In the US, the National Academy of Public Administration Collaboration Project recently published an online dialogue guide for effective citizen engagement.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit since the election about where digital engagement activity fits in during this age of austerity in which we find ourselves.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve had a bit of a crisis of confidence lately – after all, it seems to be a strange time to be encouraging public sector organisations to be spending their time playing with Facebook while people’s jobs are being lost.
But of course, that’s a slightly cynical way of looking at it, and there is certainly an argument that during time of massive budget cuts, the public need to be involved more than ever in helping to refine decisions and policies, to ensure that as few mistakes are made as possible.
What’s certainly true is that public sector use of the internet as an engagement tool has to become more embedded in other workstreams – it can’t afford to be on the fringes.
Here’s some kind of random, half-baked observations which taken together sum up where I’m at in my thinking of how all this hangs together. I’d welcome thoughts to bake it all a little more.
1. Digital engagement needs to be part of something bigger
I don’t like the phrase ‘Government 2.0’ much, so the something bigger hopefully isn’t that. I quite like ‘Open Government’, and digital engagement is part of that, as is open data and general increases in transparency from government.
2. Many of the new initiatives are derived from the internet, or are reliant on it in some way
The Big Society idea probably couldn’t exist without the internet. In many ways it is taking net culture and applying it to the way society can work together better.
For this to work, people need to understand the net and its culture – to remind themselves that it is not just the domain of swivel-eyed right wing nutcases, porn fiends and illegal downloaders.
It’s also about getting the proposition right, to ensure government can tap into cognitive surplus, to reach out to people to get involved on terms that suit them, not the terms that suits government.
3. Social media is just part of digital
(This is the weakest part of this post and while I know what I want to say, I’m aware I don’t articulate it at all well.)
Probably an obvious point, but I think we need to stop talking about social media – Simon Wakeman’s post is quite instructive here – and instead treat the web as a whole. Most decent digital engagement projects anyway mix use of pretty traditional websites, use of social media tools and engaging with existing groups, which can use a wide range of technology (see below).
Social media will stick around as a buzz-word, and there is still a significant job of capacity building to be done to encourage people to think how these tools can bring positive benefit to government activity, and equipping people with skills.
4. Open data
I’m no expert on this at all, and other than being aware that it is a good thing, I’m not sure how much I can add, at least on the technical side of things. I see open data as providing some of the building blocks required for the social innovators mentioned above, and as a way of increasing transparency in government.
Data is good at asking questions, but rarely gives clear answers.
I’ve certainly got my concerns about how data is interpreted and who does the context-setting – but I really don’t see this as an argument for not doing it.
5. Tapping into existing networks will be key
I really think the focus moving forward will be to tie Big Society type ideas with cognitive surplus and digital engagement to encourage pre-existing locality or issue based networks to get involved in government processes. I just don’t think the public sector will have the time to build and manage their own communities.
Instead, what little time and money is available should be spent on building robust, constructive arrangements with those people – whether volunteers or those doing it for profit – with the ability to build online networks.
So, digital engagement needs to be a part of something bigger, which may or may not be called ‘open government’, and which is made up of social innovation, utilising cognitive surplus, making data available to support activity and tapping into existing networks to get things done.
I just need to figure out where I fit into all of this…
I had a great time last week at the Centre for Public Scrutiny conference last Thursday. I ran a workshop, which involved me talking for a bit, and then a discussion amongst those in the room.
Here are the slides from the talk, just in case they are useful:
(If you can’t access Slideshare, here’s a PDF.)
The discussion bit of the workshop was very simple, but quite illuminating. I simply asked the delegates to have a chat around their tables about what their hopes and fears are for this new way of doing things.
Many of the hopes and (especially) fears were common across the groups. I’ve listed them below, aggregating the similar ones together. Over the next week or so I’m going to be coming up with some possible approaches to tackle some of the fears, and to ensure the hopes become reality, and I will share that here as well as with the CfPS.
- Inform future debate
- Engaging younger people in scrutiny
- Engaging those who cannot attend meetings
- Be able to get good intelligence for enquiries by listening to local forums and other online groups
- Getting members involved in forums, to learn the local view on issues
- Get a better balance of involvement, rather than just those already involved in the scrutiny process
- Use social networking in balance with traditional methods for a blended approach
- People would know what they are contributing to – and not have responses disappear into a black hole
- More open conversation with the public
- A method of getting members themselves more involved
- Culture change in the council not being scared on losing control of comms and messages
- Greater participation will give more weight to decisions and recommendations
- The authority will be more accountable
- Potential savings in time and cost for consultation activity
- Great transparency of process
- Better targetting of engagement and communication to particular service users, for example
- Potential for deliberation between the public and members without it becoming a fight
- Confusion of role between elected members and officers in answering questions etc in online spaces
- Potential for being overwhelmed by responses, or activity being generally too time consuming
- Need to manage expectations of action resulting from engagement activity
- Can councils react spontaneously – can they do “real time”?
- Capacity and knowledge both of officers and members to do this stuff
- Issue of manipulation of process by vocal and active minorities and also using pseudonyms to skew results
- Corporate communications may wish to control messages coming from the council and interfere – or shut down activity entirely
- Nobody wants to get involved!
- Resource implications of moderating and managing websites
- Potential impact on council reputation
- IT access to technology – many of these sites are blocked. Also lack of support from corporate IT
- Need to support members in this activity could be very time consuming
- Fears of negative comments which make the council want to stop its involvement
- Problems of interesting people in the less thrilling aspects of scrutiny work programmes
- Risk averse nature of most councils
- Need to be selective as not all the information can be online.
The Learning Pool online innovation / social media / loafing around team – that’s me and Breda – were delighted to be involved.
Essentially, Central Bedfordshire is a new unitary council, and the concept of Central Bedfordshire hasn’t really existed before, so there is a job of place shaping to be done. Using an informal, online way of getting residents views seemed a good approach to take and so we have been working with Karen Aspinall, Alan Ferguson and Rechelle Graham to do just that.
We helped to develop a strategy, build the tools – including a cool WordPress based engagement hub website – and develop some policies for online interaction for those that work at the council. On top of that, we provided some training on how to use this stuff, and are providing ongoing support as the project continues.
Here’s a quickish video that explains the site and how it works:
If you’d like to explore the idea of running a similar project at your organisation, just get in touch!
I like scrutiny – it was one of my first jobs in local government to help the process at a smallish borough council. The CfPS does a great job of supporting good practice in the area, and recently this is taking the form of providing advice and guidance around using online methods to engage people with the process.
Cannot find server: reconnecting public accountability is a recent publication looking into this area. The blurb says:
The Centre for Public Scrutiny has published a critical analysis of what internet communication technologies might mean for public accountability. Cannot find server looks at themes in public engagement, and democracy to establish whether emerging social media are likely to enhance or hinder accountability. In an environment where too few accounts of this subject matter adopt a critical position a balanced analysis of the issue was needed. By looking at examples (both hypothetical and real) this publication helps the reader to build an understanding of where social media should fit within a broader engagement strategy.
It’s well worth a read, and is a free download (PDF warning).
So, the announcement has been made, and the new Director of Digital Engagement is Andrew Stott.
Andrew is currently Government Deputy Chief Information Officer. He has had director-level oversight within the Cabinet Office for the Power of Information work from its inception and was a member of the Minister for Digital Engagement’s Power of Information Taskforce.
The reaction to the appointment has been mixed, some pleased that a guy with clear ability at driving stuff through government has the job; others less pleased that the director isn’t someone from outside the Whitehall bubble.
Here’s some of the reaction from the blogs:
Paul Canning asks ‘Did no one qualified want to be the government’s digital director?’
However another insider confirmed to me privately that the real reason Stott may have the appointment is simply that strong candidates from outside Whitehall with web 2.0 experience didn’t apply.
Simon Dickson wonders where the inspiration lies:
There’s…general (but for the record, not universal) consensus that Stott will be a ‘safe pair of hands’. Of course he meets the criteria of having ‘the authority to be credible with Ministers and senior officials’ and ‘experience of the workings of Government’. But there’s little evidence – and I stress, evidence – of his fit with some of the other supposedly essential criteria. If he has ‘run a public facing web site of significant size’, or ‘innovated in web, beyond web publishing’, the web itself doesn’t have much information about it.
Emma Mulqueeny is more positive:
To be honest, I rather thought that this would be given to some super clever bod from outside government, who would come at the job with a wealth of experience, challenging ideas and determination to ‘make stuff happen’. Then, as so often happened before, said person would begin to flag in the face of the enormity of the expectations of the job, burned out within a year to 18 months and left to go and do something else, broken.
Well… that won’t happen now; so this job that seemed a bit of a ‘nod in the right direction, but basically impossible’ is actually not that at all. If they wanted it to be that, they would not have appointed Andrew.
Nick Booth asks what we can do to help Andrew in his new job:
My first thoughts are the most obvious.
1. Join the conversation. Assuming Andrew want’s to engage with us, take the time to give him useful help.
2. Offer him a mentor or two? Is that cheeky? I hope not. Who would be ripe for that role?
3. Make sure he knows he’s surrounded by a substantial community that wants POIT to succeed.
Andrew Lewin is rather pleased:
I think many – including myself, if I’m honest – expected a new face from the private sector to make a bold splash and shake everything up. Which, to be honest, wasn’t a very appealing prospect to those of us who have been plugging away at this for a while now and thinking that we were finally getting some real progress on many fronts. To suddenly change direction and start all over again would have been both irritating and time-consuming, just when there is no time to waste. This appointment means we should be able to get on with things, but with a high profile person at the head of things to drive it forward still faster.
My advice would be to seize the initiative, set out some small but important things to achieve and make them happen, to get the doubters back onside as soon as possible.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week I will be spending a couple of days at the Digital Inclusion Conference, helping to make the event a little more, well, inclusive by doing some social reporting.
All the reporting will be appearing first of all on the social network we have created, using Ning. This enables us to get as much content online as quickly and easily as possible, from which we can edit the best bits to appear on the Digital Engagement blog.
Please do swing by and comment on what we are producing, and leave your own views on the issues around digital inclusion. From what I saw at the Digital Britain Summit, and some of the comments around that event, it certainly seems a topic that a lot of people are very passionate about, and quite rightly.
I am rather excited to be live blogging the Digital Britain Summit tomorrow, providing one way for the many interested folk who were unable to attend to still find out what is being said, by who.
It’s a really good looking line up, with some big names present, such as:
- Andy Burnham
- Lord Mandelson
- Stephen Carter
- Sly Bailey
- Will Hutton
- Stephen Fry
Also, the official Digital Britain twitter account will be providing updates and responding to people’s tweeted comments.
All the action will be happening on the Digital Britain blog, including the streaming. Make sure you check it out during the day.
Just to be completely open, I should disclose that I am being paid by BERR to do the blogging. But I promise to keep my toadying to a minimum.