Mistress of Networks

This is the follow up post on the Master of Networks event I wrote about here. The objective of the event was to bring together policy makers and network scientists to examine how network thinking might play a role in the policy making process.  As I am supposed to be editing chapter 3 at the moment I am going to just bullet point some observations and then describe in more detail the session we ran on democratic conversations.

1.  Not all networks are created equal: Networks are being used in very different ways in different academic disciplines and if we are going to do this kind of multi-disciplinary working then we need to be mindful of this. Two areas of tension of this point are firstly in the description of the nature of the connections between nodes. Broadly,  those of us from a more sociological background were keen to understand the types of relationships being described, while the  Economists were more interested in the overall behaviour of the network. And this is the second point of tension; where those from a more quantitative background are looking at the overall properties of a network, putting forward quite rightly that one of the interesting things about networks is that they can survive the removal of a single node the social scientists ‘knew’ that some nodes are more significant than others to the networks nature. Neither answer is ‘right’ but a better appreciation of this might have made a few of the sessions less tense. We were each frustrated by a perceived lack of precision from the others with respect to definition of terms and concepts and a bit of time spent clearing this up would really have helped

2.  Why does this matter? It was clear that policy makers and academics use the term ‘evidence’ in different ways – we knew that already (excellent piece from Martin Reeves on this on the Guardian has week). In using a relatively new evidence base then we need to make sure that policy makers are clear on the methodological considerations and the differences described above. The cautious route – and the one adopted below – is to consider network analysis as a tool for discover and exploration rather than normative measurement.

3.  Multidisciplinary working needs some rules: We perhaps fell between the conference and unconference formats a little too much – I think next time I participate in something like this (and I hope I do – it was great!) then I think that some ground rules need to be established in advance to make sure that basic differences in approaches don’t take up too much time.


4.  Was I mansplained? It was unfortunate that the methodological divide I described above broadly fell along gender lines – but the experience really outlined for me the different ways in which men and women work in groups. I don’t want to call gender on this kind of thing as its often not relevant and also doesn’t accurately representative the personal views of any of the individuals participating. However we did seem to get sucked into breaking the group up along gender lines more acutely than I have experienced before and I still can’t work out how we failed to fix that when we all wanted to. I wondered about whether or not to blog this point but as this is essentially my action research diary I wanted to note it as it had a notable effect on the group dynamics and perhaps did lead to us having a fairly polarised qualitative vs quantitative methodological debate than I think we might have done otherwise

5.  Millie Begovic is doing some fascinating things at the UN – recommend you take a look when the presentation is available.

6.  Twitter is not the network – there is a HUGE temptation to do ‘big data’ analysis of behaviour on Twitter because we can. However this is very dangerous when considering democratic questions – and by implication policy making – as we can be fairly sure it is not an audience which is demographically balanced. Just because its easier doesn’t make it representative and if we want to be looking at networks online in this context then we need to develop better approaches.

7.  Big brother may or may not be watching you:  With respect to Social Media we need to be clear on the differences between monitoring and participation and make appropriate judgements about both the research ethics of using content in the public domain in this way and also its validity with respect to informing policy. This was an interesting discussion from both an academic and policy making point of view

Related to both these final points is something which I tweeted and got RT’d a fair amount:

@curiousc: Participatory democracy is not representative democracy but we need representativeness to be participatory to make sure these don’t diverge

And this is perhaps the elephant in the room – talked around and not about – Why are we not turning our representatives into more effective nodes? I have an increasingly urgent feeling that we need to start bringing politicians into these kinds of discussions and the previous model of developing policy and presenting it to policy makers is not fit for purpose in an increasingly agile fast moving context.

Democratic Networks
The session was based on the earlier blog post but also on this initial proposition:

  • We want more participation in our representative democracy
  • There are Policy Makers who are prepared to change their process to achieve this
  • We can find relevant – if informal – civic participation online
  • A network analysis of relevant communities via social media – digital networks – are an appropriate starting point for this

These points all withstood some debate with the most contested being the usefulness of looking at digital as a starting point. This is reflected in where we ended up as we decided to test this point. We then went on to debate these questions:

  • What are the practical difficulties with generating a network analysis across multiple social networks?
  • How can we connect this to offline networks?
  • What do policy makers need to know about ‘nodes’ in order to include them in the process?
  • What do we need about the network as a whole to include it in the process?

It was this discussion (and the one from the preceding day) which highlighted the methodological differences in approach to ‘nodes’ with the social scientists developing the idea of the ‘Doris’ as the person in a community network who everyone knows / is most central. We then talked about the different qualities of ‘Doris’ who might function either as a Gatekeeper or a Connector and might be active or passive within either of those two designations.

This highlighted another distinction in the group between the creation of a participatory process – where the objective was described as seeking to turn collective complaint into collective action – and those looking for an effective information gathering approach.

In both cases it was clearly important to understand the actions of these nodes and not just their connections and our final observation was that there was as yet no generalisable learning with respect to these individuals – we might actively look for a ‘Doris’ but each individual will be unique in their position within that specific network.

When asking policy makers what they felt they needed to know about both the networks as a whole and also specific nodes there were a number of points:

  • It was felt important that we could understand any bias or political values – and this discussion contributed to the point about participation/monitoring above
  • There was a need to establish authenticity – is this a ‘real’ person – however different people have different views on the degree to which this needed to be authenticated. Generally those of us more comfortable online where happy with the idea of identity being a social construct that we could judge though social signals – others wanted to hold identity to a higher standard of evidence
  • This led into a discussion of anonymity with no clear consensus as to whether it was or wasn’t appropriate in a policy making context. The introduction of the Slashdot example was extremely useful in this (thanks Matteo). I can’t find an article on this which isn’t beyond the paywall but the wikipedia article is useful  as is the FAQ page for the site.
  • There was an agreed for an understanding of the reach of messages and discussion as a counter to what was felt as the imperfect feedback offered by the traditional media

This led onto a debate about how we might increase democratic participation and what were almost two opposing views:

  • People will come where you give them feedback and where you are willing to listen
  • We need to go to the places where the discussion is already happening and participate there

This was interesting with respect to different cultural contexts as in the UK the debate has clearly moved to position two and it was useful to realise that this is not universally agreed with (there is a real language tyranny at these things with native speakers having an unfair advantage in debate – apologies to those participants who were frustrated by this).

However there was consensus with respect to an unmet demand from the Public for increased opportunities for participation and a needed for government to increase supply in a way which actually meeting the actual demand rather than a simple increase in volume and efficiency of traditional participation methods.

We then moved on to debate whether there a relevant experiment which we could design to test some of these ideas:

  • How do we create a baseline in order to understand what we mean by ‘increase’?
  • Testing ‘better ‘information’
  • Testing better ‘participation’

We came up with two ideas which we would like to move forward:

Information experiment
We need to do some basic analysis and comparison of some ‘policy relevant’ networks in order to understand what is easily knowable and useful to policy makers. While the underlying tenants discussed here were agree to be useful the policy makers felt that they needed a more concrete sense of what could be demonstrated with respect to information rather than participation.

Participation experiment
Rather than a community engagement experiment (some examples of this here) we decided to look at how network analysis might effect a more formal deliberative tool. We selected Citizen Juries as being something where the selection of participants was important but also where the extent that the experience of the participants was communicated within the community was also of interest (You can read some background on Citizen Juries in this UK Parliament briefing paper). We want to look at three cases:

  • Jury selected on the usual basis of random selection from a pool of volunteers
  • Jury selected based on high levels of centrality based on network analysis
  • Jury selected based on low levels of centrality based on network analysis

In each case the network analysis would look at online and offline networks in a geographical area and we would then track the ‘reach’ of the experience of participants through the network after the event. Our objective is to look at:

  • How do the results of the Jury differ based on selection methods
  • How does the impact of the Jury in the wider population differ based on selection methods.

Volunteers now come forward!!!  Form an orderly queue!

I had a really fascinating and thought provoking couple of days so many thanks to all concerned and particularly to Alberto Cottica who did an outstanding job of bringing a diverse bunch of interesting people together to discuss something that I think will have major significance to government as we acknowledge the social shift towards a more networked society.

I think that these kinds of events are really important.  If one of the effects of a more networked world is the blurring of boundaries between roles and disciplines then we all need to become better at this kind of multi-disciplinary working.  To do this we don’t just need the social media skills (thought their lack in government was repeatedly mentioned) we need to have collaboration skills that make us quick to understand the difference between semantic and fundamental disagreements and the ability to quickly understand the value of a contribution from a field you don’t know anything about in the same way as we can smell out a troll on twitter.  I’ve written about the need for networked leadership before but perhaps we also need to be considering the skills we need for networked collaboration.

Thanks everyone for a fascinating couple of days – comments, disagreements and corrections are all welcome below!

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