As the Knowledge Hub faces closure, might a creative Twitter mob help with re-invention?

One of the main ways in which people in local government can share “what works” in these hard times of cuts and service reorganisation is likely to close – as I have written here. Or it may be that the Knowledge Hub may survive but without much staffing to facilitate conversations. Or it may be outsourced from current managers, the Local Government Association. Or there may be some other solutions in the wings.

Unfortunately there’s no framework to explore what might be possible – and that is making a creative solution really difficult, not just for local government, but anyone interested in sharing innovation at local level.

Maybe we need the equivalent of the Facebook and Twitter-based clean-up organising that followed riots in 2011 – but this time before the event. A sort of creative Twitter mob. More below on that … first the situation as I understand it.

What’s certain is that there is no structured consultation with the 150,000 or so people registered in the Knowledge Hub system, which seems rather strange when the practice of “consulting the residents” is fairly well established in local councils if big changes are in prospect.

Residents’ views may not always make much difference, but there is general recognition that their input can lead to better solutions, and at least avoid outright protest. The more innovative councils aim to co-design or even co-produce services with citizen and other organisations to share knowledge, a sense of ownership, and maybe contributions in kind. I know that things have moved on a lot since I wrote a Guide to Effective Participation back in 1994. For example, Lambeth is becoming the country’s first cooperative council.

That means in future the council will do things with local people instead of doing things to them. We believe that when you give residents more power, together with appropriate support, services from housing to street cleaning to care for the elderly will improve and our community will become stronger.

But what about the online world of local government? Is it doing with … or still doing to?

Yesterday I attended a meeting** of people formerly involved, like me, in the advisory group set up a few years back when the Hub was being designed as a successor to the successful Communities of Practice platform. I wrote then: Local Government knowledge hub – much interesting than it sounds. There were high hopes in 2009 that it would integrate with other social media, and also enable conversations with wider publics. In the event the vision and functionality were severely curtailed by LGA, when they took over the Hub, and the advisory group abandoned.

While we all did our best yesterday to come up with some helpful insights into how Knowledge Hub might be improved, repositioned, repurposed etc it was difficult without basic information on usage, costs and options under consideration.

At which point it occurred to me that this could be a great chance to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

One of the catalysts to organising in any locality is a threat or other challenge to life as usual: it may be redevelopment, closure of services, community safety. As the clean-ups after the riots a couple of years ago showed it is possible to do that through social media – and then turn the experience into a new set of tools for organising. More here on the work of Dan Thompson and others on the innovative We Will Gather.

So the threatened closure of the Knowledge Hub could provide a great opportunity to draw on the collective expertise of users – and others – to think not just about how to tweak the platform and business plan, but what place all-purpose “platforms” have in knowledge sharing when there are so many other networking opportunities. See earlier reference to social ecologies and links below to posts on the topic from Steve Dale, original lead designer of the Communities of Practice and Knowledge Hub.

As discussion yesterday showed, there is a need for closed, secure spaces for sharing some knowledge and data, and there is also a need for the online management of spaces, as provided by Hub staff.

However, the online field is moving incredibly fast, and it may be that we need to put more emphasis on mini-Hubs and connecting different Hubs and networks. It doesn’t make sense to have a local government-only space nationally when locally the reality is lots of different partnerships and networks across sectors, and with citizens, on the lines Lambeth and others are developing.

In practice what has happened with the Knowledge Hub is that there was a press leak about closure, followed by an invitation to send an email about what you think. There was then some off-site blogging and discussion on Twitter, a piece in the Guardian, and Hub staff stepped in to set up an on-site group for discussing the future. They helpfully summarised discussions so far, and created space for ideas.

While welcome – and an excellent demonstration of the importance of facilitators – there are two problems. First, it is clear that the formal consultation is about staff redundancies, and discussion is a feed into that, not an independent exercise. Secondly, there has been no invitation to Hub users to participate … and it isn’t possible on-site to instigate that if you are not a manager. There are currently only 89 members of the group.

If we turn to that classic model for citizen participation, Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation, the LGA stance looks rather like Placation. That’s when the Consultation gets a bit grumpy, but you don’t want to move up to Partnership. Offer the opportunity to contribute, without any clarity about the context or whether your views will make any difference.

The point here is not that any party is behaving badly. I’m sure that there all sorts of protocols dictating how LGA management and staff should operate, and they are responsible to the politicians who govern LGA. Everyone is following established procedures – and so I guess any change is ultimately a political decision about where cuts should be made, and in what way. I have great respect for those faced with such tough choices – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t suggest some other ways of doing things, while reducing costs.

The likely result of the current approach is that the Knowledge Hub will just close, or drift into some further iteration that will be less satisfactory than the current setup.

If organising the immediate riot clean-ups had to go through council committees it would have taken weeks. Of course, the substantial work that followed did require systematic organising … but citizens were also able to work with public agencies.

OK, clean-ups are a rather limited analogy, but they did show what’s possible with social media … and how that can subsequently be refined with development of new light-weight apps. There are score of other examples of innovative development by people like Futuregov.

As a freelance social reporter it is much easier for me to throw in a few provocations than it is for local government employees (though all credit to those who are on Twitter #khub or blogging as well as contributing to the on-site forum).

In that provocative spirit, I’m tempted to suggest that the most creative route for discussions might not be “How can we save the Knowledge Hub” but “How can we do without the Knowledge Hub” inspired by self-organising initiatives like We Will Gather.

If Knowledge Hub doesn’t close this time, it may well do so in future.  As Steve Dale, Harold Jarche and others argue, in future digital literacy will involved the ability to seek, sense and share content across many spaces. We have to become network literate, and not rely too much on others to do that for us.

Alternatively, perhaps the politicians who control LGA will give staff there more opportunity to follow the “cooperative council” model and involve the resident users of Knowledge Hub, and others.

As Carl Haggerty, writing as a local government officer, says in #KHub’s potential closure an analogy for #Localgov, in these tough times it is appropriate to review continuing operation of services. He uses another analogy for innovative change – Futuregov work on Casserole Club.

After all as a local government community we will all be questioning what on the face of it will be sensible solutions and sensible services but when budgets are being cut your only choice is to completely rethink how the same outcomes can be met.

So with that in mind, I actually think the LGA’s decision to question the continuation of the Knowledge as a centrally funded platform is a sensible one and actually shows real leadership when in the face of everyone else it may not appear a good decision.

I would like to think that more of these types of decisions can start to be made…after all as an analogy this is the kind of thing that FutureGov’s casserole project is counting on and rightly so…we need to question and rethink how meals of wheels are provided and if you maintain the same existing platform it becomes financially challenging so a different model needs to be engaged and this might not be how people originally thought the service should be provided but the same outcomes for a large majority of people would be unaffected.

The one issue I do have with the LGA’s approach with this is that in order to close down the Knowledge Hub, they need to play an active part in the decommissioning of it and allowing something else to emerge in its place so that the sector as a whole doesn’t suffer.

I hope what I’ve written here is see as a constructive contribution. It is a sensitive situation with the jobs of people at stake who everyone applauds for their work on the Hub. However, as Carl says, hard times may require a change of approach.

If you keep on doing the same old things in the same old ways you get the same old results. Can we change creatively without a riot? What’s the constructive online equivalent?

I wonder what would happen if only a few hundred Hub users took a #khub campaign forward on Twitter and blogs – since they can’t engage others widely in the Hub. That creative and well-intentioned Twitter mob could both drive discussion into the Future of Knowledge Hub group, and also start to explore how to operate without the Hub in its present form, but with a wider range of interests. That might require a pop up Community of Practice on the lines Dave Briggs mentioned in a comment, since there are restrictions on who can join the Knowledge Hub,

Just off to see if We Will Gather might be a way to get started …

** I should add that these are my own ideas, and while sparked by excellent discussion yesterday, are in no way a summary of our considerations.

Update: as one Knowledge Hub user points out in response to my re-post of this over there, he’s not allowed to use Twitter at work. So we have Twitter users who might like to share with local government people but can’t use Knowledge Hub, and vice-versa. That confirms my belief we need to look at the why and who … to achieve what … before tweaking the how.

2 Comments

  • June 6, 2013 - 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post David – brings all lof the key points together in one place, which provides a useful reference point for further discussion.

    Taking one of the points mentioned in your post (and discussed at the meeting yesterday):

    >While we all did our best yesterday to come up with some helpful insights into how Knowledge Hub might be improved, repositioned, repurposed etc it was difficult without basic information on usage, costs and options under consideration.

    I was reflecting on this after the meeting, and thought that maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing after all. The fact that we didn’t have details of costs, usage and others stats, and had no insight into other options that LGA were considering, we had the freedom to apply ourselves to some “blue sky” thinking, supported and validated by a significant amount of assembled wisdom and experience! Which is perhaps what you meant by turning a crisis intio an opportunity. Amen to that!

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