I’ve just finished reading “The Internet and Democratic Citizenship; Theory, Practice and Policy (by Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler) so this my research note for my literature review so there are some observations and then a wrap up from me….this is a long one so you may just want the highlights:

  • The analysis of the problem of democratic deficit and political disengagement is excellent

  • The authors are proposing a civic commons which is run by an arms length government organisation – something I am profoundly uncomfortable with

  • There is a lack of sophisticated interpretation of the social web and the implications of the social connections between individuals – they are still talking about websites as destinations rather than feeds and individual control

  • The idea of co-creation is not explored to the extent which I think it warrants.

For those of you with more interest in this here are the notes – or you can just jump to my conclusions.  (more…)

Perhaps it is just because I have only started twittering this week but there did seem to be a lot of talk about the new conservative party website – but perhaps the twitterati are always this vocal!

Of the articles/blogs I’ve read today I thought the futuregov one was probably gives the best summary/analysis – you can read it here.  One thing I would pick up on is mentioned in the FutureGov piece – there is no social networking or online community building included as part of the site.  Now in some ways you can just see this as more honest – I can’t imagine the party machine (of any party) listening to on online debate on their manifesto – but its a fairly stark admission in my mind.  Its all about broadcast views and comments – not about valuing the community and their contribution.  This is so very similar to the way that government has ended up relying on consultation rather than listening and debate – but I think really highlights the fact that “politics” seems to be getting in the way of actually engaging with the issues.

But the reason that this has set us all chirping is the parallel’s with the Obama campaign and its huge success in the online arena – and its clear that as a campaigning platform this is very impressive and I hope the other parties step up to the plate.  I have to say I do wonder if the website will be able to mobilise the party followers in the same was as was achieved in the US – but I don’t really know enough about grassroot party membership to know – please comment if you do!

I guess the thought to finish with was something said to me today by one of the people in the Virtual Town Hall Pilot:  “I am quite excited to see UK politics pick up on the Obama banner/strategy +interested to see how it works here…potential to get more online people engaged in UK politics – surely knock on to local – which is what people really care/can make a difference. This is why we need to be in a position to funnel users into our democratic channels etc.” And I have to say I agree – feel free to criticise me but I feel very little connection with politics at a national level – but I do have a huge belief in the opportnity for local politics to improve.  Hopefully the spotlight of fancy new websites and a general election is something we can use to help achieve this.

PS – the only reason for the title was the idea that you might want your own conservatives – I just find this rather odd – it kind of assumes that the site is only for people who have made up their mind – but on reflection perhaps this is exactly what it is!

Busy week as we had the kick off meeting for the Virtual Town Hall pilot as well as getting EU funding bids finalised. Both went well! I also met Liz Azyan who, part from being a huge source of knowledge about what people are doing online via her blog has the dubious honour of having actually persuaded me to try twitter – new widget on the side bar to celebrate!!

But this post is really about an intriguing article I read this weekend – I actually found it in The Times but couldn’t find a link – so here it is from marketing week.  But if you don’t fancy clicking on the link I can tell you that Sport England have signed a partnership deal with Facebook to create a sport hub on the platform to try and increase the number of people actually taking part in sport. Now, lots of things about this are interesting:

  • Its the first major deal I have come across between Facebook and a government agency
  • Its shows a lot of faith in the connection between the online and offline world – we’re not talking about getting people onto wii fit here – this is actual running around
  • The article talks about the idea of a ‘hub’ – which seems to be a new kind of facebook furniture – but this is not yet clear

The quote from Facebook in the article talks about “using our social tool as a tool for social change” and this is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole thing.

Now – I have huge doubts about the integrity of an environment like Facebook when discussed in terms of social change. I think that underlying design assumptions are enormously important and I think that Facebook is based on the idea of selling advertising and not on the idea of helping people get away from their computers. However – like it or not Facebook is currently one of our largest networked publics (good article on this here) and as such we need to pay attention to this first foray by government into actually using it to effect social change.

PS  I couldn’t find an ‘official’ press release but will keep an eye out

PPS As you can see its a new look for the blog – I think theme browsing on WordPress may have been developed as the perfect time waster. Please feel free to let me know what you think of it!

Just been at the eDem09 conference in Vienna – I will post properly once I am on a proper keyboard and not the phone one but just wanted to capture the headlines:

* lots of talking about social networks and I think a big question was posed as to whether or not politics and democracy can support an entire networked public or, as I believe, we need to be harvesting the discussions from exisiting sites
* The technologists are thankfully dominating the field less and there were great contributions from political scientists, sociologists and media studies/journalism folks
* lots of stuff made me think about ‘the tragedy of the commons’ – more on that later
* will be reading more about self-efficacy thanks to Peter Cruikshank

one last thought – these is still no real sense of which academic field all this falls into and I guess there won’t be one as we gradually drop the ‘e’ and start talking just about democracy and participation.

More anon

We need to remember that if we are going to make the virtual town hall work we have to always remember that its all about the people and we need to make this work in the messy realm of people compromises rather than the tidy world of technology.

One of the underpinning assumptions of the virtual town hall pilot is the idea that we will work with members of the community and train them to be moderators of CitizenScape sites. There are two main reasons for this:

  • Communities will respond far better to moderation from within than to moderation from government

  • There is no way that Local Government can take on the work of moderating a successful social environment so its best not to build with this as a requirement – it will just limit growth in the future

I have been discussing and thinking about this role a great deal recently and want to capture some thoughts before they disappear into next week’s todo list. We need to come up with a repeatable process for recruiting and then managing these moderators but before we do that we need to clearly define the role and manage the risks as this is a new type of engagement in an online context.

In an offline context there are precedents for working with community representatives which connect back to the ideas of the Arnstein ladder and its top rung of community control. Community representatives have been used extensively to intermediate with the decision making process and connect to the formal environment. This is not a straightforward process as you need to engage with the right people, keep them motivated and then, one the relationship is working, avoid the ‘Usual Suspects’ problem where the community representatives become more similar to your organisation than to the community they are there to represent. You also need to be clear that this is community and not democratic representation and ensure that you are still including elected representatives in the conversation.

[as an aside I really want to look into more detail at the way that these citizen relationships are handled in councils – isn’t it odd how far adrift community engagement is from democratic engagement?].

In the online context there is a slightly different role – called moderators – who are responsible for managing and encouraging the online conversations in a particular space. Often people are given moderator status once they have shown themselves to be ‘good citizens’ of a web space and many communities function brilliantly essentially self-moderated by volunteers.

It is this idea that was in my mind when I designed in the idea of community moderators into the Citizenscape proposition and I still think its the right idea. However I was asked an excellent question about the role the other day that really clarified things and made me realise we need to do more work on this: Will they (the moderators) be filtering or moderating content? Of course I thought – in a democratic context there are two roles, as per the community moderators, and we will need to be very clear as to whether the participants are community representatives or community moderators. Apologies if this seems screamingly obvious to you.

So, here is a first description of the role which I will next discuss with the Virtual Town Hall project team:

  • Firstly – lets not call them moderators and representatives – the role is something between these two ideas and calling it either things confuses things. At the moment my thought is that we call them Community Ambassadors

  • Current thinking is the Community Ambassadors would do four main things:

  • Help with offline publicity

  • Help to raise awareness of the space out in the wider social web and take part in existing conversations

  • Invite relevant conversations from the wider web into the democratic space to connect to the formal process

  • Moderate any discussions which are being held on the Citizenscape space

  • We need to make sure that succession planning is built into the role – partly to keep things fresh and avoid overburdening individuals but also because we want to avoid the usual suspects problem

  • We need to get contracts in place – they will be acting for the council so we need to get the parameters clearly in place

  • We need to do the social media guidelines in place as well as the code of conduct so the Community Ambassadors have a clear picture to moderate against

  • We need to put some structure around training and ongoing mentoring. The idea is that someone from the council will co-ordinate a team of Community Ambassadors and so we need to figure out the infrastructure needed around this

  • We need to ensure that we don’t trip over other community engagement programmes

We probably also need to come up with a profile for the role to help us recruit. I think the basis of this is:

  • People who are natural communicators – viral marketers call them sneezers and Robert Putman talks about them as people who provide social glue in Bowling Alone.  We want people who naturally tell their friends and families about what they are doing

  • People with existing community networks. Ideally we are plugging into existing networks rather than building new ones

  • Civic minded people – they have to see the value in connecting people to the formal process and be able to deal with the frustrations this may bring!!

  • Comfortable though not necessarily familiar with technology – we don’t expect to find experienced social networkers (though that would be a bonus) – but we do need them to be willing to learn

I think this forms the backbone of this strand of the project – we’ll flesh it out more when we start work next month.

I have always been rather careful about letting different parts of my life interact with other parts. My parents had limited contact with my friends, I still keep two mobile numbers (work/personal in case you wonder), I fret about how to categorise people on instant messenger and I never email friends from my work email address except in dire circumstances. To start with I am not sure why I was so structured about this but as time goes on I am increasingly relieved that I set things up like this as it means I have some choices when it comes to how I present myself online. With email addresses being the usual unique identifier that sends social networking and other apps rifling through your PC I find it really useful to choose consciously which address to use. So – I use my work email for my Facebook account – something that I consider to be a necessary evil as I am researching this stuff -and I keep it quarantined from my personal email. This should be enough to stop regrettable life leak and avoid friends and colleagues colliding but unfortunately this discipline is increasingly difficult to maintain as there is something rather brutal in rejecting someone’s ‘friend‘ request in Facebook land just because they don’t meet your zoning criteria and I now find the odd friend (or relative – they are even harder to ignore) on my Facebook page.

As I talk to people in Councils about social networking one of the first things I suggest is that they actually look for the people who are already doing it – after all officers are citizens as well and they should be your best advocate in the community. And this is not just good advice for Council’s – recent Useit research says the same thing for the commercial sector. 

But this suggestion throws the life leak problem into sharp relief and though I think it is very dangerous ground if people’s jobs are dictating what they can and can’t say in the personal life I think it becomes increasingly important that both sides of the equation – citizen/officer and council – are able to agree on some kind of social networking contract which will ensure that officers have enough latitude to be able to act as citizens on the wider social web but also understand what is appropriate from the Councils’ point of view. Now, in return for this the Council should get a huge increase in the number of people who are putting their message out on the social web but there are of course risks which I wasn’t going to elucidate here as you can probably list them yourself.

What I want to highlight is the fact that part of this social networking contract may have to be focused on talking about digital identity and talking people through the thought process of why you might want to keep a personal email address and what it means it talk about your council job on your Facebook page that uses your personal email as distinct from a work one. The best one of these I have seen so far is Carl’s draft from Devon CC but I still think this needs to go further.

Do you think I am worrying too much?

I think its essential that we release the huge potential around the use of social networks and freeing up officers to take a more direct role in their community conversations where they are also citizens is one way to do this. In fact – in the future – not doing this could be a limitation of their democratic rights. But if we don’t also support a more sophisticated view of digital identity this could get very messy indeed. If one of the necessary tasks of building a social web strategy is in bringing together a single relationship with the citizen in the same way as services have been focused around a single customer relationship then we need to think carefully if we want to make it possible, and perhaps desirable, for us to accommodate multiple identities within the system. It could be perfectly reasonable for a client of social services not to want to use the same identity for their citizen activities and the same could be true for officers / citizens.

I am not sure what the answer is here – and I think the technology is still evolving – but I do think the questions of identity and the associated life leak needs to be part of the debate around social web for Local Government.

I was in Ireland this week helping to run a Citizenscape workshop in Donegal (one of the pilot sites). We are looking to involve Youth Councillors and other young people as community moderators (Just as an aside – I really struggle with what to call these folks as a group – “young people” makes me feel like we are talking about them as an alien race but what else do you use? For now I will call them the folks at Donegal and you’ll have to remember that they are all under 25!). It was a really enjoyable session and I am looking forward to working with this lot as they campaign around getting government buildings using sustainable energy and getting more cycling lanes in Donegal.

Anyway – this post is really an action research note on the workshop to help improve the format etc for next time and then highlight points for future research so brace yourselves – its long.

The aim of the workshop was threefold:

  • Identify a topic that they wanted to work with

  • Make sure they were all comfortable using all the technology involved – including filming short pieces to camera

  • Get to a common agreement around how the site would be moderated and agree some immediate actions to get things moving

Overall the workshop was run very loosely as its difficult to know in advance where the participants would like to focus it. Next time I do this I will try and spend more time on the actual topic – we got rather carried away with the technology stuff which was fine with this group as they were interested but I will try and bring the balance back on the content. I think it would also be good to have a stand campaign template that people could start to complete in the workshop as a takeaway.

The first section of the day however was a discussion of current web tools that the team already use – so that we could then relate them to a citizenscape context. We organised the data in these catagories:

  • 1 to 1 tools where you know the person (or people) you are communicating with well. These tools include: SMS / MMS / Email / Skype

  • 1 to Many tools where you are is a shared space of people that you may not know in person. These broke down further into two groups: Social and Themed

  • The internet out in the wild with no really social aspect. General sites and services included:  Google,Music Download, Yahoo

I am doing a more detailed analysis on this as the catagorisation fits in with my wider theoretical framework that I am using for evaluation. However there are a few particular themes I wanted to pull out of this session which I will pick up on in my focus groups for the project evaluation:

  • Privacy / Safety – the group were reassuring aware of online safety and were careful about what details they revealed online.

  • Identity – they were also sophisticated about the need to have different personae online and were comfortable with the idea that you might have a specific persona for a specific purpose.

  • Space and place – in discussing the way in which we were catagorising the sites/services they had all listed there was clear agreement about the different social spheres that these worked for. There was a sense of appropriate spaces for different activities and when we started talking about campaigning we were able to talk about how we can use these different social spheres to contact different people.

  • This is stating the obvious perhaps but there was a huge difference in the level of online skills when compared to an older group. I would like to explore this more and look at doing more mixed age groups.

  • Also stating the obvious there was a big skills gap between the participants and the youth workers which would need to be addressed in future iterations. Happily the officers for this group were also really enthusiastic and used the event as a real chance to learn – but this could be a barrier with other sites and needs to be looked at

  • There were no gamers in this group – but they said this was not typical and we should keep an eye out on other groups.

The other thing to note is that the two of the main propositions around citizenscape – that you can use the Social Web to find people who are interested in stuff and that you need a specific place to talk about ‘civic’ issues both stood up to scrutiny here which is reassuring.

If anyone is interested I can share the workshop plan etc.

PS If anyone from the workshop is reading then I am very concious that I have not met the interesting blog criteria of having photos and I know this is too long – I promise I will try harder next time you you know know how I like to talk!!

I realise that I keep mentioning it but haven’t actually described what I mean. Here are the main points of the kind of space I am imagining:

  • Its designed to incorporate and respond to the next online fad and the one after that. Its just not efficient for you to keep reinventing your strategy and infrastructure every time the internet herd starts grazing somewhere new. You need a strategy which gets the best out of new technologies and uses new social spaces but always with the aim of bringing the democratic conversation home to a place where it can be had effectively. This really means a native web 2.0 architecture.
  • It’s a co-created space. This doesn’t mean its all top down – for a space to be truly democratic it needs to be co-created with all stakeholders having a sense of ownership and stewardship over the space. A single destination for all democracy and engagement activities Your virtual town hall is somewhere where the citizen goes online to act like a citizen – to carry out their civic role. This means it has to have certain ‘rules of engagement’ as does any well run debate.
  • Its moderated and managed – by all of the stakeholders.  For the sake of sustainability (you can’t moderate all this content with offices) and to reinforce the sense of co-creation you need to have those rules negotiated with and then managed by members of all the stakeholder groups – yes you need community moderators.
  • Content is accountable and transparent. Council’s (or other democratic bodies) can’t make decisions on the basis of how many people join a facebook group – you need to know who is saying what. This doesn’t mean you can’t use screen names have people stay anonymous to the general public – but there has to be the sense that you are accountable for what you say in the civic space.

This is turning into something of a manifesto!!  I’ll go away and see if I can streamline things a bit more

Research proposal submitted!!! I’m enjoying a weekend of leisure having sent the final draft off last week – just have to wait for the research committee meeting next monoth now. Leisure is perhaps stretching the definition slightly as a lot of it has been spent cleaning and sorting in preparation for going off to the US next week but lets not get picky.

As a leisurely segue from the serious stuff I’ve been casting around for a new PDA recently – I have long been a palm pilot girl and though I have been unfaithful with a sony ebook over the last few months I was thinking I’d just get another Palm and be done with it (yes – I know my phone will probably do most of the things the Palm does but it just doesn’t do it as well). Anyway, I’ve been seduced by the iPhone on the meantime – what a lovely piece of design it is…..

I’ve also been watching people use them while I’ve been out and about and they do seem to be the first mobile device which really encourages social networking. The elegance of the apps mean that connecting to the social web seems to be seamless and this really changes your relationship with it. This is the kind of pervasive, always on, always connected technology that makes sense of status updates, twitter feeds and the like as the phone is suited to short sharp bursts of info. The ability to take short videos and then get them straight up on the web is huge as well.

None of these features are all that new but they are newly convenient and seductive in the iPhone – and hopefully in upcoming devices like the Palm Pre which will solve my feelings of disloyalty for considering other PDAs!!!

But the real point is that people have a really strong relationship with their phone – its odd but its true. A well designed device which is asking to be used socially is going to give a boost to the websites and services which take advatange of this. If we think the iPhone has changed the game in terms of how we could use this device – and if we think that future phones are going to clone and copy its functionality – then we had better start thinking about how to use them for democratic engagement.

Now – does that sound like gadget lust or do I need that iPhone? You be the judge!!

Jurgen Habermas a pre-eminent social and political theorist whose ideas around the “Public Sphere” have influenced much  of the contemporary thinking around the information or network society.  Habermas describes the public sphere as a shared public conversation which encapsulates political, social and cultural debate.  He argues that this public sphere is essential to the functioning of a society as it provides the guidance and identity needed in order for a society to function.  It is an informal instrument of debate but supports the political process.  To some extent the public sphere is an ideology in that belief in its importance is one of the conditions for its existence and Habermas does describe it as such – as well as his passionate belief in its importance.  However it can also be considered to as an idea in isolation which describes the social interactions which transcend social interactions but are not yet formally political.

Access to information is one of the cornerstones of the public sphere and it is for this fact that it can be linked to information or network society thinking as the pervasive nature of information in a network society should mean that the public sphere will be able to thrive online – and in many ways it does.

Habermas and others voice their concern about the health of the public sphere with direct reference to current trends in mass media towards a simplification of ideas and a drive towards the use of mass communication techniques for advertising rather than debate concern anyone who has a belief in the importance of a vibrant public sphere as an essential element in a functioning democracy.

In my research I am arguing that the public sphere is an essential part of democracy and that the Internet is an important location for these debates.  I will also argue that one of the reasons that it is threatened is because of the increasingly fractionated nature of the Internet and the growth of self-publishing and social networking tools which do not make it possible to connect the elements of debate which could constitute a public sphere.  The CitizenScape research is looking at whether the development of technical and socially co-created online spaces can rejuvinate this public sphere and enable it to support the formal decision making process.