Creating a whole kit (and caboodle) for community enablers and agents of change

Discussion at a strategy group about the new Lobbi initiative prompted me to write yesterday about an online/offline kit for local change agents, with references to my previous work with colleagues on kits and the use of social tech for social impact.

Here’s the first of a series of posts on what that kit (and caboodle)** could be, as a set of resources for people I’m calling community enablers, with added networking. That’s the all-important caboodle.

As I said yesterday, enablers might be councillors, community organisers, people running local groups, citizens developing a campaign and/or generally working to revive local democracy. This account is a bit of a ramble, but if I try and get every nuance right it won’t get done. Comments welcome. I’ve put most links at the end.

I’m not suggesting this would necessarily be a Lobbi kit, since it develops from other work I’m doing with colleagues anyway, and the Lobbi vision is still emerging.

First the local context as I see it. Whether under the banner of community development, organising, enabling, building, volunteering, or social action lots of people have been doing good stuff locally for decades – and of course before that without the labels. Councillors and professionals work in support of this, and in addition councils and other public services mount extensive programme to consult and engage with citizens. There have been stacks of how-to kits, lots of consultants and nonprofit networks, but resources fall out of print, websites wither, people move jobs or burn out, networks fold.

David Cameron wanted to encourage more of what he called Big Society (without really acknowledging it was fairly big already), but then cut many of the support systems developed over the past decade or so without enabling alternatives effectively. There are good programmes like Big Local and Community First, organisations like Locality, innovative programmes like Transition Towns, to name only a few. However, coverage is patchy, and there’s a tendency to brand rather than share how-to resources because everyone is competing for funding.

This is just the sort of situation in which social technology, coupled with good curation and facilitation, could help in gathering resources, enabling people to share, promoting both peer-to-peer networking and direct agency-to-citizen support. A group of us tried, as volunteers, to do a bit towards that vision under the banner of Our Society, using an online platform, but without resources it was too much of a struggle to maintain. I should offer congratulations to NatCAN for keeping going, but generally I don’t think the conversation/knowledge hub model works too … about which more later.

Now to the real purpose of a kit. I should emphasise that I’m using kit as shorthand for something that would help anyone seeking to organise or enhance community activity using a mix of traditional and more recent tech-enabled methods. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook groups  are no substitute for newsletters, meetings and knocking on doors. Not everyone has access or is confident online, and some stuff has to be done face-to-face.

At the same time it is waste of enabling power not to use technology as a bigger part of the mix in finding and sharing information, telling stories, collaborating between meetings, crowdsourcing funding and so on.

Unfortunately I see something of a divide between those with deep experience of community action who tend to favour face-to-face, and those who see and use the potential of online organising but may not be so comfortable on the door-step or in the community meeting. There are shining exceptions to this distinction working at local level, including my colleague John Popham who has just announced a WOW bus to take some digital enabling on tour. There are many digital enablers operating in larger organisations and as social entrepreneurs, but I think it fair to say digitally savvy community enablers are thinly spread around the country.

So – what could be done to help anyone acting as a community enabler blend tech into their work, develop digital literacies, and also help others do the same? And how could this also be a way to help enablers and others access scattered resources about traditional methods, share experience with others, and build confidence in new ways of doing things … and keep up their motivation? I think it involves development at several levels, personal, organisational, and systemic, with an understanding of communities, technologies, development processes and networks.

What’s the real value of a kit (and caboodle). I believe that addressing the issue of how to enable enablers, by adding some social technology, could help at several levels.

  1. The most obvious is that it would be a way to bring together scattered how-to resources, and add some technology tools to the kit, provided there were support in developing digital skills – something the Big Lottery Fund is investing in more widely. Maybe there could be support there.
  2. However, a how-to kit with added tech won’t do much unless it also helps develop some common ground and frameworks among the various organisations working in this field, who are each creating their own kits and methodologies. There are differences between community organising as promoted by Locality and Citizens UK, ABCD community building, the Transitions Towns and others – but there are bigger areas of similarity. Teasing out a framework to underpin a kit would demonstrate how they all involve similar aspects of process with different degrees of emphasis: listening, mapping assets, building relationship and networks, organising events, raising funds etc.
  3. The further benefit could be networking with the common challenge of learning about tech. Toolkits don’t necessarily enable action on their own. Some people are happy just to read the manual and apply it … but I guess most of us like to have someone to ask and help.  A framework for community enabling (point 2) could provide the basis of shared practice. Learning about technology could provide a further shared interest and common ground. From that it might be possible to add the caboodle – the networking of enablers, or more probably networking of networks.

What could be the contents of a kit. At this point the temptation might be to gather together the various kits, and sites about community action and enabling, add social tech how-to, create a networking site and launch. Or rather, put together a funding bid first, hoping that the funding agencies have forgotten how kits and networking sites have failed many time in the past to make much impact.

I suggest instead taking one of the strongest lessons from community enabling and applying it to a process of developing the kit and caboodle: stuff works best if people have a hand in designing and developing, because it is then what’s needed, and they own it. One way to do this would be to build on the work that Drew Mackie and I started last year, when we invented the town of Slapham, with its neighbourhoods, organisations, enablers and citizens. We ran a workshop in which we all invented some enabler characters, the challenges they and the citizens of Slapham faced, then played through how enablers could use social tech as part of their work. We’ve done this subsequently for real with an organisation recruiting community enablers, and it worked really well.

The next step is to do a bit more work on Slapham (which we are renaming Slipham since that’s a bit less in your face), fill out the draft components of a kit, and run some more workshops to develop content.

At this point the objection might be raised – isn’t this going to be a very big kit, which people won’t read or use? In development so far, we have been working on the basis that the front end of the kit can be as simple as a set of cards, like those developed by the Transition Towns network to support their Companion, or the set created by the Group Pattern Language Project, with ideas and help on running creative events. We’ve used a similar approach in the Social by Social social media game.

I’ll develop more ideas in a later post about the kit, cards and what in the past we’ve called a social app store of back-up how-to resources. I see the kit as an open source/creative commons resource, so people can rework the material for their own purposes, with attribution and links back to the original.

Now for the caboodle. You’ll see in the links below a lot about the challenges of networking, and building knowledge hubs. The problem – as I reported in a briefing paper for the Carnegie UK Trust – is that it is really difficult to get people to move to a new platform when there are so many online spaces already; it takes a lot of professional resource to facilitate and manage a site if you do get people there; and there aren’t easy ways to generate revenue. I raised these points in a post about the initial Lobbi vision. A further post here will be on the idea of instead facilitating social ecologies, which is being explored by Steve Dale.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in being involved do drop a comment or get in touch. This post is by way of setting the scene. I hope things will make more sense as we draft some of the kit, and run a workshop.

** The whole kit and caboodle: A kit – is set of objects, as in a toolkit, or what a soldier would put in his kit-bag. A caboodle (or boodle) – is an archaic term meaning group or collection, usually of people.

Earlier posts on the community enabler exploration

Big Society, Our Society and networking civil society



  • May 22, 2013 - 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi David

    Good stuff and certainly along the lines I’ve been thinking of, and reading around. I’ve been thinking of a bit of a Venn diagram, based on some of the topics I’m starting to feel are really important. Three in particular: community development, learning, and technology.

    As you say, technology is not a community organising panacea. But computers are excellent tools to use to help organise groups and to facilitate learning.

    Go back to the early days of computing and projects in San Francisco like the People’s Computer Company and the Community Memory and this is exactly what those projects were about.

    So I’m thinking maybe Saul Alinsky + Ivan Ilich + Ted Nelson might come close to what you are looking for?

  • david wilcox
    May 22, 2013 - 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dave

    Thanks so much for that encouragement. I agree tech really does push us to reflect on the way we look at the world and encourages some overlaps, I guess because software and the web both reflect how we operate and then change that. I did a bit of musing here on frameworks.

    I remember those early days, when we first got the web. I blagged my way to the Ties that Bind conference in Apple HQ Cupertino in 1995, co-sponsored with the Morino Foundation: their story here. There were some 300 community networking pioneers full of new (digital) frontier optimism, mixing the elements you mention. I came back and co-founded Communities Online to promote local community networking … some archive here .

    I’m not sure we have quite realised the potential we saw then. Maybe it is just all moving too fast, and it is time to focus on simplifying. Looking at tech for later in life has brought that home to me.

    An inspirational reading list, with much non-tech, should definitely be part of the kit! Including fiction. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby may be relevant. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

  • May 22, 2013 - 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Agree that fiction should be part of the reading list. EM Forster of course: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

    I’ve also always wanted to do a thing that links the web with modernist fiction: Joyce, Beckett etc. After all, Here Comes Everybody is from Finegans Wake originally and Beckett wrote “fail better” in Westward Ho.

    Also other stuff like John Berger that muse on perception, media and creativity.

    Catherine Howe and I were also discussing a reading group for web obsessives the other day. Manuel Castells, Stpehen Levy’s “Hackers”, Joh Markoff’s “What the dormouse said”.

    It’s basically the reading list for the greatest undergraduate course that never existed.

  • david wilcox
    May 22, 2013 - 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Now that sounds interesting! You are the online learning guy … how to do it?

  • May 22, 2013 - 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Who knows? 🙂

    Seriously, I’m increasingly aware that there is no silver bullet for online learning, just as there isn’t for social reporting, or community development, or hyperlocal stuff. It depends on the topic, the learners, the facilitator…

    It would be nice perhaps to develop some ‘patterns’ of community and learning tech. Produce some scenarios & personas, build example tech stories around them.

    Am having a discussion with the NT about the pop up CoPs idea in the next couple of weeks which should be good hopefully.

    One thing I’m increasingly wondering/worrying about is the control people have over their online assets. Sometimes I think a self hosted wiki and mailing list might be the way to go!

  • david wilcox
    May 23, 2013 - 8:24 am | Permalink

    Dave – totally with you on patterns of learning and engagement, scenarios and personas. We had a go at that in the community enabler workshop and also the tech later in life exploration . Those techniques should be at the heart of a kit.
    I like the pop up CoP idea and take the point about online assets. Can we trust Google or other “free” providers to maintain services?
    So – invent some community enabler characters, various scenarios and workflows, and figure what is the simplest range of tools they need: both personal and for groups etc.

  • Lorna Prescott
    May 23, 2013 - 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Hi David, and Dave

    As you know I’m really interested in this idea and the work you’ve done so far. I’m just going to throw in a couple of reasons to be cautious, as I’ve really been struggling with a couple of things that I think relate to this.

    The first is around people who look for quick solutions, because they haven’t been exposed to thinking which helps them to understand that, as Dave says above, there is no silver bullet. This post on ‘changes’ blog goes some way to unpacking where things go wrong:
    Because people who are really good at community development, working with groups, working with power, facilitating etc don’t appear to be doing much (to the casual observer) it must be easy for others to assume that there’s not much to it, and they don’t see the layers of skills, experience and reflection below the surface when a given activity/method is being used. So while I recognise that we can do little or nothing to hold them back, a concern would be that well-intentioned but inexperienced and untrained officers who self identify as community enablers might come along, use and abuse whatever is developed and then the framework/kit gets a bad name.

    Another problem which I’m currently musing on is around interpretations of your ladder of participation as described in the Guide to Effective Participation. I kind of see what’s going on when officers with no experience of community work misinterpret the ladder and think it’s all about moving from information giving to positions ‘further up’ the ladder. We try to address this assumption in training we deliver in Dudley, to get across to people (who may not actually read the guide) that it is about identifying your stance and understanding therefore which tools are appropriate to use and so on. I was surprised recently to hear colleagues in a meeting talking about ‘moving people along the ladder’. That wasn’t at all what I thought was the intention behind the Guide to Effective Participation – it doesn’t come across to me as a guide to making people get more involved in civic life and marking their progress on the ladder of participation. I picked this up with a colleague afterwards. She and I have been delivering training together using your Guide, and I had thought we had a shared understanding of what we were saying. Apparently not! I found myself trying to describe the sorts of participation which takes place completely outside the spaces, agendas, and support of public and voluntary sector agencies (in other words outside Eileen Conn’s vertical hierarchical system as described in And arguing that the ladder of participation has no relevance outside those spaces. That an individual might have initiated an activity, collaborated with others, made change etc. but would be nowhere on the ladder because the activity was in a different sphere (or system, as Eileen Conn helpfully differentiates). Not just that, but where I might wish to be informed about proposed changes to local highways or doctors surgeries doesn’t mean that I lack the ability to engage as a representative, if I could be bothered. I don’t want someone making me ‘move along the ladder’. So I think that being a happy recipient of effective communication can be a great thing for participation, though it would seem my colleagues disagree.

    Having said all of that I’m not totally sure what my point is in relation to community enablers and a new framework and kit, except to say that I think there is some confusion about who is enabling whom and for what purposes, and this could affect how and why people might use anything new. (If I’ve got the wrong end of the stick about the ladder of participation please do tell me.)

    Dave – personally I’d replace Alinsky with Friere. I’m not familiar with Ted Nelson so I’ll look him up. Maybe we could throw in a modern day twist on EF Schumacher’s appropriate technology (user friendly, sustainable technology) – which wikepedia links to Illich’s conviviality.

  • david wilcox
    May 23, 2013 - 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Lorna – thanks so much for your continuing encouragement, and sorry I’ve been slow on developments. You are right in your cautions, and the importance of putting tools in the contex of a framework.
    The Guide and ladder were conceived, as you suggest, specifically to help power holders consider stances for participation: how much control to share.
    It’s not necessarily useful in service delivery or empowerment and capacity building … or at least not in much depth. You have really surfaced some important stuff … I’ll think more. Just wanted say a quick thanks for getting to the heart of it.

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