Power of Information Task Force

Tom Watson posted up his speech announcing the Power of Information Task Force on his blog yesterday and it contained some really good stuff. I guess that those who want to can snicker about the notion of creating a task force to promote innovation (shouldn’t we be organising without organisations?), but I’m glad that there will be some folk looking into this stuff, and it would be nice if they do so in an open and collaborative way.

Only last week, the Prime Minister became the first head of Government in Europe to launch his own channel on Twitter, which I can tell you from experience, is extremely useful to his ministers at least.

But we need to make it easier for others too.

Hazel Blears
with be leading this agenda when her department will address this in a White Paper on engagement in the summer.

But I want to take the Power of Information agenda further and do it faster. So today I am announcing the establishment of the Power of Information Taskforce. I’m pleased to say that Richard Allan has agreed to Chair the Taskforce. Richard has a vast breadth of knowledge in this field. He’s also an all round good guy and I know he will help us provide clarity to government departments as they contend with the power of information agenda.

Most interesting for me were the bits that focused on community engagement and participation. Let’s have a look at one or two now.

And in the week where the digital world went crazy over Mystarbucksidea.com (I’ve already voted for free Wifi), NHS choices launched a blog about diabetes, bringing together the people who treat the illness and the people who receive treatment. It’s a brilliant ideas and hopefully will foster a new information community who can work together to improve things.

I was diagnosed a type 1 diabetic about a year ago, so have quite an interest in this. I was 27 when I was diagnosed, which is a funny age I think, and led to it taking quite a while for the doctors to figure out if I was type 1 (meaning injections) or type 2 (meaning I had to eat less). I still haven’t got to grips with it yet: I’m supposed to inject myself four times a day but manage it twice at best, largely with the result that I feel pretty crap all the time. Last summer I was hospitalised twice and suffered a crippling bout of depression. I guess I am exactly the sort of person that this blog is supposed to be reaching out to: I’ve got the disease, I’m crap at dealing with it, and I like blogs. I hadn’t heard about it though, which renders it pretty useless. Still, now I do, thanks to Tom, I’ll engage with it, leave a comment or two and see what happens. The blog idea is nice, but I wonder whether more of a social network type approach would be better – linking me up with other diabetics who have been through similar issues.

My officials have been working up draft guidance on how public servants can use social media. And the Power of Information Report made a series of recommendations about this too.

I want the taskforce to ensure that the COI and Cabinet Office produce a set of guidelines that adheres to the letter of the law when it comes to the civil service code but also lives within the spirit of the age. I’ll be putting some very draft proposals to the taskforce to consider later this week.

Here, here. I wrote in the wake of the Civil Sef affair that Public servants should be blogging, or engaging through other social networking tools. Public servants are too often characterised as faceless bureaucrats and the more that can be done to dissuade people from that notion, the better. But to get more public sector workers being open, they need to feel safe to do so, and sensible policies will help to do that.

We will also look at, and learn from, the way people are communicating with each other.

The 19th century co-operative movements had their roots in people pooling resources to make, buy or distribute physical goods. Modern online communities are the new co-operatives.

This is a point I have been meaning to blog about for some time: the relationship between online collaborative communities and the co-operative movement. The point is that while the tools are new, the relationships aren’t, and people have been working together to tackle problems since the year dot. What the tools do is make the process easier and more transparent and because they also make it easier to do without forming institutions or organisations, they also remove some of the political undercurrents too. More needs to be written on this, I think.

And when we know we get a delivery channel right we should use the ‘collaboration’ part of Ed’s vision to best effect, to gain, social leverage, as Professor Shirky would say.

Let me use a recent story to illustrate this point. I recently registered my local Labour Party with groupsnearyou.com. This is a new site provided by the MySociety people. It’s a site for people who run small scale community focused groups.

Through the site, I found West Bromwich Freecycle.

I’m the Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East and I didn’t know about an important recycling initiative going on in my own patch. This information now means that a bag load of clothing for a small child and a habitat sofa are about given a second chance to give pleasure.

Nice example, not least because of the use of an existing network to connect with others. The delivery channel – in this case the connecting of local groups – does not therefore need to be created by the government, or the Labour Party, rather by interested folk, doing things in an open and collaborative way like MySociety does.  This taps into another long running question of mine which asks whose responsibility is it to push for improvements in civic life using social tools? Is it the government, at whatever level? Is it organisations like MySociety? Or is it every individual with a laptop and a broadband connection? I am beginning to suspect the answer is the latter – individuals pushing the boundaries and demonstrating where the value is, with the institutions following up once the point has been proved. Organisations like MySociety can help but they aren’t necessarily needed

Overall, a great speech to hear from a cabinet minister. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Getting things into the open

David Wilcox has taken the bull by the horns and created an open thread on the OpenRSA blog calling for a more collaborative approach to the discussion on jounalism being carried out on the RSA networks platform. This debate is one which takes into account trust in news media, and could also pull in issues around the role of the BBC in civic life.

I’m personally most interested in breaking out of the old media professional boundaries because I think greatest innovation – and citizen empowerment – is likely to take place as old cultures are challenged, openly. It’s time the newspeople stopped seeing those that they write for as “news users”, now we are producing a lot of our own content online.

The issue at the RSA is not one of platform – the Drupal based system used by the Networks is superb – but of worldview. David and I were the most consistent contributors to the discussion, but I felt my time there was up when a message was posted by a project leader confirming that the desire was to keep the debate ‘on topic’ and ‘informed’. As neither a journalist nor a fellow of the RSA, I guess this counted me, and anything I had to add, out.

I’ll be following the debate through the comments to David’s post, and anything else tagged with civicjournalismuk. I have my platform here, which I am happy to use to contribute with – or when the time is right for a dedicated platform to be created, I can use that – as long as it is open!

Private and public collaboration

RSA Networks

There is an interesting project underway at RSA Networks, the social network for Royal Society fellows, and, for the moment at least, anyone else who fancies joining in (that’s the category I belong to, by the way). It has been proposed by Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, and goes by the name of the “RSA Journalism Network”:

The public’s declining trust in the news media is a worrying trend. The RSA and the Reuters Institute of Journalism are looking at how we can support the civic function of news. We’re particularly interested in how professional journalists and Fellows relate to the public’s ideas about news and what it is for.

This is a great idea, and an important and interesting area for discussion. The web is a perfect place for the coversation to be held in, of course, because online developments are a part of both the problem and the cure for the relevance of news to people’s lives.

David Wilcox has commented on his blog about this project – again supportive of it but questioning the closed nature of the discussion on the RSA Networks platform. As anyone not a member of the network will find out, when clicking my link above, you can’t see anything without first logging in.

I can’t see how it is possible to have a useful discussion about media and citizenship in an old-style walled garden. You can link out – but people outside are then forced to come to “your place” to join in. This seems particularly inappropriate on this topic, where issues are so interesting precisely because the Internet has created a public commons.

David has started a similar thread within the project space on the RSA Network too. I’m fully supportive of his stance, having been happily involved in open online collaborative projects such as the Open Innovation Exchange, RuralNetOnline, the Membership Project and the etoolkit.

It’s far better to have these conversations out in the open, where people can read and find out more before they decide to dive in, and where people can add their thoughts whether they are a member of a specific network or not. The civic role of news is something that matters to everyone, not just RSA members, or whatever.

One of the ways that the web can help us to bring conversations together is through the use of tagging. By using tags effectively, people can write about a subject on their own blogs without needing to join another platform. All you need is  way of bringing them together, easily achieved by mixing up Technorati or Google Blog Search with RSS. Services like Pageflakes or Planetaki can then be used to publish the results.

Another way is to create the new platform, but make it open, rather as David does with his Drupal-based group blogs. Anyone can join and have an input, even if it is just to point to what they have written elsewhere. Indeed, David has taken this further by incorporating a Grazr-based widget displaying relevant content from various external blogs within the Membership Project group blog. In this way, those that have a blog can write there, and those that don’t can contribute directly to the group blog.

David is actively facilitating the Membership Project by posting regular updates and transferring the points that are made in the blog posts into a project timeline and associated work packages, thereby creating outputs from the organic content created through the group blogging process. This will be vital to keep the project moving forward, and is a great example of online community facilitation.

Taking this approach would therefore create a far more useful project, or network, than the current arrangements for the  RSA Journalism Network. I think this is too important a topic for discussion to be held behind closed doors, and for the moment I would like to suggest the use of the common tag civicjournalismuk to hold the conversation together for anyone who would like to have a say. We can figure out what to do with it all later. Let’s see how our open approach can feed into and add to what’s happening within the walled garden…

The culture of collaboration

Steve Dale writes about the need for organisations to consider the cultural as well as the technological issues around collaboration and communication using the web”

An excellent posting from Shawn over at Anecdote about fostering a collaboration culture. A good corollary to my recent postings about what I see as growing and misplaced belief that Web 2.0 is the solution to more effective knowledge sharing. They key point I was trying to make is that technical solutions (blogs, wikis, RSS) by themselves do not create, nurture or develop learning and sharing communities, or improve engagement between government and citizens. I emphasised the importance of people in the equation, both in terms of skilled facilitators (those who support and encourage conversations and collaboration) and the willingness of the users themselves to actively engage (e.g. a shared domain of interest). Shawn refers to fostering a culture of collaboration, which I think is quite often overlooked by those who are rushing headlong into implementing Web 2.0 facilities in order to achieve better knowledge management.  To put this into perspective, the investment (time, cost and support) for the ‘people and process’ side of the communities of practice being developed across local government exceeds the cost of the technology by a factor of ten or more. Furthermore, this is recurrent cost and not a one-off capital expense.

I’m delighted that Steve is already signed up with the etoolkit project wiki, as getting this balance right is key to the success of the project. The toolkit we are developing will make clear the complete costs of implementing a social media solution to a problem, including people’s time and training, as well as the financials. Social media and web 2.0 are quick and easy to do, but not so quick, and not so easy to do well.



I wondered last week about the ways we can use online tools to collaborate on projects – I had on my mind the etoolkit that David Wilcox (and now Beth Kanter, Emma Mulqueeny, Alex Stobart, Nancy White and Steve Dale…) and I are developing in the open.

My issue was that while wikis are perfect for putting stuff together and bringing together thoughts and resources, they aren’t that great for conversations or throwing out ideas, which is where group blogging can have a great impact. The trouble is that a standard WordPress (say) blog is rather an unwieldy beast for this task, making you sign up for the blog, log in, go to the admin panel, then click write post etc etc…

There’s an obvious solution here, and that’s the Prologue theme for WordPress. Makes it dead easy for people to contribute ideas, with the possibility of threaded conversations using the comments. Perfect. I have started one for the etoolkit here. It’s hosted at WordPress.com which means that while allowing others in to contribute is a little clunky, there’s little harm done or money lost if nobody uses it.

Developing an open toolkit

David Wilcox and I had a meetup earlier this week, where we talked about the different ways that organisations need to be approached in terms of how they might make use of social media and web 2.0 stuff – or not, as the case may be.

We touched on David’s work at the RSA and the subsequent collaboration for membership organisations; as well as some of the outputs of events like the Social Media Big Day Out and the barcampukgovweb.

Wouldn’t it be nice, we thought, if there was a toolkit out there which provided the materials needed for an organisation to work through the options, decide what their issues are and figure out how they can meet those issues with a mixture of on and offline responses.

So we did the only thing a pair of self-respecting social hackers do, and set about creating such a thing – and all in the open, of course. You can find it all at the etoolkit wiki. Don’t worry, that’s just a working title.

It is envisaged that the toolkit will be made up of 3 elements:

  1. The toolkit itself, a prepared pack of information
  2. A facilitated workshop
  3. A dedicated network space for post event support and discussion

The toolkit itself will be made freely available, probably under creative commons. It will be open enough to be easily bespoked for a sector, whether charities, local gov, membership organisations or whoever. People can pick the toolkit up and facilitate the workshop within organisations; or consultants could specialise in delivering it themselves and charge for it.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated, and please do sign up with the wiki and start to contribute your ideas if you would like to.

Working together

I really like the idea of using the web to bring people together and work on problems out in the open, rather like David Wilcox and Simon Berry did in their bid for the Innovation Exchange project.

They used Drupal, a group blogging platform that does tonnes of other stuff, which is great for enabling people to throw ideas out and let the community respond to them. It’s got pretty low barriers to entry as pretty much anyone can hit the ‘create content’ button and dump their brains onto the screen. There’s an immediacy about this approach that I like a lot.

But I am also a fan of the wiki as a form of collaborative working, and wikis do have advantages over something like Drupal in terms of getting a ‘product’ finalised. What it doesn’t have is that immediate ability for people to be able to chuck thoughts out to gauge a reaction as to how useful they are. Editing a wiki page has a seriousness that writing a blog post doesn’t have.

I suppose what I am after is a decent wiki for Drupal, so that all the good stuff in the blog posts and comments can be moulded together. Google Sites could do this perfectly, as its ‘Announcements’ page template is effectively a blog. But there are too many limits of public involvement in Sites at the moment for it to become usable in this context.

If anyone has any suggestions for something I am missing, I would love to hear about it!