I was at the excellent Digital Futures event  in Shropshire on Monday and spoke about Community Engagement – here is the presentation from the event if you are interested:

It was an excellent day and hats off to @ashroplad for his curation of the day.  Lots of great presentations but the standouts for me were Carrie Bishop talking about digital by design not default and minimal use of technology and Alison from Pesky People who with humour and determination hammered home the point that technology has no excuse not to be accessible.  I also enjoyed hearing @loulouk sharing some of the highs and lows of GDS’s work with social media – great to see a high profile group being prepared to share their less than brilliant experiences as well as the stuff that goes well.

I was talking about the way in which networked technologies cause ‘disintermediation’  – removing intermediaries from processes and relationships – and what this pressure might mean for Citizen / Government relationships which are often mediated by the Community Engagement process.  My experience is from the digital democracy world – but my point is that the offline process needs to respond the change being driven online.

We have been doing a lot of work on Community Engagement over the last year both on our own and with our partners Demsoc and OCSI (we don’t just talk networks – we work in them!).  The work has spanned the CRIF project in Cambridgeshire, the NESTA Funded We Live Here project in Brighton and at the moment as part of the advisory and research work we are doing with the APCC and APACE around the new Police and Crime Commissioner roles.  Having these new roles to think about really opens up the debate and has started to develop into some principles which we are applying to projects:

  • Digital by Default – not just taking digital as your main channel but by taking the behaviours that we find online and applying them to the offline relationship
  • Open by Default – Putting the emphasis on an open, shared and public evidence base that can be used and contributed to by all participants as well as a creating a process which allows new ideas and agenda items to come from Citizens as well as the process manager
  • Networked – Connecting and creating ‘networks of networks’ which can maintain themselves (because they already are) but contribute to a wider more representative discussion
  • Agile – reacting to new evidence and ideas in a controlled but responsive way

That first one is now back on the drawing board as I think that Carrie is right to talk about digital by design however I also want it to reflect the fact that its about being culturally not just technically digital – might try our digitally native instead – views please!

We are influenced by the Asset Based Community Development approach of people like Jim Diers and our starting point for any project is to go and find the people in the community who are already talking as they are the starting point for your network – we use our social media audit process to do this.  By running and open and agile process from the start, and by making good use of both digital channels and offline events, we have a developed a new approach to Community Engagement.  We also put a shared, robust and OPEN evidence base central to what we do.

Up to this point we have strong evidence and experience which shows that this a highly effective – and cost-effective way of approaching community engagement which leaves you with a reusable asset in terms of a platform and a network of ‘willing localists’.

We think that this can go further however and so within these principles we embed an objective to create more co-productive outcomes – the final stage of community engagement should be a co-productive and self-managing network of local participants.  Over time the investment in creating these networks should reduce the costs of community engagement but more importantly strengthen the ability of communities to help themselves.

Community Engagement should be about creating the right kind of relationship between Citizens and Government and as such it should integrate communication, consultation and the democratic process – which means that reimaging Community Engagement means reimaging the role of the representative within it.  If we are going to ask more of our communities, and I think the financial picture if nothing else means that we are, then it is vital that we renegotiate this relationship.

One of the items we have put in our proposal for Creative Councils is the suggestion that we host an Action Research network looking at the emergent changes in the way in which officers and members are interacting with citizens.  Following a fascinating meeting with some local community engagement experts and councillors last week I wanted to let more people know what we are up to as there are lots of opportunities to collaborate – I hope!

The exploration of new forms of engagement is a strand of work which has been emerging from the We Live Here project, and to be honest a number of other things I have been working on. Its obvious that if we your ambition is to try to reinvigorate civic participation – or at least give it the environment it needs to flourish in the 21st century – then you also need to work with engagement officers and volunteers to look at how their professional practice needs to adjust to this change. We want to make sure that we are doing robust research into the effects – planned and unplanned – that we are having at the same time as ensuring that we don’t get focused on evaluation rather than progress and we believe that an action research approach will help achieve this.

Action research is a method of actively participating in change projects at the same time as conducting research. The ambition with We Live Here, and perhaps further projects, is to embed research practices into the project process so that we can capture the learning that emerges. By making this a wider project than just We Live Here we can draw on wider expertise and draw wider conclusions about the work that we are doing.

I feel really strongly that research and practice need to come together to support innovation in any kind of service design. This means that the academics need to get out of their universities and the participants need to build research techniques into their practice. With our project, which is all about building capacity on all sides for more co-productive working then the participants are not just the professionals – we want the community to actively participate in the research as well.

Using a research orientated structure for the project also starts to address the question of systematic evaluation. Its difficult to evaluate innovative projects where many of the benefits may be unexpected and where the form of the project may change many times within the project frame. However in combination with the agile approach and a strong vision for the outcome we are aiming for I think its possible to embed a research strand within the project which will support the agile project working and also help ensure that we are changing with meaning.

The basic outline of this will be fairly simple as we can’t risk over balancing the work with too much focus on research outcomes but I imagine the following:

  • Design and embed data collection within the project – both in the technology and also in the way we manage offline interviews and meetings
  • Systematic action research blogging from as many participants as possible
  • Regular write up and reflection from the research team on the data which is gathered

A lot of this is about how we set the project up for the next phase as we have the intention of supporting the work with research then this should be achievable.

I also think that the action research approach dovetails neatly with the agile project management approach. You can read more about agile here but one of the essential elements of agile software development is the inclusion of unit and regression testing. Adopting research practices within the project framework does something parallel to this testing within the the social as opposed to the purely technical environment.

I will do a more detailed post on the proposed design of the process (when we know how much money if any we have to spend on it!) but as we have continuation money and support from the Council anyway we will be able to implement this in some form. I also hope to be able to find some people at Brighton and Sussex universities who want to collaborate on this as well as connecting with the other projects going on in the City.

I was at a meeting discussing this last week and there was some blurring of terms between action learning and action research. I think this very clearly needs to be considered action research. Action learning would imply that we know what these new skills and techniques are going to be and we don’t – we have some ideas about what is needed but until we test and develop this we won’t be able to produce the evidence or systematically reproduce this in learning.

The kind of skills and attitudes we see emerging are varied; we need to build facilitation and convening skills. We need to understand how networked power works online and offline and we need to find ways to involve the people who don’t need us but can help us rather than the ones most lacking skills.

Perhaps the most difficult thing that is needed is for professional participants to work towards their own redundancy. There is a seductive quality to being needed by communities which needs to be overcome if we genuinely want them to be more self-reliant but that not a new problem – we just can’t afford not to solve it. More than that, if we consider the idea that we are moving towards a radically smaller state (which the finances point towards whatever your political views on the subject) then we also need to give these people a self-belief and skills which mean that they have a personal confidence that there will be something else to do when this community no longer needs them. This is going to be hard.

We are only scratching the surface of what this means and we are in common with many other projects who are looking at how the relationship between citizens and state might change in all kinds of ways. Within Brighton there is a developing use of Participatory Budgeting as well as the planned Neighbourhood Councils pilots which are being considered at the next Cabinet meeting. Within Creative Councils Cornwall and York are also looking at different forms of citizen participation and in its widest form most of the Creative Councils projects are looking at this issue of the renegotiation of the Citizen / State relationship.  However – I feel that if we don’t start to join up some of these experiences systematically then we miss the chance to draw wider conclusions.  I have been combining project work and research for a few years now and though by no means an expert I think the combination of these two mindsets can be powerful.

So, the ambition is to create an action research group based in Brighton which will support this process. Rather than trying to formalise it from the start we will just get on with it within the We Live Here project and make it as open as possible to other interested parties – either researchers, practitioners or just the generally interested. I hope that by doing it this way we can attract the expertise we need as well as progressing past the planning stage that so many ideas get stuck in.

I’ll be blogging progress here so let me know if you want to get involved.

Last night we held our second community meeting for We Live Here in the lovely Electika Cafe on Western Road (yes – that was a plug – it is lovely and they were kind enough to open for us in the evening – they also followed through on our project meeting promise of cake at every meeting). This was for the Brunswick site – which was originally Brunswick and Regency until we realised (though the research process) that this was two distinct areas that would probably work better as two separate project sites.

Brunswick is a real mix of demographics with high density short term occupancy alongside beautiful and much loved Regency Terraces. We found a huge amount going on online and offline but we also found it was fairly disconnected with relatively few linkages between groups and projects.

Learning from the first community event we held, this was never intended to be a huge meeting but instead a chance to test our ideas on residents and get permission to carry on developing them as we feel at a point where we can’t continue without active participation from the people who live in the areas we are working in.

We therefore contacted participants based on people we had met through the research and the event was a bit like Brunswick in that it turned into more creative and free form drop in session than a formal meeting. We had a good turn out however with one ward councillor and 4 local activists over the course of the evening.

From the WLH here team we had Anthony, Nicky, Susie and I – with me facilitating, Anthony pitching the project and Susie describing the research as she has the most in-depth knowledge of the area.

The advantage of the drop in format was that we got to test the pitch a few times. Specifically for Brunswick we put forward:

  • We think that there is a lot of participation in the area but it is disconnected and not well networked
  • It is difficult for new people to get involved because there is no visible way of connecting to ‘the community’
  • We think that technology can help connect groups and activities and make civic society easier to participate with
  • This doesn’t mean doing everything online – it means using digital to connect and communicate and make it easier for people to participate on their own terms

As with other meetings the idea came alive for people when we showed them the prototypes sites and also when we explained that this was a tool to connect existing content rather than a new website that would need feeding and updating.

Overall the analysis of the area and the proposition was received really positively (including by the Ward councillor) and the group clearly ‘got it’ and left the session generally feeling enthused. Which happily meant that they raised some interesting points:

  • There was some interest in how an approach like this could help cooperation between established groups. There is a fair amount of ‘volunteer fatigue’ and it would make a big different to mitigate this
  • The participants felt that their local ward councillors were doing a good job and they were really positive about their responsiveness and profile with activists. Both Councillors mentioned are extremely digitally able and we explored whether this was a good opportunity to look at tools to strengthen the representative function. Intriguing. Ideas discussed included Realtime FOI on local issues, Integration with fix my street to include escalation to members, Audit trail of case work and ‘Crowd sourcing’ answers to questions so that members only have to respond once
  • The emphasis on this was on providing a good democratic process – this was a reasonable group that don’t just want to get their own way but they want to stop being bounced between officers and members and they would like more transparency about the decision making process. This is not really in relation to the big decisions – the example repeatedly cited was with a question about getting white lines painted.

We also had a very legitimate challenge about digital inclusion – something that frequently comes up and we think has three elements to the answer:

  • We don’t see this as an online only project – the technology can help connect people and make offline events better at the same time
  • We need to find ways to reach offline spaces – with noticeboards and community venues
  • We have to be realistic and clear that we believe that the social shift is towards more online activity and we have to respond to this

Reflecting after the meeting we think there is a possibility to network groups together here and create a kind of shared governance which is available to manage both cooperation and conflict.

I also keep coming back to the lack of understanding of the officer role within the community – even with a group as informed as this one there is a sense of not understanding where responsibiloty sites between officer/member and there was also a frustration that including a councillor seems to stimulate activity even when it appears to be an officer job to sort. We know that this is not what officers intend and also that the boundaries between them and the members feel unclear to them as well. My other observation is that all three parts of this triangle officer/member/citizen just don’t understand enough about the other’s perspective or context and don’t take what seems to be an obvious step of just treating people like people and asking. This is a poorly formed observation at the moment but one I will mull over more – but it is part of where we want to reach to with We Live Here. I think the answer lies in the idea of being open by default – more on that here.

Back to the meeting – most of the people who attended would like to continue to work with us and we have had offers to take the project to others in the community to widen the group. We have agreed to try and attend a couple more local events to widen the message about the work with a few to having a more formal planning / development / ideas meeting in June.

In the meantime we will be continuing with the social media surgery programme as this has been really well received – and it is a really important element of the overall approach.  The fact that we are there doing something useful makes a big difference to how open the people we speak to are to our ideas.  This should be obvious but I am not sure how often engagement starts with simply offering to help.  With the social media surgeries the suggestion from the meeting is that we do leaflet drops in specific streets before each surgery. As my office is right in the middle of the area I have said I will help with this (digital commitment to make it easier for Susie to get me to do it!)

This is really the first step in properly passing ownership of the project to the community and we feel we have permission from a few key people to continue to develop the idea in the community. It would be so much faster just to dive into a build phase on this but it would be wrong – this has to be co-produced and not designed from the outside and so finding active participants who see the value of it is a vital step. There is loads more to do but we have a strong start I think.

Thanks to all who took part.

This post describes the state of play with respect to the social network analysis process we have been using for We Live Here.  In short – we have a method but we need to be better at using it.


A complete social network analysis of a neighbourhood or community would be a time consuming and expensive piece of work. If your intent is to use the discovered networks as the basis for community engagement activities then argueably an extensive exercise is not good value for money becuase of the dynamic nature of networks and the need to re-investgigate the network to discover the changes.

With We Live Here our objective has been to sample the network only to the extent which is necessary to create enough linkages to make it possible to create a dynamic entity which can then go on to self-manage further discovery and growth. Essentially we are looking for a catalyst group which will then work to find and connect the wider network within the community.

The sampling therefore needs to be robust enough to give confidece that we have found useful people but lightweight enough to be affordable to implement across large areas.

In Social Network Analysis terms this is broadly speaking a ‘snowball’ approach which explores the network from multiple points of entry rather than doing a complete sampling from specific individuals – in essence we are trying to understand reach rather than depth of social ties.

This echoes the practical sense in which we are using the SNA in order to support communication primarily rather than creating social cohesion which we see following on as a positive byproduct of improved communicative ties.

We are also trying to find community actors who are not currently participating in ways which are already known to the public sector as well as creating an overview of public sector activities in the area or topic we are examining.

This search for new kinds of participants could start in of variety of places. We focus on an online search which yields the kind of partcipants who have the skills that we need for We Live Here and also highlights new kinds of informal civic participation.

The process is now defined as follows:

1) Research scope – agree the online search terms and also the initial list for face to face interviews
2) Carry out online and initial SNA in parallel
3) Pause for analysis and definition of community interviews
4) Conduct community interviews
5) Pause again for data analysis
6) at this point we either loop until we are happy with the results or
7) Check data as part of Social Media Surgery conversation
8) present results in online directory + community meeting

With this kind of approach the most important element is finding the right point of entry into the network. If we do not discover this at point (3) then further research is needed before we start the community SNA process. Different techniques can be employed to find these points of entry and part of the agility of this approach is to ensure that you do not commit time to the process before you feel confident that you have identified these points.

The initial research as part of the pilot process tool at least 10 days per site. We expect to halve this for the second iteration and our ambition is to acheive 3 days research for the final process.

Where does this go wrong?

Our biggest mistake is in not remembering that this is a rapid sampling method rather than a complete analysis.  Our objective is highly tactical and we need to keep at the from of our minds the fact that we are just looking for the point of entry and critical mass rather than a full picture which would be unattainable on the resources we are putting to this.  For the next iterations we need to be better at limiting the time we spend on dead ends in network terms and keep coming back to find a new way in.

We (and this is really me) also need to be more disciplined about regular research reviews.  Its very tempting to leave this to look after itself but the data needs to be looked at systematically on a regular basis to avoid falling down a rabbit hole.

Where does it go right?

Overall we are pleased with the method and are looking forward to trying it out from scratch with the next sites (more on that soon).  Its proving robust and also effective at helping to change the dynamic of community conversations.  In terms of formalising it I plan at some point to draw out and document some of the methods we have used to find the starting point as well as tightening up the write up of the discovery process used once we have the point of entry.

What’s next?

We are currently working on the plan for the next 12 months.  We have commitments from the Council of course but we’re delighted that the NHS is also going to be formally involved in the next stage.  We increasingly think that there is huge strengths in this kind of model being open to different public bodies and we are looking forward to exploring the practicalities of what this might mean.

I also need to write up our first community meetings – will do that this week – promise.