The Fremont Troll – Community co-production at its finest.

I went to hear Jim Diers speak last week – it was brilliant – many thanks to Colin Miller and BHCC for arranging it. I am still trying to get hold of the slides and will share them when I do but I wanted to blog about the event while it was still fresh in my mind.

Jim Diers  was Director of the Office of Neighbourhoods in Seattle, created in 1988 as a response to citizen dissatisfaction in the City. He has had a number of other community development roles and now lectures at the University of Washington as well as at the Asset Based Community Development Institute at NorthWestern. He has also been invited to talk to the UK Government and was consulted by the UK Government as part of the People Powered Change programme – happily he has avoided the brand toxicity of big society association by having a hugely credible track record.

I was live tweeting the event and below are the comments I tweeted which had the greatest resonance with me and with the people using the #jimdiers tag that evening:

  • If you call me a taxpayer I will demand service – call me a citizen and I will act like one
  • Too many organisations- not enough networks or communities. Build relationships not structures
  • Give communities the data that describes them and make representativeness a condition of funding
  • The council needs to think of all of its comms as a way of building relationships. Don’t put engagement in a box on its own
  • People learn best from the people who have done the work – its effective and empowering
  • Local regeneration is about the community attracting the business they want not just waiting to see what turns up
  • If you describe the community in terms of needs not strengths then all the power is with government

The stories Jim told from Seattle were inspiring because they spoke of communities finding their own power and taking a central role in their own development. Jim described a co-productive environment where the City officials had moved out of the way and strongly saw their role as facilitators, connectors and enablers for the community. He also implied a huge level of commitment from the City and from politicians – in particular the Mayor.

In the Seattle projects the question of representativeness was passed to the community to answer and was made one of the conditions of funding. I asked how the team had gone about detoxifying politics for the communities to the extent that they were positive about this kind of democratic approach and in his answer he talked about the need for persistence as well as the need to demonstrate the commitment to democracy with actions not just words. Jason Kitkat (leader of BHCC) added to this by pointing out that there is a place for politics – I think the unspoken codicil to this is its probably not within community development work.

However it is a bold decision to step away and let the community act and there is an explicit need in this approach to give power away to the community.

Part of why this was possible in Seattle was because the situation in 1988 was dire with many neighbourhoods needing significant regeneration and much citizen dissatisfaction – which sounds familiar in the UK in 2012. The response from the City was to do bottom up planning “because we don’t have any money” – for them effective community engagement was not a luxury.

It was also possible in Seattle because they took an asset based view of community development – they looked at what communities could do not just what they – the state – felt they needed (Have a look at how Wiltshire have been exploring this approach thanks to Steve Milton  ). This asset based model has been developed by the Institute at NorthWestern and the website is worth a read to explore some of the other case studies as well.

There was a challenge within Jim’s ideas about the need to transform the ‘usual suspects’ as well as our politicians – the challenge being that transformation in the way in citizen/state relationship to achieve more democracy and more shared power will require us to change all aspects of that relationship – not just a top down attitude approach from politicians. Jim explicitly said he felt that much of the Community development function has lost its direction and that its contributing to the culture of dependency. This was challenged as being a difficult message to give to people who have been ‘banging their heads against a brick wall’ in their attempts to create more citizen-led initiatives but Jim pushed back with the need to transform all elements of the community development dynamic in order to really achieve co-productive results. He is challenging community development professionals to take a really hard look at whether they are needs or assets led and whether part of the transfer of power to communities is in this reframing and not just with changing the attitudes of the politicians.

I have to say that I share his belief that all of the actors involved in the community development relationship need to change. In some ways this is a companion thought to the piece which I wrote on the absence of politicians in the digital space recently in that I expressed a similar feeling of appreciation for the enormous contribution but frustration for the failure to engage with a changing agenda. The challenge to change can’t just to laid at the door of politicians – the rest of us need to adapt as well and we need to do it in step with wider social changes.

Diers’ emphasis was on action, on doing and empowering. In many ways he was seeing community building as a by-product of community action and this is intriguing. Many of us would agree that this is the case and it certainly echoes the positive by-product approach that we have taken with We Live Here  but this principle of benefit by obliquity  is very difficult to argue for in a business case constrained development environment. However focusing our metrics on the measurable is a very sensible thing to do – for example looking at network reach and depth rather than social capital as a way of measuring community cohesion.

So – I have said before that evangelists are really irritating and I know that I can be counted as such on both counts and you can probably tell I found the session huge energising and inspiring. However. The caveat for me was the absence of a role for digital engagement to play a part in this work. This is probably not surprising as many of the case studies were from over the last across the last 20 years and probably predate the exponential take up of social technologies from the last 5 years. But when asked Jim was fairly dismissive of social media  – and I think this is a missed opportunity not just because of some of the efficiencies and relevance that new technologies but bring but also the positive social pressure that citizens already participating in the network society can bring. We see this in the CityCamp Brighton and this asset based approach is exactly how we have been approaching We Live Here.

The social network research that we use to instigate the We Live Here sites is an attempt to, cost-effectively, find the community assets who already have some of the digital skills which I think will be essential to community development in the future.

Why? Because as Jim Diers said it’s not just getting communities to take over services – its about enabling them to redesign those services to fit their lives. You will need digital skills to reinvent services in the future and you will need networked behaviours to do this within the network society.

But the thing I really noted from the session was a reminder of the importance of starting the engagement process with the community – not with your own organisational needs – and taking the time to build the relationships and shape the response around them. This is such a difficult thing to do when the pressure for change is immense and the natural response when in a hurry to to revert to a controlling approach. I think this is another way in which digitally led approaches can help with the amplification and viral nature of online network building speeding up this process – as long as we can then go on to take these networks offline and into the community.

I think there is something really significant in a combination of this kind of approach to community development with the rigour and scale that you can achieve with successful digital projects and the cultural change that a more digitally native approach can bring. Part of the point of the action research programme I want to set up around the We Live Here work is to look at how digital techniques can complement this kind of asset based community development approach and I will also now bring in some of the CityCamp Brighton experiences and see if I can gather evidence from this network as well.

I am fascinated by the cultural collisions that are brought about by really good community development work and really good use of digital as more than just a communication tool. I am impatient for these cultural collisions to start changing our political landscape and hope to do my part in bringing some of these collisions about. I am most excited however by the huge potential that I think is in our communities if we can figure out a way of unlocking and seeing first the assets and not the needs of communities.

As I said when I signed off on twitter after the event:

Inspired. Now off to find assets, remove structure to build relationships and democracy

 

PS  for those of you who like this kind of thing – SNA map of the tweets from the event:

 

Total reach of nearly 40,000 with a contribution from the Netherlands – it is indeed a small world….

One of the items we have put in our proposal for Creative Councils is the suggestion that we host an Action Research network looking at the emergent changes in the way in which officers and members are interacting with citizens.  Following a fascinating meeting with some local community engagement experts and councillors last week I wanted to let more people know what we are up to as there are lots of opportunities to collaborate – I hope!

The exploration of new forms of engagement is a strand of work which has been emerging from the We Live Here project, and to be honest a number of other things I have been working on. Its obvious that if we your ambition is to try to reinvigorate civic participation – or at least give it the environment it needs to flourish in the 21st century – then you also need to work with engagement officers and volunteers to look at how their professional practice needs to adjust to this change. We want to make sure that we are doing robust research into the effects – planned and unplanned – that we are having at the same time as ensuring that we don’t get focused on evaluation rather than progress and we believe that an action research approach will help achieve this.

Action research is a method of actively participating in change projects at the same time as conducting research. The ambition with We Live Here, and perhaps further projects, is to embed research practices into the project process so that we can capture the learning that emerges. By making this a wider project than just We Live Here we can draw on wider expertise and draw wider conclusions about the work that we are doing.

I feel really strongly that research and practice need to come together to support innovation in any kind of service design. This means that the academics need to get out of their universities and the participants need to build research techniques into their practice. With our project, which is all about building capacity on all sides for more co-productive working then the participants are not just the professionals – we want the community to actively participate in the research as well.

Using a research orientated structure for the project also starts to address the question of systematic evaluation. Its difficult to evaluate innovative projects where many of the benefits may be unexpected and where the form of the project may change many times within the project frame. However in combination with the agile approach and a strong vision for the outcome we are aiming for I think its possible to embed a research strand within the project which will support the agile project working and also help ensure that we are changing with meaning.

The basic outline of this will be fairly simple as we can’t risk over balancing the work with too much focus on research outcomes but I imagine the following:

  • Design and embed data collection within the project – both in the technology and also in the way we manage offline interviews and meetings
  • Systematic action research blogging from as many participants as possible
  • Regular write up and reflection from the research team on the data which is gathered

A lot of this is about how we set the project up for the next phase as we have the intention of supporting the work with research then this should be achievable.

I also think that the action research approach dovetails neatly with the agile project management approach. You can read more about agile here but one of the essential elements of agile software development is the inclusion of unit and regression testing. Adopting research practices within the project framework does something parallel to this testing within the the social as opposed to the purely technical environment.

I will do a more detailed post on the proposed design of the process (when we know how much money if any we have to spend on it!) but as we have continuation money and support from the Council anyway we will be able to implement this in some form. I also hope to be able to find some people at Brighton and Sussex universities who want to collaborate on this as well as connecting with the other projects going on in the City.

I was at a meeting discussing this last week and there was some blurring of terms between action learning and action research. I think this very clearly needs to be considered action research. Action learning would imply that we know what these new skills and techniques are going to be and we don’t – we have some ideas about what is needed but until we test and develop this we won’t be able to produce the evidence or systematically reproduce this in learning.

The kind of skills and attitudes we see emerging are varied; we need to build facilitation and convening skills. We need to understand how networked power works online and offline and we need to find ways to involve the people who don’t need us but can help us rather than the ones most lacking skills.

Perhaps the most difficult thing that is needed is for professional participants to work towards their own redundancy. There is a seductive quality to being needed by communities which needs to be overcome if we genuinely want them to be more self-reliant but that not a new problem – we just can’t afford not to solve it. More than that, if we consider the idea that we are moving towards a radically smaller state (which the finances point towards whatever your political views on the subject) then we also need to give these people a self-belief and skills which mean that they have a personal confidence that there will be something else to do when this community no longer needs them. This is going to be hard.

We are only scratching the surface of what this means and we are in common with many other projects who are looking at how the relationship between citizens and state might change in all kinds of ways. Within Brighton there is a developing use of Participatory Budgeting as well as the planned Neighbourhood Councils pilots which are being considered at the next Cabinet meeting. Within Creative Councils Cornwall and York are also looking at different forms of citizen participation and in its widest form most of the Creative Councils projects are looking at this issue of the renegotiation of the Citizen / State relationship.  However – I feel that if we don’t start to join up some of these experiences systematically then we miss the chance to draw wider conclusions.  I have been combining project work and research for a few years now and though by no means an expert I think the combination of these two mindsets can be powerful.

So, the ambition is to create an action research group based in Brighton which will support this process. Rather than trying to formalise it from the start we will just get on with it within the We Live Here project and make it as open as possible to other interested parties – either researchers, practitioners or just the generally interested. I hope that by doing it this way we can attract the expertise we need as well as progressing past the planning stage that so many ideas get stuck in.

I’ll be blogging progress here so let me know if you want to get involved.

Last night we held our second community meeting for We Live Here in the lovely Electika Cafe on Western Road (yes – that was a plug – it is lovely and they were kind enough to open for us in the evening – they also followed through on our project meeting promise of cake at every meeting). This was for the Brunswick site – which was originally Brunswick and Regency until we realised (though the research process) that this was two distinct areas that would probably work better as two separate project sites.

Brunswick is a real mix of demographics with high density short term occupancy alongside beautiful and much loved Regency Terraces. We found a huge amount going on online and offline but we also found it was fairly disconnected with relatively few linkages between groups and projects.

Learning from the first community event we held, this was never intended to be a huge meeting but instead a chance to test our ideas on residents and get permission to carry on developing them as we feel at a point where we can’t continue without active participation from the people who live in the areas we are working in.

We therefore contacted participants based on people we had met through the research and the event was a bit like Brunswick in that it turned into more creative and free form drop in session than a formal meeting. We had a good turn out however with one ward councillor and 4 local activists over the course of the evening.

From the WLH here team we had Anthony, Nicky, Susie and I – with me facilitating, Anthony pitching the project and Susie describing the research as she has the most in-depth knowledge of the area.

The advantage of the drop in format was that we got to test the pitch a few times. Specifically for Brunswick we put forward:

  • We think that there is a lot of participation in the area but it is disconnected and not well networked
  • It is difficult for new people to get involved because there is no visible way of connecting to ‘the community’
  • We think that technology can help connect groups and activities and make civic society easier to participate with
  • This doesn’t mean doing everything online – it means using digital to connect and communicate and make it easier for people to participate on their own terms

As with other meetings the idea came alive for people when we showed them the prototypes sites and also when we explained that this was a tool to connect existing content rather than a new website that would need feeding and updating.

Overall the analysis of the area and the proposition was received really positively (including by the Ward councillor) and the group clearly ‘got it’ and left the session generally feeling enthused. Which happily meant that they raised some interesting points:

  • There was some interest in how an approach like this could help cooperation between established groups. There is a fair amount of ‘volunteer fatigue’ and it would make a big different to mitigate this
  • The participants felt that their local ward councillors were doing a good job and they were really positive about their responsiveness and profile with activists. Both Councillors mentioned are extremely digitally able and we explored whether this was a good opportunity to look at tools to strengthen the representative function. Intriguing. Ideas discussed included Realtime FOI on local issues, Integration with fix my street to include escalation to members, Audit trail of case work and ‘Crowd sourcing’ answers to questions so that members only have to respond once
  • The emphasis on this was on providing a good democratic process – this was a reasonable group that don’t just want to get their own way but they want to stop being bounced between officers and members and they would like more transparency about the decision making process. This is not really in relation to the big decisions – the example repeatedly cited was with a question about getting white lines painted.

We also had a very legitimate challenge about digital inclusion – something that frequently comes up and we think has three elements to the answer:

  • We don’t see this as an online only project – the technology can help connect people and make offline events better at the same time
  • We need to find ways to reach offline spaces – with noticeboards and community venues
  • We have to be realistic and clear that we believe that the social shift is towards more online activity and we have to respond to this

Reflecting after the meeting we think there is a possibility to network groups together here and create a kind of shared governance which is available to manage both cooperation and conflict.

I also keep coming back to the lack of understanding of the officer role within the community – even with a group as informed as this one there is a sense of not understanding where responsibiloty sites between officer/member and there was also a frustration that including a councillor seems to stimulate activity even when it appears to be an officer job to sort. We know that this is not what officers intend and also that the boundaries between them and the members feel unclear to them as well. My other observation is that all three parts of this triangle officer/member/citizen just don’t understand enough about the other’s perspective or context and don’t take what seems to be an obvious step of just treating people like people and asking. This is a poorly formed observation at the moment but one I will mull over more – but it is part of where we want to reach to with We Live Here. I think the answer lies in the idea of being open by default – more on that here.

Back to the meeting – most of the people who attended would like to continue to work with us and we have had offers to take the project to others in the community to widen the group. We have agreed to try and attend a couple more local events to widen the message about the work with a few to having a more formal planning / development / ideas meeting in June.

In the meantime we will be continuing with the social media surgery programme as this has been really well received – and it is a really important element of the overall approach.  The fact that we are there doing something useful makes a big difference to how open the people we speak to are to our ideas.  This should be obvious but I am not sure how often engagement starts with simply offering to help.  With the social media surgeries the suggestion from the meeting is that we do leaflet drops in specific streets before each surgery. As my office is right in the middle of the area I have said I will help with this (digital commitment to make it easier for Susie to get me to do it!)

This is really the first step in properly passing ownership of the project to the community and we feel we have permission from a few key people to continue to develop the idea in the community. It would be so much faster just to dive into a build phase on this but it would be wrong – this has to be co-produced and not designed from the outside and so finding active participants who see the value of it is a vital step. There is loads more to do but we have a strong start I think.

Thanks to all who took part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again to the #ukgc12 folks

This is by way of a short Action Research reflection so if you are not interested in that kind of thing then move along! Next post will be the write-up of the Agile session at #UKGC12 and much more practical I promise.

I have been mulling on the tension between co-production and Action Research and the need to separate one’s desire to keep the experiment intact at the same time as being open to other people’s views both with respect to the process but also the content within the process.

Action Research is about designing an experiment or project with sound reasoning as to why you think this is the best way to develop knowledge and improve practice – and then seeing if it does. In the case of ‘We Live Here’ for example we have designed an experiment which maps online and offline networks and then gathered them into a single online space which will be discussed with those networks in an open public meeting. The hypothesis that we are testing is that better networked communities are better able, and more likely, to participate in local decision making. This experiment was designed we a certain set of assumptions that we should probably state more overtly namely:

  1. Good decision making and effective democracy needs to be underpinned by civic conversation and the opportunity for deliberation and debate outside of the decision making process. The absence of this ‘public sphere’ is one of the things that has weakened democratic engagement over time
  2. That one of the reasons that people don’t participate in decision making – or deliberation — is that the process is unwieldy and inappropriate for their needs and needs redesigning to be relevant for modern life.
  3. That there are people that have other, deeper reasons for not participating but that we are not looking to deal with more complex issues of access within this project – our focus is creating an environment which is self maintaining and active that we can then help further people participate in over time.
  4. That the project needs to be digital by default but not solely digital.
  5. That networks – and networks of networks – will need different types of support and we can’t make assumptions about what this support might be.

However we also want to work co-productively both within the project team and also with the participants and we are actively looking for positive by-products – for example increased resilience or service access – within the areas that we are running pilots. One of the effects of this is that we have stakeholders (dreadful word) within the project who are not primarily motivated by the initial experiment design and who were not involved in creating it.

For the research to be useful we need to keep the experiment as intact as possible within each iteration at the same time as being open to challenge both on the nature of the underlying principles and also the design of the experiment itself. We also need to keep careful separation from the design of the process from the content and connections that are created within the bounds of the experiment.

This creates a tension – we are trying to keep the experiment intact at the same time as telling people we want to create the outcome with them.

I have been thinking about how to do this – and also how to separate my own twin desires to both defend the underlying context and assumptions (which is a bit defensive of me) at the same time as defending the need to keep the experiment intact (which is the inner researcher speaking).

The Agile project management approach that we are taking is one way of doing this and communicating these three elements to the project team:

1) Context
2) Experiment
3) Content

So I think this means I need to think about more formal project reporting and to start to structure feedback on it so that we can clearly seeing the different questions that we need to consider. I also need to consider how we are going to communicate the action research approach to a wider and not at all research focused audience – or indeed if this is a good idea.

I’ll be speaking to the rest of the project team on this and might be back with an update.

This is another action research note on We Live Here – the Brighton and Hove Creative Councils project. You can read previous posts here. The last few weeks have been spent in parallel project planning and also starting the community mapping exercise.

We had a really good team meeting last week where we cleared a lot of ground which was great. Our next milestone will be a first workshop with external stakeholders – really interested parties from the City and then the launch of the project website.

One of the strengths of having a project consortium from a number of different organisations is that we are able to reflect very different views and because we have a lot of mutual respect turn these into constructive positive conversations.  I also increasingly believe that you do need some external sand to make a pearl in the organisational oyster and that a Council led project would be more more risk averse.  Hopefully with our close partnership we are going to be able to balance disruption and risk in a good way.

We are trying out an agile project management approach which means we are working in discrete iterations and then pausing for reflection. The first of these iterations will involve piloting our approach with 3 communities and also creating a prototype of the technology. This will take us to the end of February and we will then reflect before starting the next iteration. One of the things which we have also done in order to keep project direction and continuity between interations is to capture the values and aims that we mean to judge and manage our actions against. I will write more about this another time but they are:

  • Agile
  • Actively Open
  • Postive byproducts
  • Democratic
  • Creating self-efficacy

The wording is horrible – will correct before we publish properly.  In order to get organised we have divided the project into a few different work streams:

  • Mapping – Our method for finding and understanding the networks and spaces which already exist in the communities
  • Communication – straightforward updates etc
  • Engagement – talking to stakeholders about the project and getting them involved in developing the vision
  • Governance – how will the civic spaces work and also how will they interface the the Council
  • Technology
  • Project management and governance

Yes – we do seem to like the word ‘governance’. This is a slightly more granular breakdown than we had originally but it makes much more sense.  We’ve divided it up partly to eat the elephant but partly in order to keep use the whole project team to lead different strands of the work so that we keep a fresh perspective when we bring stuff back to gether in our two-weekly meetings.

We have made progress across all the strands and we hope to get the website up and running before we have our first project workshop with our wider stakeholders (not the communities we are working with) on the 16th December. More on that when we manage it. This post is concerned with the community mapping which we (public-i) are running.

What are we actually doing?
The aim is to create a picture of the 3 pilot areas that includes:

  • Engagement activities
  • Community activities
  • Civic spaces
  • Networks and interest groups

We want to understand the ‘network of networks’ in the area, identify the key people who connect these networks and also to work out where we don’t have connectivity. We will be looking at online and offline activity. Once we have this then we are going to be putting it together into a community directory website that shows everything we have found (subject to permissions – see below) – it should hold a mirror up to the community. We will then be holding an open spaces style meeting with the community to present some ideas as to what they could do with this – more on that in another post.

The methodology for this is built on the social media audit work but uses an additional Social network analysis questionnaire. We are taking a ‘snowball’ approach by starting with the project team and working outwards from there. In parallel we will conduct a physical walk around and online search which we expect to uncover some activity which is outside of the current engagement process – but we shall have to see.

I thought it would be helpful to list what we are using:

  • First iteration: SNA questnnaire and data collection sheet, Social Media Audit search and data qualification
  • Second iteration: Crib sheet of ‘nodes’ from the first iteration, A map of the area, SNA questionnaire (updated), AudioBoo or something similar (like this as found by Paul ) for capturing and geotagging physical civic spaces

The civic space prototype will be in the form of a community directory and will be built using Citizenscape – this is probably the nearest example we have in the meantime.

Our intention is to turn this mapping process into a self-reporting tool – we are trying to work out what the least possible intial information is to then be able to turn the process over to the community to map itself. This is going to be essential if this approach is not going to be incredibly expensive – as has been the problem with other social network analysis community projects. We’ll be working on this viral mapping in the new year once we have completed the bulk of the this iteration.

First interation vs 2nd iteration
Yes – we are using the word iteration in two senses – one to refer to the overarching project iteration and the other is within the mapping process. I am now talking about the mapping iterations.

We have, at time of writing, done the intial interviews witht the project team which has generated around 40 contacts across the 3 pilot sites. Its clear from the data we gathered that one of the sites has been the subject of a lot of prior engagement activity where the others have had less contact with BHCC in this way. Its going to be interesting to look at how this effects the implementation of the project across the different sites.

We are now filling in some of the blanks in that data (mainly where people knew organosations but not individuals to talk to) and also carrying out the online search. We will then have a short list of people within the pilot site communities to start talking for the next iteration of the mapping. I am hoping/assuming that the online search will throw up some activity that we don’t already know about.

When do we talk to real people?
This first iteration is very much within the project team but the next step is to speak to the communities that we will be working with. I say will be working with – the first step is really to find one person in the community who is reasonably active and connected (and should be highlighted by the first iteration) and then asking them to act as a community host – to introduce us to some people and go on a physical walkaround and point out civic spaces and important places.

Where BHCC has already been active this person should be fairly obvious which is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that we would be piggy backing on what is already a good relationship but bad in that realtionship already has embeded ways of working and outstanding promisies and commitments on both sides that we will of necessity be disrupting. Disruption is a good thing when you are trying to innovate but alarming for the disrupted. We are realising the strength of the project being supported by but not run by the Council in that we are able to be more disruptive that we would be from within the organisation but it is still have to be extremely careful to keep this as a positive activity.

We have also been extremely cautious (too cautious?) about taking the concept out to the public – hence our lack of a outward facing website for example – because we are still concerned that we haven’t got a simple and accessible way of describing what we are doing. Happily Jo Ivens has been making real progress with this and we think we are nearly there. Clearly this blog is no place for a simple and accessible description so I will leave the big reveal for the website launch.

There are a lot of sensitivies around actually taking this research into the field becuase we risk damaging important relationships – however we are have safeguards in place on this which I describe in the next section.

When talking about these concerns though we see a real range of feelings in the project team – which is probably helpful.  Speaking personally I find it fairly difficult to distinguish when we are ‘going council’ and being very risk averse and when we have legitimate concerns.  I hope this will start to become clearer once we are out and the field and talking to ‘real’ people.

However we need to crack on with this – the longer we wait to get people involved the more difficult it is to really co-produce the solution – we need to be a bit quicker and a bit bolder.

Research disclaimer
We need to get a research disclaimer agreed that will give some clarity to the people we are going to be asking for data from but which doesn’t restrict us too much. We need to give people reassurance that we won’t be just mining people’s address book but that we will treat information sensitively. We also felt it was important that we didn’t approach someone’s contact without permission or ideally an introduction so we have asked for that as well. The draft disclaimer is below though this is still subject to some editing:

We are conducting research as part of the We Live Here Project. You can read more about the project here. This first stage of the project involves finding out what networks, groups and active individuals are within your community and then we will be creating a directory for general use. This directory will include organisations and websites but will not have names of people unless they personally agree to be included in this way.

Your responses will help us to find these networks. We would like to include your responses in this directory but we will not contact anyone in your network without your permission. If you think that we need to exclude particular bits of information then please let us know and we will not make them public. In summary:

1) Any websites or organisational names you suggest will be included in the final directory
2) Any names you give us will not be used without the permission of the person
3) We will not contact anyone whose name you have given us without your permission
4) If you think any of the information you have given needs to be treated more sensitively then please let us know

This is now with the project team for discussion but please comment if you have any thoughts on this.

Statement of intent
This research disclaimer is going to be used with our ‘statement of intent’. We intend our work with the communities to be co-productive – we don’t want to dictate the shape of their civic spaces becuase we think its the wrong approach – and just wrong. it would be disingenuous howeber not to be clear about what our aspiration is however.

As an aside – I think this are two important elements of ‘network society engagement’:

  • We can’ pretend we have no agenda or beliefs so lets state them clearly from the start
  • Co-production means all participants should benefit so lets be clear about that as well

We are still working on our statement of intent but it will have the following elements:

  • We want to strengthen democratic process
  • We think we can help do with by creating a network of networks within communities
  • The governance of the civic space this creates needs to be managed by the community but we don’t know how
  • We aim to be Agile, Actively Open, Postive byproducts, democratic,to create self-efficacy

The question of governance of the civic space – and its curation – are big meaty issues that we are working on at the moment so we can have some draft proposals for the open meetings early next year.

What can we do for you
One of the other things we have added in before the second iteration is a very explicit ‘what can we do for you’ question. Once we start talking to our pilot sites we want to be gathering information about what they want and need from the start so that we can be confident of offering some positive by products for the project as planned.

Why are we doing this?
We are also starting to form a much clearer idea of what the benefits of these spaces could be beyond the wider democratic purpose which is so abstract. In short we think we will offer greater resilience within communities as a result of strengthening networks at the same time as providing an open space for people to tell their stories in a place where they will be listened to.

Next step will be to create some metrics that will help us judge how well we are doing against the many objectives and ambitions I have listed here.

Expect another post after our workshop in a couple of weeks – and expect everything to change as no plan survives contact with the outside world!

This is by way of a reflection on the creative councils programme and process rather than our specific project which I have covered off here.  I meant to post it last week but as ever events overtook me and I got distracted….

First off though – the team that NESTA put together was excellent and the event ran in a very open and collaborative way.  My thoughts here are really from the point of view of someone who designs these kind of open events in terms of what would I steal and what would I adjust rather than any criticism as I really think they did a great job.  However in the pursuit of perfection here are my thoughts.

Collaborate with the collaborators

What do I mean by open event?  I think open events events are a kind of coproduction with the participants taking responsibility for their experience within the event.  The first comment then is the fact that this one ran with a fixed agenda meant that it wasn’t completely co-productive – that’s understandable for the first one but might need adjusting for the next time we all meet (if we do) as the projects will start to diverge even more than they have in terms of progress and needs and will also want to build on the participative approach we saw in Birmingham.

Its worth noting that running a single open event is less challenging than running an open process and Creative Councils is no different (I am thinking specifically of what we are doing with both the CRIF project and also the CityCamp Brighton network when I say this).  At this end of the process its fairly easy to be open and collaborative and meet the needs of funder and potential fundee but as we get closer to a decision point about who NESTA will continue to work with the power in these relationships will shift and any kind of coproduction will be difficult to maintain – its interesting to reflect on whether that is necessarily a bad thing or whether we need to accept that processes need to become less open as they reach a conclusion.

However I think at this end of the programme – and in the interests of supporting the direction of travel for most of the projects I think NESTA should be thinking about how to involve the project teams in event and process design.  If this really is an open process then lets get this on the table as well – it also helps address one of the underlying questions here – how do you innovate with a group of innovators.  I know we can’t design by committee but I also think a standard of collaboration needs to be set by the organisers of something like this.

Who are the experts?

If I were to criticise one part of the design it was the involvement of an additional group of facilitators on the second day – because they hadn’t been with the teams the day before they didn’t, I feel, appreciate the fact that the event was already highly participative and there was a regression into a more conventional format.  Not sure you could anticipate this but I have certainly noted that I wouldn’t change the facilitation team part way through an event in the future – and I probably wouldn’t bring in a group of experts without having done more of a skills audit on what expert would mean in the context of the participants.  Live and learn I think….

All that being said – I was thinking afterwards that this was a classic case of there being an assumption that the expert was in the hotseat – and at an open event that is just not the right assumption.  I also think I owe a personal apology to a couple of the people whose sessions I sat in on as chose topics which fall within my doctoral research and sent me off the top of the wonk chart so I was probably not the kind of participant that they were expecting….and I am not sure that this helped my fellow participants either…sorry…

Within those second day sessions it was clear however that there are wildly different levels of knowledge about some of theoretical areas that are being referenced in the project teams and I think that it may help to do an overall skills audit so that future events can help people cover some of the basics at the same time as extracting the really innovative thinking that is going on in the programme.

Excitingly for someone like me who already has a research focus there is a lot of really great theoretical work here and I think that one of the things that should be considered is how we involve some academic researchers in the process.  Am thinking Gerry Stoker with respect to policy design through experimentation as well as his work on ‘nudge’ and also Tony Bouvaird with respect to co-production.  Have other references on this as well which I will add at some point.

Blog early blog often

While writing this article I considered whether or not to post here on the blog or if these comments were best as an email to the Creative Councils team at NESTA.  I decided on posting here because I think that one of the debates we need to have within the programme is exactly how public we want our experience of Creative Councils to be and my personal conclusion is that we want a default position of openness – so the only stuff that I not covering here is any feedback that could be seen as directed at one person rather than the process as a whole – which is my usual policy here on the blog.

That’s fairly easy for me to say – I have been blogging for a while about my research work and so this is not a big step.  I am also at one step removed from the Council which gives me a little more freedom – though as part of the project team I am of course bound to that wider purpose.  The fact is however that it is easier for most people to return to their default position of insularity which is a shame given the atmosphere of collaboration that the first event engendered.

In order for all the teams to be open with their learning and experiences – and this means the good and the bad – we need to create an environment where they all feel comfortable that this is not going to get them in trouble back within their organisations where the project may not yet be widely known – not to mention how the wider world is going to see this.  Councils are under such enormous scrutiny at the moment that this is a huge challenge.

This may mean NESTA publishing progress reports on behalf of teams (perhaps a job for point people?) where there isn’t anyone within the project who can do this.  I think it could also mean a conversation within the programme about action learning and research principles as I think this reflective mind set may be the best way of capturing experiential learning at this stage.  I also think this needs to be true of the process as well – this kind of programme design is very exciting for anyone interested in encouraging widescale innovation and so it would be good to capture process learning here as well.

The really important thing about this openness is to share both success and failure – there is not point in just a bunch of feel good stuff if one of our ambitions is to raise the sector’s tolerance for intelligent failure.

What can NESTA contribute

It was clear from the process that NESTA and the LG group don’t just want to throw money at this programme – they want to ensure the right resources are in place which I think is great.  There are a few areas where I think that they could lead the process from the centre and also lobby with the wider sector with respect to the challenges that all of the team face:

  1. There needs to be a persistent conversation about the new context which isn’t just a conversation about budget cuts.  All of the projects respond to a social change which will be there long after the structural deficit has been dealt with – we need some common language and concepts to give us the proverbial place to stand we need to move the world
  2. We need the LG group to be actively speaking to politicians about this change in context as this is arguably where the greatest change in process and attitude is needed.    Discuss.

On a more practical level all of the projects will need project management support and as we have said within our project this is not a PRINCE2 kind of process.  If we achieve nothing else can NESTA help share some of its learning and experience about you project manage innovation projects – I’m talking GANT chart templates, project board make up and all that kind of thing…personally am thinking about AGILE policy making but there may be better models out there.

Localism is….local

This is perhaps a small point but I was repeatably struck by the way in which we focus information sharing as being around ‘common problems’ and ‘shared issues’.  I think this may be underplaying the importance that place has in choosing the right solution.  I’m not saying that there will not be generic learning but I do think the kind of ideas that are being talked about in his programme would all need to be tailored and adjusted to work well in different places – and this is quite right – I just wonder if we need to get this fact embedded in our thinking really early on so that all the projects examine the local context as well as the generic one so that we understand the degree to which an idea might be portable and the extent to which the context has formed it.

What’s the point??

If its done well then a programme of the scale of Creative Councils has the potential to catalyze a lot of change in the public sector but it needs the kind of bold thinking that was there at the launch event to continue through the next few months and particularly as we transition from 17 to 5 councils at the end of this next stage (managing a collaborative yet competitive process being quite a feat).  I think this is possible if we can run this co-productively and also start to create and support the energy of sharing and collaboration which is a natural state for most local government organisations.

If we are thinking boldly then I think its useful to reflect as to what the end point is and so I close with a question that I jotted down in my notes on the second day:  do we want a transformed public sector or do we want transformed society?

As ever comments both positive and negative are very welcome.