Can social networks bridge the participation gap?

[Summary: Online social networks have a role to play in bridging one off engagement with more structured forms of participation.]

A bit of scene setting

Image from Hear by Right book (p.g.7)

The ‘Ladder of Participation’ which asks organisations to consider the depth of youth participation in particular activities will be familiar to many people in youth engagement. Using Hart’s Ladder of Participation you can assess whether a youth council is acting as a genuine structure for youth empowerment, leading to young people and adults sharing decisions and creating change – or whether it is really a tokenistic gesture, creating the illusion of participation whilst adults are actually running the whole show.

But youth participation is not just about youth councils and young mayors. Good youth participation offers young people the chance to get involved and influence issues that affect them in a wide variety of ways, from one-off input into feedback and complaints processes, through to more structured engagement in the governance of organisations. On it’s own the ladder of Participation doesn’t show the full picture. That’s where the ‘matrix of participation’ comes in.

It’s a tool I’ve been using in training sessions for years, having first discovered in whilst working with Bill Badham delivering Hear by Right training. However, as far as I can tell we’ve never written it up online (though it is written up in this book which you can search inside with an Amazon account (search for ‘matrix’)).

The matrix of participation includes Hart’s Ladder of Participation on it’s vertical axis, and adds a horizontal axis consisting of different participation approaches, running roughly from one-off, short term or informal approaches on the left, to more structured and long-term approaches on the right.

Organisations can map the different participation opportunities they provide against both their level of participativeness, and against the type of approach they represent.

The matrix is particularly useful to encourage organisations to consider whether they are offering young people a spread of engagement opportunities, and our experience is that attempts to just provide opportunities at one side or other of the matrix is unlikely to lead to sustainable and effective youth participation which leads to positive change for young people.

An observation: the gap in the middle
When Bill Badham joined us at the April meeting of the Youth Participation and Social Network Sites Action Learning Set he led the group in using the matrix of participation (plus some post-it notes and a big sticky sheet) to put together a big visual representation of the different participation approaches in use amongst the 20 or so local authorities participating in the learning set.

Standing back from the wall where this matrix had been put together during the lunch break we spotted something interesting. The participation methods shown were clustered on the left and right of the matrix, and things were thin in the middle.

Already participants had been talking about how many of the more structured participation methods to the right were limited in their efficacy because they only managed to attract certain groups of young people who did not reflect the diversity of the young people the organisations worked with. And this got us thinking.

Participation methods towards the middle of the matrix are really important. It is through involvement in events; in creative projects; and in short-term activities that many young people can develop the confidence to express their views and can build the networks with other young people and with supportive adults that enable and encourage them to then get involved in further participation. The middle of the matrix is a key point on young people’s ‘pathway of participation’. Without opportunities to gain experience, information and develop networks – many young people (and often the young people we most need to hear from) may never go on to speak up in forums where they could have power to make serious change happen.

Bridging the gap: online social networks
Online social networking is not a cure all. But it seems that it could have a role to play here.

Right now, young people engaging in participation on the left of the matrix of participation, in one-off participation opportunities have few ways of connecting this engagement to longer term involvement in participation. Filling in a paper form to provide feedback on an activity and handing it in can often feel like a participation dead end.

But what if, instead of just handing in feedback, young people were encouraged to digitally provide their ideas for improvements to a service, and were to vote for the ideas supplied by other young people (see tools like UserVoice)?

And what if young people taking part in survey and small-scale engagement were offered an opt-in opportunity to connect with the person who will take forward action based on their input, so they can continue to engage with further questions that crop up as a policy or practice comes to be implemented?

And what if young people who want to express their view on a single issue could do that by joining a group within a social network, in the process coming to discover the other issues their peers are working on – and becoming part of a shared network with young people already involved in formal participation structures?

Not all young people will go on to ‘leap the gap’ themselves and move from one-off engagement to sitting on a youth forum or governance board (nor should they), but perhaps some will – and perhaps, equally importantly, those young people who take part in formal participation structures will have ways of keeping connected with the issues that matter to their least advantaged peers, and will be better able to represent the views of others and to advocate for improvements that benefit those most in need of change.

How are you blending online and offline social networks into your youth participation practice?

Blogging from the National Digital Inclusion conference

I’ve been live blogging yesterday and today for the E-engagement strand at the 2009 National Digital Inclusion Conference.

You can take a look at some of the discussion and dialogue that’s been going on over here.


You can watch a full recording of all the plenary sessions here.

And if you’re interested in the engagement theme I was tracking at the event then take a look at these posts:

And a few general posts:

Digital engagement & organisational change

Next week I’ll be helping out David Wilcox, Dave Briggs and team with a bit of social reporting from the National Digital Inclusion Conference 2009.

We’ll be bringing together content on the Digital Engagement Blog and Network, a new project described by Helen Milner from UK Online Centres as

a collaborative space for all those interested in digital engagement to share ideas and agree priorities for action around digital engagement. Our first focus is developing a Manifesto for Digital Engagement, which you can read about here.

So – to join in that discussion before I’m in a social reporter role next week I jotted down a few reflections about Digital Engagement and Organisational Change posted originally on the Digital Engagement blog, and re-posted below.

Digital Engagement and Organisational Change

There are an amazing amount of elements that go into successful and sustainable engagement with social media – and there tend to be even more elements needed when we’re talking about engagement by public sector organisations.

Just to set up a fairly simple project using a blog, or a social network site profile, to engage service users might, in the long run, need:

  • up-to-date computer hardware & software;
  • internet access free of filters and blocks on social media sites;
  • sign-off from managers and support from senior management for experimentation with social media;
  • a clear policy sanctioning use of social media;
  • guidance to staff on how to use social media tools in line with the policy;
  • updates to related policies and strategies;
  • a procedure for responding to any problems that arise;
  • skills development within a whole team so the project can be sustained even if staff change;
  • research into potential approaches to using the blog / social network site;
  • copy written to clearly explain the project;
  • backup strategies in case anything goes wrong with the social media platforms being used;
  • an evaluation plan;
  • and a whole lot more.

When it comes to social media engagement with young people, then public sector organisations (and others) will need to add a whole host of further key elements around safeguarding policies and youth participation.

All these elements are important – and some are essential pre-requisites before any engagement can get underway. But if all these elements are seen as part of a big list of separate hurdles and barriers for each individual public sector project wanting to engage with social media to overcome we’re going to be waiting a long time for widespread digital engagement to become a reality.

Learning from youth participation
Embedding effective youth participation into the way an organisation works also involves many elements: from getting a clear commitment to participation in organisational values, through to developing staff skills and even making sure finance structures are set up able to cover the petty cash for young people’s travel expenses.

Over the past four or five years I’ve worked with the Hear by Right tool – a standards framework designed to support the organisational change needed for effective youth participation. This collection of 49 different indicators under 7 key standards has been instrumental in many organisations moving towards better and more sustainable youth engagement. Hear by Right divides it’s indicators into ‘Emerging’, ‘Established’ and ‘Advanced’ levels. <any of the organisations I’ve watched using Hear by Right over the last four years are still working at the ‘Emerging’ level (embedding participation is a long journey!) – but, the presence of the standards framework – turning a list of potential hurdles into a clear and achievable plan of action – means that they are able to move forward with their youth engagement rather than to get stuck in inaction.

In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time working with organisations interested in taking their youth participation practice online and into social media spaces. However, in the absence of a framework like Hear by Right for digital engagement we’ve spent at least some of the time going round in circles – unable to develop staff skills until policies are in place, and unable to get policies without providing the benefit of engagement, and unable to do that without skilled staff able to engage etc.

An organisational change framework for digital engagement?
I’ve already started work on sketching out an organisational change tool for youth-sector organisations seeking to explore their engagement with social media (and I hope to be able to share an early version for others to contribute to in the next few months) – but the challenges exist not only in the worlds of youth work and youth participation.

Perhaps the digital engagement manifesto give rise to a widely applicable framework for digital engagement organisational change?

(Comments turned off here – to leave a comment please visit the original post…)

Web skills for Guyana

[Summary: exciting international ICT training project recruitment open until end of April 2009]

Do you know someone who:

  • Is aged 18 – 35?
  • Has skills in web development, graphics & animation, web hosting or e-commerce?
  • Would be interested in spending six-weeks this summer working as part of a team sharing their skills with young people in Guyana?

Perhaps it’s even you?

If either is the case – take a look at this call for participants over the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council website where you will find more details. Or take a look at the video below:

Web Skills Guyana Project from Tim Davies on Vimeo.

(Oh, and while you’re there – do feel free to explore the rest of the CYEC site. It’s in no small part due to getting that new site up and running that blogging over here has been a little quiet of late.)

Youth Voice explored

I’ve only recently come across Adam Fletcher’s ‘Younger World’ blog – but have already found a wealth of fantastic posts providing solid insights, ideas and commentary on youth participation and youth voice.

If you are interested in youth participation and engagement then I would encourage you to have a read...

Adding negotiation to the participation vocabulary?

I’ve just been catching up on reading the findings from the MacArthur Digital Youth Project Final Report (a much needed contribution to the field of youth & digital media/digital learning and well worth taking a look at…) and one phrase has jumped out at me:

“youth-adult negotiations”

Negotiation is not a word I hear a lot when talking about youth participation. Yet I suspect it is an important one.

I still encounter a lot of contexts where youth participation seems to be limited to asking young people, in the abstract, what they want. And then not delivering on the responses because they’re to tricky to implement.

But then, if you ask any group of citizens, young or old, what they want – without articulating the constraints (budgets, sign-off, existing strategic plans) then you are likely to get a list of ideas most of which would be almost impossible to implement (try it…).

The bit missing is the negotiation. Setting out the constraints on a decision, but allowing them to be critiqued. Making clear to young people the assumptions on which you are basing decisions (and in the process, probably becoming more aware of them yourself) and then getting into dialogue over these assumptions. Responding to young people’s suggestions for change with explanations of which bits you think won’t be easy to implement, but encouraging young people to negotiate and creatively pursue the implementation of the changes they want to see.

Of course, one’s position in a negotiation is often about power – and ensuring young people in participation negotiations are on an equal footing with adults is perhaps the most challenging part of all…

Safe and effective social network site applications

[Summary: Inviting feedback on first public draft of working paper about developing social network site applications for young people that can be effective and engaging, whilst also promoting safety and limiting risk to young people (PDF)]

Update 18th May 2009: Version 1.0 of the paper posted here.

For the Plings project – concerned with promoting positive activities to young people – Social Network Sites (SNS) offer amazing opportunities. One of the main ways people find out about positive activities (the football club, dance group or arts society for example) is through word of mouth. So if you can feed information about positive activities into SNS, and increase the flows of information about positive activities through the networks of young people already active there, you could potentially have a big impact on young people’s awareness of activities they could take part in.

Take a look at the slidecast below to get an idea of how a Social Network Site application could work:

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: sns)

Of course, local authorities and professionals working with young people have a duty not only to make sure young people are aware of the positive activities available to them, but also a duty to keep young people safe from harm – and Social Network Sites can be places of risk as well as of opportunity. Which is why public and third-sector organisations engaging with SNS shouldn’t just copy the ‘viral marketting’ and often aggressive tactics of commercial SNS application builders – but need to develop a clear ethical and risk assessment framework for engaging with Social Network Sites.

I hope that this working paper which I’ve put together for the ISP/Plings project can go some way to starting off that development.

‘Safe and effective SNS applications for young people: considerations in building social networking
applications for under 19s’
aims to build a coherent foundation to support public and third-sector engagement with SNS through application building by:

  1. Unpacking the reasons why we need to treat young people differently;
  2. Exploring the features of Social Network Sites which lead to both amazing opportunities, and potential risks;
  3. Clearly identifying the risks to young people within the Social Network Site space;
  4. Proposing three levels of response that should lead to safe and effective application building;

The document also includes an outline risk assessment framework.

The three responses proposed are:

  • Abiding by ethical principles – and designing applications on the basis of principles derived from law, a respect for young people’s rights, and existing principles from professional practice;
  • Having a clear risk assessment in place for all projects – to make sure potential risks are identified and design decisions or resources put in place to limit potential harm to young people;
  • Building safety in – and creating applications which empower young people and encourage general safe online behavior.

So, if you’re exploring the use of Social Network Sites to engage young people, whether in positive activities or participation opportunities – or if you’ve got experience of e-safety or Social Network Site applications please do take a look at the ‘Safe and Effective SNS for young people’ working paper and share your reflections, questions and feedback.

Exploring further
This first public draft of the paper is hopefully just a starting point of a deeper exploration on building positive SNS applications. In particular:

  • The ISP/Plings project will be seeking to operationalise some of the learning in this paper, so it’s proposals, and the feedback and comments on it should have an opportunitity to be explored in practice over the first half of next year…
  • I’ll be leading an exploration of using applications for youth participation as part of the Local Government Information Unit Action Learning Set on SNS and Youth Participation. (N.B. Application deadline extended until 9th Jan 2009 in case you wanted to come along… but have not yet had chance to register…)
  • If there is enough interest – then I’d love to host a seminar on SNS applications and youth engagement early in 2009 – exploring both this paper, and emerging practice from the field. If you would be interested in taking part do drop me a line (tim at practicalparticipation dot org dot uk) or leave a comment on this blog post.
  • All comments and feedback on the paper are most welcome. Again, e-mail or comment below…

Roaming wild with web cams: video camera consultation

I was down in Devon last Friday at the county's fantastic Kongomana youth festival. Alas, however, I wasn't there to chill out and enjoy two days of activities and socialising. I was there along with Carl and Russel to find out what young people thought of Devon County Council using social network sites for youth participation (all part of the Youth Work and Social Networking project, and building on work I've been doing over here).

I'll share more later on about how we used magnets, the side of a bus, and little cut up bits of Bebo on cardboard to ask young people about the sorts of policies, rules and safety guidelines the council should use. For now, I just wanted to share a few quick reflections on using cheap video cameras for consultation.

What we did:
Devon County Council got hold of 5 Busbi Video cameras (£29.99) each which we could hand out to young people throughout the day.

The cameras are very simple to use, with an on/off switch, and big red button to start and stop recording. Even more useful, they've got a space where the battery compartment is (they run off AA batteries) where you can stick a question onto each camera so that the camera operator can read it.

We used questions such as 'What three words do you think of when I say Bebo?' and 'How could councils use Social Network Sites to help you get your voice heard?'.

During the chaos of running our paper-based consultation on social network site policy we were handing out the cameras to groups of young people to borrow for 5 to 10 minutes to go and interview their friends with the question on the back of the particular camera they had borrowed.

That way, so the theory went, we could get in views from a far wider range of young people. And the responses would be young people talking to young people – without the usual young person <–> strange adult dynamic that can occur during quick consultation exercises.

What happened:
Kongomana - Video Camera ConsultationThe cameras were borrowed and the cameras came back. Throughout the day groups of young people were taking the cameras to go and record things.

We had to help one or two groups get started using the cameras – and had to keep turning them off as they almost always came back still turned on and draining the batteries (although the batteries all lasted).

We didn't get chance to watch any of the video coming back in until we were packing up – and the first few clips I watched were not very promising. Mostly video clips of the grass as people were running places with the cameras.

However, as I watched through the rest of the clips I found a lot of really good content. Simple questions like 'What three words do you think of when I say Bebo?' had gathered a lot more responses that 'How could councils use Social Network Sites…' – but between the five cameras there was a lot of content, and, importantly, content that we hadn't been hearing from standing around and talking to young people in our more static consultation activity.

Unfortunately, because we were at a festival event, and because I wanted to keep the video interview activity as quick for participants as possible, we didn't ask each young person if they would be happy for their video clip to go online – so I can't share the actual clips with you. However, I did write up responses to the question 'What three words do you think of when I say Bebo?' and then ran them through to give this tag cloud (the larger the world, the more often it was said):

What did we learn about the method?

  • Young people talking to young people offers real insights: a lot of things came across in the video clips that didn't come across in our other conversations. Young people talking to their peers often do so in a more relaxed way. There is a lot of joking around in the clips that came back – but also a lot of really good comments and remarks that provide great insights.

  • Keep the questions simple: test out your questions first on the young people you expect to take the cameras round and interview people. If you need to provide any clarification of the question – then it won't work in this method.
  • Even point-and-shoot needs some guidance: I had hoped that the video clips we captured might be usable to edit together into a video report of the consultation. However, whilst the audio on most of them was usable – the video clips were rarely framed well (and often were super-close-ups or cut people's heads off). In the future I'll try to add some sort of guide onto the screen of the cameras to show how to frame a show (a circle showing where someones face should be in shot for example).

  • Bring spare batteries and memory cards – we were only running the consultation for a couple of hours – so managed to just use one set of batteries and memory cards per camera. But if you were running for longer – be ready with spare batteries and ready to swap out the memory cards (The Busbi Video cameras record onto cheap SD cards) so that the cameras can stay in use.
  • The cameras may not come back – we had one camera that took a long time to get back to us (we had almost given up on getting it back). Loosing the camera would have been a disappointment – but we would have also lost all the clips recored on there. Thats why for some events you may want to have memory cards in rotation so that whenever a camera gets swapped over you change the memory card and save a copy of the footage captured up to that point onto a laptop etc.

How could the idea be developed?
I'm keen to try using the same method again – but also to explore other ways of putting recording equipment into young people's hands with simple prompts – and then seeing what comes back.

I could imagine recording a short 'introduction to an issue' clip on the memory cards of the Busbi Video camera (the camera has a play button which plays back the last clip) and then sending the cameras in the post to young people across and area with a spare memory card. Young people would be invited by the video introduction to create a clip in response to the issue in question – and would be asked to send back that memory card.

I'd love to hear ideas from others about how to develop this peer-to-peer recording for consultation sort of model. What have you done in the past? Or what sort of thing would you like to do?

(Disclaimed: I have used an affiliate code on links to the Busbi Video on Amazon. There are other cheap digital video cameras on the market – and if you've got access to more durable kit already – the this method could work with that also. I just happen to have used the Busbi and found it to do the job for what I wanted).