Many thanks to Will Perrin from Talk About Local, who basically did my job for me in a comment on my last post about local digital communities and economies.
The thrust of my post was that having a lively digital community in a local area is a good thing, which can benefit various bits of society.
Here’s Will’s advice for what public sector organisations should do if they want to help foster this community locally:
- don’t host your own platform. this often puts the effort and spend in what is often the wrong bit of the organisation (the IT bit), retains ownership and thus legal liability, layers in cost and medium term hassle and also cramps people’s style
- equally don’t present local people with fait accompli site on wordpress.com and expect them to use it – you will be much more successful taking the time to help them make their own site
- let people find their own voice – find local people to get involved who have something to say and a burning need to communicate, this keeps them going as they run into problems.
- be prepared to take some time over this – there’s no set formula as to who will make a good local site. be prepared to fail quite a few times before you find the right people in the right roles
- don’t assume web means young people – the average person we train has grey hair
- follow the audience and increasingly thing Facebook first, even though it is inflexible and fiddly. marry a facebook page or group up with an external wordpress.com blog that is linked.
This is great advice, particularly for the community and voluntary sector, where groups with a shared passion for an issue, or a specific location, use the web as a platform for communication and cooperation.
Mandeep Hothi from the Young Foundation, who has been working on the excellent Local 2.0 initiative, also shared his learning on developing thriving local online communities on that previous post:
- They [councils] really don’t want to be the ones developing community spaces. They would much rather that communities do it themselves and they are very receptive to outside agencies like TAL doing this. We’ve tried to get People’s Voice Media’s Community Reporters programme going to but couldn’t find funding, however, one of the councils has funded it themselves and another has had discussions about doing it with PVM.
- The reasons for this are varied, but by and large they recognise that it is much healthier for communities/residents to own and manage blogs, social networks etc.. Some of the motivation is about risk and responsibility – they don’t want to be liable for anything and they don’t want to moderate (although they are likely to try to intervene if people slag off their service!)
- Engaging through hyperlocal sites is still a challenge. Reasons include a fear of changing the tone of online spaces, but also a legitimate fear of misrepresenting (or not knowing) council policy. But we have some great examples of officers engaging online (and some bad ones too…)
So that’s fairly clear. Government struggles at creating new communities online. What they can do is provide support to existing communities to help them make the most of digital – and this best done at arms length, introducing a dedicated third party service like Talk About Local.
But what about the wider point about a digitally focussed online community? As mentioned in previous posts, I’m really interested in how local startups and SMEs can play an active role. Well, just as services like Talk About Local can be introduced by a local authority, so could more local suppliers.
So if there is a training need, or a website that needs creating, local authorities ought to be looking local to develop it. Even better, by being engaged with an active local digital community, those innovative small suppliers could help shape requirements and scope, ensuring that the council, or whoever, gets the best possible solution.
It doesn’t even have to always involve money. Councils have access to other resources, such as meeting rooms, and indeed whole buildings. I love examples of where council owned properties, which for whatever reason are empty, are handed over to communities to use as meeting or co-working spaces.
I’m sure there are plenty of other great examples of how councils can support a local digital community – please do share them in the comments.