Category Archives: government

No 10 petition urges open sourcing council software

If councils spend citizens’ money on developing systems to inform and engage citizens, shouldn’t they also share the software?  
A while back I wrote about my experience of sitting on a Government advisory board discussing plans to spend £2 million of public money on Citizen Engagement Tools. We weren’t making decisions – just helping civil servants reflect upon what might be best value, and what might have been done already.
I was flattered to be invited – but it seemed a rather haphazard and limited process, and I suggested that in these days of digital engagement it should be possible to take wider soundings, for example:

  1. Instead of limiting input to a Board of a dozen, why not organise a half-day event rather like the recent UKGovCamp09, and invite anyone with expertise in the area to turn up.
  2. Secondly, why not anonymise the bids and post them online for comment, rather like the Power of Information report promoted by social media Minister Tom Watson. That attracted over 300 contributions.

I don’t think anyone took any notice, but I felt a bit better … and now the story continues elsewhere. Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced earlier this week that ten council have been awarded a total of £620,000 for some pilot projects under the Timely Information to Citizens project, which was one of the packages we were advising on.  They include online consultation tools, online communities, reporting neighbourhood problems, and a volunteering and participation database. It’s all part of developing a body of good practice that will be packaged in an advisory toolkit.
There’s not enough information in the announcement to judge whether the projects could be done more cheaply using off-the-shelf systems, or by borrowing from other councils.
However, over on the No 10 petition site Adrian Short invites us help make sure that it may be possible to make those judgements in future, and spread the benefits of investment:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ask the Communities Secretary to require that all software produced by councils under the Timely Information to Citizens project be released under an open source licence.

I’ve signed up. I doubt if that’s any more effective than suggesting changes in procedure at a board … but maybe it will get a response if enough citizens join in. Any other ideas on how to ensure council use our money effectively in this field? I’ve a hunch that mySociety could do many of these projects at a fraction of the cost – but I could be quite wrong. How can we find out next time before the money is spent?

Helping councils learn to share with social media

Last week I spent half a day in a workshop on local government knowledge management. Boring waste of time? Absolutely not, because it gave me some breakthough thoughts on collaboration within and between organisations, and may well make a big difference to how we can all help improve public services by volunteering our support.

We concluded that what councils need in order to share so-called “best practice” is not more consultancy, reports and databases, but video clips, conversations, and encouragement to tell bad stories as well a good. This focus on conversations is not new in the knowledge management field … what is different is see
ng some possibility that the ideas might actually be put into practice with help from people outside government, including interested public services users. Maybe I’m particularly enthusiastic because social reporting came into the mix too, about which more later.

The event was organised by Steve Dale, who works with IDeA on improving how our councils operate – in his case by developing communities of practice for knowledge sharing, with Michael Norton, as I reported here.

The challenge – as Steve outlines in the video -is how to do even more on the knowledge sharing front. At present councils compete for Beacon status on the basis of what they are doing, then get an award to share experience with others. It doesn’t work too well, so IDeA are working on a Knowledge Hub project. Except that, from our discussions, it probably won’t be a Hub (centralist, spokes, edges). It will involve tools like blogs and Twitter, and wikis which the rest of the world is using, but which are often blocked by official firewalls. It will be a knowledge ecosystem, as George Por – with us for the event – has been promoting for some years.

As Steve says:

There is a huge amount of information out there that people can learn from. The library as the tired repository has perhaps had its day. There may be occasions when people need to delve down into the historical artifacts of the stores,  but these days people are able to make more use and get more relevance from information that is flowing in real time.

We don’t need to build another piece of technological infrastructure because most of the technology is already out there or emerging. The biggest issue is the culture change – to help people realise in local government that  there are different ways of working – and that it has never been easier to connect and collaborate.

Steve has just blogged a more detailed explanation of the need to change from traditional electronic document and records managements systems to the world of Web 2.0.

I think the event worked for at least three reasons. First, Steve is part of the social media ecosystem of blogging, twittering and meetups by which people across different sectors exchange information and ideas and generally get to know each other. The “outsiders” trusted Steve not to waste our time. Second, the format was good – a mix of networking, cafe-style table discussions, problem solving around real scenarios, and general ideas forum. Thirdly, Steve clearly had top-level support from John Hayes and others in IDeA, and brought together a really interesting mix of people from local government and what he kindly called social innovators.

It was, in a small way, a demonstration of the sort of approach that is needed for the Knowledge Hub – or whatever it is eventually called.

During the interview I suggested to Steve that the next step might be to have some working sessions where people developed practical demonstrations of what’s possible. It could be like Social Innovation Camp – excect the focus would be more on human and organisational processes  than building new web sites. Steve agreed:

The old, tired way was to pay some consultants to sit in a room with us, then to go away and come up with some paper, and we then act on that paper. It is very much a closed, private discussion that takes place.

What we can do now with social innovation workshops is bring in people who have already got these ideas – and widen it out not just to consultants and freelances, but anyone who has the energy and desire to make a difference to their lives. I think most people out there are frustrated by how government or local government works, and to give them an opportunity to be able to make a change to their services would be welcome.

Fortunately Tim Davies has already provided some notes from the event that give us a starting brief. Tim first outlined how discussion on his table led to the idea of  ‘flipping the pyramid’ and switching from ‘Get an award and then share your practice’ – to ‘Share your practice, collaborate, encourage innovation replication – and then maybe get an award’.

  1. Someone nominates as ‘shining light’ story of innovation (using a web form. Could self nominate, nominate a whole LA, or nominate some little story from a local project).
  2. I&DeA send a social reporter to create a quick shared learning video clip (3 minutes maximum) or invite the authority to create it themselves (with small payment or free training available for DiY)
  3. Shining light reports shared online – and visitors to site invited to post questions for the person interviewed & to indicate which innovations sound of interest to them.
  4. Questions can be answered directly online by the people included in the video, or can be collated and a social reporter sent back to ask the questions a couple of months later.
  5. The answers are used to generate a case study / replication recipe.
  6. Interest in the ‘shining light’ story unlocks more cash resources for development of practice sharing.
  7. Citizens and expert panels collaborate on creating awards for the best cases – which may be individual awards, or collective awards.
  8. A toolkit of processes – “Knowledge Jam” or “Open Conference” – multiple small conversations for people to make sense of and develop the knowledge base around given themes.

Tim then moves on to summarise what elements might go into the new-style knowledge hub mixing bowl.

  • A serendipity engine;
  • Creating a culture where people feel confident to share – giving feedback to those who share knowledge to build their confidence.
  • An eco-system of networks: networks of people; networks of ideas; networks of practice – all based on a technological network.
  • A vantage point and visualisation tool – a heat map of emerging trends and tools;
  • A cultural change tool – encouraging people to be more open with their knowledge sharing – and to have confidence in their own work and learning as valid to be shared. (Many people do great research, write great documents etc. – but don’t feel confident to put it out there and share).
  • A brokerage for research and knowledge curating (e.g. jointly commission research & lead to efficiency savings). Where data quality is low then provide a mechanism for upping the quality (& providing a marketplace to commission that better).

That mix is just what’s needed in other fronts, which is why I’ll happily donate a bit more time if the call comes from Steve and IDeA to join in some collaborative problem solving. It’s a great learning opportunity and hugely energising to do that with like-minded people.

I’ll be watching the Twitter stream from #khub to see, in our own little knowledge ecosystem, what others at the event made of it.

Seriously Civic Social Media in Brum

Today’s the last chance to comment on the Birmingham Big City Plan, so in case I have one or two readers up that way I’d better get this posted, and also endorse Nick Booth’s recommendation to click over to the independent Big City Talk. There you’ll find a “plain English” version of the plan and a host of comments from Brummies who care about how the City Centre may change over the next 20 years

More generally, it’s an opportunity for me to flag up the buzz of social media activity in Birmingham, created by people like Nick. We met up the other day at UKGovCamp09, and I took the chance to interview him on why online journalist Paul Bradshaw says Birmingham is “the sort of social media haven that has people around the world scratching their heads in curiosity”.

Paul was writing about the move of Birmingham Post’s Development editor Joanna Geary to London to become The Times Web Development Editor. Apparently Jo, with the likes of Jon Bounds and Pete Ashton and Nick has helped create the “haven” with its social media cafes, surgeries for voluntary organisations … and a paper that really sees the value of encouraging local bloggers.

Then there’s how bloggers put together a really understandable online consultation process for the Big City Plan, without antagonising the council, and getting a link. Nick explains how it was done.

Real Civic Media … passionate, sincere, hyperlocal … and so different from much of our mainstream media.

More here on hyperlocal media, including Will Perrin’s plan to train thousands of local activists in the use of social media, which I gather is likely to get funding soon. I would love some of that to happen in London … but I think Birmingham has the edge. Or maybe I’ll think it is Manchester, after I’ve visited Gary Copitch and the team at People’s Voice Media in a few weeks.

Power of Information open for commenting

The Power of Information Taskforce report recommendations to UK Government include “public servants should be active in online peer support forums concerned with their areas of work,” and “public servants will require adequate internet access to take part in social media as part of their job,” plus proposals for a “backstage” open online innovation space for co-creation of services by public and staff. In that spirit the report site is open for comment before finalising proposals.

Why tweeting Ministers matter

Steph Gray includes this observation in his reflections on UKGovCamp09: Recognise that our opportunity isn’t just better engagement, but better civil society. A minister or senior official who blogs or tweets isn’t just a better communicator, but potentially a fundamentally different kind of public servant, one who’s much more connected and responsive to ideas and feedback. More here from Steph, and tweets from social media Minister Tom Watson.

Roundup of UK GovCamp 09

Simon Dickson reports on some of the sessions at last Saturday’s unconference for people involved in – or just interested in – social media in government. More on the camp site over here.

Social innovation is happening: will Government join in?

This autumn the UK Government departments responsible for citizen empowerment, tech-supported innovation, and democratic engagement have a chance to catch a wave of optimism about what might be achieved through more open, cross-sector collaborations. But will they rise to the opportunity? There are some encouraging signs. read more »

Simon advises on digital empowerment

I’m delighted that my friend Simon Berry will be advising Government over the next few months on how to use new technologies and online tools for community empowerment.
Simon will be seconded to the Department of Community and Local Government, that is producing a community empowerment White Paper in the summer. As you can see here from Simon’s blog the job will involve:

working with policy colleagues to develop specific policy options that use new technologies and online tools to support communities in shaping their local place and services. This will include undertaking cost/benefit assessments for specific policy options

developing CLG’s role in using new technologies to promote community empowerment and building alliances across government with Ministry of Justice, DCMS, the Cabinet Office & other relevant government departments

using new technologies as part of the policy development process

advising on delivery models for the new technologies policies and identifying in particular how new policies would work with technologies and approaches already being tried

I can’t think of anyone better for the job, since Simon has a strong background in community development, uses social media personally with panache, and is chief exec of Ruralnet|UK that has just developed a great set of empowering online tools through an open innovation process.

True to form Simon has announced the appointment using Twitter and said he was open to ideas.

My first suggestion was to do some mapping of the landscape – who is who in the field in and out of government. Even better, get together a bunch of well-networked people together for a few hours and have them draw the maps. Then work out a process by which you help them all connect up, and do the advisory job for you.

My other suggestion would be to help the civil servants involved get some experience of what new technologies and online tools can actually do. The problem in my experience is that they have limited access at work to social media, and also limited time to experiment. That puts them at a big disadvantage in responding to ideas. No good talking about blogs and video if they aren’t allowed on the desktop.

Fortunately Jeremy Gould at Ministry of Justice is developing a strong Whitehall webby network following on from the UKGovwebBarcamp and was one of the first to offer Simon some connections. I suspect the challenge will lie in bridging the gap between the increasingly-sophisticated social media types in Government, and the policy people.

On that front, I think the potential trap lies in ended up as an increasingly frantic messenger trying to carry recommendations from one group to the other. The real break-through will come if Simon can convince his new colleagues of the virtues of open innovation by which people learn from each other. I think there is a lot of goodwill among the social media and other tech communities, and lots going on including the 4Good Festival on July 2-3 as I mentioned the other day. I should know more about that by the end of the week.