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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is an outline of one of the policy question that we are discussing that the Master of Networks event (in Venice!!) next week. While not a proper paper as its an academic audience you may find this slightly more referenced than usual…its really lazy referencing with just signposts to literature rather than a proper review.

Master of Networks is “…. is a workshop that brings together cutting-edge policy makers and network scientists. We aim to come up with a specification in terms of networks of some public policy problems, and a viable strategy to address them in new ways.” The Policy question I’ve raised and will be putting to the group along with Ade Adewunmi  and Demsoc is:

WT3: Tracking a democratic conversation across different online media. How would you go about mapping democratic participation in a diverse media landscape?

What’s the problem?

My interest in this question is tracked here on the blog and is closely related to by PhD work (we’ll be using a subset of my research data) and is fueled by the question: “How can we connect the informal civic participation that we see online to the formal decision making process?”.

The contrast in behaviours in the Formal and Informal arenas is stark; Beyond the consistent growth in digital take up we see great growth in the use of digital technologies for civic purposes (Bruns, Wilson, & Saunders, 2008; Radcliffe, 2012; Wellman, 2001) in the context of a more Participatory Culture (Jenkins, 2008; Rheingold & Weeks, 2012). At the same time we are also seeing a concerning drop in participation in democratic participation (Brodie, Cowling, Nissen, Paine, & Warburton, 2009). In the UK this was illustrated with disastrously low levels of voter turnout in the recent policy and crime commissioner elections.

What’s the solution?

One possible route for addressing this dilemma is for the political decision making process to take on more of the cultural qualities and design affordances of the Social Web. I have suggested elsewhere that these should be; Openness, Agility, Co-production and Networked. If we are moving towards a “networked society” (Boyd, 2010; Castells, 2001, 2007; Hampton & Wellman, 2001) then what should our decision making processes look like?

With respect to the Policy Making process I am arguing that one vital way to bring the affordances of the Social Web into the design process is to provide greater levels of openness to the public both contributing to the policy agenda setting process but also making more timely contributions throughout the process (these contributions on the Open Policy Making blog make these points very well; the doctor is out , go where your audience is ) If we accept a description of Social Media as being a ‘Networked Public’ (Boyd, 2010) then understanding the networks that make up the informal civic conversation around either a topic or a geography is vital to ensure this more open contribution.  I also suggest we will also need to understand what are the limitations (if any) of commercial platforms which are currently available to us – do we need to consciously create digital civic space ((Blumler & Coleman, 2001; Cornwall, 2004; Howe, 2009; Parkinson, 2012)?

And the Policy Making question?

However – in order to make this manageable for a two day workshop I am posing only one other question: Simply tracking the conversation is important and informative but it is probably not enough – What is the standard of evidence that we need to meet in order to include content from the social web as part of the policy making process? And what standard is possible from the tools available?

And the data

The data set I have put forward to work on contains over 1000 informal civic websites (from 5 difference location). These represent a good (though not definitive) sample of the kind of informal conversations and networks that we might want to include in an open policy making process. The task is how might we turn these sites into networked data and how we might then understand who is participating. This is clearly a question that I have been working on for a while (civic spaces) but it is also something we have been working on in R&D commercially (Citizenscape Public beta). What we have not done is to consider what the Policy making needs are from these networked publics – we have focused more on finding and presenting them in a shared civic space.

What next

Is anyone has any questions about this then please shout – if not then I will post again with some outcomes from the event.

Bibliograph for those who like that kind of thing

Blumler, J., & Coleman, S. (2001). Realising Democracy Online : A Civic Commons in Cyberspace.

Boyd, D. (2010). Social Network Sites as Networked Publics : Affordances , Dynamics , and Implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 1–18).

Brodie, E., Cowling, E., Nissen, N., Paine, A. E., & Warburton, D. (2009). Understanding participation : A literature review, (December).

Bruns, A., Wilson, J., & Saunders, B. (2008). Building Spaces for Hyperlocal Citizen Journalism. AoIR 2008 conference.

Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies) (p. 304). OUP Oxford. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Internet-Galaxy-Reflections-Clarendon-Management/dp/0199241538

Castells, M. (2007). Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society. International Journal of Communication, 1(238-266).

Cornwall, A. (2004). Introduction: New Democratic Spaces? The Politics and Dynamics of Institutionalised Participation. IDS Bulletin, 35(2), 1–10. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2004.tb00115.x

Hampton, K., & Wellman, B. (2001). Behavioral Scientist Long Distance Community in the Network Society : Contact and Support Beyond Netville. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(476), 476–495. doi:10.1177/00027640121957303

Howe, C. (2009). Building the Virtual Town Hall: Civic Architecture for Cyberspace. 3rd Conference on Electronic Democracy EDEM.

Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Convergence-Culture-Where-Collide-ebook/dp/B002GEKJ5E

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Democracy-Public-Space-Performance-ebook/dp/B007JRS72A

Radcliffe, D. (2012). Here and Now.

Rheingold, H., & Weeks, A. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (p. 272). MIT Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Net-Smart-How-Thrive-Online/dp/0262017458

Wellman, B. (2001). Physical Place and Cyberplace: The Rise of Personalized Networking. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25(2), 227–252. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00309

So – this is going to be a fairly quick one (for me) but here are some links and thoughts from a brilliant day yesterday at Councillor Camp.  Firstly – a massive well done to the FutureGov team and in particular Jon Foster for a really well run event with great speakers (hopefully the presentations will be found on the #cllrcamp hashtag) – and more than that fantastic participants.  8 hours in the company of a diverse group of politicians all of whom ‘get’ the need for Local Government and Local Politics to really start to use digital properly is an energising thing.  FutureGov create and curate this kind of thing brilliantly and I am very grateful that they do as I think its vital that we gather like minded people together to move the debate along.

I just wanted to capture my three points from the session at the end as my learning from the event and also to follow up on promises I made to provide links to various things.  The learning points / observations for me are:

  • Skills:  We do not have enough of the relevant skills to make the behavioural as well as channel shift to digital either within the member population or the officer population.  We either need to start widening our recruitment or thinking very hard about the kind of offer we are making to people – and perhaps both.
  • Training and Support:  We need to kick it up a gear.  Half hearted sessions on how to use Twitter are not enough – we need to completely overhaul member support
  • We cannot just create a fantastic collaborative and vibrant online conversation with the public in the way that many of the active Councillors were demonstrating and not think seriously about how we change the process of policy and decision making.  We need democratic service redesign.
  • We will not be able to really use social media as a democratic tool without breaking it out of the contextual confinement of being treated simply as another communication channel

Yes – there is a great start but there is a long way to go to turn our democratic use of social media from early adopter to mainstream status.

One final thought:  I had a really interesting debate with an extremely eloquent and experienced Councillor who felt strongly that it was wrong to set an expectation that all Members should be active online.  I thought about it on the way home and I think I have to (respectfully) disagree.  I believe we have to clearly set an expectation for members and officers that they will be fluent in not only the technology but the underlying culture of the online world because increasingly this reflects the offline world.  We will not get there immediately but I don’t think that should stop us setting the standard.  I’d be interested to hear whether or not people agree with me on this.

And now – here are various links to resources from the sessions I suggested (I have not put anything up from the webcasting one but most of the examples I mentioned can be tracked down on the Public-i Website)

Evidence!

First up was a session on the evidence behind the digital channel shift.  Most of this can be found referenced from this page I put together in 2011 – it needs updating (in particular with last years Hansard audit) but it has links to all the main stuff.  The Oxford Internet Institute report is talked about here and the digital inclusion data (including links to the Helsper stuff which is hugely helpful) is all here.

I wrote a paper for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners which brings some of this together and might also be of interest as it talks about designing a democratic office for the 21st Century as well as connecting Internet use with demographics (Digital Democracy).

Digital Civic Spaces

This whole blog is really all about these so feel free to poke around but the 5 criteria are below:

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

I found the session really interesting and the two things which I took away to properly think about were:

  • The importance of having a clear view of the governance arrangements for the space and the role of the Members in the process
  • The need to re-engineer decision making processes to accommodate this more agile and fluid civic debate or public sphere (the point about creating opportunities for the public to set the agenda was part of this

I’m going to (hopefully!) do a session on this at #ukgc13 next week so will blog more on this then

Supporting Councillors

Great discussion about how to support councillors better and there was a general receptiveness to the idea that we need to have better quality information and analysis about social media available as well as a more sophitsicated discussion about digital footprints and identity.  A few resources were mentioned which are here:

 

Please shout if I promised you information and haven’t delivered!!

 

 

 

I usually spend the first week of the New Year hibernating and this year was no different.  I like to spend the time at home doing various forms of domestic organisation and getting projects started and ready for the year.  This year I have been spending most of the time of the edits of the final version of my thesis as I seem to be nearly ready to submit it (whoop!) which I can hardly believe.  In fact I won’t until it’s done so no more of that.

As part of my mental spring cleaning I have been thinking about some of the things I want to help make happen this year and this sort of leads into thoughts about UKGovCamp  and also Councillor Camp  – both of which I’m looking forward to being in the next few weeks.  It also feeds into the prep for the Master of Networks event   I’m off to with @Demsoc and some folks from GDS later in the month.

There are four main themes that are buzzing around in my head at the moment:

  • Collaborating as the new normal – not just when its easy:  I touched on this with the post I wrote before Christmas (Networks and Culture Change) but I want to spend some energy thinking about how both internal and external collaboration can work better.  Part of this is the old chestnut of breaking down silos – but I think we need to understand this in terms of dismantling and amending mental models and changing people’s relationships with their colleagues – not just blowing up the storm shelter.  We also need to think of this in terms of mutual respect.  If we are moving to an asset based model for community engagement then we need to do the same with colleagues and respect what people do know rather than criticising them from the POV of our own expertise – we need to be open.  Is also involves having the ability to be both single minded at the same time as being authentically open and inclusive.  Tricky.
  • Being clear that we do expect our politicians to be effective online:  I also want to spend time developing the work we are doing in the east of England researching what a networked councillor might look like and how we can better support them.  It ties in with the councillor camp event next week but also with the work we have been doing on PCCs (I’m off to catch up with some of the new PCCs in the next couple of months so I will report back!).  I think we have to be more demanding of our democratic relationships but that means supporting them more effectively.
  • Using networks to effect behaviour change:  I am fascinated by the work we are doing with Leicestershire Police and others to look at how we move social media from a communication to a more operational basis within the force and I can’t wait to get into some of the ideas that we came up with the workshop before Christmas and also to see how these might translate for other parts of government.  Once you have started to use network effects then looking at their ability to influence behaviour is the next step as long as we remember that that influence has to be two way – we have to be open to being influenced.
  • Digital as culture change: These all link to a bigger theme which is the framing of the digital channel shift as a cultural rather than simply a technological one.  We’ve just started a couple of projects which I think get right to the heart of this so more on that later this month.

Digital Civic Spaces

I’m really excited about the fact that we have been making huge progress with Citizenscape over the last few months and we have some exciting things planned to push this further.  I also want to circulate my research findings around Digital Civic Spaces a bit more (now they are finished!) and start to connect this to some of the conversations we see happening about Smart Cities – I want to make sure we are building a social element into this thinking.  And more generally research wise – once I actually push the submit button and start stressing about my viva – I want to look at two different areas.  One is to pick up on some of the thinking about digital identity and to poke how ‘fit for purpose’ some of the thinking/doing is when we consider democratic not just transactional needs.  Happily we are part of an EU research project on this so lots of opportunity to get into this.  Secondly I want to expand some of the network theory work I have started in the thesis and see if it can be operationalised more systematically   This connects both to the @Leicspolice work but also to the Master of Networks event where we are going to be looking at how you model content ingress from multiple civic sources.
So – interested in hearing if other people think these themes resonate with them as well – and also if anyone thinks these look like a #ukgov13 session – or not!

Happy New Year folks

PS  Re-reading this is seems like a set of New Year’s Resolutions – we’ll have to see how that goes!

This is a really quick post to share the background stats and my presentation from CityCamp Brighton yesterday.  The day focused on the massive issue of Digital Inclusion and what the CityCamp network can do to help play a part in reducing it.  Lots of ideas and pledges came through and I can’t wait to see the next stage of this when we work through them – see you all at the next third thursday meet-up.  Good to see the issues of how to connect older people to social networks in parallel with discussions about wider engagement and a more esoteric debate about the future of local media and democracy – lots to talk about.

However debate goes better with facts so here are  just four links to provide the start of the evidence base:

If you really like this stuff then I have more data on the Fact Glorious Facts page.  Please get in touch if you have any questions.

I sometimes wonder where digital evangelism stops and a moral imperative to help people get connected online starts and I think this is an open question.  However the evidence is very clearly there to show that everyone should have an equal opportunity to join the network society – whether or not they decide to continue to participate in it.

Open Spaces South West

This is a short write up from #OpenSSW event last week. I will be using the famous @danslee 10 points format but first here is a link to the presentation I would have given if I could have made the tech work.

Instead I just talked and though the main points were covered apologies if this doesn’t seem to have much resemblance to what I actually said!! What I wanted to get over was the sense that we are living through a period of social change and that though we need to be mindful of the technology its equally important that we learn to appreciate the emergent social values and behaviours and learn to adjust to them. I chose to focus of the quality of openness which I think is central to the digital culture and tried to explore this in terms of open practice and behaviours not just about data and information. I also touched on my personal passion for digital civic spaces and ran a session on this afterwards – will blog that separately.

I also went on a fair amount about what disintermediation might mean for democracy – more on that here.

I hugely enjoyed the event and I think one of the things I noticed was the fact that though we were talking about general issues there was a #properjob West Country feel to the event. I think this is down to our host @carlhaggerty which did a brilliant job. It was also helped by the finest public sector sandwich lunch I have ever had – it even had tiny tiny scones with clotted cream #legend.

Anyway…my 10 points to remember are:

1. I really enjoyed meeting @Georgejulian and I took loads away from her work on connecting research and practice – can’t wait to talk more to her on all this
2. I love the way that Carrie Bishop’s mind works – she bring s fresh and human perspective to the potential of technology to solve problems for real people and I always learn something
3. The ShapedbyUs work in Cornwall presented by @designcomedy is fascinating and shows massive potential for whole system innovation – well worth checking out
4. @Carlhaggerty ‘s session on isolation within organisations was really interesting – I think we can all ask if we are giving people the opportunity to connect to the people who can help/challenge/support them
5. Part of this is helping people find their point of entry to this whole agenda and by implication into this social change. We are past the point were we can be exclusive about it and we have to find simple ways to help people find their equilibrium with a rapidly changing world
6. The issue of how we create Civic Space online is interesting to people who aren’t me! phew
7. Politicians are in very different places with respect to how we might create a more digital democracy – we cannot afford not to have them in the debate.
8. We are in a state and process of cultural change where we have to learn to learn – digtial culture is still really malleable and we perhaps have to think about how we help shape it
9. On that note – do we talk enough about our values? We won’t build trust unless we do and we won’t create places we will want to inhabit online without understanding how we feel
10. Are we able to create networks? Do we have the skills and the self-efficacy to think about power in terms of influence and relevance rather than hierarchy?
One final thought – when we helped Carl cook up this event the idea was that we wanted to offer an unconference to people as a mainstream event. To blend speakers who would get you thinking with the chance for the participants to create part of the agenda. I think from the buzz in the room that this blended approach went down well and also managed to appeal to people at different stages of immersion in this new way of working. I’d be interested to hear what other people thought of this but personally I think the format is really worth repeating.

By co-incidence we did something similar yesterday with a CityCamp Brighton event on digital inclusion which I know @demsoc is going to write up but once again the flexible one day format worked well so one to consider if you are planning an event.

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

Civic architecture diagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is partially a write up of the identity session I curated at #UKGovCamp and partially a framing piece to help take forwards our discussions about how we handle the question of identity within the We Live Here Project and Citizenscape development more generally.

Huge thanks to everyone who participated in the session. The UKGovCamp covered a lot of ground and was fascinating for me – not the least because it challenged one of my working assumptions which had been that the closer we get to actual decision making the more likely it is that we need to know – authoritatively – who is participating. The discussion focused on a discussion of identity in the context of deliberative processes rather than more transactional processes such as voting or ePetitions and really looked at the importance of quality as a measure over quantity. I must note however that I am not making an attempt to define what ‘quality’ means in this context – that is for another day!

Before we talk about democratic debate there are some practical considerations with respect to online debate or community of any kind that we need to surface. The first point is that identity nearly always improves the quality of the debate – you get more considered views when there is some kind of social capital or standing involved in how these views will be received and people undoubtedly behave differently when they are anonymous. At the same time this has to be balanced with the fact that registration / identity creation is a barrier to participation and so you may get fewer people involved. Put crudely it’s a quality vs quantity question.

These are not ‘democratic’ findings but represent the experience of online community designers and practitioners over time – imagine how much harder this stuff might be when the content focus is democratic.

Identity clearly matters however, given that most people who work around engagement and democracy are concerned about how little people do participate, we have to ask if we are we making things unnecessarily hard for ourselves by saying we need to know who people are.

The immediate anxiety about not wanting to create barriers aside, when we consider democratic values rather than the practical problem of how to make it most likely that people will participate there is a need to distinguish between bystanders, stakeholders and citizens at some point because some decisions are made at the ballot box where authenticated identity is an intrinsic element of the experience. The question under debate is what that point is. The UKGC12 discussion explored whether or not we should be interested in the validity of the individual or the quality of the debate – which is more significant? These are not mutually exclusive objectives but as we are designing the user experience there is a need to understand their relative merits and importance.

One of the points that emerged was the importance of making a distinction between a discussion and a deliberative discussion – the latter have greater requirement for understanding of identity that the former. I think it’s interesting to ponder as to how often people know which of these they are participating in.

Identity as social
We discussed whether or not you could examine social and informational signals from content in order to create a level of confidence around the fact that you have the ‘right’ people in the discussion. The general consensus was that this was possible – if you participate in these kinds of discussions in physical meeting then you do develop a sense as to whether or not people are genuinely stakeholders and citizens.

This becomes a very different set of skills online and this fact, combined with the fact that it easier to collect identity information online that in a physical meeting (who brings their gas bill to the village hall??) and the fact that the practical barriers to participation are lower (you don’t need a babysitter and can ‘attend’ from a great distance) means that we perhaps put higher priority and focus on digital identity management compared to the way in which we consider this in offline processes.

One question that designers of these online spaces need to consider is the level of online social sophistication that we assume of our users. Appropriate behaviour for one group may be outlandish to others.  Commercial platforms have the luxury of focusing on the early adopters which is not always open to civic platforms.

In some ways deliberation works better offline than online – the sense of coming together to focus on a debate is easier to achieve in a physical space. Offline debates – formal and informal – are happening all the time even if they are not accessible to a wider audience. However, many people find the meeting setting intimidating and it’s a format which favours experience and confidence. Offline debates break down more barriers that just those of time and place.

I think there is an additional consideration with respect to local democratic participation which is the fact that it is far more difficult to keep your online and offline personas separate when compared to participation at a national level – and this means that most people will be ‘known’ within the debate. The result of this might be that in the medium we term we do need to be more stringent about identity because not doing so would create a lot more distrust in the system with absence of identity being the exception and in no way a norm.

I the many
Identity is more complex online, particularly when it collides with your offline existence. We deliberatively manage multiple, sometimes contradictory, personas and the social norms are shifting with respect to separation between our public and private selves. However with respect to debate this is not a question isolated to the individual. Where we are asking people to participate we also need to understand what the individual needs to know about other participants in order to be comfortable and able to participate.

Discussion is a social experience not a transactional one and that means we need a degree of reciprocity and social sharing to support it. Online we perhaps need to think more actively about the architecture and experience we build in order to support ‘quality’ discussions. With respect to identity, we may not need to know who the person is but we probably do need to know that they really are a persona and also that they have a legitimate voice in the discussion.

To a great extent this debate is happening around government – Google and Facebook are facing off with respect to becoming your primary online identity and so at present we are drifting towards using the dominant model by default rather than actually thinking about the specific needs of democratic discussion and connection.

Who needs to know?
It’s the changing nature of participation and the potential for mass participation which means we need to be more robust about identity that we are in the offline world. In unpicking this subject it is clear that different actors have different needs with respect to identity. As an individual I need to have control over my identity, as a participant I need to feel confident that the other participants are authentic, as an officer I need to be confident that I am seeing an accurate evidence base, but as a politician actually all I need is to feel that my opinion is being usefully informed.

Tom Steinburg nicely described identity with respect to three tiers of authentication; totally invalidated, slightly validated with claims, completely validated. At present we manage no more that the second tier within government (though interestingly there are South American projects which got 3rd tier authentication active in a democratic context).

Officers have the concern about creating an evidence base and for some the debate about identity is actually about asking whether or not it is possible to create a robust set of observations that cannot be rejected by politicians. Officers who are more familiar with the social web might be more comfortable with the second tier of authentication however with respect to deliberation Government perhaps has a greater need for identity management than politicians do.

Conclusion and on-going questions
The final analysis focused on the priority actually being the creation of the opportunity for good quality debate – not just a numbers focus of getting ‘more participation’. In doing this it was actually felt that information makes a bigger impact than identity – both in terms of legitimising an individual’s contribution but also with respect to the overall quality.

My research centres around civic space online and I am still of the view that a digital civic space needs some particular qualities:

  • 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 – 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

The session at UKGC12 added some nuance to this in terms of the exact nature of identity and has made me reflect more seriously about the information we glean from social signalling online in these shared spaces.

With respect to Citizenscape and the We Live Here sites however we are left with some choices still to make. As we start to establish these civic spaces they are not intended to be destinations for the community conversation – instead they are intended to network the networks and provide a window onto the whole community conversation which means that participants better connected. The distinction between discussion and deliberation is important as we would expect some kind of deliberation to take place in the shared space where supporting discussion would perhaps take place in the supporting network spaces. This leaves us with some dilemmas:

  • We are not trying to create social networks in the sense of Facebook – but we do want to create a social experience.
  • We want to capture identity for deliberative debate but we don’t want this to be a barrier to participation
  • Do we want to facilitate people contributing anonymously at any stage or do we always want to design for tier two with some level of confidence that we know who people are?

We will take these questions forward and start to discuss them with participants over the next few weeks – no doubt I will have more to say about it then!

Thanks again to the #ukgc12 folks

This is by way of a short Action Research reflection so if you are not interested in that kind of thing then move along! Next post will be the write-up of the Agile session at #UKGC12 and much more practical I promise.

I have been mulling on the tension between co-production and Action Research and the need to separate one’s desire to keep the experiment intact at the same time as being open to other people’s views both with respect to the process but also the content within the process.

Action Research is about designing an experiment or project with sound reasoning as to why you think this is the best way to develop knowledge and improve practice – and then seeing if it does. In the case of ‘We Live Here’ for example we have designed an experiment which maps online and offline networks and then gathered them into a single online space which will be discussed with those networks in an open public meeting. The hypothesis that we are testing is that better networked communities are better able, and more likely, to participate in local decision making. This experiment was designed we a certain set of assumptions that we should probably state more overtly namely:

  1. Good decision making and effective democracy needs to be underpinned by civic conversation and the opportunity for deliberation and debate outside of the decision making process. The absence of this ‘public sphere’ is one of the things that has weakened democratic engagement over time
  2. That one of the reasons that people don’t participate in decision making – or deliberation — is that the process is unwieldy and inappropriate for their needs and needs redesigning to be relevant for modern life.
  3. That there are people that have other, deeper reasons for not participating but that we are not looking to deal with more complex issues of access within this project – our focus is creating an environment which is self maintaining and active that we can then help further people participate in over time.
  4. That the project needs to be digital by default but not solely digital.
  5. That networks – and networks of networks – will need different types of support and we can’t make assumptions about what this support might be.

However we also want to work co-productively both within the project team and also with the participants and we are actively looking for positive by-products – for example increased resilience or service access – within the areas that we are running pilots. One of the effects of this is that we have stakeholders (dreadful word) within the project who are not primarily motivated by the initial experiment design and who were not involved in creating it.

For the research to be useful we need to keep the experiment as intact as possible within each iteration at the same time as being open to challenge both on the nature of the underlying principles and also the design of the experiment itself. We also need to keep careful separation from the design of the process from the content and connections that are created within the bounds of the experiment.

This creates a tension – we are trying to keep the experiment intact at the same time as telling people we want to create the outcome with them.

I have been thinking about how to do this – and also how to separate my own twin desires to both defend the underlying context and assumptions (which is a bit defensive of me) at the same time as defending the need to keep the experiment intact (which is the inner researcher speaking).

The Agile project management approach that we are taking is one way of doing this and communicating these three elements to the project team:

1) Context
2) Experiment
3) Content

So I think this means I need to think about more formal project reporting and to start to structure feedback on it so that we can clearly seeing the different questions that we need to consider. I also need to consider how we are going to communicate the action research approach to a wider and not at all research focused audience – or indeed if this is a good idea.

I’ll be speaking to the rest of the project team on this and might be back with an update.