Category: Leadership

Growing the civic conversation online – a platform for healthier local democracy and healthier communities.

Austin Rodriguez and Lewis O-Rourke

Bit by bit we’ve been doing something strategic in Birmingham.   Every social media surgery that happens in the city helps in a number of ways:

  • Provides new skills to individual active citizens
  • Creates a place where people can meet each other
  • Helps community groups and the public sector use the web to talk to each other
  • Grows the civic conversation online.

This last one has been the strategic part.

I think that growing the civic conversation online is an important part of building new platforms in neighbourhoods. It helps traditional civic activity work better and new civic models emerge.

This is based on a simple assumption that if more civically minded people are using the web to talk to each other in a community it will be easier for politicians, public servants and other citizens to share ideas, information  and collaborate or campaign.  Of course people can and will use the web to talk about brangelina – but with the surgeries we target those already involved in or wishing to do something consciously civic.

We’ve taken this a step further in the last two or three years. A normal social media surgery is run by volunteers for volunteers – the free help is available to active citizens, local charities and community groups.

With funding from three of  the different quadrants of the Birmingham Community Safety Partnership  and some other initiatives  (thank you) we have run surgeries which involve public servants too. This means that they come to a surgery to get help on why and how to use social media. More than that though they learn alongside local community groups and active citizens. At times they are teaching each other – strengthening understanding and relationships.

We also used the effort to help spread live streaming of meetingscreate alternatives to traditional ward cttes and give public services tools to think about the stages of engaging online.

We sent out a survey to people who’ve used the social media surgeries in Birmingham. 35 people replied, about 10 per cent of those involved. They were a mixture of volunteers, third sector workers, public servants and at least one councillor.

The Survey

social media and public sector
does learning about social media influence how you think about your work

A third of people said what they had learned had influence how they think about their work ‘a lot’ – three quarters replied either 4 or 5 to that question.

One comment from a worker in a charity supporting charities said

“If I hadn’t started using social media  to build relationships I doubt I’d still be employed in my organisation, and I doubt my organisation would be doing some of the brilliant work it is doing. It’s enabled both me and my organisation to be pro-active in a rapidly changing and challenging context”

Do you use social media to build relationships in your work?
Do you use social media to build relationships in your work?
can you make (civic) things happen because you use social media ?
can you make (civic) things happen because you use social media ?

65% of people felt better able to make things happen because they are using social media. This is a core point. Growing the civic conversation is not just about more blither – it’s about more action.

Would it help your work if more community groups and active citizens were using the internet
Would it help your work if more community groups and active citizens were using the internet

Developing these skills in community groups and active citizens was also seen as a fresh opportunity by at least 77% of those who replied.  They know that the online civic conversation can help them get things done – so helping more people get involved ought to help that more.

have you seen the online conversation grow?
have you seen the online conversation grow?

More than 85 % felt they has seen the online civic conversation grow since getting involved with the social media surgery.  You would expect that to be the case for most people, simply being exposed to new people and new places where civic things get discussed would have that effect. But it is still encouraging to see that they have a wider civic conversation to take part in.

So Birmingham – you’ve already started a strategic investment in building a critical platform for civic change.   Persistence is paying off. Some more?  And what next? Which other new platforms are worth building?

If you’re not Birmingham, other places understand this and we can help you.  We introduced Dudley CVS to the why and wherefores and they have been running surgeries for years – indeed it was Lorna Prescott who told me that what were doing was platform building (sometimes it takes others to spot the obvious).

A dog called Guinness and some thoughts on stories and social good #beingthestory

beingthestory

I’ve spent today in London at #beingthestory – a days of stories brought together by Jude Habib from Sound Delivery. Thank you Jude.

Here are some thoughts on stories picked up today (this doesn;t cover the whole day – I’m still digesting other bits)

Telling someone’s story helps make them real.

Lawyers tell stories – judges and juries listen to them.  That’s one thing I learned from Sue James who works for the law centre in Hammersmith and Fulham. She tells other people’s stories for a legal living.  

When trying to stop someone losing their home she needs the judge to understand the story. She told us that telling someone’s story helps make them real.   

One client lost his wife, then his son died. “His life fell away”.  The one anchor in his life was his pet, a dog called Guinness.   Because he didn’t walk the dog and the dog crapped everywhere the landlord wanted him evicted.  To keep her client in his home Sue had to do two things: tell his story to make him real and get his dog walked.  

It got me thinking how helping people is only one thing that organisations should concentrate on – telling their story is just as important if we are to make their world real to the system. (It’s something we’ve helped with in the past – indeed it’s how the impact app helps – collects the stories for you to tell.)

Telling stories is the way to break a taboo

Mandy Thomas silenced the room with her story of domestic abuse. She had been advising the team from The Archers, including the actress Louiza Patikas, who plays Helen in the Radio 4 drama.

she cried when we met, she’s had to live and breathe this story line – I’m proud of the Archers team. This is no longer a taboo subject.

mandy-thomas-domestic-violence-bookMandy’s abuser was sentenced to 15 years but after he was released form prison her son died – he killed himself.  Her abuser ignored the conditions placed on his release and continued to pursue the family.  “He was“, she said,  “playing the system because they let him play.”  Stories can help remind the peiople in the system why they need to behave differently.

One last thought from Mandy: “a listening ear can save a life” . Her book You Can’t Run is here.

To make stories stick make them visceral.

Clare Patey is an artist who started The Empathy Museum (alongside Kitty Ross).  She quoted Barack Obama on the  “empathy deficit”

Clare says empathy is a skill – we can learn it.   If we do this we can combat hyper individualism – the “me, me, me” culture.  “The internet decreases our friendship circles and surrounds us with people who share our values”

In their work they have taken empathy very literally. A mile in your shoes gives people the opportunity to walk for twenty minutes – wearing someone elses shoes and listening to them talking through an mp3 player. It makes story telling and story listening physical – visceral.  It makes it have more impact.

That’s not quite all

I’ve more to digest/share on this, more and even wilder stories were told  – but I just wanted to start whist it was fresh.

17 things I picked up at #commscamp16 – oh and one biggish thing

vwicecreamvan

Emma Rodgers and Dan from comms2point – with a huge amount of help from others   – always turn on a fab day for commscamp each year. Thank you.

I was there yesterday and here are somethings I picked up:

  1. Not everyone has been to an unconference!  Comms camp is an unconference for comms people.  A lot like govcamp and localgovcamp and bluelightcamp, hyperlocalgovcamp (I kid you not ) and..  well you get the gist. For about half the people there  it was their first unconference . And on the whole the newcomers loved it.
  2. There’s a VW campervan ice cream van called Polly that is fab – their newest competitor painted their van in the same colour and calls themselves dolly. (I’m not going to link to the competitor because I’ve already decided that polly is better than dolly )
  3. Twitter is commonly used as a way to create the appearance of doing something by comms teams.  “I’ll just bash out a few tweets” rather than winning the argument to say “we shouldn’t be communicating that in this way”.  So it can become a broadcast channel polluted with the passive aggressive product of internal disputes.
  4. Some people in public services have serious disdain for middle managers.      
  5. Us as citizens can get talked about as commodities.  In one session which covered laws around e-mail lists  the language was very much about e-mail addresses as a commodity.   Language like harvest gets used.  It made me think that someone’s email address is their attention – their personal world. Perhaps we should talk about a  “group of people”,  if we send this e-mail  we’re interfering in someone’s world.
  6. I can get a bit snarky about public sector comms (well I didn’t strictly pick that up yesterday).
  7. Trust is a thing
  8. 3 years is ok – ten years is excessive for keeping data.
  9. Don’t just have an unsubscribe link when you send bulk e-mails – add some information on where you got their e-mail address from to improve confidence in you.  
  10. Brexit will mean we lose a critical directive that protects you from all sorts of legals problems on comments sections of your Facebook page or blog.  At the moment the EU provides for protection is your comments are not pre-moderating, include a flag this button and your respond to someone’s objection in good time.  Without the EU lawyer David Banks thinks that protection will go. 
  11. David has also given some thought to why social media and politics is so toxic. He says there appears to be tacit permission that when it comes to political discourse people can be “absolutely vile to each other”. For him it’s a psychological phenomena – previously you’d say something a bit strong in the pub, and people would go quiet – showing they disapprove.  Social media exposes people to the likeminded – so reinforces  the excessive views. This normalises what could be called creeping malevolence – people start with something mildly abusive but because nothing happens to them, it creeps.
  12. All threats of physical violence on social media should always be sent to the police. Any message intended to cause “harassment alarm or distress” is a criminal offence.    Signing social media messages with a name (which we always suggest) stops this being a faceless organisation – reduces the amount of abuse.
  13. Language is a powerful thing  and discourse analysis is a way to recognise how that power is being used.
  14. It takes tenacity to change how people talk about places.  One person explained that their hospital was always referred to as a “basket case”.  Patience and persistence means the media now describe it as a “teaching hospital”. Small victories hard won
  15. The word remain was a problem in the referendum campaign because it is not not part of normal vocabulary for a lot of people.  (Update: thanks to Erica Dariks of Aston University for pointing to her source for this) That reminded me how sometimes appearing clever (there was a poor visual pun here – because the word IN appears in remain)  gets in the way of doing the best you can – like use the word stay.  
  16. The samaritans have some very good media reporting guidelines on suicide.
  17. Cake – I picked up several pieces of cake.

Oh and one biggish thing

If algorithms are encouraging the creation of bubbles then we should stop doing traditional comms.  This was a conversation I had just after the session on a fractured nation and post factual politics with a comms person who may not want to be named. We chewed around the problem that algorithms in both search and social media can tend to exacerbate self regarding bubbles.  They need to do that to create concise clear groups of people that advertisers can target.  If that’s what’s going on using them for more comms risk feeding this tendency to organise people in self serving bubbles. To break out of that we need to stop inflating the bubbles, get of our backsides and go and talk to people instead.  

 Updates

Other blog posts

Francis Clarke.

Pigs_in_muck___Flickr_-_Photo_Sharing_

Bad manners, blockchains, open data, government as a platform and and Birmingham pigs in muck.

Pigs in muck

Image cc leeturner.

Is the real barrier to open data good manners?

There’s honest open truth in the blog post Over Politeness is the fatal flaw in the open data movement.

Anything Tom Steinberg writes on Open data needs to be taken seriously. It was he who was one of the key people behind the power of information task force report which got government starting to understand why it’s important to free up information.    Never a natural insider, now he writes:

So, how do I feel about it all now, eight and a half years on from the Open Data Principles? Not good. I’ve watched the government of the country I live in sell off our national addressing database, a breathtakingly moronic move that more than undoes the sum and total of good works done in the same time period. And I’ve watched that same government tacitly endorse attempts to kneecap our Freedom of Information law, whilst simultaneously grinning and waving a flag labeled ‘most transparent government in the world.’

I’ve not seen any meaningful attempt to systematically overhaul procurement rules to ensure that new government computer systems produce decent open data by default. This omission is especially important since building open data feeds into new government computer systems remains the only way that most government data will ever get released cheaply, quickly, and in appropriate formats. Factories and power stations only pump out less rubbish when the law says they must, and the same is true of government computer systems. International progress on that front so far? Somewhere between dismal and undetectable.

and

Transparency laws are like babies: There’s no way to get a real one without someone somewhere having to go through a very unpleasant experience that they’d really do almost anything to avoid. And as a consequence, meaningful transparency laws don’t get implemented except in situations where legislators fear something even worse than the effects of more transparency.

If you don’t believe me, consider the following examples.

In Britain, we did not gain the right to see our Member of Parliament’s expenses untilHeather Brooke forced out a scandal so enormous that four MPs were actually sent to jail. Just in the last two weeks we appear (in a vaguely codified way) to have won the right to see our leaders’ tax returns—but only after a week in which the press savaged the Prime Minister daily over his connections to off-shore finances co-ordinated by his father. The pain required to produce this concession could literally be seen on David Cameron’s face as he was forced to face the issue.

I agree.  I’ve sat on the Local Public Data Panel at the Department of Communities and Local Government. Rarely did I feel I was being much use, often felt stifled by process and internal political demands. This stifling of what people on the panel wanted to achieve was usually tolerated because we were over respecting  convention and frankly being polite (or weary).

Government can and does co-opt,  in part to control change and bog things down.  I do though only partly agree that being combative is the whole answer. Government also needs to invest in sharing information. We’ve benefited from that investment.  It needs to be a combination of a will to change from within government and impatience for change outside.  But then I’m probably still being polite.

Bitcoin for Volunteers and blockchain for government.

Bitcoin is the digital currency that is being fussed over at the moment as  Australian Craig Wright says he invented it.   It’s important because it is a way of creating currency that doesn’t require a bank.  It allows us to trust each other with who owns which money –  because we can all share the same cash book – or ledger.

HullCoin allows people in Hull to create a new currency with the time they put into volunteering. It is similar to the =Bristol Pound or Timesharing in some senses.  What’s interesting, in part, is that it uses a blockchain.  The technology behind Bitcoin.

Blockchain is, rightly, also on the minds of government.  Why?  If this technology helps us trust each other with money, it can also help us trust each other with much more besides: who has voted, who owns which house, who is entitled to which services and who is qualified to deliver them.

In his speech last week, Digital transformation in government and blockchain technology,  the Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, said:

To make real progress, we have to be much smarter.

That’s why we started building what we call ‘government as a platform’. That little catchphrase sums up a huge amount of work building many different things – not just actual technical platforms, but also standards, design and service patterns, data registers, and the skills and capability of the people who deliver digital services, and indeed the whole business of government.

All those things – the platforms, the standards, the legacy technology, the service design – come together as an ecosystem of interconnected components that departmental teams can use to assemble their services.

They will only do that, though, if they actually trust those components in the first place. So delivering transformation is just as much about fostering a new culture of trust across government.

The old culture depended on departmental silos, and services designed and delivered within them. Instead we’ve got to work across those silos. And that depends on trust.

This brings us to the benefits of the blockchain.

Blockchains – distributed ledgers, shared ledgers – are digital tools for building trust in data.

Rather than a single central authority demanding trust and declaring: “I say this data is correct,” you have the distributed consensus of everyone in the chain, saying in unison: “we agree that this data is correct.”

They bring with them built-in integrity and immutability. You can only write new data, nothing is ever removed or deleted.

It does sometimes get touted as a wonder solution. In time institutions that we rely on to manage trusted processes – planning departments, banks, local authorities – will be changed by technology like this. The most important first start for government though is to recognise that many of it’s structures are a barrier to better ways of working, to focus instead on what needs to be done to solve a problem.

That is what Mark Rogers – Chief executive at Birmingham City council – has been thinking about in what he calls a

Pig in Muck moment…

His blog post Tapping into Brum’s talent and innovation expresses his  pure pleasure of spending time with a group of people passionate about finding new routes to solve problems:

Hosted by that hotbed of forward thinking grooviness, the ImpactHub, a small number of fellow travellers sat down for a couple of hours to make my brain hurt on the subject of an ‘open innovation system’.

Pretentious? Hopefully not.

Under discussion was actually something very straight-forward; how we might further encourage and accelerate a progressive, welcoming and applied approach to convening interested parties from civil and civic society to tackle the city’s wicked – and not-so-wicked – issues.

Those of you who have been following my ramblings for the last couple of years will know that I am (very) interested in working out, among a number of things, how the council can itself become more innovative, whilst also being more enabling of others across the city to do the same.

It’s important that people like Mark take the time to have their head hurt.  It’s much more productive than the sort of polite government meetings that stifle change in areas such as open data.