Why Public Services should take the time to grow the civic conversation

Later this month I’m heading up to Huddersfield for #notwestminster.  It’s  a collection of civic minded folk who get together to think about democracy, digital, changing relationships and changing power. It’s not in Westminster – hence the name.

I’m going mostly to learn and meet, but I’ll also be talking briefly about ‘growing the civic conversation”.  Here’s me just drafting some thoughts.

Public services should have more than a comms function – they should actively grow the civic conversation.

Growing the civic conversation is what probably half of our work is about.

We deliberately find ways to help more people who are civic minded or have roles to create some sort of civic good get online and talk about such matters.  The social media surgeries are an example.  The training we provide that allows public servants and active citizens and community groups to learn together is another. Our Impact Assessment App helps social organisations bring to the surface what their clients are experiencing – enriching the civic conversation.

Why do it?

  • The media isn’t doing it – as much as we need. Newspapers and media tend to provide a particular type of civic conversation.  It’s often very attention grabbing and aimed at providing content for a broad audience. It is also limited (less than it used to be ) in terms of access. Those who can get the attention will be part of this civic conversation.  This is limited.
  • If we can get the people who are actively thinking and doing in their communities confidently using the web it will be easier for them to find each other and achieve new things. It will also be much easier for public servants (also involved in active civic stuff) to find them, find each other, create new forms of working and new flows of useful information.
  • Parochial is good –  but for that very granular level of communal activity to be shared and find an audience it helps to have a wider range of people involved.

Acting to grow the civic conversation should be part of the background hum of the work of public services.

  • Channel shift is likely to happen faster if you do so.
  • Your consultations will probably get a wider range of response.
  • You will find it easier to find allies in communities who can help you achieve things.

This approach also helps public services build towards the five stars of open local democracy I suggested a couple of summers ago:

  • 1 star:  Be seen and be welcoming.  Putting agenda’s and minutes somewhere where it is very easy to find them and where it is easy for others to share them. Make sure everyone knows they’re invited.  (This could be a blog, just on google docs with a link or creating an eventbrite to invite people to meetings. It can include putting invites through doors and agenda’s and minutes on public noticeboards.)
  • 2 star: Talk about what you’re doing.  This means that you have a #hashtag for your meeting and publicise it and also share what you know (make sure that background information to papers is publicly available). You are open to others live reporting or recording what you are doing.
  • 3 star: Do it live.  You do the above but you also do it during your meeting or event.  This is where you can introduce a livestream of video or audio or live social reporting through twitter, facebook and or a blog. This also means you only hold meetings in places where there is good, publicly usable wi-fi or 3g.
  • 4 star:  Involve people outside the room in the meeting.  This is a step change from being seen to be doing. This values the questions and comments made on the web as being as important to your meeting as the ones made in the room.  They are incorporated though hashtags or services like cover it live, blyve or a facebook q&a as the event unfolds.  This could also mean organising events specifically for talking to people on the web.
  • 5 star:  It’s a permanent conversation. This fifth step recognises that the civic conversation you’re having doesn’t just happen at times and places you decide.  It can happen all the time. It means being responsive in between meetings when, for example a comment appears on a website or a hashtag.

As I said – this is me starting to organise some thoughts and and that “Public meetings have moved from the bedrock of local democracy to the rocky-bed.”. Others who chipped in are

Dave McKenna

and his Post on the Double doughnut of Democracy.


This suggests that government isn’t well placed to deal directly with the public – and is best to do it  through intermediaries. He calles them sharers. I think growing the civic conversation could well be about partly growing the number of shares and partly about strengthening the networks of sharers through which information and conversation can flow.

Dave mentions these sources of inspiration.

The first is a conversation we had about online democracy at govcampcymru.

The second is a set of ideas developed by Catherine Howe that I heard about first at localgovcamp.  While Catherine is more interested in a citizen perspective here the implications for government are centre stage.

The third source is some conclusions form the academic literature.  Lawrence Pratchett in a paper for Parliamentary Affairs suggested that intermediate bodies such as the media and community groups might be the best route for public participation as local government is essentially a representative rather than participative institution.  Similarly, Marion Barnes, Janet Newman and Helen Sullivan in their research into public participation, suggested that participation initiatives might be more successful when semi autonomous from government and run by voluntary groups.

It also chimes with some of the skills/qualities outlined in the the 21st century public servant work (we’ve been involved with)  –  which suggests skills that will be more prized in future public servants, skills such as “story teller”, “networker” “system architect” and being human.


Growing the civic conversation is also about recognising the place you serve as a platform, or a series of them. It helps shape and strengthen the platform upon which local democracy sits. Surely that is partl of the work of any local civic or democratic body?

More after #notwestminster.

Thanks for reading thus far.  You’ve helped me collect some thoughts.




    • Nick Booth says:

      That’s just what I’m talking about, as wide a range of civically minded folk talking about civic stuff online. Not only can that PPG get involved in health related conversations online – they can alos enrich other conversations and share other useful public info.

  1. Ari Herzog says:

    The irony is we — collectively we — have been talking and promoting this for YEARS. It’s frankly pathetic that we have to keep telling government the same old stuff we’ve been saying since, oh, 2009ish?

    Good stuff.

    • Nick Booth says:

      I agree – I don’t think it’s new – not in my work not in the work of many people. But it remains new to those in ‘the system”. Telling comms teams that you can tell your own story, not just rely on the media to hopefully do it for you – can still be new for some.

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