Search Results for: "big society"

A little recap on Big Society

I’m really enjoying Paul Twivy’s book Be Your Own Politician, which champions social action and citizen engagement, informed by his insider knowledge of how challenging it is to promote and negotiate support for that within the political establishment and Whitehall.

Paul recounts how he succeeded through work with Comic Relief, Timebanking, Change the World for a Fiver, and the Big Lunch, among much else – but not so much with the Big Society Network and Your Square Mile. His chapter on how this unwound is fascinating, and generally confirms my understanding as an independent observer and also paid-for socialreporter for the Network at one stage. Here’s the Big Society Wikipedia entry.

Paul recounts the point at which the change of leadership of the Network, from his initial role to that of Steve Moore, emerged through Steve promoting the fact in his bio for a TEDx event in Athens in November 2010. I picked up the bio reference – without any briefing from Steve – and blogged a piece “Steve Moore leads new Big Society Innovation Platform“.

I aimed to provide people with an even-handed update on Big Society developments, because they were so difficult to come by,  and declared I’d known Steve for a some years and worked directly for him and then the Network. I explain that Paul had worked hard on developing Your Square Mile, and this was due to launch soon.

Unfortunately Steve had jumped ahead of any official announcement, and Paul recounts in his book the difficulty and embarrassment this caused. (I didn’t appreciate until now that Steve had used Paul’s slides for his talk). May I offer a retrospective apology for my part in the upset? I probably should have checked, since I had worked for the Network, and owed it more than a purely journalistic relationship.

On the other hand, there was considerable public interest in Big Society and the Network, and I think it’s fair to say I was one of very few people trying to get behind the politics and provide a running account. I was frustrated by the lack of briefing – although reading Paul’s account, I can now better understand the reason for that. It wasn’t an open process.

Anyway, you can read that particular blog post here, and judge its tone yourself. The tag cloud on this blog – right sidebar – shows that that over the years I’ve written more about Big Society, Big Society Network, and Your Square Mile than most topics, starting with a report of the launch. That includes a video interview with Paul and Nat Wei, as well as David Cameron’s remarks. I subsequently joined the Your Square Mile mutual, reported the launch, including an interview with Paul.

I’ll leave the retrospection at that for now, although it would be interesting to reflect on what Your Square Mile was trying to achieve, and whether there are lessons for what’s now needed for local social action, blending digital and non-digital methods.  There may be some wider value in the work I’ve been doing with Drew Mackie on Living Well in the Digital Age, and the idea of local Living Labs.  Here’s some thinking on operating systems and social apps, connecting local frameworks with the DCLG Grey Cells model.

Two reports promote people-led local solutions – Big Lottery Fund strategy and a Locality campaign

Two launch events today promote more local control and citizen involvement in the delivery of services and the development of community projects.

  • Locality, through its Keep it Local campaign, is pressing for more public service contracts to be let to local organisations, instead of large private sector companies. They quote research promising big savings, and well as more responsive services.
  • The chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, Dawn Austwick, has launched a strategic framework Putting People in the Lead, saying “we want to start with what people bring to the table, not what they don’t have; and from the belief that people and communities are best placed to solve their problems, take advantage of opportunities, and rise to challenges”

Locality is, in part, arguing on behalf of its 500 members, some of whom supply local services under contract and would like to do more.

However, I think there is a very valid argument more generally for local contracting, because it it will be increasingly important to make the most of local assets and relationships as public bodies face more cuts.

There’s a rather good 2012 Locality essay here by Jess Steele on new-style regneration.

New regeneration will be driven by local people as agents of neighbourhood change, connected through solidarity networks, with the state and market as enablers. It will focus on the fine grain of the lived neighbourhood, abjuring all silos and proactively weaving new fabrics of ownership and responsibility for the built and social environment. It will work within its means, finding new ways to unlock resources and capture value. It will encourage and reward the grassroots virtues of thrift, impatience and sociability.

That doesn’t work so well if a lot of the resources for local delivery are controlled centrally, and directed to standard formulae.

Locality have also been playing their part in realising local assets, and building networks, with their 5000-strong programme of community organisers that has supported around 1500 new community projects and actions over the past four years. The programme has been funded by Cabinet Office as part of the original Big Society vision. A new legacy organisation – Community Organisers Ltd, or CoCo – will launch this summer.

The Big Lottery Fund framework is admirably short, with the emphasis on some key principles and general statements about the way the Fund will work as an enabler and catalyst as well as grant-maker. Dawn Austwick writes:

We also want to be more of a catalyst and a facilitator – recognising the feedback we got about our place in the funding ecology and civil society more broadly. It’s not our job to prescribe but it can be our job to link, to share, and to encourage. To be a network, or a central nervous system that people navigate around, finding fellow travellers, being surprised and intrigued by the work of others, sharing evaluation and impact stories, and so much more.

There are three specific first steps:

Accelerating Ideas: a pilot programme providing a flexible route to funding for innovative practice that can be adopted and adapted more widely to grow its impact.

Awards for All: new test-and-learn pilots are underway to simplify our open small grants programme.

Digital Community: a new function of our website which will begin to put digital at the heart of our grant-making. The community will enable people and organisations to network, collaborate and communicate, opening the Fund up to our stakeholders.

I know that these ideas have been some time in development, from work John Popham and I did for BIG on People Powered Change back in 2011–12. I don’t know if our input made much difference, but Shawn Walsh, Linda Quinn and other staff were very responsive to the ideas we were reporting, and Linda’s blog at the time foreshadows some of today’s directions *.

As I wrote earlier BIG have already soft-launched their digital community, which you can see here in test mode.

There’s a blog post about the Strategic Framework but as yet comments are not enabled (see correction**). However, Dawn is inviting responses on Twitter @DawnJAustwick.

BIG are currently interviewing for the post of Digital Community Manager, so there may be more scope for online engagement when that post is filled.

We certainly need somewhere to discuss how things will play out locally in the face of another round of austerity, which looks likely whatever the government, and pressure on local government to save money through digital services.

More ideas later on what it may take to blend digital into people-powered local developments, and help realise Jess’s vision.

* More recent, and extensive, consultations about strategy were carried out last year: Your Voice Our Vision

**  commenting is open on the post about the strategy once you join the site. Obvious really – apologies.

Deep conversation needed on BIG’s Ageing Better community platform. How about asking people in for a coffee?

Update at the end of this post confirming the online community is likely to be launched within a few weeks, and that it will be public and open to anyone interested. I’ll be promoting the idea of additional networking to the Age Action Alliance via their Digital Inclusion Group.

Following my Storify of tweets yesterday about the Big Lottery Fund’s Ageing Better online community, Paul Webster helpfully responded “a conv to watch”. But how to keep the conversation going?

Some really important issues were raised by Paul, Shirley Ayres and Alastair Somerville, following Ken Clemens picture of the announcement sheet at an Ageing Better event. Backstory in these posts.

  • Is there a general strategy for digital engagement and innovation in the £82 million programme?
  • Will the knowledge sharing platform be closed, for programme leaders only?
  • Wouldn’t it be better to connect with conversations already taking place on blogs and other social media?
  • If a new system is planned, wouldn’t a networking tool like Yammer be better?
  • Will the winning submissions from partnerships be published, so we can see what is being planned?
  • Shouldn’t the programme be setting standards for transparency, online learning and public debate?

And all that in a few messages of under 140 characters.  Far more cogent than I see in many forum-based online communities.

The issues are particularly important – as I’ve argued in more detail in this paper – because the knowledge-sharing and innovation challenges faced by the Ageing Better programme typify those of competitive,  centralised, big-spend approaches. It seems crazy to focus so much money on 15 areas (among many more who expressed interest) and then spend so little effort on helping those beyond the privileged few learn from the activity. There’s also the question of how much learning from well-funded projects will be relevant in the leaner years ahead?

The difficulty in holding a conversation about these issues is, I suspect, compounded by BIG’s role as a funder and inevitably rule-bound organisation. On the one hand anyone in receipt of BIG funding, or hoping to get some, will be wary of wading in.

On the other hand, BIG has to be seen to be scrupulously even-handed and cautious … particularly after the little difficulties about funding for projects related to Big Society. (However, I do recall that there were attempts to question, at the time, whether those investments were such a good idea … more open conversation might have helped avoid later embarrassment:-)

I should declare some further interest here, since I led a small team carrying out an exploration for BIG into directions their People Powered Change programme might take, back in 2011-12. That involved a lot open blogging, tweeting and a creative event. So I know that BIG is open to conversation within an appropriate format.

I don’t think anything so substantial is needed to get things started. Nor do I think online exchanges should be in the lead. Maybe something like a David Gurteen Knowledge Cafe? If the Treasury can host a discussion on How can we more actively share knowledge, BIG could host its own. David has even produced a tip sheet on how to run a Cafe yourself – though I know it will be best if he facilitates.

So the answer to the challenge of how to keep the conversation going could be as easy as “pop in for a chat and a cup of coffee”. And tweet it as well.

As a small contribution to the online chat I’ll also be posting shorter pieces over on this Known blog that I hope will more easily integrate posts and social media comments.

Update: just after I pressed the button to publish this post I got a tweet from BIG’s Older People team following up my earlier requests for a chat saying one of their Ageing Better managers would be in touch soon. That’s really encouraging.

Further update: the chat was very helpful in confirming that the online community will be launched within a few weeks, and that it will be open and public. I felt, from our discussion, that there was acceptance of the value of strengthening digital innovation in the programme through links with a range of interests in the field. I’m sure BIG will be make their own connections – and I said that additionally I would report to the Digital Inclusion Group of Age Action Alliance with a proposals to complement the new platform with some bottom up network building – as outlined here.

A tasty intro to digital – Tea, Toast and T’Internet


Time was when introducing older people to the potential of the online world – in official pursuit of digital inclusion – meant a computer, trainer, and possibly a bit of a struggle with the mouse.

Now we are beginning to see a less formal approach: tea, toast and tablets. I think it is likely to be more successful. Here’s why.

I was recently delighted, and intrigued, to be copied into an email from Myra Newman thanking people for their support for a London event run at the Central & Cecil Sheltered Housing scheme, together with Primrose Hill Neighbours Help (PHNH).

The note was backed up with photos by Lee Christopher-Coles, showing residents clearly having a lot of fun trying out tablets … many for the first time. Lee wrote:

Some of the residents were amazed you could use an app to find out the next bus, or book tickets to the ballet. And even Skype. The impact it can have using a tablet, instead of a computer – that seems pretty daunting and locked away in another room, is far greater.

Among Myra’s thank-you’s was this reference:

At the `Wealth of the Web’ conference in January, David Wilcox and Professor Leela Damodaran offered encouragement to run a digital inclusion event. Without them, the `Tea, Toast and T’Internet’ session might not have happened.

Myra was referring to the workshop Drew Mackie and I ran in January with Age UK London, where some 50 people invented a set of fictitious characters, told their life stories, and played through in groups how the online world could help them meet life challenges they faced, and explore new opportunities.

There wasn’t a screen in sight, because we were making the point that the best way to engage people was to start with their interests, not with the technology, and have some fun. I may have mentioned the idea of iPad tea parties.

Since then I’ve been making rather slow progress in gaining official support for further events … but meanwhile Myra and friends have just gone ahead and done something more interesting. I rang Myra to find out how … and discovered the importance of long-standing relationships, volunteers with professional skills, combined with personal determination.

Here’s the story, with some additions from PHNH and others at the event

Primrose Hill Neighbourhood Help manages a volunteer befriending service for isolated older women and men, and also runs information sessions at a Central & Cecil Sheltered Housing Scheme. Digital Inclusion Officer Nathaniel Spagni recently installed WIFI in the lounge. There are computer drop-in sessions at the centre.

Lee, a social media champion from Age UK London ably assisted PHNH with an eye-catching flyer, `Tea, Toast and T’internet’ and helped on the day of the event. The flyer was posted on the main noticeboard at the Centre and residents signed up. Tea and refreshments were prepared and served by a public-spirited resident who took charge.

Myra was for 32 years a Camden librarian, and is well connected with many local groups and networks. With support from Richard Higgins, C&C Centre Manager and confident of the interest of a few residents in having a tablet demo, she made a call to Breezie, who are working with Age UK to market customised Samsung tablets. Breezie provide a service that makes it really easy to set up the tablet, and add more apps as people’s confidence grows.

Myra wrote:

I was bowled over by the number of residents who voluntarily joined us for a cuppa and a piece of toast to find out more about using the internet. The Breezie team guided residents through the steps and along with a cuppa, the `hands-on’ experience was a positive one. For many, the wonders of this new phenomenon was a light-bulb moment.

Quotes from residents:

I was never interested in learning about computers and always thought I’d stick with pen and paper but the demo of tablets has changed my mind. I’m now hooked on the idea of having a tablet.

I was impressed with the enthusiastic people who guided us on a 1-1 basis on how to use tablets.

Sounds like making a fresh, new start as I don’t get on well with my computer.

I’m particularly interested in being on the internet and encouraged by the fact that Email will already be set up on Breezie and that unlimited support is offered for 12 months.

That Device Company, who are behind the project, aim to donate £50,000 to Age UK during 2014 through promotion and sales.

On the day Breezie CEO Jeh Kazimi turned up with a team of volunteers, and six tablets. These run on the Android system, which out-of-the box can be more difficult than Apple iPads – but the virtue of the Breezie is that it provides a simplified set-up that can be tailored to individual use. I think it would be really interesting to arrange a session with iPads for comparison. My hunch is there will be pros and cons on each.

Jeh has written about how Breezie was born from the challenge of helping his mother, on a visit to London, to use Skype to connect with her husband in India.

My wife and I helped her by sticking post-it notes all over the computer screen. Sounds odd but, for mum, it meant that she paid attention only to the parts of the screen she needed to, and ignored any extraneous information and clutter.

From this, an idea formed: why can’t technology become more human, rather than humans having to adapt? The need for apps that can be used by those with little or no technological nous – and there are still more than 6 million UK adults aged 55+ who’ve never used the internet before – and the need to deliver it without patronising or limiting them, was clear.

Tablets are key to solving the problem of digital isolation. While most of us can use a mouse as easily as we can put our shoes and socks on, it’s not that easy for everyone. It’s very difficult for the rest of us to imagine but desktop computers can seem intimidating to those alien to technology. Tablets, however, are portable, unobtrusive and the touchscreen designed to be intuitive – a good starting point for those who’ve never used technology. The next hurdle was to work out how to deliver this to the digitally isolated.

The Breezie approach clearly worked well at Tea, Toast and T’Internet

Laura Wigzell, Coordinator of Community Time Camden wrote:

It was a fabulous event. Having spent some time helping older people on laptops and desktop computers before, I was quite astounded at how quickly some of them picked up using a touchscreen tablet in comparison. It was pretty impressive really! So well done you and the other PHNHers for all your amazing effort in pulling the afternoon together – otherwise those folks would never have had a chance to have a go on such technology and would have remained intimidated by it. Now many of them are intrigued and excited by it and have begun to think how it might be useful to them, which is a much more positive place to be. The tea and cake certainly helped too – a lovely vibe in the lounge that afternoon. Looking forward to the next one!

Laura then blogged a piece with the promise of a further event.

Richard Cotton, Prospective Labour Candidate for Camden Town with Primrose Hill Ward, said:

Congratulations to Myra Newman, Primrose Hill Neighbourhood Help Information Desk and everybody involved in making the afternoon such a success. It was an honour to be there and great to be able to help in a practical way. I think many older people wish to embrace new technology for the way in which it can tackle isolation. For example, my late Mother lived abroad but was able to keep in contact with her wider family through email and skype. Others are able to use the internet for shopping, watching films, social networking or just browsing. It’s important to ensure that older people are including in the digital revolution, which is transforming all of our lives.

And added:

I hope we can find a way of sourcing some kit to extend this. It really is a great idea, which will help tackle isolation amongst older people living alone.

Danny Elliott, Age UK London Communications and Campaigns Officer, sent me this story of the value of showing people what’s possible on the day:

As part of my role at Age UK London I work with older people on a variety of digital skills through our Fit 4 Purpose workshops. At Jacqueline House I spent around half an hour with James Nelson, one of the residents. James had a desktop PC that a friend helped him use due to poor eyesight. He’d never used a tablet before.

At Age UK London we believe that anything can be used as a motivator to get online. James and I looked at a supermarket website and I showed him how you can order groceries online – he was interested in that, but it wasn’t enough. I then asked him who he supported. “Chelsea.” I asked, “What’s your favourite Chelsea moment?” Without hesitation James told me it was the 1970 FA Cup Final replay at Old Trafford. He was there, and saw his team lift the trophy. Within seconds I was on YouTube and James was reliving that day… and he really was reliving it! When Leeds scored he told me, “They went 1-0 up, but they don’t win.” James cheered when Chelsea scored and told me he thought it was ‘amazing’. James had seen the endless possibilities of being online… football is a great motivator!

At Age UK London we want all older people to have the skills and opportunity to be online and to use that access to fuel the passions they already have.”

I sent a draft of the post to Professor Leela Damodaran, who helped inspire the tea party, and who has led extensive research in the digital inclusion field. Leela responded on the challenge of maintaining support, if participants are able to acquire a tablet in the longer term:

Lots of important messages are expressed in a compelling way in your report. One additional critical point that needs to be highlighted is the importance of the on-going support that follows after the experience of Tea, Toast and T’internet is over and the new ‘convert’ finds him/herself alone with the device. In other words, a technological device alone – whether a tablet or anything else – cannot by itself solve digital and social exclusion. The value of 12 months unlimited support offered with Breezie should not be underestimated for the confidence and sense of security it promotes – especially among new users. (Clarification from Age UK and ‘That Device’ on how users’ interests will be safeguarded and their support needs met once the 12 months has passed should be sought as a matter of some urgency before widespread promotion of the Breezie proceeds).

It is also the case that the leadership and commitment of Myra and her colleagues, the support from local government, from a member of parliament and from a community such as Primrose Hill Neighbours Help (PHNH) were crucial achieving such an empowering experience for the older participants involved. All these factors working in combination are crucial to the promotion of successful digital participation of older people. It will be important that documented reports of the process make very clear that far more is involved than simply handing out technological devices!

Picking up my perspective on the story …

I’ve added rather more quotes than I usually might to a post because it seems to me the secret of success on this sort of occasion is the connections between people in the area who may not have technology as their main passion, but who see the potential and will support someone like Myra with an experiment. They are the real champions … who may become digital champions and provide support in the longer term.

I should add that the party idea isn’t new: Age UK, and Age UK London have run Techy Tea parties, some of them supported by EE. Digital Unite, who organise the annual Spring Online programme, are also promoting the idea, and I should think we’ll see lots more next year. (see update below).

What seems particularly promising is the combination of local volunteer action with a consumer product to complement the more traditional digital inclusion programmes.

Pictured with residents and a group from PHNH information desk are:

  • Age UK London Communications and Campaigns Officer, Danny Elliott
  • Central & Cecil Digital Inclusion Officer, Nathaniel Spagni
  • Camden Councillor, Patricia Callaghan, Deputy Leader, Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Health
  • CEO of Breezie, Jeh Kazimi
  • PHNH/Age UK Social Media Champion, Lee Christopher-Coles
  • Primrose Hill Community Library Volunteer/Labour Candidate, Richard Cotton
  • Resident of the Oldfield Estate sheltered housing scheme and resident Board member, Sally de Sousa
  • Kay, resident and provider of tea and refreshments

The C&C-PHNH event was supported by:

  • C&C Centre Manager, Richard Higgins
  • Coordinator Community TIME Camden, Laura Wigzell

Update: as I was finalising this post, I spotted that the mobile network operator and Internet Service Provider EE have won a Big Society Award for running 68 Techy Tea Parties during 2013, with over 565 staff voluteers. David Cameron is quoted as saying: “Whether it’s creating an email account to connect with friends and family, or learning how to use an iPad, EE’s ‘Techy Tea Parties’ are demystifying technology and giving people the skills to get online”.

Olaf Swantee, EE CEO, says they will bring Techy Tea Parties to every store, office and contact centre across the UK this year – so maybe there’s scope for more local partnerships.

The big question, of course, is whether people will buy – or be able to afford to buy – a tablet and mobile Internet connection after the party. I’ll follow up on that in a later post. Meanwhile, cheers all round.



Dropping into conversations about Community Architecture, 25 years on

These days the principle of helping residents create the neighbourhoods they want is official policy – supported by Government-funded programmes like Communities First, the Lottery-funded Big Local and of course through the idea of Big Society, relaunched yet again yesterday by David Cameron.

Radical inspiration might be traced back to the Diggers and Levellers of the 17th century, and the plotlanders of the last century, but there’s a case to be made for saying that this type of initiative became mainstream through the promotion of the idea of community architecture in the 1980s.

Yesterday evening provide a great opportunity catch up with the pioneers, when Routledge relaunched the 1987 book Community Architecture by Nick Wates and Charles Knevitt.

Not only were Nick and Charles there, but also Dr Rod Hackney, who can claim parenthood of the movement through his work dating back to the early 1970s. By 1987 Rod had become President of the RIBA, and so was well-placed to provide official support, along with Lord Scarman, whose report after the early 1980s riots concluded it was essential that “people are encouraged to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area”. He wrote a foreword, and according to biographer Anthony Holden, the book also became a Bible for Prince Charles in developing his views on architecture.

We gathered for drinks in the RIBA bookshop, and some brief speeches, including one from Rob Cowan, who has been writing, designing and training in the field since the 1970s.  He gave a year by year account of how Governments have been appropriating community architecture and planning ideas, with more or less deference to the original ethos. It was also a pleasure to chat with Professor Michael Hebbert about the work he is doing on London governance, 50 years on from the Act to create the Greater London CouncilI had a few anecdotes to share from my time reporting for the London Evening Standard in the 1970s.

Michael and Rob worked together on Vision for London, after the abolition of the GLC by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

Rather than try for some formal interviews I just added a microphone, with permission, to the conversations. Rod Hackney is still busy, and his colleague Tia Kansara in Kansara Hackney provided an update on their international work on sustainable community architecture.

Charles Knevitt and Nick Wates

Professor Michael Hebbert and Rob Cowan

Rod Hackney and Tia Kansara

I think it is splendid that Routledge have republished Community Architecture. At £70 this edition is mainly aimed at libraries, but there will be an eBook at £24.95, and you can buy a PDF from Nick’s site. Do also take a look at Nick’s compendium of advice at Community Planning.

Back in the 1980s I was working on Groundwork Trusts – recalled in this publication – and on Development Trusts. A book for the Department of the Environment, Creating Development Trust, written with my then colleague Diane Warburton and others, sits on my shelf.  I don’t know whether HMSO could agree to any re-publication, but the essence of it was expanded into a 1998 Guide to development trusts and partnerships.

There are now hundreds of trusts around the country, supported by Locality, which is the successor to the Development Trusts Association.

I mention development trusts because Nick also started the Hastings Trust, where he lives. Just as I was leaving last night Nick said he’s now involved, as a trustee, in winding it up. There was a lot of creativity in urban planning and regeneration in the 1980s … but while the ideas may persist and grow, organisations are not forever.

Much discussion about networking local government – now how about the rest of civil society?

The story about closure of the Local Government Association’s Knowledge Hub – which I covered here – has gathered momentum over the past week, with various behind-the-scenes moves to keep it going or develop an alternative, and a gathering of some members of the former advisory group planned this week.

There has been extensive tweeting and blogging, and the Knowledge Hub team of online managers and facilitators have again shown the value of their role by summarising discussion so far on the value of the hub, how it makes a difference, the risks of closing, and importance for local government of enabling collaboration online. Here’s their gathering up of  ideas for the future action.

Suggestions for future action/use

  • Increase the market base for Knowledge Hub and “sell” it to other parts of the Public Sector: Health, Police / Criminal Justice, Civil Service, LEPs etc.
  • Reduce the cost by doing it more cheaply either by expecting the maintenance etc to be done more productively and / or reduce some of the functionality.  What are the most used parts?
  • Would there be some way of paying a subscription to try to keep it going or would we simply not be able to afford it?
  • I’m currently gauging the interest in having a F2F meeting with the original KHub Advisory Group in order to solicit ideas that can be consolidated into a more formal response.
  • Go back to CoP, alternative funding (e.g. Local Authorities contribute, advertising), alternative hosting/support (e.g. Google)…..
  • I would have thought that to let the Hub run without technical development would be an acceptable compromise
  • Look at the whole range of options both in terms of funding and alternative platforms and then get users to vote (not sure, can we use the ‘Ideas’ section for this?)

A week ago I think the Hub team were rather overtaken by events when news of the closure leaked, and initially there was no provision on site for discussion – hence the tweets and off-site blogging. There is now a discussion group on the hub about it’s future. I’ve captured some of last week’s Twitter discussion in a Storify here.

In writing about the Knowledge Hub closure I revisited the challenge of networking civil society … that is, how to help voluntary and community organisations, and volunteers, who are often working closely with local government, to share their experience and learn from each other.

The government’s Big Society policies rather depended on this to be effective, but in the event spending cuts led to the reduction rather than expansion of networking support. We don’t hear hear much of BS except as awards, and helpful though those are for groups they aren’t a substitute.

The Knowledge Hub is mainly limited to local government. If the aim locally is more cross-sector collaboration, shouldn’t this be reflected nationally?

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we need one big all-purpose  networking platform. In my earlier piece I also picked up on Steve Dale’s suggestions of a different sort of social ecology architecture that blends specialist platforms with Twitter, Google Plus and other networks. Steve is the original designer of the Knowledge Hub, and as he explains here and here that sort of integration was envisaged in the Hub before elements were cut by LGA.

Anyway, we are where we are: with everyone agreeing that knowledge sharing and collaboration is very important particularly in hard times, but government local or national failing to support the infrastructure needed to achieve that … or even facilitate a sensible discussion on what’s needed. Who might do that?

Last time I wrote:

Meanwhile I have been exploring alternatives to the knowledge hub model in recent posts, prompted by ideas for a sort of civic Facebook or similar system developed by the new Lobbi initiative. The original vision there has been for a system to connect politicians, officials and citizens to tackle local issues and revive local politics. I love the enthusiasm behind the idea … but if a big outfit like LGA can’t make a knowledge hub work with fairly digitally savvy professional users, with shared culture and practises, is it realistic to think it possible to do something big with a far more diverse set of users?

In any case, whether or not sustainable knowledge hubs can be maintained, they won’t do everything, and anyone aiming to use digital technology for social good will need a set of personal literacies and tools to do that: hence my exploration of Creating a whole kit (and caboodle) for community enablers and agents of change and What’s digital life like for a community enabler?

I did write in an earlier post that I thought whatever challenges Lobbi faced in developing a platform, it could have an important role in acting as a convenor and catalyst for a wider movement for social technology for social impact, linking politics and local social action. Maybe it’s time for a get-together around the new architectures, roles and skills needed to meet The Challenge of Networking Civil Society, as I wrote a year back. It’s not getting easier.

Unfortunately I can’t follow up with a report that Lobbi is likely to step in here. The Linkedin group for a Lobbi Squad of supporters is very quiet, and although I attended an advisory group a couple of weeks ago I don’t know whether our suggestions are being taken up. As I reported after that meeting, there was more support for enabling change agents than building a sort of civic Facebook … but a Lobbi platform may still be in favour. I’ll let you know if I hear more.

You’ll see from a second Storify that I created on Networking Civil Society revisited that quite a few people active and well connected in the field joined in discussion on Twitter … among them Dave Briggs, Shirley Ayres, John Popham, Catherine Howe, Cormac Russell and also Karl Wilding who I should congratulate on his appointment as NCVO director of public policy.

Karl and Megan Griffith Grey brought a group of us together in the early days of social media for some very creative discussions leading to a number of useful publications. I wonder if NCVO could offer a room for some more structured discussion on today’s challenges – perhaps with Community Development Foundation? That would help reflect the interests both large and smaller organisations, as well as the enthusiasm of the free agents and connectors.

Storifies of related tweets

Here previously

What’s digital life like for a community enabler?

Following my rather theoretic post about developing a how-do kit and networks for community enablers I’ve had a couple of exchanges that fill out the reality. Here’s an amalgamation of those, combined with my experience and workshop discussions.

The voluntary sector community enabler’s story

I’m a development manager in a voluntary organisation that supports local groups, so I work with colleagues and volunteers on training, providing information, helping with fundraising, dealing with the council and programmes funded by Big Lottery and other agencies. Life is too many meetings, too many calls, too many emails, too much paperwork.  I enjoy it, but would love to find ways of using technology better to be more effective.

We need to be on top of the latest information nationally and locally, and already use sites like KnowHow NonProfitKnowledgeHub, Locality, Getlegal, Directory of Social Change for advice. Then there’s Zurich’s Community Starter site for groups planning action, and Community HowTo for digital tools.

Despite all that it is really difficult to put together help for people that I support – and manage my own personal information. I’ve got an iPhone but know I only use a fractional of what’s possible, and on my computer I’ve ended up with collections of bookmarks, lots of pdfs in different folders, spreadsheets storing contacts. I know I should transfer to our website and share with others, but there’s never the time.

Communications online is a mess. One large project is using Basecamp, some groups have Facebook pages, and Twitter is OK for quick messages, but not for groups. Mostly we end up with lots of cc emails.

I’m interested to see what Urban Forum found in their survey of social media use, and might try Yammer when I have a moment … but it’s no good if others won’t use it.

As well as managing our own communications we have to try and help some local groups who have been told that they must set up blogs to report how they are using funding under one of the big national programmes. That’s pretty challenging for volunteers who may be excellent at face-to-face relationships and newsletters, but just don’t have skills or confidence to do much online beyond email and standard websites. A few did manage to use the simple Posterous site, but that was bought out by Twitter and closed and they had the nightmare of trying to transfer elsewhere.

It’s tempting to think that some sort of new platform for everything might help … wasn’t Your Square Mile aiming to do that as part of the original Big Society plan? The problem is getting people to move from the familiar, particularly if their friends aren’t there and they are doubtful whether it will be maintained.

I would love to see someone trying to develop useful ways to help people like me and the groups I support – and would do what I can to help.

But it can’t be one-size-fits-all, and it shouldn’t duplicate what’s happening already. We need better connecting of existing resources, and ways in which people can pick and mix the simplest set of tools they need, with some confidence that they will continue to be available. Of course it’s not just about the tools, it’s about developing digital literacy as well as all the other literacies we need in this sort of role.

Where can I find other people like me interested in learning together?

Does this ring true? As I wrote yesterday, enablers might be councillors, community organisers, people running local groups, citizens developing a campaign and/or generally working to revive local democracy. Do please drop a comment, or email me and I’ll fictionalise if you prefer. Then we can run a workshop like this one.

I have embedded links to most of the references above, but they aren’t showing up too well. I hope to fix that shortly.

Thanks to the enablers who shared their digital lives. More please!


Creating a whole kit (and caboodle) for community enablers and agents of change

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Big Society, Our Society and networking civil society


Introducing Lobbi – with bold aims to change politics locally and globally

Downloading Democracy 2013 – Archived Live Stream from John Popham on Vimeo.

Earlier this week Lobbi, a new initiative promoting citizen engagement and action through social media, hosted a Downloading Democracy event in London. You can that see that it was a well-informed and lively affair from Mick Fealty’s excellent report, the live stream recording and Storify from John Popham.

As well as convening the event, Lobbi is developing a new online platform, outlined in this interview with Mick by the founder and initial funder of Lobbi, Hussain “Hoz” Shafiei.

As he explains on his Linkedin profile, and the interview, Hoz is “an Iranian by blood an Arab by birth and an Englishman by upbringing” with a passion to revive UK politics with an demonstration of what might also make a difference to other nations and cultures.

Hoz writes:

I returned to the UK in 2011 and decided to no longer work in a commercial industry and started on my journey to enhance global democracy. It is for this reason that I started Lobbi a project that will allow a real time connection between the electorate and their elected representatives….

Lobbi is an innovative and unique method of engaging the electorate to become re-enthused and involved with politics on a long-term basis. This is created through the ever-growing power of social media, with a Facebook/Twitter-esque interactive forum and information portal.

Lobbi provides the voting public with the means to discover current issues that affect them – instantly – via their smart phone, tablet or computer. In addition, they can get their own views across in the same way as they’d post on Facebook or Twitter. But more than this, it’s a two-way street, as politicians and elected representatives also interact, giving them a vital link to the public mood on a ‘real-time’ basis.

In short, Lobbi brings politics into the 21st century – and about time too…

You might ask, what’s new? I’ll come to that … but first, what’s not.

You can find a free event most months in London about how we need to revive democracy, and fairly frequent discussion of the role of the Internet.

We are still asking Is e-democracy now a reality? as the BBC reported in 2007, with periods of excitement around the role of social networks in the Arab Spring and the success of the Five Star Movement in the Italian election.

What’s certain is that we have plenty of online spaces for general campaigning, and specific systems for civic engagement, whether developed for citizens by mySociety or agencies like Delib.

Consumer Focus has sponsored a Digital Engagement Cookbook with 68 recipes, and Helpful Technology offers a Digital Engagement Guide of practical help and ideas.  For a wider perspective, just look at the programme for Personal Democracy Forum in New York next month. For advice on what’s worked or not, check in with Steven Clift who coined the term e-democracy in 1994 and has been promoting it globally ever since.

Steven is particularly informative on the hard slog of achieving an inclusive approach, which may come more by knocking on doors and using email lists than new social tech functions.

So how might Lobbi make a difference? At this stage I should declare an interest, because I’ve been engaged in discussions on a Lobbi Linkedin group over the past few months, and also invited to join a smaller group next week to help inform strategy. I’ve worked with Steve Moore, who is leading Lobbi development, on a number of projects, including in the early days of Big Society Network.

Steve is now developing Britain’s Personal Best (BPB) “which convenes thousands of organisations and millions of people to achieve a personal accomplishment over the course of one weekend each year”. He’s a man with the ability to carry though a big idea.

I don’t know what the Lobbi strategy will be. That depends in part on discussion next week. As Hoz indicates, a mobile-friendly system is under development that could, potentially, connect elected representatives in an area with citizens there, enable reporting of local problems to agencies, and encourage neighbour-to-neighbour cooperation. However, old hands in this field will warn that tech doesn’t do it alone.

Firstly, just build it … and they probably won’t come. Why should citizens embrace a new system  if they are happy with Facebook and its scope to create groups, pages and networks? Why should politicians and officials engage in a system that may not integrate with the ones they already have in-house?

Secondly, local politics and community action requires a blend of online and offline activity. That’s not just because a third of people may not be online – a point made by Chi Onwurah MP at this week’s event. Or that, in my experience, relatively few community activists are enthusiastic online activists. It’s also that getting things done, once you go beyond Clicktivism, involves building new relationships and trust, working through ideas and options, and making decisions in complex situations. Online isn’t enough for that.

Thirdly, if you do manage to get a lot of people online in the same place, you need to put a lot of effort into facilitation and site management. That’s a skilled operation.

The more ambitious you are, the more the costs and management issues increase. Where will the revenue come from, not just to manage and develop systems, but to fund the offline activity?

I suspect that in further discussions to refine Lobbi, those experienced in the field will suggest either focusing on one activity that current platforms and programmes are not offering – and do that really well. Or aim to connect some of the very disparate online activities currently underway. And to be agile – try stuff out small scale, revise and redevelop.

My hunch is that given Hoz’s passion, combined with Steve’s contacts and convening skills, Lobbi might do well by aiming to be as much a movement and community as a new platform. What was very evident at the Downloading Democracy event was the number of people who’ve been around the scene in the last six or seven years welcoming the chance to meet up for a chat. After a burst of activity in 2007-09, and the failed hopes for Big Society, we’ve rather lacked the social spaces to bring together social techies, community activists, new-style democracy advocates … well, forget the labels, I mean people who want to do good stuff locally using a mix of methods new and old.

At local level, there’s general accord that it makes sense – particularly in hard times – to go for an approach that makes as much as you can from the strengths of local people, projects, and buildings before developing new initiatives from scratch and seeking funds that might otherwise support existing initiatives. Map existing assets and networks, and concentrate on community building. Social technology can help in that process, as I’ve explored here and here.

Maybe there’s a couple of new angles for Lobbi: one focused, one more open.

First, if looking for a niche, consider focusing on how to digitally enable the enablers who help build communities. What help do they need in the personal use of technology, how can they help others, how can they enable their organisations. Go person-centric.

Second, take an asset-based approach nationally. Map who is doing what in this first, and aim to build connections both personal and technical. Use that knowledge both to advise and build kits for the enablers, and to create a strong community and movement for technology-enabled social action.

Hoz and Steve have been generous in bearing with the challenges that I and others have raised during earlier discussion, welcomed new ideas and connections, and remained determined to press ahead. With that sort of spirit, Lobbi could be a catalyst for a fresh approach to politics and local action.

As Mick Fealty puts it more eloquently in his report:

There’s a term in evolutionary biology called punctuated equilibrium which suits the uncertain times we are living in. The gist is that big changes in living organisms largely occur in short episodic bursts when their external environment undergoes some form of drastic change. In such terms, the current multiple crises in democracy is being driven by sudden and rapid technological advances in human communication.

The resulting uncertainty is a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories and practices for how we might functionally respond, both as collectives (nations, communities, sharers of a global environment) and individuals (politicians, priests and citizens). None of us really know where any of this is taking us, though we can see and feel seriousness of the deficits that arise as a result of the disruption of ‘business as usual’. There are no road maps.

When life isn’t business as usual, we need people like Hoz and Steve. If only to get me blogging about this stuff again.

The official and unofficial connectors that may make localism work

Yesterday I was at the launch of a substantial report about “official” work in neighbourhoods, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on how councils can take forward government policies to decentralise control, promote active citizenship and maybe help realise big society.

The language was of good partnership working, civic responsibility, maximising the opportunities in devolution, community leadership roles for local councillors … and professionals working on this for years.

However, success also depends upon the less official matter of how far citizens are prepared to do more for their neighbours, and how councils can encourage people to engage more in providing local services formally or informally.

As Liz Richardson of Manchester University, the author of the report says, the key issue is about attitude as much as policy:

The big lesson is about trust and risk – transfering more control means you have to trust people that little bit more to do things by themselves. Sometimes they’ll mess up, sometimes they won’t. There has to to be some way of keeping that accountable, but allowing space for it to happen.

Liz has been working with Mick Charlton and other officers, councillors and residents in Bradford, where the council already had an impressive record of neighbourhood working before the coalition government developed big society policies.

JRF have been working there since 2004, so it is an ideal place to explore the issues in depth. As Mick explained in the interview, there have been two-way benefits of sharing ideas with researchers.

Earlier in the week I spent a day with a team of community builders at Forever Manchester, exploring how social reporting could help their work in local neighbourhoods – as explained here.

The talk there was of getting out and talking to people, making connections, helping people find skills and resources in the community … and aiming to be able to move on from the neighbourhood within a year or so once new networks were developed.

In London Mark Parker is telling the story of his work with a team of community organisers in Southwark. It is mainly on the street, rather than committee rooms, and in Noticing the unusual suspects Mark makes a distinction between those well-versed in the official world, and the unofficial connectors, a term he attributes to Cormac Russell. Mark writes:

Community leadership needs to be both horizontal and vertical. Some people are eager to speak their mind to the powerful and will tackle the problem they encounter head-on. These folk seldom have time for a deepening relationship with their neighbours and can be criticised as speaking for themselves alone. Others are the glue that link together people and places in any community. They are often well-known locally – in the street or on the block – either as that kind old lady (and often they are women) at No 6 or that old busybody! They hold a great wealth in social capital and are seldom seen at community meetings. Yet their role in bringing people together is vital.

So is there a divide between official, top-down, and unofficial bottom-up, as it is often characterised? I don’t think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it (and certainly not one promoted in the JRF report … they just couldn’t cover everything, and the full report has more about the community perspective).

We need both parts of the system, with more side-to-side connections and networks both in agencies and in communities.

Where the JRF research, and the community organising and building experience do join up, is in the focus on the importance of neighbourhood workers, builders, connectors – whatever they may be called.

Local service delivery is complex, and so are communities. We need the joining-up people. If we agree that, what becomes interesting is the philosophy, and style by which they work, which is something I’ll return to later.

Here’s the key points from the JRF report:

  • Neighbourhood workers are key to co-ordinate partners and services, broker agreements and solve problems creatively.
  • Active citizenship could be strengthened by tapping into the pool of ‘willing localists’.
  • Transferring more control to communities requires new mechanisms to share risk and reward between public sector bodies and communities.
  • Councillors can play a community leadership role, and be honest with constituents, tackle difficult issues head-on, and mobilise the wider community.
  • Central government could offer support, guidance and leadership for action at the local level on the shared challenges facing local public sector organisations and local government.