More DIUS innovation

Another bit of top notch, innovative digital participation work has come out of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and again it is WordPress magic. This time though, there are all sorts of different bits built into it.

Steph Gray, the main social media man at DIUS explains more:

Some consultations are basically dull. Some are politically-charged. Some are hurried. So when the Science and Society consultation came sauntering along, it was clear this was an opportunity too good to miss. It’s a genuine call for ideas, casting the net wide to improve the way that science is communicated, understood, taught, and recruited for. What can we do to improve trust and confidence in scientists? How can we get more high quality science broadcasting and more intelligent media coverage of science issues? How can science be taught in school in more engaging ways? Interesting stuff.

The main difference between this site and the Innovation Nation one, it seems to me, is that in the latter’s case, the white paper had been written and the consultation done, so the online exercise was more about fine tuning and maybe developing some ideas on how things might be progressed. What Science and Society offers, though, is the chance to have your say before the document is written.

As Simon Dickson notes, one of the key bits of new media funkiness on show is the ability for folk to widgetise the consultation for their own websites. DIUS is asking a whole range of different questions about the way science is taught in schools and elsewhere and provides the platform for others to republish the questions they are interested in so their readers can feed back into the process. It’s a great idea, and fits in totally with my thoughts on trying to improve participation by making government a bit more interesting.

Simon says:

It’ll be fascinating to see what kinds of responses this move produces. I’m still a bit wary of the whole Big Questions approach to consultation: my own feeling is that the constant, small-scale exchanges around a well-managed blog will build something more valuable. But if Big Questions are the way you’re going, this is a very clever way to drive them further.

Other cool bits include a Twitter account, for a bit more responsive interaction, and an embedded Google Calendar so people can find when related events are happening.

Tim Davies also picked up on the site, and noted approvingly:

This approach of enabling citizens to easily take, remix and re-publish government consultations to their networks is worth exploring in many more contexts – not least in promoting positive activities, enabling young people to take, remix and share information about positive activities in their areas with their networks.

DIUS are clearly leading the game in government when it comes to digital participation. The reason they can do this, as Steph has noted elsewhere is because they have the resources to do so. The tech stuff is free or at least damn cheap, but you need the man-power to get it approved and embedded. There is plenty for everyone to learn from DIUS’ example.

Councils respond to Communities in Control

The Local Government Association has responded to the white paper Communities in Control on behalf of local authorities across the country. They are clearly anxious about finances:

Councils will work with the Government to ensure that any additional responsibilities that councils have as a result of these proposals are properly funded.

and are keen that not too much power goes to the people:

It is through representative democracy that elected councillors make tough decisions based on the interests of residents and this should remain the lynchpin of involving people locally.

Worth reading in full – thanks to Dominic for the link.

A GovWeb group blog?

There has been quite a lot of interest in the Public Sector Bloggers site I set up recently (and which I really must get around to updating soon), which has been very gratifying. One of the issues with it – and indeed with any process of aggregating content from lots of blogs into one place – is that the sheer weight of content may well get people down a bit.

I wonder if there is any need for a more editorialised type of blog, with multiple authors, writing about government webby issues, maybe in an introductory style. It might not even look like a blog, using a ‘magazine’ style theme for example. It could cover the occasional snippets of news in the web world with how-tos and other guidance, and lots of links to other related content. I don’t see why some content couldn’t just be reposted from people’s individual blogs, to be honest.

To try and avoid having too many articles, though, it could maybe have the content refreshed twice a week, say, so that people only need to visit the site then, rather than feeling they have to check it several times every day to avoid missing something. Obviously RSS and email subscriptions could be available for those that know how.

What do people think? Is there a need for such a site? If there is, who’s in to contribute?

Quick picks from Communities in Control

Just had a chance to have a run through the executive summary of the white paper Communities in Control, published today by the department for Communities and Local Government, with a highlighter pen and picked out a few juicy bits. I suspect most of my interest will be in Chapter 3: Access to Information, and you will all no doubt be delighted to note that some discussion of the detail of that will be forthcoming…

For my more cynical readers, please note that I am commenting on all this stuff in a very positive frame of mind!

First up, some bits talking about money on page 3:

We will also set up an Empowerment Fund of at least £7.5m to support national third sector organisations turn key empowerment proposals into practical action…

we are establishing a £70m Communitybuilders scheme to help them become more sustainable. Grassroots Grants, developed by the Office of the Third Sector, offer small sums of money from an £80m fund – in addition there is a £50m community endowment fund – to help locally-based groups to survive and thrive…

Excellent news. One of the issues being raised a lot at 2gether08 was the fact that there wasn’t the money to get community action going. What’s also needed, though, as well as the money existing, is for the funds to be marketed in such a way that people know it’s there, and how to bid for it.

Tracey and others might be interested in this on p4:

We will support community effort in tackling climate change. A ‘Green Neighbourhood’ scheme has been launched which will demonstrate how communities can take action to adopt low carbon lifestyles.

Also on page 4:

The Internet offers huge opportunities and we want to encourage public bodies to authorise the re-use of information. We are improving the information available to local citizens and service-users. But there is a correlation between social and digital exclusion. We will ensure all sections of society can enjoy the benefits of the Internet, and other methods of communication.

A strong independent media is a vital part of any democracy. We will continue to support a range of media outlets and support innovation in community and social media. We will pilot a mentoring scheme in deprived areas on using the Internet.

This is good, positive stuff. The digital divide is not, as far as I am concerned, a reason (excuse?) not to engage with people online. Instead, make it a part of any initiative to get people online. Run some classes. Take some laptops with 3g dongles to a community centre. Do something!

Page 5:

Petitions have become easier on the internet…To make it easier to influence the agenda at a local level we will introduce a new duty for councils to respond to petitions, ensuring that those with significant local support are properly debated…Petitions should be taken into account in decision making in public services.

Petitions are an interesting thing, they’ve been popular on the Number 10 website, and have certainly raised the profile of certain campaigns. Whether they really encourage real participation, rather than just a single, throwaway response at a friend’s email request, I’m not sure.

Again from page 5:

Citizens should have a greater say in how local budgets are spent. Participatory budgeting – where citizens help to set local priorities for spending – is already operating in 22 local authorities. We want to encourage every local authority to use such schemes in some form by 2012.

This is interesting and Participatory budgeting is something I would like to have more of a look into. The biggest question people have about their local authority is ‘what does my council tax go on?’ and anything which makes the budgeting process a little more transparent has got to be a good thing. I guess the trick is to avoid it becoming gimmicky.

Page 5 must have been a good one:

Local authorities should do more to promote voting in elections, including working with young people through citizenship lessons.

Music to Tim‘s ears I am sure. Mind you, I did Politics at Uni (a 2:1 from Hull in case you’re interested…) and the idea of citizenship classes gives me the willies. Later the idea of incentives to vote is raised, even a prize draw. Oh dear.

Finally we are onto page 6:

A quarter of local councils use neighbourhood management to join up local services including health and transport and help tackle problems in deprived communities…The third sector also has a unique ability to articulate the views of citizens and drive change, and we will work with them to develop principles for their participation in Local Strategic Partnerships…

we want local people to have more of a say in the planning system so we will provide more funding to support community engagement in planning

Again, good stuff, sounding like we want to get the people involved in the processes that affect them. I do worry in the growth of levels of governance here though: we have central, local, town and parish, now neighbourhood councils and management. Good that the third sector is being involved, though the mention of LSPs reminds us all of just how damn complicated the service delivery landscape has become in this area.

Page 7 has a lot of stuff about getting young people involved:

We will establish direct access for young advisors to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and set up a programme for young people to ‘shadow’ government ministers and elected mayors. DCSF are establishing a £6m national institute for youth leadership

Getting younger people involved in local democracy is a great initiative to take forward, and of course it is already happening in pockets around the country, say with I’m a Councillor amongst others. I am no expert on the likes and dislikes of young folk, though (as the contempt in which I am held by my son proves), but I do worry that a ‘national institute for youth leadership’ might be a bit too dorky to attract a representative group.

Page 7 also has a bit on Scrutiny. Yay!

We will raise the visibility of the overview and scrutiny function in local government, which is similar to Select Committees in Parliament.

My first proper job in local government was in scrutiny, so I have bit of a soft spot for it, and nobody knows what it is about. I also don’t think it is accorded the respect it needs as a process in a lot of councils. Built into it from the start was the ability for residents to get involved, so it’s a prime area to be developed furthr as part of the empowerment agenda.

Page 8 must have been boring, straight onto number 9 (I can’t believe I am doing this voluntarily, my fingers are aching from typing and I am starting to feel a little sick):

We will amend the Widdicombe rules which forbid council workers above a certain salary band from being active in party politics.

I would really be interested to know how big a problem this is. Also, what about civil servants who want to get involved locally? Anything that frees public servants up to participate as much as they want to has to be a good thing though.

More from page 9:

We will give backbench councillors more powers to make changes in their ward with discretionary localised budgets that they can target on ward priorities.

Just backbench councillors? So those with cabinet members representing them lose out? Anyway, this is a nice idea to give backbench councillors something to do, which many lost following the large scale move away from committees.

Page 10 now (last one, phew!):

We want to make it easier for people wishing to serve on local committees, boards or school governing bodies to know what the role involves and how to go about applying for vacancies.

It’s too hard to get involved, I think most people agree. It also needs to be easier for those who want to help but can’t commit the time to do an entire role, though. Maybe job-sharing governors or councillors?

Last gobbet:

We want to see more people involved in starting and running social enterprises, where the profits are ploughed back into the community or reinvested in the business. A new Social Enterprise Unit is being set up in Communities and Local Government to recognise the social enterprise contribution to the department’s objectives. We will also encourage local authorities to ensure social enterprises are able to compete fairly for contracts.

Nice bit to end on. There was mention of the third sector before, but I don’t think that is a sufficiently all inclusive term. What about individuals who have ideas, people sat with laptops in bedrooms, groups who emerge and want to do specific work in the community. I think we are into Clay Shirky territory here, where social enterprise can be started by people without the backup of a pre-existing organisational structure. Such people may need help identifying other people can help, or where funding is. Maybe they just need a room they can borrow to meet up in. But they need support, whether from central or local government, that the sorts of organisations that did this stuff in the past never needed.

Anyway, that’s me for now. Would be good to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments. I’m off to read the rest of the white paper now…

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.

Communities in ‘Control’? Meh.

On the day that the results of a poll in London reveal that, while one in four Londoners would like to be a local politician, hardly anyone knows anything about them or what they do, Hazel Blears has a piece published asking for councillors to be given more control.

First up, that survey. Reported on 24dash.com:

One in four Londoners are interested in becoming a local councillor – despite widespread ignorance about what their councils actually do, according to a survey commissioned by London Councils.

The poll, carried out by Ipsos MORI, revealed that almost half the people surveyed incorrectly believe that their local council runs the police and hospitals.

Only two in five people know which political party runs their own local council, and just 6 per cent of Londoners know the name of their council’s leader.

But despite this, one in four said they would be interested in standing for election as a local councillor.

The results also showed that many people were confused about the role of a councillor. While 71 per cent of people know that councillors receive some payment for their council work, 52 per cent wrongly believe they must represent a political party and 32 per cent think they must hold a formal qualification.

This of course is nothing new, and not unique to London. People are not generally aware of what their local authorities do for them. Whether they would still be so interested in being a councillor once they knew what it’s about might be another matter.

Hazel Blears, Communities and Local Government Minister, thinks councillors, like everyone else these days, need to be ’empowered’:

…the white paper will include a new set of powers for local authorities to be able to promote democracy. This ‘duty to promote democracy’ will mean that local councils are placed in their proper context: not as units of local administration, but as lively, vibrant hubs of democracy.

All this will be revealed in the community empowerment white paper – Communities in Control – to be published this Wednesday (9/7/08). That’s a bit of a weird title, isn’t it? Isn’t control what most of this stuff is supposed to not be about?

Andrew Brown has his say on the matter, tying things in neatly to his local context:

My guess is that Hazel wouldn’t see Lewisham as somewhere which has too many problems on this front, and she’d be right, to an extent. The development of ward based assemblies seems to significantly enhance the community leadership opportunities for councillors, and my experience was that Lewisham’s officers have a healthy respect for the democratic mandate. But, I still think that more could be done to promote the decisions that are being taken and the political debates that are currently being had by our elected representatives.

I had a chance to have a modest input into the White Paper by attending Simon Berry’s Web24Gov workshop at CLG last month. I doubt the whole eDemocracy/eGovernment/eWhatever agenda will get much of a mention, which is a shame as it is potentially so important.

Social web tools help people get together – the proof is in the number of STDs people are catching. Now, there is no reason why this stuff can’t be used to get people into town halls as well as clap clinics.

  • The rise in working hours and commutes means that a lot of people don’t have the time or energy to go out to meetings or other events. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be involved however, and the social web provides an ideal interface for them to do so remotely.
  • The use of tagging and aggregation means that people can quickly and easily find the information they want on the web – provided they can find and are comfortable with the right tools to do so.
  • The use of new media communication tools allows local politicians and activists to put their message directly to the people, without the need to go through the filter of the local press. It also means they can get feedback through comments – both positive and negative – and can respond in kind, thus creating a dynamic conversation. The CivicSurf project promotes this brilliantly.

Do I think that the social web is the cure to all the problems of local democracy? Of course not. But I do think it can help, and it can help quickly and cheaply. My message to civic leaders: Keep doing surgeries. Keep distributing newsletters. But just spend a bit of time getting to know these new media forms, because they offer a direct line to people who might just have the ideas and enthusiasm you are looking for.

But talk of ‘control’ – however defined and however well intentioned – doesn’t really do anyone any good at all.

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.

A New Civil Servant Blogger

In what is, as far as I am aware, the first instance of  civil servant starting a blog because the new guidelines freed him up to do so, Mark O’Neill of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has begun a blog called Lost ConsCIOusness.

Good on him.

Do we need to start a list somewhere?

Edit: Justin points out in the comments that Digital Pioneer was also very quick out of the blocks. Welcome, Chris! You might just grab the gold medal if only for linking to me on just the second post…