Tag Archives: yoursquaremile

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.

The challenge of networking civil society

Summary: local activists and volunteers need to share their achievements and experience in hard times. The publicly-funded sites for this have some limitations, and  smaller sites, mainly run by volunteers, don’t have the resources to grow. Is there scope for more joining up, rather than further top-down solutions?

Government policies of localism and cuts to the voluntary sector are pushing citizens and community groups to do more for themselves on the ground, and find their own ways of learning from each other nationally. A couple of recent events prompted me to review what is available online.

The first event was an invite to chat informally to a new team in the government department of Communities and Local Government about the role of social reporting in helping sharing. It was very encouraging to meet a young team full of enthusiasm and enquiry, who describe their remit like this:

The neighbourhood engagement team are working to open up the conversation on neighbourhoods policy to a greater range of people: sharing enthusiasm, tapping into a wider pool of ideas and examples and exploring how government can best support those who want to have greater control and influence in their area. Workshops and online platforms will empower those active in the community to continue the conversation across professional silos, supporting each other to innovate in local arenas with less central government direction.

The second event was a webinar, organised by Globalnet21, on whether social networking can “help create a network of mutual independence that strengthens the countless groups that are the social glue of our civil society”.

That nudged me to prepare the slides that I posted earlier, based on work I did last year with Big Lottery Fund, as well as the blogging I’ve done here about social reporting. I’ve linked a lot in this piece so you can find starting points for your own research, and draw your own conclusions.

I started looking at what platforms are being developed to help people share – about which more later. However, as you’ll see from the slides, I was also emphasising that sharing is about networks, not one-stop-information-shops, and it is people who make that work. It takes people who have some digital literacy skills, with the support of facilitators. An excellent post by Tim Davies says it very well and is worth quoting at length:

When we look at a successful example of online collaboration the most obvious visible element of it is often the platform being used: whether it’s a Facebook group, or a custom-built intranet. Projects to support online learning, knowledge sharing or dialogue can quickly get bogged down in developing feature-lists for the platform they think they need – articulating grand architectural visions of a platform which will bring disparate conversations together, and which will resolve information-sharing bottlenecks in an organisation or network. But when you look closer at any successful online collaboration, you will see that it’s not the platform, but the people, that make it work.

People need opportunities, capabilities and supportive institutional cultures to make the most of the Internet for collaboration. The capabilities needed range from technical skills (and, on corporate networks, the permission) to install and use programs like Skype, to Internet literacies for creating hyper-links and sharing documents, and the social and media literacy to participate in horizontal conversations across different media.

But even skills and capabilities of the participants are not enough to make online collaboration work: there also needs to be a culture of sharing, recognising that the Internet changes the very logic of organisational structures, and means individuals need to be trusted and empowered to collaborate and communicate across organisational and national boundaries in pursuit of common goals.

Online collaboration also needs facilitation: from animateurs who can build community and keep conversations flowing, to technology stewards who can help individuals and groups to find the right ad-hoc tools for the sorts of sharing they are engaged in at that particular time. Online facilitators also need to work to ensure dialogues are inclusive – and to build bridges between online and offline dialogue. In my experience facilitating an online community of youth workers in the UK, or supporting social reporting at the Internet Governance Forum, the biggest barriers to online collaboration have been people’s lack of confidence in expressing themselves online, or easily-address technical skill shortages for uploading and embedding video, or following a conversation on Twitter.

Building the capacity of people and institutions, and changing cultures, so that online collaboration can work is far trickier than building a platform. But, it’s the only way to support truly inclusive dialogue and knowledge-sharing. Plus, when we focus on skills and capabilities, we don’t limit the sorts of purposes they can be put to. A platform has a specific focus and a limited scope: sharing skills lays the foundation for people to participate in a far wider range of online opportunities in the future.

The challenge of supporting sharing and local innovation was picked up last year by the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) under its banner of People Powered Change, with investments of £5.76 million in a range of programmes including Your Square Mile and the Media Trust’s Newsnet, as I first wrote about here, and followed up later. I then worked with BIG for a few months exploring, with John Popham, how they might be more than a funder. Posts here.

As part of that work I put together a Netvibes dashboard taking feeds from the main community and voluntary sector sites.

I’m a little circumspect in what follows, because BIG is a client, and I know the people involved in Newsnet and Your Square Mile, and admire what they are trying to achieve.

Here’s Linda Quinn of BIG,  Gavin Sheppard on Newsnet,  Paul Twivy of Your Square Mile, in interviews last year.

The bad news is that at present it is almost impossible to find out what is going on, where to get help, how to to connect. As I aimed to show in this slide from the webinar (pdf download), there’s a big gap between local networking and national, with many unconnected initiatives in between.

I know it is early days, but as well as the CLG neighbourhoods team work, further announcements are due soon from BIG about People Powered Change (see below), so it is a good time to review progress so far, and how to build on or complement those investments. We have the elements of a rich knowledge ecosystem if we can join them up.

Your Square Mile (£830,000) has a powerful vision of what people may need locally, and a site that does a smart job of aggregating useful data and advising people about local services and the part they may play. There is currently no networking, but that may be a feature of next stage development. Baroness Newlove, Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, favours the site as the hub for community activists, as I reported earlier.

In addition Newsnet (£1.89 million)  has a vision of local hubs to connect a network of citizen journalists. Their site has some limitations, but there is interesting discussion and some good examples of hubs, with ways to upload and network news promised later.

In my view something like Newsnet has great potential if it can blend the dynamic of community reporting with citizens finding their own voices to tell their own stories. However this will take time, and on current plans Newsnet site will be archived in two years, when BIG funding ends. We can’t reckon it will be a long-term element in the mix (however, see update below).

Meanwhile a range of unfunded online communities like Our Society, ABCDEurope, and NatCan are doing well in each attracting hundreds of members and a wide range of discussion and resources. Networks like Transition TownsFiery Spirits and i-volunteer show what is possible with some modest investment in platform, and far more facilitation. Tim Davies facilitates Youth Work Online here.

(Disclosure: I’m one of the group running Our Society).

Mandeep Hothi, writing for Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, reports on the results of some other BIG-funded work supported by DCLG’s Empowerment Fund, confirming again that investment in social media and technology is not in itself the answer. It is people who connect. Social media can amplify and assist … but we need to understand the fine grain of how that works as a blend of face-to-face, SMS, email, forums, Facebook and other methods.

Another of the People Powered Change partners, NESTA, are just beginning a big programme of research and development in the field of hyperlocal communications. Interest from the BBC may help catalyse a network of hyperlocal activists in London.

So … we know that just investing in technology isn’t the answer, and that instead it would help to improve and support the digital literacy of activists. We know there are a number of programmes that could join up to achieve this: I’ve only highlighted a few.

But who is going to help bring it together? Big Lottery Fund is a strong supporter of the idea of asset based community development: making the most of the resources that you have in any neighbourhood, rather than just looking at the problems and putting in more funds. Could BIG apply that philosophy to networking for civil society?

After the workshop we ran with BIG in December, Linda Quinn wrote:

We’ll then spend some time working our thoughts into an overall strategy that will inform a paper to our Committee in March. My sense is that much of what we discussed is about how we engage, how we share and how we collaborate. Some of this I think we can test out in pilots, some of it requires us to think how we might change our internal processes but all of it requires that we carry on the conversation with those who have helped us so far and hopefully will remain constructive critical friends and supporters in the future.

In drafting this post, I started at this point to write that Power Powered Change phase two, when announced, may be more about investment in people than in technology platforms, and that it might be developed in part by bringing together the various initiatives I’ve mentioned, and others, to co-design something  for the future.

However, I don’t know if that will be the case – and on reflection I don’t know that we need to wait on BIG … however welcome their support would be.

I then wondered whether there was more scope for joining up the smaller sites I mentioned – even if only by sharing newsletter items and some feeds, and having a shared signposting system of who is doing what where: a more accessible version of the Netvibes dashboard I developed.

Ideally this network of networks should be animated by some social reporting … helping people make sense of the civil society ecosystem, and joining up conversation. It would be the online equivalent of local community building, in this instance designed to make the most of the knowledge assets that we have.

What do you think? Is there a problem for activists trying to get information and advice, and connect with others? If so, should we follow Baroness Newlove’s suggestions, and focus on the development of one site, like Your Square Mile? Or should we try and build a knowledge ecoystem of smaller sites, and of civil society organisations better able to network online? (By we, I’m thinking of those who manage online communities or other civil society sites).

The NESTA hyperlocal research and development programme is very timely. Maybe we need something similar at national level.

Update: if you are interested in the big picture, Steve Dale has some deeply-researched slides and notes on The Future of social media and social networks

Update 2: I dropped a query about Media Trust plans into Newsnet discussions, and Gavin Sheppard responded:

“Whilst the BIG funding is for another two years, we’re committed to supporting the platform beyond that date. Obviously further development will depending on what funding is available to us, but I see no reason why the community can’t continue to grow beyond 2014″.

Government champion backs Your Square Mile as activist hub

Last July Baroness Newlove, the Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, promoted the idea of a central information hub for community activitists, as I reported here. Her latest report favours Your Square Mile as the the solution.

The report is a pdf, so I have clipped the relevant section:

I am a firm believer in the power of information.

Technology has, of course, changed everything in terms of the ease and speed at which information can be got out there. I applaud this Government for the importance it attaches to transparency. Putting more data into the hands of citizens means they can hold services and decision makers to account. It means they are also in a better position to get involved, by working out exactly what needs doing to improve their neighbourhood.

However, as I have said elsewhere in this report, I get very frustrated, whenever I see information wrapped up in jargon or presented in very complicated formats. Organisations need not just to surrender the information they hold. They also need to remove all the trappings that suit professionals, or other people well versed in bureaucracy, who have the time and training to handle data. These unnecessary barriers will discourage the people who really count: hard-pressed local residents trying to work out what’s going on, what to do and how best to do it.

My original report in March 2011, and the Government Progress Update that followed in July, set out the criteria for a successful, effective online ‘hub’ for the kind of grassroots activists I believe in.

I have said that I want to see a service that is clear and simple for the end users. The information they need should be just a couple of clicks away. It should be presented in language that everyone can relate to and understand.

A good hub would showcase what works and explain how different areas have overcome problems. There would be content provided by activists and practitioners, rather than Government. There would be links to local information, allowing activists to get their hands on facts unique to their area.

In July we also said that, if there were promising models already out there, or in the pipeline, time and money should not be wasted on ‘re-inventing the wheel’.

In September, when I met up with activists from the seven Newlove Neighbourhoods who so generously helped me in compiling my original report, I sought further advice from them on what they liked in online information and advice.

Bearing all of this in mind, one model stands out: yoursquaremile. co.uk.

This website was launched in October 2011. It is early days and I really hope it meets its huge potential. It meets the criteria I set out in previous reports, and which I have summarised again above.

  • The Be a Savvy Citizen town map is easy on the eye and easy to use. With a couple of clicks, it allows users to find information on whatever aspect of local life is concerning them and signposts them to where they can go for expert advice if needed.
  • The Local Info facility means that people can find all kinds of information about their neighbourhood gathered together in one place. They can, for instance, find the crime map for their street without needing to log on to police.uk and re-entering their postcode.

Your Square Mile has great promise to be that online website hub for grassroots community activists. As this technology is so fast moving, I shall also keep a look out for other sites which may develop.

There are other websites out there to help grassroots activists grasp the tools and materials they need.

Many spring up daily across the web and in other English speaking countries.

Although the report mentions these sites

… it doesn’t refer to the more obviously relevant ones like Our SocietyABCDEurope, and NatCan that are each doing well in attracting hundreds of members and a wide range of discussion and resources. Networks like Transition TownsFiery Spirits and i-volunteer show what’s possible with additional facilitation.

Nor is there any mention of the Media Trust Newsnet project, supported by the Big Lottery Fund with £1.89 million. More here in my previous posts.

The features of Your Square Mile that Baroness Newlove highlights are valuable, but there isn’t yet anywhere for activists to tell their stories or network with others, and as I wrote in my earlier piece I think the idea of one hub is a mistake. We need a well-connected network of sites. More on that in a later post.

Your Square Mile unveils plans powered by millions of members


Six months development work by the Your Square Mile programme came together yesterday with the launch in London of a new website to support local action, new pledges of cross-party support, and plans to create a citizens mutual organisation with millions of members.

You can catch up on the background to Your Square Mile on my earlier post here, including a talk though the site by YSM managing director Jamie Cowen.

Today at 1pm Jamie will engage in a live chat online hosted by Our Society here.

At yesterday’s launch we heard support from both Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, and Tessa Jowell, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, and from a couple of the 16 pilots YSM that has been supporting. YSM is a partner in the Big Lottery Fund People Powered Change programme, for whom I am doing some work. read more »

Your Square Mile launches new site and mutual for local action

ypursquaremile site

It looks as if the Your Square Mile initiative, headed by Paul Twivy and supported by the Big Lottery Fund, has found some middle ground between the Tory Big Society and Labour’s Good Society.

Tomorrow YSM will be holding a press event to launch it’s new web site http://yoursquaremile.co.uk now online; show a documentary about the pilot projects they have been working with around the country, and explain more about plans to make YSM a mutual owned by millions of citizens.

Unusually they are expecting both Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, and Tessa Jowell, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, to wish them well at the event. read more »

How helpful is journalism for People Powered Change? Further thoughts.

What sort of community media and support for knowledge sharing, learning and innovation do we need – both locally and nationally – when the big society policy agenda expects so much more of citizen-led action?

The significance of this issue - which I touched on rather theoretically here – is now given more practical import by the Big Lottery fundingfor the Media Trust’s ambitious £1.89 million programme of news hubs for local communities, which I reported here and here. read more »

Big Society in crisis? It’s just becoming big society

Opinion surveys and a report from ACEVO – which represents the chief executives of voluntary organisations – have led to a fresh round of stories about how Big Society is doomed, the government must try harder, no-one understands it, and more seriously that BS policies will increase inequality.

The Independent on Sunday headlines The Big Society in crisis: Are the wheels coming off the PM’s Big Idea?. The Guardian says Government urged to take a strong lead in Big Society, Third Sector magazine reports Banks missed ‘historic opportunity’ to support voluntary sector and i-volunteer blogs that Forty percent of people still don’t know what the big society means.

There’s clearly substance in all the stories, although some are more negative than the tone of the ACEVO report (Word doc) which “embraces the Big Society as an agenda” while calling on the Government to “fill in the blanks” on contributions from banks, support for deprived communities … and also improve communication and leadership.

However, I think that the way which we can best understand Big Society is changing. (Warning: mixed metaphors follow). read more »

Big Society in crisis? It's just becoming big society

Opinion surveys and a report from ACEVO – which represents the chief executives of voluntary organisations – have led to a fresh round of stories about how Big Society is doomed, the government must try harder, no-one understands it, and more seriously that BS policies will increase inequality.

The Independent on Sunday headlines The Big Society in crisis: Are the wheels coming off the PM’s Big Idea?. The Guardian says Government urged to take a strong lead in Big Society, Third Sector magazine reports Banks missed ‘historic opportunity’ to support voluntary sector and i-volunteer blogs that Forty percent of people still don’t know what the big society means.

There’s clearly substance in all the stories, although some are more negative than the tone of the ACEVO report (Word doc) which “embraces the Big Society as an agenda” while calling on the Government to “fill in the blanks” on contributions from banks, support for deprived communities … and also improve communication and leadership.

However, I think that the way which we can best understand Big Society is changing. (Warning: mixed metaphors follow). read more »

Balancing “real” and online local collaboration: 80/20?

A few weeks back I posted a piece over here about the Big Lottery-funded Village SOS programme, which supports some exciting and ambitious local projects, plus local web sites, all linked to a forthcoming BBC series.

The local sites are developed using SocialGO – and I remarked that they looked pretty empty. I wondered if this was a bad omen for the Your Square Mile programme, using a similar approach, also funded by BIG to the tune of £830,000: most recent YSM news here. I wrote:

The big issue it raises for me, in relation to Your Square Mile, is whether there will be training and support for the local online community builders. I should think SocialGo can delive the technology – but it is people who create the content. Is anyone supporting the Village SOS online managers?

The post was on a clippings blog I use occasionally use, and I hadn’t ticked in the email notification for comments, so I didn’t spot the excellent contributions from my online-savvy friend Ed Mitchell, of the Transition Network, and Claudio Concha, head of new media for BIG. I’m mortified. read more »

Balancing "real" and online local collaboration: 80/20?

A few weeks back I posted a piece over here about the Big Lottery-funded Village SOS programme, which supports some exciting and ambitious local projects, plus local web sites, all linked to a forthcoming BBC series.

The local sites are developed using SocialGO – and I remarked that they looked pretty empty. I wondered if this was a bad omen for the Your Square Mile programme, using a similar approach, also funded by BIG to the tune of £830,000: most recent YSM news here. I wrote:

The big issue it raises for me, in relation to Your Square Mile, is whether there will be training and support for the local online community builders. I should think SocialGo can delive the technology – but it is people who create the content. Is anyone supporting the Village SOS online managers?

The post was on a clippings blog I use occasionally use, and I hadn’t ticked in the email notification for comments, so I didn’t spot the excellent contributions from my online-savvy friend Ed Mitchell, of the Transition Network, and Claudio Concha, head of new media for BIG. I’m mortified. read more »