Me ‘talking’ about UKGovCamp and unconferences on Local by Social

I am facilitating a session on (at?) the Local by Social online conference on Monday, 8th November at 13:30 on the topic of the GovCamp movement and unconferences in general.

A couple of levels of sign up are required (it’s hosted on the Communities of Practice) but hopefully we’ll have some good discussion and a few folk will be suitably inspired to run their own events.

Click through to the discussion.

The future of comms in local government

The Local by Social online conference (various levels of sign-up required) is turning out to be a bit of a triumph. Yesterday saw some fascinating discussions about various elements of technology (mostly web) enabled change. Well done Ingrid (and team)!

One was superbly facilitated by Walsall Council’s Dan Slee, who ran discussion on the subject of where communications in local government is likely to be headed.

I came fairly late to the party, and my point was that it’s probably less important for people in comms to consider how they fulfil their current role in a web 2.0 age, rather than to think about how the internet disrupts their entire way of working, and that a back to basics, “what are we here for?” type discussion is probably needed.

I’ve pasted in my comment below, it should still make sense despite being ripped out of context.

Perhaps in this – extremely interesting and thought provoking – thread, we are asking the wrong question.

Maybe the question should be “What is the point of the council communications team?”

Here’s what I mean: framing the discussion around social media and whatever comes after it may not be entirely helpful in this instance. I suspect that the real changes that affect the way organisations communicate are longer term and wider ranging.

It’s clear that advances in technology are changing both the information that people are consuming, and the way that they consume it.

The internet – and I use that word deliberately – is the force that is behind this change, and it has both been a long time coming and been going on for a long time, before Facebook, blogging and even the web itself.

If the internet does one thing, it reduces the cost of delivery of information to zero. That has profound consequences which are now starting to be realised. Any organisation, or role, that is based on the delivery of information (and I would argue that comms is one such role) needs to have a real think about a) what it actually wants to achieve; and then b) figure out the processes and tools to make that happen.

Take the newspaper, TV and music industries – probably the three hit most hard by the effects of the internet. All of those three industries failed to realise in time what business they were in. The newspapers thought they were about news; the TV stations about making television programmes; and the music industry about making music.

Nope. They were all in the logistics business. The value they added was in delivering content to people, whether on paper, through the telly or on CD.

If you listen to the bleating of the record labels, you’d actually think that nobody made any music before they came around, and certainly that no poor, suffering musician made any money. In fact, there was a BBC interview with Mick Jagger recently where he pointed out that, other than a few years in the late 1970s, the Stones haven’t made a penny personally from any of their records – all their income was from concerts and merchandising. In other words, if we cut out the record labels, as the internet allows us to do, nobody but the record labels suffer.

Anyway, I digressed a bit there. But the point remains: what business are you in? What are you trying to achieve?

I honestly don’t know – maybe that’s because I never worked in comms… is it something about managing the organisation’s reputation?

In the past (and probably the present) comms departments controlled messages, fed stories to local papers, got councillors on the radio and local TV and that sort of thing.

But how can they continue to do that when they are no longer faced by a couple of newspapers, one TV channel and a handful of radio stations, rather hundreds of blogs, locally or nationally, YouTube users who can put video up at the drop of a hat, people armed with mobile phones, throwing up audio online – all of whom potentially have audiences way in advance of those traditional mediums.

How can comms teams do that job when every member of staff also has access to these tools, and every councillor too?

So what, now, is the purpose of the comms guys? Why does a council need a comms department at all? Figure that one out, and I would imagine everything else will just drop into place.

Local by Social: free online conference 3-9 November

I’m taking part in an online conference on the LGID Communities of Practice platform (registration required) that’s running between 3 and 9 November.

My bit will be on the 8th, between 1.30 and 3.30pm, and I will be talking about the movement of GovCamps across the UK, where practitioners, suppliers and interested others get together to chew the fat about improving public services.

Here’s the skinny from the Local by Social blog:

Local by Social online conference, 3 – 9 November FREE

Citizens and councils are getting online and discovering the power of the Internet to make it easier to access services, feed back for improvement, provide accountability and help people organise themselves for civic action.

The Local by Social online conference will bring together a range of practitioners, thought leaders and social entrepreneurs to look at three areas where the Internet is changing the way localities are governed and services are delivered.

Social media: citizens and councils
Social media: creating and sharing knowledge between practitioners
Open data for accountability and improvement.
This free conference will be hosted on Local Government Improvement and Development’s Communities of Practice platform.

What’s an online conference?

An online conference is just like a conference in the ‘real world’ except there are no long train journeys, no soggy sandwiches and no shame in getting up and walking out if the topic just isn’t your thing.

LG Improvement and Development has hosted many successful online conferences. You’ll hear from invited ‘speakers’ who will share materials through video, presentations or writing about their topic who will then be available to answer questions in the discussion forum. But this is also an opportunity to set your own agenda, start topics or carry on discussions.

How do I sign up?

This free online conference is already open to join. If you’re not already a member, register at (it’s free). If you are, simply follow this link to sign up. We’ll alert you as activity kicks off and round up the hot topics, so you never miss a thing.

Confirmed speakers

  • Carrie Bishop and Dominic Campbell, FutureGov
  • Dave Briggs, Learning Pool
  • Emer Coleman, GLA/ London DataStore
  • Gary Colet, KIN
  • Hugh Flouch, Network Neighbourhoods
  • Steve Dale, Knowledge Hub
  • Paul Davidson, CIO Sedgemoor, LeGSB
  • Brendan Harris, Local Government Improvement and Development
  • Stuart Harrison, Lichfield District Council
  • Alison Hook, Coventry Council
  • Dan Slee, Walsall Council
  • Hollie Snelson, Kent
  • Julian Tait, Open Data Manchester/ Future Everything
  • Mike Thacker, Porism/ esd-toolkit
  • Richard Wallis, Talis
  • David Wilcox

Reflecting on Local by Social

I wrote up quite a bit of what was said at the Local by Social event yesterday, but didn’t add much in the way of comment or analysis. This post makes up for that. I’ll try and sum up what the themes were for me which really stood out.

First of all, of course, great work FutureGov and IDeA!

Local by Social

Me, Steve Bridger and Lloyd Davis, by Paul Clarke

1. We probably are moving on from talking about social media

I did think just how far things have moved on in the last few years. I remember conversations had with Steve Dale back in 2006 when it seemed like nobody else in local government was remotely interested. Now it seems like most authorities are at least aware of the developments in the web and how citizens are using it – and are starting to think how they might engage with it.

I think that ‘social media’ as being seen as a distinct element of activity is starting to disappear, with some bits heading into comms, other bits into web teams and so on. Our project with Central Bedfordshire, Let’s Talk Central, was delivered through the consultation team, for example.

In other words, using social media tools is becoming less of a thing, and more just a set of skills for delivering tasks and activity, which is almost certainly the right thing to do.

However, it still seems to be that comms and marketing folk are those most often attracted to events like this, which is a shame as service managers and policy types need to be a part of this conversation too.

2. Rethinking relationships

Much of the discussion at Local by Social was not about using social media but what was made possible by social media – which is a healthy way of looking at things. Much of this is focused on relationships – between government and governed, service designers and users, between individuals living in an area.

If anything local government should be looking to foster relationships and take an active part whenever it can. Reinventing relationships too, where necessary – giving people power to organise stuff for themselves where they want to, only stepping in when needed.

Another relationship to be rethought is between government and supplier, of course. All the presentations from social innovators were from small organisations which may not fit in too well with existing procurement systems and whatnot. To tap into these great ideas and enthusiastic people, process might need to give way.

3. Focus on outcomes

Following on from this, councils must think strategically about what it is they are trying to achieve rather than what is being done and who is doing it. It may well be that patchworks of service delivery models are required – some areas may have residents who can organise themselves, others may not.

It looks like a lot of the discussion around efficiency savings in local government is focusing on reducing staff numbers, restructuring and cutting services. In other words, doing the same things, only cheaper. This means councils could fall into the trap of doing the wrong things righter as opposed to taking the opportunity to really rethink who delivers what and how.

4. Be bold

Another key message from the day was that this is exactly the time for local government to throw off its shackles, rethink approaches to risk, and embrace innovative ways of working. I guess this comes down to attitude – is innovation a costly luxury, or a vital part of meeting demand in a time of cost cuts?

For a forward thinking person, the latter is obviously preferable, but is it likely to be the route taken by most local government managers? I’m not sure. But those that do will find themselves getting ahead of the rest.

Of course, who actually does the innovation is an interesting question. As I have mentioned above, the council’s role in this innovation might just be to pass the work onto someone who can actually do the innovating…

5. Don’t be boring

More and more I’m drawn back to what I posted about 18 months ago – that government should get away from the idea that for something to be useful it has to be very serious and dare I say it, boring. The greatest example of this at Local by Social was from Do the Green Thing, a wonderful campaign about getting people engaged in being a bit more environmentally aware. Take their videos for example, simple, funny and memorable:

Again, this is exactly what Let’s Talk Central is about – we don’t want to force people to read huge documents, or fill in surveys with hundreds of questions, or make them send emails into black holes from which they never get a response. We wanted to get people to talk about what they are interested in, using a medium they are comfortable with, in the space where they like to go.

Communications from councils are too boring. Consultation with councils is too boring. Decision making processes in councils are too boring. Selling to councils is too boring. I’m not talking dumbing down, I’m talking making things attractive to people, to encourage them to get involved.

For me, this is the most important thing to fix, and it’s probably the easiest of them all as well.

Further coverage of Local by Social:

Local by Social: Networked Neighbourhoods

Here’s Hugh Flouch!

  • Hyperlocal communities
  • Harringay Online – 2,900 members, 4-500 visits a day, 2-300 visitors a day
  • Has discussion forum, event promotion, information about public services, photo gallery and local history archive
  • ‘a bible of local information and gossip’ – BBC news
  • ‘the biggest residents’ association in the borough’ – a local cllr
  • It’s also a peer support group
  • Is translating into on the ground impact. Campaigns eg on betting shops and transport issues.
  • Events are organised by the community, meetups, festivals and parties
  • Next move is into co-production. During the snow, the site was used to organise action on snow clearing
  • Now doing research into London’s ‘digital neighbourhoods’
  • Using local sites results in meeting new neighbours and a greater sense of belonging
  • Also increases likelihood of contacting politicians or local council officers
  • Also results in improved perception of local politicians etc

Local by Social: School of Everything

Paul Miller now up, from the School of Everything.

  • SoE is all about getting more people to learn – the things they want to learn about
  • Since Sept 2008
  • Private enterprise backed by investment
  • SoE can help reduce costs, do more with less, reinvent the organisation of lifelong learning
  • Listings on SoE is free, and can find out what people are searching for in a particular geographic area
  • Can target provision to better meet demand
  • Find hidden resources to support lifelong learning – involve independent teachers and groups – and a database of venues
  • SoE is a database, not just about the web but also TV, print media, mobile etc
  • Working on citizen generated education. A tool is being developed to help organise local peer learning groups

Local by Social: Patient Opinion

Patient Opinion is a great site for people to leave feedback about their experiences with health services.

  • Really micro level issues can be discussed and action taken
  • Based on the telling of stories by service users
  • Great example of dodgy toilet seats!
  • Ratings for responses from institutions
  • Patient Opinion makes it possible to access thoughtful, passionate people who aren’t motivated to complain
  • Higher threshold for willingness to share with public services – eg easier to share a cat video than a story about your weird disease
  • Lessons: transparency and conversations drive change, adaptable to council work, scalable, cost effective, business model and values
  • Government cannot do this kind of work well – and nor the purely private sector. This work belongs in social enterprises

Local by Social: Do the Green Thing

Katie from Do the Green Thing is next.

  • Trying to tackle climate change creatively
  • People are inclined to help with the environment, but how do you make them become a bit more active? Obligation probably not the best route
  • Make it something that people actually want to do
  • People looking for inspiration not a guilt trip
  • The focus is on easy actions anyone can take
  • A nice video! I will embed it when I get a chance.

  • Keeping things fun and informal – there is a lot that local gov could learn from this
  • Lots of interest across the world in Do the Green Thing. It’s really cool!

Local by Social: Creating future services

Next up is Hugo Manassei from Participle.

  • Participle take on a new issue a year, so far: ageing, families and youth
  • People are skipping the “third age” – period when you have retired but are physically healthy and active. This is bad for individuals but also for the state
  • Invert Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  • Southwark Circle – membership org for anyone over age of 50 (tho younger people aren’t prevented from joining) in Southwark. Helpers (some volunteers, some professional) and members. Over 400 members from all parts of society.
  • People join because they have a practical task that needs to be completed, also for learning purpose.
  • Tech is a hyperlocal network managed by 3 people. Entirely virtual, no office or community centre.
  • Members in different periods of their life find value in Southwark Circle. People join wanting to receive help but end up becoming helpers themselves.
  • Cost is £10 a year to be a member. Token system to pay for help.
  • Works with various existing services and charities.
  • Cost savings in 5 years – £2.18m.
  • Suffolk Circle about to launch, then Hammersmith and Fulham
  • All about strengthening communities

Local by Social: Networked Innovation

John Hayes from IDeA takes to the platform.

  • IDeA is 11 years old, just like Google
  • 353 authorities, providing 700 services each (in a Unitary authority), 2.1 million people working in local government
  • All these people, services and authorities have things in common – hence the communities of practice
  • Sustainable self-improvement, efficiency and vfm, connecting people to people
  • The CoPs – 60k members, 75k monthly visits, 22k monthly contributions, 1.3k communities
  • New experiences of networking in personal lives – ie consumer social media and social networking – need to replicate within work context
  • Supporting new ways of working through Local by Social book and the councillors guide to digital engagement
  • Recognising the change in behavior and relationships between people, practitioners and communities
  • The cuts! The cuts!
  • Knowledge hub – new CoPs, more open, more integrated. Mashups and benchmarking also feature and use of linked data
  • Less of looking to the centre for ideas, more sharing good practice amongst practitioners
  • Built with the sector, for the sector