Blears blogging

In what must be the most exciting day in the Department for Communities and Local Government ever, which has seen the start of a Twitter feed and the publication of a major white paper, the latest news is that Hazel Blears is now blogging!

I want to hear everyone’s views, from local citizens to local authorities. As a citizen – I’m keen to know what would make you get more involved in your local community? What are the barriers or challenges you face? What could we, or our colleagues in local government, do to make it easier?

For local authorities or organisations hoping to increase public participation – please tell us about your successes and challenges and what we can do together to get people more involved.

All the important bloggy stuff is there – RSS feeds and comments on posts, which is great. It seems to be a fairly short lived affair – only running for a week until 18th July – and I am not sure if that will be true of the twitter feed too, it seems likely. Still, if it’s useful I guess it will be possible that it will return again in the future.

It seems to be running on Community Server, which CLG use for their forums too, which itself runs on Microsoft .NET technology rather than the open source based approach that the recent developments at Number 10 have gone for. I’ve used Community Server myself quite a bit in my work at the Information Authority, and while it isn’t quite as flexible or intuitive as WordPress on the blogging front, it more than does the job.

So, welcome to the blogosphere, Hazel. I hope you enjoy your stay.

Rebooting America

The Personal Democracy Forum has published a free eBook called Rebooting America: Ideas for Redesigning American Democracy for the Internet Age. It’s full of great little essays by such luminaries as David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold and Jeff Jarvis.

Well worth downloading and having a read. I’m going to be looking to see what we in the UK can learn from it. My guess? A lot.

Update: Tom Watson blogs about it here.

Show them a better way

Bit late on this one, but hey ho. The Power of Information Taskforce has launched a new initiative, which many commentators have ikened to the BBC Backstage project, to open up the way that government data can be hacked about. Effectively, ideas are being requested to improve the way government communicates. To quote the site, called Show Us a Better Way:

The Power of Information Taskforce want to hear your ideas on how to reuse, represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful.  To provide you with some raw materials we will be posting some links to information sources here.

Steve Dale recorded a video of Tom Watson – the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for the Task Force – introducing the competition at 2gether08.

Bill Thompson writes:

The downside is that although they’ve got access to many of these sources they can’t be used freely yet, as there are still many restrictions on how we can exploit the data the government collects on our behalf. But if enough good ideas emerge then it will help put pressure on the various data holders to offer more permissive license, and we may eventually see a general presumption that public data is freely available to the public, as The Guardian has been arguing for a while now.

Simon Dickson says:

Having worked with several of the data suppliers listed, I’m delighted they managed to get agreement to expose their data – although I guess the backing of a Minister who actually understands it all can’t have done any harm. It’s especially inspiring to see the Office for National Statistics joining the effort, with the release of an API for its disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. Here’s hoping the Community can do a better job on interface design and results presentation.

A term that has been bandied about a good deal recently in connected with this and other initiatives is ‘codesign’, the idea that processes and products are best developed in the open, with the cooperation and collaborative between government, organisations, communities and individuals.

In many ways, there is no reason why government shouldn’t engage in these sorts of developments, after all it theoretically shouldn’t have the competitive elements that might dissuade commercial enterprises from sharing all.

I wonder if I can tie in here the comment Tom Steinberg of MySociety left here recently, picking up on a point I made about who’s responsibility it is to actually get things done in this space:

“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”

That would be awesome, but until Ning gets good enough to make building sites like WhatDoTheyKnow into a point-and-click exercise we’ll have to keep filling the gaps, sorry!

Of course, there is no need for Tom to apologise at all. There is a gap at the moment, and MySociety is filling it, and enriching the online political experience better than anyone else. No doubt too that MySociety will be coming up with some awesome, innovative ideas to make use of data, whether through Show Us a Better Way or not.

Exercises like this one just launched by the Taskforce make the liklihood of a growing army of bedroom government institutional hackers all the more likely. They may only have a very narrow interest in a specific part of government. They may not want to help government at all, but maybe groups on the outside of the usual political processes. Either way, they may nevr have had the chance to participate in these kind of exercises before.

It will be interesting to see, if the codesign concept takes off within government, whose (who’s?) responsibility it ends up being. It’s not a webby’s job, really, but it isn’t strictly a policy thing either. It blends and mashes the two into a new role as ill-defined and messy as the process of codesign itself. How this can fit into a departmental org chart, God only knows.

On consultation

On Thursday night I was lucky enough to be invited to Number 11 for a few drinks with various online luminaries, including a bunch of guys who went on Web Mission 08 and lots of lovely government webbies too, courtesy of Tom Watson, the Minister for Doing Fun Things with the Web. William Heath describes some of the oddities of the evening on the Ideal Government blog.

One of the cool people I got to hang out with was Harry Metcalfe, who I met very briefly at BarcampUKGovWeb, and who is the guy behind Tell Them What You Think, a MySociety sponsored hosted project to bring government consultations to the masses through the web.

Essentially, Tell Them What You Think scrapes consultations that are published on various government websites, and sticks them in one place. The potential consultee can then browse or search for stuff that interests them, and respond as appropriate. Screen scraping isn’t ideal, and is a bit of a brutish way of doing things, but is entirely necessary when data is published in a way that isn’t easily reused. As always, Wikipedia is your friend.

This chatter with Harry coincided neatly with an item that popped up in my RSS feeds last week, from my local authority, Kettering Borough Council (yes! They publish news in RSS!). This stated:

The Borough Council would like to gain the public’s views on the East Kettering Strategic Design Supplementary Planning Document. This draft document will form a key part of the Local Development Framework for the Borough, a suite of documents that contain planning policies and will guide future development. The Supplementary Planning Document aims to proactively promote high quality design within the Urban Extension.

The Council is taking people’s views in through three different methods:

  • Face to face events in various different locations throughout the affected areas
  • By taking postal responses to the consultation documents which have been published online
  • By using the online consultation facility called ‘Limehouse’

Limehouse does sound rather interesting, and a quick google shows that plenty of other authorities are using it too. Would be interested to hear any reports on how well it works in the comments.

Even if Limehouse is lame, at least Kettering are trying, and also blending off and online methods to ensure as many people can get involved as possible.

My concern though is that we shouldn’t be thinking about consultation any more, and instead the word we should be using is ‘participation’. This ties in with my post a little while back on taking the boringness out of engagement. Tell Them What You Think is great, a brilliantly put together service, but I wonder whether having a place for people to go to is really the answer to this stuff.

Shouldn’t we be using the power of the social web to deliver interesting stuff to the people who might be interested in it? Do we really want everyone to be engaged on every issue, or just those that have an interest and an understanding of it?

This is why the identification and engagement with existing community groups is so vital in this area. These are people who could actually be bothered to organise themselves around an issue of shared interest or concern. The social web has a tremendous abiity to aggregate people together, but first the issues must be disaggregated until they are small enough for people to be able to get to grips with them in a meaningful way. They then need to be delivered to those people directly, and be able to receive responses in a number of formats to fit with the way the people, or groups, like to work themselves.

Digital government and not being boring

I spent a most enjoyable time at the Department for Communities and Local Government today as a guest of Simon Berry, along with a rogue’s gallery of other bloggers and online networkers. It was a great chance to catch up with old friends and new acquaintances, as well as take part in some really interesting exercises, put together in partnership with Simon by David Wilcox, who was, as always, an excellent facilitator and conversation starter.

At one stage of the workshop, the group split into two smaller ones: one team of mainly civil servants and local authority types; another of mostly techies. I fell into the latter grouping, and we discussed the ways in which we felt emerging technology could help government – at both a local and a national level – get closer to those it governs.

Being in a group of people which contained – amongst others – Dan McQuillan, Steve Bridger, Paul Bradshaw and Tim Davies, the ideas were soon flowing – helped by the relaxed atmosphere which meant there were plenty of jokes and laughs too. Some of the issues we came up with included:

  • Listening before talking – government needs to now what is being said by whom before it can start engaging with them
  • Figure out which communication medium best suits the people you want to talk to – for example, just because blogs are on the internet doesn’t mean young people are interested. They’re not – they are on Polyvore instead.
  • Local government should be concentrating at least as much as central government is on opening up data and information it holds.
  • The word empowerment is a bit dodgy in this context – why should people need to be empowered by government? Isn’t it already in our power to organise ourselves and get things done?
  • The relationship between government and people – whether on an individual basis or within groups, should be informalised. Government has a role to play in civil society, but how much of a role should be determined not by them but by the communities themselves – for instance, they might just want a room to meet in, or maybe some advice on funding.
  • Local government shouldn’t be afraid of celebrating what is happening in their areas – but shouldn’t feel the need to claim any credit. Likewise, too often there is a financial focus to such good news stories. When something good happens, who cares who did it, or who paid for it?
  • It’s not just government talking to groups or individuals – there are other players in the civic space who need to be involved. The networked journalism that Charlie Beckett and Paul Bradshaw write about has a role to play, as do charities and other third sector groups, schools, hospitals, churches. The web can help bring some sense to this civic soup of different interests and organisations, to aggregate it and break it down in different, more meaningful ways.

Dan McQuillan pointed out at one stage that the problem with trying to get people to be, say, a school governor, is that being a school governor is actually a pretty dull thing to do. This is true of a lot of things, though – if someone asked you to engage with your local authority, it might not necessarily be something that would have you widdly with excitement. However, if you were asked about an issue that particularly interested you, like environmental issues, or public transport, or education, then you might be more likely to take part.

The issue is one of boringness, then, and the important thing for government to try and do is to avoid being boring. People interests are atomised, and tend to focus around single or narrowly related issues, rather than everything that concerns a single organisation.

Another example of boringness is in the way that local issues are reported on. For example, more people read about council issues in their local paper than in the leaflets sent out by the council itself. That’s because the council leaflet is probably more boring than the paper’s coverage. That said, more people moan about their bin collections, or pot holes in their street, in the pub with their mates than read about them in the local paper. Again, chatting in the pub is more fun.

So for government at all levels to get their messages across, and to engage better with people, they need to ensure they aren’t boring the people they want to talk to. How can they do this?

One way would be by identifying the issues people and groups are interested in, and providing information on, and inviting comment on, those topics. Something like Hear From Your MP at a local level just wouldn’t work – even I would be bored stupid if I had to read everything my Councillors had to say. But if that could be tailored to Hear About Stuff You Are Interested In From Everybody, that might just work.

Aggregate stuff from government, communities, charities, media organisations, church groups and anyone else along subject lines based on a local area. This might be very hard to do, and indeed might be impossible without some serious collaboration between various parties in terms of the way they produce content. But if it were to be achieved, then I think getting people involved would be much easier.

There were many ideas produced at the meeting, like mine above, and we are going to be working together to develop the better ones and see how they grow. A good place to monitor what is going on will be to tune in to Simon’s Web24Gov site.

Paul Canning’s 10 point plan

Paul Canning – challenged by Tom Watson to do so – has come up with ten things that need to be looked at as part of the government’s web strategy. His number one issue is ‘findability’:

Search is the prime route to content and is followed by links from other websites. How government addresses this is through newspaper ads – see DirectGov – or, slowly, very limited textads and rare banner ads. I’m not aware of any strategy which looks at how people find services or information in the real world online. Most pages are not optimised for search, most top results are by fluke rather than design and most links by legacy. All of that is and will continue to end – there is competition online. If they can’t find you, what’s the point?