Open, Closed and slightly Dissident approaches to digital mentor bid

The Government’s £900,000 plans to support digital mentors in disadvantaged communities has produced at least three different responses and approaches.

These range from standard “closed” competitive bidding, through to an open collaborative process driven by UK online centres, which I wrote about earlier. Then there’s a bit of dissident muttering that maybe this way of funding development isn’t such a good idea anyway, which I’ll come to in a moment.

At this week’s briefing workshop, run by the Department of Communities and Local Government, we heard how they were looking for one lead organisation to emerge from the bidding process, and for them to work with local demonstrators.

After the official presentation, there were three-minute slots for organisations to make their pitch, and as you can see above, Helen Milner, managing director of UK Online Centres, rose to the occasion with a commitment to an open process inspired by the digitalmentor sites set up by Dave Briggs. The blog, wiki and mailing list has completely eclipsed the forum set up by the Department, providing a neutral space for anyone interested in developing the digital technologies to support communities. I declare an interest here in encouraging Dave, Helen and others down the open bidding route, based on experienced with Open Innovation Exchange bidding process last year. So I was delighted to hear Helen say:

This is about helping people get 21st century skills, so we want to develop the bid in a 21st century way. Everyone is welcome – we want to create a network of networks.

UK online centres, together with Citizens Online and other, have now set up a site – Voicebox – for their consortium, and are inviting people to contribute to the work packages now emerging.

A number of other organisations said they would be bidding – as reported here. It will be interesting to see if they feel challenged to follow the open route.

In addition I found some questioning of whether the top-down competitive tendering process was such a good idea. There is a lot of on-the-ground activity already … so why not find a way of supporting that, rather than encouraging a consortium leader to play favourites among demonstrators?

I rounded up my friends Nick Booth, Dave Briggs and Paul Henderson to air some dissident views, and as you can see here they rose to the occasion with healthy questioning.

In practice I know they are all highly positive about ways to support digital mentors. The issue, perhaps,  is whether a centralised “winner takes all” bidding process – on its own – is the best way to ensure existing initiatives flourish. Paul has already pitched in with support for work packages from Ruralnet and Funding Matters; Dave is helping develop the Voicebox site while keeping neutral; Nick is doing wonderful stuff helping pioneer social media surgeries with the Birmingham Bloggers Group and more.

The potential consortia now have to submit expressions of interest. Once they know who is selected, they have the opportunity to develop bids in more detail. That’s when we’ll see how different lead organisations seek to involve potential local demonstration projects.


  • November 21, 2008 - 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I really think open collaborative developments will make a big difference to how services & initiatives are run in the future. To work though I think theres going to have to be a lot of rethinking about tender processes & funding and also re-education for organisations seeking to work collaboratively.

    As I see it although theres been the use of an open space for people to put in ideas, indications of interest, concerns & so on, from the moment there became a ‘lead organisation’ the process became no different than a closed bid except for the fact there was some stuff people could read online from various parties. What discussions there were, were one way – people like myself feeding in suggestions, others feeing in opinions & concerns, and some notifying of intent or dates for events…. there was and has been no dialogue, no sense of taking an idea and exploring it to see how it could be used. Essentially thats no different than an organisation reading up & researching, maybe holding a consultation but then getting on and putting together its bid.

    If there were an open collaboration I’d have been happy to contribute – not motivated by the prospect of finding work, but just because I like to be involved in developing ideas. As it is I’ve had more of a sense of only a few people/organisations really mattering and no indication that anyone is listening, so why waste my time or for that matter give away my time & ideas for free when I may as well charge for them?!

    I do agree with the thoughts about ‘well this stuff is already happening, is there a need for the funding?’ – but then that also suggests to me that the angle currently being taken by the UK Youth Online group is missing the point – of course theres no need to fund what is already happening or would happen anyway – that doesn’t mean you can’t put £900k to very effective use by bringing something new & innovative to the party and supporting those existing initiatives. I suspect instead there will be much talk of innovation but actually the delivery will turn out to be nothing new – which is of course a skill anyone involved in fundraising has had to master over the past few years in order to survive!

    Regardless it will be interesting to see whether the bid is successful and whether the ‘open collaboration’ improves in time should they continue that approach in delivery. It will in any case provide a step along the journey to one day having a genuine open collaboration to tackle problems and needs like this (so long as people are taking an active interest in evaluating the process).

  • November 21, 2008 - 6:58 pm | Permalink

    This is a really thoughtful comment Mike and one I support. Although you might think that strange.

    Over on the blog we are now getting down to the business of scoping what we actually want to do. The focus is on getting the right outcome – eg people who don’t have a voice getting support and help in their communities from local people who can add technology into the mix and inspire them to speak up and speak out.

    I’m really committed to this open innovation process and as yet there is nothing set in stone. There was no objection to the suggested work packages so that’s how we’ve structured the blog. But even that could change. So please do take part in the debate if you can.

    The key point about there being stuff out there from my point of view is that although we talk about joining the dots, and communicating with one another, it is something like £900,000 that motivates folk to talk to each other. Already I can see an improvement in that my organisation is now talking to organisations we never knew of before about things we can do (soon) in our day jobs to make our day jobs more successful.

    What innovation do you think should be funded? Please do come to the blog and let everybody know. I really want the programme to fund innovation, but I only know that I don’t know what that ought to be. I think it might be about giving people access to the right kind of spaces and tools so that the innovation then comes from them. What do you think?

    I hope the open collaboration will improve and that although we will make mistakes along the way, we are committed to trying to make this process work.

  • November 21, 2008 - 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Hi Helen – I think everyone is learning, thats inevitable because so far there isn’t a successful model. Whether your bid is or isn’t successful I’m sure it will still help pave the way for future open collaborations.

    I think that open innovation is very difficult. There are lots of people and organisations that feel what they do is innovative and so very often when invited to put their ideas into the open what actually happens is people fight to promote their own project/service and I do think this is a weakness of the discussions so far. However with good facilitation it should be possible to steer those early ‘me me’ discussions into productive debates about taking forward new ideas or approaches and of course sometimes building on or linking to existing good practice.

    I think too there needs to be a sense of building on peoples motivations and interests – much like with volunteers we need to get to understand what motivates them to give their time freely, there needs to be similar consideration to what is effectively online volunteering. If not the people who will be attracted will only be those that hope to gain financially in some sense, and presumably those that don’t will quickly drop out.

    The dialogue thing is very important. I have already put up quite a few ideas and suggestions but these along with very useful input from some others became drowned once there started to be a ‘please sign me up’ flood. Ideally there needs to be some good moderation to pull things out, link things together and encourage debate where people have put forward suggestions – if not theres a sense of being ignored and therefore what’s the point?

    In terms of where I think there should be innovation – it would be the development of a structure & process that can become long term sustainable. I think theres a really good opportunity here to create a process that allows participants to become progressively involved in the management and development so that ultimately it could continue to be ran by those people (well some of them!). I think this would be a very powerful outcome and theres very good potential for some of those people to ultimately become professionals passing on their new learning, which if well planned could become an interesting social enterprise model.

    I’m going to focus my time on getting my own house in order now and leave the rest of the debate to those of you that will (hopefully) taking forward the future delivery – I have found it very useful to contribute up until now though, and hopefully I’ll put as much learning as possible from that into future projects. Good luck with the bid 🙂

  • November 21, 2008 - 10:10 pm | Permalink

    We look like a bunch of naughty schoolboys in that video! David ought to be told off first for encouraging us.

    Some great new work will happen as a result of this money, and it certainly has acted as a great convener in itself and maybe a motivator too.

    I just hope it gets spent properly… which is why I chose to help out Helen and her colleagues with their bid, as they seem best placed to deliver the programme, and have taken onboard the open, collaborative approach in a really inspiring way.

    I guess my reservations about the money say more about my attitudes about process, organisations and the benefits of being a bit amateurish about things, to be honest. Best leave stuff like this to the people that know what they are doing, like Helen! 😉

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  • December 8, 2008 - 12:08 pm | Permalink

    hello all
    seems to me there are [at least] two things going on here:

    1. people with experience and ideas trying to influence how the money is spent, whoever gets it


    2. people bidding for the funding trying to pick out ideas that may help them win

    Is anyone talking direct to DCLG about point 1? Its forum is dead, but there may be offline opportunities I don’t know about

    Last week’s consultation about the strategy certainly wasn’t an opportunity to pass on comments and insights like the ones that have emerged in this bidding process.

    Any suggestions?


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