Localism needs bespoke, not scale

David Wilcox does his usual excellent summarising and commenting job on the latest snafu involving BIG Lottery funding and the internet.

It’s all about a grant of £1.89 million to the Media Trust, to fund the establishment of “connected news hubs around the UK to support citizen journalism and to help communities and charities get their voices heard”.

Hmmmm. I’ve said many a time before that the future of journalism debate is one of the most boring in the world – certainly one of the least relevant to actual people with proper lives with real things to worry about.

So the use of the word journalism in this project concerns me – it brings to the table assumptions and values which I’m not sure belong in this context.

This follows a grant of £830k under the People Powered Change programme to Your Square Mile to develop a network of local community websites. It’s described as a “digital one stop shop” – excellent!

Excuse my sneering, but 1999 is calling and it wants its slogans back.

David writes in his analysis:

The issue is perhaps not so much why the Media Trust got the funding, but why Big Lottery didn’t spend some time exploring the difference between citizen journalism, community reporting, and hyperlocal media. Or if they did, could we please see the report? That would be transparency.

One thing that is becoming clear is that communities come before websites. That is to say, the motivation for starting a community web project must come from the community first and not a solution being imposed from elsewhere. It’s been tried countless times and doesn’t work.

The experts in the field, such as the Talk About Local guys totally get this, which is why their nationally-focused solution takes the lead from local need, and is platform neutral. No one size fits all model there, and rightly so.

It’s also why social media surgeries work so well. Nobody there has a service to push – the ‘surgeons’ listen to people’s problems, or what they want to achieve, and they advise on the quickest, cheapest solution.

There is often an assumption that a centre of power must always fill a vacuum. In this case, there is no doubt that local communities organising themselves online can benefit both those communities and the local council, if it chooses to listen.

That doesn’t mean however, that the council should be the provider or indeed the instigator of the websites. Far better to bring in a third party, who understands this stuff and who will advise the different communities what the best solution is for them – not develop a single platform and assume it will work for everyone.

Likewise with these big national programmes. What if the Your Square Mile product isn’t what communities want? What if the MediaTrust’s understanding of a ‘connected news hub’ (actually, does anyone have an understanding of what one of those is?) doesn’t match anyone else’s?

The point of localism is that different communities have different needs, which means they need different tools and solutions. Yet still ‘scalable’ single solutions get funded. But of course you can’t scale bespoke, even though bespoke is what is needed here.

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Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.

8 thoughts on “Localism needs bespoke, not scale”

  1. Good post Dave and very good points. We held a social media surgery last night in Roath, Cardiff, and we were able to help out four voluntary/community groups who already have and get community to use the web better to do whatever it is they want to do.

    Some of them had specific problems or projects they needed addressing, for others it was an opening of the eyes to what Twitter and the like can do.

    I’ve read the Big Lottery release a couple of times and I’m not even 10% sure on exactly what it will be doing. It’ll be interesting to see how they go about distributing this money, do you bid? Do they approach people? We’ll see…

  2. good post Dave. There’s a good reply on this subject by Peter Wanless on here: http://blog.peoplesvoicemedia.co.uk/2011/06/01/big-society-or-the-coctail-party-lottery-no-bidding-round-from-the-lottery-they-decide/
    but I still have serious doubts. I think its the old boys network, and these big powerful orgs cream off the funding from all sources, not just the lottery money. They have the PR to blag to funders/government and the politicians suck it all up and believe them. There has been far too much money wasted on half witted schemes. I won’t list them here and go off topic, but they all know who they are and I don’t know how they can sleep at night.
    Social media surgeries have the right idea, people helping people, newbies learning funky stuff, and surgeons learning even more about what is driving big society in the real world and not what the fwits would like to see drive it.
    chris

  3. There’s scalable up and scalable out. Sometimes a big network has the power of numbers. Things like Communities of Practice or GovLoop – helping people share learning across the piece. There might be some kind of ‘scalable up’ solution for local news networks. But suspect it’s no more complicated than a widget that can be installed in a WordPress or Blogger sidebar – but needs promoting and integrating.

    Then there’s scalable out. Scalable out is location dependent. Scalable out is harder. Scalable out isn’t truly bespoke…I mean why build another WordPress just cos you live in a different town. But scalable out is tailored. Maybe there’s some sharing of code. Maybe there’s some sharing of lessons (like what works in a social media surgery) That’s harder than taking a wad of cash and building some flop platform that no one will hold you accountable for, but works better.

  4. Good post Dave.

    I share your concerns though I’m probably a bit more sanguine. This might work out well, or it might be a waste of time. It probably won’t be harmful.

    And either way it’s quite marginal in terms of addressing the real power imbalance between communities, the state and business. Cyberdoyle points out that big organisations have access to PR expertise. What, I think, we need is ways to put PR in the hands of communities. That would have a technological dimension but would go much further. I blogged about this a while ago. Not sure what to do with it though.

    http://www.benproctor.co.uk/2009/10/how-do-we-set-up-public-relations-aid/

    1. I understand your insouciance Ben, but it may be a slightly more worrying situation than that. It’s not just wasted time, it’s money – and what’s more it’s good money after bad as these top-down projects have been going on for years.

      What’s more though, it’s wasted opportunity. Each time one of these projects is launched, and fails, it becomes exponentially harder for the next one to succeed, whether because of ‘seen it all before’ cynicism or because the resources just get tighter.

      So we may face the situation soon where someone actually gets the approach right – yet still fails because of all the previous blunders.

  5. I totally agree with David re “communities come before websites”; digital is but 1 solution amongst others….and it’s for a particular community to decide whether it takes the digi route or not in pursuit of its own community development/action

    Incidentally, there’s a wonderful and sobering putting in its place of digi on the ‘Miniature Earth’ – about 3 mins: http://www.miniature-earth.com/

    James

  6. When I hear that a decision has been taken to support and nurture citizen journalism by a single national, centrally co-ordinated project, I feel very worried. If the project is going to develop infrastructure and resources that can be co-opted and adapted by a variety of organisations, and try out a variety of practices and share the results, good. But this does feel like another big monolithic project where the “experts” tell the “little people” how it’s done.

    For me, it’s not about bespoke vs scale. It’s about experimentation and discovery. We are still at the early stages of finding out the potential of distributed conversational media and working through the implications for democracy and society.

  7. Dave

    We should be told more about why this decision has been taken. Will work on FOI request.

    Alex

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