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
- 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