Community activist hub: right problem, wrong solution

I’m puzzled by the recommendation for a “central information hub for community activists” from the Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, Baroness Newlove. Her report on Our vision for safe and active communities: Government Progress Update, has an introduction from David Cameron, and this as its first priority:

Creating an online ‘home’ for community activism. Building on existing online services, these easy to find and simple to use ‘hubs’ will provide community activist ‘starter kits’, together with useful links, contact details, up-to-date funding information and the ability to recruit potential volunteers online.

I’m sure that Baroness Newlove has good evidence of a demand for information from her work in local communities in recent months – so, right problem. What’s puzzling in a Government announcement is that it was only last year that Mr Cameron launched Big Society Network and Your Square Mile as a solution. You can see the video here.

Since then the Network, now led by Steve Moore, has shifted its focus to support for social entrepreneurs, innovative forms of giving, and young people in Big Society. Your Square Mile, led by Paul Twivy, has received £830,000 from the Big Lottery Fund as part of BIG’s People Powered Change programme.

Big Lottery is also funding the Media Trust with £1.89 million to develop a national news service with local news bubs.

Then there are existing online communities like the National Community Activists NetworkOur Society, ABCD EuropeFiery Spirits, that do a good job of linking local and national activities in the field, and providing lots of resources.

Despite all these emerging solutions, I can understand the information and support deficit that Baroness Newlove identifies. I’m always struck by the big difference between conversations in London around the latest initiatives from the big funders, and the bewilderment among many local activists as to just what’s going on and where to get help.

However, I don’t think that  dropping another hub into the emerging mix is a good idea. A few years back we had a lot of hubs for the third sector around topics like governance and capacity building and I don’t think they survived. The excellent Know How Non Profit hub, previously funded by Big Lottery, has just announced a merger with NCVO to ensure its survival.

The problem is that the notion of an information one stop shop is a very 1990s vision of the way that the online world works. It goes back to the time when there wasn’t much online, and the solution seemed to be to upload it and manage it in one place.

These days there isn’t a lack of information, conversations, or sources of help – they are all over the place. And that’s the difficulty for the community activist who probably doesn’t spend a lot of time learning how to search and organise this content. Their understandable response is to ask for a place to go.

Unfortunately it is very costly to maintain “hubs”, and difficult to develop something that meets the very diverse needs of community activists. We need to think networks: how to encourage organisations that hold information, and provide advice, to improve their online presence and share content in ways that make it easily searchable. We need people – dare I say social reporters – who help aggregate and curate content for different users, and help people to do that for themselves. We need to cultivate rich knowledge ecologies, not blight these with short-lived top-down planting  (Choose your own metaphor).

My favourite example of network building is Transition Towns, whose conference I attended recently. Their website demonstrates how to aggregate resources from many different places, and support local initiatives.

OK, it is easy to snipe at a report with a simplistic solution, and an apparent contradiction in government policy. But there is a real opportunity here if Baroness Newlove would use her position to advocate a shift towards network building. That hasn’t happened enough in the past because it is much easier to pitch for funds to build a shiny new hub that it is to do the tough work of weaving together existing assets … what’s known in the offline world as asset based community development. Simply put, making the most of what we have got.

So my suggestion would be for Baroness Newlove first to ask Your Square Mile for an update on their ambitious plans: maybe their aim of supporting and connecting local square miles will be a good basis for more networking. Their Twitter stream is buoyant, there’s news of local projects, but the website is a little short on detail of national plans. The Media Trust plans sounded promising when I interviewed Gavin Sheppard recently. Both of these are funded by Big Lottery, who have a wealth of contacts and intelligence through their many funding programmes that connect with the smallest local groups. Their People Power Change programme has the funding and influence to do some of the joining up that’s needed. (I should declare that I’ve been pitching a few ideas their way. I’m also a co-founder of Our Society).

Above all, I hope Baroness Newlove will pay attention to the various online communities that I’ve mentioned, where enthusiastic volunteers are struggling to help activists,  with limited resources. Before opening a Government-funded one stop information supermarket, think what that will do to the existing shops.

Thanks to Julian Dobson, also an Our Society co-founder, for pointing out the report.

Update: Baroness (Helen) Newlove has a blog and also a twitter account @helennewlove so there’s a welcome opportunity for some direct discussion on this. I hope we can use that to come up with some constructive ideas.

Looking at Helen’s blog, and the way she became an activist after the horrific murder of her husband, I’m concerned my points above shouldn’t be taken as criticism of her dedicated work, or insights gained from that. My point is that this being promoted as a Government report, with an intro from the PM, so it is fair to suggest more connection with other initiatives in the field that the Department of Communities and Local Government know about.

Or was this deliberate kite-flying? Puzzling.


One comment

  • August 2, 2011 - 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Sometimes it seems that the digital world is aburst with wannabee portals looking for reasons to live.

    Technology is a relatively easy to achieve asset amid the complexity of the range of contemporary problems. A new portal always sounds like a nice thing to do, and provides a shiney controllable object people can gather round and say ‘look! we built a portal’.

    One rarely sees aggregation projects getting off the ground in spite of them being far more reflective of the bottom up nature of community activism; I would tender a guess that aggregators aggregating local community activist news feeds and projects and making sense of them geographically and semantically wouldn’t strike the funders/management as ‘enough’ in some way. Perhaps this is related to the organisational and individual ego, and something yet deeper in us which is afraid of the gigantic scale of the challenges ahead, and wants to see something that can look like progress has been made.

    In my experience of encouraging an aggregation approach when people say ‘we’d like something to support the bottom up activist movements’ (who all already have their own sites), it is clear that people usually want to build YAFportal 🙂

    830K GBP for Your Square Mile, eh? Wow! We’ve done all our work for 40K GBP. Looking forward to seeing their work 🙂

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