A new (additional!) job

Just before Christmas, I received the very excellent news that I have been taken up on my offer to become a trustee of Community Lincs, a local community development charity here in Lincolnshire.

I’m delighted, because it’s going to give me a chance to do my bit supporting the great work the organisation does in supporting rural housing, community led planning, rural broadband and new schemes such as bulk oil buying.

In truth, there aren’t many areas of rural policy that Community Lincs aren’t involved in, and I see it as a real opportunity to find out more about the challenges people are facing locally, and what the solutions are and how they’re implemented. As well as that, it’s my chance to do some volunteering and getting involved in the community locally.

I’m also looking forward to helping the organisation get the most from technology, and providing services and help to community groups throughout the county make the most from digital too.

Fiona White, Chief Exec at Community Lincs is a really determined and enthusiastic and she really convinced me that the organisation is doing important work which could benefit from my input somewhere along the line. You can follow Fiona on Twitter here.

It’s my first board meeting in the afternoon this Monday (16th). Wish me luck!

Crowdsourcing Big Society in South Holland

I’ve written a couple of times about the WordPress based ideas crowdsourcing tool we’ve been working on at Kind of Digital, which is called CiviCrowd. We’re delighted that it’s now being used out in the open by South Holland District Council, to find the ideas people have to improve their local community.

Ideas are entered by users using a simple online form, moderated, and then when published others can comment on them, rate them and share them on their own networks.

Part of the driver for this project is that all councillors in South Holland now have a designated ward budget to spend on local projects. This site is seen as being a key way of getting people to share those ideas in a simple and straightforward way.

There are already a bunch of ideas on the site, and that’s before it has been promoted in the Council newsletter and the local paper – that should be happening in the next couple of weeks.

If there’s anyone else out there that could use a site like this – you know where I am!

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.

Power lines

The RSA have just published a rather interesting paper that is well worth a flick through.

The paper argues that the government’s efforts to build the Big Society are too focused on citizen-led service delivery. An approach based on utilising and building people’s social networks, which largely determine our ability to create change and influence decisions that affect us, may prove more effective.

I’ve embedded it below, but if for whatever reason you can’t see it, you can download it from here (PDF warning).

RSA Power Lines

Communities and ‘hyperactivism’

Excellent analysis and writing from Tessy Britton in reaction to the recent disturbances in Bristol:

This is the real landscape into which the Localism Bill will descend. There seems to have been some dramatic shift recently from ‘government knows best’ to ‘community knows best’. With political and media help, a myth that sanctifies community members or groups choices and decisions and demonises everything that local government thinks and does has become widespread. In this paradigm it is very easy to manipulate situations on the grounds of social justice and easy also to make conflict and aggressive strategies look worthy and spirited. In my view this is romantic and wrong and dangerous.

Go read the whole thing.

Digital local resources – and a bit about Your Square Mile

Continuing the posts about local digital communities, here are a couple of links to interesting research and publications on the subject, which I’ve been giving a re-read recently.

Of course, there has recently been a very interesting move in this space with the announcement of the Big Lottery funded Your Square Mile project, which has very close links with the wider Big Society agenda, and which involves some kind of relationship with the social networking platform SocialGo. David Wilcox blogs comprehensively here.

I’m not sure anyone has access to enough information about this to make a proper judgement, however, some alarm bells are ringing in my mind:

  • As per the comments from Will and Manny highlighted in this post, government sponsored online community development does not have a great track record. I appreciate this is at arms length – but Your Square Mile is heavily linked with the Big Society Network, and therefore the current government
  • People will drift towards the funded option, and if (and I emphasise if) SocialGo is the mandated or preferred solution from those with the cash, we are going to be in a one platform fits all situation, which doesn’t really work
  • Objectives are important. Right now, I don’t fully understand Your Square Mile or what it is setting out to do. Hopefully internally they know exactly what they aim to achieve – because if it’s just a vague ‘we’ll get people to talk to each other on the internet and they’ll self organise themselves to do wonderful things’ then that might not work so well
  • What about those organisations that have being doing this stuff for the last few years? Are they just going to be steamrollered by the beast?

I think my real worry is that the one thing that has become apparent, from conversations I have had with people about this stuff, is that with online local communities, in the majority of cases, you need the community before the online. It’s what brings sustainability to the online effort.

Online elements certainly bring visibility to the community’s activities and spread reach, and enable more people to be involved. But a square mile, online or off, is going to be pretty empty if there isn’t the desire or will to keep it going.

Update: just seen this post from Kevin Harris, featuring this lovely line:

There is a study to be done of the damage caused by highly persuasive people who seem to feel compelled to impose template social ‘solutions’ on others.

Big and small societies

Nick BoothI had the pleasure on this lunchtime of spending time with Nick Booth – the man (the legend?) behind Podnosh, and the phenomenon that are Social Media Surgeries. What I love about Nick is that he is a connector – he knows government, and he knows communities – and he introduces them to each other all the time, on the web or in real life.

Anyway, this isn’t a post (just) about inflating Nick’s ego. We spent an hour and a half discussing business, the state of local government, where our own relevance might lie in these austere times, and that sort of thing. We naturally ended up discussing the Big Society, what it might actually mean and how it might actually work.

We probably didn’t cover much ground that others haven’t, but it was a useful discussion. I think that what I took away from it most of all was the idea that the lack of money to fund civic activity should be seen as a feature, not a bug.

In other words, don’t complain about there being no money attached to the Big Society. Make the point of it doing stuff that doesn’t need a grant to work. If your idea can’t operate without funding, maybe this is the wrong time for that idea.

* * * * *

Last night, on Twitter, my attention was grabbed by another Birmingham resident, Andy Mabbett, who posted up a couple of tweets tagged with #smallsociety. His point was:

do one small thing each day, to make the world around you better…Imagine if we all picked up one piece of litter and put it in a bin; or reported one pothole or faulty street light.

I love this idea. It also ties in beautifully with one of my favourite phrases to describe the internet, David Weinberger‘s ‘small pieces, loosely joined’.

Perhaps the big society is just lots of small societies joined together. Maybe the internet could be the adhesive.

Photo credit: Pete Ashton.


I’ve been accused of “big society romanticism” by Patrick Butler in the Guardian. I refuse to accept such a charge lying down!

I’m not saying this funding-free environment is a good thing. But it is a thing, possibly the thing and all I was doing was to point out that maybe it’s a change in mindset that’s required to get through the next few years, and make the most of the fact that the big society agenda – whatever its faults – has some serious backing in government.

Do I see a funding-free utopia ahead, where the gaps in public services are filled by willing volunteers, suddenly happy to give up their time to do the stuff they have got used to government doing for so many years? Of course not.

But I also think that dismissing attempts to think positively about the position we are in as ‘romanticism’ isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

Shane McCracken on Big Society

Shane McCracken is a good guy, and when he blogs about something it is worth paying attention. Here’s his view on the Big Society.

That is what Big Society is to me. Local people taking control of their local facilities and making them work. The swimming pool as we know it will close. We need to choose if, we as a town, want to keep it. It needs to become our swimming pool, not the council’s. Big Society isn’t about closing council run facilities. They are going to close anyway. We can’t afford them. Big Society is a way of keeping them open.

Some commentators have questioned whether enough people have enough time in order to run these facilities.  The people who care passionately about the rugby club find time. The people who care passionately about their estates join the residents groups. The people who care passionately about education run the parents’ associations and join the board of governors.  We’ll find out soon enough how passionate people are about keeping their post offices, museums and, of course, swimming pools.

Go read the whole thing.

Big society: app stores and hyperlocal democracy

David Wilcox has been doing a great job documenting the discussions around the Big Society agenda, which according to the website, is

an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens, to help everyone achieve change in their local area. Our aim is to create a new relationship between Citizens and Government in which both are genuine partners in getting things done: real democracy using all the human and technological tools we now have available. This partnership will also add a third and fourth leg to its sturdy chair by involving business and the voluntary sector.

This is quite interesting, as it presents an opportunity to tie up a number of the agendas that have been floating around recently. Now, it’s important to remember that the Big Society is not a technology thing per se, but as I mentioned in a previous post, a lot of the language it uses is the language of the net.

So, hyperlocal reporting, community activism, tapping into cognitive surplus, engaging with social enterprise, improving participation in local democracy, digital inclusion and probably a bunch of other stuff could come under the Big Society label. This has all existed in my head as a massive venn diagram slowly scrunching together and overlapping more and more, so it seems like a positive move.

Big Society App Store

The internet has role, not just in providing some cultural reference points, and examples of big society type activity (Wikipedia, open source software, thriving online communities), but also in providing a platform for organisation, sharing, collaboration and communication.

It’s something I bang on about an awful lot, but the way in which many people now choose to communicate and get things done is changing. Current methods of democratic engagement – for example – are actually pretty exclusionary. The very idea of meetings where people have to be at a certain place at a certain time is pretty anachronistic, and by their nature generally excludes anyone with a job and a family. The nature of participation and volunteering – whether as part of democratic processes, or a more general view of participation, needs to have as many interfaces as possible – and online is a key one, I feel.

David has been particularly promoting the idea of an ‘app store’ for the Big Society:

Last night Steve Moore asked me to speak briefly about ideas for a Big Society Commons or Store, which I wrote about here, and here. I said we need space with different levels … information, conversation, exchange, products and services. Maybe it is a mall plus a market, some high tech, some low. It is absolutely not created by government, but by those with something to offer.

Then I started to wonder about the role of the skilled, creative, passionate people at the Open Night. Perhaps one analogy for part of the store is an Apps store, where you can download smart ways of doing things to your mobile phone. Some are free, some you pay for. The fee goes to the developer, with a percentage to the store owner.

It works because there is a framework for the way apps are developed – tight in the case of Apple, more flexible in open sources stores.

So perhaps some of the people at the Open Night were potential developers for the Social Apps Store. If the Network can help to create the store, it will provide a much bigger market for those with social action products and services to sell – or offer free.

The Apps Store offers one metaphor to help us think how we bring good stuff together, what’s in it for the different interests involved, what rules and frameworks we need to make sure things work together.

Sounds like a nice idea… not just tech apps, but other bits of social hackery (training, organisation, actually doing things in real life) too in a way that works for volunteers as well as those who have some bills they need paying.

Hyperlocal democracy

Next on my rambling radar for this post is localism and how Big Society stuff applies there. Actually, there’s no question about it – surely the most obvious pre-existing communities are those in local areas, and there should be in most places existing networks and groups that could start to work together a little better, as well as employing some new engagement methods to increase reach.

Nowhere is this more obvious that in local councils – that is to say, parish, town and community councils which are at the level closest to people. I and the Learning Pool team have been working with Justin Griggs and colleagues at the National Association of Local Councils to help promote their sector and provide some advice and guidance for local councillors on being a little more engaging.

Likewise I’ve attended and contributed to a couple of events organised by the Society of Local Council Clerks – which supports the people helping to herd the local councillors, and keeping everything going. Again, these people need help and guidance on how to best employ new tools on the web to get more people involved in the great work that they do.

I think it is vital for these people, and these existing organisations to be involved as much as possible in the Big Society – but it’s fair to say that for that to happen, those people also need to up their game in terms of being more open, transparent and engaging. Part if this is not being overly tied to existing structures and processes, and accepting that there are other ways of getting involved, and that these are to be welcomed.

A nice, quick guide to the world of local councils can be found in NALC’s ‘Power to the People‘ document – actually a how-to for setting up your own local council, but full of interesting snippets.

I do wonder if there is more potential to tie up the work of hyperlocal bloggers and online community builders, such as those Will Perrin at Talk About Local is promoting, with these very local democratic institutions and processes. A kind of hyperlocal democracy, perhaps.

Big Society in the North

One nice example of people picking up the Big Society baton and running with it is the Big Society North group, who have set up an online networking space, using grou.ps (which I am not terribly keen on, but that’s another post).

They didn’t ask for permission to do this, they just saw an opportunity and took it. An event is being run on Tuesday (27th July) for interested folk to get together and discuss how the Big Society idea might work. What’s pleasing is that not only are those involved in the Big Society centrally supportive of this self-organising, but are also attending the event in Sheffield. I’m hopefully popping up myself, assuming life doesn’t get in the way.

Your Square Mile

The Big Society is not without its challenges however. One part of it, which is pretty vague at the moment, but nevertheless sets off alarm bells, is ‘Your Square Mile‘:

This simple, modest web-site, plus all the blogs, twitters, mobile apps, Facebook and Google groups that it will spawn, will grow into a resource library for your use; to give you the confidence and means to change your neighbourhood and improve your life.

Shudder. I don’t think the square mile name is a good one – a project about localities with such a strong central London reference as its title? – and the potential for some duff tech platform to be built when it isn’t needed seems to be significant.

Far better I would think would be to provide options of what is already available, with learning on skills and knowledge. Again, tie this in with the Talk About Local and Harringay Online approaches – using free or cheap tech to provide the glue that can stick communities together.

Summing up

OK, so a real ramble. But the Big Society offers a number of opportunities and challenges. There are a number of wrong courses those involved in it could take.

But as long as the urge to create new platforms or systems is resisted, as long as it is genuinely self organised locally, and that existing local communities and democracy is respected and engaged with, there is a lot of potential.

There’s another possibility, of course, that it’s just a load of flim-flam and will go nowhere. But that isn’t a very positive way of looking at things.