Why be a councillor?

Pretty damning stuff from Cllr Roger Gambba-Jones:

If somebody was to ask me about becoming a councillor nowadays, I’m not sure what I would tell them were the benefits of doing so and I don’t mean to the councillor. Government funding cuts and more and more centralisation of power, hidden behind the facade of Localism, means that getting elected is more likely to become a exercise in frustration and disappointment, than a fulfilling experience in serving the community.

Networked Neighbourhoods: effective localism or narrow insularity?

My friends at LGIU, The Hansard Society and Networked Neighbourhoods are running a free event next month in London that looks dead good:

Wednesday 19 October, 18.30 – 20.00

Thatcher Room, Portculis house, Westminster

LGiU, Networked Neighbourhoods and the Hansard Society are putting on a free event in Parliament on Weds 19th Oct.

We will be exploring the ‘relocalisation’ of the web and debating whether hyperlocal and community websites a vital democratic tool or if they lead to insularity out of step with an increasingly globalised world?

Panel:

  • Jonathan Carr-West – Local Government Information Unit
  • Natasha Innocent – Director of Community Partnerships, Race Online
  • Kerry McCarthy MP
  • Hugh Flouch – Networked Neighbourhoods

Chair:

  • Dr Andy Williamson – Independent digital strategist

Jonathan and Hugh will also discuss some of the early findings from the ‘Residents Online’ research project. If you are a Councillor or council officer and would like to take part in the survey, more information can be found here.

Tickets

To register, please email hans_admin@hansard.lse.ac.uk, or book online or phone 020 7438 1216.

Gov’s role in local digital ecosystems

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.

Elements of local digital ecosystems

Apologies for using the word ecosystems – I just couldn’t be bothered thinking of anything less naff.

So earlier I blogged about the ways NESTA identified that government can help support local digital activity.

I mentioned that there are many different elements of the digital scene within a specific locality, so thought it only fair if I have a crack at listing them.

  • Digital economy – where businesses are active in delivering digital services to the public, private and other sectors
  • Digital access – making sure people have access to the hardware and connections to the net to enable them to make the most of the opportunities the net offers
  • Digital skills – from beginners to more expert skills, helping and guiding people along their learning journey from computer and web basics to more specialised knowledge, such as development, or video work for example
  • Digital engagement – better use of the web by public sector organisations to increase participation and involvement in public service delivery and design
  • Digital media – use of online tools for publishing news and other information online. Hyperlocal news and that sort of thing, but also general non-place specific blogging, video, audio, photography…
  • Digital communities – networks of common interest or based around a locality, using the web as a platform for discussion and collaborative action

I suspect you could plot these things on a venn diagram, showing where they overlap. Wonder if there’s a sweet spot where they all overlap?

Who are the actors and groups involved in this?

  • Businesses – SMEs, freelancers, bigger and more established companies who provide digital services or products. Perhaps non-digital businesses as well, who can benefit from getting better advice and service from suppliers if they understand the issues a bit better
  • Bits of government – there are lots of lessons for the public sector to learn about effective use of digital, which could save money and improve services. Having a rich digital community with which the local public services are engaged members of can help improve knowledge and skills and deliver better results
  • Politicians – politicians are community leaders as well as representatives and a healthy number must be involved in the local digital community. Not just to learn how digital can help them be better at representing and engaging, but better at making decisions too – especially where technology is involved
  • Education establishments – quite a few universities and colleges now forge links with local businesses and startups, including housing them in incubator style office spaces. They are also, of course, full of people about to enter the job market, or start businesses of their own, which could make a considerable impact on the local economy
  • The voluntary and community sector – the opportunities in digital for the civic sector are considerable. Great work by organisations like Cosmic and LASA demonstrate this, and even more could be done with an active digital community within a local area – whether through social media surgeries or more formal arrangements.
  • Digital activists – there are people who care about the opportunities that digital offers and who work hard to make sure people are aware of them and make the most of them. Linking them up with policy people, local techy businesses and community and voluntary organisations seems to be really important to me
  • Individuals – of course, mustn’t forget them. People who don’t fit into any of the above groups but who, of course, have plenty of links with most of them, and therefore occasional interactions with them. It’s really important to keep these people in mind, whatever you’re doing

So there’s a lot of activity, and a lot of different groups and people with an interest in that activity.

It strikes me that there is a lot that can be done in an area to get all of this effort working better, more efficiently. Not through the creation of bureaucratic digital partnerships, but through simple, lightweight creative collaborations where different organisations work together to meet shared problems.

Digital inclusion activity (improving access to, and skills for using, technology and networks) seems an obvious one. It’s better for government that people use online channels – it’s cheaper. At the same time, those people’s own lives could be improved with decent web access and skills. That can then lead onto the devlopment of the local digital economy, whether for training providers or people that build websites, or services computers, etc.

What’s interesting here I think is the role that local authorities and other public sector organisations play in this. There are clear advantages for government if people are active online in the area, both in terms of service delivery, but also less directly, with successful digital economies developing areas and generating tax revenues.

But what can they do? Most attempts by councils to provide environments for community websites, etc, tend to be a bit rubbish – though I know there are exceptions. I’ve got some ideas and – being the big tease that I am – I’ll share them in my next post on this topic.

Local digital impact

I’m increasingly interested in how creative collaborations between small suppliers, public services and organisations from other sectors can come together to solve problems in an open innovation-y sort of way.

The digital arena is probably one of the best places for this type of thing to happen, and a useful post has appeared on one of NESTA’s blogs about it.

In the post, they provide a list of things that government can do to foster local digital activity and collaboration:

  1. Encourage the take-up of broadband and internet access more widely so that we can all participate in this world. Let’s not leave anyone behind.
  2. Find new business models to balance freely available broadband in cities with ISP’s right to recoup the costs of putting in a next generation infrastructure.
  3. Open up local data at a very local level, and then find ways of encouraging engagement between the private creative businesses and our public sector. Our Make it Local programme is trying to do this, but we need much more of it.
  4. Remember that most digital developers still need to make real-world connections to get business and the role of local and regional agencies – both trade associations and screen agencies can be tremendously valuable in helping digital SMEs to win business.

There’s another post to be written at some point about the different aspects of digital activity in an area, and what the role is of government in supporting and nurturing that. But it’s certainly more than just subscribing to local bloggers – important though listening is.

I’m going to be writing a few posts about this in the future, I think, so have created a category – ‘digital local‘ – for them to sit in.

Bookmarks for December 12th through December 30th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Big society: app stores and hyperlocal democracy

David Wilcox has been doing a great job documenting the discussions around the Big Society agenda, which according to the website, is

an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens, to help everyone achieve change in their local area. Our aim is to create a new relationship between Citizens and Government in which both are genuine partners in getting things done: real democracy using all the human and technological tools we now have available. This partnership will also add a third and fourth leg to its sturdy chair by involving business and the voluntary sector.

This is quite interesting, as it presents an opportunity to tie up a number of the agendas that have been floating around recently. Now, it’s important to remember that the Big Society is not a technology thing per se, but as I mentioned in a previous post, a lot of the language it uses is the language of the net.

So, hyperlocal reporting, community activism, tapping into cognitive surplus, engaging with social enterprise, improving participation in local democracy, digital inclusion and probably a bunch of other stuff could come under the Big Society label. This has all existed in my head as a massive venn diagram slowly scrunching together and overlapping more and more, so it seems like a positive move.

Big Society App Store

The internet has role, not just in providing some cultural reference points, and examples of big society type activity (Wikipedia, open source software, thriving online communities), but also in providing a platform for organisation, sharing, collaboration and communication.

It’s something I bang on about an awful lot, but the way in which many people now choose to communicate and get things done is changing. Current methods of democratic engagement – for example – are actually pretty exclusionary. The very idea of meetings where people have to be at a certain place at a certain time is pretty anachronistic, and by their nature generally excludes anyone with a job and a family. The nature of participation and volunteering – whether as part of democratic processes, or a more general view of participation, needs to have as many interfaces as possible – and online is a key one, I feel.

David has been particularly promoting the idea of an ‘app store’ for the Big Society:

Last night Steve Moore asked me to speak briefly about ideas for a Big Society Commons or Store, which I wrote about here, and here. I said we need space with different levels … information, conversation, exchange, products and services. Maybe it is a mall plus a market, some high tech, some low. It is absolutely not created by government, but by those with something to offer.

Then I started to wonder about the role of the skilled, creative, passionate people at the Open Night. Perhaps one analogy for part of the store is an Apps store, where you can download smart ways of doing things to your mobile phone. Some are free, some you pay for. The fee goes to the developer, with a percentage to the store owner.

It works because there is a framework for the way apps are developed – tight in the case of Apple, more flexible in open sources stores.

So perhaps some of the people at the Open Night were potential developers for the Social Apps Store. If the Network can help to create the store, it will provide a much bigger market for those with social action products and services to sell – or offer free.

The Apps Store offers one metaphor to help us think how we bring good stuff together, what’s in it for the different interests involved, what rules and frameworks we need to make sure things work together.

Sounds like a nice idea… not just tech apps, but other bits of social hackery (training, organisation, actually doing things in real life) too in a way that works for volunteers as well as those who have some bills they need paying.

Hyperlocal democracy

Next on my rambling radar for this post is localism and how Big Society stuff applies there. Actually, there’s no question about it – surely the most obvious pre-existing communities are those in local areas, and there should be in most places existing networks and groups that could start to work together a little better, as well as employing some new engagement methods to increase reach.

Nowhere is this more obvious that in local councils – that is to say, parish, town and community councils which are at the level closest to people. I and the Learning Pool team have been working with Justin Griggs and colleagues at the National Association of Local Councils to help promote their sector and provide some advice and guidance for local councillors on being a little more engaging.

Likewise I’ve attended and contributed to a couple of events organised by the Society of Local Council Clerks – which supports the people helping to herd the local councillors, and keeping everything going. Again, these people need help and guidance on how to best employ new tools on the web to get more people involved in the great work that they do.

I think it is vital for these people, and these existing organisations to be involved as much as possible in the Big Society – but it’s fair to say that for that to happen, those people also need to up their game in terms of being more open, transparent and engaging. Part if this is not being overly tied to existing structures and processes, and accepting that there are other ways of getting involved, and that these are to be welcomed.

A nice, quick guide to the world of local councils can be found in NALC’s ‘Power to the People‘ document – actually a how-to for setting up your own local council, but full of interesting snippets.

I do wonder if there is more potential to tie up the work of hyperlocal bloggers and online community builders, such as those Will Perrin at Talk About Local is promoting, with these very local democratic institutions and processes. A kind of hyperlocal democracy, perhaps.

Big Society in the North

One nice example of people picking up the Big Society baton and running with it is the Big Society North group, who have set up an online networking space, using grou.ps (which I am not terribly keen on, but that’s another post).

They didn’t ask for permission to do this, they just saw an opportunity and took it. An event is being run on Tuesday (27th July) for interested folk to get together and discuss how the Big Society idea might work. What’s pleasing is that not only are those involved in the Big Society centrally supportive of this self-organising, but are also attending the event in Sheffield. I’m hopefully popping up myself, assuming life doesn’t get in the way.

Your Square Mile

The Big Society is not without its challenges however. One part of it, which is pretty vague at the moment, but nevertheless sets off alarm bells, is ‘Your Square Mile‘:

This simple, modest web-site, plus all the blogs, twitters, mobile apps, Facebook and Google groups that it will spawn, will grow into a resource library for your use; to give you the confidence and means to change your neighbourhood and improve your life.

Shudder. I don’t think the square mile name is a good one – a project about localities with such a strong central London reference as its title? – and the potential for some duff tech platform to be built when it isn’t needed seems to be significant.

Far better I would think would be to provide options of what is already available, with learning on skills and knowledge. Again, tie this in with the Talk About Local and Harringay Online approaches – using free or cheap tech to provide the glue that can stick communities together.

Summing up

OK, so a real ramble. But the Big Society offers a number of opportunities and challenges. There are a number of wrong courses those involved in it could take.

But as long as the urge to create new platforms or systems is resisted, as long as it is genuinely self organised locally, and that existing local communities and democracy is respected and engaged with, there is a lot of potential.

There’s another possibility, of course, that it’s just a load of flim-flam and will go nowhere. But that isn’t a very positive way of looking at things.

Hyperlocal alliance

Will, Dom and Kalv are starting something that has the potential to become really rather cool.

So where are we going with this? Well we want to know if hyperlocal people in the UK are up for some sort of ‘UK Hyperlocal Alliance’ (working title) dedicated to a positive future for hyperlocal content in the UK. This isn’t an attempt to form a trade body or a union or a lobby group, just a simple web resource where we can sign up to a simple statement of intent, get in touch with each other and tell our stories.

Leave a comment on the post if you want to keep involved…