becomes even more important I think that this newly released information is examined and debated in a civic rather than commercial space. The crowdsourcing post from this morning shows another direction of travel and as you see all parts of the state starting to join the conversation online we will either start to understand the limits of commercial spaces for democratic debate or limit it by viewing it only through commercial design assumptions.  Our future democracy will almost certainly conduct itself largely online – all I am arguing for is for us to start building the right spaces to support us ‘doing democracy’ in that future.

I’ve also published this over at our Public-i blog but have put it here as well for a personal sense of completeness

Another week another conference… and a bit of a change of pace with a trip to the Solace Annual Conference in Cardiff this week. Conference site is here and you can watch all the content here. It was a smaller conference than usual and Solace said that though there were more CEXs, there were far fewer senior managers with many organisations just sending one person. The overall mood was fairly positive though – which was a surprise – and while the conversation focused on impending cuts the people I spoke to had been planning for a while and there was a mood of ‘bring it on’ and a sense that they were ready to do a difficult job to the best of their abilities.

As you’ll see below part of this mood was down to the perceived direction of the Localism Bill and the decentralism moves from the Coalition Government, which gives them something to build towards rather than just cut.

In my last post I mentioned the fact that I expected the event to be rather more chalk and talk than the events I usually attend – and I was right – all very traditional conference format. However, for the first time at Solace there was a back-channel conversation on Twitter (have a look at #solace2010) and there is a small, but growing list of CEX’s and others getting engaged online. Hats off to the Solace folks for supporting this.

Edited highlights
Sadly, at the first session that I sat in on the speaker was not in any way to my taste (did you know leadership is all about establishing a vision? No? Really? It was news to me, too) but things did look up after that and the rest of the programme was much more engaging – here are some of highlights from my point of view:

  • Brilliant to see Martha Lane Fox present clear and direct facts about exactly why we need to take the issue of digital inclusion seriously
  • Dominic Campbell did a star turn as ever. He might have actually blown the minds of a few people, but that is no bad thing (see below). I particularly want to track the Safeguarding 2.0 project which is a really serious look how we can use social networks to support children in the system. You can see his blog post about his presentation here – and our webcast of it here.
  • Mathew Taylor was just brilliant – and developed and communicated the idea of active citizenship as a backdrop for how we need to change the way we make decisions. Interestingly though I think he really connected with the audience when he spoke of the need to communicate and manage change – and the fact that clever people with ideas is not enough – they need to be able to work with each other as well.
  • I was frankly shocked that Nat Wei chose to send a video presentation rather than attending himself as I would have thought getting commitment from Local government on the Big Society agenda is essential and his absence is a duff note when compared to what Greg Clark was saying (see below). I must note that I didn’t attend all of the sessions so there were probably loads of excellent sessions I just didn’t see.

Localism – they really seem to mean it.
Wednesday saw a discussion session on the new Localism Bill – allegedly due to turn up on the 13th of November. This is another session you should probably view yourself, as there is a lot of good content in it, but there was huge surprise and concern about the fact that the combined Leader/CEX role was still in the frame and was not a bizarre joke from Eric Pickles, which is what we all thought at the LGA annual conference. By combining these roles we leave ourselves extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of politicians without the checks and balances that someone with an event horizon of beyond the next election can bring. Hmmm……worrying…..
Thursday morning had the interesting combination of David Behan, Director General of Social Care, Department of Health, talking about NHS reform and then Greg Clark, Minister for Localism, talking about…well…Localism. Both gave thoughtful and impressive presentations (I am particularly reassured by the idea of David Behan running something) and it is very clear that the localism agenda is evolved and is being taken seriously, centrally. The PCTs will go and ‘Health and Well Being’ boards will be in place, at the latest, by April 2013. I’m still, personally, rather sceptical about the GP consortia, as Doctors are not known for their business acumen – but on the rest of the plans there is clearly a lot of sense in combining local health and prevention issues around the people who can most affect the environment people live in, rather than making it the purview of the people who need to fix stuff afterwards.
Greg Clark, Minister for Localism, talked about Localism, Decentralisation and everyone’s favourite the Big Society and he did so with great conviction. I would recommend you view the webcast on this one as well, as you will see that this was not the usual ministerial talk and more of a cosy fireside chat with friends. The content echoes the localism bill content, but you can see the details of the presentation on the webcast so I will not try and recap in detail. In terms of the tone though – he came across as thoughtful, committed and sincere about the idea that we need to devolve power to Local Government – and this chimes with his background. He says he will be reporting directly to the PM on progress around this agenda and so the big question is whether this commitment survives the spending cuts and on whether his colleagues on other departments are as committed to this level of change. That aside there is no doubt that these two presentations spoke to the hearts as well as minds of the audience and that if even part of this agenda comes off it will be excellent news for Councils – assuming that the money follows the power, of course – and this is an excellent thing for anyone who, as I do, believes that decision making needs to be devolved to the community level with an overarching democratic process to link these communities together.

And yes – once again its all about me…

But these events are really defined by your own perspective and obviously I attend with a strong interest in the implications of technological and social change with a desire to see public services respond to these changes. However, Local Government is facing huge challenges at the moment and I, therefore, vacillate between wanting to grab people by the lapels and shake them until they see the importance of this agenda and feeling that it’s OK for this to move at the usual pace of government.

The truth will no doubt be somewhere in the middle…

At some point I tweeted the fact that I don’t believe it’s acceptable for senior local government people not to know what a hashtag is. I was robustly refuted by someone (ironically on Twitter) who felt that technological knowledge is not a pre-requisite for leadership. Of course, in one sense they are right: we want the CEX steering the ship not servicing the engines – but in another sense this is very wrong. Our traditional structures are under increasing pressure from social change epitomised by tools like twitter and, though these changes will undoubtedly manifest more slowly than network society evangelists such as me would like, they are certainly coming faster than government’s usual pace of adaptation. Do CEX’s need to know what a hashtag is? Probably not. But they do need to know it’s important that someone in the senior team knows and in the same way that I make sure I have a really excellent accountant in my management team to compensate for my weaknesses in that area I hope they are making sure that someone who understands these new technologies and the social pressures that they can bring is close by.

So…CityCamp London…..where to start??

Firstly with a huge thank you and congratulations to Dominic Campbell and I suspect, more quietly, Carrie Bishop and the rest of the team who ran an amazing event with enthusiasm, generosity and intelligence – and I didn’t even manage to make the last day. FutureGov, I am not a fan girl type but I am now officially a fan.

Its easy to get very jaundiced about these kind of gatherings and the fact that I have been to a lot of conferences over the last few weeks makes me all the more inclined to view to whole thing rather cynically (yes – this will be a huge surprise to anyone who knows me) but I have to say that Friday afternoon, and to a far far greater extent the Saturday, really blew me away. Why? Good question. Firstly – the quality of the speakers was excellent but more importantly the quality of the attendees was fantastic and the format gave us chance to explore each others expertise. Even within the more traditionally arranged Friday session there was more time for Q&A than is usually managed. I have never been so spoilt for choice in terms of interesting and engaged people who could hold a real debate about democratic, social and technological change. I certainly didn’t agree with them all but the discussion was great. Part of this is the acknowledgement by choice of format that there were at least as many experts in the crowd as with the organisers and that the real benefits are in learning from each other – yup anyone would this was a little like co-production…… Not a surprise for the unconference crew but I think this was done unusually well.

I’m off to the SOLACE annual conference this week and I cannot help but contrast the way that will work with the way in which CityCamp is arranged. SOLACE will have some good speakers but it will be in a traditional chalk and talk format and will not challenge the audience to participate. Its a small thing in the face the kind of changes we want in government but perhaps we should have a goal to expose senior decision makers to these new ways of engaging so that they can see how productive it can be – less threatening and more enlightening perhaps than forcing them all to crowdsource their budget from the getgo…

It also struck me that though London is a great starting point the CityCamp format could really flourish for a smaller city where the issues are perhaps more contained. CityCamp Brighton anyone? #ccbtn

And one last thing before some actual content – I am one of the people who constantly highlight the lack of gender balance at events and I think CityCamp did much better than most – but still not good enough if I think about the line up on the Friday. I’m not even all that militant about this stuff – but its starting to irritate me and I find it hard to understand why this is even an issue any more.  I know that FutureGov in particular are gender blind and not consciously making wrong choices – but why is that women just don’t end up more prominent when you are talking keynotes and main sessions? Its not because there aren’t enough of us doing interesting stuff – and I normally get sympathetic nodding when I point out what is to me the glaringly absence so I can only conclude that we are not as successful at the self publicity that puts people in the frame with the agenda writers (not something I feel I have a personal issue with (!!) and have often concluded that the fact that I am running a company makes me less agenda acceptable – though I could of course just be dull – anyway). So – have made a resolution to start raising the issue as soon as I see the line up rather than moaning about it at the event and you can feel free to suggest women who could be put forward – and here is the start of a twitter list as well. BTW – its obviously an even bigger issue for anyone from an ethnic minority or even disabled group – I just choose to make a fuss about the lack of women and leave it to others to raise other issues.

But now for some actual content

But on to some real content. From the Friday session I enjoyed hearing from John Tolva again, was delighted by the the Lambeth Youth Mayor folks and particularly enjoyed Nathalie McDermott talking about accessibility in a fresh way. I was deeply deeply irritated by the very designy type chap from Berg as to be honest and had to go off twitter and DM my concerns with the much more even tempered @DaveBriggs (thanks Dave). I just have no tolerance for this blue skies stuff where I don’t see it backed up with action. Crazy ideas are easy – radical action is not and there is not enough of it. The political panel was interesting – but fell into the category of people trying to do the same thing better rather than changing the game – more on that later.

Democracy ought to be better

I ran a session on Local Democracy in the morning – this was a Democratic Society thing and aimed at talking through the issues of change that local politics are feeling acutely with the additional complexities of the London political system thrown in. I tried to outline the scope of the session with these points:

  • Democracy in London is unusually complex – the interplay between GLA, Mayor, Boroughs as well as informal groups and the fact that as the capital London gets more than its fair share of media attention
  • There is a huge pressure on democratic structures from the network society and the fact that people are willing and able to participate informally – and London is also ahead of the curve in terms of technology adoption
  • Most representatives have neither the skills nor the inclination to engage with the public in the way that the public is increasing engaging with each other – collaboratively, productively and socially

Of course I was just as eloquent when presenting to the session….

I also used the contentious phrase “democracy is not broken – its just at risk of becoming irrelevant” which drew some debate – lots of people feeling that democracy is indeed broken. I still stand by my view – lots of people feel that they are unlistened to or unaccounted for but in fact most people just don’t think about it as actually the current system works well in the day to day for them. That is not to say that it doesn’t need a radical shake up – it does – but I say this more from the point of view of anticipating the nature and rate of change that will be forced on it by social change and wanting to pre-empt that in a positive way. Even with our current and growing democratic deficit we are still so much better off than so many other places – which is why I want to evolve and adapt our system rather than calling it broken and writing it off.

However – debate was lively and though we didn’t always agree we did I think tease out some specific issues – all in my own words so anyone who attended feel free to correct:

  • With a couple of exceptions we were a white middle class Guardian reading crowd and Joe Simpson (from the Leadership Centre – sorry I kept calling you grumpy Joe) did rather forcefully point out that this hardly gave us a mandate to speak for ‘the people’. No-one could disagree with this point but the push back was the feeling that we all believed it was important and that the new approaches we were discussing would help address this issue
  • We did not speak about technology – and this is important – we more focused on how new ways of working offer up meaningful opportunities to try different models and decision making and representation
  • This kind of debate always leads to a discussion as to whether a representative model is the right one and this was no exception. I am not sure that we reached a consensus apart from saying that we all felt that representation needs to change and allow experts and activists in specific areas to be more directly involved and that democratic forms need to adjust to accommodate this
  • When talking about representatives we (rather jargonistically) talked about the need for active listening from politicians – how do help them listen to a wider group of people but also acknowledge and communicate the fact that they have heard back to the citizens.
  • We also talked about the value of effective face to face meetings and the need to build more of these into the process (very DemSoc this is so I was pleased it found its way in without me saying it)
  • And finally – we all agreed that we need to find ways of getting homogenous communities to speak to people outside of their group – and the get people talking at the decision making unit level where they can start to trade off their own compromises. In social capital we need to think how to create bridging capital as people tend to be better at creating bonding capital themselves

I think the clearest consensus was that this is not a question of using new tools to improve existing structures – we all felt that democratic process needs to change and develop to respond to a very different social environment and if we really all believe that then we need to start lobbying for it at a local as well as national level. Lets at least have the debate please.

So – apart from being enjoyable was this any use? Not sure – I think we could bring out a few principles that we could a wider debate about but its too wide a subject to have an impact in an hour. In terms of what I took away I would say:

  • We need to start the conversation around local democratic reform – need to think about how to do this
  • Representatives need tools to help them listen and react and these need to use new technologies if they are going to be effective
  • There is a danger in supporting hyperlocal growth online if we don’t also think of ways to connect these communities into a bigger democratic whole
  • Bringing people together physically can be the most effective way of moving debate forward

I would be very interested to hear views from other participants as to whether they agree with this summary. Also will be reflecting on my facilitation style as I was told (by different people) that it was the least democratic event they have been to and the best facilitated – really not sure what to do with that though I still stand by my respect for an orderly queuing system for these things!!!

And some great conversations

The lovely thing about this format is you get to meet so many interesting people – had a really good debate with Chris Taggert of Openly Local about how we can push our work @ Public-i in a more open direction without losing site of the fact that we need to pace any changes at an acceptable speed for our clients. I have been struggling with the fact that I believe that systems should be as open as possible but that I also believe this is a choice the client should make (or be lead to!) rather than making it for them. The conversation really helped me with my thinking and we have a few immediate things we can start working on – we will be picking this up properly over at the Public-i blog soon.

I also met the man behind Tweet a London Cab – Richard Cudlip – and was fascinated to hear about what he is doing – definitely one to watch.

I also really enjoyed finally meeting the Lauren aka RedJotter who is behind MyPolice and catching up with Nick Keane to talk Police matters….its always interesting to think of this stuff from a policing perspective as they are a group of people with a genuine dilemma in terms of how they retain authority in an increasingly networked world.

I had some many other excellent conversations but will leave those for follow up and personal thanks to people.  Next post will be a change of pace – either the much awaited return to thesis writing a section on co-production or a rather less cheery summing up from the Solace conference – lets wait and see!

Given that I am on the way to the opening sessions of the much anticipated CityCamp London this is a sprint roundup on PDF Europe first – all the conference details are here so that I can get on and enjoy the next event.

Europetitions – yes its petitions – for Europe

One of the reasons I went to the conference was to run a panel on the Europetitions Service (www.europetition.eu) so I feel obliged to get a plug in here for that – and if you are really interested you can view the slides.  Europetitions has a few ambitions:

  • Making it easy to connect petitions from different member states to join up and petition the European Parliament
  • Combining this with petitioning at a local level so that the citizen has access to multiple tiers of government from the same place
  • Provide a good democratic experience to anyone signing or creating a petition

One of the excellent things about EU funded projects is the emphasis on proper evaluation and we will be publishing formal results of what has been a very successful project at the end of the year.

I participated via twitter in a debate about the ECI which is fairly related to the Europetitions work – would recommend you read about this here – and this helped me articulate a bit further how I feel about the ECI:  its potentially a very powerful democratic instrument but if we want to unleash it we need to make it happen ourselves as there is no-one in Brussels who seems to be getting on with it properly at present.

Meeting some unusual suspects

But the other reason I went (apart from the natural lure of Barcelona which is just lovely) was as a chance to meet a completely different network of people interested in civic uses of technology and the PDF folks certainly delivered on that as it was a completely different perspective on the space we work in – turns out this was both a good and a bad thing….star turns first:

I have to insist that you all read this fantastic post (which he based his session on) from John Tolva who works on data modelling and decision making for smart cities – a proper thoughtful and sophisticated look at how we can effectively use data to help make decisions.  Stand out quote for me is “Data alone is not sufficient for problem-solving, but an involved community informed with data just might be. “ though who could not love “Cities have always been proto-internets of connection and communication.”.

I also enjoyed a short piece from Jenni Wolfson – MD of http://witness.org/ – which gave a really nuances view of how user generated content and sharing needs to be considered in the context of human rights – lots to learn here.

And I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Jimmy Leach Head of Digital Engagement, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK – speak as it was an opportunity to hear about social media being used as part of a properly integrated strategy with humour and authenticity – really great.

I can’t improve on a comment from @allisonhornery “Absolutely transfixed by Marko Rakar from Croatia at #pdfeu – humble, humourous and a genuine agent of change”.  Marko is a democracy campaigner in his native Croatia and has an amazing biography.  For all of us worried about democracy in the UK we should put it into context as his first and major issue was the fact that his country has more voters than citizens.

Democracy ought to be better

I also always enjoy hearing Paul Johnston from Cisco speak as he is another thoughtful, balanced presenter who spent some time pointing out that we really need to look at changing our policy making processes if we want to avoid the poor civil servants being overwhelmed with a mass of poorly though out ideas.  I rather agree that it might be useful to spend more time on this part of the process rather than the constant focus on getting more ideas in the first place.  Its not usually ideas which are lacking – its thought out, thorough and achievable ideas and this is what a proper deliberative policy making process should bring.

This thought about building policy was balanced by an engaging presentation by Jeremy Heimans of http://www.purpose.com/ who has been part of the creation of a number of campaigning movements.  I have some concerns with the fragmentary nature of a purely campaigning rather than community response to engagement but Jeremy’s work is clearly effective and usually well targeted – the question for me is how we establish a relationship between this and democratic deliberation and decision making.

Which is why I also enjoyed spending time with Anthony from The Democratic Society (quite apart from his expertise on good eating places in Barcelona).  I am a governor of DemSoc because I think there is a need to spend more time focusing on how social change effects democracy – will blog properly about this soon.

Open data – and then stand well back

Open data was another big theme for me – its a good topic for an international conference as its so clearly a global issue if you extend and look at in terms of needed a fundamentally free internet in order to really deliver free data. When you spend any time thinking about this stuff it becomes so clear that you really can’t base your data or your democracy on commercially closed systems like facebook and twitter and that democracy demands openness.  However – open data needs to show actual benefits to become part of the culture of government – and while we rely on volunteers to do this its a big ask to get real sustainable benefits from open data and so we need to think about how we support it.  At the same time we need to demand that politicians are ready to take consequences as well as benefits of technology and openness after election promises fade away and its there own data that we are talking about.

Some of the speakers in this area included an excellent Evgeny Morozov who delightfully and acerbically pointed out that Open data should start with laws – and that it’s a little more substantial than 140 character populism.  Jérémie Zimmermann was excellent on the reasons why we need an open internet – it was good to see reasoned arguemnet and passion rather than just a demand for stuff to be free.

Håkon Wium Lie – Chief Technology Officer, Opera Software, Norway – was another highlight.  As someone who worked on the internal working of the web from the start his view on the design priotiries around openness and the implications of making it happen showed how deeply embedded the idea of openness is into the web.  We need to take advantage of this now rather than working to design it out.

Facebook and World Peace

Now – anyone who has spoken to me since the conference will know exactly how amused I was by the presentation from Facebook on the subject or world peace and the idea that because people are ‘friending’ each other over cultural and conflict barriers we might be able to achieve world peace in 5 years…..and I have deliberately put this comment after the open data section just to add a little frisson of extra irony here.  Clearly – the stats and the ideas here were shaky at best and dangerous at worst and the perky ‘awesomeness’ of it made me feel extra English throughout the experience.  I thought the moderator made a good stab at gently pointing out that these people might be using ‘friend’ and ‘like’ because those are the only options and the Facebook rep did agree that more work could be done on the terms.  However – couple of actual points here:

  • Facebook is of a scale and impact now that we ought to be legislating for its data to be open in the same way as government is being pushed to be open – and we also need to enforce some privacy rules at the same time.  Good luck with that
  • Its great that the team at Facebook want to do projects on this scale but I would like some reassurance that they are talking to external experts rather than rather arrogantly relying on their internal expertise.  If they are the 3rd largest country then they need to start sending out diplomatic missions

All rather alarming to be honest.


In conclusion – really good conference and I will be keen to go again.  However, I have just highlighted from the programme and overall there was a preponderance of youngish blokes with GREAT ideas and I would like to see more balance in terms of gender and also in terms of depth of practitioner experience.  Too many platforms and not enough impact analysis.  The organisers took this feedback very gracefully of course and I will make an effort to suggest more names for next year.

One of the reasons for saying this is that it is not the tools that matter – it’s the communities around them and the speed that they can form that make the difference.  I want to see communities and impacts at the heart of this conversation rather than the technology that can make it happen.

Right – signing off and now concentrating on CityCamp – bring it on!

This post is focused on exploring the differences between civic and democratic behaviours and was drawn into focus by some really interesting conversations I have had this week while doing a short but perfectly formed trip to Yorkshire for various projects.

One of the major elements of the model which I am trying to develop is the drawing of a distinction between formal and informal modes of behaviour. This is something that I am drawing from Social Capital nomenclature (Wallace, 2007, “Patterns of Formal and Informal Social Capital in Europe”). However I am then making the further distinction to say that informal behaviours can be characterised as social or civic and that formal behaviours can be civic or democratic. I have defined civic as follows:

“Civic activities can be defined 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.”

However this is old news and you can read the proper post on this here.

But my conversations this week have really made me think about the distinction that I have been making between civic and democratic behaviours really fails to take into account politics – the idea that you might have an overarching ideology which informs some of your choices and your context – and that this means it fails to really deal with the role of the elected representatives. The role of the representative is often the elephant in the room when you talk of changing the way we interact with the public and I realised that I have been dodging the issue as well.

When I first started to develop my model I used the term “Formal Consultation” rather than “Formal Civic” because I wanted to draw a distinction between what I saw as two separate interactions between Councils and Citizens – information gathering in the form of consultations and the decisions in the form of democratic process. However I moved away from this for two reasons:

  • I am describing the ‘bottom’ up activity of the public acting upon the decision making process – one way of looking at this is describing it as the pressure that informal civic behaviour puts on current formal processes. Formal consultation is initiated and driven from the formal body running the process not from the citizens and I wanted to reflect this ‘citizen pressure’ in the model
  • Consultation is not the only formal way for the public to get a hearing from the council outside of the formal democratic decision making process so my description was limited

This latter observation means that I need to spend some time looking at those formal routes into councils and I will write this up here when I have it.

When I talk about consultation I’m not talking about some of the ‘place-shaping’ market research type data that we need to get back from our communities in order to understand them on a macro level (though I think we could probably do this an awful lot better than we do right now this is a different post of even research project!). I’m talking of the wider scale consultations on particular policy areas or particular plans which often amount to showing the public a range of bounded choices rather than offering them – or even a thinly veiled communication exercise that attempts to herd public opinion is a specific direction.

I use this analogy a lot – so apologies – but consultation is so often about asking people if they want apples or oranges and never gives voice to the people who really fancy a banana (or – as someone pointed out last time I used this an egg sandwich – showing that I was already limiting people to fruit choices in my own thinking!!!)

Part of the reason for me evolving my thinking about this is the reading and learning I am doing around data collection and social research methods – its making me focus more academically and as a result look far more vigorously at some these processes when I come across them. Good research will do its very best to make sure that the context of the researcher has no place in the data collection – and this I think is the issue here.

By the time we get to the point of running a consultation the context is already set and we are not explaining this to the public – they don’t understand the policy cycle and as a result grow frustrated when they can’t affect the context. The issue is that the context is partly political and because we have tried to sanitise the consultation process from all political opinions we are not able to be honest with the public.

There are many good or at least understandable reasons as to why we have ended up here but I do think it would be an awful lot healthier – and a lot more open – if we were to put the issue of politics front and centre in the discussion and stop thinking that deliberations around decision making can be ideology free.

Of course the other issue is just the policy making cycle – at the moment we put deliberation in the mix before we carry out consultation – ie we consult of a fixed set of plans – but I think this needs to be turned around. For me decision making has four stages:

  1. Set the agenda – what’s the decision about?
  2. Set the context – What do we need to take into account when making the decision?
  3. Deliberate the options – How do we weigh off our options within this context
  4. Make the decision – How do we make a decision that takes into account the context, the options and the opinions of the people who will be effected.

I also believe that you need to view this as an iterative loop or spiral which allows you to check the agenda and context have not shifted during the deliberative process. This owes a lot to Rapid Application Development (RAD) or Rapid Prototyping methodologies which I think suit out network society. I was also very fond on the Boehm Spiral but that’s another post altogether.

So my formal civic behaviour is defined as the point at which civic society tells the state something by using an agreed channel. In terms of my decision making process this is really points 1 and 2. This means that Formal Civic behaviour relates to agenda and context setting and that Formal democratic behaviour is about deliberation and actual decision making processes.

This idea of “civic society telling the state” is an important point for me as there is a lot of discussion at the moment about how we could use semantic analysis or even sentiment analysis tools to feed into the decision making process and I think this is flawed. The public sphere needs to be healthy and vibrant – but there also needs to be a point at which it is fed into government in order to instigate action and this should be a conscious decision from the community – otherwise we are just imposing process on them again and the public are not taking responsibility for their inputs. The other flaw in the idea of passively harvesting public opinion is the fact that once again we are keeping the public out of the actual decision making process.

Deliberation is going to be political – its carried out in the main part by the politicians and they all have (or should have!) an ideological position on the issue at hand. We have created many barriers between the political and representative roles of the politicians in order to stop abuses of power – but which are being eroded by a more informationally demanding public and the authenticity and accountability that an online life affords people. These barriers inhibit local politicians embracing new channels such as social media. We have to accept the fact that our representatives have political views and that we either have to trust them to represent the people who do not share their views or we need to make the whole process more participatory and more open. We haven’t managed the first approach – we don’t trust them – so lets try and the second and create new standards that will allow us to deal with abuse.

The issue for me with consultation is that the deliberation will have already started and so the context is largely fixed in place but not necessarily communicated as consultation processes are not currently allowed to be political. To some extent this is inevitable – there is no such thing as a clean slate – but if we are looking to reform the relationship with the public and respond to the pressure that the informal civic space is putting on the formal sphere then we need to explore ways to include the ideological facts in the context setting process so that these can be understood by the public – after all they did cast the votes that put those ideologies there.

But the big question for me, for two reasons, is how we can involve the public in the deliberative process:

  • We already have representative who are there to represent the public in that process and involving the public risks undermining this
  • Most deliberation is, by my observation, largely informal or carried out in closed (for public participation) meetings such as cabinet

On the first point – I think there is strong evidence in terms of demonstrable democratic deficit that says that in many ways our politicians, especially at a local level, have a technical mandate through the voting process but no ‘real’ mandate because of low levels of voter turnout – Part of the thesis writing will be to evidence and back this belief up in more detail but it tends to get a big nod when you discuss it with practitioners. I believe that this disconnection means that we need to find a new ways to mediate this relationship. And yes – I believe that a lot of this new mediation will need to be online for many reasons.

Now for the PHD I’m not even going to start looking at how to change this – I’m going to stay focused on building civic spaces and looking at processes which could involve representatives – its someone else’s problem to see what we can do to ensure that representatives have the skills to participate.

However its an urgent problem because – lets face it – on many levels isn’t consultation as we use it now really about officers wanting or needing to bypass the representative in order to find out what people actually want? Or about members wanting the right questions asked to give them the answers they want (how often are survey questions vetted by members who know nothing about formal data collection and introduce inherent bias?) And is that not the reason that it is so often so limited?

We talk about lack of trust in the representatives from the public – surely its understandable that the officers often share that lack of trust? After all they are the public as well! There are some brilliant councillors out there – both online and offline – but there are few that are able to form an effective working relationship with officers and too few officers who have the skills to help them do this. But until we acknowledge the elephant in the room and start to innovate with members rather than in parallel with them then we are not going to be able to effect radical change to the way in which we work. But we cannot make any changes without treating elected representatives as politicians and accepting this as part of their decision making context and stop being afraid of it.

Because the hard fact is that decisions are taken by members and that consultation processes should exist in order to inform those decisions – and yet they don’t.

We can use and will use technology to improve the consultation process and to build in more transparency and openness but unless we also find ways to let the public set the agenda and the context, and unless we embrace the fact that decision making in a democratic process is political then we are really talking about sticking plasters and triage rather than the more radical surgery that will be needed in order to really change the relationship between the citizen and state and to create new ways of making decisions.

New governance models do not have to mean a plebiscite democracy – there is no evidence that the public want to be involved in every decision and no process that could make this an informed process. But if we are going to reinvent our representative process to take into account social change, characterised by the network society, then we need find a way to be more honest about the role of representatives and let politicians be politicians.

This post is an attempt to come up with a robust definition of what we mean when we use the term hyperlocal – I realise that other people may have different definitions so would appreciate comments on this.

When I try and describe my research area I tend to say that I am looking at both describing and then measuring informal civic behaviours within hyperlocal communities and then more specifically looking at what the online civic spaces will look like if we want to connect them to formal democratic processes. Assuming the poor soul hasn’t shuffled off towards the buffet table in the hopes of never meeting me again I then tend to get one of three types of reaction (I don’t count the ones who just think I’m mad for trying to do a PHD….):

  1. I don’t really use this social networking stuff (i.e. I am secretly hoping it will all go away)
  2. Surely not enough communities are online to make this viable – and anyway – we already have a representative democracy
  3. Why do we need the formal democratic processes when shiny new online ones will do this all much better

I think all three of these reactions deserve a proper response but that’s not what this post is about. Its about the fourth type of reaction – the academic reaction – which is basically a huge shout to Frame The Question. What do I mean by hyperlocal? What do I mean by informal civic behaviour and am I sure I have a good definition of formal democratic process? I have looked at these last two in a previous post so now on to try and describe hyperlocal….

Now – anyone who is using this term on a regular basis may find this a little tedious – but tight definitions is what the academic stuff is about – without those you can’t form the watertight questions that you need before you can even start to get some answers….and anyway I did marry a pedant.

Practitioner uses of the term hyperlocal

Hyperlocal is passing into practitioner use in the UK fairly seamlessly with groups such as Talk about Local, Podnosh and Networked Neighbourhoods using it to describe grassroot communities which organise online while being focused on a defined geographically area. The key points are community and the link to an actual place as well as the underlying sense of civic purpose. The ‘hyper’ in the local comes from the fact that these communities tend to be formed around areas which are considerably smaller than any democratic decision making unit – the exception being the parish level. There is no technological commonality across these sites. They use different tools and different platforms and vary between bulletin boards, to blogs to sites using more social tools. There are even people who are still hand coding their HTML and loving it. The unifying themes are location and the idea of civic purpose and community.

The excellent Openly Local site is starting to give you an overview of the hyperlocal activity which is springing up – as well as having the really useful ambition to pull together Local Government data as it is made open – worth keeping an eye on this one if you don’t already know about it has they are doing great stuff.

If we take practitioner to mean ‘people who make hyperlocal the focus of their work’ we are currently talking about 3 main groups of people.

  • Talk about Local describe their mission as “…..a project to give people in their communities a powerful online voice.  We want to help people communicate and campaign more effectively to influence events in the places in which they live, work or play. “
  • The folks at Networked Neighbourhoods talk about their visions as being “……to foster digital society at the local level to increase neighbourhood social capital, grow democratic engagement and build the capacity of communities to work as more active agents in partnership with local councils.”
  • The Podnosh team want to “….change the way the public and the public sector talk to each other.” and they do this with a programme of social media surgeries which you can can find out more about here.

Notice the difference between “influencing events” , “active agents in partnerships” and “change the way that public and private sector talk to each other” – these phrases show a different stance on the same activity.  I am not attempting to describe these differences as I don’t think there is enough separation to give this much meaning at this stage – though it will be an interesting thing to keep an eye on.  Whatever the vision as to why they are doing it what we do have is a growing number of people that believe it is a very good thing to give communities the tools they need to use new technologies to help themselves – and I must say that I am one of them. While I am actively not commenting on the Big Society concept (where to start!) it seems obvious to me that any attempt to strengthen local community civic engagement must to some extent make use of these new technologies – if nothing else in order to provide an infrastructure that the state can meaningfully interact with. But that is definitely different post altogether.

Before moving on – its worth noting that this usage of hyperlocal is specific to the UK – in the US hyperlocal refers to media coverage (as you can see from the wikipedia definition) which is perhaps a reflection of the very different media situations in the two countries. I have not looked into other usages but will be checking out Sweden and Spain at least and will update accordingly when I have done so.

But is there any research?

I have been hunting and the only substantive research project I can find around hyperlocal communities in the UK is the London’s Digital Neighbourhood’s study which is being run by Networked Neighbourhoods and funded by London Council’s (I’m on the steering group for it so that I can torment them with annoying questions). This is really a pilot study but is already starting to show some interesting results. I will post more when they publish findings but you can keep an eye on it from their website here.

Apart from the ‘teach a man to fish’ approaches that are described above there are a couple of other organised projects that I know of:

  • The study from De Montfort called “Amplified Leicester”which has now turned into a community website. This project is rather different and took a deeper look at what technology could do for a community rather than looking at ways in which the community uses technology to organise itself.
  • The work that the folks at Cambridgeshire County Council have been doing with the Fenland Social Media project which provides a different approach altogether which you can read about through Michelle Ide Smith‘s research.

Apart from these the focus has been on communities of interest or practice, perhaps based around specific groups like this one around virtual worlds which is closer in nature to some of Danah Boyd‘s work.  If anyone knows of other more relevant research then I would be very grateful to be pointed at it at this point….

Putting the local into Hyperlocal

But this all gives us a working practitioner definition of hyperlocal – I have described what it does rather than what it is. To do that we need to look a little deeper. Firstly lets deal with the hyper bit. To me this is really all in the usage in this context – its about drilling down below the local into the smallest area we can describe. It has a pleasingly techno feel as a word and I really think that’s about it though the sense of hyper as referring to many dimensions is also relevant when we get on to a more detailed description of place. However the relative newness of the term means that there is not a lot of complexity to its application and the real issue is in how we describe the term ‘local’.

But before talking about local I think I need to back track slightly and point out that one of my original starting points for the research was around the idea of online community. Online communities have been an area of interest of mine for around 15 years and I would still cite books like Howard Rheingold‘s “The Virtual Community:  Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier” as being seminal in describing the reality and impact of those social spaces for people who did not necessarily ever meet each other in person. This work has developed into communities of practice or communities of interest and is still enormously relevant. Look at the ways that online communities are formed to support suffers of a particular condition or to connect carers together in ways that would have been impractical before. Look at the success and reach of Mumsnet.

However hyperlocal communities are different – they come together with a shared purpose initially rather than shared values (Castells) and are firmly rooted in the idea of place. It is the reality of space and the fact that is has this messy unbounded quality that means that these hyperlocal communities need to be considered as different to the often more cerebral online communities of interest.

Its impossible to talk about what local means without coming up with some thoughts about place and space. Local is as much a state of mind and of narrative as it a geographical descriptor. But before local come the ideas of space and place.

Space and Place

I have been reading the amazing “For Space” by Doreen Massey which is a meditation on the nature of space and what it means to define a specific place within it.

“In a context of a world which is, indeed, increasingly interconnected the notion of place (usually evoked as ‘local place’) has come to have totemic resonance.” (P.5).

The effect of modernity (as discussed by Giddens) means that space can no longer be the preserve of geographers and spatial descriptions of place – we need to also include temporal and narrative descriptions as well. As Massey says

“Multiplicity is fundamental….Space is more than distance. It is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities. Given that, the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by ‘the communications revolution’ and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations.” (P.91).

You see – I said that vaguely sci-fi ‘hyper’ reference would make sense at some point.

“Space and place emerge through active material practices. Moreover, this movement of yours in not just spatial, it is also temporal.” (Massey).

Place is defined by the narrative of the space that is described over time – in Massey’s words ‘place’ is a ‘space’ which has been given meaning. This is easier to absorb if you accept that space, and therefore space, cannot be considered to be bounded – once you accept that the story and the relationship within a place are as essential to it as the geographical location then you can see that no place exists in isolation and we can absorb a much more holistic view of what a place actually is. This is going to make place based budgeting all the more difficult but makes a lot more sense than a visualisation of the world which is divided into neat little adjacent chunks.

What’s more, the relationships and social morays of a community also become embedded in the description of a place, along with the history and temporal narrative and the coevalness of these elements is what Massey talks of when she describes what place means.

What about local? How do we describe a local place? In the absence of any meaningful bounding of space Massey really leaves the definition of local to the people who describe it. Therefore the distinction between place and local place is in the narrative of the people who consider themselves to be local to that place.

Hyperlocal, with the unspoken assumption that there is an online element contains the possibility of people ‘opting in’ to a shared description of local which has hitherto eluded us. This makes it both an opportunity to define community at the same time as a potential battleground for different communities over the same geographical space – what do we do if two communities cite their locality claims over the space area? Its when we reach these kinds of questions that my interest in connecting these informal civic communities to the formal democratic processes becomes acute – our democratic process exists in order to manage and reconcile this kind of conflict.

This description of place as a multiplicity which intrinsically involves its participants and can co-exist with its virtual self is very different from the way in which the fairly sterile way in which many writers have described the overlay of technology over the way in which we live. It may be the more recent impacts of more social technologies or it may be the fact that so many network society thinkers are rather infected with an age of enlightenment view of the world as an inherently rational place but I find Massey’s writing far more compelling than the way in which William Mitchell, for example talking about a future of closed and gated communities facilitated by online networks or Negroponte’s techno-utopian views of a world where we have sanitised so many of our interactions through technological mediation.

Localism has to some extent started to gain ground back from the globalism which has overwhelmed us for some time with the dazzling prospect of seamless connection with any point of the globe at the same time as social relationships are regaining stature against a more commoditised set of relationships that we see when we look at the history of the dot.com boom and web 1.0.

I have for some time been trying to finish “The Production of Space” by Henri Lefebvre which is a different attempt to reconcile ideas of mental and physical space and having read the Massey I am going to take another stab at it. I believe the difference between the two approaches to essential the same issue is around the viserality that Massey is able to bring with her geographical background rather than Lefebvre’s more abstract approach. However they both address the philosophical question of the nature of space which needs to be talked about before you can drill down into ‘lace’ and then further to the idea of ‘local’.

What does this all mean then?

We have no idea at present whether the current growth of hyperlocal communities is a short term effect or something that will last into the long term. However the current political climate and the need for greater self-sufficiency from communities along with the compatibility of this kind of behaviour with internet culture means that it is sensible to speculate ongoing growth of hyperlocal communities could mean. We need to consider governance models, plans for sustainability, we need to think about policing these communities and we need to do all of this against a backdrop of the constant knowledge that state intervention in these social constructs may well do more harm than good.

In deepening our understanding of this phenomena it is therefore important to note that the term hyperlocal then has a richer meaning that the practitioner use might initially give it. It refers to Massey’s multiplicity with the narrative of place and the intrinsic involvement of the community relationships which it holds. However its unbounded nature, in common with any space, brings with it conflicts of competing interests and competing definitions of local that will at some point need to be reconciled if we are to be able to managed to co-existence of many hyperlocal communities living alongside each other.

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