Web 2.0 musings


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.

Conclusion

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!

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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.

You have all been too polite to ask but some of you may have been wondering what has been happening with the Virtual Town Hall project that kicked all of this off. This post is intended to explain where are with the project and why things have been rather quiet.

We have been making some progress behind the scenes but things have been delayed for two main reasons:

  • My new job has taken a lot of my focus and I have just not been paying enough attention to the project. As a result things have been drifting for the last 6 months to a great extent. Clearly project management is not just about checklists – its also to a large extent about energy and direction and I have just not had any to spare while we made some fairly big changes in the business. I am always one for biting off slightly more than I can chew and I feel very fortunate that the pilot sites have been understanding of this and still have the interest and energy themselves to take this forward.  Needless to say part of my update process has been to apologise to some people for these delays…they have so far been very gracious
  • We put the technology in the field a bit too early. The initial sites were ok but no-one felt happy enough with them to make a big fuss about the launch. This was really down to UI issues as well as some functionality changes that were obvious once we saw things on the real world

So where does this leave us? Happily – in a much better place. The technology is now in really good shape and we have made a lot of progress – from that point of view the delay has been beneficial. In terms of the pilot sites themselves – I am in the process of visiting them in order to get the project refocused and ready to really go live this time. This week I have spent time with North Lincolnshire, Kirklees and Chorley and in all of those sites I think we have a plan to go forward which I think in all cases is stronger than the original proposition because it is more focused. I will blog separately about what the focus of each site will be but key differences from the initial plans are:

  • A decision to focus on a specific topic or area (be it topical of geographic). We were casting the net very wide in most cases and that lack of focus only added to our indecision in terms of actually getting things working
  • A reduced reliance on the idea of community ambassadors. We still feel that they have an important role to play but we are intending to get the sites up and running without relying on the recruitment and participation of these individuals – instead we will look for them as part of the ongoing sustainability of the process
  • The context of the work has changed hugely since we started in terms of the financial climate and as a result we will be putting a much greater emphasis on two areas:
  • Identifying the costs involved in the process that we are running
  • Identifying areas where our new activities can substitute for more expensive offline activities

In talking to the pilots sites I am very aware of how difficult a time it is to work in local government and I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who prepared to try something new rather than sitting back and waiting to see what happens. I think however that we all agree that someone needs to actually explore and measure what Carl (@gr8governance) calls “Decision making 2.0” and to really evaluate some of the stuff that a lot of people are speculating about with respect to the opportunities that social media and the online world provides to change the way we work with citizens.

So – things are getting back on track with the Virtual Town Hall and I should be able to outline more information on the specific foci for each of the sites in the very near future.

On a slightly different topic – I was at a meeting the other day when I was accused of looking down on some of the ideas that were being suggested as if they came straight out of The Sun newspaper. After I’d re-schooled my face into something a little more meeting friendly I could see what they meant – it seems I don’t have the right expression for ‘I’m thinking about something else’ and had accidentally used my ‘you are talking rubbish’ expression – needless to say I did apologise. However the reason I had mentally moved on to think about something else because in my view it may be interesting but I don’t think that Council’s should be trying to start projects which are best led by the community. However much we want these projects to happen to try and create them for the community is the same attitude of the paternalism which has got us to the point where we have more consumers of services rather than active citizens.

To be clear – this is not to say that community projects are not hugely important and should be supported whenever feasible – more that I don’t think that Council can or should be trying to create them because Council’s don’t do this kind of thing as well as the community can do it themselves. We need to be supporting and empowering local communities and then leaving them to get on with stuff themselves. Harsh but fair.

In the meantime I believe that Local Authorities need to address some of the bigger problems in terms of how we manage decision making across the whole unit – not just at the community level because we apportion resources and make decisions on this basis. I am relieved to think that there are people looking at the really important hyperlocal level around limited and discrete issues because it needs doing and the community needs to step up to the challenge – but my attention is focused on how we bring these small communities together and help them negotiate with each other for limited resources – because this wider negotiation is the issue that local government is really wrestling with.  This is the point of the Virtual Town Hall project and I am looking forward to getting on and making some more progress.

I was lucky enough to speak at the National Police Web Managers Conference on Friday (slides below). It’s interesting to talk about digital engagement in a different public sector context and the Police are especially interesting because of the challenge that they face in trying to combine operational needs with engagement work. My view is that this really all comes down to good community policing – but with a need to realise that online communities are real and need policing too.

Its about how you start to create a sense of Police indentity online and start to use it both to Police and to engage. One of the best examples I have seen of this is hotelalpha9 on Twitter because he has created a very real online persona that is still very much a Police Officer – but there are of course loads of other good examples emerging. One of the ones from the conference was Sussex Police’s use of twitter during a recent rally in Brighton – hopefully those slides will also be shared. Anyway – I’m speaking at the ACPO conference next week and will post a longer piece after that as my head is very much in the area of thinking about online from a multi-agency perspective. Its odd to realise how vested in Local Government I have got and useful to think about these things in a different way.

One thing that is still very strong common theme for me is the need to start building this civic infrastructure online – like the community police officer – as our online lives become more significant. As I said at the event – the important thing to remember about these virtual spaces is that they are actually very real.

Unfortunately I had to leave without seeing a lot of the presentations – but as with all of the Police stuff I have been doing recently its interesting to see the difference that the absence of elected representatives (at the moment) makes to the engagement process.

I spent most of last week in Leeds at the LGComms conference and just wanted to capture a few thoughts about this.  I also did a lot of tweeting from the conference as I decided to do that as a way of taking my own notes and that worked very well for me – will be doing it again.  Also enjoyed the feedback from the folks who were not at the conference!

Not surprisingly the conference mood was very focused on the recent cost cutting announcements and the knowledge that the next few years will be very tough for the Public Sector – and even more so for Communications which is not a front line service and can expect to be looked at very vigorously.  There was some interesting content around some of the larger public health and safety campaigns which obviously save money in terms of behavior change – but on a slower timescale than is needed to justify the expenditure in the short term – and also on the reputation campaign as a way of valuing communication activity.  However even with these more positive stories the mood was definitely focused on how to save costs.

If you are interested then I have written up the sessions that I attended: (more…)

This post is a bit of a wander about a few topics so bear with me – it should all come together. The first thing was a reaction around the spending cuts and Queens speech from this week. It’s clearly the thin end of the wedge and anyone who works with the Public Sector needs to make sure that they are truly adding value to their clients or they have no business being here – it’s tough enough already (and we are all taxpayers – let’s not waste our money here). I’ve spent the week at the LGComms conference (more on that anon) and it was clear from that that we are all expecting serious cost cutting over the next 2 years.

However – there are huge opportunities in a situation like this to truly innovate and to attack some of the barriers to change which are more understandable when you have more choices – fewer choices means you need to confront the sensible but difficult – or even inspired – ideas.  We are now living in the world of the improbable – because not providing public services really is the impossible.

I know that I am an evangelist for online – but on every level I cannot see how the Public Sector can respond to these budget pressures without really embracing digital communications and engagement and changing the mix. This really means starting to use offline as the add on for hard to reach groups rather than the default channel. And this is without having to make the point that social web engagement also brings big democratic renewal opportunities – something that is needed as much as the cost savings if you are going to take the public with you when you have to cut services.

It is obvious that on a transaction by transaction basis that moving interactions online will save resources around the citizen relationship in the same way that it has saved money around the transactional customer relationship (SOCITIM have done the work on this but I need to dig out the specific research). But there is an inherent contradiction with engagement work in that more engagement means more interactions – which is more expensive – ie you can’t afford to be too successful – or risk cancelling out your initial savings. What this does is to rule out the ‘lazy’ business case which says we have spent less for the same effect – We have spent the same amount the money to achieve more transactions – but at this point the rules for engagement are different to those for transactions and we have to show the benefit of this volume increase – and that’s the point at which the standard business case model breaks up and we need to look at something more sophisticated. Anthony from the Democratic Society has done some work with us (Public-i) on this and written a rather excellent white paper that starts to explore the wider cost case for better engagement and I think this needs to be built on.
The economic case for making more and better use of digital channels may not yet be canon but it is there to a great enough extent that we need to look for other reasons as to why people are not making this shift in droves.

Dave Briggs pointed me at this article on these barriers which suggests a number of headings for these barriers:

  • Access
  • Equipment
  • Staff and Skills
  • Structures
  • Policy
  • Strategy
  • Vision, Leadership and Management

These are a useful start but the detail on the original article shows this as really coming at this question from the point of view of individuals trying to lobby their organization – which is important – but I am more interested in thinking about the institutional barriers. So here is my take on this (in brief as each of these points is probably a post in its own right):

Firstly, some of the simple barriers that really fall under the aegis of work as we know it:

  • Ignorance / training / skills: This can be seen either in officers, management or Members – and really needs a programme to start addressing it now as we upskill the sector to deal with digitial.
  • Legal confusion: there are lots of issues around using technology around democracy – as well as various data protection confusions – that can just be ironed out and the knowledge shared with other organizations.

And then some of the more difficult ones – these will need some structural change or some external reference:

  • Lack of a business case: the business case process has been embedded within procurement but in a way that makes it very difficult to innovate – it really relies on you not doing something for the first time. We need a way to support sensible tested innovation outside of this process.
  • Turf war and structures: In the same way as the web site was wrestled from IT teams by Communication folks we just don’t yet know where digital engagement will sit as there is a legitimate case in both communications and in engagement teams – and a sense of our ownership from the policy and democratic services folks as well. I would ask the question “Who owns the relationship with the citizen?” and then try and structure from there.
  • No process for experiential learning: this really links to the first point in this section but if given the fact that this is an emergent area of technology as well as shift in democratic and social exchange we really are all learning on the job and need to come up with some way of doing this sensibly that ensures that we capture and share this learning as we go along.

And then the really difficult things which rely on someone really grasping the nettle

  • Lack of leadership and no ability to see the bigger picture: Even with the huge pressures that are on the budget we need leaders who are actively shaping the future rather than merely cutting back the past – where is the new growth and how do we nurture it. We also need leaders that understand these new technologies – so if you do nothing else make sure your manager is briefed.
  • Culture: embedded fear of failure or even fear of change – a management culture that doesn’t support innovation. This is another huge one and something that NESTA have an interesting programme on for instance. But without finding ways to support innovation we will find all our responses to impending cuts will be very negative – and we will not find the opportunity within these difficult choices
  • Inability to reconcile participative and representative democratic models – and no way to involve members. Once we start talking about the relationship with the citizen then we are talking about democracy – and this means that we need to think about the impacts and benefits for the democratic system. And I do mean we – the democratic half life of politicians makes it very difficult for them to embrace process change which means the Public Sector needs to be the custodian of this.

So what can you do? The first group of issues you can just work your way through – the second you can figure out if enough people want to solve the problem. But this last set is really about leadership and innovation which is far more difficult. Our Public Sector culture is, not surprisingly, very risk averse. But as the economic climate puts more and more pressure on public services I hope that one of the outcomes is a positive one. I hope that leaders, both politicians and officers – find an opportunity to innovate and turn this into an opportunity.

It’s hard – being good at something is difficult enough – and there are plenty of challenges – but if we aren’t helping the public sector to be excellent then we are just not helping at all.

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