Tag Archives: lobbi

Re-visiting the challenge of networking civil society as Khub closes

News that the Local Government Association is closing its Knowledge Hub as part of a £2 million savings plan provides a reminder of how difficult it is to maintain big one-stop-shop knowledge-sharing systems. And smaller ones too.

Dave Briggs has launched a rescue bid, and I’m sure Dave has the skills and helpers to develop a lighter version if he can persuade the LGA (and users) to collaborate in a handover, and can develop a new business model. There’s the rub.

It may be the Knowledge Hub, with 18,500 users (correction – apparently 150,000 registered but not clear how many active) could have continued if LGA hadn’t faced a big cut in support from Government, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Knowledge hubs take a lot of work not just to manage the technical system, but also to continue to recruit users and facilitate interactions. I know that Michael Norton and others at khub have been excellent in doing that, and have attracted many compliments amidst the news of closure. But it is a skilled business, and it costs. You can recruit some volunteers for different groups, but they need support too.

Steve Dale, who designed the Communities of Practice predecessor to Khub, and then conceived the new design, has recently been writing about Social Ecologies as a a different sort of architecture to tackle “the key challenges and opportunities for anyone who wants to survive and thrive in this emergent social ecosystem”:

  • Social media is generating enormous amounts of unorganised content: how to make sense of that.
  • Social networks enable a wider range of connections: how to find people and develop relationships.
  • New forms of collaboration are made possible by social media and networks: how to organise and manage.
  • There are a bewildering variety of methods and tools: how to choose and learn to use.
  • The new ways of making sense, connecting, collaborating, and using technology throw up the need for new skills: what are the new roles and the new skills?
  • The emphasis on open access and sharing changes where value may reside: so what are the new business models?
  • Social capital is becoming increasingly important in establishing trust and credibility in the virtual world: how do we increase or measure our social capital?

Steve and I have discussed this a lot, and I drew on that for a paper with Nick Wilding last year for the Carnegie UK Trust, about the future for rural networking. Part of the challenge was how to develop new business models for smaller Communities of Practice, like the Ning-based Fiery Spirits system that had been supported by the Trust. Because of a change of emphasis in their work, they were looking for a new home for the system.

My conclusion was fairly blunt: it is difficult to see how that sort of system can be maintained independently without a lot of funding, or volunteer effort. I know the latter is difficult to maintain from my own experience with similar systems. The alternative, I suggested, is that it can be part of a bigger system of online networking associated with an organisation, if they are going down the route of becoming a Networked Nonprofit on the lines described so well by Beth Kanter and her co-authors.

The Plunkett Foundation has now taken on Fiery Spirits and I hope they are able to integrate it with their other ambitious developments. That would be a good demonstration of migration from old to a new organisation-based model.

I don’t know what model Dave in mind, but do know of his past work in online learning, where people are prepared to pay fees, so perhaps there’s an option for blending free and paid for.

I’m interested in looking at things from the other end – that of helping people become their own knowledge hubs within the wider knowledge ecologies Steve Dale explores in an excellent second post on the topic. As well as developing personal digital literacies, in the social ecology we’ll need digital curators to help make sense and join up conversations and people: what I’m calling social reporting. Digital curators are working “in the wild” rather than as online community managers on knowledge hubs, which of course raises another business model challenge. How do we earn a living? And how do the curators cooperate within a field to make things as easy as possible for others? That’s for another post.

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.

Update: I’ve just come across a post by Steve Dale, initially the lead consultant and architect on knowledge hub, setting out what it was meant to be. It looks a if cut-backs during development removed integration with other social media, and led to poor user experience.

Update 2 Steve Dale provides more background and a vision of what a user-controlled knowledge hub might be like here

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

 

Developing a Lobbi kit for local agents of change

Following a Lobbi strategy group meeting yesterday – which I trailed here – it looks as if one strand of development will focus on a kit of technology tools to support local change agents … that is people doing good stuff in their community.

Those change agents might be councillors, community organisers, people running local groups, citizens running a campaign and/or generally working to revive local democracy. The tools they use (or could use) might be existing ones used by groups like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Eventbrite, Evernote, Dropbox … as well as email, texts and phones, of course.

The tools may also be new ones like the many mobile apps under development – perhaps including some by Apps for Good, who train young people to be developers.

Lobbi’s mission – led by Hussain “Hoz” Shafiei and Steve Moore – is to promote citizen engagement and action through social technology, and as I wrote earlier ” bring politics into the 21st century”.

I’m particularly pleased about this possible strand of Lobbi’s development because it ties in with some work I started last year on community enablers (for want of a general terms), and earlier ideas for a social app store further developed by John Popham. More links below on the background, and what follows.

I’ve used the term “change agents” because during our workshop discussion one group made the point strongly that it’s no good assembling a kit of technology tools to offer to community enablers unless you have some idea of how change happens. That may be through campaigning, working with elected representatives, crowdsourcing funding for new projects, building new networks and a host of other activities. You need a theory of change, and models for how stuff happens. I particularly like the thinking of Tessy Britton and Eileen Conn on that.

So far Lobbi has focused on developing a major web platform that would enable citizens, their elected representatives and officials to interact. In my earlier post I raised issues of what it might take to attract people to the platform, manage and fund it. I suggested a couple of early angles, now emerging:

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.

The ideas went down OK with Hoz and with Steve, who kindly tweeted encouragement:

At yesterday’s strategy workshop we agreed that developing a kit that helps you make a change in your community, with a mix of tech and others methods, could be a good start towards much wider engagement of citizens and their representatives.

The second point I raised – above – could be met by mapping who is doing what already, and developing a network for enabler/change agents to support each other.

What next? I’ll be following through on the exploration and development I’ve already started, with a view to an update on the workshop that we ran last year, which made a start on scoping out a kit. I hope to interest others in the emerging Lobbi network to develop a plan for testing and evolving a kit, with some “for real” local testing, and review that with Hoz and Steve.

Update: I’ve expanded here on the ideas behind a kit in the first in a series of posts

 

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.