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.

ICELE – now you don’t

Poor old ICELE. First of all, Professor Stephen Coleman questioned it’s utility on the Connecting Bristol blog:

I have been following e-democracy in the UK since its earliest manifestations in the work of UKCOD (UK Citizens e-Democracy), established in 1996. I was commissioned to be one of three evaluators for the Government’s national project for local e-democracy, out of which came the International Centre for Local e-Democracy (ICELE) This new body was well-funded, but seems to have produced conspicuously little. There might be others out there who can tell me that I’ve missed some wonderful outputs. If so, please do.

The discussion in the comments on that post soon spilled over into the UK & Ireland eDemocracy mailing list, which David Wilcox reported on, quoting Rita Wilson, ICELE’s director:

Having been on holiday for a few days I was surprised to come back to lots of speculation about ICELE. First of all I would like to say that I am more than happy to provide information regarding what ICELE has been achieving and there is nothing hidden about our activities. But we are doers not talkers, delivering a programme to make a difference in how local authorities use tools and technology to move from consultation to participation.

Now, it seems that the speculation was well placed. ICELE will soon be no more. In a message to various participants in the ICELE project, the Chairman of ICELE, Matthew Ellis wrote:

Although the termination date for ICELE was originally contracted as the end of March this year we agreed, at CLG [Department for Communities and Local Government]’s request, to maintain the Centres basic core operation for a further three months to discuss the way forward in promoting local eDemocracy. Unfortunately, although some talks have taken place, no decision or indication of CLG’s future plans in this important area of work have been forthcoming, or what form or structure ICELE could take. I am therefore in the process of implementing an exit strategy plan which will see ICELE cease operations of any kind with Lichfield DC as the accountable body after the end of June.

What was ICELE? Well, good question. In their own words:

ICELE is a sustainable [oh dear], UK-based centre with strong international backing from eDemocracy experts in the public, private and non-governmental sectors.

The Centre is designed to serve as a ‘virtual’ focal point for collaborative eDemocracy initiatives both in the UK and abroad. Within the UK, local authorities, community groups and citizens can use the Centre’s online resources to help run projects in their local area.

They were involved in a few projects, like the VOICE web publishing tool and the Blog in a Box blogging platform for Councillors. I don’t know much about VOICE – though what I’ve heard isn’t good – and Blog in a Box is frankly superfluous given the quality of free offerings like WordPress, as CivicSurf has proved.

So, ICELE, to be frank, was a bit rubbish. But what will take its place? I guess we will find out when the Department’s white paper on Empowerment is published. There has already been some activity around this, including the Community Power Packs developed with Involve‘s help, as well as Simon Berry’s job at CLG. Let’s hope the results will be good.

I think it is a bit of a shame that ICELE will be no more – or at least that there won’t be a body around which eDemocracy at a local level can gather. It might be argued that even with ICELE such a body didn’t exist. Maybe there’s another argument that in this networked, post-organisation world, we don’t actually need a body of this type at all any more at all.

There are a number of people who have a real, dedicated interest in local eDemocracy, as well as the opportunities that the social web offers to achieve real success in the area. The trouble is that local government is a remarkably fragmented sector and tying together all the various initiatives is a role that’s important but not happening right now. One of the best ways that local government is joining up at the moment is through the Communities of Practice, hosted by the Improvement and Development Agency, and set up by Steve Dale.

A quick search of the Communities platform for ‘edemocracy’ reveals nothing. Perhaps those with a genuine interest in making things better and sharing ideas might organise themselves through that platform? After all, there is already a huge user base on the platform.

Empowerment packs from the gov’t

The Department for Communities and Local Government have released something called a ‘Community Power Pack‘:

The Community Power Pack has been created to help local groups to organise and facilitate discussions on the topic of empowerment. The pack contains suggestions for the format of the meeting, advice for facilitators and organisers as well as detailed information about key empowerment issues. Your feedback will be used by Communities and Local Government to inform and shape empowerment activities, including the Empowerment White Paper.

It’s been created with Involve, and looks interesting. So what does it look like?

Well, first of all there is a 57 page PDF file. The introduction claims that it is published under a creative commons licence, but it doesn’t look like a CC licence I have ever seen before:

This publication, excluding logos, may be reproduced free of charge in any format or medium for research, private study or for internal circulation within an organisation. This is subject to it being reproduced accurately  and not used in a misleading context. The material must be acknowledged as Crown copyright and the title  of the publication specified.

But never mind. It’s actually quite a nice idea, trying to get people to discuss issues around empowerment through their existing groups. The idea is that the results of the discussions will be a part of the eventual white paper on empowerment, and the power pack itself will be updated as feedback on the process itself is returned.

I do wonder why this wasn’t just done as a website, rather than a document, in the first place. For example, the method for returning views is a ‘Recording Sheet’ (in Word format, for goodness’ sake, what’s so hard about saving stuff in RTF?) which could have been simpler by just sticking in online. And if the power pack itself is going to change, why not just keep the most recent content live as a website? Would be much easier for everyone. To be fair, there is an opportunity for individuals to give their feedback at the DCLG forums but why not make an online response – through something other than a forum, preferably – the default?

The main content in the pack is a list of different activities can can be run at a get together to produce some answers as a group. It’s good stuff and nicely presented with plenty of supporting information.

I do just wonder how many people are actually going to be using these things, though! It does just seem an awful lot of work for folk to do. But at least it is an attempt, apparently, of the government trying to listen to people’s views – it just feels a bit controlling and overly processy to me.