ICELE – now you don’t

Poor old ICELE. First of all, Professor Stephen Coleman questioned it’s utility on the Connecting Bristol blog:

I have been following e-democracy in the UK since its earliest manifestations in the work of UKCOD (UK Citizens e-Democracy), established in 1996. I was commissioned to be one of three evaluators for the Government’s national project for local e-democracy, out of which came the International Centre for Local e-Democracy (ICELE) This new body was well-funded, but seems to have produced conspicuously little. There might be others out there who can tell me that I’ve missed some wonderful outputs. If so, please do.

The discussion in the comments on that post soon spilled over into the UK & Ireland eDemocracy mailing list, which David Wilcox reported on, quoting Rita Wilson, ICELE’s director:

Having been on holiday for a few days I was surprised to come back to lots of speculation about ICELE. First of all I would like to say that I am more than happy to provide information regarding what ICELE has been achieving and there is nothing hidden about our activities. But we are doers not talkers, delivering a programme to make a difference in how local authorities use tools and technology to move from consultation to participation.

Now, it seems that the speculation was well placed. ICELE will soon be no more. In a message to various participants in the ICELE project, the Chairman of ICELE, Matthew Ellis wrote:

Although the termination date for ICELE was originally contracted as the end of March this year we agreed, at CLG [Department for Communities and Local Government]’s request, to maintain the Centres basic core operation for a further three months to discuss the way forward in promoting local eDemocracy. Unfortunately, although some talks have taken place, no decision or indication of CLG’s future plans in this important area of work have been forthcoming, or what form or structure ICELE could take. I am therefore in the process of implementing an exit strategy plan which will see ICELE cease operations of any kind with Lichfield DC as the accountable body after the end of June.

What was ICELE? Well, good question. In their own words:

ICELE is a sustainable [oh dear], UK-based centre with strong international backing from eDemocracy experts in the public, private and non-governmental sectors.

The Centre is designed to serve as a ‘virtual’ focal point for collaborative eDemocracy initiatives both in the UK and abroad. Within the UK, local authorities, community groups and citizens can use the Centre’s online resources to help run projects in their local area.

They were involved in a few projects, like the VOICE web publishing tool and the Blog in a Box blogging platform for Councillors. I don’t know much about VOICE – though what I’ve heard isn’t good – and Blog in a Box is frankly superfluous given the quality of free offerings like WordPress, as CivicSurf has proved.

So, ICELE, to be frank, was a bit rubbish. But what will take its place? I guess we will find out when the Department’s white paper on Empowerment is published. There has already been some activity around this, including the Community Power Packs developed with Involve‘s help, as well as Simon Berry’s job at CLG. Let’s hope the results will be good.

I think it is a bit of a shame that ICELE will be no more – or at least that there won’t be a body around which eDemocracy at a local level can gather. It might be argued that even with ICELE such a body didn’t exist. Maybe there’s another argument that in this networked, post-organisation world, we don’t actually need a body of this type at all any more at all.

There are a number of people who have a real, dedicated interest in local eDemocracy, as well as the opportunities that the social web offers to achieve real success in the area. The trouble is that local government is a remarkably fragmented sector and tying together all the various initiatives is a role that’s important but not happening right now. One of the best ways that local government is joining up at the moment is through the Communities of Practice, hosted by the Improvement and Development Agency, and set up by Steve Dale.

A quick search of the Communities platform for ‘edemocracy’ reveals nothing. Perhaps those with a genuine interest in making things better and sharing ideas might organise themselves through that platform? After all, there is already a huge user base on the platform.

9 thoughts on “ICELE – now you don’t”

  1. Do you not think Colemans question was timely, perhaps in an effort to kill of any hope for ICELE at a time when that was being debated?
    Let’s face it – it’s competition for his own centre.

    Actually, I think you’re missing the point on a couple of things here. How many free blogging services do you know offer integrated domain name registration, aggregate all local authority bloggers in a categorised directory or are free of ads? Or have templates for political parties?

    I suggest you read the new academic report by Dr Scott Wright on the news section of http://www.icele.org to understand why ICELE made a bespoke offering.

    It’s was all about integrating good practice.

    If VOICE is so rubbish why does it have over 2,800 users. Does it not offer a solution at a fraction of the price of the equivalent commercial offering (£3k compared to £80k)?

    It’s easy to say something is rubbish, unfortunately it’s the bandwagon of negativity and “I’ve heard so it’s true” that is probably preventing LA’s ever taking serious note of eDemocracy efforts.

    The same attitudes will exist whatever government does.

  2. Trevor, thanks for stopping by and leaving some supporting remarks on behalf of ICELE – a shame you weren’t around in the previous discussions to provide a bit of balance.

    I can’t comment on Prof. Coleman’s motives for questioning what ICELE had achieved. All I do know is that his questions produced a considerable amount of discussion and was an issue that folk clearly wanted to talk about. Indeed, it was noticed by a few people that ICELE’s site itself is a profoundly uninteractive affair, and nobody from that organisation was significantly tuned into what was being said about them online to join in the conversation until it was frankly too late.

    And I don’t think it is me that is missing the point at all. I could produce a blogging platform exactly long the lines you are talking about for about £50 – and that would be for the whole network. How? By using WordPressMU. Free, open source and scalable, as proven by WordPress.com.

    And aggregating all local authority bloggers? Really? How? Who are they? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t stand up at all. The only way you are going to be able to do that is to come up with a way to bring together the distributed network of bloggers through, say, a common tagging scheme. Not by forcing people to use your platform.

    As for VOICE, well, as I said, I don’t know much about it, and only reported that the opinions I had heard weren’t exactly glowing. But it sounds like the sort of thing that could be replicated in Drupal in about half an hour, again with very little cost.

    If you have read any of the rest of my blog here, you’ll realise that I am not a negative voice that does down everything the government attempts. I spend enough of my own free time trying to work with people to make things better – take LGSearch, which sees thousands of hits a week from folk throughout local government. Again, a free, simple tool that makes people’s lives a bit easier. ICELE probably didn’t know a thing about it – they certainly never got in touch. Not exactly ‘integrating good practice’, eh?

  3. ‘Trevor’

    I suggest you read the independent evaluation of VOICE commissioned by ICELE. Here’s the link:
    http://www.icele.org/downloads/ICELE_Evaluation_-_Executive_Summary_forpublish.pdf

    I quote:

    ‘The hosted Content Management System (CMS) has been developed over the
    past five years with the aim of providing local community groups a website and email list presence. It is technically ambitious and has a wide range of features.

    It is unclear however if it has anything significant that is not matched by offerings from the private sector that are available to groups at little or no cost.

    Additionally the expectation is that the private sector products will continue to develop whereas VOICE will require public investment to develop.

    The VOICE CMS is a product that has missed its chance. The profusion of blogs and sites such as GeoCities mean that local groups can simply and very easily create a web presence and the likes of GoogleGroups make email lists very simple. Added to this a number of private sector suppliers such as UKVillages and South Wiltshire Community Web already provide a similar service. Finally it is not clear to everyone why it should fall into the eDemocracy bag.

    There are real questions about what advantage a CMS like VOICE can provide local groups. Administrators of VOICE report that only a third of registered users actually maintain a site, and that the people running local groups are either going to be inclined to set up a web presence or they will not. The provision of a service such as VOICE is unlikely to change their mind.

    There is more to be positive about on the directory side of the VOICE project from a concept point of view. However the existing technology is not great and the take-up is poor. For example in Essex: essexinfo.net has 353 groups registered whereas the longer standing LIFE (http://life.essexcc.gov.uk:8081/) project has over 8,000 groups registered.

    It seems to us that VOICE is trying to be two things. A directory and a website builder. It is currently failing at both. The majority of groups on existing VOICE entries use it simply as a directory listing for their group. A fully blown CMS is not needed for this. A simple Web Form on a Council site would suffice to allow groups to add to existing databases of local groups. There are plenty of commercial CMS’s that will allow groups to produce free or cheap websites with far more sophistication and usability than provided by VOICE.

    We recommend that ICELE refocus the VOICE project on developing a national directory of local groups. Instead of developing a CMS, ICELE should produce guides to using the best available options.’

    I think that speaks for itself, don’t you?

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Ian. A pretty damning indictment. And this is what happens when ICELE paid people for opinions? 😉

  5. Trevor should also check out what they had to say about ReadmyDay, the predecessor to 21Publish’s Blog-in-a-Box.

    “The aggregator and publishing platform were not seen as important and from a technical evaluation point of view they are not best of class.

    The aggregator (www.readmyday.co.uk) is does not give much information and mainly lists Civic Leaders from the project thereby missing out on the majority of councillors who have blogs on different platforms.

    As a publishing platform, ReadMyDay.co.uk (RMD) uses 21Publish, an obscure platform aimed at communities of bloggers. The platform has some advantages but the disadvantages outweigh the advantages and ICELE should consider promoting other more mainstream blogging platforms in order to encourage more widespread blogging by councillors and council officers (users).

    Using other platforms will enable users to draw upon a much wider support network and allow their blogs to be more accepted among the wider blogging and internet using community.

    There are a number of alternative packages that ICELE could choose to promote or indeed support and each has its own particular advantages depending on the user requirements.”

    Looks like that got totally ignored then!

  6. Not ignored, misinformed context as usual….

    The right way to make a decision is on the basis of wider consultation – this was one of a number of studies and stakeholder opinions. For example, an academic paper on RMD conducted by Dr Scott Wright, DMU is also published on our website.

    Actually, some of the recommended actions in the report you mention were taken such as building a directory of blogs. The recommended work on promoting blogging was duplicated by the MOJ Civic Surf Project…by the person that conducted the review for ICELE!

    In terms of VOICE, work recommended on building a community directory was replicated by MySociety GroupsNearYou. A full statement from LDC will cover your formal questions on VOICE shortly.

  7. That’s interesting. GroupsNearYou looks like the product VOICE should have been. I doubt it cost nearly quarter of a million and 18 months to produce either.

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