I’ve been catching up with the Neighbourhood Challenge programme that was launched last year by NESTA and Big Lottery to support innovative work by community groups in 17 locations around the country. They were chosen from 600 applicants, so I think we can expect to see some interesting developments.
Often the problem with these big agency funded programmes is that they are launched with a flourish in London, and after that it is difficult to see what’s going on until a long evaluation report emerges that may or may not give many insights into what really happened. By then things have moved on, and the chance to share lessons has been lost.
In between, local people and agency staff have probably been too caught up with reporting procedures to tell the stories that might interests the outside world … or even local people. There may be an unwillingness to open up on how they tackled problems in case that doesn’t play well with the funders.
I’m delighted to see a rather different approach in the Neighbourhood Challenge programme, where NESTA have wrapped up the share-as-you-go and report-back problem in one simple solution: blog about it. There isn’t one story for the insiders, and one for public consumption: it’s all there online, with the chance for people to add their own accounts and comments. Alice Casey, who is managing the programme, explained:
“Each of the areas has been set up with a WordPress blog to report on how things are going for their project. I hope that this will help to make monitoring and reporting information much more useful and ‘live’ than a traditional paper format. I also hope the blogs will bring the stories of the projects to inspire and inform a wider audience than those who would usually be involved in a process like this. I think there’s great potential to develop this idea further to improve transparency, accountability and visibility for all the great work that local groups do and to increase understanding of the challenges they face”.
In detail, Alice says that the idea is to:
- Make monitoring reports more useful to more people, to open up project reporting to a wider audience other than a funder audience
- Promote communication with the projects, increase their profiles and reach as they develop rather than after they develop
- Live reporting helps NESTA understand how projects experience the projects on the ground as we go along (rather than a formal, final evaluation after everything has finished) and to share that information in a way that a traditional reporting mechanism can’t.
- NESTA wants to see if reporting in this way helps to provide a degree of transparency and accountability
- The groups can continue using the resource at no/minimal cost after our programme ends – so it is future proofed- and hopefully they’ll have built the capacity needed to do this (if they want to) after the programme ends.
- Help groups to see the potential of social media and how it might be used cheaply and easily to engage new people
- The groups could develop our simple template into a more complex site if they wanted to (and one, blackhorse action group/ the mill has already done this themselves using buddypress http://www.themill-coppermill.org/ )
- Groups who don’t want to engage wtih tech or who arent comfortable with administering the blog, can simply post via email (so accessibility issues are lessened than if we’d asked community groups to administer a blog as a requirement of receiving funds – here we have lowered the barriers to participation but also provided an opportunity to build digital capacity for those who wish to take it.)
The WordPress site, designed by Rattle, was created with a name the project chose, using a plain off the shelf template and set up with some basic branding, links to the other groups, and an about page. Reporting on how things are going (and using photos to do so) is a part of the terms of the grant agreement with NESTA for each group. The Talk About Local team, experts in local blogging, have been providing support.
There’s more here on the blogging approach, including this picture of Alice, with her boss Philip Colligan, who heads up NESTA’s public service innovation lab. They have some digital cameras awarded as prizes to three of the blogs. You’ll find links to all the blogs here.
Agencies like NESTA and Big Lottery occasionally come in for criticism for launching programmes at breakfast events that are impossible for people outside town to reach without high-cost tickets, and for spending a bit too much time talking to a fairly small circle of “innovators” when lots of the good stuff is happening elsewhere.
In vain they protest that their regional and programme staff are out and about all the time, more events are live streamed, staff are encouraged to blog and tweet.
Probably true enough. However, I think it’s worth a round of applause if they go one step further and trust their customers to tell the story.
Time to have a browse around the local blogs and see what they are saying.