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.

The ability to reach the other side of the world without leaving your sofa brings changes beyond saving the cost of a stamp. The ability to share data and content without doing so in person or setting it in the aspic of print gives it a life of its own which starts to interweave with the relationships that the internet allows us to build. As I have discussed previously the internet changes the dynamics of place and community and as we move to a post-industrial society to a network society we clearly need to consider this in terms of social impacts as we well as political and cultural change. One of the interesting changes in mainstream discussion of the online world, at least for someone like myself who has been a huge cheerleader for the opportunities that the internet brings, is the fact that it is now seen as being ‘real’. Its no longer left to the technology pages of the newspaper and its no longer just the preserve of the ‘geeks and nerds’.

As the use of the internet started to grow beyond its military and then academic antecedents (Naughton 2000) writers started to talk about the information society – focusing the the fact that the greatest effect on society had been around the creation and sharing of information. However I choose to use the nomenclature of the network society which better reflects the fact that the big change here is in how people connect to one and other.

Frank Webster (2006) describes this difference perfectly:

“The point is that quantitative measures – simply more information – cannot of themselves identify a break with previous systems, while it is at least theoretically possible to regard small but decisive qualitative changes as marking a systemic break. After all, just because there are many more automobiles today that in 1970 does not qualify us to speak of a ‘car society’. But it is systemic change, which those who write about an information society wish to spotlight, whether it be in the form of Daniel Bell’s ‘post-industrialism’ or in Manuel Castells ‘information model of develop’ or in Mark Posters ‘mode of information’.”

But describing it as an Information society doesn’t look beyond the nature of this systemic change to the impact – that of vastly increased and diverse networks in society.  Castells’ strength and weakness is the holistic way in which he views the world –

“his approach is one which emphasises the connectedness of parts, though often these are in contradictory relationships, and their very frictional character is an important contributor to change” (Webster 2006).

This grand scope gives an excellent and compelling narrative but by drawing his vision this widely he perhaps does not then give sufficient emphasis to the offline world. I have talked in more detail about Castells in previous posts and you can read more here .

One thing to enormous heart of Castells’ does do is to balance off, for example, the more age of enlightenment views of Jurgen Habermas and start to move us away from the technological determinism of early information society writes such as Negroponte. Habermas’s ‘Public Sphere’ focuses on rational debate and in many ways ignores the social pressures on conversation and political discussion. The concept of the Public Sphere is a compelling one – he argues that the rise of capitalism and the departure from feudal / tribal living brought about the development of arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues. In terms of the network society we are talking about the ‘publicity’ of information and government.

However Habermas’s idea of ‘publicity’ is one which should be challenged when you consider the shifting boundaries between public and private which the social web can bring both in terms of identity and in terms of content. Where Habermas relies on the idea of people choosing to participate in the Public Sphere he does not take into account the impact of a life led mainly in public and the fact that this brings with it some necessary blurring between social and political thinking. Habermas’s Public sphere has a degree of formality, and rationality, which results from the idea of participants choosing to interact with it. His emphasis on public service broadcasters and the formal media also reflects this. I would argue that any Public Sphere today is less mediated and less formal than this. It is made up of the informal civic participation that I have described earlier with the blurred boundaries between formal/informal and civic/social that I have discussed in earlier posts .

I am not attempting a in-depth critique of Habermas within this thesis (though whether or not I need to will be a subject of debate next time I see my supervisor!!) but this concept of ‘Public Sphere’ is fairly central to the concept of a civic space – a place which provides a locus of local civic conversation.

If we accept Massey’s definition of place as space which has been given meaning and the distinction between place and local place is in the narrative of the people who consider themselves to be local to that place (more about this in a previous post) then a local civic space could be defined as being a space collecting together local narrative and opinion about local civic issues or as Webster describes it an “arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues”. What is notable about seeing this this debate happen online is the fact that it is visible and auditable, and that we can start to construct spaces around the debate.

This grounding of the network society in the idea of place is possible once we accept the reality of the interactions which we see online in terms of their ability to build community (Wellman, Rheinegold, Turkle) and provides a very different perspective to the Internet Galaxy that Castells writes about. His comment that “Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing” is just as true if we consider it from the hyperlocal perspective and allows us to start considering what the implications of the network are at the local level.

The Virtual Town Hall pilot is an attempt to examine these implications and to consider what it means to be both local and part of the network society – specifically with respect of the way in which this hyperlocal activity might influence or connect to local democracy and as we start to gather data I will be examining whether we are successful in creating this local civic space as well as seeing whether participants value it, as well as going on to try and describe some of the characteristics of this space.

Ultimately my criticism of Habermas is that he is all head and little heart – not taking into account the importance of the social relationships that support the conversations within his Public Sphere. This is largely because he seems to see the public sphere as being an evolution from the family / feudal spheres that I mentioned earlier rather than being able to coexist in parallel. This parallel existence is perhaps of less importance prior to the existence of a network society but as our ideas of ‘publicity’ change the boundaries between these different spheres becomes blurred. But what Habermas doesn’t seem to accept is the idea that this blurring can be a positive outcome and that the social interactions sustain and support the more formal interactions (Putnam).

When Castell’s shows us a picture of the Internet Galaxy (ref) he is mapping it in terms of the number of transactions – not in terms of their impact on the people and communities involved. I would argue that if we are going to consider the network society then we need to get away from its initial enthralment with the global opportunities that it holds and focus instead of what these opportunities are at a local level.

Barry Wellman, in his studies of ‘Netville’ starts to explore this connection:

“Affordances are the perceived capabilities of an object, environment, or technology (Gaver, 1991; Gibson, 1979; Norman, 1988). Arguably, the dominant perceived affordance of the Internet, as a means of communication, is one that involves exchange over distance. The earliest observers of the Internet noted this affordance to participate in the inexpensive, instantaneous exchange of resource with geographically dispersed others, expressing it through such concepts as the “space of flows” (Castells, 1996) and the “death of distance” (Cairncross, 1997). Whereas distance is perceived as the dominant affordance of Internet communication, it may not be the only communication affordance. Researchers have argued that when a critical mass of people within a shared local environment adopt the Internet, such as a neighborhood or workplace, they cultivate an increased awareness that the Internet affords communication within local space as much as it does across distant space—a concept referred to as glocalization (Hampton, 2001; Hampton & Wellman, 2003; Hampton, 2007).” (Wellman, Internet Use and the Concentration of Disadvantage: Glocalization and the Urban Underclass, 2010).

He goes on to say:

“Adoption of the Internet for local communication within a local setting may vary on the basis of the ecological constraints of the environment. However, there is virtually no existing research on the the relationship between ecological context and media use. Whereas an extensive sociological literature exists on neighborhood or contextual effects, from a communication perspective the role of ecological context remains relatively unexplored. In fact, within the literature on contextual effects, there is an implicit assumption that social contact operates through only one channel; that is, meaningful social interaction takes place only through in-person contact. This is problematic for both the study of space and the study of media: Studies of the Internet often ignore the role of physical place and context in everyday life, and studies of ecological context often ignore that a variety of media (old and new) can be used to form and maintain social ties. The result has been a failure to explore the possibility that some media likely afford social contact at different rates within different ecological contexts, which may influence inequalities derived from social interaction.”

The main findings of his research point to the idea that access to technology has a positive impact on civic participation but goes on to highlight the dangers of this additional connectedness being focused on the articulate middle class and draws attention to an additional concern around the impacts of the digital divide – though he does point out that disadvantaged communities are in fact going online at a faster rate than other communities – though I do not know what the situation is in the UK (Wellman is working in Canada). The paper is fascinating and I would recommend giving it a read – but one other item struck me when reading about the i-neighbours digital communities:

“The only outside group or institution to appear among the most frequent concepts was police, which appeared in over 7% of e-mails from disadvantaged areas but in only 3% of e-mails within other areas.”

Where on earth were the politicians in all this civic activity???

But Wellman’s overall conclusion is very hopeful:

“The Internet affords social cohesion and collective action in neighbourhood settings that are otherwise unlikely contexts for collective efficacy.”

Though he also goes on to point out that this conclusion should be tempered with the knowledge that it is a limited study and that the i-Neighbours effect may not be generalizable this study clearly supports the idea that hyperlocal activism can have a positive effect on local communities and that this effect is also there for less advantaged community members.

One final view of the network society is the work of Anthony Giddens. Webster says

“Giddens does not write much, at least directly, about the ‘information society’. It is not a concern of his to discuss this concept, not the least because he is sceptical of the proposition/ It is his view that we live today in an epoch of ‘radicalised modernity’, one marked by the the accelerated development of features long characteristic of modernity itself.”

Ideas of networks and globalisation are central however to Giddens work and he is concerned with the changing divisions between public and private and there impact on democracy and governance. To my mind this makes he work very relevant to any discussion about the Network Society as it becomes more truly part of mainstream sociological thinking. However, without an clearer tie to the sense of place which is so important to the individual there is the continuing risk that ideas of globalisation overwhelm what is potentially the greatest impact of the internet – its ability to reconnect local communities.

I started this piece by talking about the ability to reach the other side of the world without leaving your sofa – by connecting ideas of place with the network society we perhaps replace the desire to do this with a more meaningful connection to the communities right beside you.

This post is focused on exploring the differences between civic and democratic behaviours and was drawn into focus by some really interesting conversations I have had this week while doing a short but perfectly formed trip to Yorkshire for various projects.

One of the major elements of the model which I am trying to develop is the drawing of a distinction between formal and informal modes of behaviour. This is something that I am drawing from Social Capital nomenclature (Wallace, 2007, “Patterns of Formal and Informal Social Capital in Europe”). However I am then making the further distinction to say that informal behaviours can be characterised as social or civic and that formal behaviours can be civic or democratic. I have defined civic as follows:

“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.”

However this is old news and you can read the proper post on this here.

But my conversations this week have really made me think about the distinction that I have been making between civic and democratic behaviours really fails to take into account politics – the idea that you might have an overarching ideology which informs some of your choices and your context – and that this means it fails to really deal with the role of the elected representatives. The role of the representative is often the elephant in the room when you talk of changing the way we interact with the public and I realised that I have been dodging the issue as well.

When I first started to develop my model I used the term “Formal Consultation” rather than “Formal Civic” because I wanted to draw a distinction between what I saw as two separate interactions between Councils and Citizens – information gathering in the form of consultations and the decisions in the form of democratic process. However I moved away from this for two reasons:

  • I am describing the ‘bottom’ up activity of the public acting upon the decision making process – one way of looking at this is describing it as the pressure that informal civic behaviour puts on current formal processes. Formal consultation is initiated and driven from the formal body running the process not from the citizens and I wanted to reflect this ‘citizen pressure’ in the model
  • Consultation is not the only formal way for the public to get a hearing from the council outside of the formal democratic decision making process so my description was limited

This latter observation means that I need to spend some time looking at those formal routes into councils and I will write this up here when I have it.

When I talk about consultation I’m not talking about some of the ‘place-shaping’ market research type data that we need to get back from our communities in order to understand them on a macro level (though I think we could probably do this an awful lot better than we do right now this is a different post of even research project!). I’m talking of the wider scale consultations on particular policy areas or particular plans which often amount to showing the public a range of bounded choices rather than offering them – or even a thinly veiled communication exercise that attempts to herd public opinion is a specific direction.

I use this analogy a lot – so apologies – but consultation is so often about asking people if they want apples or oranges and never gives voice to the people who really fancy a banana (or – as someone pointed out last time I used this an egg sandwich – showing that I was already limiting people to fruit choices in my own thinking!!!)

Part of the reason for me evolving my thinking about this is the reading and learning I am doing around data collection and social research methods – its making me focus more academically and as a result look far more vigorously at some these processes when I come across them. Good research will do its very best to make sure that the context of the researcher has no place in the data collection – and this I think is the issue here.

By the time we get to the point of running a consultation the context is already set and we are not explaining this to the public – they don’t understand the policy cycle and as a result grow frustrated when they can’t affect the context. The issue is that the context is partly political and because we have tried to sanitise the consultation process from all political opinions we are not able to be honest with the public.

There are many good or at least understandable reasons as to why we have ended up here but I do think it would be an awful lot healthier – and a lot more open – if we were to put the issue of politics front and centre in the discussion and stop thinking that deliberations around decision making can be ideology free.

Of course the other issue is just the policy making cycle – at the moment we put deliberation in the mix before we carry out consultation – ie we consult of a fixed set of plans – but I think this needs to be turned around. For me decision making has four stages:

  1. Set the agenda – what’s the decision about?
  2. Set the context – What do we need to take into account when making the decision?
  3. Deliberate the options – How do we weigh off our options within this context
  4. Make the decision – How do we make a decision that takes into account the context, the options and the opinions of the people who will be effected.

I also believe that you need to view this as an iterative loop or spiral which allows you to check the agenda and context have not shifted during the deliberative process. This owes a lot to Rapid Application Development (RAD) or Rapid Prototyping methodologies which I think suit out network society. I was also very fond on the Boehm Spiral but that’s another post altogether.

So my formal civic behaviour is defined as the point at which civic society tells the state something by using an agreed channel. In terms of my decision making process this is really points 1 and 2. This means that Formal Civic behaviour relates to agenda and context setting and that Formal democratic behaviour is about deliberation and actual decision making processes.

This idea of “civic society telling the state” is an important point for me as there is a lot of discussion at the moment about how we could use semantic analysis or even sentiment analysis tools to feed into the decision making process and I think this is flawed. The public sphere needs to be healthy and vibrant – but there also needs to be a point at which it is fed into government in order to instigate action and this should be a conscious decision from the community – otherwise we are just imposing process on them again and the public are not taking responsibility for their inputs. The other flaw in the idea of passively harvesting public opinion is the fact that once again we are keeping the public out of the actual decision making process.

Deliberation is going to be political – its carried out in the main part by the politicians and they all have (or should have!) an ideological position on the issue at hand. We have created many barriers between the political and representative roles of the politicians in order to stop abuses of power – but which are being eroded by a more informationally demanding public and the authenticity and accountability that an online life affords people. These barriers inhibit local politicians embracing new channels such as social media. We have to accept the fact that our representatives have political views and that we either have to trust them to represent the people who do not share their views or we need to make the whole process more participatory and more open. We haven’t managed the first approach – we don’t trust them – so lets try and the second and create new standards that will allow us to deal with abuse.

The issue for me with consultation is that the deliberation will have already started and so the context is largely fixed in place but not necessarily communicated as consultation processes are not currently allowed to be political. To some extent this is inevitable – there is no such thing as a clean slate – but if we are looking to reform the relationship with the public and respond to the pressure that the informal civic space is putting on the formal sphere then we need to explore ways to include the ideological facts in the context setting process so that these can be understood by the public – after all they did cast the votes that put those ideologies there.

But the big question for me, for two reasons, is how we can involve the public in the deliberative process:

  • We already have representative who are there to represent the public in that process and involving the public risks undermining this
  • Most deliberation is, by my observation, largely informal or carried out in closed (for public participation) meetings such as cabinet

On the first point – I think there is strong evidence in terms of demonstrable democratic deficit that says that in many ways our politicians, especially at a local level, have a technical mandate through the voting process but no ‘real’ mandate because of low levels of voter turnout – Part of the thesis writing will be to evidence and back this belief up in more detail but it tends to get a big nod when you discuss it with practitioners. I believe that this disconnection means that we need to find a new ways to mediate this relationship. And yes – I believe that a lot of this new mediation will need to be online for many reasons.

Now for the PHD I’m not even going to start looking at how to change this – I’m going to stay focused on building civic spaces and looking at processes which could involve representatives – its someone else’s problem to see what we can do to ensure that representatives have the skills to participate.

However its an urgent problem because – lets face it – on many levels isn’t consultation as we use it now really about officers wanting or needing to bypass the representative in order to find out what people actually want? Or about members wanting the right questions asked to give them the answers they want (how often are survey questions vetted by members who know nothing about formal data collection and introduce inherent bias?) And is that not the reason that it is so often so limited?

We talk about lack of trust in the representatives from the public – surely its understandable that the officers often share that lack of trust? After all they are the public as well! There are some brilliant councillors out there – both online and offline – but there are few that are able to form an effective working relationship with officers and too few officers who have the skills to help them do this. But until we acknowledge the elephant in the room and start to innovate with members rather than in parallel with them then we are not going to be able to effect radical change to the way in which we work. But we cannot make any changes without treating elected representatives as politicians and accepting this as part of their decision making context and stop being afraid of it.

Because the hard fact is that decisions are taken by members and that consultation processes should exist in order to inform those decisions – and yet they don’t.

We can use and will use technology to improve the consultation process and to build in more transparency and openness but unless we also find ways to let the public set the agenda and the context, and unless we embrace the fact that decision making in a democratic process is political then we are really talking about sticking plasters and triage rather than the more radical surgery that will be needed in order to really change the relationship between the citizen and state and to create new ways of making decisions.

New governance models do not have to mean a plebiscite democracy – there is no evidence that the public want to be involved in every decision and no process that could make this an informed process. But if we are going to reinvent our representative process to take into account social change, characterised by the network society, then we need find a way to be more honest about the role of representatives and let politicians be politicians.

You have all been too polite to ask but some of you may have been wondering what has been happening with the Virtual Town Hall project that kicked all of this off. This post is intended to explain where are with the project and why things have been rather quiet.

We have been making some progress behind the scenes but things have been delayed for two main reasons:

  • My new job has taken a lot of my focus and I have just not been paying enough attention to the project. As a result things have been drifting for the last 6 months to a great extent. Clearly project management is not just about checklists – its also to a large extent about energy and direction and I have just not had any to spare while we made some fairly big changes in the business. I am always one for biting off slightly more than I can chew and I feel very fortunate that the pilot sites have been understanding of this and still have the interest and energy themselves to take this forward.  Needless to say part of my update process has been to apologise to some people for these delays…they have so far been very gracious
  • We put the technology in the field a bit too early. The initial sites were ok but no-one felt happy enough with them to make a big fuss about the launch. This was really down to UI issues as well as some functionality changes that were obvious once we saw things on the real world

So where does this leave us? Happily – in a much better place. The technology is now in really good shape and we have made a lot of progress – from that point of view the delay has been beneficial. In terms of the pilot sites themselves – I am in the process of visiting them in order to get the project refocused and ready to really go live this time. This week I have spent time with North Lincolnshire, Kirklees and Chorley and in all of those sites I think we have a plan to go forward which I think in all cases is stronger than the original proposition because it is more focused. I will blog separately about what the focus of each site will be but key differences from the initial plans are:

  • A decision to focus on a specific topic or area (be it topical of geographic). We were casting the net very wide in most cases and that lack of focus only added to our indecision in terms of actually getting things working
  • A reduced reliance on the idea of community ambassadors. We still feel that they have an important role to play but we are intending to get the sites up and running without relying on the recruitment and participation of these individuals – instead we will look for them as part of the ongoing sustainability of the process
  • The context of the work has changed hugely since we started in terms of the financial climate and as a result we will be putting a much greater emphasis on two areas:
  • Identifying the costs involved in the process that we are running
  • Identifying areas where our new activities can substitute for more expensive offline activities

In talking to the pilots sites I am very aware of how difficult a time it is to work in local government and I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who prepared to try something new rather than sitting back and waiting to see what happens. I think however that we all agree that someone needs to actually explore and measure what Carl (@gr8governance) calls “Decision making 2.0” and to really evaluate some of the stuff that a lot of people are speculating about with respect to the opportunities that social media and the online world provides to change the way we work with citizens.

So – things are getting back on track with the Virtual Town Hall and I should be able to outline more information on the specific foci for each of the sites in the very near future.

On a slightly different topic – I was at a meeting the other day when I was accused of looking down on some of the ideas that were being suggested as if they came straight out of The Sun newspaper. After I’d re-schooled my face into something a little more meeting friendly I could see what they meant – it seems I don’t have the right expression for ‘I’m thinking about something else’ and had accidentally used my ‘you are talking rubbish’ expression – needless to say I did apologise. However the reason I had mentally moved on to think about something else because in my view it may be interesting but I don’t think that Council’s should be trying to start projects which are best led by the community. However much we want these projects to happen to try and create them for the community is the same attitude of the paternalism which has got us to the point where we have more consumers of services rather than active citizens.

To be clear – this is not to say that community projects are not hugely important and should be supported whenever feasible – more that I don’t think that Council can or should be trying to create them because Council’s don’t do this kind of thing as well as the community can do it themselves. We need to be supporting and empowering local communities and then leaving them to get on with stuff themselves. Harsh but fair.

In the meantime I believe that Local Authorities need to address some of the bigger problems in terms of how we manage decision making across the whole unit – not just at the community level because we apportion resources and make decisions on this basis. I am relieved to think that there are people looking at the really important hyperlocal level around limited and discrete issues because it needs doing and the community needs to step up to the challenge – but my attention is focused on how we bring these small communities together and help them negotiate with each other for limited resources – because this wider negotiation is the issue that local government is really wrestling with.  This is the point of the Virtual Town Hall project and I am looking forward to getting on and making some more progress.

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.

It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar (J.S. Mill)

This is a proper essay I am afraid – I wanted to write up my notes so that I have them to drop into my literature review.  I have to say that Cass Sunstein Republic 2.0 was a pleasure to read – great thinking written with an excellent style – would that all academics could string such a sentence together – the literature review would be much easier!

Short disclaimer – I finished this late and have not proofed it – please be kind and point out any howlers – thank you

Key points from the book for me are:

  • The enormous danger of the “Daily Me” where we only see content that we already agree with
  • The idea of “Group Polarisation” and the fact that groups will tend towards the more extreme version of themselves so that it is essential to expose people to a range of ideas to support deliberative democracy
  • The fact that we have the accept the idea that we are consumers AND citizens and look for ways where we can culturally and legislatively balance these two fairly different positions
  • Ideas around what public spaces need in order to support deliberation
  • The BBC is a marvellous thing

There are lots of good quotes in here but this really struck me:

“Many people are fully prepared to develop an interest in topics that they have not selected and in fact know nothing about. To work well, a deliberative democracy had better have many such people.”

If this has wetted the appetite then read on here: (more…)

Last week I spent a day at a social media legal masterclass (details are here if you want them ) with an excellent presenter in Kathryn Corrick. I attended as I wanted to make sure I have a proper overview of what the legal issues are and to get a bit more detail where possible. I was fairly relieved to find that I do have a grasp of the essentials and that actually anyone with a fair amount of common sense and an idea of the basic principles is going to be fine but there were a few interesting points I wanted to note properly. However as it was a legal masterclass I need to point out that I am not a lawyer – and neither was the person running the course – so this is not actual advice!

But first a more general observation. there is a huge difference in the legal and moral positions on various issues and the law is not yet ready for social media.  Social media throws up issues of privacy and identity which are far more complex when you have a complete record of someone’s time online and also a need to balance the personal with the professional roles of an individual. This is particularly true for democratic content where it might be the legal case that copyright is broken for example but where the moral case is very clearly with anyone who is trying to constructively engage in democratic debate. The law is a tool which is there to help is all get along and in the case of social media we don’t really know how we want to get along and how we need the law to help is yet as we are still writing the rulebook.

But more specifically – here are the specific things I noted from the day – they are not all new thoughts – but useful reminders if nothing else:

  • Copyright really is very simple – if someone else created a piece of content then don’t use it without crediting them. If you want to use big chunks of someone else’s content then ask them – and if you want to try and profit it from it then don’t – they made it and they should profit. Democratic content is slightly different in that you want people to take it to some extent – but the problem of people taking selected pieces and quoting out of context can be addressed through copyright legislation. We are about to do some work around making council webcasts far more viral – and I will be looking at the creative commons licence model to see if this offers the right level of protection. Making the webcast player embeddable is a good route to deal with the copyright problem as if people embed content then they are far less likely to abscond with it – its about making the right thing to do the easiest route.
  • You really cannot represent yourself as someone else – this is not news but I did not know that this is all down to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Training  Regulations of 2008 (I say this in homage to Kathryn who ran the course – she claims this as her favourite bit of legislation. The regulation covers things like fake blogs but also using fake accounts to leave comments. This highlights the problem of identity / anonymity for officers in my view as you really do need to use your own identity. And did you know that the act of creating fake blogs is actually known as flogging??
  • Purdah – we had an interesting discussion of social media and purdah over lunch and Kathryn’s view – which I agree with – is that the substantive point which you need to focus on is whether or not you have gained benefit from your role as am elected representative and if you have then you need to disassociate from this during the election process. In a social media context this means that you cannot, for example, use the same twitter account that you use as an elected representative in order to campaign – even if you have set this up outside of the council infrastructure – because you are communicating with followers who you may have picked up as a member. This inevitably means having more than one account on social media sites and making sure that you communicate where you are going to be at any time as it were. Though this makes clear sense in terms of the ‘letter of the law’ it seems to me to ultimately be a very clumsy way of handling identity – but this is what we are stuck with until we have a more sophisticated view of online identity management.
  • Moderating content is actually higher risk than not moderating as once you moderate something you take responsibility for it. This is worth remembering in the context of the virtual town hall pilot.
  • We did talk about aggregation and Kathryn said she would follow this up as its clear that aggregation is something new which means there is nothing in the existing body of law to help us with liabilities and responsibilities. Also a point to note for Virtual Town Hall!
  • Privacy is largely ignored by most social media sites and it really is a shocker when you read the terms and conditions ( I know we all know that but really – how often do you actually stop and think about it!!). One thing to note is that most sites insist that it is actually a person who creates an account – which actually creates some problems where an individual is signing up on behalf of an organisation. Again – this is probably one of those lawyer problems which will never be an actual issue but needs to be noted.
  • While talking about privacy – I was surprised as to how easy it actually is to breech someone’s privacy (for example talking about a friends health in a public place). I think the thing to note here is that you need to be aware of what the other person would be happy with you revealing – not to judge other people’s level of disclosure by your own.

There are some common sense things you can do to navigate all of this – the two main ones being:

  • Have a strong take down policy and remove content quickly if there is an issue – but make sure that the policy tells people what you have done so you can’t be accused of censorship
  • Make it easy for people to complain – encourage people to take responsibility

So – no amazing revelations here as the law is really about clarity of thought and if you have that then you are fine.  Where this gets interesting is in what is best for the individual is no longer the best thing for democracy in general and where the technology starts to expand beyond what we can find a real world simulacrum and hence precedent for.  Will update this if we get info back on the aggregation point.

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