For me though that is one helluva switch. It means that today you lot can start making the most of Social Media Surgery Plus – a site created to make it easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to find, organise and report on social media surgeries. Read more
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.
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)
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
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
This weekend I’ve had my head stuck on working out what I can do next on the digital scrutiny project. And then I remembered a toilet.
I used to be a local reporter in north London. Each week, after we’d put the paper to bed, I’d walk round my ‘patch’. It was a picturesque place called Highgate. I’d often need what one might euphemistically refer to as a ‘comfort break’. There was only one public toilet in the middle of Highgate Village, so it became a er, regular calling point.
Sadly for me, it didn’t take all that long before the local council announced its closure as part of a series of budget cuts. This led to a few protests from locals who were unhappy to be losing a treasured local service, but no one seemed to think it was that interesting a local newspaper story.
Well, that is apart from me. I was enraged. My own personal pit stop had been taken away. Where would I be going to the toilet now? I furiously filed story after story about the loo closure. I think at one stage I got the nickname ‘toilet boy’. I even filed a Freedom of Information request asking for any correspondence about the lost loo.
The mickey-taking, however, stopped when my toilet-based Freedom of Information request got a reply from the council. Contained in a bundle of papers was a gem: a letter from the councillor in charge of Camden Council‘s environment department pleading with Mr Livingstone to give him the money needed to keep the toilet open, for fear its closure would hurt his chances of being re-elected. It made that week’s splash, if you’ll pardon the appalling pun.
Flushed with pride
I was obviously chuffed: a story I’d chosen to work on that others felt wasn’t important had ended up being quite, well a little bit, important. The councillor did lose the next election – along with quite a few other Labour councillors. The loo earned a reprieve, when the new council was elected and, under the name Pond Squre, is still in the list of Camden Council loos.
But, in truth, I didn’t deserve that much praise. I’d only pursued the story because it mattered to me. Its closure was a pain in the arse and I was annoyed. The moral of the tale, of course, is that it doesn’t take much at all to find out what’s going on, if you care and ask the right questions.
Sadly, local reporters are rarely the people who can do this stuff. They have to worry about deadlines, filling pages of copy and often don’t even live in the area they report on (I didn’t). That doesn’t mean they can’t do important work, but it’s citizens, the people affected, who need to take the lead, because it really matters to them.
So the next bit of the project will be to try to isolate a question – almost certainly about swimming pools on Where Can We Swim? – and pursue it with similar vigour to the toilet issue. I’ll have to care about it, but – importantly – I need to find others who do, too. There are a few that spring to mind – not least whether Birmingham really needs a 50m pool – but I’ll be trying very hard, very soon to work out what it is. Then it’s a matter of applying the skills I’m picking up through the project to see just how well this sort of stuff can work.