Discussion at a strategy group about the new Lobbi initiative prompted me to write yesterday about an online/offline kit for local change agents, with references to my previous work with colleagues on kits and the use of social tech for social impact.
Here’s the first of a series of posts on what that kit (and caboodle)** could be, as a set of resources for people I’m calling community enablers, with added networking. That’s the all-important caboodle.
As I said yesterday, enablers might be councillors, community organisers, people running local groups, citizens developing a campaign and/or generally working to revive local democracy. This account is a bit of a ramble, but if I try and get every nuance right it won’t get done. Comments welcome. I’ve put most links at the end.
I’m not suggesting this would necessarily be a Lobbi kit, since it develops from other work I’m doing with colleagues anyway, and the Lobbi vision is still emerging.
First the local context as I see it. Whether under the banner of community development, organising, enabling, building, volunteering, or social action lots of people have been doing good stuff locally for decades – and of course before that without the labels. Councillors and professionals work in support of this, and in addition councils and other public services mount extensive programme to consult and engage with citizens. There have been stacks of how-to kits, lots of consultants and nonprofit networks, but resources fall out of print, websites wither, people move jobs or burn out, networks fold.
David Cameron wanted to encourage more of what he called Big Society (without really acknowledging it was fairly big already), but then cut many of the support systems developed over the past decade or so without enabling alternatives effectively. There are good programmes like Big Local and Community First, organisations like Locality, innovative programmes like Transition Towns, to name only a few. However, coverage is patchy, and there’s a tendency to brand rather than share how-to resources because everyone is competing for funding.
This is just the sort of situation in which social technology, coupled with good curation and facilitation, could help in gathering resources, enabling people to share, promoting both peer-to-peer networking and direct agency-to-citizen support. A group of us tried, as volunteers, to do a bit towards that vision under the banner of Our Society, using an online platform, but without resources it was too much of a struggle to maintain. I should offer congratulations to NatCAN for keeping going, but generally I don’t think the conversation/knowledge hub model works too … about which more later.
Now to the real purpose of a kit. I should emphasise that I’m using kit as shorthand for something that would help anyone seeking to organise or enhance community activity using a mix of traditional and more recent tech-enabled methods. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook groups are no substitute for newsletters, meetings and knocking on doors. Not everyone has access or is confident online, and some stuff has to be done face-to-face.
At the same time it is waste of enabling power not to use technology as a bigger part of the mix in finding and sharing information, telling stories, collaborating between meetings, crowdsourcing funding and so on.
Unfortunately I see something of a divide between those with deep experience of community action who tend to favour face-to-face, and those who see and use the potential of online organising but may not be so comfortable on the door-step or in the community meeting. There are shining exceptions to this distinction working at local level, including my colleague John Popham who has just announced a WOW bus to take some digital enabling on tour. There are many digital enablers operating in larger organisations and as social entrepreneurs, but I think it fair to say digitally savvy community enablers are thinly spread around the country.
So – what could be done to help anyone acting as a community enabler blend tech into their work, develop digital literacies, and also help others do the same? And how could this also be a way to help enablers and others access scattered resources about traditional methods, share experience with others, and build confidence in new ways of doing things … and keep up their motivation? I think it involves development at several levels, personal, organisational, and systemic, with an understanding of communities, technologies, development processes and networks.
What’s the real value of a kit (and caboodle). I believe that addressing the issue of how to enable enablers, by adding some social technology, could help at several levels.
- The most obvious is that it would be a way to bring together scattered how-to resources, and add some technology tools to the kit, provided there were support in developing digital skills – something the Big Lottery Fund is investing in more widely. Maybe there could be support there.
- However, a how-to kit with added tech won’t do much unless it also helps develop some common ground and frameworks among the various organisations working in this field, who are each creating their own kits and methodologies. There are differences between community organising as promoted by Locality and Citizens UK, ABCD community building, the Transitions Towns and others – but there are bigger areas of similarity. Teasing out a framework to underpin a kit would demonstrate how they all involve similar aspects of process with different degrees of emphasis: listening, mapping assets, building relationship and networks, organising events, raising funds etc.
- The further benefit could be networking with the common challenge of learning about tech. Toolkits don’t necessarily enable action on their own. Some people are happy just to read the manual and apply it … but I guess most of us like to have someone to ask and help. A framework for community enabling (point 2) could provide the basis of shared practice. Learning about technology could provide a further shared interest and common ground. From that it might be possible to add the caboodle – the networking of enablers, or more probably networking of networks.
What could be the contents of a kit. At this point the temptation might be to gather together the various kits, and sites about community action and enabling, add social tech how-to, create a networking site and launch. Or rather, put together a funding bid first, hoping that the funding agencies have forgotten how kits and networking sites have failed many time in the past to make much impact.
I suggest instead taking one of the strongest lessons from community enabling and applying it to a process of developing the kit and caboodle: stuff works best if people have a hand in designing and developing, because it is then what’s needed, and they own it. One way to do this would be to build on the work that Drew Mackie and I started last year, when we invented the town of Slapham, with its neighbourhoods, organisations, enablers and citizens. We ran a workshop in which we all invented some enabler characters, the challenges they and the citizens of Slapham faced, then played through how enablers could use social tech as part of their work. We’ve done this subsequently for real with an organisation recruiting community enablers, and it worked really well.
The next step is to do a bit more work on Slapham (which we are renaming Slipham since that’s a bit less in your face), fill out the draft components of a kit, and run some more workshops to develop content.
At this point the objection might be raised – isn’t this going to be a very big kit, which people won’t read or use? In development so far, we have been working on the basis that the front end of the kit can be as simple as a set of cards, like those developed by the Transition Towns network to support their Companion, or the set created by the Group Pattern Language Project, with ideas and help on running creative events. We’ve used a similar approach in the Social by Social social media game.
I’ll develop more ideas in a later post about the kit, cards and what in the past we’ve called a social app store of back-up how-to resources. I see the kit as an open source/creative commons resource, so people can rework the material for their own purposes, with attribution and links back to the original.
Now for the caboodle. You’ll see in the links below a lot about the challenges of networking, and building knowledge hubs. The problem – as I reported in a briefing paper for the Carnegie UK Trust – is that it is really difficult to get people to move to a new platform when there are so many online spaces already; it takes a lot of professional resource to facilitate and manage a site if you do get people there; and there aren’t easy ways to generate revenue. I raised these points in a post about the initial Lobbi vision. A further post here will be on the idea of instead facilitating social ecologies, which is being explored by Steve Dale.
Meanwhile, if you are interested in being involved do drop a comment or get in touch. This post is by way of setting the scene. I hope things will make more sense as we draft some of the kit, and run a workshop.
** The whole kit and caboodle: A kit – is set of objects, as in a toolkit, or what a soldier would put in his kit-bag. A caboodle (or boodle) – is an archaic term meaning group or collection, usually of people.
Earlier posts on the community enabler exploration
- Exploring the new community enablers, and how digital may help Start of the exploration.
- Community enabler exploration on socialreporters.net – summary.
- Digitally enabling the fictitious communities of Slapham – a game and initial enabling kit.
- The official and unofficial connectors that may mak localism work – report from Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Big Society, Our Society and networking civil society
- When networks fail – Julian Dobson on Our Society
- Understanding and building Big Society (whatever you call it) – roundup at December 2011
- The challenge of networking civil society – what’s involved in knowledge sharing.
- Earlier posts about the idea of a social app store and people-centred development
- Exploration for Big Lottery Fund of People Powered Change
- The many models for People Powered Change
- Presenting to myself on collaboration and social innovation