Digital visions

I spend a fair bit of time talking to local councils and the like about taking a strategic approach to digital stuff, although usually it is mostly around engagement, and a bit of communications.

It’s important – simply to know what you want to achieve and why. As soon as you have those things figure out then it’s easy to choose the right tools and channels to help you get there.

Taking a strategic approach though doesn’t necessarily mean you need a bit of paper, with ‘strategy’ written on it. Sometimes just having thought about the issues is all you need to do. A quick look on Twitter or Facebook and it’s pretty straightforward to spot those that haven’t even done that!

However, there are times when a bit more of an in depth look at all things digital are required. After all, the bits of an organisation like a local council that are affected by the internet go way beyond just the communications team.

There’s customer services and all the transactional stuff – what commonly gets referred to as channel shift these days. There’s the democratic element, and the policy development process. The way big projects are managed and communicated can be transformed by the web. Every service delivery team could make use of digital channels to deliver that service, or part of it, or at least communications around it.

Given all of this, and the vital strategic role a council plays within a local area, having a digital vision is pretty important. There are several big agendas connected to technology which need to be considered.

What elements are required?

  • channel shift
  • digital engagement
  • mobile
  • publishing / content strategy
  • digital inclusion and broadband roll out
  • open data

I think these are probably best presented as some form of ven diagram, and there is bound to be plenty of overlap in there.

I’ve always like the phrase that ushered in the Government Digital Service – that of ‘digital by default’. The notion not that digital is the only option – but that it is always an option. Quite often when I have been called in to help out with digital side of a project or campaign, it’s been a bit of an add on. Being digital by default means building the online element from the get go – making it an integral part of a service or project.

It also means getting away from one of the flaws of the e-government era – that (necessary) rush to get government services online – which was to do the wrong thing righter. In other words, not rethinking how a service should be delivered in a networked society but just taking a process and sticking it into an online form.

We’re just taking on a project to deliver a comprehensive high level digital strategy for a county council. I’m delighted – it’s the sort of meaty, wide ranging envisioning work which is pretty scarce these days. It also offers a chance to think about what a truly digital local council might look like, and how it might work.

Part of the project will involve running a crowdsourcing exercise on good practice and what the future may hold for local government digital – rather like the effort I made back in 2009 which focused on websites. That’ll launch in a few weeks. In the meantime I’d love to hear from anyone who has been having digital visions in the comments, or by email.

Reimagining town centres

deserted high street

I’ve been an interested follower of the debate around town centres since the Portas review of last year, not least because I live close by to a small town, and indeed it’s one where a debate is raging about the future and sustainability of the town centre as a place for people to visit, and to buy stuff.

The town in question is Spalding, and right now there is quite a heated debate going on in the local press about two development ideas – one for a regeneration of an in-town-but-exactly-the-town-centre retail area, and the other proposing a big supermarket and retail park on the outskirts of town, but which might generate some section 106 money etc to help with other work.

As you can see from this article on the local newspaper’s website, the topic is one that has inflamed local public opinion and it’s interesting to see people coming together to use an online platform to debate the issues.

I can’t help but feel that the debate here is missing the point. I very much enjoy reading Julian Dobson’s blog, and his group’s submission to the Portas review, The 21st Century Agora (PDF warning) makes some very interesting points that really chime with me.

It reads:

High streets and town centres that are fit for the 21st century need to be multifunctional social centres, not simply competitors for stretched consumers. They must offer irresistible opportunities and experiences that do not exist elsewhere, are rooted in the interests and needs of local people, and will meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.

In other words, the town centre shouldn’t be based just on buying stuff. We need other reasons for people to visit the town.

What sort of things? Julian’s presentation below highlights some of them (apologies if your firewall means you can’t see them):

Town centres ought to be places where people meet, work, consume culture, share ideas, get things done – not just shop!

Whither the internet in all this? It’s a view that the web, and the sheer efficiency of shopping online is one of the things that’s drawing the commercial elements away from the town centre.

The Portas review did mention the use of the web to create an ongoing sense of community and conversation about a town centre. This has been picked up by Sarah Hartley from Talk About Local (she does wear other hats) in a number of posts, including a dead handy list of ways that online communities could help reverse the decline in high streets.

If you’re interested in this stuff, Julian and co have started up an online community, using the Ning platform, and are organising an open space event to discuss the issues. Am hoping to be involved as much as I can.

Picture credit: ambernectar on Flickr

Local TV

I think it’s fair to say that DCMS’s plans for Local TV are mostly terrible.

Luckily, people who know a lot more about it that I do are writing it all up. I enjoyed these three posts on the LSE blog on the subject, all by Sally Broughton Micova.

They are well worth reading for anyone interested in local media.

Local TV Part 1: A Tale of Two Cities

The DCMS’s framework document states that “market experience suggests that small standalone local TV stations can struggle to develop s sustainable business model”. However, the Government’s plan is to issue individual local licenses and then leave it up to the market to determine if local stations give it a go alone or come together in a network. This means anyone interested in opening local television and broadcasting through DTT in Birmingham will have to individually negotiate with whoever might be interested in Hereford, Grimsby, or any of the other 60 plus locations. News Corporation, which owns a large number of local TV stations in the US and controls two of those in Birmingham Alabama, has other problems at the moment, so it seems unlikely it will be interested in applying for a multitude of individual local licenses in the UK. It is not clear how a backbone of sufficient size and capacity to adequately support local TV across the UK will spontaneously emerge from the negotiations of a few enthusiastic local parties.

Local TV Part 2: Great Expectations

One of the ways the Government’s plan intends to provide financial support to local TV is by having the BBC spend up to £5 million annually for 3 years to buy content from local stations. At the local TV summit Hunt also suggested that local TV will be selling content to other national stations. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, £5 million divided among several stations will amount to very little in relation to the budgets required to make high quality content. Secondly, local stations will have to produce content that national stations will want to buy. Consider the plea from Shameless’ Paul Abbott for British producers and commissioners to try making television drama at a cheaper cost of only £500,000 per episode. Or, that national stations in the UK are currently spending their budgets procuring high quality production from independent producers and hit series from the US.

Local TV Part 3: Don’t start linear

The proposal, to use the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform and create linear television stations across the UK, is already old fashioned enough. It is admirable to invest in local media, but new technology allows more innovative and more sustainable ways of doing it. Putting local TV onto DTT multiplexes (MUXs), even in a first stage as the Government proposes, is an unnecessary investment, and one that sets local television off on the wrong foot in terms of both sustainability and purpose.

Digital activism opportunity

This looks like it’s a good opportunity for community groups to get some support in using digital tools, from the Young Foundation:

By practically supporting six communities across England, we hope to understand more about the role that technology can play in connecting and mobilising local communities to act, and to share good practice and lessons with other communities across the country.

Deadline for applications (which I think have to be from community groups, not other organisations like councils) is 17 June. More details available in this PDF.

Power lines

The RSA have just published a rather interesting paper that is well worth a flick through.

The paper argues that the government’s efforts to build the Big Society are too focused on citizen-led service delivery. An approach based on utilising and building people’s social networks, which largely determine our ability to create change and influence decisions that affect us, may prove more effective.

I’ve embedded it below, but if for whatever reason you can’t see it, you can download it from here (PDF warning).

RSA Power Lines

Digital local resources – and a bit about Your Square Mile

Continuing the posts about local digital communities, here are a couple of links to interesting research and publications on the subject, which I’ve been giving a re-read recently.

Of course, there has recently been a very interesting move in this space with the announcement of the Big Lottery funded Your Square Mile project, which has very close links with the wider Big Society agenda, and which involves some kind of relationship with the social networking platform SocialGo. David Wilcox blogs comprehensively here.

I’m not sure anyone has access to enough information about this to make a proper judgement, however, some alarm bells are ringing in my mind:

  • As per the comments from Will and Manny highlighted in this post, government sponsored online community development does not have a great track record. I appreciate this is at arms length – but Your Square Mile is heavily linked with the Big Society Network, and therefore the current government
  • People will drift towards the funded option, and if (and I emphasise if) SocialGo is the mandated or preferred solution from those with the cash, we are going to be in a one platform fits all situation, which doesn’t really work
  • Objectives are important. Right now, I don’t fully understand Your Square Mile or what it is setting out to do. Hopefully internally they know exactly what they aim to achieve – because if it’s just a vague ‘we’ll get people to talk to each other on the internet and they’ll self organise themselves to do wonderful things’ then that might not work so well
  • What about those organisations that have being doing this stuff for the last few years? Are they just going to be steamrollered by the beast?

I think my real worry is that the one thing that has become apparent, from conversations I have had with people about this stuff, is that with online local communities, in the majority of cases, you need the community before the online. It’s what brings sustainability to the online effort.

Online elements certainly bring visibility to the community’s activities and spread reach, and enable more people to be involved. But a square mile, online or off, is going to be pretty empty if there isn’t the desire or will to keep it going.

Update: just seen this post from Kevin Harris, featuring this lovely line:

There is a study to be done of the damage caused by highly persuasive people who seem to feel compelled to impose template social ‘solutions’ on others.

Gov’s role in local digital ecosystems

Many thanks to Will Perrin from Talk About Local, who basically did my job for me in a comment on my last post about local digital communities and economies.

The thrust of my post was that having a lively digital community in a local area is a good thing, which can benefit various bits of society.

Here’s Will’s advice for what public sector organisations should do if they want to help foster this community locally:

  • don’t host your own platform. this often puts the effort and spend in what is often the wrong bit of the organisation (the IT bit), retains ownership and thus legal liability, layers in cost and medium term hassle and also cramps people’s style
  • equally don’t present local people with fait accompli site on wordpress.com and expect them to use it – you will be much more successful taking the time to help them make their own site
  • let people find their own voice – find local people to get involved who have something to say and a burning need to communicate, this keeps them going as they run into problems.
  • be prepared to take some time over this – there’s no set formula as to who will make a good local site. be prepared to fail quite a few times before you find the right people in the right roles
  • don’t assume web means young people – the average person we train has grey hair
  • follow the audience and increasingly thing Facebook first, even though it is inflexible and fiddly. marry a facebook page or group up with an external wordpress.com blog that is linked.

This is great advice, particularly for the community and voluntary sector, where groups with a shared passion for an issue, or a specific location, use the web as a platform for communication and cooperation.

Mandeep Hothi from the Young Foundation, who has been working on the excellent Local 2.0 initiative, also shared his learning on developing thriving local online communities on that previous post:

  • They [councils] really don’t want to be the ones developing community spaces. They would much rather that communities do it themselves and they are very receptive to outside agencies like TAL doing this. We’ve tried to get People’s Voice Media’s Community Reporters programme going to but couldn’t find funding, however, one of the councils has funded it themselves and another has had discussions about doing it with PVM.
  • The reasons for this are varied, but by and large they recognise that it is much healthier for communities/residents to own and manage blogs, social networks etc.. Some of the motivation is about risk and responsibility – they don’t want to be liable for anything and they don’t want to moderate (although they are likely to try to intervene if people slag off their service!)
  • Engaging through hyperlocal sites is still a challenge. Reasons include a fear of changing the tone of online spaces, but also a legitimate fear of misrepresenting (or not knowing) council policy. But we have some great examples of officers engaging online (and some bad ones too…)

So that’s fairly clear. Government struggles at creating new communities online. What they can do is provide support to existing communities to help them make the most of digital – and this best done at arms length, introducing a dedicated third party service like Talk About Local.

But what about the wider point about a digitally focussed online community? As mentioned in previous posts, I’m really interested in how local startups and SMEs can play an active role. Well, just as services like Talk About Local can be introduced by a local authority, so could more local suppliers.

So if there is a training need, or a website that needs creating, local authorities ought to be looking local to develop it. Even better, by being engaged with an active local digital community, those innovative small suppliers could help shape requirements and scope, ensuring that the council, or whoever, gets the best possible solution.

It doesn’t even have to always involve money. Councils have access to other resources, such as meeting rooms, and indeed whole buildings. I love examples of where council owned properties, which for whatever reason are empty, are handed over to communities to use as meeting or co-working spaces.

I’m sure there are plenty of other great examples of how councils can support a local digital community – please do share them in the comments.

Elements of local digital ecosystems

Apologies for using the word ecosystems – I just couldn’t be bothered thinking of anything less naff.

So earlier I blogged about the ways NESTA identified that government can help support local digital activity.

I mentioned that there are many different elements of the digital scene within a specific locality, so thought it only fair if I have a crack at listing them.

  • Digital economy – where businesses are active in delivering digital services to the public, private and other sectors
  • Digital access – making sure people have access to the hardware and connections to the net to enable them to make the most of the opportunities the net offers
  • Digital skills – from beginners to more expert skills, helping and guiding people along their learning journey from computer and web basics to more specialised knowledge, such as development, or video work for example
  • Digital engagement – better use of the web by public sector organisations to increase participation and involvement in public service delivery and design
  • Digital media – use of online tools for publishing news and other information online. Hyperlocal news and that sort of thing, but also general non-place specific blogging, video, audio, photography…
  • Digital communities - networks of common interest or based around a locality, using the web as a platform for discussion and collaborative action

I suspect you could plot these things on a venn diagram, showing where they overlap. Wonder if there’s a sweet spot where they all overlap?

Who are the actors and groups involved in this?

  • Businesses - SMEs, freelancers, bigger and more established companies who provide digital services or products. Perhaps non-digital businesses as well, who can benefit from getting better advice and service from suppliers if they understand the issues a bit better
  • Bits of government – there are lots of lessons for the public sector to learn about effective use of digital, which could save money and improve services. Having a rich digital community with which the local public services are engaged members of can help improve knowledge and skills and deliver better results
  • Politicians – politicians are community leaders as well as representatives and a healthy number must be involved in the local digital community. Not just to learn how digital can help them be better at representing and engaging, but better at making decisions too – especially where technology is involved
  • Education establishments - quite a few universities and colleges now forge links with local businesses and startups, including housing them in incubator style office spaces. They are also, of course, full of people about to enter the job market, or start businesses of their own, which could make a considerable impact on the local economy
  • The voluntary and community sector – the opportunities in digital for the civic sector are considerable. Great work by organisations like Cosmic and LASA demonstrate this, and even more could be done with an active digital community within a local area – whether through social media surgeries or more formal arrangements.
  • Digital activists – there are people who care about the opportunities that digital offers and who work hard to make sure people are aware of them and make the most of them. Linking them up with policy people, local techy businesses and community and voluntary organisations seems to be really important to me
  • Individuals – of course, mustn’t forget them. People who don’t fit into any of the above groups but who, of course, have plenty of links with most of them, and therefore occasional interactions with them. It’s really important to keep these people in mind, whatever you’re doing

So there’s a lot of activity, and a lot of different groups and people with an interest in that activity.

It strikes me that there is a lot that can be done in an area to get all of this effort working better, more efficiently. Not through the creation of bureaucratic digital partnerships, but through simple, lightweight creative collaborations where different organisations work together to meet shared problems.

Digital inclusion activity (improving access to, and skills for using, technology and networks) seems an obvious one. It’s better for government that people use online channels – it’s cheaper. At the same time, those people’s own lives could be improved with decent web access and skills. That can then lead onto the devlopment of the local digital economy, whether for training providers or people that build websites, or services computers, etc.

What’s interesting here I think is the role that local authorities and other public sector organisations play in this. There are clear advantages for government if people are active online in the area, both in terms of service delivery, but also less directly, with successful digital economies developing areas and generating tax revenues.

But what can they do? Most attempts by councils to provide environments for community websites, etc, tend to be a bit rubbish – though I know there are exceptions. I’ve got some ideas and – being the big tease that I am – I’ll share them in my next post on this topic.

Local digital impact

I’m increasingly interested in how creative collaborations between small suppliers, public services and organisations from other sectors can come together to solve problems in an open innovation-y sort of way.

The digital arena is probably one of the best places for this type of thing to happen, and a useful post has appeared on one of NESTA’s blogs about it.

In the post, they provide a list of things that government can do to foster local digital activity and collaboration:

  1. Encourage the take-up of broadband and internet access more widely so that we can all participate in this world. Let’s not leave anyone behind.
  2. Find new business models to balance freely available broadband in cities with ISP’s right to recoup the costs of putting in a next generation infrastructure.
  3. Open up local data at a very local level, and then find ways of encouraging engagement between the private creative businesses and our public sector. Our Make it Local programme is trying to do this, but we need much more of it.
  4. Remember that most digital developers still need to make real-world connections to get business and the role of local and regional agencies – both trade associations and screen agencies can be tremendously valuable in helping digital SMEs to win business.

There’s another post to be written at some point about the different aspects of digital activity in an area, and what the role is of government in supporting and nurturing that. But it’s certainly more than just subscribing to local bloggers – important though listening is.

I’m going to be writing a few posts about this in the future, I think, so have created a category – ‘digital local‘ – for them to sit in.