Tag: Catherine Howe

Why don’t we trust networks to do things at scale? #ukgovcamp13 #lsis13

A picture of a traditional set opf scales with german writing
Image thanks to vividbreeze on flickr

I’ve had a bonkers busy few weeks – meeting and talking to a wide range of people and it’s helped me start thinking through a problem with networks:  they tend not to be trusted to reliably deliver solutions at any sort of scale.

Let me share how and why I’ve started looking at this (and I’m sure I’m not the first).

Catherine Howe  (her govcamp piece here) and myself were both in a session at the fabulous ukgovcamp last Saturday.  It was the end of the day and  I think (I came in late)  it was on what makes cross sector collaboration work and  convened by  Jag Goraya with a big dose of help from Saul Cozens.

A problem of scale?


The bit of the discussion that helped me went along the lines of.   “The answer to a lot of public sector problems do sit in developing healthy networks and developing and encouraging the cultures which help networks thrive.  Do that and  people tend to do what makes sense, rather than what is prescribed.”  I was trying to understand why achieving this is so difficult and suggested that it was a problem with scale, something along the lines of…

  1. Large budgets and large problems tend to lead to large things being created and commissioned.
  2. These have a direction of their own and – on the whole – need to be seen to succeed.
  3. Networked activity is different – it is often lots of small activity with little or modest innovation – that doesn’t appear to be capable of delivering at scale.
  4. So large organsiation charged with sorting large problems are loathe to trust to a networked approach.

In truth I think networks can deliver at scale.  A city is such a thing, the families that make up a community likewise. The benefit for using networked approaches for sorting big problems is we don’t need to invest everything in one large solution then persuade ourselves it has worked.

Dollops and cock up


Instead we need to learn how to recognise the pattern of networked progress:  plenty  of success, a good dollop  of treading water and a decent slice of cock-up, indifference, waste and failure.

I think way forward collectivity this will improve on social problems more steadily and in a way that people can more easily get involved with than a large scale service offer tends to do.  It’s also relates to why I’ve had problems with unrealistic expectations – that setting expectation too high leads to harming social movement – zero expectations encourage success – high expectations make even achievements look like failures.

That was the gist of where ukgovcamp  had got me to.  It was built on other things recently:

  • Listening to a conversation the week before at a conference I spoke at for the Hampshire Association of Local Council’s digital conference  (again with Catherine Howe) amongst a group of councillors from some of the larger
  • At the LSIS Governance conference in Manchester late last week I started talking to a Clerk to a Further Ed college that had been asked to improve educational attainment in a particular neighbourhood.  They wanted a steady approach that built community links, strengthened social capital and relationships and built aspiration in the community. The funders wanted rapid change – so what they are likely to buy  is intense extra activity with the students about to take their GCSE’s – one is the big and brittle – v the modest but maybe meaningful.

Capturing the subtle incremental change that comes through networks is partly why we have been working with Gateway Family services and Birmingham Settlement and Nominet Trust to develop an impact assessment app which measures and organises the modest – as well as the sometimes downright remarkable –  shift that happens in people and places.  But turning this into something that politicians and policy makers will trust to deliver is an interesting problem.

Any solutions?


Other govcamp posts:





Rowena Farr

Dave Buckster

David Bicknell

John Glover

Jonathan Flowers

Julia Chandler

Ben Procter

Ann Kempster

Dave God Briggs

Jason Cobb


Creative Councils, Podnosh and a partnership in Brighton.

I’m delighted to say the the Brighton and Hove Council proposal to the Nesta Creative Councils challenge has made it to the final 17 long list of 137 applications.

Why so?  Well Podnosh is one of the partner organisations in the Brighton bid along with Demsoc and Public-i.

Creative councils:

ambition over the next two years is to work with a small group of pioneering local authorities across England and Wales and their partners to develop, implement and spread transformational new approaches to meeting some of the biggest medium and long-term challenges facing communities and local services.

Put simply our proposal will work on taking online and offline civic conversation and digitally connecting that into local public service decision making in a concrete way.

Thanks very much to Anthony Zacharzewski, Catherine Howe and Paul Brewer for getting things to this stage.

What next?  More work will be done on the final 17, with the hope of much more significant investment in 5 of the ideas.

The other 16 on the long list are:

  • Bristol
  • Cambridgeshire
  • Cornwall
  • Derbyshire
  • Essex
  • London Borough of Havering
  • London Borough of Islington
  • Leicester
  • Monmouthshire
  • Reading
  • Rossendale
  • Rotherham
  • Stoke on Trent
  • Westminster
  • Wigan
  • York

You can find and engage will all 137 ideas on simpl.

Government is a conversation – making friends with Git Citizen

Good government is supported by good conversations, that’s the key point I want to stress/explore after last weeks Local Government Communications Conference in Leeds.

I have always enjoyed trips to LGComms events.  This time I was the last speaker,  in the hangover fueled want-to-get-home-now-please Friday slot. I had been asked to speak on using digital technologies to collaborate with citizens so set out to share the story of much of the digital activism that has blossomed in my home city of Birmingham since the same conference a year ago. I wanted to show how people are trying to use the web to engage with government, but government needs to recognise that and talk back.

Better with More

I argued that if local government can get this conversation right it is not simply in a position of having to do better with less. If  government can share in the enthusiasm energy and passion of citizens – together they could do better with more.

This also emerged from the start of a Common Purpose and Be Birmingham programme on leadership and Total Place, where at least one person made the same case. It is also at the root of the government’s ambition for an informed, empowered and active citizens in the Big Society.   The continued opening up of government data is fertilising the ground in which such a movement might grow.

The rise of the Git Citizen

My presentation (slides here) began with this rather ugly film of me being a bit of a git citizen:

Our street had been coned over night because of a cricket match and the cars were then ticketed – without warning.  The normal comms reaction to something like that is to sigh, put their head in their hands and shake it.

Many eyes makes hypocrisy wither

But in the room of Local Government Communications a good number  could see the value of citizens as eyes and ears – people who’s natural sense of right and wrong expose the failings of organisations, the contradiction between what they say and what they do.

This is a natural part of how we govern social relationships.  Knowing that you can be seen and that you will be gossiped about tends to help keep us on the straight and narrow.   Digital media makes that process easier in larger communities than before – as long as government is willing to see, listen and respond.

In effect to recognise that this is one part of a conversation and join it. The examples I wanted to emphasise from Birmingham were the ones where relatively simple things were being done in an easily accessible way.

  • The neighbourhood manager telling the story of the work she does and the place and people she serves (for example Hands On Handsworth)
  • The citizens taking a clunky government service and making it easier to understand, (for example Big City Talk)
  • Not talking but doing – (for example BCCDIY or the pothole hunt)

In all cases they are lowering the barriers to communication,  which encourages conversation. After all one of the reasons we talk so much is that for many of us it’s very easy to do.

Imagine you are Equals

Here were some ideas I suggested would help them nurture such conversations..

  • Skill up your organisation and neighbourhoods
  • Get involved
  • Imagine you are equals
  • Share infrastructure with your community – keep it open
  • Free up data
  • Take risks
  • Believe in small things.

I wasn’t alone in exploring these themes. David Holdstock – Chair of LGComms summed up much of this at the end of that Friday

Simon Wakeman (extensive quoting coming here, thanks Simon) was taken by the presentation of Professor Stephen Coleman – which he outlined as asking communicators to consider:

  • Where do people find information – much council information is not demand-driven – organisations need to push information to people but this is a greater challenge in times when people have so many competing demands for their attention
  • The exclusive narrative of public sector communications – many communications “talk” in words or terms that people just don’t understand (and shouldn’t have to understand). Communications need to be framed in a narrative that people can related to – and in the conversations of social media we have a great window into those real-world narratives. We need to learn how to interpret them and fit our communications into those narratives.
  • The challenge of efficacy – the best single predictor of successful engagement is people’s belief in their ability to influence the world around them. As a belief it’s an entirely subjective measure but is really important – if people think they can make a difference, they will participate, and if they think they can’t make a difference, they won’t.

and suggested they concentrate on

  • mapping – taking a “from the bottom up” approach to how and what to communicate – rather than building from the current practice – because incremental, creeping growth of a communications landscape will invariably lead to less effective practice than a clean-sheet approach
  • storying – thinking about how communicators can take the day-to-day life narratives of real people, which are far more influential than council or council people’s narratives, and using them in communications. The next level would then be to connect these narratives together to tell a story of place grounded in people, rather than the physical aspects of place which form many existing communications.
  • production of meaningful, tangible consequences to feedback – or put simply, we need to be able to tell people what we’ve done with things they’ve told us. From Stephen’s research the lack of this is one of the biggest frustrations among audiences that have participated in public sector research or consultation. Making these links is key to sustaining and developing a culture of participation and engagement

Catherine Howe – the new(ish) chief exec at Public-i also picked up on Tony Quinlan’s analysis of how stortelling helps and hinders communications:

Finally – I was fascinated by the session on storytelling by Tony Quinlin.  I have always liked storytelling as a way of getting ideas and knowledge out of groups that are not comfortable with sharing or communicating and Tony really illuminated why this works and gave real substance to the session.  I also enjoyed chatting to him afterwards about complexity and narrative and would recommend checking out his blog at http://narrate.typepad.com/.  One thing really stuck in my mind:  once a narrative gets a critical mass you can’t combat it with facts – you need to tell a different story

And of course, telling new stories is a wonderful way to get conversation going