I’ve been thinking quite a bit since the election about where digital engagement activity fits in during this age of austerity in which we find ourselves.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve had a bit of a crisis of confidence lately – after all, it seems to be a strange time to be encouraging public sector organisations to be spending their time playing with Facebook while people’s jobs are being lost.
But of course, that’s a slightly cynical way of looking at it, and there is certainly an argument that during time of massive budget cuts, the public need to be involved more than ever in helping to refine decisions and policies, to ensure that as few mistakes are made as possible.
What’s certainly true is that public sector use of the internet as an engagement tool has to become more embedded in other workstreams – it can’t afford to be on the fringes.
Here’s some kind of random, half-baked observations which taken together sum up where I’m at in my thinking of how all this hangs together. I’d welcome thoughts to bake it all a little more.
1. Digital engagement needs to be part of something bigger
I don’t like the phrase ‘Government 2.0′ much, so the something bigger hopefully isn’t that. I quite like ‘Open Government’, and digital engagement is part of that, as is open data and general increases in transparency from government.
2. Many of the new initiatives are derived from the internet, or are reliant on it in some way
The Big Society idea probably couldn’t exist without the internet. In many ways it is taking net culture and applying it to the way society can work together better.
For this to work, people need to understand the net and its culture – to remind themselves that it is not just the domain of swivel-eyed right wing nutcases, porn fiends and illegal downloaders.
It’s also about getting the proposition right, to ensure government can tap into cognitive surplus, to reach out to people to get involved on terms that suit them, not the terms that suits government.
3. Social media is just part of digital
(This is the weakest part of this post and while I know what I want to say, I’m aware I don’t articulate it at all well.)
Probably an obvious point, but I think we need to stop talking about social media – Simon Wakeman’s post is quite instructive here – and instead treat the web as a whole. Most decent digital engagement projects anyway mix use of pretty traditional websites, use of social media tools and engaging with existing groups, which can use a wide range of technology (see below).
Social media will stick around as a buzz-word, and there is still a significant job of capacity building to be done to encourage people to think how these tools can bring positive benefit to government activity, and equipping people with skills.
4. Open data
I’m no expert on this at all, and other than being aware that it is a good thing, I’m not sure how much I can add, at least on the technical side of things. I see open data as providing some of the building blocks required for the social innovators mentioned above, and as a way of increasing transparency in government.
Data is good at asking questions, but rarely gives clear answers.
I’ve certainly got my concerns about how data is interpreted and who does the context-setting – but I really don’t see this as an argument for not doing it.
5. Tapping into existing networks will be key
I really think the focus moving forward will be to tie Big Society type ideas with cognitive surplus and digital engagement to encourage pre-existing locality or issue based networks to get involved in government processes. I just don’t think the public sector will have the time to build and manage their own communities.
Instead, what little time and money is available should be spent on building robust, constructive arrangements with those people – whether volunteers or those doing it for profit – with the ability to build online networks.
So, digital engagement needs to be a part of something bigger, which may or may not be called ‘open government’, and which is made up of social innovation, utilising cognitive surplus, making data available to support activity and tapping into existing networks to get things done.
I just need to figure out where I fit into all of this…