What is a ‘Digital Mentor’?

One of the ideas in the Communities in Control white paper, published last week by the Department for Communities and Local Government, that has attracted a fair amount of attention is that of the ‘Digital Mentors’. Here’s what the paper itself says about them:

Government will pilot a ‘Digital Mentor’ scheme in deprived areas. These mentors will support groups to develop websites and podcasts, to use digital photography and online publishing tools, to develop short films and to improve general media literacy. The Digital Mentors will The digitalalso create links with community and local broadcasters as part of their capacity building, to enable those who want to develop careers in the media to do so. Depending on the success of these pilots, this scheme could be rolled out to deprived areas across England.

This is part of an initiative to help communities take control of their media, to fill the gaps in coverage themelves in a way that takes advantage of the remarkable opportunities that exist with social web  tools, to both provide a means of communicating a community’s messages, and to help that community collaborate both internally and with other agencies too. I would argue that such a role is required in all local communities, not just the deprived ones, though it may well be the less well off that need it the most.

What isn’t particularly clear at this stage is who these mentors will be, nor how they will work. Should they be the employees of local authorities, for example? Or should they be volunteers, who perhaps are rewarded for their time in some way? Should they belong to the communities they mentor, or can they be ‘outsiders’?

One option might be for digital mentors to operate out of local colleges, say, and turn it into a real educative experience, or perhaps community centres or village halls would be better locations.

Then, what role should the mentors actually have? Just providing the training on new media, or actually coordinating projects too? It’s interesting that the focus here is on enabling ‘those who want to develop careers in the media to do so’ – what about people who just want to use this stuff to revitalise their local democracy?

I think the role, as fuzzily defined in the white paper, needs to be developed and broadened in scope. In an earlier blogpost, I wrote about a possible process for social media to be used to bring togther the various elements of civic society in a locality. The focus was on social media as an end in itself, like a local social media club, but I think it works for democratic participation too.  The main steps I identified were:

  • Establish tags – common ways of describing and finding content that everyone can use: local gov, local press, individual bloggers, existing communities and groups
  • Aggregate content – use the tags to bring the conversation about the area into one place
  • Communicate – start to talk amongst the various content producers
  • Meet – get everyone meeting and talking to each other in real life
  • Develop – put together some of the infrastructure together to allow for further collaboration and coworking, both online and off

The digital mentor could be the person driving this forward in a local area.

I know that there are people really interested in this role and its development, people like David Wilcox and Paul Webster, to name just two. It would be great if the Digital Mentor concept could be designed in the public, between CLG and those willing volunteers who think this could be a great initiative.

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Dave Briggs

I do digital strategy for organisations who are trying to make things better for others.