I have been dithering about this post and this issue for a while now but thanks to a brilliantly interesting meeting with the team at the South Yorkshire Joint Secretariat (thank you folks) and also a couple of conversations with other Police Authority clients its time to get something out in the world I think.

In November 2012 we will be electing 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) who will be the custodian of strategic direction and scrutiny for our Police Forces. These individuals will, with a reasonable voter turnout, have a larger direct mandate than any other elected individual in the UK with the exception of the Mayor of London. This is an incredible democratic opportunity and I think we need to consider what kind of democratic process we want in place to support them.

I am very uncomfortable with the idea of Elected PCCs but I think at this point we need to look at the possibilities that this opportunity offers to shape the kind of democratic relationship that will work in the 21st Century in a networked society. It’s a chance to design something new which is not shaped by the 19th Century infrastructure which holds back other parts of government.

A new democratic relationship?

Before we describe what it could be a good starting point would be to examine what it shouldn’t be. What stops people participating in democracy at the moment? The evidence suggests 3 things:

  • Time / Convenience / laziness (depending on your point of view)

The process of participation does not fit easily into most of our lives. 14% of us (at best) for example are willing localists who would participate if we had the opportunity (Hansard) and this means designing processes that fit in with contemporary lifestyles if we want to increase participation. These are practical not philosophical issues and can be addressed with better use of technology to make remote participation easy, more agile agenda setting so that you meet to discuss items that genuinely need debate and better facilitation.

  • Lack of interest or even dislike of politics.

The public don’t like politicians and they don’t like politics. They are interested in their local community but as soon as the think the conversation has become political they are turned off. The evidence on this point has been growing and hopefully the Political Parties are ready to listen. It we want elected PCCs to work as part of local politics then they may need to distance themselves from party politics. This means we cannot see these posts as a training ground for future prime ministers and party leaders – we need people who are committed to the local area and want to serve. This is going to be difficult – the party political system is deeply embedded in the way in which we do politics despite the fact that the public and increasingly unlikely to participate.

  • Lack of Self-Efficacy

Many people have little confidence in the system and a lack of belief in their ability to change it. Lack of participation can just mean that you are very happy with the status quo – or it might mean that you are unconvinced you could have an effect. Either way we need to help people understand the purpose and effect of their participation. We know the things that make a difference – transparency, openness and accountability – we have to make sure that they are systematically embedded in this new system which should be open by default and be design.

Taking this into account what would a fit for purpose democratic office look like today?

We know that the public will lose interest as soon as they feel that the posts are being wrestled out between the Political Parties – the public don’t want to be involved in the kind of politics that they associate with Westminster and to a lesser extent Local Government. Let’s not take the problems we have with the current democratic institutions forward to this new office. There is not a lot we can do about this at this point – campaign funding being what it is we are likely to get either party candidates or rich independents – but we can and should be making sure that the public are aware of the opportunity that this new election brings to create a different kind of democratic institution.

Of course we can also take a more positive view and look at what people do like – openness, transparency and a sense of connection with the person who is representing them. There is no evidence that people want direct democracy – there is evidence that they want more direct representation. Stephen Coleman suggests that direct representation would assume a constant dialogue between the public and their representative – not just the binary voting opportunity of the full term election.

So – whats the proposal here?

I have 4 broad principles that I suggest need to be considered here:

  1. The Office of the PCC needs to ‘own’ the democratic process
  2. The PCC should be “open by default and by design”
  3. We should create effective places to curate and listen to the debate
  4. We should ensure access to fast but robust opinion sampling tools which support decisions being information based
More explanation on this below:

The office owns the democracy

At present the nature of the Office supporting the PCC is not clear – different models seem to be emerging in different areas. I would like to suggest one principal for this and that is that the office owns the democracy – not the politician. We want to ensure that the Office of the PCC has a clear and non-political responsibility to ensuring that the Public have the best democratic experience possible when dealing with the PCC. We want to make sure that this new form of democracy is strongly managed and scrutinised. This means the Office needs to have independence in this matter from the Commissioner and have a clear mandate to run the decision-making process.

Be open by default

We want our politicians to be open and transparent – what does this mean practically? Firstly we need to know what they do and who they see, we want to know what they are working on and we want to see the discussions they are having to as great an extent that is possible. We want to be able to connect promises to actions and we want to be able to see the effect that they have. This means that we need to assume that meetings are public meetings unless there is an explicit reason why not. This kind of openness is relatively simple online and there us no reason why it can’t be delivered as part of this role.

Collect the conversation and visibly listen
Effective democracies are supported by active public debate. politicians need to be able to sample and connect to public opinion in order to understand how the public feel about issues. We cannot rely on old media – newspapers – to do this as they are severely depleted at the local level and as know that regional TV coverage is patchy at best. New media can help however – we know that the public are active online and that they are talking about local issues via social media or hyperlocal websites. I am suggesting we need to support the PCC by providing access to this public conversation in a civic space which is both open and transparent in terms of what is being said.

This civic space would enable the representative to listening to priorities and concerns from the public and where necessary ask questions and gain clarification. The public would know where the conversation was happening and would be confident that views aired there would be noted.

The civic space also gives the opportunity for the PCC to interact directly with the public in a coherent way which also doesn’t mean that they need to leave the places they are already using – this is a ‘network of networks’ that connects the relevant sites and content together without having to force people to participate in places they are not using anyway.

Sample opinion quickly and accurately
You can’t make decisions based on this kind of conversational space especially since we can be certain that at least in the short term the participants won’t be representative of whole electorate. Consultation tools can be used to get a representative sample of the views of the public using online and offline methods. This needs to not be cumbersome – this is more like the sampling methods of YouGov and Ipsos Mori than the full blown Place Survey with associated wrangling about questions.

Wrapping up

One of the things that shows the divergence between democratic practice and the network society is the way in which the public react to issues that reach a flashpoint of concern. Any new democratic system needs to be ready for the wildfire effect of online campaigning and be ready to respond swiftly and meaningfully to public concerns. These should surface within the civic space described above but should have an active and positive response from the office of the PCC.

I feel very uneasy with the idea of policing being controlled by a political process. I think an independent police force and judiciary are key elements of a liberal democracy. However, we are where we are as they say and that means that on 15th November 2012 we will be going to the polls to elect 41 Police and Crime Commissioners and on 16th November 2012 they will have control of the strategic direction of 41 Police Forces.

I imagine that in practical terms it will take a little bit longer than that to sort out.

We know how the public behave when they are concerned about something. We know how people campaign today and it is not with leaflets and posters. There is no excuse for creating an Office of the PCC which doesn’t meet the needs of contemporary society and which shapes a new form of democratic relationship.

What this relationship might be is still very open to debate. I have made some suggestions here but as no plan survives contact with the enemy there is a lot of practical thinking and exploration needed to refine how this will work.

We have had some initial conversations with Police Authorities and where some are thinking about this with excitement others are still too immersed in the details of asset transfers and staff structures to consider the democratic implications about this change. We will be spending the new few months trying to encourage Police Authorities to start to consider what kind of relationship and infrastructure will be in place on November 16th 2012. If you want to be involved in this conversation then let me know.

Happy New year! I have been off in a Christmas and PHD (and drink) filled bubble for the last few weeks but as I am back in the office on the 9th I need to catch up on some blogging – which is a welcome change from the tedious but necessary process of brutally editing the thesis. First up is a belated action research post about We Live Here – so Here we go….

Status update
We are still in the process of mapping the communities that we are working with and moving on from the first iteration of network analysis which documented the networks and names known by the immediate project team and engagement officers as well as the first online search. We are now starting to conduct interviews within the communities we want to work with as well as doing walk arounds in order to locate civic space and generally observe what is happening in the areas. These walkabouts should be a good way of finding relevant local businesses and also understanding how ‘public’ the community is with respect to shared space – more on that when I have got my coat on and had a trot about….

The interviews will involve the following steps:
1) Introductions based on the research statement from the last post
2) Semi-structured interview broadly along the same script we used for the first iteration
3) Social network analysis – checking the connections from the first group and then expanding this with new names

Broadly what we expect to happen is that the star burst pattern shown below will become something more like a tangled ball of wool (or not – it could be that no-one is speaking to anyone else who knows!!).

B&R First iteration network map

From our knowledge of the three pilot sites we are speculating that we will have one fairly tight network with outliers and one site with much more diffuse participation. The third pilot site is a community of interest rather than place and the project teams don’t have enough contacts to make the same mapping approach to be viable so the first step with this group will be for me to sit down and do an exploratory interview with a couple of the names who we know are central to the network. We’ll do some online research first so we don’t turn up completely clueless.

I have to say I am looking forward to this next step as it makes it inevitable that we need to step above the parapet and make the project more visible in the City. I have written before about our hesitancy about this and one of the things I want to do is to get comments from the project team as to why they think it is. Its been going on a while now and I want to try and understand if there is an underlying issue that I am not understanding.

Community directories – very much an alpha
In parallel with the mapping work we are starting to develop our thinking as to what the first version of the community sites could look like. We intend these to be a straightforward directory in the first instance which just shows the research results from the area (with all the data protection thinking that this involves) and they will be based on our Citizenscape platform (the nearest example is currently here bit we have got some development work planned in January so expect this to change).

We are in the co-production dilemma here – we don’t want to be prescriptive and close down ideas from the community but we do have a view on them and we also know that if we turn up with a blank piece of paper (or digital equivalent) then we will struggle to get anything ready in a reasonable timescale.

Our approach is therefore going to be to put our suggestion on the table and then get comments and amend accordingly. As we roll this out the next set of sites will be based on the comments of the community that we have worked with in the previous iteration and so over time we should mitigate our influence and get a better balance of ideas in place. I am in two minds about this – in some ways I am with Steve Jobs who used to say that customer often doesn’t know what they want until they see it. On the other hand underlying design assumptions and attitudes infect code and therefore digital spaces (lex informatica) and we need to be careful that these spaces really are owned by the public.

CO-production
I think one of the issues that this internal discussion has highlighted is one of the inherent misunderstanding that people have about co-production. Put simply – it doesn’t mean you can’t, as the instigator of a conversation, have an opinion. The idea that we go values and opinion free to any interaction is one of the misconceptions which has got politicians into such a pickle and destroyed so much trust in the process. OF COURSE WE HAVE AN AGENDA!!! No-one believes we are just turning up for the sake of it – we want something to happen.

More seriously – this is actually more than just a misunderstanding. Firstly – I think that community engagement practitioners are rightly oriented towards getting people’s voice heard not speaking for them. Taking part in the conversation rather than facilitating I think firstly exposes practitioners as overt actors in their own right and this is not necessarily a comfortable place to be.

Secondly it risks reducing the power available to the community – there is only so much conversation time. This is not a new issue – its something that practitioners in the developing world are very familiar with and this where a lot of co-production theory and practice comes from (Gavanta, Cornwall).

The fact that we have an agenda doesn’t mean that the outcome we initially set out is what is going to happen however – we are very committed to the need for communities to shape their own spaces and we are very aware that anything that we create or impose of them will not work (Ref: eParticipation – if we build they really won’t come). This is really where co-production ‘lives’ – where you come with an objective and an suggestion and then enable the participants to take that where they want to go. Further into the project the balance in this should be redressed with conversations being instigated as often by the community as by the project team but this is currently aspirational.

For this to work we need to be very open and transparent with our agenda – which we are calling our Statement of intent. We also need to be very open and accepting of change to this intent both from the results of the actual practical process and also with as we start to get more input from people outside the core team. Our first step towards this happened before Christmas with a meeting of our “Non-Steering Steering Group” who are a varied group of active individuals, practitioners and subject experts from around the City. The most reassuring aspect of the meeting was the fact that everyone was clear about what we are trying to do and broadly in agreement. In terms of adjusting our thinking – the discussion showed a much wider opportunity for using the civic spaces we hope to create for engagement with other governmental organisations (in the first instance the Police and NHS) and we were also steered towards thinking more creatively about how we interact with the business community something which needs to be developed a bit more.

Statement of Intent
This is my first draft of this for discussion with the team – the idea of this is a simple statement of our values and objectives:

  • We Live Here has been created to try and strengthen the democratic process within Brighton and Hove. We want to get more people involved in a way which is meaningful to them and we want to ensure that the elected representatives are going to work effectively with this increased participation.
  • We believe that the first step to doing this is to connect the different networks which are situated within communities together so that they can create an more effective voice for their community. To start this process we are researching what networks already exist within the communities in the City
  • We think that these networks, when connected, create a civic space which should mean that civic society is more visible in our communities. We believe that the governance of the civic space should be in the hands of the participants and not with the Council either with respect to officers or Members.
  • This statement is our initial objective – we believe for this project to work we need to allow communities to shape the objectives for themselves and that we need to create a transparent and accessible process for this to happen.

We’ll be tweaking this a bit / a lot and will publish our first proper draft on the website.

Curation
This question of governance of the Civic Space is something that is currently in ‘the ring of uncertainty’ which is project team speak for something that we hope will be easier to answer the longer we wait. We are clear that these spaces need to be curated and not moderated and we are also clear that this needs to be managed by the communities that they represent (with a small R). However – at this point a deep unease and worry sets in – what does this actually mean? Who are we empowering, how can we stop this going wrong? Should we stop it going wrong or even have an opinion about what wrong means?

At this point we all step back and take a deep breath – this is not as complicated as the worst case scenario analysis would make it look.

My background is with online rather than offline community and I am perhaps on the more robust end of the spectrum on this. I think we need to leave it to communities to figure it out and if their civic spaces become unpleasant places to be then we need to make sure that we have a robust path of appeal and peer group review. Actually – most communities (and in particular online) tend towards the reasonable and self-manage brilliantly but that doesn’t stop the free floating anxiety around the idea that we are going to put people in a bag and suggest they fight it out like ferrets.

What can we do for you
One of the elements we come back to repeatedly is how we reciprocate for effort within the community. We don’t just want to turn up with a list of demands and get people to do stuff – the idea is both that we are helping them to achieve ideas that they already have but also that we are using the energy and interests of the community to fuel the civic spaces. We will of course be funding community meetings and buying tea and buns when necessary but more meaningfully we hope to be able to make connections to other resources in the Council that might not be transparent or accessible to people outside of that environment – we are calling these positive byproducts. One of the aims of the mapping exercise is to start to highlight some of the reciprocal benefits that we can bring to these communities but this highlights a big elephant in the room. Should any of this reciprocity be in the form of funding?

There are some brilliant projects that have been funded by Councils in the past but they won’t all be funded in the future. This is an uncomfortable sentence to write but the reality is that the funding is not there and the current economic and political climate is not going to change within a short enough timescale to save many of them. We risk losing an amazing infrastructure at the same time as we rid ourselves of some dead wood.

The We Live Here project is a response to what we perceive as a new context. This context is not just financial – I think that the social changes that mean that we have more people voting for Big Brother than the General Election (Coleman) are more significant even if they are not as immediate. However it is the financial landscape which is driving immediate change and this is what is at the front of people’s minds. Its a question we should come back to in 5 years time – are we going to see greater levels of innovation and as a result better social outcomes within this new context as a result of the austerity measures or are they going to stifle our ability to act so that innovation becomes destructive and we are forced to change so as to be unrecognisable? Hmmmm……

With respect to the funding / We Live Here issue we have a practical problem as to how we manage the transition and ensure that we help organisations and we also have a philosophical question with respect to what actually should be funded in this new context.

This forces us to consider what we believe the benefits of the project will be – beyond the slightly intangible ambition to strengthen the democratic process which is difficult if not impossible to translate to the balance sheet.

Our working assumption is that more networked and visible communities that are actively self-managing will hold more social capital and as a result be more resilient. Resilience is something that we can put a value to.

This is something we need to establish over the course of the project. In the meantime I expect we will do some tricky financial horsetrading with the organisations that want to work with is – all the time hoping that we are not setting any precedenets that we can’t live with.

Interesting day today spent at a conference in Kent for Elected Members. We spent the day talking about, as the title says, making localism a reality. My slides from my session are below:

As ever my focus was on giving members a reason to go online rather than trying to teach them how to use the tools – once you have achieved the first then the second is fairly straightforward I think.

Couple of things struck me from the conversation that I wanted to note. Firstly, there is a huge amount of energy invested in the current structures and one of the main reasons for getting better community involvement is to provide the new impetus that is needed in order to start dismantling some of these structures. Secondly, if we want localism in a network society to work then we need to stop trying to bend it to find out current democratic processes and structures – we need to observe community where it emerges and then figure out how to make the decision making process democratic. This demands greater agility, responsiveness and a fundamental restructure of our democratic process. Democracy is precocious – precious enough to make it worth reforming rather than letting it become irrelevant.

Thanks to all that listened today – and an extra thanks for not thinking I was going mad with the Star Trek TNG reference – Engage!!!

Just when you thought it was enough trouble to try and get your community to create a hyperlocal website then you realise that you also need to create a process of renewal and regeneration.  This post has followed on from a social media audit we have been doing up in Cumbria which has given me a new aspect of civic space to consider for the thesis.

Cybermoor in  Alston Moor was created as a government-funded initiative to look at the effects of technology within rural communities.  The area was selected as 1 of 7 communities 10 years ago and they received £1.2 million for the pilot project.  Every household within the parish (1200 households, 2,200 population) was offered a free computer and dial-up connection, plus much support/training and extra help for special needs or more isolated individuals, plus upgraded IT equipment in schools.  From the project (called ‘Wired Up Communities’) they formed a community-owned social enterprise co-operative and manage their own Wi-Fi broadband now for the area – currently digging to lay fibre optic.  The website is one of the best examples of online community engagement around with over 500 registered users in a parish approximately 25% of the population (the statistics are available on the website).  The site is now funded through income generated from consultancy projects and is maintained by a part-time web editor and volunteer community web reporters  working to keep the site going.

In many ways this project has been a resounding success and is certainly one of the best examples I have seen of an eParticipation project where a space is funded and built for people to come and use.  However the funding is now drying up and the site owners recognise that they have lost a great deal of contribution since people have moved towards more ‘generic’ social networking tools.  The fact is that if you wanted to create a community website today you probably wouldn’t take this approach in terms of technology or the levels of funding that are available.  That’s not to say that the site isn’t still used and it was again demonstrated as a valuable community hub during the heavy winter of 2010/11 when the Police and others posted messages about road closures and gritting but the organisers know that there is a drift away from the platform and they need to think about how they will retain this valuable community asset.  A very brief conversation with the Council also indicated a shared understanding of the need to move on from this previously successful project.

The site is a cultural artefact of an approach that needs to evolve if the community is going to continue to use the site.  This is a new kind of problem for online engagement practitioners – we’re not used to online archeology.  At the time that this site was created Facebook didn’t exist and the growth of social media and online engagement was really only starting.  This project took the idea that real live communities would benefit from being connected online and created a vibrant community space.  However the technology and behaviours have moved on considerably and the approach that was groundbreaking at the time needs to move on for two reasons;  1) because the funding won’t be there to support this kind of intervention in the future and 2) because as people spend more time online they are less likely to use services and spaces which don’t connect to one of their preexisting online identities.

The question of funding is perhaps the easier of the two issues – if we assume that funding will not be available in the medium to long term then the only real option is to move to the kind of model that is working in other hyperlocal communities and to hand the site and network over to the kind of civic creators who are already creating content and civic webspaces.  In doing this there will probably be less reliability and structure around the service but it will benefit from being part of the wider community of hyperlocal site owners and will then be a native part of the culture of the social web; open, co-productive, playful and participative.  If we are seeing a growth of these behaviours with other civic websites then it is not unreasonable to assume that the team and Cybermoor will be able to ‘mainstream’ their organisations and place it back with the community.  There may be some resistance in the community when compared to projects like this that have never been funded – a sense of something being taken away and it will be interesting to see how the public sector participants within the site adjust to change in the power dynamic that will come with this change in the funding but it is still a viable approach and a reasonable next step.

The question of how you manage technological change within the context of creating persistent online civic space is a difficult one.  While it is clear that online spaces create real networks and connections beyond the technology it is also clear that any shift in the platform will affect behaviours and potentially lose audience and participants.  Anyone who has hosted any kind of interactive and participative environment will know the difficulty in making interface or functional changes without working closely with the users and a major platform shift is difficult to achieve without some degree of member attrition.

The team at Cybermoor are seeing their membership stay the same but the interactions drifting towards the more open social web and they need to find a way to address this – they want to retain the network and participation and reduce their costs at the same time.

The knee jerk response this this issue is to move the whole set of interactions to a free service or space such as Facebook or WordPress – and I give these two radically different options to illustrate that there are a lot of choices to be made before a decision is made.  However any technology driven response will result in the same problem in the future – technology obsolesce – unless you pick a service that you think will be able to evolve as technology changes.  But assuming we want the site to last at least as long as its first iteration could any of use pick a service that will still exist in 10 years time?  I’m not sure I could.  There will be huge changes with respect identity, privacy and persistence over that period that I for one am not ready to bet on.  If nothing else the immediate battle as to which online identity is your gateway to the wider social web is very much open at this point and a good decision about whether to base your identity around twitter, Facebook or even Google+ will save you platform migrations in the future.

Here then are the issues:  without a guaranteed income that allows you to secure hosting you are forced down the free services route but free services almost inevitably charge or go bust at some point – or start to use your data in ways that make it untenable for you to continue to use them (yes – I am talking about Facebook).  The constant evolution of the technology is outside of your control and you will need to constantly adapt to make it work.  I say constantly – you will more likely make small continual compromises until an update comes that tips you over the edge and you get the momentum to move.

Its not reasonable to expect these free services to maintain legacy architecture and so if you want to have control over your web space then you will need to look at a paid for model.  This is difficult when we are talking about civic websites as its not clear who will pay – or indeed who values the service enough to want to pay.

We could look at these civic sites being funded as part of larger community asset programmes – for example where village halls are being run by communities we make the civic webspace part of the business – but this is putting ifs on top of maybes as we don’t yet know how widespread these will be.  We could also look at Parish councils’ or the like being given a small grant to cover this – but thats actually too close to what happens now and doesn’t work – the public want to be free of any kind of council control/interference however well meant.

Alternatively we could just not worry about it – after all nothing lasts forever and perhaps this will be part of the cycle of online renewal that keeps the civic conversation contemporary and lively.  A platform shift is a chance for community renewal and to give different people the opportunity to lead.

The question of renewal, whatever form it takes, is an important one and it grows more acute the more valuable these spaces are to the wider community.  Its an issue that is faced in many volunteering environments and also with respect to political representation.  Many of the people I have interviewed in the course of my research are ready to hand over control at least to some extent but are not sure who will take this up.  The issue is compounded in a digital environment where pressure on skills may force the need for renewal as well.

Within my research I suggest the affordances of a civic webspace should be Publicity,Identity,Agility, Curation, Information and Co-production.  Separately I talk about the qualities of a civic content creator to be Persistence, Identity, responsiveness and constructiveness.  However Alston Moor makes me consider whether or not persistence needs to be attached to the individual or to the website.  What is the best way of supporting the persistence of the civic space in a way that transcends technology and individual participation?

On reflection I believe the answer is a focus on persistence of narrative as something that is distinct from both identity and technology though realised by both.  If the essence of the civic webspace is the ability to find and connect to your community online then its this persistence of narrative which converts the technology and individual contributions in a place online.  I surprise myself by not assuming that persistence is provided by the network itself but this reflects the fact that community is made up of multiple networks and this refresh and replenish themselves constantly – this is a philosophers axe kind of persistence and not adequate for our needs in terms of that constant ability to connect to your community which I have set as a requirement for our civic spaces.

How do you create a persistent narrative?  My conclusion around this is that a persistent civic webspace needs to be created by aggregating all of the voices in an area and then making the network open and transparent – you throw the emphasis onto the actual people and the shared narratives of the place rather than assuming that the civic conversation will be captured on one platform or from one voice.  This serves a democratic requirement for openness and also a practical technology requirement to avoid dependence on one technology.  I think this approach brings the idea of constant renewal with it and hopefully supports the idea that there are multiple voices within the same community – an essential element of democratic decision making.

The pioneers of Cybermoor are going to make choices and capture learning that will be hugely helpful to the current state of the art hyperlocal websites.  They will be addressing the question as to how you change the technology but retain the network and how you create the persistent narrative that means that the civic webspace survives these changes.  I am sure there are other more mature projects that are considering this kind of transition so I’ll now be looking out for other older social spaces to see how they are dealing with this need to refresh the technology and I will also follow up with the folks at Cybermoor to see what their thinking is on this.

This need to renew infrastructure will be familiar to anyone who is responsible for real world infrastructure – libraries, schools or council chambers – but in an environment that we create with words and stories that renewal is more abstract and intangible.  Its probably only by making this fact known and part of the civic conversation that we will over time find ways to address this.

I spent a couple of days last week with the We Live Here Team at the Creative Councils Camp in Birmingham so this post is an attempt to capture some thoughts from the experience.  My first thought is that I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the team – thank you all….

The point of the camp was to help the 17 ideas that have been chosen for development time to explore their projects and to start to…well…develop.

Two immediate things struck me from the experience, the first was the fact that the NESTA team seem to be running a genuinely open process and that they want the best ideas to do well – with no real agenda as to what ‘best’ means in this context – I hope that they are able to keep this up.  The second thing was the quality of the 17 groups (yes – I modestly include us in that statement).  I met some fantastic people and heard some really brilliant ideas from the other groups.  There is some but not excessive crossover between ideas and there are some obvious collaborations if we can all figure out how to collaborate in what is ultimately a competitive process but if we can manage it then there is an opportunity to connect together transformational change in Local Government.  Before you get too excited I did say opportunity – lets see if we can avoid cocking it up.

And just to reflect on the point about competition / collaboration – clearly the ‘journey’ from this point is intended to reduce the 17 down to 5 projects – and this would normally mean that people did feel a sense of competition.  However it is I think a testament both to the nature of the participants and the quality of the event that we all felt the event was far more collaborative than participative which was great.

The event was a mix of plenary and breakout groups were we got chance to run through our ideas with other participants and the NESTA team – the format made sure the idea was challenged and explored by others and this allowed us to build on it and fill in a lot of gaps.

I’m fascinated by some of the event design stuff and so will reflect in that in another post – but this is what I felt from the POV of We Live Here – in no particular order:

Practical stuff:

  • We have to be able to communicate this to people who are not embedded in the process and thinking – its still highly abstract and if we don’t put this on the top of our list we will fail
  • There is no getting away from the fact that we need to be able to cost out what we are doing and also the potential savings from the approach – at very least we need to show that We Live Here is sustainable and does not add to the bottom line.  We believe that better democracy means better decisions and better decisions cost less in the long term but this is a little pollyanna for a finance director and so we will be expanding on the work that Anthony started in his Democracy Pays white paper and drilling down a little deeper into this.  It will also help with the budgeting process.
  • We really need to decide on how we are going to structure and track the project management  – and also how we are going to do it.  Innovation projects are not going to sit well with  PRINCE 2 approach and so this needs thinking about.  I have an interest in amending the AGILE approach for this kind of thing but I also want us to speak to NESTA as to whether or not they have some suggestions for project management tools for this kind of project.
  • Though we think that the principles behind We Live Here – the need for a civic space – are very portable its also true that the idea is very much in the right place and the right time.  Emma is going to capture the conditions and try and delink this from the method as we think this will help other people implement any learning from the project
  • We also pulled out the nuance that we need to draw a distinction between the fact that we want to change the way in which we make decisions through greater citizen participation from the fact that we also need new structures for democratic engagement – practical structures of time and place.  Breaking the problem down in this way will help us to plan I think
  • As we identified when we last met we really need to be clear on which processes / programmes / projects already happening within the council we want to connect to with this project.  This might be a matter of working out short, medium and long term goals but the two obvious areas at the moment are the scrutiny process and the neighborhood councils programme.  Given that these are at different stages of development this is one for Council colleagues to work through but whatever we decide on will form the ‘democratic contract’ I mentioned before.
  • We are still keen that one of the first things we do is to map the current civic participation in the city but we think that we need to try and provide a self reporting process for this as well to make this easier.  Podnosh also made the excellent suggestion that we use this as opportunity to demonstrate some of the stuff that people are doing and gather examples as we map.
  • One thing that we did surface was the fact that in the first iteration of this project we don’t expect to reach everyone – we are going to be focused on the Hansard “Willing Localists” and try to connect to the people who are interested in participating but currently don’t see the point or don’t find it convenient.  Once we have some momentum with this group and have demonstrated greater demand for greater participation) then we will look at the next layer of people who are further from participation – that is perhaps where this will get really interesting.
  • Also – I think I have persuaded people to carry out the scenarios of doom planning session – excellent – nothing like a little doom….
  • The idea of civic space is very abstract and lot of our motivations for the project are aspirational and transformative.  One of the things that came through for all of us from the feedback we got from people at the Camp was the need to try and root this vision with a practical delivery path that is much more tangible.  Alongside this we need to think about our communications approach as its essential that we start testing some of these concepts on the people we want to work with to check that they are clear and appealing.
  • We still want to the do the values / principles capture that I wrote about in the last post – I see this linking to an Agile project management approach

Reflections on the concept

  • One of the things that the way in which we were asked to articulate our idea was the fact that we have really been able to nail the problem that we are addressing.  Put simply:  Not enough people are participating in decision making.  There is wider argumentation about why we think this is a Bad Thing.
  • There is a tension here though which connects to the tension between co-production and democratic decision making and that is the challenge of connecting open processes with specific services.  This is in fact easier for us than for other projects as we have tremendous support from politicians and we are starting from a listening position and then seeing where people want to go – it will be far harder for projects that want to focus on a specific service area to both run open processes and keep the conversation in that area.  Some of this can be done be selecting people based in interest (That;s how we have been managing it in the CRIF project) but as we know this is not always enough and the other projects may want to consider how they will handle new demand that is out of scope.
  • One of the things that struck me about a lot of the conversations that we had over the course of the two days were the number of assumptions that we all make about what “the community” know and what they are interested in.  We do it as well.  Our representatives just don’t have the tools they need in order to access this knowledge and where previously it felt acceptable for them to have an attempt and fail the fact that the tools and technologies and in fact expectations and context have changed and developed creates one of the pressures that mean we have to reconsider the connection between citizen and state.  Its trite to say it but the fact that big brands and monitoring social media and responding personally sets a new level of expectation that spills over beyond the digital channel into everyday life – this is the expectation that we are trying to meet

Conclusion

So – where does this leave us?  I think our next step really needs to start to do some more detailed planning and out some structure on all this – it will help us move forward and also help us to take our rather abstract vision into a more practical realm.  In structure terms we are starting to see a vision/concept arc and a practical/exploratory one and I think that will work for us.

The CityForum event we are running on the 5th October (this is a followup event from CityCamp Brighton) gives us a focus for getting on with this as though its not a We Live Here event specifically its clearly an opportunity to widen the discussion around the idea.

On a more theoretical level I continue to think one of the central questions of this project is how we reconcile that tension between representative democracy and greater levels of participation and coproduction.  I think we need to be doing some fairly detailed thinking about firstly the pre-existing process that have space for more co-production but also where the limits are – this is really what we meant when I talked about exploring real localism in the wild.  One of the implications for greater citizen participation is the opportunity for the citizens to exert greater power on the context that the Council sets for a particular conversation at the moment.  This is another area where we need to be thinking about new forms of process and I return to thinking about how agile can help and also perhaps about how you would involve citizens in something like Gerry Stokers suggestions around experimentation within policy making.

I also think that there is an important conversation that all the projects in the Creative Council programme need to engage with around how we evidence and explain the new context that we are all working in not just in terms of financial squeeze – we need to make the case for change beyond the need to save money otherwise we will always be forced down a ‘make efficiencies’ route by people who do not accept a new analysis rather than being able to aspire to transformation.  The new values of a new context challenge orthodoxy – and I think this is at the heart of driving innovation.

However I also I find all this talk of innovation a little tiring – it’s not the biggest problem – it’s translating and implementing an idea beyond the innovation team and embedding it in the place. It’s about accepting the need to change the idea in the face of fear or established practice and go more slowly.  I think our feedback from the Creative Councils Camp was hugely helpful – we have a vision but we really need now to concentrate on making it work in the real world.

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

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

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

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

We Live Here is about three things:

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

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

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

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

Why social media?

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

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

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

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

So – here comes our first principles:

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

and in fact our second as well:

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

Civic what???

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

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

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

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

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

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

It won’t always be possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenarios of doom

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

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

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

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

And things we need to get done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What are these civic spaces anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the right circumstances?

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

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

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

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

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

Code is law online

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

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

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

This is a write up of a session that I facilitated at the excellent LocalGovCamp yesterday. I wanted to run the session as an extension of some work I am doing around identity that you can read about here – and luckily a bunch of people where also interested in discussing the topic and provided some real insights. As ever its a huge pleasure at these things to talk with knowledgeable and informed people who can challenge your own thinking. No real conclusions but that’s fine – its going to be a while before we can possibility understand what it means to have a digital wrapper around our lives.

The session really focused on two key themes:

  • Can we control our online identity?
  • What are the requirements of identity with respect to civic and democratic participation possible

There were a couple of overarching thoughts however, one was the importance of trust and reputation with respect to being effective online and the other was the need for audiences and organisations to reconcile with the fact that it is perfectly possible for your personal opinions to differ from that of your employer and for you still to be effective in your job. This last point is perhaps the greatest tension resulting from the fact that the different parts of our lives tend to blend into one online.

Who am I anyway?

There was a general agreement that online identity creation is a conscious act with us producing a more polished version of ourselves. However there was also agreement that it is extremely difficult boarding on the impossible to keep personal and professional identities separate online. One participant who is recently redundant talked about the need to consciously clean up and re-manage his online identity to reflect his new state and a number of people in the room agreed that they would need to do the same

The place where this seems to be most difficult is twitter where only one person was successfully managing more than one identity (and no suprises that @reinikainen also may or may not engage in some mischievous trolling as well). Its possibly not surprising – twitter is the most conversational of the social media spaces and for many people the effort of conversing in two different styles was too much bother. Its different to something like blogging where people spend more time considering tone and audience (this is reflected in my survey data so far as well). However the consequence of this was a hastening the the ‘life leak’ that has people answering work queries from personal accounts.

My own view on this that its a reflection of the fact that these tools are not yet mainstream in many organisations and in many cases corporate accounts become the responsibility of a single user. If we had more effective cover and clearer responsibilities then people would not feel so compelled to answer in their own time – but that’s perhaps for debate. This will also be an issue as organisations start to take account of the social capital value of twitter and other networks – but again possibly a 2012 rather than 2011 problem.

Facebook was another environment where people have just one presence but with greater attention to privacy settings – however this is a problem when using Facebook for work purposes. Blogging was seen as a much easier space to control online identity – again echoing what people are telling me in the questionnaire.

Carrie Bishop brought up the excellent point that we also need to think about the ‘secret data’ that organisations such as Amazon, Tesco and even the NHS have on us. At some point we may need to consider what these data sets say about is when we consider that digital wrapper.

Overall the conclusion here is not surprising – we all felt that we need to be more sophisticated in the way in which we manage online identity – the problem perhaps is that we are not yet sure what that means as we need to do so in the context of huge amounts of social change around this issue. As people who are probably already more sophisticated than most about this as a group this probably means that when we train and evangelise about the social web we need to include a section on digital identity and teach awareness of some of the risks as well as the opportunities. There are clearly shifting norms of behaviour around what is acceptable but we still need to be aware that the blending of the different parts of your life online means some that it needs some degree of awareness and active management.

We talked for a while about the important of context and also the way in which we judge the provenance – these are also skills that need teaching as we encourage more people online.

Who are you and why should I listen to you?

We moved on to talk about what this means in a democratic and civic context – what do you need to know about someone in order for them to be an active participant is online debate about local (or national) issues.

The thing I took away from the session (again thanks to an insight from Carrie Bishop) was the fact that debate and decision making need thinking about separately with decision making processes (such as voting) being legitimately anonymous at times where debate and more general participation benefiting from having knowledge of who you are talking to.

The conclusion was that for any kind of decision making, or to support a decision making process, the important fact is that you are able to apply a test of representativeness to the opinions that you are seeing.

There was again a discussion of how, when you live and work within the same local authority of any part of government, you reconcile your citizenship with your professional role. The conclusion here was that we need to see a shift in public (and media) perceptions to accept firstly that people are more than just their job and secondly that organisations are made up of people and not a single faceless entity. This is a peculiarly public sector problem – until we link it to a social capital evaluation of brand and realise that once we are in a social and conversational sphere then we are all the custodians of brand value.

I started the session with a bias towards a need for accountability and transparency around identity – as well as a recognition that this will be a challenge until we have a better cultural understanding of the implications of the ‘publicness’ online. Carrie again brought up an important counter to that position which we formed as follows: How do we allow space and discussion of more extreme positions in an environment where we need to show a polished and perhaps more bland overall self?

Intriguing – its another sense of the word open and also a counter to what can be a tendency to homogeneity online. Can we be open and exploratory with debate online when even our whimsical or transitional views become part of our identity?

Context matters

Identity online is about content – its meritocratic – this means we make conscious decisions about what we create. At the same time we are unguarded in the face of the publicness of the social web and we do not yet understand the consequences of this.

However if we can’t separate our different personas online what we can do is to create an appropriate context for our comments that allow people to see that we are – and we can help to develop context clues that will help readers and viewers form accurate pictures of who we are and what we mean. Who knew the future was all about better emoticons?

I hope this reflects the session for everyone else – very happy to update / correct if people remember it differently or if I have missed something. Thanks to all for their contributions.

PS  Would also be very grateful for more survey responses – if you have a moment…..

As regular readers will be aware….I have a bee in my bonnet about the need for someone to start building civic spaces online – spaces which are designed to support civic and political discourse rather than designed to sell us stuff. However it’s all very well having the idea – you then have to figure out how to build it.

This post provides an overview of the social media audit – a piece of research that is carried out before you set up a civic space in order to gain an objective view of who you should be including in the conversation. I use ‘we’ a lot in this post as though I had the bright idea of doing the audit and put some structure in place its my team at Public-i who have done most of the detailed development of the process.  We’ll be blogging more about this over at the Public-i blog but here is the first draft of the overview that will end up in the thesis.

In essence what we are trying to do is to find the conversations which are already taking place in the local online space.  More importantly we are trying to find the active individuals in order to create a network response to civic interactions – civic spaces are going to be defined by the networks that share them as much as by the content.

A bit of background

When I started looking at this I thought about this idea in terms of government building these spaces. I was influenced by Stephen Coleman’s thinking around ‘A Civic Commons in Cyberspace’ and also Castells’ work that shows the insidious power of media conglomerates and negative impact that gas on objectivity in the press that this brings to the fourth estate (Castells, “Communication Power”). This, combined with the fact that I have been immersed in working with Local Government for almost the last 10 years led me design the “Virtual Town Hall” pilot which you can read about here. The name really gives it away – I was imagining a civic space built by government – echoing real world civic architecture – and then used by the public.

I persisted with this idea for a while and blamed the fact that we were being slow to implement the technology for the fact that the pilot sites were not taking flight. There is no doubt that we were being slow with the technology implementation but I now believe that the reasons for the pilot sites not getting off the ground were more complex than just that and that there were a number of issues with the way I had originally designed the virtual town hall solution, the main one being that the original project design didn’t have the right role for the community. We envisaged using unmoderated community content and then using community moderators or champions to widen involvement but this was really a compromise en route to what has become the inclusion of the affordance of co-production in the final pilot sites. We have to accept that we can only work effectively with the public online if we don’t try and control the conversation that the community moderators were in some way an attempt to manage risk from the point of view of the Council without truly considering their wishes in this.

However once it became clear that these spaces, even if facilitated by government, needed to be equally owned by all stakeholders another issue arose; who do we include in the conversation? The community that you contact to create the civic space is going to integral to how it behaves and even though we would expect participation to shift throughout the life of a civic space that initial group is significant in terms of how likely you are to get an independent conversation started and also in terms of what tone is set for the space from the outset.

Its turns out that picking this group was causing project paralysis – no-one could get started until they knew who to include in the process. I’m going to do some follow up interviews on this point but I think that the issue here was a mix of risk and representativeness. The first was a concern about making the ‘wrong’ choice because we weren’t aware of the full picture. The second is more complex – but I think highlights the real democratic tension here which is the fact that the people who are active online are not representative of the general population and this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that they are more likely to be civic and active offline as well (OXIS, Coleman) but bad in that they are not well…representative. The solution here is fiendishly simple and fiendishly difficult – involve the elected representatives – but that’s for another post.

Social Media Audits – a solution to the problem

The starting point as the fact that a civic space can’t be initiated until you have some idea as to who might be participating.  The social media audit is a response to this problem – its a systematic piece of research that provides a representative snapshot of the local informal civic conversation so that you can make am informed decision about who to include in the initial iteration of the civic space. Not only that – practically speaking – it gives you the list of people to contact , the conversational lures they are interested and a view of the interactions which are already going on.

We wanted to create an objective view of what was happening so that we provided a starting point for engagement with the local civic content creators. We can’t expect to find everything – and the content will change from week to week – but we were looking for a way to provide a starting point that would then be built on rather than freezing the results in time. Its important that the output of the audit also provides the means to extend and continue to search so that the civic space is created in a state of always being open to new voices.

Objective is a difficult thing to achieve as ultimately this process comes down to making value judgements about which sites should be included in the civic space. What we have therefore done is to create as robust and re-creatable process around the creation of the data set and then been as transparent as possible in terms of qualification of that data set down to something which is manageable for analysis and then for engagement with individuals.

This has deliberately been designed in this way rather than a piece of more quantitative analysis around the number of sites located in a specific area for example as we are trying to uncover individuals with specific intents rather than just to content that they are creating online – we are trying to connect to people as well as places.

What are we looking for?

The audit is designed to find not only an overview of the informal civic participation in the area but specifically to focus in on the significant content creators who will be the most vocal contributors to the civic space. The choice of the word ‘significant’ is deliberate here – we’re not trying to judge influence – just activity.

Significance is a fairly subjective term and so we try and define this with the site hosts to make sure we have a clear idea of what we are looking for. Once a site has been found via the relevant search terms then broadly we are after:

  • Persistence – we are looking for sites and individuals that are active over a reasonable period of time – or are linked to a specific campaign – not 2 post blogs that have been set up with the best intention
  • Audience – we can’t easily judge audience but we are looking for indications that the creator is aware of an audience and wants to interact with it
  • Constructive – we are looking for voices that want to improve their community not just complain

This last one is the most difficult – judging intent from content is extremely tenuous. Another way of looking at this is to say that we looking for content and creators who would satisfy a simple code of conduct test for any community website. Codes of conduct exist to ensure that interactions are respectful and do not insult some basic principles. The point of this filter is to try and rule some of these people out from the start. I see this as largely a pragmatic decision – no council is going to put together a civic space which includes inappropriate content from the start – but its one that needs to be kept under consideration to make sure that the space remains inclusive and open.

Its also worth noting that we usually issue a health warning with respect to language – the language online can be robust but this needs to be included. This issue of language is a cultural one where you need to understand that the social web can use a different tone to that which the more formal world is used to.

What’s the process?

To state the obvious – the internet is huge – and if you try and do this on a rolling basis then you just keep searching forever.  Instead we create a snapshot which we know will not include all the content but will be representative of the local civic space to an acceptable degree.  Here is how we go about creating that snapshot:

  • Define a matrix of search terms: This point about language is relevant from the onset of the audit. The process starts with a definition of search terms based on place and topic. We are trying to identify the language that the local residents are using to talk about where they live and about current affairs. We are seeking the stories that are currently active as these are the ones which illuminate activity.
  • Create a data set: we then use a combination of advanced use of google and link analysis to create an initial data set. This can be done largely automatically and then gets deduped and cleaned up. This second step may create a data set of over 1000 sites.
  • Qualify the data set: Once we have the data set narrowed down to around 3-400 then there is a manual qualification task which is the really time-consuming bit as we check each site against the significance criteria and also categorise it for place, topic, type of site and a few other metrics. We also highlight interesting examples – and also the downright odd stuff that you find online.

At this point we would hope to have a well qualified data set of around 200 sites that give us a good overview of the local informal civic activity. We do not know if these numbers of going to provide a useful benchmark – we’ve run the process a number of times now and they seem consistent but we expect them to keep increasing. However – at the moment – we believe that the 200 sites for a County or urban area is a reasonable benchmark to work against.

And the analysis

This is my favourite bit…

Once we have a coded up spreadsheet then we can do some straightforward statistical analysis and look at the spread of sites and content creators in terms of location and topic. We can see what proportion of activity is on Facebook for example (yes – we even search there), examine interactions on local media sites and see if there are pockets of activity around a specific place. We then use this to identity clusters of sites for a short case study analysis – which is really focused on looking at what is causing the cluster and how it might be used to introduce the group into the civic space.

The other piece of analysis is to use twitter as the starting point of a social network analysis of the space. This is really just a starting point for this and can be considered to be a snowball approach to an open network (Wasserman) rather than a real piece of SNA but what is does show is the potential reach of the civic creators. For my own research purposes I then ask the civic creators we have found to complete a more through social network analysis questionnaire which looks more deeply not just at their online but also their offline networks.

What don’t we do?

In developing the audit process we considered using semantic analysis tools bit in the end concluded that they didn’t offer the sophistication of search combinations that we were after and, more importantly, are designed to find content rather than individuals.

I think we could probably use more of the mainstream analysis tools but to date have not found anything that delivers what we are after – we’ll keep researching this however I will post findings on that when I have time.

It may be possible to have the same result through word of mouth as opposed to this fairly labour intensive research – ie by asking community participants to self report activity. My concern with this approach is that many of the sites that we find are not really describing themselves as civic – they are just people who are doing something that they think is interesting and they don’t feel the need to define it.

And the impact?

Its too early to say what the overall impact will be on the civic space but we have definitely succeeded in overcoming the project paralysis issue and have also been able to shape appropriate approaches and messages in order to involve these content creators in the initial proposition of the shared civic space and I wouldn’t want to try and instigate a site without doing this kind of research as we have not yet failed to turn up content and individuals that the host was not aware of before.

Even without knowing what impact it will have on the civic space its clearly a really effective way of getting a feel for the local activity in order to shape any kind of intervention online.

Its also an excellent way to deal with the people who are still saying that they don’t need to engage online – this is as robust a process as we can make it and is carried out based on search terms that the host defines – excellent and relevant local facts to put in front of anyone who thinks digital engagement is still optional at this point.

We are going to continue to work on the process and also on the automation of the process where possible. We are also trying to build in the idea of ‘discovery’ where we start to set the civic space in listening mode in order to uncover new civic voices but this is still early days – I’ll keep you posted.

As ever comments on this are very welcome.

I couldn’t seem to find a quick description of what I mean by online civic space and thought I’d better pop up a definition.  The purpose which I prescribe for a civic space is: 

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

However we also need to look at the affordances of that space to define it – what does it do.  Affordance is fancy way of saying ‘ the effects that you expect something to have’.  Rather than a quality which is largely descriptive an affordance is something that you expect your design to have.  Below are the affordances which I expect an online civic space to have:

  • Publicity– you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives
I think I may be being a bit slack with my use of the word affordance here and may need to tidy up this language – comments on this very welcome.I am also considering whether or not I need to add in the idea of representativeness into this list – or whether the fact that identity is here means that the representativeness is something that needs to be considered in the context of the decisions being made rather than an affordance of the space.  More on that when I finish mulling.