Social innovation is happening: will Government join in?

This autumn the UK Government departments responsible for citizen empowerment, tech-supported innovation, and democratic engagement have a chance to catch a wave of optimism about what might be achieved through more open, cross-sector collaborations. But will they rise to the opportunity? There are some encouraging signs.

The UK government likes to say it is working hard to engage and empower citizens bottom-up, while also devolving power through changed systems of governance. The problem is there’s often a big gap between the hype on pilots, awards, White Papers (official proceedings as usual) and new ways of doing things that are actual more empowering and innovative (opening up, collaborating, conversing).

However, it looks as if the Ministry of Justice is getting things right on several fronts with their democratic engagement programme. (Before I go on I should say I have done some work for the Ministry, and benefited from funding, so I do start rather well-disposed and also with some understanding of how difficult it can be for civil servants to do things differently on this front).

This week the Ministry announced another round of their innovation fund:

Now we want to support projects that you will run to help people to address public issues and influence government.

If you can think of a way to get people talking, we’d like to hear it. We have £150,000 available to develop about ten proposals.

What’s new this time is that people are first invited to post their ideas to a blog site (WordPress is really taking off in Whitehall) and discuss with others, and then submit a full application. (Update – and Typepad. See Simon Dickson’s correcting comment)

It looks as if applicants will get marks for being collaborative:

We encourage you to strengthen your proposal by discussing your ideas on this site before you submit an application. There are lots of people with all kinds of experience who can give you great tips.

So be imaginative, make a suggestion, share your expertise – and help build a stronger democracy.

Just as significant, I think, is the brief note saying that the MoJ will be working with the Power of Information Taskforce who run Show us a Better Way (how to better use data collected by government, as social media Minister Tom Watson explains here) and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills who will help with evaluation. See earlier reference for their credentials.

It’s tempting to shrug and say, “well they should be collaborating shouldn’t they”, but that would be to ignore the traditional determination of departments to operate as self-contained empires, desperately protective of their logos and Ministerial pecking order.

What’s really interesting is what happens next, and how collaborative that is. Already we have Prime Minister Gordon Brown promoting the UK Catalyst Awards, with first round winners announced the other day, and further developments due at the high-profile Chain Reaction event in November. It would be surprising if Hazel Blears’ Department for Communities and Local Government didn’t to follow up their empowerment White Paper with announcements on how they will support innovation (see Dave Briggs and Paul Webster for analysis).

The general idea behind all this innovation funding is helping small groups develop ideas for bottom-up activities to improve neighbourhoods and public services, often using social technologies. As the recent 2gether08 Festival showed, there is enormous potential to harness bottom-up social innovation (demonstrated at SI Camp) and connect it with the new directions coming from media organisations like Channel 4, with their 4IP fund. Logos of those participating above.

I was socialreporting at 2gether08, so had plenty of opportunities to talk to people from a wide range of for-profit industries and nonprofit organisations and sense the real enthusiasm for tackling social problems in new ways. While the one common interest that brought people together was social technology, the potential for open collaborative innovation came far more from a shared understanding that we need changes in culture and leadership to make a real difference. Take a look at this video of JP Rangaswami talking about the Cluetrain Manifesto ten years on. JP identified five themes from Cluetrain which still hold good for any organisation and community:

  • people are human beings
  • people work in communities, and community extends beyond the walls of the firm
  • hypelinks subvert hierarchies … and so conversations can go laterally, not just up and down the ladder of control
  • conversations are richer with the new tools available, and firms have less capacity to control their employees and customers
  • people, in that context, have some power, and what is happening has a democratising influence.

Here’s my take on what might be possible in the autumn.

First, it’s great that Government is prepared to promote bottom-up innovation and put some award-funding behind it. But as anyone knows who is trying to start up or develop a new venture – for-profit or not for profit – that’s not enough. You need the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people, maybe mentoring and training, scope for promoting to other investors and funders. You need lots of networking and the chance to plug in to the networks that already exist.

This is where the challenge is greatest for Government. What’s traditionally worked for Whitehall is top-down, controlled, and not very joined-up You get people to come to your fund, your support programme, your events … then expect them to do the rounds with other departments and organisations. What works on the web is to go where the people are. Instead of building yet another web site it is often better to do a lightweight blog and then concentrate on using a range of tools and platforms to connect with existing communities and networks. The response of the social technology innovator, faced with a new piece of work or project developed by someone else, is “great, if you’ve done that already, I can build on it”. Open source thinking.

No doubt there are people in Whitehall thinking about how to do more of the joining-up started by MoJ: linking the work of different departments. I believe they should go further. Why not talk to the people who have organised Social Innovation Camp, UK Catalyst Awards, geekyoto, 2gether08 and other initiatives about how to build on the networks and collaborations they have developed. Any meta-level social innovation developments by Whitehall could start on the basis that “we won’t do it if you will” – that is, we’ll support your events rather than run our own. If you have award-making programmes we’ll use your systems. If you have great ways to run innovation camps, barcamps, unconferences and the like we’ll support those. We’ll be empowering rather than controlling. It would take the MoJ’s pioneering approach up a level.

The events, camps, competitions, festivals of the past six months have led to high levels of trust and collaboration between social innovators – which is the essential basis for doing something different. Can Whitehall reach out and rise to the challenge?


  • August 1, 2008 - 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Pedant alert! Pedant alert!

    Certainly, WordPress is really taking off in Whitehall… and of course, I’ve played no small part in that. The imminent launch of a new Downing Street site, built on WordPress, is testament enough to that.

    But the Building Democracy site is actually a Typepad blog – as shown by its alias,

    Functionally and presentationally, it’s a direct copy of the Show Us A Better Way site… even down to the submission form being on a separate (sub)domain.

    Regardless, it underlines the point about the flexibility of blogging tools as ‘ordinary’ Content Management Systems… especially if the ability to add comments is on your ‘nice to have’ list.

  • August 1, 2008 - 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Simon – just as well I didn’t give you credit for this one!

  • August 1, 2008 - 5:48 pm | Permalink

    This is great – I love wiki’s as a way of collaborative working.

    You’re right it will be interesting to see how much Gov’t attention and involvement there is in events like geekyoto & the many minicamps around the UK & Europe. I was encouraged to see some Gov’t representation at Geekyoto and hope it’s not just a band wagon jumping thing and they are really committed to help & learn at a grass roots level.

    Also congrats to see 2gether08 fringe participants picking up an UK Catylst Award (they’re perfect on matching up people with appropriate skills sets to help develop projects) and Richard Pope (who’s just left MOO) reaching the finals.

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  • August 3, 2008 - 8:26 pm | Permalink

    David – great post. You remain my best point of reference for linking all these various initiatives, gatherings, clubs and conferences.

    I’ll keep an eye on all this and intervene if I have something to offer. In the mean time, I’m quietly (some may say ‘stealthily) continuing to get various gov departments, local gov and other public sector organisations linked up and collaborating on the IDeA CoP platform ( After a couple of false starts, it looks like national Primary Care Trusts are going to start using the platform. We’re on 15,000 users at present and growing at a rate of about 1000 new users per month. Other central gov users include BERR, MoJ, COI, DWP DCG. Still a long way to go, but some great conversations already happening.

    Will follow other developments via your social reporting.

    p.s. note that link to Social Innovation Camp is broken.

  • August 4, 2008 - 5:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks Steve. It sounds as if development of the CoP platform could be one of the most practical ways to do some joining up. Might it be useful to have a social innovation CoP … and if so, could members extend beyond Government?

  • August 5, 2008 - 1:00 pm | Permalink

    We have an innovation community on the IDeA platform. The focus is on how councils can stimulate & spread innovation. How could we extend this beyond government while preserving the trust we’ve built up amongst existing members? In the meantime, we created as our window on the outside world, to listen into and joining in the conversations going on outside our CoP.

  • August 5, 2008 - 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Sorry the real link is!

  • August 5, 2008 - 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Response to David and Noel:
    I’d like to open up the platform to a wider cohort, i.e. not limited to Gov, but Noel’s point on trust is valid. One possible option is to redefine the domain and purpose of the Social Media CoP (facilitated by Dave Briggs), which already has a good cross section of members (public and private sector). Trust amongst existing members of the platform has not so far been compromised, and neither will it provided we maintain effective facilitation for this community – i.e. setting out ground rules for the CoP and ensuring members abide by them.

    I’ll discuss with DB and see what we can do.

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