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”.


  • March 4, 2012 - 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this pulling-together David. You ask “Is there a problem for activists trying to get information and advice, and connect with others?”

    I don’t think that’s quite what the problem is. The main problem for activists is to distinguish what’s genuine and what isn’t, in a space now occupied by various consortia and organisations that seem to be preoccupied by the attraction of comparatively large sums of money.

    Most activists base their daily commitment to their neighbourhoods on values like empowerment, collaboration, equalities and shared learning. By definition, that means starting where people are at, not with some templated solution from national level. People are suspicious of players seeking to dominate this field who appear indifferent to, or ignorant of, those values; who recite ‘bottom-up’ rhetoric from the top-down; who would be surprised at how important the values are to residents trying to bring about change in their areas.

    It’s not just a problem for activists, of course. It’s eerily reminiscent of the emergence of the digital divide industry, which dates back to the time the Blair government started making money available in a misguided way to address disadvantages which it was assumed technology could dispel (I’ve met someone who was comfortably and unashamedly making £100k/year out of the notion of ‘digital exclusion’).

    The language of community development and of social exclusion has been captured and is being distorted. Are local activists vulnerable to the subtle salesmanship that now goes on? If so, does it matter or is it just the world spinning round the way it always has?

  • March 4, 2012 - 10:57 pm | Permalink

    David, your piece (and Kevin’s comment) raise some really important issues. I think distinguishing between what’s genuine and what isn’t is key, but also difficult. Kevin’s principles for activism are absolutely right, but there are many activists – in the sense of people who are getting out and doing stuff – who have not yet articulated their activism in such a way. And there are also people who appear keen to ringfence the idea of activism with an ideology that can become sectarian and exclusive.

    While I think funding and programmes can often be more of a hindrance than a help, I’m also aware that in many neighbourhoods things wouldn’t get off the ground without help and facilitation. Is that a bad thing if it’s paid for? I don’t think so. But the starting point must be to work with and invest in local people and their abilities.

    National organisations love things to be neat and tidy and easily explained on a powerpoint slide. Activism is the opposite. I think that means that sharing happens in a variety of spaces, even though it would appear to make more sense for it all to be in the same place. But a ‘network of networks’ can be a way of joining up and cross-fertilising ideas and action within this messy reality. Maybe what BIG and others need to understand is that the process is one of linking and weaving, not corralling and organising.

  • Mandeep Hothi
    March 5, 2012 - 10:05 am | Permalink

    Hi David,

    Great post and thanks for mentioning our work. I just need to correct one thing – the piece I wrote in the Guardian was related to findings from our Local 2.0 project, which was funded by DCLG’s Empowerment Fund, not BIG.

    We have been funded by BIG, through People Powered Change, to support community groups to engage in digital activism. This programme is similar to our Local 2.0 work, but instead of just looking to build generic neighbourhood based online networks, we are looking at online driven campaigns at the neighbourhood, city and regional levels.

    more info is on our blog:

  • Jamie Saunders
    March 5, 2012 - 11:39 am | Permalink

    I think there is an opportunity to mention the role, contribution and ‘mediation’ that local government brings or might create over-and-above conventional service provision, through representative democracy, ‘community leadership’, place-shaping/shielding and ‘place/condition-making’.
    It is interesting to note that working with the Local Government Association, the political and constitutional reform select committee has produced a Draft code for central and local government that aims to confirm in statute the functions, roles and duties of local government for the first time. This pushes for Councils in England to be given a legally defined role in the country’s governance.
    The preamble of the draft Code states this intention: ‘Parliament makes plain that within their spheres of competence, local councils have co-equal – not subordinate – status to central government and that their rights and duties shall enjoy equal protection in law.’

    As such with accountability directed to local citizens, local government may have a part to play through ‘enjoying independence in both powers and finance and be entitled to do all that is required at local level, within the law, to secure and improve the well-being of their citizens and communities’

    Local governance oversight and practices with ‘community leadership’ as part of the C21st joining up ?

  • david wilcox
    March 5, 2012 - 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks all for such helpful comments – this seems to be a good focus for discussion, not least because it is leading beyond the online technology.
    Kevin – I’m hoping to start some work soon exploring the different community development/organising/building approaches. I’m encouraged it will be worth while, if sensitive! Anyone else looking at this? Tessy Britton has an interesting overview which I referenced here.
    Julian – thanks for re-inforcing the need for linking and weaving, not just seeking to organise in one place. There seem to me parallels with local community building and connecting, and of course just the thing social reporters should be doing.
    Mandeep – thanks for the correction, and link to your blog, which has some great stories.
    James – thanks for bringing up the role of local authorities, which are of course an enormously important part of the ecosystem. Councils have their own space for sharing in the Knowledge Hub. Should we do more to connect there, or will it be a parallel universe?

  • March 5, 2012 - 12:40 pm | Permalink

    a very handy round up david and some good comments. I am always torn on this one – as a community activist in Kings Cross it would be great to have some place (or maybe a couple of places) to go to talk with others when i hit an issue with a campaign.

    for instance planning or alcohol and entertainment licensing is 80% the same in which ever locality they arise, but it’s really hard to find somewhere to go and ask a question when you are trying to work out how the national framework fits to your particular campaigning issue.

    this gap keeps the barrier to effective activism needlessly high as isolated campaigns repeatedly fail due to basic knowledge gaps. at a local level our community website helps transfer knowledge between local campaigns, but it stops at our boundaries.

    also as a local activist, I am LOCAL and have no interest in joining a national bandwagon umbrella campaign to get help with my local instance of a problem which is probably different, echoing Kevin’s point. but it would be nice if i could find some help through google.

    on the other hand as a former Whitehall official I like nice neat and tidy national things. but they almost never work at a local level. top-down-bottom-up-ism in reality is as ridiculous as it’s own etymology.

    one area that i raised at the people powered change event you facilitated for BIG, or SMALL as they should rebrand is the old fashioned discussion forum. i wrote a blog post about the british addiction to these forums a while ago

    the post discusses some of the reasons why forums haven’t prospered in some areas, such as the third sector (with exceptions such as rightsnet)

    and BIG has now commissioned some research into online mutual support in the voluntary sector which they will hopefully publish in late Spring.

    None of the forums out there at present that claim to support activists are appealing to me – julian’s point about sectarianism in organising. and of course what is ‘genuine’. but it’s still uncertain how to approach creating a space where people can help each other in public and that knowledge created remain visible to all. Successful forums tend to emerge rather than be created top down. Both you and I David have set up enough Nings that died to know that.

    talk of ecosystems is ok, but to help an activist you need something that will turn up in google at about 1130 at night as they try to work out how to tackle a noisy pub down the road – not just a guide to how the licensing regime works, but the visceral tips that help them fight a good local campaign.

    it’s this latter point that makes it hard for local authorities often with a quasi judicial role in local affairs to be in the mix

  • March 6, 2012 - 8:13 am | Permalink

    Will – thanks for some all round, top to bottom wisdom, and the link to your excellent piece on forums. It’s a good reminder that these may be practically more useful than sites that focus on discussion around a particular philosophy of community action …. important though these are too. It throws us back onto the importance of digital literacy and facilitation/social reporting: being able to find your way around, ideally with the help of others who will make cross-platform connections. The former takes some learning, the latter some funding. The current barriers are why bother, who pays – but maybe a better focus for exploration than my original one of joining up platforms.

  • March 7, 2012 - 10:50 am | Permalink

    I think that the conclusion you’ve made around digital literacy is really key. Local activists who see themselves as resolutely ‘non professionalised’ can operate within a pretty low level of digital engagement. Some of the recent conversations I have had with local campaigns are run with leaflets through letterboxes and small demonstrations outside local civic buildings. This means that their opportunity to network is limited, as is the ability of other groups to seek them out. I think this is where newsnet can help. We’re offering training and confidence building to groups and communities that want to report what’s happening in their area, but would not necessarily have thought of sharing this in online spaces before and to encourage them to make links with other groups.

  • david wilcox
    March 7, 2012 - 11:15 am | Permalink

    Thanks Alex – I’ve done a follow up post on digital literacy here , and would really interested to learn what you think about the balance of support needed on tech skills, literacy and reporting. I’m looking forward to stories from groups on Newsnet, which play a great role here.

  • March 12, 2012 - 8:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m pleased that you used the term ‘civil society’ David rather than ‘community’.

    ‘Community’ is often used as a politically correct substitute for ‘lower class’ – a class that, by its inferred inferiority, needs something done for it or to it, to make it ‘fit for purpose’. The term ‘civil society’ differentiates us from the public sector (aims to manage us) and the private sector (sees us as customers). We fill the space between government and business.

    Not too keen on ‘social glue’ though, as in ‘the countless groups that are the social glue of our civil society’. It infers something messy. Those countless groups, us getting together to do things, are the substance of civil society, in my humble opinion.

    What civil society needs is adequate financial and moral support from those it elects and those whose wages it pays to provide them with exactly that.

    They don’t get it. What little ‘trickles down’ always has strings attached. As a result, the greater percentage of civil society don’t bother asking for the king’s shilling.

    Top-down, big ideas, no matter how well intentioned, never work in the long term. What their exponents choose to forget is the absolute requirement to “take the people with you” It’s no good providing them with an option if they haven’t been consulted in the first place and the money that gets wasted is simply heart-breaking. I can think of a local neighbourhood being transformed over a few years from an initial outlay of £200. You mentioned a range of unfunded online communities doing well and attracting hundreds of members in a wide range of discussion and resources. How much better would they do if, should they decide they need it, independent funding without strings attached was made available for them to develop as they see fit?

    Could it be that a vibrant civil society is seen as a potential threat to politicians and that independent funding will never be supported – perhaps they know best after all?

  • david wilcox
    March 13, 2012 - 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just posted a piece on the Media Trust site: The future of Newsnet – a gentle provocation

  • March 14, 2012 - 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve responded

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