Connected Generation 2010: The Conference

Lots of people have been starting to ask me when the next ‘Connected Generation’ event will be taking place. Well, thanks to the sterling work of Katie Bacon, we’ve just booked The Watershed in Bristol for 7th May 2010 to host Connected Generation 2010 – a one-day conference exploring youth engagement and technology in 2010. Based on feedback from participants at recent training events, and on the positive response to the Beyond Twitter event we ran up in Wrexham last year, we’re trying a mixed Conference and Open Space format again – with a morning of top-quality input from speakers and a range of pre-planned workshops, followed with an afternoon of curated unConference, where delegates can set the agenda and direct the conversations.

Bristol Watershed - the Venue

I’m delighted that key speakers at the event will include a gender balanced panel with:

We’re still in the process of confirming the workshop programme, but plans include:

  • Ethics and ICT – workshop with Andy Phippen from Plymouth University;
  • Promoting Positive Activities with Social Media with Steven Flower from Plings;
  • Safe and Sound Foundations – proactive approaches to safe social media engagement with young people, staff and volunteers;

If there is a workshop you would particularly like to see, drop in a comment and I’ll see what we can do…

Full details and online booking available here. (If you can’t order online because your organisation needs invoicing etc. just drop me a line…)

Fingers crossed, we’ll also be using the event to launch a new ‘Youth Engagement and Social Media’ resource which Katie and I are hard at work drafting, and, if you want, you can pre-order a copy when booking your place at the conference.

ICT Ethics – finding new equilibria profession by profession

Ethical ICT in Youth Work (c) Tim Davies 2010
Ethical ICT in Youth Work (c) Tim Davies 2010

[Summary: Ethics belongs to professions, not problems & an ethical framework for youth and ICTs will require each workforce to seek new equilibria based on a number of inter-related elements]

I spend a very interesting day yesterday at a workshop organised by DC10Plus exploring the possible creation of an ‘ethical framework for ICT and young people’. This post contains a set of reflections and ‘thinking aloud’ following that session…

With technologies and the dynamics of digital environments constantly developing, ethical frameworks, over and above guidance and best-practice, are very much needed to help all those involved in work with young people (and young people themselves) to think critically about the ways technologies are used in, and impact upon, the lives of children and young people. However, when it comes to practical ethics for the public sector, it’s crucial to remember that ethics belong to professions, not problems.

That was a point brought home to me the Connected Practice symposium in September last year, where it was clear that different professional groups approached their work from very different motivations and with very different practical and ethical frameworks. Whilst some would argue the rise of a network society leads to a dissolution of barriers between professionals, and consequently, the dissolution of clear and distinct forms of professional practice, right now we are in an environment of inter-disciplinary practice, rather than post-disciplinary practice  – and there are real advantages to be found in each different professional group working out it’s own ethical responses to ICT. A ‘meta-ethical’ public sector framework of general ethical principles may support a degree of compatibility and interface between different professional ethical approaches to ICT, but should not try to replace the process of each profession working out it’s ICT ethics in it’s own context. For a real practice example of how professional context affects the sorts of ethical and practical implications of using ICT – take a look at this forum thread over on Youth Work Online – where the differences between the nature of practice and relationship with young people and youth workers in statutory and voluntary sector youth work settings is leading to a need to adapt and think critically about guidance on how youth workers should use social networking sites.

The point that ethics belong to professions, not problems also highlights that ICT ethics should start, not from concerns about ICTs per-se, but from a recognition of how ICTs impact upon and cut across the concerns of different professional groups within the public sector. And any approach to ethics for ICTs & Young People should have a clear account of where and why a specific focus on young people is warranted. In Safe and Effective Social Network Site Applications for Young People (p. 7) I’ve argued that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Law, and neuro-scientific understandings of adolescence are critical to any such account.

Finding a new equilibrium

Professional ethics guide how individuals and organisations with a set of specific goals should behave in the pursuit of those goals, given the particular contexts in which they work. It might be thought that professional groups can just look at their existing ethical codes and apply them directly to the Internet. However, in my experience exploring youth work values and ethics that turns out not to be quite so straightforward. Whilst it is possible (as we do on p.g. 17 & 18 of the Youth Work & Social Networking Report) to explore how the values of a profession play out in a digital world – deriving practical and ethical guidance for real world situations is not just a case of looking at values and the realities of the online world, but involves finding an equilibria between at least six different elements, as the diagram above shows. Each element is both a variable that may be open to change, but equally a constraint on working out an ethical position:

  • Young people’s use of social media/ICT/the Internet – ethics cannot be built for the ‘ideal world’, but must be developed for the world we are in. At the same time, ethical approaches may involve challenging current patterns of ICT use and seeking to encourage young people to approach ICTs in different ways.
  • Professional values and skills – professional values in many service start from an analysis of the world and a desire to change something in it – be that a desire to tip the balance of power in favour of young people in core youth work theory, or a desire to reduce crime and increase social control in the basic analysis of law enforcement services. However, ICTs are implicated in ongoing changes to the world – and so professional values need to be re-examined in light of the digital world – without being abandoned.
  • Models of online communication and collaboration – there are many different ways of working online. Only some should be seen as ‘youth work’ ways of working – and the choice over which ways of working are ruled in, and ruled out, of a youth work framework of ethics for ICT use will impact upon the nature of that framework. The choice of ethics will also determine which forms of online communication and collaboration are (a) open to youth workers, and (b) likely to be open to youth workers in ways that allow them to be effectively used.
  • Features of available / popular social media tools – this is a particularly interesting ‘variable’ – as to an extent, for most professionals, the tools available to use are not seen as something over which they have much control. Facebook works the way it does. Changing that is not in the power of the individual practitioner. However, the plug-in and application architectures of many social media spaces mean that it may be possible for them to be adapted to be made ‘safer spaces’ for youth work practice, or more appropriate settings for the forms of practice a worker wants to explore. Right now, reshaping social media spaces is beyond the means of most practitioners – but if made more accessible, could enhance the possibility of ‘ethical and effective’ online practice.
  • Institutional drivers of, and barriers to, online working. See the 50 Barriers wiki on this one.
  • Consideration of opportunities and risks – based on real evidence about the opportunities and risks young people face online.

I recognise that this is still a fairly sketchy model – and my use of language above is neither as clear, nor as precise, as would be ideal. However, I wanted to share this now both for the Ethical ICT & Youth project, and as part of ongoing thinking for another project which I hope to be blogging more about soon…

Skills for public voice & participation alongside skills for social media

Eszter Hargittai was in the Oxford Internet Institute earlier today sharing her research findings on the role of skills and socio-demographic factors in influencing levels of use of the Internet – and particularly web 2.0 spaces.

Implicit in Eszter’s argument was a relationship between the diversity of Web 2.0 use and democratisation. The presentation highlighted how socio-demographic factors, and particularly gender, can have an impact on the extent to which different groups contribute to public online spaces such as YouTube and Wikipedia. It’s not enough to give access to the web, and to web 2.0 for the imbalances in who is speaking and expressing their views through these online platforms to be challenged. Skills matter in addressing the imbalance.

However, as discussion at the presentation explored, if our concerns are of democratisation, social justice and equality, then the the skills that need to be promoted are far wider than technology skills, or skills to work with social media.

Skills to exercise public voice and to participate in community (online and offline) are arguably prior to the skills to use technology for public expression.

Both as we measure engagement online, and as we work to promote online engagement – keeping in mind a focus not only on digital skills, but also on general skills of public expression, interaction and dialogue is key.

For those working with young people and communities then that perhaps adds up to encouragement to address digital skills as part of wider civic skill-building programmes such as ‘Act by Right (now online as a free resource BTW)’ rather than to address digital skills and social media in isolation.

Just published: Social Media – Youth Participation in Local Democracy

Social-media-youth-particip[Summary: Introductory guide on youth participation with social media now available]

One of the curious things I’ve discovered in seeking to equip practitioners to engage with social technology is that, the more I explore about digital media, the more I end up creating printed resources, or at least, resources based on a book/handbook structure.

That’s the case with a new resource that was published today by the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) that is the product of learning from the Network Participation action learning set I co-facilitated earlier this year.

Drawing on theory and case studies explored during that action learning set, ‘Social Media – Youth Participation in Local Democracy‘ is designed to step through some of the issues that practitioners need to consider in exploring the use of social networks and social media in youth participation.

It’s available to order from the LGIU Website, and for online purchase via Central Books.

(P.S. If you’re interested in more practical resources to support youth engagement and youth work uses of digital technology – keep your eyes open, as I’m in the midst of working on a new toolkit hopefully ready early in the New Year…)

The myth of easy engagement. Who should participate and how…

Decisions are made by those who turn up.

Often, those looking to engage people in decision making and shaping services make the shaky leap from the fact that over 70% of people have internet access, to the idea that the internet offers the straightforward opportunity to engage 70% of the people. A few days ago, frustrated by questions driven by this logic, and of the form ‘How many people in our local area are on Twitter?’, Dave Briggs sought to explode ‘The myth of engaging with everyone. Dave asks for clarity stating:

The first thing to be clear on is that no one engagement method will reach, or suit, everyone.

The second thing to be clear on, is that you don’t necessarily want to reach everyone, anyway.

Two statements that seem empirically and intuitively sensible. But the argument they lead Dave to is not necessarily so uncontroversial:

My argument would always be to focus on the small number of active, enthusiastic people first.

Whilst there are a limited number of cases where putting the primary focus on the active, enthusiastic people is the right way forward, in local authorities, national government and other democratic contexts we need to think more carefully. The ‘active, enthusiasts’ who leap upon any opportunity to get involved may well be great & capable people – but they may well not have all the ideas, insights, experiences and networks that we need for innovation, change, and the development of engaged vibrant communities. The following post is not a call to reject the active enthusiasts, engaged online and willing to make considerable contributions to civic life – but it is a call to remember that, if decisions are made by those who turn up, those planning and facilitating engagement have a responsibility to make sure they are inviting and supporting the right individuals and groups to be part of the process.

So, who should turn up? Below I’ve sketched out three steps to thinking about who you need to engage, and how to manage that engagement.

This is a quick sketch – and I’m sure the ideas it explores have been well developed elsewhere – so I welcome comments / pointers and reflections to help shape and develop this more…

1) Start from the end
You can’t start planning an engagement process without thinking about why you are looking to engage people. Why you are thinking about engagement, will determine who needs to be engaged, and how.

Some useful questions to ask yourself about the outcomes you want:

  • Are we looking to make a decision at the end of this process? If so:
    • Does the decision need to be decided by a democratic process? Or does it otherwise need some democratic legitimacy?
    • Do we already have a mandate or responsibility for making this decision?
  • Is the goal to make a particular project happen where we already know what that project is?
  • Is the goal to take action on a particular issue, but without already knowing what action to take?
  • Is the goal to build a community who can take forward projects and action in future?

And then ask about the sort of input you need. Do you want:

  • Ideas?
  • Insights?
  • Expertise?
  • Innovation?
  • People taking action?
  • Voting?
  • etc.

The reality is that most engagement projects involve multiple possible outcomes, and multiple sorts of input.

For example, you may want to initially get a wide range of ideas about the priorities that should be set for a £100k pot of local funding; to  follow this up with a democratically legitimate vote to discover the top local priorities; to put together a panel who will invite local groups to apply for funding to run innovative projects that match up against the chosen priorities; and to decide who gets the funding and to support them in running projects and making an impact. Each stage of the process answers the questions above in different ways – and so will need to think differently about who to engage and how…

2) Think about who is affected & who should be involved

If you want to engage a local population – you could just put an engagement opportunity up online, and let the people who are interested find out. But, as Mark Pack points out in a comment on Dave’s blog post:

often those keenest on an issue have a different view from those less keen on the issue

Those who self-select to get involved in an engagement opportunity may not represent all the people who should be involved in an engagement opportunity. Of course, who should be involved depends on the sorts of answers you gave to the questions above.

If you want to get the best possible democratically legitimate outcome that respects the independence and self-determination of local communities then you need at least two broad groups of people involved:

  • (a) People with expertise on the issues in consideration;
  • (b) People who will be affected by decisions or actions that result from this process;

You could just work with a tick-list consisting of these two items, and check you have people from both categories taking part – but chances are that breaking down category (b) at least is going to prove useful for targeting engagement opportunities and making sure you get beyond the easy-to-reach enthusiasts.

For example, you may decide you need to hear from:

  • Men & women, of a range of ages and employment situations, who live in different wards where your funding of £100k might be spent.

You may find you can generate a matrix from the lists of different group you want to engage – giving you a tool to check and think about who is engaged so far. For example, the matrix below helps get a rough sense of whether a process is hearing from participants across areas of Oxford, and from a range of age groups and employment backgrounds.

Picture 7

It’s important to note, however, that these are not tick-boxes. You may not necessarily have someone from every category. These lists are tools to help you think about and visualise whether or not you are getting a broad range of inputs into your engagement process.

Engaging some groups is easier than others. Although – as I heard it put at the recent Beyond Twitter conference, that’s not because some groups are ‘hard to reach’, but because from some places in your local area, the council is harder to reach. With a matrix like the above, you can think about where you put your resources, and how accessible the engagement you are creating is to different groups.

3) Think about the sorts of input you allow, and the inputs you are getting

The people you engage are not, unless they have been elected through a suitable process, representatives . Nor, unless you’ve gone through some in-depth statistical sampling, are they representative.

But they do bring something to your process. And knowing what they bring is important to ensure the outcome is as high quality and legitimate as possible.

People bring ideas, insights, lived experience, energy to take action, skills and practice know how and a whole lot more. Sometimes people should be allowed to bring a veto; or to call for a vote on particular issues.

Fascilitating engagement involves looking at these different sorts of input, and getting the right balance at the right time.

For example, you may first gather stories from across an area about what living there is like, and share these stories with the ‘active enthusiasts’ who have time and energy to give in thinking about innovative funding priorities that could respond to those stories. You may invite those affected by decisions about funding to reflect upon the ‘active enthusiasts’ suggestions. You may offer a veto power to local community members. You may seek out the views of specific groups to make sure a decision is well rounded. And you may seek to bring together a large group to vote on proposals. If all the stories and insights come from one group; all the ideas from another; and all the action from another group again – then the risk that your process is unbalanced is big.

Engaging everyone

Many people have had bad experiences of engagement in the past. Some people are not interested in being engaged. Many people face barriers to getting engaged. You can’t engage with everyone all the time.

But whatever you do, look beyond the easy and obvious, to seek approaches that will work, and that will push forward are more just society.

Why engage online?

Where does this leave the argument for online engagement that Dave Briggs was exploring in the post that sparked the exploration above? Well, one avenue worth exploring is how digital technologies can lower the costs of engaging the easy-to-engage, to free up resources to offer substantive support to those groups, who for reasons of structural and systematic disadvantage, may find their input less likely to be otherwise included.

Three challenges for proponents of a Rebooted Britain

RebootBritainWhilst there might still be a lot of work to do in order to remove the practical, everyday and mundane barriers to building more interactive, open government – and public services fit for the 21st Century, it’s also important to ask critical questions about the sort of public services and government we want developments in technology to help bring about. I’ve just been reading the essays prepared for the Reboot Britain conference that was held last month – and whilst their provocative cheer-leading for a digitally transformed world is often well placed, I also felt slightly uneasy at the omissions in this NESTA publication, and the challenges either unseen, or glossed over.

I’ve tried to capture that unease into three challenges that I believe need to be addressed by those proposing and arguing for more open government, digitally enabled public services and a ‘rebooted britain’. Challenges that are intended, not as a argument against moving forward, but as a the starting point for an argument for subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, tweaks to our direction of travel.

Challenge 1: Where is social justice?
It doesn’t just matter that it is made generally easier to access public services; or that access to democratic power is redistributed to a greater number of people. It matters who has easier access to services, and which voices are now being heard in democratic debate. If digital innovations stand to widen the gulf between the best off, and the least well off, then it may well turn out to be wrong to pursue them. Markets and technologies are not morally neutral or value free – and we need to ask questions about their impact on equality and socially just outcomes.

Social justice, equality and inequality are not terms that you will find anywhere in the Reboot Britain essays – and there is a lack of critical appreciation of the way in which existing social inequality can be re-enforced by the introduction of technologies that outsource to the individual the burden of managing the fulfilment of their needs, rights and entitlements from public services. Whilst the VRM movement advocated by Lee Bryant could indeed lead to a powerful transformation of the relationship between citizen and state – we should be asking ourselves the Rawlsian question of whether some of our innovations, applied without attention paid to equality, could end up benefiting the well off, to the unjust detriment of the least well off in society – widening, rather than narrowing the gulf in our unequal society.

The challenge in a nutshell: ask what sort of society your innovation creates – and tell us if that society is closer to a just and fair one?

Challenge 2: Supporting Deliberative Leadership
Accountability is generally a good thing. Having more information on which to base decision making is generally a good thing. Having decision makers who can debate their decisions by appeal to public reason, and who can account for their decisions clearly and transparently is also much to be desired. However, having decision makers and leaders who are human being is also important. And human beings have practical limitations.

Demands for data, demands for transparency, and demands for new systems for getting more voices into decision making are common across many of the Reboot Britain essays – but without a recognition that decisions should be made, not just upon data-points and on the basis of who shouts loudest, but upon careful deliberation and discursive weighing up of ideas – we risk ending up with a very impoverished politics.

To demand far greater accountability from politicians than we demand either from the media, or, indeed as categories of media / politician and ‘other’ break-down in a digital world, from ourselves – seems to risk creating leaders unable to use their judgement, not least because of the basic practical burdens of auditing all past statements they have made and accounting for any changes in their view over time.

The challenge in a nutshell: don’t stop at making demands for data – think about how it will impact upon deliberative decision making. Can you provide an account of the form of leadership or decision making you want to see – and provide a realistic portrait of a politician fit for a Rebooted Britain?

Challenge 3: Local Control vs. Universal Services

In part this challenges is a replay of the social justice challenge – in so far as it asks whether local control of services leads to a concentration of better services around the already well-off, and a relative decline in the quality of services in areas where populations find it more difficult to exploit new technologies of voice. But more generally this challenge asks whether we can make compatible the idea of Universal Services, available to everyone across the country (without the ‘postcode lottery’ frequently decried in mainstream media) with the idea of local and hyper-local control of services?

The challenge in a nutshell: Does the idea of universal and uniform provision drop out of the picture in the Britain described in the Reboot Britain essays?

Voicebox – making the most of engagement

VoiceBoxThe process is depressingly familiar. Someone asks you to fill in a survey for research or consultation. They take away your results – and – in the rare cases where you ever hear of the research/consultation again – you see that your responses have been written up as part of a dull report, full of graphs made in Excel, and likely to sit on the book shelves of people whose behaviour betrays the probability that they’ve not really read or understood what was in the report.

Which is why it is refreshing to see the (albeit well funded) Vinspired team doing something rather different with their Voicebox survey of 16 – 25 year olds. Here’s how they introduce the project:

Journalists, politicians, academics, police and parents all have a point of view on what the ‘kids of today’ are like.

But has anyone ever asked the young people themselves, and not just in a focus group in Edmonton, but in an open and transparent way and on a national scale? And has anyone done anything smart, cool or fun with that data, that might, just might, make the truth about young people be heard?

These questions were the starting point for Voicebox; a project which aims to curate the views of 16-25s, visualise the results in creative ways, and then set that data free. Over the coming months, we’re going to try to find out how young people spend their time, what they care about, how many carry knives, what they really think about the area they live in and much more.

But not only are they breaking up their survey of views into manageable chunks, and giving instant feedback on the results to anyone filling the survey in – they are opening up the data they collect through an open XML API and CSV downloads, so anyone can take and use the data collected.

Plus – to make sure responses to the question ‘What do young people really care about?’ make it in front of decision makers – they’re planning to wire up the responses to a robot, ready to hand-write out each and every response as part of an installation in Parliament.

Of course, it’s not often that your budget stretches to custom-built flashy survey applications and internet-connected-robots when you’re looking to gain young people’s input into local issues or policy making. But what Vinspired have done with VoiceBox does raise the questions: how will you make sure that you really make the most of the views young people give you? Any how will you get young people’s views in front of decision makers in a way that makes them tricky to ignore?

Certainly two questions I’m going to be asking myself on any future consultation or engagement projects I work on…

Questionable consultation

I don’t get the feeling Oxford City Council really value my view. At least, the consultation on local priorities they’ve just published certainly fails to inspire me with confidence that the council are aiming for a meaningful public dialogue on their corporate priorities.

Oxford City Council ConsultationI’m asked to indicate, from a list of issues plucked right out of a corporate plan, whether the issues are a ‘High Priority’, ‘Medium Priority’ or ‘Low Priority’ for me. There is no explanation of what indicating my priorities will lead to; no links to further information on what the council is already doing against a given priority; and only a minor attempt to tranlate a few into non-council-speak.

At the end of the online form I’m asked to go back and give the numbers of the priorities that are my top overall priorities – again with no explanation of how this input will be used.

Oxford City Council ConsultationInterestingly ‘Improviding dialogue and engagement with citizens’ is not amongst the priorities I’m invited to evaluate in this consultation. I would suggest to Oxford that perhaps it should be.

I’m left with the distinct feeling that this consultation could end up an exercise in statistical manipulation, with ‘high priority’ scores used to justify expenditure on services the council is already planning to resource, and lower scores used to justify cuts to other services – when, given two services side-by-side and asked to choose which they would prefer funded or cut, residents actual preferences may not match up at all with those that may be derived from this consultation exercise.

Creating good consultation

Of course, I prefer not to rant in the negative, so below are a few quick thoughts and reflections on what I’ve found makes a good consultation over the years:

  • Be clear about the scope and impact – tell respondents in plain English how their views will be used. Perhaps show an example of a previous consultation. Or include a short video clip of the person who will process the responses explaining the consultation. If you can’t explain how there is potential for a consultation to influence decision making and create change…well, stop and rethink whether you should be running a consultation until you can!
  • Provide context. When designing an online consultation think about how you can provide extra information on the different topics you are consulting on, so that citizens can read up more about what you mean by a given question, and have the chance to be deliberative in their decision making.

    Videos, photos, links and other context can all prove useful.

  • Think carefully about your questions. If you don’t know how you will use the answers to a question – don’t ask it. If you think that the question could be interpreted in many different ways – clarify it.

    Think as well about how questions answers could be ‘gamed’. If, for example, I suspect that all the responses from Oxford’s consultation will be simply totalled up in a spreadsheet, and there are certain elements of the consultation I have a strong interest in, I’m better off exaggerating my high priorities and rating everything else lower to help highlight my particular preferences. Is your consultation designed to avoid this sort of skewing?

  • Be honest about your limitations – and build the limitations into your consultation. Presumably even if I say everything in Oxford’s corporate plan is a high priority for me, some things will be allocated more resources than others. The consultation is at least in part about distributing limited resources. So instead of asking me if things are high-priority or not – why not ask me to rank the priorities between certain services? Or show some realistic sense of what rating a given service as a high priority might entail so I can think carefully about my priorities in the context of the real limitations around priority setting.

    Asking anyone ‘What do you want?’ is foolish without framing. ‘What do you want us to do with the resources we have and without significantly raising taxes?’ is a far better question.

  • Check your process. Think about how you will analyse responses before you start. Would someone who completed your consultation recognise the analysis  you have made of their input? If not – think about how you can improve the whole consultation process so that what comes out the far end at least approximately represents the input that citizens contributed in the first place.

  • Design and test your forms. Ask a number of people to test your consultation. Watch them complete your forms. Ask them what could be improved to make the process smoother. Far better to spend an extra day taking the rough edges off, than to have hundreds of responses which can’t be used.

    (For example, in the Oxford Council consultation above I was far more likely to indicate priorities from the bottom of the list as my overall top priorities (or at least as my third overall priority… I had a pretty clear idea of the first two I was asked for…) as I had read them most recently and could still see them on screen without scrolling when I came to reply to the questions which requested their numbers. If this is true for a large number of people completing the consultation then that could introduce a significant bias…)

  • Consult to start a conversation. Most important of all – think beyond consultation. How can your consultation questions provide the start of a wider discussion? How can you provide platforms for ongoing dialogue beyond the simple asking of consultation questions?

What other tips would you provide to someone designing a consultation?

Developing the Interactive Charter

Towards an Interactive CharterFrom a throw-away blog post on 50 Hurdles to Open Government comes ‘Towards an Interactive Charter‘ – a collaborative effort launched at Reboot Britain on Monday to develop an ‘Charter for Interactive Government’.

The Charter, which you can help shape by editing, rating and remixing possible drafts, will be a statement of values and intent for local authorities, national government and other organisations to sign up to – as a commitment to enabling open, participative and efficient working through social technologies.

Working with Paul Evans of the Local Democracy blog and PI Camp, and with support and insights from Pete Cranston, I’m also exploring how the Charter can be backed by an organisational change toolkit, giving practical support to organisations who want to remove the barriers to effective social media use across a wide range of settings (including Chilren’s Services).

So if you’re interested in setting high aspirations for social media aware government, and in supporting practical action to overcome the barriers that abound, then head over to the new Interactive Charter website, and dive in to help rate or reshape ideas for the Charter.

Right now the only draft is my early attempt which is in below. Would this get assent from your organisation? How would you put the aspiration differenty? Or can you just tighten this up? Using Mixed Ink you can help edit and update this before the 25th July.

THE CHARTER (Tim’s first draft)

– We will become a social media aware organisation;

– Every part of the organisation will be able to harness the potential of relevant social media to help fulfil their goals;

– Citizens and stake-holders will be able to use social media to engage with our work;

– We will particularly embrace social media approaches that enable us to be: more efficient; more participative; more collaborative; and more accountable;

– We commit to removing the barriers that currently hold back use of social media;

MixedInk Demo from MixedInk on Vimeo.

Impossibly narrow & leadership 1.0

[Summary: a critique of ‘Impossible and Necessary’ by Sir Michael Barber and some remarks on leadership]

I try, as much as possible, to engage in debates in a constructive way, and to avoid anything that might be construed as a rant. I find arguing for and working for things I believe to be right to be preferable, in most circumstances, to spending time arguing against those with whom I may share general goals, but may differ on methods and approaches. Demonstrating the positive alternative is oftentimes more powerful than trying to undermine the status-quo.

However, criticism and critiques have their place, and last week I found myself distinctly at odds with the presentation the ‘Impossible and Necessary’ pamphlet on the future of education. So – herewith follows a series of arguments against, in the hope still or making a constructive contribution to discussions.

Impossibly narrow
Sir Michael Barber’s speech ‘Impossible and Necessary’ was launched as a NESTA Pamphlet on Tuesday morning (though the only online copy I can find is a transcript of Michael’s original speech on which the Pamphlet is based here). For all the NESTA introduction of the pamphlet as a key statement of important challenges for the future, both the pamphlet itself, and the presentation of it’s key messages offered by Michael on Tuesday, turned out to be woefully narrow and lacking in progressive thought.

Whilst it contains one or two good recommendations: encouraging more team-teaching and ending the dominance of the single teacher as master of their domain in a single classroom; and calling for a greater focus on teaching quality rather than on teacher numbers; ‘Impossible and Necessary’ is otherwise unimaginative, adultist, and for a paper which highlights the importance of ethics, lacking in an appreciation that schools are, right now, far from egalitarian environments.

Michael’s essay uses an imagined ‘intergalactic audit commission’ to highlight progress and change on earth over the last 250 years, and to highlight challenges for the future.

Adultism is not a good place to start
The concept of adultism is captured well by this 1996 quote from Jenny Sazama “Young people are systemically mistreated and disrespected by society, with adults as the agents of the oppression. The basis of young people’s oppression is disrespect.”

It’s not good then to find that, in the few times young people are explicitly referenced in Impossible and Necessary it is in phrases loaded with stereotype and prejudice.

“…last year, I read that computers will soon have the learning capacity of a toddler. That’s a lot of learning capacity, as any parent knows. It’s also a lot of tantrums. I fully expect, a few years from how, to read that computers with have the learning capacity of a teenager and no doubt stay in bed until lunchtime.”

I would hope a vision for the future of education would be centred on understanding and respect for children. I would expect at least that it wouldn’t be reinforcing and playing on prejudice. But not so in Impossible and Necessary. How can we support and enable young people to learn if we don’t respect them?

Focus on education as an abdication of responsibility
It is also worth pointing out that the majority of the looming crisis and problems Sir Michael gets his intergalactic audit team to identify in the first part of the Pamphlet are ones created or increased by his generation. Thus, the claim, with words in the mouth of the intergalactic auditors that to resolve them there is just on thing “you can do – just one – really, really well. Educate every children and young person on the planet better, much better, than you’ve ever done before because they are your sustainable future” reads somewhat as an abdication of responsibility for taking tough decisions about big issues now.

Yes, younger generations do need to learn in order to be part of creating a sustainable future. But:

  1. It’s about our future. A shared future. Which includes adults and young people.
  2. Sir Michael’s generation shouldn’t be thinking that improving education, and leaving the problem solving to future generations alone is the ethical thing to do. There are things that those in positions of power should be doing to challenge crisis of climate and conflict right now. Educating for the future is part of it. But there are many other parts – and parts which might demand of adults right now that we make sacrifices to safeguard our sustainable future.

We have had ethical innovation – but schools are lagging behind
In talking about Impossible and Necessary on Tuesday, Sir Michael focussed on his ‘equation’ contained in the paper: E(K+T+L) where: K = Knowledge, T= Thought, and L = Leadership, all bracketed by ‘Ethics’. The argument being that good education involves each of K, T and L, but also requires ethical education. Sir Michael suggested that whilst the last centuries have seen massive technical innovation, ethical innovation has lagged behind. In part, this claim is defensible: we do need to rethink our models of ethics for a networked society in which authority is far more distributed.

However, we have had ethical developments over the last 50 years, not least the establishment of a global framework of Human Rights, and of Children’s Rights. Yet few schools are environments in which an culture of respect and rights is pervasive. Sir Michael’s intergalactic auditors do highlight and praise the “changing place of women in society”, but fail utterly to highlight the continued failure of schools to respect young people’s right to be listened to in decisions that affect them. This is about far more than the developments in yearly student satisfaction surveys and occasional school councils that the panel at Tuesday’s event cited as evidence that school were becoming more democratic. It is about a shift in the culture of schools.

You cannot prepare ‘innovators of tomorrow’
The culture that fails to give young people ownership of their own learning, and to see them as equal partners (or indeed, the key partner) in the learning process with teachers, is further expressed in the idea that we need to equip young people as ‘innovators of tomorrow’.

In the same way that citizen education can not be effective when we do not allow young people to be citizens now, innovation education is unlikely to thrive unless we see young people as innovators right now, not just innovators in training for the future.

It starts and ends beyond the classroom
Perhaps at the heart of the narrow vision in ‘Impossible and Necessary’ is that is never sets foot beyond the classroom. It ignores that young people live the majority of their lives outside schools, and that education is not a task that takes place 9am – 3pm weekdays. The panellists suggestion on Tuesday that the solution is to increase the amount of time spent in school (and indeed, extended schools policy is encouraging this) demonstrates a woefully limited understanding of many young people’s lives. Schools will remain important settings and catalysts of future learning – but if we’re thinking about education for the future, we need to start in communities, in workplaces, in supporting parents and in many other places – not just the classroom.

Accountability and intangibles
On the first page of Impossible and Necessary we find the sentences:

“You are aware, of course, that in England we inspect almost everyone. And in case that’s not enough we audit it too. We’re the regulatory specialists”.

But Impossible and Necessary isn’t opposed to that regulation and inspection. It want more. In talking about it Michael Barber argued that a false dichotomy underlies the implicit claim that “because you can’t measure everything, you should measure nothing”. But, whilst that is true, what you measure nearly always distorts where energies are directed – and if some of the things we value can’t be measured, we need to be careful that our measurement of other things does not take our eye off important intangibles.

Accountability can be achieved without reducing all education to numbers, and shifting ownership of educational attainment from the learner to schools and state.

More leadership 1.0
L for Leadership is a key part of Sir Michael’s equation for education E(K+T+L). Leadership is a popular topic right now, with the launch this week of the National Body for Youth Leadership (branded ‘The Youth Of Today‘). But both The Youth of Today and Sir Michael’s focus on ‘Leadership’ appear, in spite of a passing recognition that there are different models of leadership, to remain as reductive, individualistic concepts.

In fact, I think the problem is predominantly in the equation of ‘the ability to get things done’ with ‘leadership’ – and the attempt then to subsume within the concept of leadership all those things which relate to getting things done. Convening, co-ordinating and catalysing are all ways of getting things to happen. In the networked world it is ever clearer that things are achieved not only through top-down leadership, but by participation in self-organising networks and co-operative structures. Often-times getting things done in these contexts is not about gaining power, but is about giving up control and power and trusting people.

A sense, and capacity for, efficacy – and being part of creating change – is key. But if we reduce our desire for all people to have this to talk of leadership – we greatly impoverish the debate.

In closing
I realise now that one of the reasons I rarely write in critical mode, is I’m not sure how to resolve a critique. Should I offer a positive vision? That will take not just a little more writing. And this is too long already.