Category Archives: open

Open data good – plus open comms even better

The Data.Gov.UK project to open up government data for re-use to public benefit has produced a flurry of comment ranging from geeky ecstacy to scepticism about how far it can be used in practice for better service development. On Twitter of course. There’s even mainstream suggestions of dis-benefit.  The Telegraph started it’s report:

Communities could find themselves being “ghettoised” by a new Government website which will provides facts and figures about every aspect of life in Britain, its creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee has admitted.

Dominic Campbell of the consultancy Futuregov was in the thick of the commenting. In favour of the project, but irritated by the inward-looking way the discussion was going. read more »

Social media for public services: how about an Open Innovation Exchange?

The Crowdsourced Council event earlier this week was for me interesting at three levels. First for the idea expressed in the name – that councils should use a variety of different methods to find out people’s opinions, engage with them, and improve performance in doing so. Secondly, for a useful demonstrations of tools showing how this might be done. And thirdly some insights into just how difficult it is to introduce these innovative new methods to councils, even when costs are low.

I came away with a new/old idea: that we need an open innovation exchange to help entrepreneurs, councils and customer/citizens collaborate to find new ways forward.

The event was organised by FutureGov in partnership with Capital Ambition, and we had demonstrations from  Uservoice, Best Before Media, YooskDebatewise, GovDelivery and Quiet Riots. Follow the links to see the goodies on offer. They provide a terrific range of ways in which people could discuss issues, vote on their preferences, create audio and video content, get updates and more.

In the four video interviews Dominic Campbell, of FutureGov, explains the thinking behind the event, and we hear from Tim Hood of Yoosk, Dave Worsell of GovDelivery, and also Shane McCracken of Gallomar. They just been award £200,000 from the Wellcome Trust for I’m A Scientist, Get me out of Here – explained here. (You’ll see the four videos in the frame once you start playing, or mouse-over).

As well as the cleverness of the tools in front of us, what really intruiged me was the background story I heard from those developing them: they were often prepared to make some of their offer free; they would collaborate to see how they could offer councils a menu of options and ways of making things work together; some were taking big personal risks to develop something of real social benefit. Yet whether big or small they found it difficult to get their products and services in front of the people who could make decisions, or find ways to test and evolve new tools with both citizens and councils.

A number of barriers emerged. The big one was procurement procedures, which could meant that if you weren’t on the approved list of suppliers you didn’t get a look in.  In theory councils would specify what they needed, and then go out to tender: but that doesn’t work well for innovative products. As one developer said: “If you don’t know what you want, because you haven’t seen it yet, how can you specify it?”

Another problem was that decisions usually involved a lot of people in the organisational hierarchy, and often in partner organisations. You couldn’t get them in the same room together. They didn’t even go to the same conferences: “The senior people will be at the old-style big ticket events, while those lower in the hierarchy who may know what’s needed are at the informal barcamps and unconferences.”

You might find one council officer prepared to take an interest, but they would change jobs. If you didn’t get everything lined up at the right time of year, you could lose six months because of holidays and other delays.

All this might be of little concern if it were just a bunch of profit-hungry corporations trying to sell products that councils could better develop in-house – or that tough competition would ensure a better deal for us all.  A few years ago it was perhaps the case that councils had to specify major development work through big suppliers. But these days there’s a vast array of social media tools – like those on show – that can be delpoyed rapidly, and at relatively low cost, provided councils can make fast and informed decisions. That means really getting to know what’s available and working collaboratively with suppliers and citizen-users.

Tim Hood summed it up: “People think private companies are just concerned with profit. That’s clearly not true. People risk their livelihoods to try and innovate for public good, and there’s no shame in trying to make some money out of it. There no shame in the decision makers and people in procurement being in the same room and talking through collectively how they can make the whole process work more efficiently”.

But that often isn’t happening. I heard that it can be just as tough for council officers. Unless you are passionate about social media it’s really difficult to see what’s available, and get your ideas adopted. Of course there are brilliant exceptions … officers and whole council departments around the country who are doing great work: Devon, Kent, Barnet, Barnsley keep getting mentions, and there are quite a others as I explored at another conference about knowledge management. It just doesn’t seem sensible to have such clunky systems when it’s desperately important to improve public services and reduce costs at the same time.

Is this a fair analysis? Or did I just happen on a group of people – developers and officers – who, by their interests and enthusiasms,  find the current system particularly frustrating and unproductive?

Let’s say the analysis is right at least in part. What might be done in a small, collaborative, organic, social media-ish sort of way? I’m really impressed by the work that Ingrid Koehler, Steve Dale and others are doing on the IDeA knowledge hub, which I’ve written about here. In the longer term the new system and associated development and training should help move all councils, not just a few, across into new ways of working.

But that’s going to take years. Meanwhile Amy Sample Ward and I have been talking to IDeA about ways in which we could use the Social by Social network as a space in which to pilot some ideas. There’s already some groups there. Out initial thinking was on three fronts: how to combine discussion and knowledge sharing, with a market place, linked to events. The aim would be to bring together people working in public bodies with social media developers and suppliers, and with those working in the hyperlocal programmes and third sector. And anyone else interested in how to use social tech for social impact … the substance of our book Social by Social (buy or download free here).

During the Crowdsourced Council event these ideas crystalised into thoughts of an Open Innovation Exchange. It’s not new: Simon Berry, I and others first proposed something like this back in 2007 for third sector organisations, in an open bid to Cabinet Office. We didn’t win, but generated a lot of interest as you can see on the original site here. My friends – and clients – at the Innovation Exchange are now doing a great job in taking forward the winning bid, but it’s focussed on third sector organisations, and social media is only a part of their business.

In essence we would create a complementary space into which anyone could pitch an idea, request, product or service … whether free or paid for. It would be up to IDeA and other public sector organisations – if interested – to promote the exchange to their sectors and interest groups. Similarly for the hyperlocal and third sector interests. We would run some associated workshops and turn up to events like Crowdsourced Council to do some social reporting, broker connections, and recruit people to the exchange.

When I floated the idea to a few developers at this week’s event they sounded seriously interested, and even said they might contribute some seed funding if public sector interests would come in.

That’s as a far as I’ve got with the idea. At this stage I just want to check out if it makes sense. If so, I’ll discuss further with our friends in IDeA, NESTA and other bodies. If they are interested I would suggest that we run an open workshop in January to co-design what’s needed, with the key interests. Let’s model the collaborative exchange process we propose.  At this stage I’m not suggesting that the current Social by Social platform would do what’s needed … but it could be a gathering space for those interested.

What do you think? Do drop a comment here, and I’ll also post across on SocialbySocial.net.

Open government isn't easy

The Politico blog offers us an update on the Obama Administration’s open government initative to be transparent, participatory, collaborative. On the one hand the call for federal employees fell a bit flat – possibly because they didn’t get official instructions. On the other hand the public brainstorming produced, among other things, further campaigning for marijuana legalisation. “End the Imperial Presidency” got most votes. Will Downing Street be tempted to emulate?

Asking people how to run open government (US only)

In January US President Barack Obama circulated memos to public agencies saying Government should be transparent, participatory, collaborative. Yesterday senior adviser Valerie Jarrett announced on the White House blog how that will be put into practice …. through an open process:

Today we are kicking off an unprecedented process for public engagement in policymaking on the White House website. In a sea change from conventional practice, we are not asking for comments on an already-finished set of draft recommendations, but are seeking fresh ideas from you early in the process of creating recommendations. We will carefully consider your comments, suggestions, and proposals.

Here’s how the public engagement process will work. It will take place in 3 phases: Brainstorming, Discussion, and Drafting.

Beginning today, we will have a brainstorming session for suggesting ideas for the open government recommendations. You can vote on suggested ideas or add your own.

Then on June 3rd, the most compelling ideas from the brainstorming will be fleshed out on a weblog in a discussion phase. On June 15th, we will invite you to use a wiki to draft recommendations in collaborative
fashion.

These three phases will build upon one another and inform the crafting of recommendations on open government.

There’s also an innovations gallery showing “innovations and innovators across the Government who are already translating the values of open government into practice”.

Amazing. More on how it will work at techpresident. On the White House blog Beth Godwin showcases other examples of government use of new, social media.

Over here in the UK, mySociety are asking candidates for the position of Speaker to endorse three principles about voters right to know in detail how money is spent on MPs and parliament; better publication of Bills online; and also:

3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. Parliament should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.

First stop Washington.

PS For UK government initiatives follow the Cabinet Office blog, and the Director Digital Engagement Andrew Stott on Twitter @dirdigeng. You can vote here on what you think Andrew should do, but it is a strictly unofficial exercise set up by blogging civil servant Steph Gray.

Join us for the social collaboration game at SHINE

If you want to find out how social technology can be used collaboratively to solve neighbourhood problems, do join me and colleagues for a lively session on May 16 in London at the SHINE unconference for social entrepreneurs. You’ll find

If you want to do it quickly, do it alone. If you want to do it well, do it together.” – African proverb.
Join the Social Collaboration Game on day two of SHINE. Everyone’s talking about the advantages of collaboration, open-source working and social technology to drive through social change. But how do you make it work in practice? Based on real life problems that SHINE participants are facing, get ready for a two hour game where you’ll have to crunch problems, make quick decisions and find ways to work together to get the job done. You will be doing that within the framework of an imagined but realistic neighbourhood where people are trying to tackle problems innovatively as recession bites. There’ll be competing interests to balance, barriers to getting what you need from partnerships,…

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Common Purpose: the perils of being closed

Some years back I went on a course run by Common Purpose, during which over a year a group of us made visits to schools, prisons, newspaper offices and the like, and took part in discussions all in the pursuit of civil leadership.
It was pleasant enough, and a chance to meet people from different sectors and professions, but I was never clear quite how we became “leaders” (or that I wanted to).
The Common Purpose founder Julia Middleton evidently had strong views on how things should be done, so it definitely wasn’t in my experience a very bottom-up sort of organisation. There was an online system which Common Purpose “graduates” were occasionally exhorted to use, but it was (and is) very Web 1.0 and behind a login.
Back in 2004 I did have some discussion with staff about how blogging might be useful as part of their communications and work with groups … but the open style didn’t appeal. I said I couldn’t see how you could develop innovative projects for public benefit unless you were prepared to engage publicly, and wrote Effective civil leadership won’t develop behind a login.
Last year the then manager of the online network contacted me and others to say the organisation was being targeted by critical bloggers, and accused of being a secret society promoting a whole range of evils. What should they do? My advice was simple – open up, start blogging back. Encourage your staff and graduates to do so. Still didn’t appeal. (see correction at the end of his post)
I’ve just received a note from Common Purpose alerting me to a programme tonight on Radio 5 live (podcast here), with an accompanying article on the BBC site, quoting former naval officer Brian Gerrish, who leads a campaign against Common Purpose:

It’s a secret society for careerists. The key point is that the networking is done out of sight of the general public.
If you actually look at the documented evidence as to what Common Purpose is doing, they are clearly not just a training provider. They are operating a highly political agenda, which is to create new chosen leaders in society.

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Government needs advice? Just open up and ask.

The blog of the IDeA Strategy and Development Unit may sound dry, but it provides an open window into the workings (and not workings) of local government. It is about Policy and Performance.
The other day there was a great post on the 10 local government social media myths including “it’s all about the tools”, “it’s only the young who use social media”, “It’s too hard” and “It’s easy” … all neatly disposed of.
Ingrid Koehler has an insightful piece on Does digital inclusion mean social inclusion? and I have now just seen Read on if you dare! from Ingrid’s colleague Adrian.

Are you brave enough to read on? You are about to read reports of a meeting at CLG (Department of Communities and Local Government), so if I accidentally transcend the bounds of confidentiality, you may have to crunch on a cyanide tablet. Or I might have to self-destruct. However, since it was about providing information to the public, any over-concern with secrecy would be less likely to attract the attention of the secret than the irony police.

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How Open helps a big player learn collaboration

Bids are now in for the £900,000 Digital mentor programme, including one from the Voicebox consortium whose open approach I enthused about recently.  I tried to explain there why I thought that constructing the bid through open meetings and a blog site produced better ideas and spin-off partnerships.

The managing director of UK online centres, Helen Milner, made a better job of it when she spoke to me the other day at UKGovCamp09 … but I agreed to hold on to the interview until after the bids went in. I started by asking – had the open approach been worth it?

As you can hear, Helen says it has been a huge effort, but worth it for the new partners and network of relationships that have formed. I asked about a large “official” organisation like UK online centres getting down into the messy world of social media. She said:

Yes …we are the “big people” who don’t necessarily play around on blogs and twitter – but I’ve personally learned something doing it this way.

I’ve learned it is a better way of doing things because it is much more inclusive, more collaborative  and you have got to be humble enought to say you don’t have all the best ideas yourself – you have to talk to other people to get their ideas

So will there be any going back to older ways of doing things? Helen says they would probably do it differently another time but it is definitely now part of their DNA.

Helen confirms something I feel strongly – that it is one thing for large organisations who say they are in the business of promoting digital inclusion to write papers, do presentations, hold conferences – but it doesn’t mean much unless they get their hands dirty and actually join in.

Over on Voicebox Ben Brown confirms who will be doing what, if their bid succeeds. Citizens Online will be leading the Research and Mapping work stream, while Training and Toolkits will be led by two organisations: Ruralnet|uk and Opportunity Links.

Update: Helen has now added her reflections on the process over here on Voicebox. In summary:

  1. Partnership is a much better way to do things
  2. It takes loads of time to develop ideas in this kind of forum
  3. Social media helped me to put aside prejudices and listen to all comments with an open mind and a receptiveness to learn
  4. It’s really hard to balance open debate and to provide structure for a constructive discussion
  5. Not everyone likes using social media to develop bids
  6. The journey’s been fun but arriving will be better

If you believe in open collaboration, support Voicebox

The deadline is nearing for submission of bids to Government  to run the Digital Mentor network throughout the UK. I’ve no doubt who I think should win – the Voicebox consortium headed by UK online centres.
It’s partly that they have a lot of the necessary skills – but even more because of the way that they have put their bid together, by doing the whole thing in the open. read more »

Is live streaming invasion of privacy?

Excellent launch last night of The Digital Health Service at a Demos event, where founder Gavin O’Carrol explained workshops and other services to help us toward wellbeing rather than stress in using technology. Digital whiz Joanne Jacobs used her netbook to livestream to Mogulus, provoking interesting discussion on openness vs invasion of privacy, because Joanne didn’t ask, just did it. That’s good for a workshop. Tweets here.