Consultation responses: putting some backbone into it

One of the joys I find in blogging is that just when I'm strugging to find a way to express an idea, I stumble across an idea with similar roots elsewhere that can, hopefully, help make sense of what I was thinking about.

Just such a thing occured with this post from Annecdote about 'Story Spines'. As Shawn explains:

I asked the groups to grab an issue and tell a story explaining what happened. People busily jumped into the activity but I noticed they were just writing dot points detailing their opinions about what had happened. No one wrote a story.

It seems that they didn't know what to do to write a story. I had just assumed that everyone else thinks about stories like I do and has a sense what one looks like. Big mistake!

My next opportunity was at another knowledge strategy workshop but this time with a government department in Canberra. I had remembered Andrew introducing us to story spines so I dug out the blog post. Here is the simple story spine (Viv's example is more elaborate).

Once upon a time…
But one day…
Because of that… (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally…
Ever since then…
And the moral of the story is…(optional)

The Story Spine helps groups to structure their responses to a question or request into the format that is needed to move things forward.

What has this got to do with consultation you might ask? Well, as I was working with colleagues to analyse the notes from flipcharts created at the 3D Dialogues we came to realise that a lot of responses lacked verbs.

'What is good about this?' 'Youth Workers'.

But youth workers what? 'Youth workers helping us'? 'Youth workers being there but staying out the way unless we need them'? 'The particular youth workers we know'? 'Any youth workers'?.

The form of answer illicited by the standard flip-chart recording isn't really what we need to make sense of the dialogue and discussion that has taken place. And that is where some sort of 'spine' for consultation responses might come in handy. A mechanism for encouraging statments with enough specificity to be able to feed meaningfully into future decision making.

So what should the spine for a consultation response look like?

When we were looking at the 3D response we discussed preparing a series of cards with a range of verbs on, and then asking those recording on flip-charts to make sure everything written up includes at least one of these cards – but I fear that a manageable set of verb-cards might be too limiting.

Perhaps instead simply providing some sentence starters like:

“We would like it if…”

“We need…”

“Things are better when…”

Would encourage the more complete sorts of responses we need.

I'll certianly be looking to try something along these lines for the next consultation I'm involved in… and I'll be sure to report back with how it works…

A Civicus World Assembly Portal

Since the Civicus World Assembly I've been wondering about how technology could be better used next year to create more connections and capture more of the discussions that were taking place.

I experimented earlier this year with content-tagging and aggregation – but its reach was very limited. One of the challenges with trying to create an online collaborative dimension to a big event is encouraging those not accustomed to online interactions to view and engage with it. I think, however, Michele Martin has it cracked in her suggestion here that we should be making use of online portal systems as our platform for creating better, more online-integrated, conferences:

Create portals to support better concerning. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about how to improve the conference experience. Portals are another option. Imagine sending an email out to all conference participants with a Netvibes or Pageflakes portal link that includes feeds to weather, newspapers, events, etc. in the location where you'll be holding the conference. It could also include a calendar of events and feeds to the wiki pages I suggested that you use to develop the conference agenda and get the conversation started. It could also include access to MySpace and Facebook modules, audio and video feeds on related content, email, etc. This can also become a way to follow-up on a conference, by adding feeds to those bloggers who are blogging the conference.

Bringing together useful pre/during-conference practical information like local maps, weather etc. with a space to share feeds of content from the conference, and tools for interacting during the conference seems like the ideal solution. For an event like Civicus, it could lead to some really exciting things…

So – all I need to work out is who at Civicus to suggest this to…?

UK Geocoding for Drupal

Interactive maps can be really effective ways of visualising information with a geographic compotent. For example, if you want to find participation workers near you making use of Hear by Right, the Local Network Map lets you see who is around far easier than any listing would.

Up until now, finding out the co-ordinates of a UK address to be able to plot address-linked information onto a map either meant paying a lot to commercial providers for access to a postcode or address database that could tell you – or putting (as the HbR Local Network Map does) with being accurate to within one or two miles by using free postcode databases and geocoders.

No more.

The lovely people at Google have somehow managed to get around the prohibitive costs to provide free UK geocoding giving street-level accuracy.

This makes a big difference to the sort of non-commercial geo-information services it could now be possible to provide for the UK. I'll certainly be looking again at whether we can finally exlore getting a good UK Fairtrade Map system working for local Fairtrade Town Campaigns.

Geolocating the UK in Drupal

Given my firm belief that the best possible Content Management System for almost all forms of web-application has to be Drupal, I've created an update for the Drupal Location Modules UK include files here which makes use of the new UK google geocoding.

Combined with my generic fallback patch which uses the fantastic geonames service to make sure Drupal returns a location wherever possible, this means worldwide geolocation coverage can be very workable indeed.

Still a way to go

Even though Google have made UK geocoding available to the masses, there is still a long way to go before we can really get the full benefit of UK geodata without being saddled with prohibitive costs. Even with the fantastic efforts of Open Street Map we still have no country-wide mapping data that anyone can freely print off to create a local community map, or to use for creative applications. Citizens continue to be charged stiffling fees for accessing public data. For more on the need to bring in big changes to the way public geodata and other data is managed – keep an eye on the Free Our Data blog here.

Consulting on the Local Offer, useful resources

A local community map developed using tools for consulting on the Local OfferI recently co-designed and fascilitated a series of dialogue events for The National Youth Agency (NYA) between young people, officials from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and Parmjit Dhanda MP (then Minister for Children and Families). We focussed the dialogues, which were part of a broader UK tour by Parmjit Dhanda, on the Local Offer.

The Local Offer is a guarantee introduced through Section 6 of the Education and Inspections Act that gives young people the right to:

  • Two hours recreational leisure activity a week
  • Two hour education leisure activity a week

This should be out of school, and local authorities are responsible for making sure there is provision, it is well publicised, and that young people can access it. Young people should also be involved in influencing what is provided under the Local Offer.

As we had three-hours for the dialogues, the first two with mainly young people – and the third with extra DfES officials and the Minister, we designed a process that:

  • Introduces the local offer
  • Creates a map of current provision under the local offer
  • Opens up discussions about how young people want to influence the activities that are provided, and how they think local authorities should be held to account for ensuring provision
  • Explores some of those methods of influence and accountability in more depth – exploring how potential barriers might be overcome.

The resources we developed for the session are fairly flexible – and so I thought I would share them here – as they may well be useful to local areas exploring the local offer, or others running consultation processes related to activity provision for young people.

I’ve included a bit of description about how we used the resources – but you are free to take them and adapt them as you wish. If you do make use of them, I’d be really grateful if you could drop me a line or leave a comment to share news of how… (

I’ve also suggested possible modifications to the resources… if you do make any of these, please do share your updated resources as well…

Local Offer Bingo: a name game

Local Offer Bingo CardWe used this set of 10 ‘Local Offer Bingo’ cards as our ice-breaker name-game.

Simply give everyone a card, and ask them to talk to each other and to write down someones name against an activity if that person enjoys that particular activity. Each name can only be used once, and you need to find someone for each of the 16 squares on the card. The first person to fill their card (i.e. to find 16 people’s names) shouts Bingo!

After you’ve completed the name game – you can use it to take about the sort of activities people enjoy – and how they now have a right to positive activities in their areas because of the local offer.

The list of activities came from young peoples suggestions in an earlier NYA consultation on Youth Matters.

You can download the cards for printing as a PDF, or for modification as a Word Document.

Possible modifications: Add images to the bingo cards like in the local offer cards below…

Local Offer Cards

Local Offer CardsThese cards add a bit of colour, and list all 47 of the activities used in Local Offer Bingo along with a suitable clip-art image.

We used the cards for a community mapping excercise during which:

  • We asked groups to draw out key landmarks in their communities
  • We then asked the group to draw places where they did stuff
  • We then asked groups to pick up Local Offer Cards that represented things they enjoyed doing, and to place them on the map if there were places where they could carry out that activity.
  • We used the picture that built up to shape discussions around what was and wasn’t available in the local areas members of the group came from.

We also had some stickers with icons and words relating to different barriers that might stop young people accessing activities. Things like ‘cost’, ‘transport’, ‘time’, ‘traffic’ and ‘attitudes of adults’. For some groups we asked them to add these on top of the map to show where barriers to accessing activities existed.

The cards and mapping excercise were really useful in starting discussions and making sure that everyone could have a say, regardless of whether they were comfortable with the written word and verbal expression or not. I’m sure there are many other uses for the cards as well as in mapping; for example, using them to prioritise the different sorts of activities a group would be interested in having provided, or adding ‘costs’ to them and getting a group to try a budgeting excercise thinking about how they would ensure provision of a wide range of activities.

You can download the cards for printing as a PDF for printing, or for modification as a Word Document.

Possible modifications: Give each card a ‘cost’ score according to how expensive or resource intensive that activity is to provide (like in David Wilcox’s Social Media Game) and encourage a group to try an budgeting excercise to work out where their activity priorities lie.

Problem solving chart

Problem solving chart - designing for changeThis is a really simple tool – and I was suprised by how well it worked.

In our sessions we held an idea-storm with the group to ask:

  • How could you influence local authority decisions about provision under the local offer?
  • How could you hold responsible decision makers to account for provision under the local offer?

(we used different ‘translations’ of the questions depending on the focus that had emerged earlier in the dialogues… but these are the overarching questions we were getting at).

With the results of the idea storm, we picked out key themes for further exploration and then held an ‘open space’ style series of conversations around these themes. We ended up with conversations on themes like:

  • Holding meetings with a wide range of local offer stakeholders and young people invited
  • Using the law to hold decision makers to account
  • Creating a bond between young people and councillors so neither can spend money on activities without the others say so

We wrote the themes in the header box of these problem solving charts that we’d had printed on A1 before the event (rather than just scribbling them up on flip-chats) and, after introducing the charts, asked members of the dialogue to select which theme they wanted to discuss and to go over and have a conversation around it. As fascilitators, we just stepped back.

The charts appeared to really help most groups self-fascilitate and to record some really good points. In particular, encouraging the group to answer the question “What would this look like in practise?” with a narrative about how their ideas would work really helped them to work through the other boxes on the chart.

The charts could easily be used in other contexts and could be adapted with different questions – although I think that:

  • Having the charts properly printed up on large paper
  • Having the first question invite a narrative

were important elements of the charts working as well as they did. They cost us just £1 each to get printed on A1, which was well worth it.

You can download the chart as a PDF here, or as a Word document for modifying.

Recording the dialogues

OK – so this isn’t a tool we created – but it was a tool we used. At each dialogue we took digital photos of all the flip-charts, community maps and recording charts and posted them on the photo-sharing website Flickr. That way we could easily share with others the authentic input given through the dialogues – with a clear accountable record of what went on…

Plus, if we were feeling really fancy, we could annotate all the photos, ‘geo-tag’ them to add them to a map to show the areas they represent, and could easily create a slideshow of them ideal for presenting to local authority officers or councillors with next-to-no extra work…

Attachment: Local Offer Activity Cards.pdf
Attachment: Designing for change.pdf
Attachment: Local Offer Bingo Cards.pdf
Attachment: Designing for change.doc
Attachment: Local Offer Bingo Cards.doc
Attachment: Local Offer Activity Cards.doc

The Network

Technology and discussions of technologies were notably absent from the Civicus World Assembly. Even the head of Africa's first mobile phone company speaking in a BBC World Service debate missed speaking about how bringing a mobile phone infrastructure to Africa creates a potentially massive platform for driving, evaluating and improving development.

However, in the packed programme there was one session that took at look at technology. Co-ordinated by Igloo the session was primarily exploring tools for fascilitating communication between dispersed teams of researchers or practioners. A lot of what was said about building network and communities of practioners was really useful – but, it was this slide:

Slide from IGLOO talk at the Civicus World Assembly (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial)


that really made it worth going. The slide itself may look fairly plain – but in showing how the rise of the network as an organising principle has arrived, enabled by technologies of connection – parallel to the rise of bureacracy, enabled by technologies of control – it provides a coherent framework for explaining and understanding the changes we're grappling with right now.

We're in the age of the network. The network is new (in the scheme of things). And the network reconfigures our social and organisational relationships – not just our technologies.

Given that the majority of delegates at the World Assembly spent their formative years before the rise of the network, it is not suprising that using networked strategies for promoting development and accountability had a low profile through the event. Both the leaders and the stakeholders/beneficiaries of Civicus's member NGOs lack an internalised understandings of networked working environments. By contrast, Youth Assembly Delegates (18 – 25 year olds who met before and then took part in the World Assembly) often had at least an unconciously internalised understanding of the network, and one that significantly shapes their world views – yet, as the slide above showed me – we lack a comprehension of the place of this understanding in the current rapid development of the history of thought and organisational structures. Crucially, both young and old are low on the practical skills to operate effectively in networked ways.

I know this needs change. It needs a response. Yet I've had this blog post waiting for completion for almost a month as I can't see clear to pull together enough threads of thought yet to even get close to sketching a response. And that's the challenge – the network and the information age seem to change ways of knowing – and ways of learning. So rather than look for some conceptual conclusion to this post – I will simply let it arrive on my blog as part of an exploration in progress. A seemingly significant conceptual stage on a learning journey. And a post with a picture full of all the different shades of the colour blue I really like…

The joy of trains (and offline rss readers)

I've made it. I've whittled the cloud of 600 blog posts and links that have been hanging over me for a fortnight down to just 17 that I need to follow up when I finally make it back home. Things started getting bad when the deadlines for launching the new Participation Works gateway co-incided with preparation for The Youth Summit, the tail end of Actions Speak Louder and running the final 3D dialogue – bizzarly being held on the set of Hollyoaks.

The trouble with bloggers is they keep on posting fantastic nuggets of wisdom and ideas even when I've not got the time to read them. And the really interesting people I'm reading, keep on pointing out other really interesting people who I could learn a lot from as well – and soon my news-reader is bursting at the seams with condensed learning, inspriation and peripheral knowledge.

The upside, however, of an accumulation of a never-ending-flow of blog posts is that is makes delays on the train a positively helpful and positive experience. I'm writing right now from Peterborough Station. Peterborough is definitely not on the route from London to Leicester… apart from when all the trains from London to Leicester are cancelled, and you have to meander home the long way. And such a meander provides just the time I need for catching up on my personal learning and blog reading.

Peripheral knowledge

Knowledge garnered through all the interesting things that I find myself reading and links I find myself following that don't have any direct relevance to what I'm working on right now, but might just come in handy one day…

An essential component of synergies and interdisciplinery inspiration…

The Grantmaker

Over the last two years I've worked with YouthBank UK and the YouthBank network of Community Foundation Northern Ireland to develop a Management Information System to support youth led micro-finance. The software I developed ended up very customised around YouthBank, but with the rise of the Youth Opportunity Fund, and other growth in youth led grantmaking there appears to have been a real need for a more general information system supporting such projects.

All this led me to starting work at the start of this year on TheGrantmaker, a flexible web-based Management Information System for youth led grantmaking, based on top of the Drupal Content Management System. Mike Smith, my brother in law, took on role of chief coder, and has developed all the foundations for a top-notch system. However, things have got really busy here with the upcoming launch of Practical Participation – and time and money to develop TheGrantmaker further have dried up for now. So – I thought I'd drop a quick post here in case there was anyone interested in exploring ways to bring development back-to-life.

Right now, what I think is needed, is either some dedicated voluntary effort to turn TheGrantmaker into a high-quality open source product – or a business model that can support at least a couple more months of developer time to turn TheGrantmaker into a cost-effective product for Youth Opportunity Funds and other grantmaking groups.

If you think you might be able to help, drop me a line: