So – it turns out that my inability to fix my research methods chapter had the effect of rendering me unable to write anything else – who can understand the workings of the human mind??? Chapter 4 now dispatched I am now trying to catch up on backlog (this includes 3 UKGC12 posts – oh how I rue the day I pitched so many…). Anyway. This post is jumping the queue because I have been doing a lot of mulling recently, for various reasons, about organisational culture – its an attempt to synthesise these thoughts and organise them a bit.

The first thing that brought this on is that fact that Carl Haggerty is going to be joining Public-i 2 days per week to work as Product Manager for Citizenscape. Carl has written about this here so this is my turn….I’m delighted Carl is joining us for all kinds of different reasons.

The first is the simple fact that Carl is great to work with – having worked with him on the Virtual Town Hall pilot, as a client at Devon County Council and also in various GovCamp sessions I know that he combines expertise and forward thinking with the ability to challenge your thinking in a really positive and constructive way.

This ability to issue constructive challenge is going to be crucial to someone who is coming into a project – Citizenscape – which has been very a huge amount of work for a lot of people for the last couple of years. The product has developed hugely from the initial EU project and then Virtual Town Hall pilots and has now been deployed across our core Connect sites as well – but we still it can go a lot further. Its live, stable and useful but so much of the functionality is lying below the waterline – in the code, locked into the UX and in the admin functionality. We are hoping that a fresh pair of eyes – from someone who understands what we are trying to achieve with Citizenscape – will help push it forward.

The second reason I am delighted to have Carl join is about the blurring of boundaries. The fact that we will be sharing him with Devon County Council makes this a fairly unusual arrangement but one which I think reflects the new ways in which public and private sectors need to be working together. I hope that we will learn a lot from working with Carl but I also hope he will learn from us. I am very grateful to Devon CC for being willing to support this kind of working and I hope that the institutional learning goes both ways as well.

There is a lot of talk about the Public Sector needing to be more business-like, to behave more like the private sector, but we don’t often reflect on what this actually means. This kind of shared working is a way of exploring the cultural qualities that might flow in both directions. I am hoping that Carl will have a positive experience of working a small business which is able to be far more agile and innovative than a local authority just by dint of its size but that also needs to be constantly thinking about selling as an essential part of its lifecycle.

There. I’ve said it. The ‘S’ word. Doesn’t it send a shiver down the spine?

Dan Slee posted a very pithy piece which explained very clearly why the public sector is right to have a poor impression of the private sector sales process and, as someone running a company, made me cringe. However I believe its possible – and perhaps even advantageous – to build innovative and useful projects that are sold and then co-created between public and private sector organisations. I also think that discussing value exchange – money – upfront in a project is one way to ensure that you keep the attention of all the project participants. In my experience doing stuff for free doesn’t really convince anyone that they need to take what you are doing very seriously – though on the other hand you do need to be sure that the value exchange is fair and defensible. I don’t want to public sector wasting money and I don’t want to be part of helping it waste money.  This point of view has taken me a while to come to which is perhaps another story.

Its possible that the only way that we will substantively shift government practice is with these kinds of co-created projects and relationships. If this is the case then we need to learn how to work together – systemically – and the kind of cultural exchange that we are starting with Carl could form a valuable part of this learning. As we are both avid bloggers I am imagining you will hear more about this whether you want to or not.

There is a lot of challenge in the idea of opening up your organisation to have a client working with you as part of the team – not just on one specific project where they can be contained. Any organisation will have a degree of paddling below the water going on and it takes confidence in what you do to open this up to scrutiny. One of the reasons we are doing this, apart from the fact that you can’t learn without risk, is because we think that any business that works closely with the public sector needs to be setting itself at least the standard of openness that we demand of our government organisations. Projects like Chris Taggert’s Open Corporate is part of this but I think the blurring of organisational boundaries to create the most effective project teams is another. We have all worked closely with other organisations but this blurring of boundaries is something else.

I also think these qualities of confidence and openness are essential in a networked organisation but I will come back to that thought another time.

The second reason I have been mulling organisational culture was as a result of a twitter conversation discussing whether or not context is significant in terms of defining and understanding innovation. The consensus was a strongly felt ‘yes’ – you can’t describe something as innovative without understanding the context in which the work is done and projects which are innovative in one context may be fairly mundane in others. @Pubstrat has excellent things to say on this subject.

This got me thinking about how you might more actively set the context for a future project. We are I hope – subject to various practicalities – about to kick off another Citizenscape pilot in the fairly near future. How can we set the right context for this project? The first and obvious point will be creating the right project team and relationships but I think the critical element of this is in creating a shared context between ourselves and the client. Creating this initial shared understanding and actively discussing the fact that project which is focused on ‘doing things differently’ means that the project itself needs to…well….do things differently.

I am trying to put together a more organised set of thoughts around the question of ‘agile project management‘ which I keep coming back to. I think this idea of setting the new, shared, context for a project – or an organisation – is part of that but I also think its part of what it means to participate in a ‘networked’ project which takes place across organisational boundaries. It is more and more frequently the case that we are working in loose coalitions or temporary teams and partnerships and that our different work contexts are colliding. This is happening across internal and external organisational. I think we probably need to be thinking about what this means and trying to capture some of the approaches that make it all work more smoothly – capturing the context is one part of this.

The final reason I am thinking about organisational culture is because I find that so many of the conversations that I have with clients that start of talking about social media, engagement and democracy end up really being about organisational change. I increasingly come to the conclusion that we – practitioners – can’t continue to make incremental progress to unlock the real potential of the social web if we don’t start to actively discuss the way in which our organisations will change as a result. This is not saying anything new – we all know this to be true – but how many people are just below the parapet in terms of really talking about this fact within their organisations? How many senior teams are thinking in these terms? Time for a more public discussion and a lot more mulling I think.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The publicity of the social web

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

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

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

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

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

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

or put more simply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is an online civic space?

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

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

What are its attributes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why bother?

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

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

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

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

Where can I get one??

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

Yesterday was spent at the excellent Networked Neighbourhoods launch event. The day was spent outlining and discussing the study they ran looking at behaviours, outcomes and community impacts of hyperlocal communities in London.  The study is hugely interesting and extremely useful in putting some actual facts forward rather than the often speculative enthusiasm we see around social media and I will comment on it in proper length in another post as it will be featuring in my literature review  at some point.  This post is more about some general observations about the day.

If you don’t know what I mean when I say hyperlocal then it might be useful to read this first.

I was lucky enough to be asked to join the advisory group for the research which has been hugely informative and as a result I chaired a workshop  run by Dr Alison Powell of LSE which looked at Future, Local and Democratic themes in new media.  I will try and add her slides in here at a later date as she made a number of excellent observations.  Her field is around the study of community networks and the effects of new media and this more grassroots approach provides a good counter balance to the often top down viewpoint provided by work with Local Authorities.  It echoes what Tony Bouvaird said about co-production being already very embedded – just not around the stuff that the state perhaps wants us to co-produce.  I am used to thinking about technology with intent and Alison’s example of the effects of community wifi projects reminded me on the importance of leaving space for serendipity when we are dealing with such a quickly evolving environment.  Alison talks about Filter / Feed / Funnel as the new effects of networked technologies – all ways of responding to a constant flow of information rather than something that you can turn on or off.  You can read more about Alison’s work here.

As is often the case with these events the number of experts in the audience mean that the Q&A is excellent and we covered a lot of ground – see below for thoughts on digital exclusion.  One of the strands was around ‘the next big thing’ with respect to social media, participation and democracy – rather a big questions but Alison and I speculated:

  • Smartphones – at the moment people in lower income groups and not only less likely to have access to the internet they are also, where they do have it, less likely to use social media.  OII describe them as persistent non-participants.  The question is whether this will change when we see smartphones with cheap internet access achieve market dominance in these groups – something that is predicated for next year.  This could make a big difference to participation of this group
  • The Youth – there is a cohort of people growing up who have grown up in a networked society.  They will be in significant numbers at the next general election and they will have an effect – either in their participation or lack of participation.  Who knows which it will be?

I wrote most of this post stuck on a train trying to get to Sussex.   Usually at this point I would be tweeting away or catching up on email but the volume of people in the same position has meant that I could get no connectivity and all comms are the old fashioned voice and text kind.  This is a slightly clumsy segue into one of the main concerns of the day which highlighted issues around digital inclusion and whether or not these hyperlocal forums are just another way for the already empowered to get themselves heard even more effectively – are we just filling the middle class pens with green ink?

The issue of access is clearly hugely important and I don’t want to dismiss it but in the longer term view I tend to assume that this is a problem that people are actively addressing and that whatever happens it will reduce overtime.   This is perhaps over optimistic – but I have faith that other people are worrying about this and draw my personal battle lines around trying to make sure that there are democratic and civic spaces there waiting for people rather than just one big online shopping mall.

However I do think this conversation about inclusivity becomes confused as we use the term representiveness and representation interchangeably when we actually mean different things.  A lot of the reason for this is where people become worried about the representativeness of these hyperlocal communities and then describe a follow on concern about the impact of representatives interacting with them.  I have a few thoughts on this:

  • I don’t think we should be burdening community led hyperlocal projects with the idea that they have to be representative unless they decide themselves that they want to take this step towards formality – in which case there are models that they can use.  It would be too easy to stifle the vital social element with too much structure and where you rely on volunteers you need to either resource them up to the hilt (not a current option) or let them organise as they wish to a great extent.  There is no need for these civic spaces to be democratic if they don’t want to be – though they probably do need to have some route into the democratic process
  • It is the job of representatives to work out how representative the inputs are – and the answer to a great deal of additional input from one group is to try and get more from others – not tell the active folks to be quiet.  More democratic engagement does take more time – but we are all working under the assumption that this is a good thing as involving more people at at least the initial and end stages of the decision making process is a good thing (would like to reflect on that more at some point)
  • If you accept this last point then you have to ask what is the problem with getting more people participating?  Indy talked about energising the middle classes in the civic economy and asked why we see this as such a problem.  I agree – it can hardly be a bad thing to get more interested and articulate people more involved in decision making as long as we support the lack of representativeness with good representation?

I think my final thought is as a researcher and also as a practitioner the event reminded me of the importance of letting the story unfold.  Being too prescriptive or interventionist, for whatever reason, is very risky and the relatively new eco-system of hyperlocal activity is in many ways too fragile to have well meaning democracy or even community engagement folks trampling all over it and telling it what to do.  The coming together of social technology and communities is something outside of the experience of all of us and though there are precedents we need to be cautious that we don’t over theorise.  The excellent research here shows real value for communities who connect and engage online and it would be foolish to ignore this.  But in speaking to local authorities my advice is to concentrate on giving people technology agnostic skills and opportunities and letting them decide for themselves what they want to do.  If we really want to have a more mature relationship between citizens and government then we need to start trusting the public to do something constructive – especially when the evidence shows that they usually do.

So – after much conference attending and gadding about the place I am back to some thesis writing – the whole work / academic balance having been rather upset by my diary planning. However – its interesting how being out and about and talking about these ideas helps clarify my thinking – and by speaking to the kind of variety of people I have spent time with over the last month or so you start to see the bigger patterns and stories that link things together more clearly.

This was particularly true of the CIPR conference that I was at on Friday. I will post about that on the Public-i blog but I’ve got a couple of more personal reflections I wanted to add on this here. There are some exceptional people working on Local Government Communications but they are nearly all people that really understand two things:

  • Effective communications is not possible without a deep understanding of the strategy of the organisation and cannot happen on a project by project basis – and new technologies mean that everyone has a communications role. The challenge is about getting people to understand the brand and the strategy to a far deeper extent than we have done before with command and control comms
  • Communications is a support function – and to stay relevant you have to be embedded in the process of negotiating a new relationship with the citizen

Social media, with its deep rooted connection to authenticity and transparency both highlights and helps these two issues in my view. In terms of the communications people in Government – personally I think they really need to understand that the pressures on them right now are not just budget cuts and to start to embrace the new landscape they find themselves working in.

I spoke about co-production as part of my conference session as I think its a big part of this step change in what it means to be a government communicator. As we move online we have to understand that the social web is not a merely passive space which you can broadcast in to. Of course not everyone is actively creating content but as you can see from Ofcom and other research (refs in the sidebar) people actually do things online. When you start to think about civic conversations that it start to become important that we talk about how we do things – not just about the fact that we do. Let me try and untangle that statement.

There is a lot of justifiable excitement about some of the spontaneous community activity that we see online around the hyperlocal space or around projects like FixMyStreet and the like. We see people start to organise and produce outputs online that reflect civic volunteering that has been going on for centuries and the pace at which it happens is both exciting and impressive. Technology and the social change it brings, combined with the opportunities such as the Open Data movement, gives us an unprecedented opportunity to change the way in which we make decisions as a society.

Government often gets fairly badly kicked for not embracing this change and I share that frustration – but I also think that the heart of the issue is that government needs to adjust to a very different role and to make sure that it really understands its relevance to the process. And what is this relevance?

Government is there to make sure that the process of designing and delivering services that the community want is legal, fair and reasonable – making sure that decisions reflect the will of the people not just at the micro hyperlocal level but at the larger ideological level that can think in the abstract and trade off the needs and rights of one group of people against those of a competing group. Separately the State might actually take on the responsibility of delivering services – but the function of Government as the arbitrater of the public will is different. As we reduce the role of the state we should not be forgetting the role of Government.

So – why co-production? And what is it?

Basically it can be anything that involves delivering a public service with the public rather than to delivering it to the public:

“Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co- produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change.” (Nesta 2009)

Co-production has emerged from the literature around citizen engagement and consultation and its important that it is more about describing the relationships and relative power states of the actors than a mandated process. I’ve put some useful links in the sidebar and will add to these as I find them but here are the origins:

“Co-production emerged in the social sciences nearly four decades ago. The idea was first articulated by the 2009 Nobel prize winner for economics, Elinor Ostrom, and her team at Indiana University, who coined the term ‘co-production’ in a series of studies of the Chicago police in the 1970s. Ostrom was trying to explain why the wholesale adoption of centralised service delivery through large institutions was less effective than people had predicted. She needed a word to convey what was missing when the police abandoned their close involvement with the public on the beat, and became more distantly involved in patrol cars: it was that element of successful policing that only members of the public could provide to make sure services worked. It was Ostrom’s team who defined co-production as the “process through which inputs used to produce a good or service are contributed by individuals who are not ‘in’ the same organisation”. (Nesta 2009)

I am using the umbrella term “co-production” which has a number of more limited terms associated with it: Co-planning, Co-design, Co-commissioning, Co-managing , Co-delivering, Co-monitoring, Co-evaluating

Professor Tony Bovaird has done work around co-production in the UK for some time and starts to give some idea of the amount of co-productive effort which is already happening:

“While the results…..indicate that citizens are less inclined to spend their co-production efforts in group activities, this does not mean that such collectivised co-production is unimportant. As examples of how important it is to the creation of public value, in the UK there are about 350,000 school governors, who not only serve on committees to help run schools but also have a legal liability for the affairs of the school; about 5.6m people help to run sports clubs; 750,000 people volunteer to assist teachers in schools; 170,000 volunteer in the NHS, befriending and counselling patients, driving people to hospital, fund raising, running shops and cafes, etc. Of course, these activities often bring individual benefits, too – for example, school governors often have children in the school and parents often help run sports clubs in which their children are active – but the point remains that they undertake activities which have potentially important collective benefits.

Admittedly, these numbers are small (with the exception of the sports club volunteers), compared to the 1.8m regular blood donors, the 8m people signed up as potential organ donors, and the 10m people within Neighbourhood Watch schemes, all of which are more ‘lonely’ activities, which do not need to be programmed to the same extent within a person’s daily timetable. (Bovaird et al 2009)”

Short digital exclusion segue

There is a risk in all these things of pandering to an articulate and already enabled middle class and it is worth pointing out at this point that co-production is also something that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have looked at with respect of people who are not in work. Their researchers conclude that:

  • Organisations that want to develop co-productive ways of working need to focus not just on clients’ problems, but on their abilities.
  • The benefits system needs to be able to provide incentives for those outside paid work to get more involved in their neighbourhoods without endangering their basic income.
  • To be successful, co-production needs to retain its informal approach. Local intermediary agencies – in particular properly resourced time banks – may be best placed to achieve this.

These are clearly interesting findings for the current economic and political climate and something I will be picking up in more detail at some point.

But back to co-production

The reason I choose to talk about co-production is because it includes the delivery element as well as the design or monitoring – it involves the possibility of all actors in the conversation actually doing something. In a social web environment while the emphasis is on participation and action this is an essential consideration. The interesting point for me is how you interleave democratic accountability with a co-productive environment – but I will get onto that in a moment.

I started thinking about and researching co-production when it became obvious exactly how limited the idea of a ladder of engagement is (al la Arnstein) – something which had been fairly pivotal in my original thinking. When I started to work on the detail of my theoretical framework the weakness of an essentially linear approach to the process of citizen engagement became apparent. The main problem being the fact that actors will move in and out of different states and relationships with any process and an attempt to show some kind of progress through increasingly ‘engaged’ states does not allow for this. Instead I have chosen to look to categorise behaviours into types and then look at them on an informal / formal and then social / civic / democratic basis.

My interest in co-production, in so far as my thesis goes, is in respect to the degree to which it can be associated with democratic outcomes. My goal is to examine emergent informal civic participation and to look at ways of connecting this to democratic decision making processes. My approach is to create an online civic space which connects together all of the local participants into a larger democratic decision making unit. However as I start to describe this civic space I am embedding the idea of co-production within its description as a necessary condition for wider participation as I believe that it is extremely important that the local civic space is jointly owned by all actors and not controlled by Government. Whenever I talk about this at events there seems to be general support for the idea (though some nervousness when I explain this means no moderation) but I thought it would be useful to unpack why I believe this is essential:

  • One of the issues associated with the decline in democratic participation is one of trust – and lack thereof. This is often cited as lack of trust in politicians, but can easily also describe the lack of trust that government has in the behaviour of citizens – we need to trust people if we expect them to participate
  • Dealing with the social web should be considered a diplomatic rather than a technological issue. The culture of the social web is highly collaborative and transparent and does not respond well to control or monitoring.
  • If we assume that a healthy democracy requires active citizens (mmm….this might be a whole other post) then building in the idea of government management into the civic space is unnecessary – we just need to look at how we transition to that state
  • We need agile decision making and faster response times. If we accept the idea that the speed of technological change is bringing about increasingly rapid social change then we need decision making processes that can work in a similar way with iterative, self-regulating models that can build incrementally in an agreed strategic direction rather than more cumbersome ‘waterfall’ models of government (yup – this is another post as well). We need the pressure of social change to work more directly on government so that we can keep policy in better sync with people’s lives. A co-productive environment makes this more possible as citizens are active participants rather than customers. Government needs to speed up and in some cases citizens need to slow down and reflect

Yes…slow down…..

Adding the condition of democratic validity to the local civic space is about ensuring that decisions are fair, reasoned and reflect the wider macro environment rather than just to issues pertaining to the hyperlocal level. Co-production shares the process with all participants – democracy takes into account the interests of the non-participants.

However co-production is a relatively new approach and concerns about how easy it will be to connect to democratic representation:

“Firstly, there must be significant doubt about the willingness of politicians to contest the role of professionals, to place more trust in decisions by users and communities, and to rebut media criticism when things go wrong. Essentially, politicians would need to support users in co-constructing their own identity rather than accepting one constructed by ‘experts’. Secondly, the practical feasibility of greater co-production cannot be gauged from a small set of case studies, even though those above cover a wide range of service sectors (e.g. housing, health, social care) and of planning, commissioning and delivery activities. Only further experimentation will show the practical scope for co-production in other contexts. “ (Bovaird, 2007)


Ultimately this is all about power – how you use it and how you share it.  The State has got used to wielding its power through management of resources and one of the pressures that it is feeling now is the weakening of that power as the resources shrink.  However the pressure towards more co-productive ways of working is not just economic, its been emergent in the world of engagement practitioners for decades and has been it shares many qualities with the underlying culture of the social web and the network society that we now live in.  As the State shrinks then Government needs to find new ways to work with citizens and these need to be fair and representative if we value these qualities in our society.  Co-production may represent a more engaged and active relationship with citizens but it needs democracy to ensure it is also a representative one.

This is really a surface skim of the ideas of co-production and I need to make a decision about how much further I go with this in terms of the thesis. My inclination is to leave it here as my primary interest is around how this conversations connect to democratic forms rather than how they work in and of themselves but it may be that I need to look at some of the facets of co-production with respect to how they relate to the design of the civic space – specifically around how you would go about putting a code of conduct in place for a civic space which allows the participants to decide who to include in the space. Will try and pick this up next week and describe what I mean by an online civic space and its underlying design assumptions….am sure you can hardly wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We (that’s the Public-i ‘we’ not a royal one) have recently put our ePetitions software into an open source repository (full details on this can be found here). I know this is a little off topic for this blog but I wanted to comment on it as I get asked why we did this fairly often (both from clients and from shareholders!) and I thought it would be useful (for me at least) to answer that question. I also thought it would be good to see the benefits from the suppliers point of view as so often the question of open source is addressed from the point of view of the user.

But first – I have to say with no word of a lie (or modesty) that it is an excellent piece of code – we have worked with a number of sites to refine it and I do believe it is the Rolls Royce of petitioning products. Arguably we have got a little obsessed – but that’s what pet projects are for I think. You can read more about my love affair with petitions as a democratic instrument here.

The thing is – having built something so lovely – what on earth as we doing giving it away?

But before we get to that, let’s be clear – Open Source is not ‘Free’. All the implementation and management costs that are implicit in a proprietary licensed product are still there and will be incurred at some point. Sorry to state the obvious but I still find that people don’t think of total cost of ownership – they just get excited when they don’t have to pay the licence (in some ways I do think this is like the effect that ‘buy one, get one free’ offers work – have you ever tried to refuse one of these? The expression on the cashier’s face is priceless if you try and explain that making it free doesn’t make it necessarily desirable – you still need to think about the implications of having that extra bag of something rotting in the salad drawer….but anyway). The difference that open source can make in your running costs is entirely down to how you are resourced and skilled internally – but the advantage to the user is that you have this as a choice and you are not locked into a single supplier situation.

Open Source means that the developer of the code has decided – for whatever reason – that they will be better off if people can use the code widely rather than recovering the cost of development (and more) through a licence fee. There are some fairly high level motivations:

  • Philosophy – in the same way as some people claimed ‘Jedi’ as their religion in the census people can have strong feelings about open source that go beyond the commercial. Personally I don’t think this is a bad philosophy
  • Paying back – we all use A LOT of excellent free code – at some point it is a good thing to balance things out and give something back to the open source community that we all depend on
  • Fairness – people who can afford it should help other people by making the outputs of their work freely available

And some more practical ones:

  • Supporting code is a huge hassle and if you licence it you are obliged to look after it – set it free and let it look after itself
  • Integration – sometimes making one thing available freely can make a whole lot of other things a lot simpler to do.
  • Market expectations – with such a lot of talk about open source in the government community it makes sense for anyone who is working in this area to look at it seriously

And of course some that look a little more commercial:

  • Income – the supplier thinks they can generate more from selling services and updates than from a licence fee
  • Reach – you can get your code to more people if you distribute it in this way
  • PR – people like it – ergo they feel more kindly towards you (one hopes)

And then there are the more social motivations:

Can you really build democratic processes on propitiatory code? If you think that design assumptions matter then isn’t this the biggest design assumption of all? Openness needs to be embedded in our democracy in every way possible – and this is one of the ways.

I think that as a commercial supplier to government we would be foolish and short sighted not to be looking at open source models and trying to understand how this could work in the market. We at least need to understand what an open source business model looks like so that we can make a more educated decision about what we want to do – and then be able to communicate it clearly.

However – I think the market also needs to look carefully at what it is asking of suppliers. At the moment the risk of investing in big open source projects is very large. And without someone investing time and energy you are not going to get excellent and stable products – there is not huge community of developers waiting to build anything substantial – or if there is it is just not self organising. I also think it is far harder to charge realistically for services in the UK – something which is at odds with the fact that government seems to find it easy to spend huge sums of cash on consultancy from large firms.

Public-i were able to get the ePetitions code to the stage it is at now mainly because we got project funding from the EU and because we have had excellent project partners from Local Government who have worked with us to develop the code. This kind of funding is understandably scarce in the UK right now but what is also scarce is the idea that you could develop in partnership with a supplier. Democracy is not the only place where trust is currently lacking.

A lot of what I write about here is around co-production – and this is perhaps another form of it – a more honest coming together of commercial suppliers and government in order to build excellent products which are freely available – but which have the support of the market so that they can be developed and enhanced. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of building permanent online civic spaces I think we need to look at open source seriously – but as someone running a company and who is responsible for getting people paid each month I also need to think about how we are going to balance the books and make this work commercially so that the investment in development can be supported.

I don’t usually post from my work perspective (and perhaps I am only doing this to avoid my Research committee progress report which is imminent – eek) but I think this is an area where the two things come together. This is all still working round in my head and I would be really pleased to hear from some folks within Government as to how this feels to you.

I spent Saturday in Kent at transformedbyyou: You can see a lot of the content from the day on the Ning site and I know more is being added. I went partly because a knew there would be a lot of interesting people there (there were) and partly because I was interested in the format/objective which was using an unconference type approach to try and instigate some thinking around social innovation. I think it worked well (much helped by some excellent facilitation / social reporting from Amy Sample Ward and David Wilcox ). I joined a group that was focusing on mobile as a channel and we had a good morning discussing what this means and where the potential is for local government. To summarise:

  • We drew a distinction between making websites accessible on a mobile phone and the potential for apps
  • We wanted to design for the near future and make full use of the possibilities for current technologies rather than be limited by ‘lowest common denominator’ thinking (after all it was a Saturday)

In conclusion we described mobile as a valuable additional channel that can help bridge the digital divide – but the you have to keep in mind that it does not solve it because you need to find services and interactions that are particularly suited to the channel and this doesn’t necessary match perfectly with the services and interactions that will work on a desktop device. We talked fairly wide rangingly about QR codes (which are basically like barcodes – but linked to web addresses – that can be read and interacted with by smart phones), location and time based alerts, street scene reporting and community funding ideas. In the afternoon we spilit into two and covered two ideas:

  • Exploring the use of QR codes
  • Looking at how you could use gaming to complement the street scene reporting idea

I worked on the latter – and got rather into it…..I think partly influenced both by Joanne Jacobs from her LikeMinds presentation and Carl haggerty’s recent post World of GovCraft (BTW – I have title envy). The team comprised @sidekickstudios (a software and games designer) , @alteredeye (an academic looking at Human Computer interaction) and Tracy (from the Kent CC web team) we were well resourced for the challenge.

The idea was simple: we want to develop a mobile app which combines reporting of issues your physical community (broken lights / potholes / unkempt land etc etc) with a gaming approach.  We thought this had strong elements of co-production as well as being channel authentic – and so we created “CALL OF DUTY” – which will be flying of the shelves at Christmas…..

Why? We could have just designed a mobile app for street scene reporting – a kind of phone based ‘fixmystreet’ – and I know that other councils are thinking about just that (for example Lewisham iphone app ) and its a really good thing to do. But we thought that adding a gaming element added in two additional benefits:

  • It would be more fun – when did the idea of doing something useful become unfun anyway?
  • It could be used to link people in the area together – using the gaming community to build local community

The game itself should be fairly simple – you get points for:

  • reporting an issue (5 points)
  • rating an issue (1 point)
  • doing something about an issue (10 points)

(points clearly indicative at this stage – currency to be established!)

We assumed that the app would know where/when you were reporting something (probably with a photo) and that you would just be asked to firstly suggest an outcome – do you want it fixed by the council or do you think the community should deal with it for example – and then prioritise the issue by being shown a list of current issues and being asked to place it in the right place in the queue. We felt that this moved the user passed just complaining and gave them some sense of the whole picture. Other users could then ‘rate’ that prioritisation. You would be able to track the status of your issues, as well as getting updates on things that have been dealt with in your area (you might see some before and after pictures for example)…..btw – there is clearly a whole back office integration piece to be done here but we decided not to worry about that…..again – it was a Saturday

The gaming element would contribute a leader board where you could see who else has been active and where you relate to them – you could also have viral options so that you could share issues with your community to get support for your prioritisation. At this point I started getting drawn into a whole top trumps thing where you got rated for the types of things you report, how you fix them etc etc….

The final element was some way of linking game currency – points – to some kind of real world rewards – for example cheap entrance to a swimming pool. We felt that this would provide additional motivation and acknowledge the fact that you are ‘working’ for your community. We also wanted to make it possible to donate your game currency to local charities etc so that they could benefit.

This is not an unachievable idea – as long as you can remain committed to the idea that it does actually have to be fun and to engage with some actual game designers rather than the poor folks who will have to make it work with the back office systems. Its strengths are, I believe, in the fact that it tries to use the channel in a ‘native’ way without actually compromising on the social goals of the project. The first step to doing this would be to do some focus group work around establishing motivations and looking at what the game currency would need to look like.

If nothing else it was great to spend some time with likeminded people and a blank sheet of paper. But I now would like to think about this more – what can be achieved when you actually think appropriately for a channel and when you don’t get constrained with what is currently possible? What happens when you accept the fact that you probably won’t get anything built for at least a year – so why not look that far ahead in terms of the technology? And what happens when you think that actually it should be fun to do stuff for and with your community – and look at building something to do that?

Gaming is a growth area for online – as is augmented reality – and both of these come together in this idea. So – are you intrigued or was this just a way to pass a rainy saturday?

You can hear Adil describe the idea here:

Or how to avoid sounding like a social media guru ……

I realise that I have drifted into the habit of talking about webspace rather than websites and I wanted to work through why this is – mainly to make sure it’s not just an abuse of the English language. I’m a big supporter of the idea that language evolves in order to reflect social changes – but also concerned that that is very easy to start using meaningless words and phrases just to make things sounds more interesting. But sometimes terminology does need to change to help move thinking along – and I think this is perhaps part of a wider debate that I have talked to a few people about recently about the need to find some shared terminology to talk about these ideas around using social web tools to do civic an democratic things.

But right now the real point for me is that that fact that I feel there is a distinction between these two words – but is it a meaningful difference?

Probably the biggest difference in my internal definitions of these words is that fact that a website is self-contained – it might have elements of external content but it is clearly the editorial property of the domain owners – which means they also control the purpose. Webspaces on the other hand are formed by the aggregation of content from the users and are therefore not editorially controlled.

Secondly I see webspaces as being primarily social – they are defined by the interactions between people – where websites are more likely to focus on non-user generated content. This makes the potential for co-production in a webspace greater than the potential within a website.

But finally I think the move into more architectural metaphors – the use of the word space rather than a more technical description – starts to bring in the thought that what is being created is more than the technology – and that it has more of an identity of its own. In the real world the difference between a site and a space is one which we all recognize but actually the definitions are not actually that different:

  • site noun (PLACE): a place where something is, was, or will be built, or where something happened, is happening, or will happen
  • space noun (EMPTY PLACE): [C or U] an empty area which is available to be used

Perhaps the difference is that a site is there for something to be built but the word space offers us potential for greater opportunities – perhaps this is why the word suits social web activity better than the more practical word ‘site’ – we want to talk about the potential and impact rather than just the building blocks. The sense of potential comes from the, in one sense, infinite nature of space, and in another sense, from the sense of emptiness. It is a more grandisose and open term than site as a result seems to better suit the grandiose ambitions that can be talked about with respect to social web.

But does this make it the right term? I don’t know – it feels more suitable to me but perhaps we will have to wait while the terminology evolves to see if it continues to make sense.

One way to explore it though is to use it. When I talk about civic webspaces I am trying to describe something with the following attributes:

  • You know when you are there
  • It can give visual and social clues as to how you should behave their
  • It sets expectations as to the type of conversations you are going to have – and these interactions will be about your local community
  • It will evolve and change as its community changes – but it will always be identifiable
  • There is an expectation of shared action and purpose – rather than just talking this is a space to get things done

This final point – this sense of shared action – is where the biggest departure from what I would call a website occurs.

I often go on from there to ask people if they acknowledge the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn – they all do. When you think about it like that it becomes clear that we are missing a public sphere (back to Habermas again!) and that we need to think about how to build it. But the question as to what we are building is not yet clear. The Virtual Town Hall is one possible building – one possible definition of the space – but its fairly specific – if we want to talk about a wider set of possibilities we are still in the position of talking about a space and how we can define it.

Ok then – I am going to try and reach past the gadget haze that my new iPhone has left me with in order to try and put some thoughts together. But it is a thing of great beauty which works very nicely indeed – I’m impressed – can’t wait to start really exploring what it can do (I have already learned that it can act as a torch and a mirror – who knows what other secrets may be uncovered when I actually start looking at useful stuff).

I spent a big chunk of this week in Brussels getting various projects reviewed – including the Citizenscape project. We are going to turn the full evaluation into a white paper and I will post it here as there were some interesting learning points – most of which have fed into the Virtual Town Hall work. The commission have asked us to do a toolkit document as well so I will post that too. We also had a review of Europetition and a really interesting meeting about the European Citizen’s Initiative – more on this at a later date.

But just wanted to capture a thought that has come out of a few conversations I have had recently – with Hugh from Networked Neighbourhoods amongst others. I need to think through and explain why all the Virtual Town Hall pilots are lead by Council’s rather than by other potential stakeholders. If this is co-created space then does it make sense that you target a specific stakeholder as the ‘host’?

In terms of the democratic engagement there is absolutely no reason at all -as we are talking about creating some kind of mediation between informal and formal conversations the host of that conversation could come from either end of that spectrum.  In terms of the practicalities of getting something like this in motion there are a few reasons to look to an institutional model:

  • Resources – Local Authorities are not swimming with free time but once they decide to do something they are able to resource an idea both in terms of people and actual cash
  • Responsibilities – it is not clear where the responsibility for local democracy sits – I would argue that the public should take far more responsibility but the fact is that recent legislation and the infrastructure leans towards the idea that Local Authorities are the custodians of local democratic processes. This does not mean that they ‘own’ it but it does mean they have more auditable responsibilities than anyone else which makes them more inclined to do something about it.
  • Knowledge – Local Authorities tend to have institutional knowledge about process and about services which means that they are very well placed to be central to a wide ranging conversations. They are also structured and organised to have these conversations
  • Representative democracy – Local Authorities are the home of the elected representatives and if we are going to join this all up again then this needs to be taken into account.

There is also a personal bias in here – I have worked with Local Government for nearly 10 years and so would hope to understand it better than I would the other alternatives – direct community engagement or working through third sector organisations.

However these are all practical concerns and none of this points really relates to community leadership or who has the best understanding of what the community needs – but these practical concerns give us a starting point for a process.

You do also have to take into account that there are tensions in this approach that need thinking about:

  • One of the reasons that trust in local decision making is difficult to build is because a lot of power is seated with the Local Authority – they currently run the budget, manage the services and co-ordinate the decision making process. This means that as organisations they are managing a lot of tensions and without being very familiar with the people and the processes it is easy for the public to assume that they are balancing this badly.
  • The usual suspects problem – Anyone involved in community engagement knows that there is a risk of ‘institutionalising’ community representatives so that they think too much like the local authority to be considered representative. This problem should also be turned around and applied to Local Authorities as institutionalised thinking can inability creative thinking and innovation.

I think that arguably a community led model could on the other hand provide a far more vibrant local conversation – my question is would it provide local decision making? I would like to test this – but my initial feeling is that it is unrealistic to expect the community to self-organise in this way without a lot of support. I believe this is where the project that Michelle Ide Smith is running in Cambridgeshire is focusing but will need to ask her in more detail.

There is of course the option of a trusted third party model through third party organisations and NGOs. This is along the lines that Stephen Coleman was describing in his writing around ‘a civic commons for cyberspace‘. This may well be the direction of travel with community ‘boards’ being created in order to manage the local civic space and you can see that as LSPs start to develop, as more single tier authorities are created and as initiatives such as Total Place focus in on describable regions it is clearer how this could work. However for the purposes of trialling these ideas there is no-on I can see to interface with – though I would be interested to here if anyone else has thoughts on this.

So – is this a reason or a load of self-justification about the constitution of the pilot programme?  Hopefully neither – I am going to see what I can do to try and get a community based trial running – or look around to see if there is something comparable in existence so that I can compare the approaches. For me, as per the last post, the issue is currently around building a shared civic space that is trusted and can meet the requirements of democratic accountability. Who builds it is perhaps less important.