We Live Here…or rather…where do we live?

One of the reasons I started this blog was as an action research diary to support my PHD.  I’ve found it hugely useful and having just gone through the process of analysing and writing up my reflections on the Virtual Town Hall project for my thesis I am reminded how valuable it is to reflect on your experiences through a process in as open, honest and objective way as possible.  We’re just at the start of another big project – We Live Here – and I want to use the blog to capture learning and reflections on this process as well.  Hopefully other people will find this useful as well.  If you want to read more about action research as a method then I wrote an intro here.  In my short bit on the film describing the project I talked about the need to fail intelligently and transparently in order to learn and share learning and get it right next time.  That’s what I hope to do here.

Also – this blogging business is addictive and as the PHD is at polishing/completing stage (I hope) I need something else to write about…

We Live Here is the Brighton and Hove City Council’s project within the Nesta Creative Council’s programme and I’m involved both through Public-i and through the Democratic Society as both are partners in the bid.  However I write on this blog very much as myself, as a researcher, so all the usual disclaimers about this not reflecting the views of anyone other than me apply….

This post is a write up of our first project team meeting (1/9/11) and also an attempt to encapsulate what the project is about based on that meeting.  You can read the details of the bid here on the Simpl platform  but one of the things that was obvious from the meeting that bid writing and shared vision are often a little different and we needed to talk around the proposition before we all felt comfortable.  I’m using this post to suggest some of the principles that we might need to guide the project development – please expect these to change once the rest of the team get their hands on them!

We Live Here is about three things:

1) Exploring how localism can actually work on the wild – what does it mean to share power more effectively with communities and neighbourhoods and what change is needed both culturally and practically to make this happen

2) Creating the online and offline Civic spaces that are needed to make it possible for people to be able to find and enter into conversation with their community (more on what civic spaces are later)

3) Thinking about what is needed in order to connect these community conversations to democratic decisions – how do we make neighbourhoods more democratic without burying them in moribund committee papers

The point about cultural change is important – this is not about grafting new technologies onto old structures and behaviours – for this to work we believe we need change behaviours in all of the groups and organisations that are involved.  We will talk about social media but what we are really talking about is introducing more agile and networked approaches.  One the weaknesses of the bid in terms of how it then gets transformed into action is the fact that it focused too much perhaps on technology rather on the behaviours and networks that new technologies can support.

Why social media?

There are three main reasons why we are making technology a central part of the proposal despite the very valid concerns that a lot of the people we may involve with will not be regular users of things like twitter or likely to blog:

1) Networks.  Social networking technologies are created to facilitate…social networking.  Creating networks and connections between existing networks is one of the aims of the project so the fit between technology and desired outcome is very strong.  There are huge advantages to trying to work within an environment that is designed for to support your purpose.

2) Publicness.  We are going to ask people to join a community conversation – to connect to other people.  One of the benefits of social media is where we capture the conversation its public, audible and auditable.  You don’t have to tell people that you are being open you can show people are being open and you can create an ongoing record of what has happened so that people can join in at any point.

  1. Learning as a positive byproduct.  Getting people online and able to use new technologies is a good thing.  Look at Martha Lane Fox’s work to read about the positive impacts of getting people online.  We also believe that the public sector – including elected representatives – need to adapt more rapidly to a more networked and social environment.  Even if we fail miserably with the ambition of creating civic space then we can feel confident that getting more people online and able to express themselves, and the council better able to listen, is a positive byproduct.

So – here comes our first principles:

Principle One:  This project is not about technology and if we find ourselves being seduced by code and shiny objects we will stop (most likely someone else will have to stop me as I do have a tendency towards technology thrall)

and in fact our second as well:

Principle Two:  We know we are trying to change our own behaviour possibly to a greater extent than that of the community and so we need to be observant about ‘old behaviours’ and adjust.  (After a slightly tangential remark in the meeting this principle this may become encapsulated in the phrase “Stop! stop! – you’ve come over all council”)

Civic what???

It was clear from the meeting that the idea of a civic space is very wooly and needs to be made far more accessible and useable – its too abstract for people to find it immediately useful.  The text below outlines where we got to after talking the concept over within the team:

The civic space is an informal place where people go when they want to talk to their community rather than just their friends and family.  Different communities will convene in different places – online and offline – and we have to remember that a physical location will contain many different communities with overlapping narratives.  The ambition of the civic space is to create a curated (not moderated) space where these narratives can come together so that communities can connect to each other and create a shared conversation about the geographical location.

Curated is a word that breaks principle one – its means finding and presenting content rather than editing and creating it.

Community is perhaps too loaded a word in this context as it brings with it all kinds of assumptions about what community means.  More simply we are really talking about identifying and connecting networks within a locality and then facilitating conversations across those networks in a way which makes those conversations public and accessible.  And here comes another important principle:

Principle  Three:  We are not trying to direct the conversation – we are trying to create an environment for it to happen within

This point is important with respect to scope – its very easy to start to see this kind of community focused approach as a panacea for all interventions in a community – its not – we are trying to create an environment that can feed and support external processes.  The most important (from the pov of the project) is supporting democratic decision making – but not necessarily actually hosting deliberative debate.  Democratic decisions can be fed and supported by the conversations in this civic space but the primary purpose of it is to knit that multiplicity of narrative of a place into a shared story.

It won’t always be possible.

We are not expecting to get everyone involved in every community.  Some people will choose not to participate and that’s up to them.  What we want to do is to extend involvement past the people who are prepared to attend meetings and serve on committees to involve the people who may want to dip in and out of the process or who want to engage in their own way (will be coming up with a model for this to map different levels of involvement – needs more work).  We want to find both the Hansard “Willing Localists” and also the people who don’t get involved because they don’t see the point.  We are looking for the civic minded busy people who may just be able to share information and the ones who have ideas that they are passionate about but have no idea how to get them working.  We are looking for the people who just like the idea that they have some kind of connection with more people in their locality because they know it may be useful one day.

Principle Four:  We don’t assume everyone in an area will get involved but we do want everyone to know where they can get involved

I’ve written a lot about civic spaces previously as they are fairly central to my research work – but the underlying concept here with respect to democratic renewal is the belief that an effective democracy needs a ‘public sphere’ where it is possible for citizens to come together and express their views and values.  The public-ness of this public sphere is essential in that it enables politicians to be able to understand the preferences of the public they are representing.  Government undoubtably needs to be better equipped to listen and react but without an accessible public conversation its very difficult for politicians to act and also very difficult for citizens to have a sense of their shared (or unshared) beliefs and their resultant power.  Another way of putting it is that we can’t have demo-cracy without being able to identify and relate to the demos – the people.

There is a parallel social capital analysis to this situation but I am not planning on exploring it right now.  However with respect to the civic spaces here is another principle:

Principle Five:  This will not succeed if it behaves like or is seen as a council project or space.  If we are trying to give greater power to the communities then they are critical to the shaping of the civic space from the start.  Co-production is doing with not to people.

And this final point is perhaps one of the most interesting with respect to the democratic aspect of this project which is an exploration of what it means for a locality to be both more co-productive and more democratic – and whether there are structural limitations in the way that local democracy works that will make it difficult to make this work.  This is very much the focus of the Democratic Society involvement in this project.

One of the things that has struck me as I write up the thesis is the separation between the participation and political literature.  The idea of the public sphere marries to two together conceptually but not practically and I am looking forward to spending more time thinking and reading about this particular connection.  There is a whole other post in that statement so will leave it there and come back to it.

In more immediate and less abstract terms there is a risk that we develop an open and engaging civic space and then are not able to follow through in terms of the decisions that the participants can effect either because we are raising issues at the wrong point of the policy cycle, the issue is outside of the control of the participants or – and this is the elephant in the room – when it comes to it the politicians do not listen to the community.

Co-production is about sharing power – this is easy for the people who currently have little and rather more challenging for the people who already have it. I am cautiously optimistic that the political leadership in BHCC genuinely want to engage with this issue and make radical change but it would be foolish not to acknowledge the many barriers and challenges that exist to changing the balance of power in favour of the community.

This is really what we mean by confronting the ideas of localism in the wild and perhaps where to most important learning for the rest of local government will come from if we are open about this exploration.

Scenarios of doom

We have not yet done a full on scenarios of doom session (this is where we all sit around and talk about our biggest concerns for a project – however mad – so that we can build a manageable risk register that separates  fear from risk – I do hope we do one) but there are already a few concerns:

  • The main one is the fear that we don’t manage to practically unlock the decision making process and pass power to the community
  • There is a concern that because its easier to work with the community groups we know we fail to reach past them into new bits of the community – or to bits of the community that we already find difficult to work with
  • Internal wrangling – because there is a lot of internal change for the Council here as well – stops us making progress externally
  • I think its always a good idea to worry about technology whenever you are using it….

Finally, there is an elephant in the room when it comes to this kind of power shift – what happens if we give more power to communities and they start making really really rubbish decisions?  There – I’ve said it – there is every risk that communities may make bad decisions.  It’s this fear that puts limits and conditions of co-production and ultimately neuters it to the point of it being meaningless.  I think this is a real risk that cannot be avoided – decisions I think are good will be judged rubbish by others – and its the same for everyone.  There is an act of trust in changing the balance of power which needs to embrace this risk and then reflect on the fact that actually the evidence is that communities actually make really good decisions from their point of view – the issue is how do we make these decisions work together across different communities and this is why this a project about democratic renewal as well as a project about civic spaces.  Easy to say and incredibly hard to do it seems.

None of these concerns are unmanageable but we need to keep them in clear view so that we can work to mitigate them.

And things we need to get done

Our proposed approach at this point is to try and use the time from now until February (when the final bid needs to be submitted) in order to test some of the underlying assumptions in the project and pilot some of the ideas.  We have not agreed the scope of this yet but my hope is that we will look at these issues:

  1. I think we need a very clear view of what is actually going to be devolved with respect to decision making over the course of the two years of the project.  It doesn’t need to be confirmed but we need a roadmap to work with so that we can explore what’s involved.  This also needs some commitments from the politicians.
  2. We are not going to go to areas and just make stuff happen – this approach responds to localities as they already are.  So – the project is not so much about “We Live here’ at this point and more about ‘where do we live?”.  We need to understand where conversations, communities and networks already exist so that we can shape an approach to these areas and we need to fine tune the tools that we use to find these in order to make it finding them affordable and repeatable (will write about this separately as its about extending the social media audits and taking them offline as well).
  3. We need to come up with a way of talking about and describing the project that works when we talk to the communities we want to work with.  If we can’t do this then we are going to fall flat on our face at the start.
  4. The description may well be different in different places so we need to agree on some values for the projects – a new culture if you like – so that we can test our ideas against these values as we innovate and develop the project (this is like the unit testing idea in agile – we need to agree on our values so we can test against them when we make changes).  The principles in this post are the start of this from me
  5. We have to speak to some of the communities we want to work with – we must involve them from the start
  6. We’d be idiots not to try and tap into the wider community resources that a place like Brighton has – we need to speak to the CityCampBrighton network and others like it
  7. I’d like to get the project team committed to writing action research diaries – not just because of the wealth of material it brings but because I think it brings a lot of personal value.  Its also a way of embedding communication and transparency on the whole project.  We also need to agree on some ongoing data collection mechanisms so that we are capturing learning as we go along in other ways
  8. We need to agree on what success looks like
  9. Budgets / project management – all that stuff of course…

One of the project partners who was not directly involved in the bid writing process asked if  (more hesitantly than she needed to) if what we were planning on doing wasn’t in fact the way in which community engagement was supposed to work – and she is right – it is.

Where We Live Here is different to business as usual is in our ambition to use technology to reach beyond the usual suspects of engagement and connect to people who have a place in the public sphere even if they have no interest in politics at the same time as looking seriously at how we devolve power to neighbourhoods who are ready and willing to take on local decision making.  At the end of the project the areas we work in should all look radically different but each be more connected, more aware of how to be connected and more in control of decisions that effect where they live.  Lets see how we get on shall we?

One comment
  1. Nicky Cambridge

    September 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks Catherine for creating and posting a really thoughtful, reflective and honest account of our meeting. I think there is another important principle this raises for me that we didn’t explicitly discuss in the meeting. Equalities. I know it could sound like a soundbite and i also know that it could ‘come over all council’ but it isn’t. Generally we know that those who need voice, influence and power will find a way to get it. Social media platforms are already dominated by those that have done this. Articulate individuals are confident to post, blog, tweet and share.
    I agree that we need to get to those not involved but we need to go further still. We need to agree whether one of our principles is to work in ways that non-articulate, confident and networked individuals can be involved equally. There are, i am sure, places (be them virtual or otherwise) where this takes place and we need to seek them out. We need language and processes that put this principle into action. We may even need to find ways to stimulate this activity. But i know that all involved will agree that participatory democracy requires concentrated action if it we don’t want to set up a place where articulate (even if they aren’t involved already) individuals dominate. For me this project has to be about tackling the unequal distribution of power – i.e. really tackling the ‘we’ bit of We Live Here 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *