Digital civic space – the diagram

This post was inspired by Andrea Siodmok, Anthony Zach and my friend Meriel – each of whom in their own way pushed me over the edge (in a good way) to actually submit the corrections to my thesis rather than hoarding them gollam-like and simply muttering “my precious my precious” in my study. Thanks folks


The most amazing thing about getting the thesis out of the way is that I can start to explore what I missed (that and hopefully retraining myself to read fiction). I finally got round to adding in a diagram that tries to explain what I mean by digital civic space which is at the top of the post.

Digital civic spaceYes – its not a brilliant diagram but its the best I could do. I will post the whole thing once I get it back from the examinations people – am too lary to do it before then.

What I’d really like to do now is to flip this on its head and, as Andrea suggested, look at this from the citizen perspective. This model was created partly as a rejection of eParticipation and from a desire to describe digital civic space to government as an alternative. However by placing formal democracy in the centre this diagram perhaps gives government a sense of too much power and centrality when the growth and energy in civic participation comes from citizens and not from our current democratic processes or political parties. NB – my view is that we have a significant and growing democratic deficit – best to say below if you disagree.

This connects to one of the areas I tagged for further research in my conclusions was into the motivations and interests of the people I termed civic creators – digitally active citizens who were creating content aimed at their communities. I describe these as having four qualities:

  • Persistence – there is evidence of engagement over time or of a commitment to continue. These are not angry sunday night bloggers who put up one post and then leave it as web tumble weed. This quality is also a nod to danah boyd’s work on networked publics as she cites this as one of the affordances that describe those.
  • Constructiveness – they want to find a solution to problems that they perceive and not simply complain
  • Responsiveness – they interact with their audience, answer questions and respond to comments
  • Known Identity – there is clear sense of a person behind the content even if there is an avatar or screen name used

This last point is something I will come back to.

I’d like to further test these descriptions and also start to see if its possible to develop some kind of typology the different kinds of activity that kind be found in the civic space. This is perhaps a desire to counter a narrative which sees these people either as ‘citizen journalists’ or as the usual suspects with new tools. I think there is an interesting new type of digital active citizen emerging and I’d like to try and see if I am right.

I also think that these people exist within as well as outside of government that finding them within structures may be more tricky than finding them outside- and thats saying something as my data set only yielded 5 civic creators per 1000 in the population – though that makes no claims in terms of their reach nor did I think it was a definitive number.

I’m going to start reading around this idea – but I will have to do it quickly as I will lose my access to journals as soon as the internal examiner finishes reviewing my corrections so recommendations would be very welcome along with links to any campaigns about the need for open access journals and academic publishing.

The other area I want to dig into a little more is online identity. Both in the technological sense of digital identity and data management (exploring the quality of ‘known identity’ that I am suggesting is a desired quality of digital civic space) but also some of the sociological literature around this – particularly on context collapse and social constructions of self. I had to junk a whole section on this as the thesis got way too bloated and I’d like to pick this up again and relate it to the civic creator work and democratic enfranchisement. This is particularly relevant I think where you are looking to connect civic and democratic spaces as staff and officers who cross those boundaries have some very difficult issues to wrestle with – and that is before you start to examine the effect of identity on inclusion and whether the digital space can be designed in such a way as to welcome minority groups and those who are hard to hear.

I think that both of these strands – civic creators and online identity will form the basis for the soft infrastructure that Andrea was referencing here:

Andrea tweet

And I believe this will link up with some of the ideas that I started to explore in the thesis based on Rheingold, Jenkins and others descriptions of the participatory culture online. I hope that this will give me chance to explore some of the maker communities or some of the people doing amazing things with technology and healthcare in order to deepen the idea of civic space beyond the link I have made with strengthening democracy.  Much of this links really closely to the NHS Citizen work we are doing which means I can continue to use an action research approach.

Finally, I want to explore the what next of digital and networked technologies – social media is in many ways to tip of an iceberg which has big data, internet of things, quantified self and all kinds of things lying beyond it – I’d like to take some time to really look at this wider potential of technology within the context of the network society rather than simply concentrating on social media. I believe that the need for digital civic space becomes even more compelling when you start to consider these embedded technologies but it would be good to look at how this belief could become evidence.

There are loads of other things to be thought about that will end up on this blog (theories of change, agile programme management, big/open data, digital/networked leadership to name but three) but I think this post reflects where I want to turn my research brain next. Can’t wait!


One comment
  1. Eileen Conn

    May 5, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Hi Catherine – You are right it looks different from the perspective of a citizen, and especially an active citizen like myself. A key thing is that many active citizens, maybe most?, are not *primarily* digital citizens, but many of them now use digital means to do some or a lot of their work as active citizens. This is so for Peckham Vision

    Digital media have provided an important mechanism for our success over 12 years in nurturing an informal low-key network of connections, now including thousands of individuals. See also:

    But all that has been in support of much informal low key community work, out and about on the streets, community events and working on local issues, and not as a project in digital space.

    It is possible and useful in certain contexts to ‘flip on its head’, as you say, the top down approach. But I suggest there is another way we need to look at it as well – this is what I call the two systems approach. This is recognising that, what is thought of as the ‘bottom up’ or the ‘grassroots’ or the community or the citizens’ perspective, is actually also part of a system in its own right with its own dynamics. This system which I have called the ‘horizontal peer’ is in continuous interaction with the organised world of work which includes the ‘formal democratic’ at the core of your diagram.

    My two systems model has its own diagrams which are set out in my discussion paper, which can be found here: The ‘space of possibilities’ shown in these diagrams, which is the space between the two systems, equates with the ‘formal civic’ and ‘informal civic’ in your diagram. Both these formal and informal civic spheres are where the two systems interact. We need to see this, and the ‘off the radar’ system, in your diagram to understand the dynamics more. I will be glad to expand on this if you or others are interested.


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