What is a ‘Digital Mentor’?

One of the ideas in the Communities in Control white paper, published last week by the Department for Communities and Local Government, that has attracted a fair amount of attention is that of the ‘Digital Mentors’. Here’s what the paper itself says about them:

Government will pilot a ‘Digital Mentor’ scheme in deprived areas. These mentors will support groups to develop websites and podcasts, to use digital photography and online publishing tools, to develop short films and to improve general media literacy. The Digital Mentors will The digitalalso create links with community and local broadcasters as part of their capacity building, to enable those who want to develop careers in the media to do so. Depending on the success of these pilots, this scheme could be rolled out to deprived areas across England.

This is part of an initiative to help communities take control of their media, to fill the gaps in coverage themelves in a way that takes advantage of the remarkable opportunities that exist with social web  tools, to both provide a means of communicating a community’s messages, and to help that community collaborate both internally and with other agencies too. I would argue that such a role is required in all local communities, not just the deprived ones, though it may well be the less well off that need it the most.

What isn’t particularly clear at this stage is who these mentors will be, nor how they will work. Should they be the employees of local authorities, for example? Or should they be volunteers, who perhaps are rewarded for their time in some way? Should they belong to the communities they mentor, or can they be ‘outsiders’?

One option might be for digital mentors to operate out of local colleges, say, and turn it into a real educative experience, or perhaps community centres or village halls would be better locations.

Then, what role should the mentors actually have? Just providing the training on new media, or actually coordinating projects too? It’s interesting that the focus here is on enabling ‘those who want to develop careers in the media to do so’ – what about people who just want to use this stuff to revitalise their local democracy?

I think the role, as fuzzily defined in the white paper, needs to be developed and broadened in scope. In an earlier blogpost, I wrote about a possible process for social media to be used to bring togther the various elements of civic society in a locality. The focus was on social media as an end in itself, like a local social media club, but I think it works for democratic participation too.  The main steps I identified were:

  • Establish tags – common ways of describing and finding content that everyone can use: local gov, local press, individual bloggers, existing communities and groups
  • Aggregate content – use the tags to bring the conversation about the area into one place
  • Communicate – start to talk amongst the various content producers
  • Meet – get everyone meeting and talking to each other in real life
  • Develop – put together some of the infrastructure together to allow for further collaboration and coworking, both online and off

The digital mentor could be the person driving this forward in a local area.

I know that there are people really interested in this role and its development, people like David Wilcox and Paul Webster, to name just two. It would be great if the Digital Mentor concept could be designed in the public, between CLG and those willing volunteers who think this could be a great initiative.

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…

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.