I was the Guardian’s Public Leaders Summit on Wednesday as well as at the NLGN’s Future Councillor event on Saturday and this post is reflection on both of those events. I’ve also been hearing back from some of the Police Officers I am working with on the Strategic Command Course and this has also influenced me – I’ll be interested to hear if other people feel the same themes emerging.

The Guardian event was excellent. Some amazing speakers and an introduction to the diagram of doom BEYOND Barnet’s graph of doom – who knew there were scissors of doom??? The content will be covered on the Guardian website so I’m not going to into it in detail here – instead I want to highlight themes and gaps.

There were two main themes for me:

  • The need to embed transparency at a cultural level. Most of the speakers mentioned it and the Chairman of John Lewis gave a really great description of the simple expediency of being more transparent with staff. I think transparency is one of the simplest (note simplest not easiest) cultural changes to bring about as we can do a lot by engineering change systemically rather than behaviourally and this could be a good place to get started – as long as you are ready and braced for the inevitable unexpected byproducts of this shift. We perhaps talk about this more than simply working through the system changes that would start the ball rolling. I know I can be accused of oversimplification here but I am thinking back to a recent conversation with Simon Cole which made me reflect on the pointlessness of over thinking the destination when you already know the first stage of the route you want to take. Perhaps one of the aspects of a more co-productive set of relationships is that we let go of the destination a little bit more.
  • Collaboration as the new norm. Everyone said this – and a brief discussion on twitter afterwards highlighted the fact that this is more than partnership working. Partnership can be argued to be a structural response where collaboration is a cultural one. Michael Coughlin expressed this as the difference between salad and soup (I liked this analogy but on reflection and as I have a visceral dislike of lettuce soup – so slimy – I will not be using it – sorry Michael!). It was good to hear this repeated so many times but personally I feel as if we have a really long way to go on this and perhaps the biggest shift we need to make is to accept that until we embed collaboration in the culture then we are going to be overly dependent on key individuals who currently make this happen. We will need to work on how we highlight and incentivise these behaviours before this will be a systemic shift. Part of this should be supporting people to collaborate internally as well as externally and also looking outside of the public sector.

Its impossible to talk about collaboration without also talking about power – and I think you can argue that more collaborative working shows a shift from established hierarchical power to more networked power.  One final reflection is that the room ‘felt’ like old power not new power to me.

And now we move onto to what I felt were the elephants in the room – things we didn’t talk about.

The first of these was any kind of real discussion about the political process and the fact that our adversarial political culture, and perhaps our politicians, are the one of the biggest barriers we have both to radical change and in particular to more radical collaboration. Now – I am at the radical end of change with respect to democratic reform but I think we have to deeply consider how we might reinvent politics to make it relevant for a networked and digital world with a far more participatory culture. This is a tall order for a one day event but I hope that this is a discussion which goes ‘mainstream’ this year as I don’t think its reasonable to have public sector workers fight to manage radical disruption with one hand tied behind their backs as the politics fails to change. The kinds of question we could get started with are:

  • Do we need to make political reform a priority? Or at least a high profile narrative to give people confidence to innovate?
  • Does our political process facilitate collaboration?
  • Are we ready for staff to be citizens?

This doesn’t apply to all politicians by any stretch – I work with many exceptional ones – but the system as a whole needs a rethink.

I also felt that we didn’t touch enough on the potential of digital to support and even accelerate behaviour change. This is perhaps partly a result of my own ‘lens’ on the world but its absence concerned me as it perhaps indicates something that I have seen about the place which is an absence of someone who can articulate digital strategy at the top table. We need to treat technology as a driver of long term change and not just leave it hidden in the ICT department. This discussion of technology needs to be from the perspective of how the public and industry are using it not from an internal prospective as we need to understand the world as it is in order to reform how we deliver services.

This leads me to another observation which is driven by a number if conversations I have had recently about the role of technology and the laziness with which we come back to using twitter as ‘the’ example of what is possible. As I have said before, Twitter is not the network. Its of immense relevance to the media and also beloved by many professionals for its immediate access to information but its not representative and it is just one tool with a business model that will only last as long as it has our attention. There will be many highly effective networked representatives and organisations who don’t choose to use it because people are creating all kinds of alternative networked and collaborative tools and applying these to civic issues. We need to look beyond twitter firstly to build strategies that take advantage of the full disruptive power of social technologies in a positive way but secondly because you can’t build a strategy on the back of a commercial platform over which you have no control and who might change the rules of engagement at any time.

And this leads me to my final point. If we all think that procurement is so central to driving real change and collaboration then we really do need to get together and fix it – delegating this down will not get this done. Anyone for #commissioningcamp ??

 

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

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

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

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

Digital Civic Spaces

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

Happy New Year folks

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

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.

Here’s the thing. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for people who choose to stand in local elections. Local politics is a fairly thankless task however with a few exceptions we see exceptional public service from our local politicians. At the same time I find it screamingly frustrating as to how slow the adoption of new approaches and behaviours can be within this group.

This is an action research diary post for me and as such important that I state my personal bias on this subject (if the above doesn’t make it clear!!). I am a very strong supporter of the importance of having a representative democracy but I believe that elections do not deliver a perfect mandate and that politicians have an obligation to have an ongoing dialogue with their electorate to help shape their views and understand their preferences. I also think that this dialogue needs to be carried out openly and in places where it is possible for as many people as possible to participate. I think that today, to make this possible,  politicians will need to make far better use of online tools.

I spend a lot of time with Councillors and I am fairly regularly asked to do social media workshops of one kind or another with them – usually by Officers motivated by the same combination of feelings that I expressed above. I no longer use these as an opportunity to talk about tools as I have reached the conclusion that any idiot can learn to use twitter if they choose to (the evidence is there!) and these people are (in the main) not idiots. My belief is that the reason we don’t see wide scale adoption of social media tools is that most members lack the sense of urgency and purpose which would lead them to go online and talk to people.

When you dig a little deeper in this there are a few reasons underneath this lack of urgency which I think we can pithily sum up as confidence, ignorance and arrogance.

Confidence or lack thereof
The confidence point is of course about lack of confidence. Many of our politicians are older and often have not had to make a professional adjustment to new technologies in their working lives. In the same way as any other digitally excluded group they need to be given the confidence to try some of this stuff out. This is not about ‘training’ people though basic skills are of course needed. This is more about sitting down and giving people one to one support (in the way its done in social media surgeries) to help them achieve the things they want to do. Yes – this is more time consuming that running a course but ultimately it is hugely more effective. While on the subject of time – the other thing I try and is to help people think about how this will work with their wider workflow rather than as an extra task in its own right. So, if you have people like this in your council then sit down with them and talk about what they might want to achieve online.

Ignorance?
For some Members it really is as simple as pointing out the growth and centrality of digital technologies for civic use. Those of us who are fairly immersed in this stuff and see the growth in hyperlocal sites or community projects online get frustrated about the pace of change but one of the effects of the online space is the homogeneity of our experience – we tend to see what the people we follow see and this creates an amplification effect around the perceived centrality of social media. The truth is probably balanced somewhere between us evangelist types and the people who are not online at all. Simply pointing out the facts (and there are loads) on online adoption and the behaviour shifts seen with smartphone and tablet take up is often enough to get people thinking differently. By drawing together some of the offline social changes around for example in the shift towards less hierarchical and more networked organisations, or by looking at the public desire for greater openness which is so central to the online world, you can present the growth of social media as a symptom as much as a cause and so give it the relevance it needs if people are going to dedicate time to using it. Want to do something to help these people? Show them the facts.

Apathy or arrogance?
However, there is another group of members who I encounter who object to social media not because they don’t see how it could help but because they don’t think the public want to participate. This will either be spoken of in resigned terms – “I wish the public were interested but they just aren’t” or in a slightly more aggressive tone of “my voters are perfectly happy and don’t need any more contact with me”. The members who make this point are often fairly cross about the idea of more participation being needed – I am not sure if they are threatened or just a bit insulted by the idea. What I am not sure about with respect to the group is whether at the heart of it they are rejecting the idea that we need to change the way we are ‘doing democracy’ which is implicit in my belief that we need greater participation between elections. This group put the problem of democratic deficit fairly squarely on the shoulders of the public who are not turning out to vote. I find this group particularly disturbing because I meet a lot of them – I am not sure I have a suggestion for how to make a difference here apart from persistence and robust debate.
Most groups I encounter will have a mix of enthusiasts and openminded learners but there are always some of the these rather angry people who just don’t want things to change. Some of them have a thought out position on this but many that I encounter don’t.  It is the balance of these groups within a Council that is critical to moving forward. The more I do these sessions the more I let my frustration show (which is possibly not a good thing) because I think the evidence of the need for change in the democratic process is mounting and we are also close to a burning platform of financial crisis in Local government which, irrespective of ideological concerns will make it essential that we evolve the citizen/state relationship because we will need to the public to do more for themselves. And you know what, there is also evidence that in the right circumstances that they are prepared to do more.

This post is really the result of nearly 10 years of observations with respect to asking Politicians to consider how technology can change democracy. When we started suggesting that people webcast their council meeting we were met with a similar set of objections (and the far more relevant challenge of the fact that video over the 56kbps modem really did test your democratic resolve) and in some ways this has not changed. What has changed is the politics around this. We find far fewer Councils where the idea of using technology to make the Council more open and transparent (which is I believe the thrust of the webcasting project) is being rejected or being made to be a political issue and the battle ground around technology in the chamber has shifted to the degree of public participation. Even then we don’t see this splitting along party lines as we did with the webcasting and this is more likely to split along luddite / evangelist lines – with these two groups each having good and bad reasons for their positions. This makes the task of trying to create change programmes with members even greater as we are seeing two different interlocking dynamics as the party / technology groupings are different.

Returning to the question of participation, we are seeing more and more social media active members we are not seeing a step change in the way in which Councillors behave and I doubt we will with the current mix of enthusiasts, learners and naysayers. We will continue to see incremental change and improvement in this space but we won’t shift this as quickly as many of us would like without raising the level of urgency about this agenda.

What can we do this?

This isn’t about getting members online – as far as I am concerned this is about evolving our democratic process to respond to the social changes that we see with a more networked society. Getting members online and using social media could be seen as a positive byproduct of this process which is why the focus has to be on giving them a reason to go online rather than just teaching people tools.

There is also the question as to whether you should prioritise democratic reform when the rest of the system needs attention? I think we have to. There are financial savings to be had in changing the way that we manage our democracy and social gains to be made by creating a more connected community.

One way of moving forward on this is to remove the buffer zone of community engagement work and start to educate the public about politics. This is problematical as the public demonstrably dislike politics and process (Hansard) but by building the demand for change outside of the usual suspects group of digital evangelists we increase the chances of being heard.

Another way is for a body like the LGA to take responsibility for pushing this agenda, or for Political parties to take this on.  Another possibility is that we see something like the Pirate Party start to have the disruptive effect that has been seen in other EU democracies.

There is an inherent problem with democratic reform in that the time we get to spend on it is limited by the event horizon of the next election.  Perhaps the most important thing that may need to happen is for this issue of greater participation between elections needs to gain the kind of persistence in political circles that the idea of openness and transparency seems to have now done so that this debate can grow past the next vote.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again to the #ukgc12 folks

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

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

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

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

B&R First iteration network map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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