I have had a fascinating week – firstly at the LGA Annual Conference and then at an APCC event to brief Police and Crime Commissioner Candidates (other briefings included Sir Hugh Orde and the heads of both SOCA and the new NCA so it was an excellent day to be part of).  In both these environments I found myself asking whether or not my belief in the need for a high level of knowledge about the digital agenda is reasonable – my conclusion is that its essential if we want to evolve the relationship between citizen and state.

PCCs have the potential to provide a seismic shift in power at the local level however moving from one event to the other you could feel the pull back towards Local Government as we know it now – not surprising given that the new Police and Crime Panels and many of the candidates that I have met come from this background. However even where all participants in the process are minded to keep the model as close to the current status quo as possible there will be an erosion of current systems as a new balance is found not just between the PCC and the Force they are responsible for but also between the various agencies and partnerships who are part of the wider ‘and Crime’ element of this agenda. My view is that however one feels about the concept of Police and Crime Commissioners its undeniably the biggest democratic experiment we have seen for hundreds of years – so lets not waste it.

My session at the briefing on Friday focused on the democratic potential of this experiment and the need to design a democratic environment which is fit for purpose for the 21st Century. I believe that this does not mean recreating the current Police Authority in a new form and but it does mean embracing digital and networked technologies – if for no other reason than to stay in sync with the excellent work that Forces across the country are doing in this area. I’ve written more about what I mean by this here and my presentation from friday is here on prezi.

Apart from the PCC content which I followed at the LGA Annual Conference I had a few other observations which I’d be interested to know if other people who were in Birmingham would share:

  • We needed more space / time for debate and discussion – perhaps its time to change the balance in the agenda towards a more interactive format for some sessions.
  • Clearly the next CSR is moving towards us and its going to be tough – however there seems still to be a lot of questions as to where the focus of this will fall and there is every chance that the impact on local government will be more insidious than a direct cut (though there will be those as well) with other aspects of the welfare budget being looked at.
  • Though people mention it there is not clear plan for work with Local Government on the economic growth agenda – this seems short sighted in the extreme
  • With respect to both of these agendas there is a growing commitment to the need for more radical redesign within Local Government – the Creative Councils Innovation session was packed for example – but I am not sure that people are yet clear on what this really means or are ready to take the risks that are inherent in this approach.
  • There is still an alarming lack of strategic IT knowledge at a senior level in Local Government

My final observation may be very much skewed by the fact that I was at both of these events in order to talk about ‘digital’ in one way or another and also by the fact that this an area I know a lot about. However, in trying to calibrate my expectations of Leaders, Chief Executives and now PCC candidates around the digital agenda I am looking for an awareness of the key issues, such as open data for example, but more importantly an awareness that digital is a driver of social and behavioural change and not just a passive tool for mechanisation of process. Its for this reasons that the role of IT, and digital as a channel, should be a major element of any strategy to address the big themes which were being talked about at conference – is goes beyond efficiencies and should be a transformational tool. Everyone I spoke to would agree with this statement – but I am not sure that there is enough sector wide access to the skills which are needed in order to translate this need into the strategic planning process.  In my session with the PCC candidates I said I didn’t think you should stand as a candidate if you couldn’t figure out how to use twitter – there was a quiet intake of breath in the room – but I would stand by this statement.

We need to ask more of our communities – there is a growing consensus about the need to change the relationship between citizen and state both in a positive way through the localism agenda and a more negative sense through the withdrawal of unaffordable services.  In asking more I believe we will need to make more central use of technology as more that just another channel – it needs to signal this change in the relationship and respond to the power that technology has offered participants in other realms.  We need government to allow itself to experience the transformative effects that the media has undergone as a result of the ability for anyone active online to directly publish their own content.

We ran one of the few technology focused sessions at the conference and we attracted a group that described itself as a significant minority of Members who want to know more about social media not just in terms of how to use it but in terms of the more philosophical aspects of identity and community which are central to the social impact of new technologies. This is an agenda that I would like to the see the LGA, the political parties as well as SOLACE take up more seriously in the future as we need our senior teams to take a central role in exploring and shaping what happens when we become ‘digital by default’ as a result of both financial pressures and social change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we do this?

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

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

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

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

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

We had a really great We Live Here project meeting earlier this week and so this post started as an action research one – however it got a bit out of hand as ever its also influenced by a couple of other things I have been up to this week hence this post turning up instead! If you find that a bit dull then you can just jump here to the WLH stuff.

I was at the launch of the SEEMP Localism and Accountablity Network yesterday and had the unenviable post-lunch slot which I used to talk about how the network society could be used to reframe engagement as well the need for Councils to step out of the way and allow some relationship collision to happen and trust in the ability of people to bring about good outcomes. I went a bit free range but the slides below are at least a basic guide to what I said:

There were some good speakers – Andrew Bowles, Leader from Swale, talked about the Kent approach to Localism and William Benson (CEX of Tunbridge Wells) talked about some of their engagement work, including hack days, ward walks and a full on assult on Morrisons – brilliant! There was also an excellent speaker from the LGA who took us on a canter through the Localism Bill – in summary not as local as we thought so take the general power and competance and run as far and fast from Westminster as you can.

We also heard from Imogen from the Westgate Hall Community Trust – a community interest company. They have a fascinating founding story that I am hoping to talk to Imogen about in more detail and blog about separately.

I went out for dinner with a very dear friend of mine last night who lives in Australia – which was lovely. There is nothing special as time spent with someone you can talk to about anything and everything. We ended up laughing like maniacs about the fact that she has no idea about what I do – despite having read this blog and following me on twitter. I think we can safely assume that she is not alone. However, later when we were chatting with her parents I started to explain (they really are very polite and did ask) and it turns out her Dad is involved with the ‘Hoathly Hub‘ – a hyperlocal site for their village. Talking about that, and how it relates to local decision making made the whole thing come clear.

Why am I boring you with this? Good question.

Often, when we talk about community or democratic engagement I think we over-complicate things. A lot. I am obviously more guilty of this than most but I think we mystyfy the process of community engagement and turn it into something or a ritual. Sometimes ritual and process is important – protocol afterall is a mechanism for stopping people killing each other – but it can also be used to try and control a situation. I am now acutely aware that part of my motivation for creating a formal agenda is a desire to control what we are going to talk about – just doing a list of stuff to be covered feels very different.  The people who do this stuff within their community just get on and do it so it is no surprise that they are perplexed when faced with practitioners and professionals trying to formalise something that to them is a natural extension of their social life.

One of the points I made at the SEEMP event which got some willing and unwilling nods was the fact that we often use community engagement as a buffer between the citizen and government that covers what can be inadequate democratic representation – a cosy jumper that reassures us but stops us having to have unpleasant but sometimes necessary confrontation.  We preserve relationships but we don’t always make progress.

Are we helping anyone by doing this? I feel very confident that a lot of members could if asked step up and work more effectively and I know the public could. Perhaps if we want to demonstrate leadership in social change we need to start by trusting people.

I was one of 5 facilitators at the Solace Summit a couple of weeks ago and I have been mulling the experience ever since. The event was unusual in that rather having what has always been a perfectly good but rather traditional conference the Solace team (with some I have to confess provocation from myself and others) decided to try to create a more open process which enabled participating to co-produce a communinique around key issues for Solace to address over the coming months. You can read the output here. My first reflection is one of relief – last year it made me positively twitchy to see a group talented and influential people sit passively in a room instead of actually actively participating. Its so rare that you can convene this kind of group it always struck me as a horrible waste to then keep them quiet for most of the event. Happily the audience were hugely positive about the change in format and I think that we will see more of these kinds of events from Solace. Ultimately this is really good news for those of us who attend event such as LocalGovCamp and the like and who want to see better senior support for this kind of open space event – next time just ask them if they went to Solace this year.

I was responsible for the Economic Growth conversation – which was fascinating as its not my core field and made me learn and think about loads of interesting things which I won’t bore you with here. The question that has stuck with me for the last couple of weeks is what do we mean by a networked leader?

As is usually the case when you start talking with senior managers we all concluded that we needed leadership and not management if we were to see Local Government play a significant role in local economic growth. However the group was also convinced that the leadership for local government in this context was as a convenor and a facilitator and not as the person necessarily delivering the outcomes.

I have been thinking about networked leadership ever since and this post is a first attempt to start to put thoughts in order – next up will be doing some more reading around the subject and so any recommendations would be very welcome. I start from the position that leadership in a networked organisation is going to need very different qualities to those of a hierarchal leader – and that we need to explore these qualities if we want to create more networked organisations.

The first quality I think is the ability to create a vision and narrative of that vision which at the time as being focused enough to give direction is open enough to enable others to contribute to it. The organisational vision needs to be an ongoing – and public – conversation.

However to be credible in setting this vision it is essential that you have knowledge of your own place in the network and the value that you bring – and that this evident to the rest of the network. You cannot, in my view, be a leader in a networked organisation just by dint of job title – you need a strong place to stand and an arena in which you contribute to the overall information and activity exchange of the network. The social web is at heart a meritocracy and I believe that the network society has as similar emphasis on personal contribution and exchange.

At the same time as having a clear view of their own contribution the networked leader also needs to be an effective talent spotter – they need to be able to quickly find and amplify activities which contribute to the vision.

In doing this there is a need to be transparent with respect to decisions and to be able to explain these as being coherent with respect to vision and values.

In terms of activity – a lot of time will be spent giving feedback and amplifying activity from within the network – acting a curator as much as content creator.

But the single aspect that is at the same time a byproduct of the above and perhaps the most immediately realisable aspect of the networked leader within local government is the power that hierarchical based leaders have to convene people and conversations. This was the anchor point for the SOLACE conversation with general agreement that though local government is not necessarily going to lead local economic growth it can and should convene the networks which will make this possible and take a leading role in the curation of the conversation around the local economic narrative.

These are certainly qualities that I aspire to as I try to lead my own organisation – though I am also certain that I don’t consistently achieve them. The bigger question may be however whether or not this style of leadership is possibly in organisations made up of thousands of people in multiple overlapping networks and this is a question not just for organisations but perhaps for political parties – its certainly a question that the Occupy folks are concerning themselves with. I am sure that there is a lot of thinking already out there on this and I will start hunting for it.

Hierarchy is not always bad – I have been thinking about this with respect to the Virtual Policing project we’ve been working on with Sussex Police and frankly I am rather relieved that the Police have a command structure as in some situations you do need clear lines of control. However the question for me is whether you can retain the useful aspects of command and control hierarchy without comprising on the benefits and behaviours of the network society. That is definitely something I want to explore.

PS Please note that this has been filed in the ‘things I want to write about post PHD’ category – we’ll see how far I get in the meantime!!

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.

Just got home from the Listening to Communities Conference at Kent and wanted to capture my thoughts on it as its been a really interesting day.  There is a posterous site coming together around it so I recommend you have a look there at what people put up over the next few days.  the conference was organised by the Community Engagement team at Kent County Council and they did a fantastic job – largely orchestrated by @tomsprints who I am taking my hat off to right now – great job

I ran a couple of workshops on virtual civic spaces and am quietly pleased that I think I made a few people see the potential on civic activity online – you can’t always claim that after a workshop so I’m taking it as a win.  I’m going to post some thoughts about specific issues over at the posterous site so just one reflection here.

Change was very much in the air.  I’ve spoken at this conference before and really felt the audience didn’t want to listen – not rude but slightly complacent and very sure of their own place in the world.  This year the tone was very different – there was a sense of wanting to learn stuff and a shared belief that the world is changing rapidly and that government needs to change as well.  What’s more is that people wanted to learn – I had councillors and officers catching me all through the day wanting to know how to tweet or blog and asking how to get started  last year they wouldn’t have seen a need.

It doesn’t sound like much but it’s a feeling I am getting more widely from clients, Councils and the Police (more on that anon as we had a excellent day on virtual policing yesterday).  This feeling of change is something that feeds into the enthusiasm we feel about citycamp Brighton and the fact that I think there is a very real opportunity to try and do things differently.  I wanted to note this feeling as its a good way to end a week – and its good to note these positive things.  enjoy your weekends folks.

Here are the slides for anyone who is interested:

Bit of a change of pace as this is a note from an event I was at last week – normal academic service will resume soon (am reading The Myth of Digital Democracy so that you don’t have to….).

I  wrote this while at Hamburg Airport waiting for a delayed flight home and thought I’d try and use the time constructively and write up some thoughts from the Pep-net summit that I was over here for.  I’m part of PepNet through both Public-i and the Democratic Society so enjoyed it twice as much as a result….

For those of you who don’t know about it you can read about PepNet here – its growing out of a  European Project to build a European Network of eParticiaption practitioners and has gathered a number of interesting people together.   It looks like they have found a model to sustain themselves after the project funding ends which is great as it would be a shame to lose it.

However I do view these events with some trepidation – and as someone who has considerable form when it comes to attending eParticipation events it’s always a real pleasure when you come across something genuinely new or insightful rather than yet another citizen’s portal with a deliberative tool within it.

I’ll add the link to the presentations once they get circulated but I would probably highlight:

  • Paul Johnston from CISCO did an excellent presentation just pointing out exactly how different the perspectives of the eDemocracy advocate and the policy maker really are.  Very honest and very useful in its conclusion – made me think of @davebriggs!!
  • Anke Domscheit-Berg from Microsoft gave a very thoughtful overview of eParticipation – little light on EU examples but definitely useful
  • I was pleased to get chance to see an overview of the FutureGov projects from Dominic Campbell – lots of interesting stuff going on there

But now a few more general observations – most of these are not you but were all triggered by the set of presentations:

  • I was disturbed how much the talk was still of tools – and its speaks of a technological determinism that really we should have got over by now.  Social media really is now about social change (yes – its yet more about the network society).  We should be thinking in terms of diplomatic missions into Facebook-land where they have a different culture – not how do we build the app to do it.  Let’s get the relationship stuff right and then worry about the tools to deliver it because it’s all about people now.
  • A lot of this emphasis on tools also gives us the chance to avoid the more difficult issues of reconciling difficult choices and dealing with how to turn these into deliberation and democratic decision making processes rather than more neutered consultations.  I’m involved in a project at the moment which is doing this – focusing on the minutiae of technology design rather than addressing the bigger issues around content and impact.  The technology has to be right – but it doesn’t have to be perfect in order to have an effect and you need to make sure you are worrying about the right things.
  • I believe more and more that Government should be enabling and supporting citizens to create their own spaces and then helping to knit these into coherent democratic units – which means any talk of ‘engagement frameworks’ and the like starts to disturb me as I think it keeps alive the assumption that the process is owned by government.  We need to move past this and talk about negotiating process and contract with the public as part of a co-productive process.  Yes – it will be more difficult and it will take more time in the first instance but it does present our best chance of sustainable change
  • Open data is a huge key to all this and I would like to see governments and council’s really focusing not only on how to make their data sets open but also how to give people the tools and help that they need to in order to benefit from these new data sets – and to appreciate the new openness that it signifies.  What you want to see is people starting to build openness into every new data set that gets created as well as the tools which will make sure that people can use the data.

One last thought – the presence of two large IT companies at an event like this would have been pretty unusual a couple of years ago and the quality and openness of their contribution would have been even more unprecedented.  Big providers are starting to think seriously about eparticipation and have the scale to connect this to the major process re-engineering that a radical shift towards co-production will need.  Suggest we all take a moment to think about how we feel about this.

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