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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What are these civic spaces anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the right circumstances?

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

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

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

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

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

Code is law online

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

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

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

I sometimes use the description of the internet as being very like a teenager, messy, difficult, and creative and with a tremendous energy and excitement that is not always focused constructively.  The shifting cultural norms online feel as if they are driven by that generation and it’s not surprising – anyone born after 1993 has only know a networked world.  The issue for all of us is how we integrate these new behaviours into our organisations and how do we influence them towards more traditional ways of doing things – how do we respond the cultural challenges of a networked society?

You can’t find an answer before you have a really good question and I think we need to ask ourselves what are the unique pressures that we are seeing right now that mean we need to respond with culture and behaviour change rather than process re-engineering and re-structuring?  Personally I think there are three main effects we need to consider:

  • Real time information
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Not surprisingly I see all of these as a product of a more networked society and I see the answer as bringing greater agility into our work practices.  ‘Agile’ is a software development approach that has core principles which can be applied to other business processes, it reflects the speed and pragmatism of the web without forgetting the need for control and quality management.

Responding to a changing world

Real time information is something that we increasingly take for granted – I use twitter for this but mainstream news is also moving to real time reporting with eye witness accounts and user generated content.  The question for me is how your organisation becomes part of this information flow without compromising on process and accuracy – fast shouldn’t mean sloppy.  The example that springs to mind was from some officers who are taking part in our Virtual Policing study who had to stand next to journalists who were tweeting inaccurate information because those officers had not had the story officially confirmed to them.  Clearly you can’t have officers making up the official line on a story on the spot – but they do need some real time responses they can use and they do need a closer to real time response from the communications team than having to wait for the Press release.  I am sure that this is a process issue that is echoed in many other organisations – the question is how do you make it more agile?

Our process thinking has been massively influenced by Just In Time production management approaches – we have industrialised production of content and services in the same way as manufacturing modularised and productised its processes of production.

I am suggesting that this is no longer the most efficient way of working and that in a networked and conversational world its no longer the most efficient response to write one really thorough response that may take a while to prepare – you need to communicate a little and often and make it clear what you do and don’t know.

Transparency leads a necessity to be much more clear about knowledge bounds – you can’t claim expertise and authority without being able to back these claims up as people expect to be able to be able to ‘click here to find out more’.  We write ourselves into being online and we do this by transparently showing our views, ideas and feelings.  The consequence of this is that we are pushed towards thinking institutionally in public – which means that we won’t always have the final answer.

Transparency sits very closely with collaboration.  With reducing budgets there is a clear need to consider how to collaborate with partners and with the public more effectively.  You can’t collaborate effectively without trust and transparency is one way of fast tracking establishing that trust – not to mention making working together more effective as you can clearly see what the other people are up to.

I was speaking at conference recently and was asked ‘who is losing power if the people are gaining it?’ – The answer is the state.  More co-productive ways of working mean that the people at the top of a top down structure are losing power and this needs to be faced.  I think this shift is best articulated as the fact that more transparent and collaborative ways of working mean that ‘the people’ collectively gave a greater sense of their own power – you get the confidence to act because you know that other people feel the same way.  The point is that this can be true internally as much as externally – don’t we want our staff to have a sense of what they can achieve and the ability to get on and do it?

This is what brings me back to thinking about culture and behaviour change.  These pressures are opportunities to effect change internally as we respond to externally circumstances – indeed if we don’t transform ourselves then we reduce our ability to deal effectively with that external world.  If the world is changing then we need to change as well.

Organisationally I think agility really comes down to two things – having a shared set of values and a clearly understood vision of what you are trying to achieve – a well-articulated objective.  Is anyone else flashing back to about a dozen leadership books and motivational speakers?

An agile process is slightly more than that – it releases on that vision and values but it then responds to the changing environment.  Agile processes work in short iterative cycles that allow you to act immediately in a controlled way – going back to that Police example the press office could be asked to tweet a holding message – and then short updates that make it clear what is and isn’t know at that point.  The immediate objective here is to reassure the public and to make it clear you have the situation in hand – not actually to pass information so this doesn’t need a lot of thought or a full press release.  Communicate a little and often with a clear view on who is able to do this in real time in a crisis situation.

How do you influence behaviour? 

I am coming from a point of view that says that the developing network society is one of the main pressures here and so my suggestion is the adoption of the tools of the network society is a useful first step to do this.  Use yammer internally, blog your management minutes rather than sticking them in a word document and use tools like basecamp to create collaborative workspaces.  Technology does not change people – but it can change behaviours and it can expose the attitudes and assumptions of the people who are creating it.  The network society is a more conversational, collaborative, transparent and real-time space – use its tools to explore what that means.  It’s also not a change that can happen without some kind of experiential element – you need to find the usefulness within these tools so that they become relevant – otherwise you’ll be asking your staff to join the LOL cat movement.

Build relationships

Its also worth thinking about how you build networks within your organisation – you already have people who are using these tools to talk about their hobbies, manage their photos or keep in touch with family and you want them to transfer these skills internally.  More than that you want to open up the possibilities and creativity that a more networked way of working can facilitate.  This is going to need a different kind of mentoring and support than more traditional structures – you want to break down barriers of hierarchy and also of organisation. Run internal social media surgeries, encourage staff to attend unconferences and city camps in order to connect to the people who are already working in new ways and let these networks grow organically – you can start to think about structure and order when there is actually something there to organise – in the first place you need to find and support the people who can already work in new ways as it can be a lonely business trying to bring about cultural change on your own.

Ultimately its all about making better decisions.

I believe is that you aim here is to be able to pass the decision the place closest to the issue so that you have faster and more effective organisational reactions.  However to do that you need to also get the information and the strategic there so that those decisions are backed up by the right organisational knowledge.  You also need to make sure that staff have an understanding of your organisation that goes beyond being able to recite the strategy – they need to understand your values and your purpose as well.  You need to wrestle brand off the design people and give it some heart.

But we’re not out of control yet

This does not have to mean a loss of control by the organisation it just means that the control moves – an agile process is not undisciplined.  Testing and evaluation is an inherent part of the mind set and you are trying to create new processes that are fast but measured in the way that they work.  In software terms you use unit testing to check each element is working – in policy terms you need to check each deliverable against the actual objective – does it move you forward?  If you bring this unit testing idea to policy making and implementation that you have to push the understanding of the objective out to the whole delivery team so that they can effectively make this judgement as they encounter variations and impacts from the environment.

Where do we go from here?

If you have got this far and appreciate the sense of urgency then you need to think about some tangible actions – you can’t change your organisation without changing your own behaviour

  • Get started – use the tools of the network society, communicate the objective as well as the plan and work both transparently and collaboratively so that it’s easier to learn from your experiences.  The social web tolerates and expects experimentation and you can’t learn from this environment unless you use it – get in the game.  If you are already online then think about how you mainstream your involvement – don’t let it be a side line that you fit in around your day job.
  • Accept complexity and plan for it – Agile assumes that we are not working in a closed system and that the environment effects our outcomes.  We know this is true so it makes sense to have an approach that accommodates changes and complexity rather than futile attempts to manage it out of existence.
  • Establish your relevance and communicate it – in a transparent world you need to understand where you fit and make sure everyone else does as well.  If you are pushing decision making out to the edges of your organisation then you need to give them the framework to work within

We are coming up fast to the point where the majority of people will be online and engaged digitally.  There will always be pockets of people that will be hard to reach but the people working within your organisations will be living networked and digital lives.  It becomes impossible to keep this fact out of your organisational culture – the question is how you change to get the best out of the new skills and opportunities without losing the essence of who you are.

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.

This post is a good example of where my work and research start to come together.  Over at Public-i we have been working on a number of social media audits for clients and I have been working on a more formal framework to deliver this (white paper on this soon) and so I have been thinking more detail about the content that we are interested in when we talk about the local civic conversation.

Much of my interest in the social web stemmed from the fact that useful content started to emerge.  Now – useful is an extremely subjective term but in my context I am talking about content that is both pro-social and constructive.  The fact that people would set up websites to talk to and with their community is useful, the fact that I can read blogs of people who are thinking about the big political issues is useful and the fact that I am more likely to find a solution to the rather off-colour state of my wisteria on a gardening club website rather than a reference book is useful.  I did say that useful is a subjective description.

My PHD research is about trying to narrow down and describe one element of this content which I am calling civic creation.  This is content that is informal and user generated but is aimed at talking to your community – not just to friends, family or your peer group – it has an assumption of and desire for public-ness from the author.  Even more specifically this is content which has the intent of talking about how your locality works and should work – its content which is rooted in place even if that is secondary to a particular interest or issue.

The first step therefore in finding civic is defining the geographic scope for your definition of local and this needs to be done using the language and definitions of the citizens – not of the state (more than that here).  Once you have this scope then you need to look at what people are doing – you can read more about this here but I categorise participant’s behaviour into four types:

Category Intent
Informal social I use social media in order to socialise with my friends and family – I just want to keep in touch with people
Informal Civic I use social media in order to connect to my local community and talk about issues which I think are important to us
Formal Civic I use social media to make sure that the views of my community are considered by decision makers and are part of the final decision. I want to influence things
Formal Democratic I want to be part of setting the agenda for my community – I want to change things

All of these behaviours exist in the local digital space and individuals and groups will move between these behaviours – its another aspect to the malleability of the social web where people participate as people usually in the full range of their interests.  However I am focusing on the informal civic behaviours and the question for this post is how you go about finding evidence of the informal civic content which I am proposing should be the starting point for local democratic debate and decision making.

Intent may be descriptive but its very difficult to ascribe to someone else’s content reliably – which means it is not useful in terms of how we might find this informal civic content – its only useful in retrospect.  This question of finding informal civic content is key if you are thinking about how to create a shared civic space – somewhere where you gather together the different civic voices in a community and connect them to the formal decision making process – and you can’t find content unless you have defined what it is and you know what to look for.

Its important to remember however that we are not really looking for the content – we’re looking for the people and communities who are creating the content.  If we’re looking for evidence of Civic Content creation then we are looking for Civic Creators.  One of the challenges in identifying any kind of informal content is the fact that identity of not public which makes it difficult to be sure that you are connecting to the right people.

Our definition of civic creation so far involves intent and is based on location but it also needs a third element – topic – and this is the way in which we find the people who form the local civic conversation.

The exception to this is of course hyperlocal communities – which I have talked about here – these are place based communities which have a public stated intent of ‘ I want to talk to my community’ and where they exist they are potentially the backbone of the local digital civic space.  The issue is that they don’t exist universally and even where they do exist you cannot assume that they are representative or that there are no other forms of civic creation in the area.  You need to look further than the hyperlocal in order to find a lot of your local civic conversation.

The question therefore is how to illuminate the civic activity that is going on so that you can connect to the civic creators who will form your civic space.  We can’t find them just from their location (hyperlocal sites excepted) as this gives no sense of intent and we can’t search based on someone’s intention.  The entry point for finding our civic creators is therefore issue based.

Topic is vary across time and doesn’t define a community – though it may dominate for a while.  Topic is useful in that it helps to highlight intent and can also generate synchronous activity from participants who do not usually come together.  This makes them easier to find and more likely to connect to each other when you do find them.  This is not going to be an infallible method of finding civic creators – not everyone is interested in everything – but its a useful way of getting started and can provide something to build on.  As places get deeper and richer digital footprints then this process will become easier – but as specific topics act as a catalyst for informal civic participation they can also be a way of finding the networks who are talking about them and drawing them into the wider civic space.

How does this differ from social media monitoring?

The main difference is the fact that we are looking for people and networks rather than content – the content (like the topic) is a means to an end.  Social media monitoring focuses on finding content – how many times is you brand is mentioned and whether the mentions are positive or negative in tone.  To help explain – below are the benefits listed by a well known Social Media Monitoring tool:

  • Scan and sort viral posts related to your brand(s) and immediately know which online content is making an impact.
  • Look out for online conversations that could be damaging to your brand(s).
  • Track volume of buzz tied to a specific campaign and identify sites with the most influence in order to tailor your outreach.
  • Uncover potential customers or partners at their “point of need”.
  • Keep an eye on competitors and use a comparative graph to track share of voice.

These are all useful things to know and when applied to topic rather than brand then they can help us to find our civic creators – but if just limited to brand then you are not uncovering your local civic conversation – you are just finding the usual suspects.  We want to use these tools to find the people, capture the individuals and then track their activities on an ongoing basis and use them to discover new community generated topics.

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

Coming back to the point however is the issue that we cannot search for content merely on the basis of intent – we need to look at actions.  I have previously defined Civic activities as:

“as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community. One major area for examination within this research is within this civic category where it is important to define and measure specific actions within this so that we can look at the the further transition from civic to democratic behaviour. There are many parallels between civic activities and the Public Sphere described by Habermas.”

And here is updated version of the long list I put together of civic behaviours online.

Formal Informal
Creators Start a petitionTake part in a Participatory Budgeting process (not just play with a slider!!!) Instigate / Run a campaignSocial reporting (blogging / tweeting re: local issues)Managing a hyperlocal website 

Organise a community meeting

Conversationalists Interact with an elected representative Share something from the civic space with someone elseTweet civic space topics
Critics Rate a comment on a discussion boardRate a comment on a blogComment on the discussion board 

Rate a webcast (or a meeting)

Comment on a blog

Comment on webcast

Comment on a blogComment on a relevant discussion boardRate a comment on a discussion board 

Rate a comment on a blog

Rate a video clip

Comment on video clip

Collectors Save something to your user profile 

Sign up for alerts

Subscribe to an RSS feed etc from a social reporter 

Social tagging of content

Joiners Sign up to attend an event 

Sign a petition

Create a user profile

Contacted a political party

Donated money to a civic organisation or group

Joined another civic organisation or association

Donated money to a political organisation or group

Join a discussion forum 

Taken part in a lawful public demonstration

Spectators Watch a webcast eventAttend a formal meeting ·
Inactives Not voting…..or anything else….

This list is based on the Forrester Groundswell categorization of user behavior and incorporates the civic actions used by the OII Internet report 2009.  (PS  Sorry the table is horrible – will work out how to format it properly at some point).

Further to this we (at Public-i) have been working on creating the following catagorisation of local civic sites:

Site type Description
Active individuals broken down by: 

Local / General

Local / Topic

Twitter

These are blogs, websites and twitter feeds which are created by one person and reflect their voice and opinions.
Political blogs These are sites which are party affiliated and are either created by the party, a candidate or an elected politician.
Hyperlocal community websites Hyperlocal websites are set-up and run by members of the community in order to connect with and discuss local issues.  They use social media tools and are probably the clearest expression of the “I want to talk to my community” intent.
Traditional websites These are similar in intent to hyperlocal sites but don’t use social media tools
Communities of interest sites These sites are connected to the place concerned by either the people or by the content but will be focused on a specific issue or topic.  These sites are run by clubs (local sports clubs for example) or perhaps by third sector organisations (such as AgeConcern) and are included here where they meet the critieria of either place or topic.
Facebook We look at Facebook groups, pages and individuals are a type in its own right because the different approach recommended to deal with interactions on Facebook
Local news coverage in newspapers and radio These are sites that are created by mainstream media outlets and may or may not include social media elements
Formal Civic or democratic sites These are the sites of government and related organisations that touch on either the place or the topic.

So – civic creation is that list of activities applied to this list of sites as bounded by location and topic.

At present finding this content is a largely manual process – or rather a series of manually managed automated steps.  What I want to develop are more sophisticated semantic analysis tools that will enable us to find this content more directly – but this is a bigger project.  Would welcome comments on any tools people believe already carry out this task well in the meantime please.

What’s Significant?

But let’s not forget it’s actually all about people – as stated before we are really interested in finding the people and communities who are creating the content.  These are individuals who may fulfil a number of different roles which are not mutually exclusive:

  • Local blogger – writing about either the location or a specific topic.  This group includes citizen journalists
  • Twitter user – because of the highly networked and real time information sharing qualities of twitter it is useful to look at local twitter usage when examining the local conversation
  • Community or Website manager – anyone who is involved in creating/curating/convening a local or hyperlocal site constitutes a local civic creator
  • Active Contributor – someone who does not necessarily act on their own but it a frequent contributor to sites and forums in the area

We know that a small percentage of people create the majority of content on the social web (Forrester, OFCOM) but these figures are all based on the vast majority of content which falls into my informal social category of content.  My working assumption at present is that this percentage will be similar with respect to informal civic content as well but this is an assumption that needs testing through my data collection and analysis.

Its important to find these people as if you are going to start shaping a local civic space more actively then this are the people that you want to be working with co-productively to do this.  As the idea matures they may be providing curation for the wider civic space and also could be part of the process of deciding who is included in the space in the future.

When I was shaping my data collection and trials I talked about this people as community ambassadors and you can read a fairly long post here about why I changed my mind about this role.  I think its extremely important to remember that these are people who are doing something by choice and that any benefit to the democratic or civic process is at the moment a side effect rather than something that is necessarily planned for until such a time as we have connected this informal activity effectively to the decision making process.

When I started this post I was framing these individuals in terms of influence and talking about them as influential civic creators.  However influence is a tricky thing to measure and I don’t want to use the term inaccurately.  As part of the social media audit process we are carrying out basic Social Network Analysis on the networks that are returned from research into a localities informal civic content but without interviewing the civic creators and also looking at who they reach it is difficult to come up with an accurate measure of influence.  This is slightly out of scope for my work at the moment so I am parking the thought that it would be interesting to look properly into exactly how influential these people are and instead look at how we decide who is significant in terms of forming the local civic conversation.  Anyone who is highlighted here will have met the criteria for civic creation listed above but in terms of identifying who is significant I have a number of specific criteria that I am looking at here:

  • Reach – do they have an audience?
  • Representativeness – do they represent a larger group either as a site moderator or as a connector to offline networks?
  • Responsiveness – do they listen as well as talk?
  • Constructiveness – are they coming up with solutions or listing problems?

This last one is highly subjective – but I wanted to include some measure of intent beyond the “I want to talk to my community” and to extend this into “I want to change my community for the better”.  This is perhaps the point on which my definition of significance hinges – for the purposes of creating an online civic space the desire to improve your local area rather than just talk about it is clearly significant.  I’m not expecting a shared vision of what ‘better’ and I am in two minds as to whether its correct to use such a value laden term in here as it is important that we people maintaining as well as improving civil society.  However, my final conclusion on this point is that if we are trying to create something new and knit together a local civic conversation from civic creators then significance is lent to people who want to actively change the status quo.

I don’t see this as grading to a curve – there is no limit on the number of voices that are involved locally but as I gather more data about these people I am hoping to be able to start to draw some wider conclusions about them so that its possible to start forming a view about how the behaviours compare to informal social activities online.

So – what does it all mean then?

In writing this I was aiming to put some more meat on the bones of the idea that there is an emergent type of activity that goes beyond individual content creators that can be described as ‘informal civic content’.  We have seen this in studies like the network neighbourhoods community website study and we can see it in increase in citizen journalism and hyperlocal websites.  There are two reasons for doing this, firstly to capture a snapshot of conversation about a specific topic and secondly to start to understand local participation in a very different way to the top down approach do traditional consultation tools and methods.

Once we have a clear view of this content and its creators then we are better able to look at how we connect this into formal decision making processes and start to connect informal and formal conversations together – and that’s where the civic spaces come into it.

This post I one I promised a while ago in order to do proper justice to the excellent Networked Neighbourhoods report on hyperlocal websites. You can read about the launch event here and access the research directly here. I’m not going to try and replicate the excellent summary and background document and even you don’t have time to read all the detail it is worth taking 15 mins to read this (you can find it here).

Just to recap – the research looked at 3 hyperlocal websites in London, Harringay online , East Dulwich Forum and Brockley Central. Over 400 participants were surveyed, as were officers and Members, and then a mix of focus groups and interviews with all these groups provides more detailed qualitative information. The team also carried out a national survey with 210 responses from officers and 117 from members in order to create a wider picture and more detailed content analysis was carried out over3 6 hour periods on each of the 3 sites, 2 times in order to get an in-depth picture of what people are doing there. The study was supported by desk research in advance of the field work. The reason I note all this is the point out that this is a proper piece of research – not just opinion – and as such provides us with a great building block to show real effects from online interactions between citizens, communities and local government. I think the research team would be happy to acknowledge that this is not a definitive study – its just too wide a topic for the time/resources they had – but the findings are robust and substantiated as far as they go which is great.

As I said you really should read the summary findings but the digested read of these breaks down as follows:

  • Social capital and cohesion: Neighbourly relations: The case study sites stimulate positive connections between residents, both in terms of encounters and exchange. Forty-two per cent of respondents say they have met someone in their neighbourhood as a direct consequence of using the website; and a quarter say they are more likely to see someone they recognise as a result of participating on their site.
  • Collective efficacy: The results show considerable conviction among respondents that collective efficacy is supported by the sites. Three quarters of respondents felt that the local site had had a positive effect on whether or not people pull together to make improvements. There is a sense that social capital is being pooled, visibly, and can be drawn on for individual or collective need.
  • Cohesion and diversity: The sites are not representative of their areas – and due to anonymity being the norm in some cases are not aware of the degree of representativeness. A number of respondents suggested that the sites could make more effort to be inclusive. Given their potential to have influence and to mobilise people, this perceived lack of representativeness could become an issue.
  • Belonging and attachment: Participants in these sites mainly started from a position of feeling that they ‘belonged’ in the area. Nonetheless, 69 per cent felt that participation on the local site had strengthened their sense of belonging. The sites appear to be playing a consolidating role, building stronger attachment on already-sound foundations.
  • Communication and information-sharing: There is clear evidence that the sites are an excellent information sharing resource about all kinds of local issues if you are involved – 92 per cent agree that useful information gets shared efficiently. Council officers and elected members confirmed that they regard neighbourhood websites as important for sharing council news and information on council services and events (62 per cent ʻvery important, 33 per cent ʻsomewhat importantʼ). Information sharing is a vital social glue for any community so this is a useful finding in terms of defining these as communities.
  • Supportive and negative behaviour in local online spaces: The niceties of both negative and supportive online behaviour emerged strongly as themes in this study. It is not clear if someone of these perceptions are as a result of people not being familiar with online interactions generally.
  • Empowerment, civic involvement and co-production: There is evidence in the study that hyperlocal sites offer the promise of increased co-productive relationships with Councils as they provide a channel and encouragement for people to get involved in civic and community issues. There is also the potential for them to as a space for the renewal of resident/council relationships – Neighbourhood websites appear to promote improved relations with local agencies and hence offer a stable platform for coproduction.
  • Co-production: attitudes towards official roles: Twenty one per cent of respondents said that participation on their site had changed their attitude towards council officers for the better. Almost twice as many (42 per cent) said their attitude towards local councillors had changed for the better.
  • Empowerment: influencing local decisions: As with the sense of belonging participants started with high levels of belief in their ability to influence decisions. More than half (59 per cent) of respondents already feel able to influence decision-making processes in their area. Our survey question for this measure was based on the Citizenship Survey which reports a national average of 37 per cent for 2009-2010.
  • Civic activism and civic participation: I’ll pick this up later in the post but the overall conclusion was that there was no strong link between participation in the sites and formal decision-making – only 13% of respondents had formal involvement over the last year and this is again in line with the citizenship survey.
  • Barriers to participating in neighbourhood sites: Council officers spoke of a range of barriers, including not being allowed access to local sites from their offices; council reluctance to relinquish control of messages; and lack of internal guidance on how to participate. Some felt that as officers they were not trusted to toe the line; and if they saw a need to contribute online, there were too many barriers to getting approval. The key indicator for a councilʼs decision to engage is a high number of hits on a site.
  • Content mix: The content mix is huge – a broad variety of information gets shared and issues get aired. Some of this is democratic and some is civic – the quotidian of daily existence. There is also more social content and opportunities for offline meet-ups – the main point is that these are vibrant and interesting spaces rather than filled with dull do-gooders.
  • Local identity: The report found that each of the sites contributing to strengthening local identity – will pick this up later as well.
  • Responsible site administration: Good quality moderation / facilitation is hugely valued and is make or break for the success of the sites. This is a tricky one for Council’s as without it it is very difficult for officers / members to participate but it is not something that ‘government’ can provide as the independence of the sites is extremely important to participants.

That’s it for the general round up – this next section picks out the findings that I found particularly interesting and which I will be referencing in my own stuff. I break my comments down as follows:

  • Informal Civic Participation
  • Local Civic Spaces
  • Who’s in charge? Representativeness
  • Moderation in all things
  • Identity matters
  • A little something for the Police
  • Conclusions

Informal Civic Participation

As anyone who has been here before my interest is in defining informal civic participation and looking at how it can connect to formal democratic processes. Good news is – these hyperlocal sites were filthy with it – well the informal stuff at least. The study looked at showed a fairly standard level of connection with formal democratic processes:

“Again following the Citizenship Survey we distinguished civic activism and civic participation. The former covers involvement either in direct decision-making about local issues or in the actual provision of these services by taking on a role such as a school governor. The latter was narrowed in our survey to cover contact with people working in an official capacity (such as a council officer): our question asked about contact as a direct consequence of participation on the local website. Overall, 13 per cent of respondents said they have been involved in formal groups or organisations locally in the past year. This is consistent with recent Citizenship Survey results.”

However a review of the content showed a “strong commitment to local involvement”. The nomenclature is different but the basic premise of a discernible different between informal and formal civic engagement is demonstrated by the research. The report echoes this saying “It seems likely that local websites can both stimulate and reflect a latent demand for informal opportunities for collective involvement, very much on a dip-in dip-out basis.”

This is also reflected in the way in which the Local Council’s use the sites to get early notice of issues of concern to the residents – ie the issues that have not yet made it into the formal realm.  The study concludes on this point that “Those who have sought the revival of democracy in mechanical processes like voting, petitions and scrutiny might do well to examine the way this fertile mix of content nurtures an agitated, involved democracy of everyday life.”

However the use of the term democracy here may be misleading – or at least needs to be clarified as the participants are not showing an interest in politics at all. An good example of this is the exchange quoted below from one of the time slices of content:

ʻI’d rather this thread didn’t turn into a bun-fight between Labour and the LibDems. James, Vikki…..I’m looking in your direction. Please conduct yourselves with some decorum and debate the issue at hand rather than trying to score cheap political points. As PeckhamRose says, this is exactly the sort of stuff that turns people away from politics, even at a local level. This thread poses some interesting points about shared services and efficiencies of scale – why not start there?”

Personally I am not sure what is happening with these hyperlocal sites should necessarily be referred to as local democracy. It has the potential to be democratic and certainly provides the agar jelly (or Public Sphere if you’d like to be less fanciful) that you need to breed democratic debate but so much of the interaction is about the life of the community rather than the decisions that it needs to make. My working definitions of Civic and Democratic boil down to:

  • Civic activities are interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community.
  • Democratic interactions are defined by the presence of a legal body and perhaps framework within which the interaction must take place. Society has applied rules to the process and the participants need to comply in order to contribute to the final outcome. Democratic interactions are distinct from civic ones in that there is no legal obligation for elected representatives to take opinions from the civic space into account (though there will be other pressures) where within democratic processes that legal redress is in place.

By this definition much of what we see within this study is civic rather than democratic though there are examples where the Council has taken a formal process into the hyperlocal site. The exception to this is as East Dulwich where Councillor James Barber provides a constituency surgery service on the site. However I would argue that as this is not in and of itself a decision-making process it stays within the civic realm – albeit provided by a democratically elected representative.

This is not a criticism – we can’t possibly have a vibrant democracy without having vibrant communities to support it – my point is that civic and democratic activities overlap but are separate and as such we need to make sure we are not ascribing shared qualities where they don’t exist.

Local Civic Spaces

Community or hyperlocal websites form new kinds of civic spaces online and the report starts to look at what the ‘public-ness’ of these sites means. The report use terminology from socialogist Lyn Lofland who talks about a distinction between the public and parochial realm. She defines the parochial realm as

ʻcharacterized by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks that are located within “communitiesʼ.

She adds to this a definition of the public realm as being those spaces:

ʻwhich tend to be inhabited by persons who are strangers to one another or who “know” one another only in terms of occupational or other nonpersonal identity categories (for example, bus driver/customer)ʼ.(Lofland 1998, p9)

She makes an important distinction here between the places where you know people as people and the places where you know people as ‘actors’ rather than individuals. One of the findings from the research is the ability of these hyperlocal sites to create more personal relationships – something that is very important in social capital terms.

But there is still a need to be clear on whether these are places for the community in the sense of a geographically defined group of people or places for pre-existing networks. This also links to the point about representativeness but is really about defining how public the sites are. The report describes one of the sites as follows:

“The forum has the appearance of a public space but has been set up and is run privately by a local resident; it cannot be described as a profit-making initiative, but is socially-motivated without any known connection to existing community groups or movements and without any democratic credentials apart from the transparency provided by its technology; it generates feelings of passionate association among some its members; attracts and comes to be occupied by key civic figures; and they find themselves ticked off publicly by an anonymous voice assumed to be a local resident. This is not how we are accustomed to conducting local democracy.” and goes on to say “Neighbourhood websites remind us constantly and forcefully that they are the online manifestation of a fluid and varied offline world – not the other way round.”

I would challenge this last point – there is every indication from the research that these sites are not manifestations of the offline world with any degree of accuracy and in fact provide a fairly specialised slice of well resources and well intentioned individuals. That’s not to say this is a bad thing – we need interested, articulate people to be active in their community, but it does not make these sites manifestations of the offline world.

But it is useful to reflect on the interplay between the online and offline public realms and the osmosis between them. Throughout the study there are references to online interactions creating offline events and actions from clearing snow, to checking on neighbours, to social meet-up and regular events. I suppose the question I would ask is whether or not these sites represent the most active, most ‘belonging’ of the residents or whether there are other groups out there with similar levels of participation – just not online. I would have to guess the answer is yes to this and so the issues become do you need to integrate them into these hyperlocal spaces in order to move democratically or do you instead need to find them their own separate and more sympatico space? We tend to think of the community in an offline sense as being loosely defined by where you live. You may not feel part of it and you may not like it but that is where you are. Once you can join with people online its possible to have multiple narratives and communities overlaying the same geographical area – all separate fiefdoms with distinct characteristics. This is not necessarily a bad thing – different people flourish in different environments and we cannot expect volunteers to work to a template. However it should make us more cautious with the use of the term democracy and it should make us consider whether these hyperlocal sites are parochial or public.

Sunstein talks about the risk of ‘group polarisation’ within online communities (https://curiouscatherine.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/republic-2-0-reading-and-appreciating/ ) and many of the comments that you see in this study show the tendency towards this

ʻSeems to be for white middle aged people, basically.ʼ ʼI would imagine the website doesnt attract a contribution from a full range of social demographic backgrounds to reflect the actual community as a whole.ʼ ʻdoesn’t seem to represent the diversity of the local community, particularly ethnically and in terms of social class.ʼ

These sites are organic and spontaneous – which is why they flourish – the issue as to whether they are democratic and whether they truly reflect on online civic space is a separate matter. However I suggest that we need to build spaces that help these sites to interact with each other in order to create a democratic space.

Who’s in charge? Representativeness

These sites are public – they are open to anyone who wants to join and they are clearly a valuable community resources for anyone who participants – but its also a truism to say that this publicity in and of itself does not make them representative of their areas (though they may be representative of the participating community). This is clearly stated in the report:

“In our interviews with site founders we learned that each had set their site up with a broad sense of social purpose but no explicit intention to promote community cohesion or social inclusion. The sites do not set out to be, nor claim to be, democratically representative, culturally representative or accountable.”

This is echoed in the survey where 80 per cent of respondents felt that the local site had made no difference to their participation in formal decision-making groups.

These sites function extremely well in the informal civic realm and 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

The research does show however that some kind of relationship with the representative is both productive and perceived positively from all sides. As quoted above Twenty one per cent of (citizen)respondents said that participation on their site had changed their attitude towards council officers for the better. Almost twice as many (42 per cent) said that their attitude towards local councillors had changed for the better. This is reflected with officers and members; Among elected members, 42 per cent find neighbourhood sites to be ʻmostly constructive and usefulʼ while a further 41 per cent were ready to describe them as ʻsomewhat constructive and usefulʼ. For officers the figures were 41 per cent and 47 per cent respectively.

Identity matters

There were some interesting comments around identity in the report which I think are well represented by this quote from the founder of Brockley Central:

When you post a comment, please give yourself a name, out of courtesy to the Brockley Central team and your fellow readers. It takes a couple of seconds to do, but makes conversations much easier to follow. There are people who’ve been posting here daily for years under pseudonyms, but we still don’t know anything about their identity – so choosing a name doesn’t compromise your privacy, it just a demonstration of good manners, which makes conversations easier to follow.ʼ (Nick Barron)

It suggests that while your civic identity needs to be consistent and trackable in some way it doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to your offline identity. Pseudonyms are a useful compromise between privacy and accountability – though for actual decision-making we probably need to manage these a bit more formally.

The report also picks on an important point for officers:

“A final question concerns the potential for people in official positions to contribute pseudonymously. There are complex issues here that are largely beyond the scope of our work but to which we should draw attention. The research reported here followed a workshop run with council officers, elected members and others in September 2009, in which participants were emphatic that officers should not be anonymous or pseudonymous, because it could catalyse the erosion of trust in all sorts of ways. In our study we were told of officers having contributed to sites pseudonymously. One site founder told us with certainty that he is aware of officers who use the site pseudonymously. There seems no reason why officers should not lurk, although it was felt that if required to register they should do so under their official identity.”

When we think about online engagement officers, who will often live in the areas in which they work, are incredible disenfranschised. Some kind of agreement around pseudonyms and civic identity could help unlock participation from a group of people who are already interested and active in what happens locally.

Moderation in all things

Moderation, facilitation, curation – who knows what to call it? The NN study went for the more neutral term of administration and I just wanted to highlight this comment from the report:

“We have seen that council officers and members are often reluctant to engage in local sites because of concerns about getting involved in protracted or discordant conversations. This highlights the importance of the administratorʼs role. This role varies significantly across our three study sites, and can involve a small team, or just an individual. Our focus groups and survey revealed great respect for the way administrators act to contain negative posts and comments, insist on fairness, and remove combustible material. Interviews with administrators have revealed the complexity involved and the stress experienced in the role. There could be a lot at stake. Sites that have allowed a culture of persistent negativity will hold back the ability of this movement to fulfil its social potential. Successful sites which establish balanced argument and avoid the downward spiral of aggressive negativity, and which therefore offer an environment in which councils will wish to engage, depend heavily on the culture established and maintained by founders and administrators. The skills and temperament involved need to be more clearly understood and recognised.”

Some kind of facilitation is obviously both needed and valued – its an important civic role. Give the number of hyperlocal sites which are currently up and running it might be a helpful thought to try and start to do some knowledge sharing directly between them around how they make this particular facet of the sites work. In social capital terms these people are the glue that are holding these communities together and it would be helpful to understand more about what they are doing. Good facilitation is as much art as science but there are techniques and approaches that could be captured as there are in other fields that use this.

A little something for the Police

Much of this report is focused on the democratic impacts and the relationship with councils – but I thought it would also be useful to point out that the findings are equally valid for other agencies and there were measureable benefits from Police involvement. Below are a couple of examples of this:

In Harringay the police, unusually for London, are regular contributors as well as readers. Officers use Harringay Online to monitor local concerns informally as well as using the site to help set local policing priorities. The local police sergeantʼs recent post on 5th November, updating members on an incident, received over two pages of comments. An example of the regular police monitoring of the site to spot local problems arose when a resident posted about a burglary attempt the previous night. The next morning the police had posted the following: “ʻQueenie, Have you reported this to police? I can’t find any trace of it on our crime system. If you haven’t reported it please call 0300 123 1212 and they will arrange for officers to attend and report it.ʼ

And the experience of one user in Herne Hill:

ʻI just had interesting meeting with new officer in charge of one of the local safer neighbourhood teams. In order to get up to speed on what the crime and anti-social behaviour issues are he said that he simply read through the entire correspondence on our local web site. He now knows where the hot spots are, speeding traffic issues, mugging etc etc. ʻHe uses the postings and info on the site as part of his evidence gathering for getting resource to be allocated to an issue or area. ʻHis previous area he was posted to he said, had no local community web site and he was so glad that there was one in his new location as it made their job so much easier.ʼ

And these anecdotes are backed up by the survey results: A quarter of respondents said that their attitude towards the police or Police Community Support Officers had changed for the better.

Conclusions

At the risk of being repetitive….its great to see a piece of research that lifts us from the techno-evangelist level to some actual facts…and the fact that we can now start to debate these facts is great. No small credit due to Steve Johnson of Capital Ambition for commissioning and funding the work. Its clearly just the tip the iceberg though and I hope that this study drives energy and enthusiasm to pick up some of the specific points. For me I think the next questions to look at are around the role of the administrator with these sites as well as more work as to what works for elected members. I also think that it would be very interesting to pick up this point of representativeness and representation.

However – reading back on the post I think the final point I want to make is that these sites are not enough to create the democratic ecosystem for the network society and I think some caution needs to be exercised in showcasing this work to Local Government as I have some concern that many councils would see the establishment of these sites as a manageable short cut to online civic participation. I would highlight this note from the report:

“There is widespread understanding that the independence of these sites is essential but it is acknowledged that as the benefits become apparent, councils themselves could have a role to play in facilitating the development of new sites across their areas. Itʼs likely that a mixed model of relationships will emerge: some sites will flourish with a connection to a single officer or member, others will benefit from a connection to an area forum or other accountable body, others may thrive with occasional input from a range of officers.”

We need to let these sites emerge and develop themselves and if there is any role for government its in skill sharing and enablement – not in moderation or definitely not in technical commission. The trick will be in encouraging Councils to support and collaborate with these sites without exerting the control that makes them (the councils) feel more secure.

Scarily enough I am now starting to write up my thesis – the aim is a chapter a month – and I have been blogging a bit less as a result (though have a few posts queued up – its addictive you know.  Below is some of the ideas from the theoretical framework I have been building and I wanted to put them out in the world to see how people reacted…..

Part of the reason for wanting wider comment is the fact that I am increasingly inclined to think that the emphasis on civic space building is very obviously on the creation and sustainability of hyperlocal communities – with the role of the democratic body being to connect to and interact with these more social groupings.  This links into my interest in the nature of online civic spaces and whether or not it is possible to connect some of the informal behaviours that you see online with formal decision making processes.  This necessitates me actually defining what I mean by informal behaviours – this is my attempt at doing this as within the work I categorise participant’s behaviour into four types:

  • Informal Social
  • Informal Civic
  • Formal Civic
  • Formal Democratic

I’ve written about these before but the table describes my definitions of these four categories with respect to the intention of the participants as they participate online:

Stage Intent
Informal social I use social media in order to socialise with my friends and family – I just want to keep in touch with people
Informal Civic I use social media in order to connect to my local community and talk about issues which I think are important to us
Formal Civic I use social media to make sure that the views of my community are considered by decision makers and are part of the final decision. I want to influence things
Formal Democratic I want to be part of setting the agenda for my community – I want to change things

The distinction between informal and formal

Informal interactions do not require you to ‘join’ anything the connections between individuals are social in terms of being based on trust and compatibility. Further to this there is no requirement to identify yourself or become accountable for your opinions or ideas when you are operating informally though there is a strong correlation between trust and identity. However I am talking specifically with respect to democratic participation and I add an additional layer of meaning to informal in that these interactions are not necessarily part of the decision making process. These comments might be out there on the social web and they might be ‘public’ in the sense that Habermas talks of publicity but there is no mechanism for the elected representatives to take note of these thoughts and opinions. They do not have the legitimacy of the media though increasingly they are treated in a similar way as online campaigns and actions are being both reported on in the mainstream media and also responded to by politicians.

Formal interactions, on the other hand, do require that the individual has either joined an organisations or made their identity known. They are auditable in some way and the participants can be held to account legally as a result. Formal consultation is one of the these contexts but others might be housing associations or PCT boards etc, justice of the peace and other formal but not necessarily representative roles. Formal decision making processes exist in order to manage situation where consensus may not exist and where competing interests need to be managed. Participation in a formal way shows an acceptance of the need to influence and interact with someone/thing outside of your direct sphere of influence – which is not necessary as part of the informal stage. In a representative democratic context formality also refers to the fact that you are not able to take a decision yourself and that you are rather trying to influence the actual decision makers.

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

I consider 3 different types of behaviours that can be seen and measured online. I make these distinctions in order to be able to examine the transitions between these types of activities in order to describe how it might be possible to make a connection between virtual and non-virtual actions with respect to democratic participation.

Social interactions take place with anyone who we consider to be a friend or family member and only effect other people within the same social group – there is no external implication of these interactions. Dunbar describes these people who might fall within “anyone who you might want to say hello to if you bumped into them at 3am at Hong Kong airport”. This is a wide definition but can also be expressed as social interactions being those contacts with people who you are happy to see in many contexts – people who you transcend shared interests or purposes and connect to you as an individual.

Civic activities can be defined as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community. One major area for examination within this research is within this civic category where it is important to define and measure specific actions within this so that we can look at the the further transition from civic to democratic behaviour. There are many parallels between civic activities and the Public Sphere described by Habermas.

Democratic interactions are defined by the presence of a legal body and perhaps framework within which the interaction must take place. Society has applied rules to the process and the participants need to comply in order to contribute to the final outcome. Democratic interactions are distinct from civic ones in that there is no legal obligation for elected representatives to take opinions from the civic space into account (though there will be other pressures) where within democratic processes that legal redress is in place.

Four categories of behaviours

By using these categories above I am able to describe the four categories that I am using in order to describe the online interactions that I am examining during the course of this work and to describe them in more detail:

Stage Description
Informal social These actions are carried out in connection with your immediate social relationships and do not seek to engage with the community outside of your social circle
Informal Civic These actions can be described as those which take you outside of your immediate circle to connect with others in your community – for the purpose of discussing or even changing your community. For the purposes of this research the community I am referring to is the part of local government which you are resident in.
Formal Civic For these actions the actor is not only discussing local issues but doing so within either a formal association or perhaps as part of a formally run consultation process
Formal Democratic The actions are part of a legally described decision making process whereby the democratic body is in some way legally obliged to respond to any views or suggestions which have been raised.

Once you move out of the social realm into the civic and democratic one of the other necessary conditions is that you are seeking to involve and engage with people beyond your immediate social circle – you have decided to act as a member of a wider community. It is this decision to act more than anything which illustrates the civic and then democratic nature of the actions.

The formal representative (for example a local councillor) can be involved at any stage of the process beyond the informal social – however the degree to which there is a requirement for them to be involved increases as we move towards formal democratic decision making.

More work on the theoretical framework which will be dull for anyone who is not interested in trying to come up with a way of analysing behaviours with the hope of influencing them – this is very much an action research post for my purposes.

Lovely Easter (and actually I mean it) reading various articles on social capital over Easter – as well as reading Robert Putnam’s excellent book of articles “Democracies in Flux”. I am trying to define my framework for analysis as I am about to start data collection from the Virtual Town Hall Pilot sites and I want to be sure that the questionnaire is going to give me the right data (rather than loads of interesting data I can’t then use). In doing this I am looking to reconcile the following issues:

  • How do I define the different context that people operate in – with social media it is possible to have an informal chat interlinked with a formal debate – how do we create measurement tools that accommodate this
  • How do I separate tools from behaviours (its not about what you use – its how you use it)
  • The ladder of participation model (or indeed more frameworks) seem to me to inherently value contributions at the top more than those lower down – I want to appreciate the lurkers and the listeners who may just vote – but do so in an informed way.
  • How do I measure it all so that I can then see if I have had an effect

The categorisation of informal social / informal civic / formal consultation / formal democratic works well for me. It illustrates a growth in commitment towards democratic engagement and when used against a context which shows growing distrust in political without devaluing the participation that happens before that point. Here is a slightly expanded description of the different catagories:

  • Informal Social:  Interactions with your friends and family
  • Informal Civic: Interactions a community about issues which concern the local civic space or a wider single issue in some way
  • Formal consultation or civic: I am questioning whether I really mean formal consultation – I am actually trying to define formal civil society where interactions happen within some kind of formal context where they can be taken into account by decision makers. Formal consultation is one of the these contexts but others might be housing associations or PCT boards etc, justice of the peace and other formal but not necessarily representative roles.
  • Formal democratic: Defined by the involvement of the representative – and flows from any decision that needs to be made by them.

This categorisation can be supported by social capital literature which describes the difference in informal and formal social capital (this is referenced in the Putnam book as well as other articles I have been reading this weekend). However social capital is a measurement or outcome – and it, like this categorisation, does not actually provide me with the framework I need to look at whether the social web provides us with the opportunity to create online civic spaces which connect these interactions so that the measurable levels of interactions at the less formal end of this analysis have a positive effect on the volume of interactions at the more formal end.

However if I can describe interactions / actions which are typical of each of these catagories I will be able to see if the space we have created has had an effect on the volume (assuming baseline / re-sample during the project period). The problem here then is that a specific action cannot necessarily be considered to fall into one of these categories as most actions (for example commenting on a blog can happen within different contexts.

Here is my recent long list but I have now organised the list against the Forrester Groundswell framework as well as adding in some more proactive actions marked in italics (thanks to Phil Green for the suggestion):

· Formal

· Informal

Creators

· Start a petition

·

· Instigate / Run a campaign

· Social reporting (blogging / tweeting re: local issues)

· Managing a hyperlocal website

· Organise a community meeting

Conversationalists

· Interact with a member

· Share something from the Virtual Town Hall with someone else

· Tweet VTH topics

Critics

· Rate a comment on a discussion board (within VTH)

· Rate a comment on a blog (within VTH)

· Comment on the discussion board (within VTH)

· Rate a webcast (or a meeting)

· Comment on a blog (within VTH)

· Comment on webcast

· Comment on a blog (outside VTH)

· Comment on the discussion board (outside VTH)

· Rate a comment on a discussion board (outside VTH)

· Rate a comment on a blog (outside VTH)

· Rate a YouTube clip

· Comment on YouTube clip

·

Collectors

· Save something to your user profile

· Sign up for alerts

· Subscribe to an RSS feed etc from a social reporter

Joiners

· Sign up to attend an event

· Sign a petition

· Create a user profile

· Join a discussion forum (outside VTH)

Spectators

Watch a webcast event

· Attend a formal meeting

·

Inactives

Not voting…..or anything else….

I have not split informal / formal down into my narrower catagories – but mainly as it will not fit on the page for now! Interestingly I am not sure where to place ‘Stand for election’ as part of this list – its probably more naturally something for creators but could also be considered conversationalist. Perhaps the point here is that this is something beyond the usual social web behaviour as it is considerably more structured / formal that this framework is supposed to analyse – more thinking to be done here.

This is a useful exercise in that it starts to give us some kind of way of judging democratic behaviours against the social web norms that are described by Forrester. I now need to research the Forrester model a bit more and consider it against something like the OFCOM equivalent as well as looking for more academic models (which I haven’t found as yet). I include the OFCOM overview below:

OFCOM Social networking profiles
The qualitative research suggests five distinct groups of people who use social networking sites :

  • Alpha Socialisers – mostly male, under 25s, who use sites in intense short bursts to flirt, meet new people and be entertained.
  • Attention Seekers – mostly female, who crave attention and comments from others, often by posting photos and customising their profiles.
  • Followers – males and females of all ages who join sites to keep up with what their peers are doing.
  • Faithfuls – older males and females generally aged over 20, who typically use social networking sites to rekindle old friendships, often from school or university.
  • Functionals – mostly older males who tend to be single-minded in using sites for a particular purpose.

So – where does this get me? What I have done is to take my democratic categorisation and apply it to a social web typology rather than attempting to fit social web behaviour onto a participation framework – which is what I was doing with the ladder of participation. Mmmmm……this feels like a stronger direction to me as the main thrust of what I am looking at is whether it is possible to use the proven participation in social media at a social level in order to increase levels of measurable democratic engagement. To do that perhaps the most important thing it to work out how to measure informal civic as opposed to informal social interactions. To do this we need to look at:

  • Geography – civic engagement requires a democratic unit – which is described by location
  • Intent – participants need to be trying to have an effect or influence on their community – or rather they need to be constructive in their comments and observations
  • Accountability – one of the key elements of civic rather than social participation online must be the management of identity and the fact that you need to be traceable as a citizen in order to have influence on the democratic unit (lots more to say on this at some point)

So the table above will help in describing the behaviours – which is useful in itself – but does not actually get at the heart of the difference between the categories – which is what I am after in order to judge whether the creating of a civic webspace makes informal civic behaviour more or less likely to turn into formal behaviours.

I think that what this implies is that the baseline questionnaire is even more important than before – but what I need to do is to expand the section on intent and to ask questions about people’s likelihood of moving on to participate formally. When I do the next round of data collection then I will be able to see if this intent has increased in the group which went onto to participate within the new webspace – and if we can see increases in the measurable behaviours which are described above. As the baseline questionnaire will only be administered to people who are already participating in an informal/civic way then this should be a good indicator. This does mean though that I will need to document the social web audit which we conduct in order to form these civic webspaces in the first place as this looks at the conditions which I describe above – which is no bad thing apart from the ‘more work’ element of it.

So – conclusions:

  • I am going to stick with the catagories as described above but then use a social media rather than a participation typology to describe behaviours within them
  • I am going to focus some reading on these models to finally decide which one to use
  • I’m going to review the baseline questionnaire to reflect this
  • I am going to use the initial social social web audit to look at the conditions needed for each of the catagories

Now – if only I was doing this full time then it would be no problem at all…..