I’ve been thinking quite a bit since the election about where digital engagement activity fits in during this age of austerity in which we find ourselves.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve had a bit of a crisis of confidence lately – after all, it seems to be a strange time to be encouraging public sector organisations to be spending their time playing with Facebook while people’s jobs are being lost.
But of course, that’s a slightly cynical way of looking at it, and there is certainly an argument that during time of massive budget cuts, the public need to be involved more than ever in helping to refine decisions and policies, to ensure that as few mistakes are made as possible.
What’s certainly true is that public sector use of the internet as an engagement tool has to become more embedded in other workstreams – it can’t afford to be on the fringes.
Here’s some kind of random, half-baked observations which taken together sum up where I’m at in my thinking of how all this hangs together. I’d welcome thoughts to bake it all a little more.
1. Digital engagement needs to be part of something bigger
I don’t like the phrase ‘Government 2.0′ much, so the something bigger hopefully isn’t that. I quite like ‘Open Government’, and digital engagement is part of that, as is open data and general increases in transparency from government.
I’d say the type of social innovation activity as discussed at Local by Social – and so strongly and passionately supported by Dominic Campbell and team – can also be a part of this.
2. Many of the new initiatives are derived from the internet, or are reliant on it in some way
The Big Society idea probably couldn’t exist without the internet. In many ways it is taking net culture and applying it to the way society can work together better.
For this to work, people need to understand the net and its culture – to remind themselves that it is not just the domain of swivel-eyed right wing nutcases, porn fiends and illegal downloaders.
It’s also about getting the proposition right, to ensure government can tap into cognitive surplus, to reach out to people to get involved on terms that suit them, not the terms that suits government.
3. Social media is just part of digital
(This is the weakest part of this post and while I know what I want to say, I’m aware I don’t articulate it at all well.)
Probably an obvious point, but I think we need to stop talking about social media – Simon Wakeman’s post is quite instructive here – and instead treat the web as a whole. Most decent digital engagement projects anyway mix use of pretty traditional websites, use of social media tools and engaging with existing groups, which can use a wide range of technology (see below).
Social media will stick around as a buzz-word, and there is still a significant job of capacity building to be done to encourage people to think how these tools can bring positive benefit to government activity, and equipping people with skills.
4. Open data
I’m no expert on this at all, and other than being aware that it is a good thing, I’m not sure how much I can add, at least on the technical side of things. I see open data as providing some of the building blocks required for the social innovators mentioned above, and as a way of increasing transparency in government.
Data is good at asking questions, but rarely gives clear answers.
I’ve certainly got my concerns about how data is interpreted and who does the context-setting – but I really don’t see this as an argument for not doing it.
5. Tapping into existing networks will be key
I really think the focus moving forward will be to tie Big Society type ideas with cognitive surplus and digital engagement to encourage pre-existing locality or issue based networks to get involved in government processes. I just don’t think the public sector will have the time to build and manage their own communities.
Instead, what little time and money is available should be spent on building robust, constructive arrangements with those people – whether volunteers or those doing it for profit – with the ability to build online networks.
So, digital engagement needs to be a part of something bigger, which may or may not be called ‘open government’, and which is made up of social innovation, utilising cognitive surplus, making data available to support activity and tapping into existing networks to get things done.
I just need to figure out where I fit into all of this…
A great question. It feels like there’s been a rush to ‘engage’, but now the deeper questions surface:
* Does government have the tools to process feedback? – analytics to look for patterns and sentiment analysis
* Are the public equipped to engage? Do we need ‘response literacy’ champions to help people respond more constructively? I know this sounds patronising, but I struggled to respond in a meaningful/non trite way to a local development plan, despite a degree in Geography.
* How does government feedback to the engaged? Get it wrong and you could turn off many.
Great thoughts as ever Dave. Agree with you, so hope you don’t mind a rant from me (but not at you!)
To add to point 2 (I agree with you), but nosing into the consultation we currently have running with CVS type orgs about Big Society, technology is not on the rader … not even in the same control tower!
I’m see fingers wagging at the whiff of duplication of structures, of a need to realise the vast social capital that already exists and for communities not to be ‘done to’ but ‘listened to.’
Although we can see the usefulness, community development workers / community organisers don’t want i-phone apps or flip cameras they want extra resources, debt advisors, childrens’ workers etc.
Bringing in point 3 (and a tweet – I think from @daveharte about his running club) the capacity building task is huge and knowledge of the tools to engage is tiny within Civil Society and grassroots groups. We’re currently running social media (that word!) workshops for local support organisations (CVS/Vol Centres) that are fully booked, this is a real need right now.
This is view from people like us, people with perception in the public sector and civil society. But have we asked one of those people on the estates what Big Society means to them? !
none of the grand schemes will work until we have easy ubiquitous connectivity. I guess you fit into the scheme like a john the baptist would, preparing the way for what is to come. It will work one day… when we have a truly digitalbritain, but while connectivity is so bad in 90% of the land mass we are still whistling in the wind. So you carry on educating and informing, and I carry on pointing out that our infrastructure needs expansion into the rural areas to help a third of the population without access. Finalthirdfirst.org.
I think that on 3 – ‘Social Media is just part of digital’ you may be overestimating the point we have reached. I am still explaining to middle-class professionals with degrees, who are used to using computers for e-mail and even online shopping, the idea of Web-CMS-driven web sites and basic accessibility. We are ‘early adopters’ and we talk a lot online to other people who are. Yesterday, I was looking for further info on an event at an arts venue that opened this May. They seem to have a fixed page web site as their only Web presence.
Open data is good – as far as it goes – but the people who know how to do the technical stuff to make it useful are not necessarily the people who know what the data means and understand how it could be interpreted. I was interested to see the Guardian’s table of Government spend on websites. The figures look huge, but it is immediately clear that different ways of splitting the costs were used so direct comparisons between websites could be spurious. I immediately wanted to know more detail to be able to interpret those figures so that I could analyse whether they might be good value for money or not. Much of the open data shows the need for tedious (and often expensive to implement fully) data standards that can take us towards a bright semantic future.
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*the views expressed here are my own*
To echo Paul, really, I think your point about encouraging pre-existing locality or issue based networks to get involved in government processes is key. There’s obvious inherent risk in reinventing the wheel which would also lose a lot of existing knowledge and skill.
The role of charities, which I think they largely recognise is to demonstrate how they engage with communities and ensure they use their insight to help shape the Big Society agenda.
More information on open data – one of NCVO’s resident researchers Dave Kane talks about it here: http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/networking-discussions/discussions/group-discussions/ict-information-communication-technology-group-9 (you have to log into the NCVO website to watch the video). It might help clarify things for you?
cyberdoyle – would welcome your thoughts on our ubiquitous connectivity driver. http://www.3s4.org.uk/drivers/ubiquitous-connectivity What do you see that we’ve missed out of it? How do you see it developing?
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Dave, Good to hear these candid reflections. Don’t see it as a crisis of conscience – it’s perfectly natural to want to reflect on the course one is steering, or even on the direction in which one is being blown!
I very much agree with a point that Janet E Davis made above – it is easy to believe that social media (or whatever we want to call it next) has made more impact where it really matters than is really the case. It has changed many lives and working practices, but it has not yet, for example, gained sufficient recognition as a prime way in which the man in the street engages with government, big or small. Simon Wakeman’s own “crisis of conscience” recently was interesting, but when I read it, it seemed to me more about the role of social media in out-going communication (eg press office stuff), and didn’t hit many buttons with me in relation to the vast and largely untapped potential for social media as a community engagement tool.
I think this has been one of the most helpful blogs I’ve read by any of the regular commentators recently, because I too have found it useful to ask whether we are barking up the right tree, too many trees, and so on.
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Many thanks for all these great comments – they have really added to the conversation and helped me think through some of the issues. Rather than respond here, I’ll post up the next stage of where I’m up to in figuring some of this out.
Fulsome thanks again for contributing!