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, Yoosk, Debatewise, 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.