Summary: local activists and volunteers need to share their achievements and experience in hard times. The publicly-funded sites for this have some limitations, and smaller sites, mainly run by volunteers, don’t have the resources to grow. Is there scope for more joining up, rather than further top-down solutions?
Government policies of localism and cuts to the voluntary sector are pushing citizens and community groups to do more for themselves on the ground, and find their own ways of learning from each other nationally. A couple of recent events prompted me to review what is available online.
The first event was an invite to chat informally to a new team in the government department of Communities and Local Government about the role of social reporting in helping sharing. It was very encouraging to meet a young team full of enthusiasm and enquiry, who describe their remit like this:
The neighbourhood engagement team are working to open up the conversation on neighbourhoods policy to a greater range of people: sharing enthusiasm, tapping into a wider pool of ideas and examples and exploring how government can best support those who want to have greater control and influence in their area. Workshops and online platforms will empower those active in the community to continue the conversation across professional silos, supporting each other to innovate in local arenas with less central government direction.
The second event was a webinar, organised by Globalnet21, on whether social networking can “help create a network of mutual independence that strengthens the countless groups that are the social glue of our civil society”.
That nudged me to prepare the slides that I posted earlier, based on work I did last year with Big Lottery Fund, as well as the blogging I’ve done here about social reporting. I’ve linked a lot in this piece so you can find starting points for your own research, and draw your own conclusions.
I started looking at what platforms are being developed to help people share – about which more later. However, as you’ll see from the slides, I was also emphasising that sharing is about networks, not one-stop-information-shops, and it is people who make that work. It takes people who have some digital literacy skills, with the support of facilitators. An excellent post by Tim Davies says it very well and is worth quoting at length:
When we look at a successful example of online collaboration the most obvious visible element of it is often the platform being used: whether it’s a Facebook group, or a custom-built intranet. Projects to support online learning, knowledge sharing or dialogue can quickly get bogged down in developing feature-lists for the platform they think they need – articulating grand architectural visions of a platform which will bring disparate conversations together, and which will resolve information-sharing bottlenecks in an organisation or network. But when you look closer at any successful online collaboration, you will see that it’s not the platform, but the people, that make it work.
People need opportunities, capabilities and supportive institutional cultures to make the most of the Internet for collaboration. The capabilities needed range from technical skills (and, on corporate networks, the permission) to install and use programs like Skype, to Internet literacies for creating hyper-links and sharing documents, and the social and media literacy to participate in horizontal conversations across different media.
But even skills and capabilities of the participants are not enough to make online collaboration work: there also needs to be a culture of sharing, recognising that the Internet changes the very logic of organisational structures, and means individuals need to be trusted and empowered to collaborate and communicate across organisational and national boundaries in pursuit of common goals.
Online collaboration also needs facilitation: from animateurs who can build community and keep conversations flowing, to technology stewards who can help individuals and groups to find the right ad-hoc tools for the sorts of sharing they are engaged in at that particular time. Online facilitators also need to work to ensure dialogues are inclusive – and to build bridges between online and offline dialogue. In my experience facilitating an online community of youth workers in the UK, or supporting social reporting at the Internet Governance Forum, the biggest barriers to online collaboration have been people’s lack of confidence in expressing themselves online, or easily-address technical skill shortages for uploading and embedding video, or following a conversation on Twitter.
Building the capacity of people and institutions, and changing cultures, so that online collaboration can work is far trickier than building a platform. But, it’s the only way to support truly inclusive dialogue and knowledge-sharing. Plus, when we focus on skills and capabilities, we don’t limit the sorts of purposes they can be put to. A platform has a specific focus and a limited scope: sharing skills lays the foundation for people to participate in a far wider range of online opportunities in the future.
The challenge of supporting sharing and local innovation was picked up last year by the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) under its banner of People Powered Change, with investments of £5.76 million in a range of programmes including Your Square Mile and the Media Trust’s Newsnet, as I first wrote about here, and followed up later. I then worked with BIG for a few months exploring, with John Popham, how they might be more than a funder. Posts here.
As part of that work I put together a Netvibes dashboard taking feeds from the main community and voluntary sector sites.
I’m a little circumspect in what follows, because BIG is a client, and I know the people involved in Newsnet and Your Square Mile, and admire what they are trying to achieve.
The bad news is that at present it is almost impossible to find out what is going on, where to get help, how to to connect. As I aimed to show in this slide from the webinar (pdf download), there’s a big gap between local networking and national, with many unconnected initiatives in between.
I know it is early days, but as well as the CLG neighbourhoods team work, further announcements are due soon from BIG about People Powered Change (see below), so it is a good time to review progress so far, and how to build on or complement those investments. We have the elements of a rich knowledge ecosystem if we can join them up.
Your Square Mile (£830,000) has a powerful vision of what people may need locally, and a site that does a smart job of aggregating useful data and advising people about local services and the part they may play. There is currently no networking, but that may be a feature of next stage development. Baroness Newlove, Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, favours the site as the hub for community activists, as I reported earlier.
In addition Newsnet (£1.89 million) has a vision of local hubs to connect a network of citizen journalists. Their site has some limitations, but there is interesting discussion and some good examples of hubs, with ways to upload and network news promised later.
In my view something like Newsnet has great potential if it can blend the dynamic of community reporting with citizens finding their own voices to tell their own stories. However this will take time, and on current plans Newsnet site will be archived in two years, when BIG funding ends. We can’t reckon it will be a long-term element in the mix (however, see update below).
Meanwhile a range of unfunded online communities like Our Society, ABCDEurope, and NatCan are doing well in each attracting hundreds of members and a wide range of discussion and resources. Networks like Transition Towns, Fiery Spirits and i-volunteer show what is possible with some modest investment in platform, and far more facilitation. Tim Davies facilitates Youth Work Online here.
(Disclosure: I’m one of the group running Our Society).
Mandeep Hothi, writing for Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, reports on the results of some
other BIG-funded work supported by DCLG’s Empowerment Fund, confirming again that investment in social media and technology is not in itself the answer. It is people who connect. Social media can amplify and assist … but we need to understand the fine grain of how that works as a blend of face-to-face, SMS, email, forums, Facebook and other methods.
Another of the People Powered Change partners, NESTA, are just beginning a big programme of research and development in the field of hyperlocal communications. Interest from the BBC may help catalyse a network of hyperlocal activists in London.
So … we know that just investing in technology isn’t the answer, and that instead it would help to improve and support the digital literacy of activists. We know there are a number of programmes that could join up to achieve this: I’ve only highlighted a few.
But who is going to help bring it together? Big Lottery Fund is a strong supporter of the idea of asset based community development: making the most of the resources that you have in any neighbourhood, rather than just looking at the problems and putting in more funds. Could BIG apply that philosophy to networking for civil society?
After the workshop we ran with BIG in December, Linda Quinn wrote:
We’ll then spend some time working our thoughts into an overall strategy that will inform a paper to our Committee in March. My sense is that much of what we discussed is about how we engage, how we share and how we collaborate. Some of this I think we can test out in pilots, some of it requires us to think how we might change our internal processes but all of it requires that we carry on the conversation with those who have helped us so far and hopefully will remain constructive critical friends and supporters in the future.
In drafting this post, I started at this point to write that Power Powered Change phase two, when announced, may be more about investment in people than in technology platforms, and that it might be developed in part by bringing together the various initiatives I’ve mentioned, and others, to co-design something for the future.
However, I don’t know if that will be the case – and on reflection I don’t know that we need to wait on BIG … however welcome their support would be.
I then wondered whether there was more scope for joining up the smaller sites I mentioned – even if only by sharing newsletter items and some feeds, and having a shared signposting system of who is doing what where: a more accessible version of the Netvibes dashboard I developed.
Ideally this network of networks should be animated by some social reporting … helping people make sense of the civil society ecosystem, and joining up conversation. It would be the online equivalent of local community building, in this instance designed to make the most of the knowledge assets that we have.
What do you think? Is there a problem for activists trying to get information and advice, and connect with others? If so, should we follow Baroness Newlove’s suggestions, and focus on the development of one site, like Your Square Mile? Or should we try and build a knowledge ecoystem of smaller sites, and of civil society organisations better able to network online? (By we, I’m thinking of those who manage online communities or other civil society sites).
The NESTA hyperlocal research and development programme is very timely. Maybe we need something similar at national level.
Update: if you are interested in the big picture, Steve Dale has some deeply-researched slides and notes on The Future of social media and social networks
Update 2: I dropped a query about Media Trust plans into Newsnet discussions, and Gavin Sheppard responded:
“Whilst the BIG funding is for another two years, we’re committed to supporting the platform beyond that date. Obviously further development will depending on what funding is available to us, but I see no reason why the community can’t continue to grow beyond 2014″.