Generation Y? Bridging the participation gap in an online world


Back in July 2011 I spoke at a conference on ‘Generation-Y’ and public services hosted by Institut de la Gestion Publique (Institute for Public Management) in Paris. I was asked to write up the talk as an article for a print publication. So, I wrote up an extended version of this blog post, and fired it off, with a creative commons license on. A few months later I found myself having to print and sign paper contracts to convince the publishers that yes, they really could print the article. To make them happier I agreed I wouldn’t publish a copy of the article till it was out in their book. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

So I was surprised to get back from the OKF Winter Summit yesterday to find a parcel from France containing a copy of the book, French translation of the article included. 18 months after the conference, a print document void of links or graphics, with no mention of the creative commons license on the article. It looks like Institut de la Gestion Publique still have a very long way to go before they are really taking seriously the expectations gaps that my article talked about.

Ah well. Here’s a copy of the full article in English anyway (PDF). Unfortunately I’ve not been given a digital copy of the version in French, but happy to scan it in if anyone would like it.



Opening the National Pupil Database?

[Summary: some preparatory notes for a response to the National Pupil Database consultation]

The Department for Education are currently consulting on changing the regulations that govern who can gain access to the National Pupil Database (NPD). The NPD holds detailed data on every student in England, going back over ten years, and covering topics from test and exam results, to information on gender, ethnicity, first language, eligibility for free school meals, special educational needs, and detailed information on absences or school exclusion. At present, only a specified list of government bodies are able to access the data, with the exception that it can be shared with suitably approved “persons conducting research into the educational achievements of pupils”. The DFE consultation proposed opening up access to a far wider range of users, in order to maximise the value of this rich dataset.

The idea that government should maximise the value of the data it holds has been well articulated in the open data policies and white paper that suggests open data can be an “effective engine of economic growth, social wellbeing, political accountability and public service improvement.”. However, the open data movement has always been pretty unequivocal on the claim that ‘personal data’ is not ‘open data’ – yet the DFE proposals seek to apply an open data logic to what is fundamentally a personal, private and sensitive dataset.

The DFE is not, in practice, proposing that the NPD is turned into an open dataset, but it is consulting on the idea that it should be available not only for a wider range of research purposes, but also to “stimulate the market for a broader range of services underpinned by the data, not necessarily related to educational achievement”. Users of the data would still go through an application process, with requests for the most sensitive data subject to additional review, and users agreeing to hold the data securely: but, the data, including easily de-anonymised individual level records, would still be given out to a far wider range of actors, with increased potential for data leakage and abuse.

Consultation and consent

I left school in 2001 and further education in 2003, so as far as I can tell, little of my data is captured by the NPD – but, if it was, it would have been captured based not on my consent to it being handled, but simple on the basis that it was collected as an essential part of running the school system. The consultation documents state that  “The Department makes it clear to children and their parents what information is held about pupils and how it is processed, through a statement on its website. Schools also inform parents and pupils of how the data is used through privacy notices”, yet, it would be hard to argue this would constitute informed consent for the data to now be shared with commercial parties for uses far beyond the delivery of education services.

In the case of the NPD, it would appear particularly important to consult with children and young people on their views of the changes – as it is, after all, their personal data held in the NPD. However the DFE website shows no evidence of particular efforts being taken to make the consultation accessible to under 18s. I suspect a carefully conducted consultation with diverse groups of children and young people would be very instructive to guide decision making in the DFE.

The strongest argument for reforming the current regulations in the consultation document is that, in the past, the DFE has had to turn down requests to use the data for research which appears to be in the interests of children and young people’s wellbeing. For example, “research looking at the lifestyle/health of children; sexual exploitation of children; the impact of school travel on the environment; and mortality rates for children with SEN”. It might well be that, consulted on whether the would be happy for their data to be used in such research, many children, young people and parents would be happy to permit a wider wording of the research permissions for the NPD, but I would be surprised if most would happily consent to just about anyone being able to request access to their sensitive data. We should also note that, whilst some of the research DFE has turned down sound compelling, this does not necessarily mean this research could not happen in any other way: nor that it could not be conducted by securing explicit opt-in consent. Data protection principles that require data to only be used for the purpose it was collected cannot just be thrown away because they are inconvenient, and even if consultation does highlight people may be willing for some wider sharing of their personal data for good, it is not clear this can be applied retroactively to data already collected.

Personal data, state data, open data

The NPD consultation raises an important issue about the data that the state has a right to share, and the data it holds in trust. Aggregate, non-disclosive information about the performance of public services is data the state has a clear right to share and is within the scope of open data. Detailed data on individuals that it may need to collect for the purpose of administration, and generating that aggregate data, is data held in trust – not data to be openly shared.

However, there are many ways to aggregate or process a dataset – and many different non-personally identifying products that could be built from a dataset, Many of these government will never have the need to create – yet they could bring social and economic value. So perhaps there are spaces to balance the potential value in personally sensitive datasets with the the necessary primacy of data protection principles.

Practice accommodations: creating open data products

In his article for the Open Data Special Issue of the Journal of Community Informatics I edited earlier this year, Rollie Cole talks about ‘practice accommodations’ between open and closed data. Getting these accommodations right for datasets like the NPD will require careful thought and could benefit from innovation in data governance structures. In early announcements of the Public Data Corporation (now the Public Data Group and Open Data User Group), there was a description of how the PDC could “facilitate or create a vehicle that can attract private investment as needed to support its operations and to create value for the taxpayer”. At the time I read this as exploring the possibility that a PDC could help private actors with an interest in public data products that were beyond the public task of the state, but were best gathered or created through state structures, to pool resources to create or release this data. I’m not sure that’s how the authors of the point intended it, but the idea potentially has some value around the NPD. For example, if there is a demand for better “demographic models [that can be] used by the public and commercial sectors to inform planning and investment decisions” derived from the NPD, are there ways in which new structures, perhaps state-linked co-operatives, or trusted bodies like the Open Data Institute, can pool investment to create these products, and to release them as open data? This would ensure access to sensitive personal data remained tightly controlled, but would enable more of the potential value in a dataset like NPD to be made available through more diverse open aggregated non-personal data products.

Such structures would still need good governance, including open peer-review of any anonymisation taking place, to ensure it was robust.

The counter argument to such an accommodation might be that it would still stifle innovation, by leaving some barriers to data access in place. However, the alternative, of DFE staff assessing each application for access to the NPD, and having to make a decision on whether a commercial re-use of the data is justified, and the requestor has adequate safeguards in place to manage the data effectively, also involves barriers to access – and involves more risk – so the counter argument may not take us that far.

I’m not suggesting this model would necessarily work – but introduce it to highlight that there are ways to increase the value gained from data without just handing it out in ways that inevitably increase the chance it will be leaked or mis-used.

A test case?

The NPD consultation presents a critical test case for advocates of opening government data. It requires us to articulate more clearly the different kinds of data the state holds, to be be much more nuanced about the different regimes of access that are appropriate for different kinds of data, and to consider the relative importance of values like privacy over ideas of exploiting value in datasets.

I can only hope DFE listen to the consultation responses they get, and give their proposals a serious rethink.


Further reading and action: Privacy International and Open Rights Group are both preparing group consultation inputs, and welcome input from anyone with views of expert insights to offer.

Exploring how digital technology can support young people to engage socially and economically in their communities

[Summary: launching an open research project to find key messages for youth-focussed digital innovation]

Over the coming months I’ll be sharing a series of blog posts linked to a project I’m working on with David Wilcox and Alex Farrow for Nominet Trust, developing a number of key messages on how digital technologies can be used to support young people to engage socially and economically in their communities. It’s a project we would love to get your input into…

Here’s where we are starting from:

“The race is on to re-engage young people in building an inclusive, healthier, more equal and economically viable society.

But changing times need fresh thinking and new solutions.  It is essential that we find new, more effective approaches to addressing these persistent social and economic challenges.   

Digital technology offers all of us the opportunity to engage young people in new, more meaningful and relevant ways and enable their participation in building a more resilient society.

We recognise that there is no single solution; many different strategies are needed to support young people. What is going to work?  ”

Between now and mid-May we’re going to be working up a series of key messages for innovators exploring the digital dimension of work with young people (you can input into this draft messages in this document before 12th April), and then taking a ‘social reporting’ approach to curate key social media and online content that helps unpack what those messages might mean in practice.

Digital dimensions of innovation

So many digital innovation projects essentially work by either taking a social challenge, and bolting a digital tool onto it; or taking a digital tool, and bolting on a social issue it might deal with. But digital innovation can be about more than tools and platforms: it can be about seeing how digital communication impacts upon the methods of organizing and the sorts of activities that make sense in contemporary communities. We’re looking for the messages that work from a recognition of the shared space between digital innovation and social change.

For example, back in the Youth Work and Social Networking report (PDF) we explored how, now that digital technologies means young people are in almost constant contact with peer-groups through SMS, social networking and instant messaging, ideas of informal education based solely on an isolated two or three hours a week of face-to-face contact seem outdated. But the solution isn’t just for youth workers to pick up and use social network sites as a venue for existing forms of practice (as a number of ‘virtual youth centre’ projects quickly discovered). Instead, by going back to youth work values, practitioners can identify the new forms of practice and interaction that are possible in the digital world.

And digital innovations to support youth engagement in employment, enterprise and community action might not just involve changing the way services are delivered to young people. A post from Jonathan Ward this morning on the Guardian’s Service Delivery Hub highlights how many of the institutions of localism such as local strategic partnerships, neighborhood planning groups, and localism forums are inaccessible to young people who “are often too busy with family and work commitments to take part in the business of localism”. We could take an approach of bolting-on digital technologies for young people to input into local fora: setting up Facebook groups or online spaces to discuss planning, with someone feeding this into regular face-to-face meetings. But on it’s own this isn’t terribly empowering. Instead, we might explore what tools what would make the processes of neighborhood in general planning more open to youth input, and look at how digital technology can not only allow consultation with young people, but can shift the structures of decision making so that online input is as valued and important as the input of those with the time to turn up to a face-to-face meeting.

Get involved

Between now and April 12th we’re inviting input into the key messages that we should develop further. You can drop ideas into the comments below, or direct into the open document where we’re drafting ideas here. After April 12th, we’ll start working up a selection of the messages and searching out the social media and other online content that can illuminate what these messages might mean in practice.

As we work through our exploration, we’ll be blogging and tweeting reflections, and all the replies and responses we get will be fed into the process.

At the start of June the results of the process will hopefully be published as a paper and online resource to support Nominet Trust’s latest call for proposals.

Digital innovations are not always digital (and other reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation lab design)

[Summary: assorted learning from participation and hack-days applied to ideas about a youth-focussed digital innovation lab.]

Right Here, Comic Relief and Nominet Trust have a really interesting tender out right now for someone to deliver two ‘Innovation Labs’ focussed on helping “young people to look after their mental health and to access appropriate help and support”.

They describe how the labs should provide young people with the opportunity to work with mental health, youth work and design professionals to design digital tools that will meet their needs.”  If it weren’t for the unknowns of the schedule for my PhD that starts in October, it’s exactly the sort of project Practical Participation would be putting in a proposal for*, but, with the freedom to adopt a more open innovation exchange style bit of sharing around a proposal, and having been unable to resist jotting a few notes about how I might approach the tender, here’s a few quick reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation labs, drawing on learning from previous participation projects.

Digital innovations are not always digital

In my experience working with youth services and mental health services exploring use of digital tools, the biggest gaps between the potential of digital tools and their use in practice is not down to a lack of Apps or widgets – but comes down to a lack of training, inadequate policies, or other small barriers.

The most effective outcomes of a digital innovation lab could be how to guides for practitioners, youth-led training for mental health workers in how to engage online, or new protocols that make sure mental health staff have a framework and incentives to make use of digital tools – as much as they might be new apps and websites.

Set up to succeed

I’ve experienced and observed a number of participation projects in the past that have, mostly unintentionally, set young people up to fail by asking them to redesign services or systems without reference to the staff who operate those systems day-to-day, or the realities of the budgetary and legal constraints the services operate under. Instead of empowering young people to bring their lived experience to real problems, whilst avoiding organisational agendas crushing the ideas and insights young people can bring, participation projects can end up asking young people to solve problems without giving them all the information they need to find viable solutions.

In innovation events with both young people and adults ideas often come up which, whilst great in principle, draw on mistaken assumptions about resources that might realistically be available, or about how digital tools might be adopted and used (it’s not uncommon to hear ‘innovators’ of any age suggesting they’ll build ‘the next Facebook’ to bring together people to discuss some particular issue). Finding the balance between free-flowing innovation, and realisable ideas is a challenge – and increased if, for the majority of participants, the event is their first innovation lab, or project teams don’t have people with experience of taking an project through from idea to implementation. Finding facilitators who can combine the right balance of technical realism, with a focus on youth-led innovation, is important, as is offering training for facilitators.

Projects like Young Rewired State offer an interesting model, where young people who have participated in past events, return as young mentors in future years. Finding a community of young mentors may also prove useful for an innovation lab.

Involving adults

It’s not only mentors and digital experts who have a role to play in the design process, but also mental health professionals and volunteer adults who work day-to-day with young people. In policy consultations in the past we’ve used a ‘fish bowl’ like approach to adults involvement, starting the day with adults as observers only on the outside of circles where young people are developing plans and ideas; moving to a stage (perhaps after an hour) when young people can invite adults into the discussion, but adults can’t ‘push in’; and then (another hour or so later) moving to a stage when adults and young people participate together. Whilst artificial, in a policy consultation, this sort of process helped address issues around the balance of power between young people and adults, without removing the benefits to be found from youth-adult dialogue. In an innovation and design situation, this exact model might not be appropriate – but thinking about lightweight processes or ‘rules’ to help the relationship between young people and adults may be useful.

An alternative approach we’ve taken at past participation events is to have a parallel track of activities for workers coming to the event with young people: could you set a team of adult innovators competing with young innovators to contrast the ideas they come up with?

There are no representative young people

I’m not a representative 26 year old. There aren’t representative 17 year olds. Or 15 year olds. Or any age for that matter. People often design innovations for themselves: that doesn’t mean they’re designing for all young people. Not all young people are technology experts. In fact, most aren’t. There is no such thing as a digital native. Bringing the lived experiences of young people with experience of mental health services and challenges to the design of services is still a very very good thing. It can mean massive improvements in services. But often there’s a risk of implicitly or explicitly thinking of service-user or youth participants as ‘representatives’ – and that tends to be an unhelpful framing. Understanding participants as individuals with particular skills and insights to bring tends to work better.

Freedom and frameworks

I’ve spent most of this afternoon at the Guardian offices in London as a mentor for young hackers at Young Rewired State. Young Rewired State is a week-long event taking place across the country for young people interested in building things with open data and digital platforms. Young Rewired State centres have varied in how much structure they have had: some simply providing a room, and some mentors on hand, for young people to identify what they want to work on and get hacking. Others have supported the participants to work through a design process, offering more structured how-to guidance and support. Some young people thrive and innovate best with a framework and structure to work within. Others need the freedom from pre-planned programmes and tight agendas in order to innovate. Having no agenda at all can exclude those who need structure. But an agenda that is too tight, or a programme that is too prescriptive can miss innovation opportunities. Fortunately, the Innovation Labs tender that sparked this post highlights that the events themselves should be co-designed with young people – so there’s space to negotiate and work this one out.

Keep out of the dragons den

I’ve sat on a few ‘dragons den’ style panels recently – responding to presentations about young people’s project ideas. And I’ve yet to be convinced that they really make a useful contribution.


This post has been in the spirit of reclaiming reflective space, and has no neat ending. 

*Although I’m not putting in a proposal around the labs, I’d still be really interested to get involved should a youth-engagement and effective technology focussed facilitator/action researcher/data-wrangler be useful to whoever does end up running the labs.

A simple story, but a complex strategy

[Summary: A short post of reflections by way of contribution to the Youth Policy Symposium on Participation]

I’ve just been tuning into Howard Williamson’s introductory speech at a Youth Policy Symposium on participation taking place in London today and tomorrow, convened by the Open Society Foundations and the British Council, with help from friends at CYEC. Nicolo from YParticipate summed up Howard’s talk in the following tweet:

“We need a simple story to tell about youth participation, and a complex strategy to implement it”

Which seemed as good a provocation as any to offer some thoughts and connections on that simple story, and complex strategy.

Children’s Human Rights

In the RightSpace project we explored the importance of shifting from a narrative based around ‘exceptionalism’ of children and young people, to a focus on the fundamental rights and personhood of children and young people, and the rights to be involved in decision making that flow from that.

A recognition of the personhood of young people, and a recognition that there are systematic patterns of discrimination against children and young people in society (which Adam Fletcher of Freechild labels ‘adultism‘ highlighting their similarity to other ‘isms’ of racism, sexism, castism, and ageism), cannot be met only by changes to systems and institutions, or by the introduction of policies – but requires – as other isms do – a change of individual and societal attitudes towards those discriminated against.

There are at least two aspects to participation rights:

  • A right to be heard, and to influence what happens to me as an individual – far too often talk of participation jumps straight in with a focus on large-scale collective decision making, ignoring the many domestic and seemingly mundane contexts in which the views of children and young people are not taken into account. From the moment we can communicate we can express preferences about a situation: from decisions about what to eat, to where to live, to what should happen in a family. These preferences may not be perfectly formed (whose are?), and in general in any social decision making there are many people’s preferences to weigh up. In good decision making, negotiation over preferences leads not only to a decision, but to a transformation of the preferences involved as well. The fundamental simple story of participation is that whenever there is a decision affecting children and young people, they should be part of the negotiation around it.
  • A right to participate in collective decision making – which might simply be direct negotiation with more actors, or, more often, involves ‘representatives’ discussing issues on behalf of a wider constituency. In global (or even national and local) decision making the groups involved tend to be far from demographically representative of wider populations, and the procedures by which people are selected to participate in these systems have inherent bias against young people being equally likely to be selected to participate. Sometimes this is because of particular structural properties of youth (having had less years to gain certain key experience), and at other times it is down to discriminatory attitudes (implicit or not) of adultism. However, we also have to recognise that many other groups are systematically excluded from these decision making fora (and even when young people are included, it is often only a particular sub-set of young people to do get included – the bias towards young mens participation over young women’s in some contexts being one example). To promote children and young people’s participation in collective decision making on the basis of rights and democracy, without promoting deeper forms of democracy which seek far wider inclusion than those we conventionally operate with is inconsistent.

This suggests that whilst one simple story might be tricky, there are two simple, but radical, narratives we can draw upon in advocacy for youth participation:

  1. Children and young people, are people;

  2. We need deep democracy open to all to participate as equal parties in negotiation;

But what about a pragmatic story?

The story above, about what youth participation is and should be, is liable to charges of idealism. However, unless advocacy for children and young people’s participation is based upon deep principles, we will continue to have many stories: many different pragmatic reasons for youth involvement, and many different ‘strategies’ for promoting participation that flow from them. As I wrote in 2008, having different pragmatic reasons for young involvement is ok, providing you match your engagement approach to the goal. But a foundation in common principles is useful to identify when an youth participation project is an attempt to move towards a realisation of principles of young people’s rights, and principles of deeper democracy, or when projects are uncritically replicating existing power structures and co-opting young people into undemocratic decision making.


If finding a simple story is challenging, finding strategies for promoting and evaluating participation is also.

However, rather than further dissertation on strategy, I’ll simple point to two tools I’ve found immensely helpful in strategic approaches to participation:

  1. Hear by Right, co-written by Practical Participation co-director Bill Badham, Hear by Right uses an organisational change framework which puts shared-values right at the centre, and provides a simple model for addressing a wide-range of organisational issues that support participation – from addressing participation in job descriptions, to involving young people in governance.

    I ran the shared learning website for Hear by Right for a number of years (now sadly discontinued by The National Youth Agency) as a space for people to share their journeys in promoting participation within their organisations.

    Perhaps the one strategic weakness of a Hear by Right approach in the way it was most commonly implemented was that a focus on organisational change could allow organisations to see participation as something done by a particular part of the organisation, rather than working more explicitly to challenge the adultist attitudes of staff and stakeholders right across the organisation.

  2. The Matrix of Participation (a copy is in this post) which sets out a grid of participation methods, and uses the (contested) ladder of participation to highlight that participation is not a one-dimensional thing in organisations or communities. Just having formal structures for participation is not enough, they need to be linked to other forms of participative structure – allowing a range of ways for children and young people to be involved in decision making.


The question of “What changes?” has already come up in the Youth Policy Symposium (as I watch on the webcast). A big elements of later versions of the Hear by Right tool was a focus on collecting stories of change as a means of ensuring participation was not just tokenistic, but led to visible and measurable change. However, if participation is based on the principles I’ve suggested above, of personhood and democracy, the fundamental question is not necessarily “what has changed?”, but is “who was empowered in the negotiations?”.

Youth participation often seeks after fast change: after all – the time in which one can be ‘officially’ part of youth participation structures is a limited one – and we all want to see change as a result of our actions. But sometimes all democratic decision making has to face that decision making in diverse groups is complex, time-consuming and difficult.

As I write I realise the role of change in participation is something I need to give more thought to, but at least we can separate out two key questions:

  • What has changed on the substantive issues children and young people were bringing to the table?
  • What has changed in making the decision making environment more inclusive, and more deeply democratic?

Too often we mix up those two questions.

A changing world

This post has already become longer than I’d planned, and raised various issues I need to go and explore more. But I want to also mention the importance of recognising the global, digitally connected nature of the world we are living in when developing any strategies for promoting participation.

Although early days of utopian thinking about the democratising potential of the Internet are passed, it still has phenomenal potential (and existing impact) as a tool for creating new forms of participation, models of negotiation, and spaces where ageism and discrimination can be challenged.

I hope discussions at today’s Youth Policy Symposium will help develop further visions for participation in the 21st century and will explore not only formal structures, but also more fluid ways of children and young people participating in public debate and decision making.


Reflections: Blended facilitation at Commonwealth Young Professionals Forum

[Summary: Reflective learning from an experience of blended facilitation at Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum]

I spent two fascinating days yesterday and Sunday with the Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum. It’s the first time that an event focussed on engaging under 35s (youth in Commonwealth contexts has a slightly broader definition than most contexts I’m used to working in…) has been organized alongside the main Commwealth Local Government Forum, which brings together 100s of delegates from local politics and government administrations. The main focus of the smaller (about 60 of us) Young Professionals Forum (#cypf11 on Twitter) was to draw out from discussions a series of recommendations to make to the main forum, sharing a young adult voice on issues of local economic development and on youth participation.

Below are some brief reflections on two parts of the process I was involved in working on…

1) Social media orientation & encouraging social reporting

On the Sunday afternoon at the start of the forum we ran a short session introducing the Ning network set up for the event, and offering people quick opportunities to think about different social media tools that could be used for social reporting the event. I ran through posting blog posts and photos to the online network; gave an overview of how twitter could be used at events; and talked about vox-pop style video interviews. Everyone was encouraged to use their own equipment for social reporting; although as not everyone had devices available in the session we had a few practice/interactive activities that didn’t need technology there.

The first, asking people to think about the headline of a blog post they might write during or after the forum, generated some really good ideas – and the suggested headlines that delegates shared revealed a lot about their interests and aims for the event (e.g. ‘Best practices in youth entrepreneurship’, or imagining the post they would like to write after the forum ‘Local Government Forum accepts youth recommendations’).

The second activity, inviting people to practice vox-pop style interviewing of a partner sitting with them, also got people talking and sharing ideas for the event (and felt very similar to a standard ice-breaker, albeit with the addition of getting people’s permission to record them, and trying to manage a camera whilst talking).

On reflection:

  • A number of delegates commented on the usefulness of a social media introduction. Whilst almost all the young professionals taking part were familiar with blogging, and many had twitter accounts etc., many had not considered how to use these effectively in a conference context (for example, the use of tagging or hash-tags on Twitter was new to a number of people). Given digital communication and sharing messages online can be a key advocacy tool for the messages coming from the forum, a half-hour spent pointing to how digital tools could be used seemed to be useful investment of time.
  • Even with a good introduction, social reporting still needs facilitating. I switched my attention to the real-time collaboration, and running an afternoon workshop on open data in the commonwealth, and hadn’t formed a dedicated social reporting team. As delegates also got more involved in recommendations drafting, social media activity started to drop off and potentially a lot of stories and case studies that would have been useful to digitally share may have been missed.
  • My main take-away is to explore how the social media introduction could be integrated with ice-breakers and introductions. The blog post activity could be combined effectively with an expectation or aim-setting activity; and the vox-pop practice with an ice-breaker. Sometime to try next time…

2) Real-time collaboration for statement drafting

The process of drafting a text (statements or recommendations) from an international youth fora is an interesting one. Delegates vary in their experience of political processes, in the backgrounds they come from, and in the degree to which they are present representing a specific group or constituency – either by virtue of a formal mandate (e.g. elected youth representatives; leaders of organizations or networks), or informally adopting a representative role – or to which they solely represent and feed their own views into the process. Bringing together diverse views and voices into a text which can potentially influence policy making, and be used as an advocacy tool, is practically challenging.

There are all sorts of general process issues to be addressed in statement drafting (for example, the way in which processes generally start with a blank sheet of paper, rather than seeking to build on past statements), but one practical one we tried to address at CLGF was the process of typing up the statement itself. I’ve sat in a youth hostel late into the night before along with about 20 other people crowded round a laptop quibbling over phrases and wordings, all whilst one person: the person at the keyboard, acts as facilitator and gatekeeper of the document. At CLGF, instead of typing into documents on individual laptops, we took advantage of Cardiff City Hall’s free Wifi to get everyone typing into Google Documents – made public for anyone to edit – but with a rapporteur in each working group taking main responsibility for typing up their notes. As we moved from individual thematic working groups generating ideas, to the process of drafting a final statement, we moved into one single shared document to edit.

It might be a bit premature to assess how the process has worked, as I’m writing this as the second day of CYPF is starting (alas I’ve had to leave early) and there is still work to be done on the statement – but the process raised a number of interesting learning points.

Some reflections:

  • From one laptop the facilitation team were able to get an overview of the points emerging from different groups by looking at all the different docs, and to point out overlaps – either adding notes into the Google documents – or going to talk to specific groups (spread out in different parts of the room / different rooms) to suggest making connections with another group on a particular point.
  • We could use that access to the developing drafts to visualise emerging themes. For example, at lunchtime I put together Wordles of the drafts which a number of delegates noted were useful in getting a sense of the discussions and record being generated.
  • Whilst allowing multiple editors changes the power dynamic associated with one person at a keyboard – by allowing anyone with an Internet access device in a group to directly clarify and update notes – one delegate pointed out that it can lead to (a) some people being left out, as screens become personal again rather than shared; (b) people making edits direct without discussing them – missing on opportunities for dialogue across the table (this matches my experience of sitting in silence at IGF10 drafting a statement in etherpad with a number of other delegates – all the interaction taking place in chat and on the text directly).One practice way to address some of this may be to try and project each document up on a shared screen as well – and to think about having different ‘editing policies’ (possibly enforced with the document sharing settings) for different stages of the process (e.g. during initial idea creation anyone can add anything; during refining thematic papers edits should be discussed; during final changes to a statement, all changes should be approved by the group before being made to the text).
  • The documents we were using were set so that anyone in theory could access, read and edit them – even if not at the forum. This was mainly for ease (no need to get people’s e-mail addresses to share the document with them), but also seems to me to be a good thing – potentially enabling more enhanced participation and allowing expertise and ideas to be brought in from across the world – regardless of people’s ability to travel to the conference. We didn’t exploit this possibility – and how it could fit into the general processes of statement drafting would need more thought – but it’s an exciting one.
  • The cost (or lack of) Internet access in hotels is still a big barrier to this process. I was able to set up a MiFi to allow a couple of people back at the hotel to carry on working on the draft, but a lack of affordable WiFi suddenly limited the breadth of possible collaboration.

Seeing how quickly and easily delegates adopted real-time collaborative documents for drafting in a general conference (I was wondering if the YCIG experience was unique to a technology conference), I’m keen to spend more time looking at effective and empowering facilitation techniques in this space – and to see how the process could be developed more.

Diplomacy labs

We’ve only scratched the surface of how digital tools can transform youth fora, and other international gatherings. However, the ingredients of a transformed way of doing business are coming together: remote (or enhanced) participation; understanding the digital record as a fundamental vehicle for driving outcomes of an event and real-time collaboration tools. I certainly hope institutions like CLGF, CYPG and the upcoming Commonwealth Youth Forum in Australia in October take up the challenge of innovating and living out the common conference platform claim that “we need to change the way politics is done”.


Update: Photo Credit to Dan from A-Leap (fab participation, youth and learning people in Wales) for the picture in this post.

Expectations and Evidence: youth participation and open data

[Summary: Exploring ways to use data as part of a youth participation process.]

Over the last year and a bit I’ve been doing less work on youth engagement and civic engagement processes than I would ideally like. I’m fascinated by processes of participation, and how to design activities and frameworks within which people can actively influence change on issues that affect them – getting beyond simply asking different groups the question ‘what do you want?’ and then struggling to reconcile conflicting answers (or, oftentimes, simple ignoring this input), to create spaces in which the different factors and views affecting a decision are materialised and in which those affected by decisions get to engage with the real decision making process. I’ve had varying levels of successes doing that – but the more time I’ve been spending with public data – the more I’ve been struggling to work out how to bring it into participative discussions in ways that are accessible and empowering to participants.

Generally data is about aggregates: about trends and patterns rather than the specific details of individual cases. Yet in participation, the goal is often to allow people to bring their own specific experience into discussions and to engage with issues and decisions based upon their unique perspectives. How can open datasets complement that process?

The approach I started to explore in a workshop this evening was linking ‘expectations and evidence’ – asking a group to draw upon their experience to write down a list of expectations, based on the questions that had been asked in a survey they had carried out amongst their peers – and then helping them to use IBM Many Eyes to visualise and explore the survey evidence that might support or challenge their expectations (I’ve written up the process of using the free Many Eyes tool over in the Open Data Cook Book). It was a short session, and not all of the group were familiar with the survey questions, so I would be pushed to call it a great success, but it did generate some useful learning about introducing data into participation processes.

1) Stats are scary (and/or boring; and/or confusing)
Even using a fairly interactive data visualisation tool like IBM Many Eyes statistics and data are, for many people, pretty alien things. The idea of multi-variate analysis (looking at more than one variable at once and the relationship between variables) is not something most people spend much time on in school or college – and trying to introduce three-variable analysis in a short youth participation workshop is tricky without leading to quite a bit of confusion.

One participant in this evenings working made the suggestion that “It would be useful to have a reminder of how to read all these charts. What does all this mean?”. Next time I run a similar session (as I’m keen to develop the idea further) I’ll look into finding/preparing a cheat-sheet for reading any data visualisations that get created…

2) ‘Expectations and Evidence’ can provide a good framework to start engaging with data
In this evenings workshop after looking at data we turned to talk about interview questions the group might ask delegates at an upcoming conference. A number of the question ideas threw up new ideas for ‘expectations’ the group had (for example, that youth services were being cut in different ways in different places across the country), which there might be ‘evidence’ available to support or challenge. Whilst we didn’t have time to then go and seek out the relevant data there was potential here to try and then go and search data catalogues and use a range of visualisation and exploration approaches to test those bigger expectations more (our first expectations work focussed on some fairly localised survey data).

3) The questions and processes matter
When I started to think about how data and participation might fit together I sketched out different sorts of questions that participation processes might work with. Different questions link to different processes of decision making…

  • (a) What was your experience of…? (share your story…we’ll analyse)
  • (b) What do you think of…? (give your opinion … we’ll decide what to do with it)
  • (c) What should we do about…? (give us your proposals…)
  • (d) Share this decision with us… (we need to work from shared understanding…)

To introduce data into (a) and (b) is tricky. If the ‘trend’ contradicts an individuals own view or experience, it can be very demanding to ask them to reconcile that contradiction. Of course, creating opportunities for people with experience of a situtation to reconcile tensions between stats and stories is better than leaving it up to distant decision makers to choose whether to trust what the data says, or what people are saying, when it seems they don’t concur – but finding empowering participative processes for this seems tough.

It seems that data can feature in participation more easily when we shift from opinion gathering to decision sharing; but building shared understanding around narratives and around data is not something that can happen quickly in short sessions.

I’m not sure this post gets me towards any great answers on how to link data into participative processes. But, in interests of thinking aloud (and in an effort to reclaim my blogging as reflective practice, getting away from the ways it’s been rather news and reporting driven of late) I’ll let it make it onto the blog, with all reflections/comments very much welcomed…

Young people, activism & the web: Speaking Out in a Connected World

[Summary: Sharing slides and notes from a children’s sector conference presentation]

I was speaking earlier today at the Children England & NCVYS ‘Speaking Out’ conference on the topic of ‘young people, activism and the web’. The conference was predominantly attended by staff from third-sector organisations providing frontline services for children, young people and families, so I tried (not entirely successfully in a short slot…) to cover a mix of examples of youth-led use of the web in campaigning at the national level, and some practical steps that organisations, who may not be campaigning organisations, can take to make the most of the web to engage with young people and get their voices heard.

A slightly adapted version of the slides can be seen via slideshare below, and I’ve tried to write up some notes with links to relevant resources as well.

Notes and Links

I started planning the presentation by posing the question “How can young people use the web in activism?”, which pretty quickly, as I turned to watch a Twitter stream full of tweeting from the University College London students occupying their University, making extensive use of different digital media challenges to get their message out, and with members of UK Youth Climate Coalition celebrating their success keeping Chris Hune at the climate negotiations in Cancun by mobilising hundreds of people by e-mail, Facebook and Twitter to flood the Number 10 switchboard with calls, that the question was really “How can they not?”. The web is right at the heart of much modern youth action – and yet so many organisations still struggle to engage with online spaces.

As I put together the next slides, however, I was quickly reminded that the web alone doth not change create. Earlier this year I came across a Facebook group set up by young people campaigning against the use of Mosquito sonic weapons against young people in Barnsley, and I fired up Facebook to grab a screenshot of this today’s presentation – hoping I would see stacks of campaign updates. Yet the Facebook group, which when launched had quickly accelerated to over 700 members, was standing stagnant, the top updates as spam, and apparently no real action having been taken further engage and mobilise the young members of the group. So whilst young people may turn to social media tools when they’ve causes to campaign on, and they may have the know-how to set up Facebook groups and YouTube channels, the skills, support and connections needed to campaign effectively remain as vital as ever. As the Young Foundation put it, many young people are plugged in, but with their digital skills untapped.

Resources like Act by Right (and the great Act by Right on Climate Change remix by Alex Farrow), the Battlefront campaign toolkit, and a wealth of web pages about campaigning with the web, can provide some of those skills through the web itself – but there is also a need for youth organisations to work directly with young people to support the development of critical campaigning skills. Just before I spoke today, John Not, General Secretary of the Woodcraft folk, gave a last-minute presentation and shared the inspiring work they are doing to offer support to young people who are passionately campaigning right now on the issue of University Fees, demonstrating some great leadership on how organisations can provide responsible backing to youth-led action.

Helping young people to make connections with decision makers, through sites like and, with the press, through the leverage that organisations might have, and with other campaigners, through spaces like TakingItGlobal and Battlefront is also a key role that adults can play in supporting young people to use the web for positive activism. There is also a need for organisations to think about how they support young people to make safe and effective use of the web in campaigning.

Many organisations, however, might not see their role as supporting general youth-led activism, but there are still many ways digital tools can support the delivery of participative practice. Online spaces can help organisations to engage young people, to communicate and co-ordinate, and to amplify their practice; and to ensure that young people’s views and insights on key aspects of a service, or key local issues, are heard and valued in decision making.

In thinking about how to engage with young people online it’s important to understand the different ways young people use the web and to think about whether a project is trying to engage young people who are already into an issue, or whether it’s trying to attract attention of those who are predominantly ‘hanging out’ online – spending time with friends and paying little attention to organisations and issues in the digital space. Good engagement also starts by listening (I mentioned Google Alerts as one handy digital listening tool, but there are many more), and starts from where young people are, whilst seeking to support young people to move beyond their starting point (a theme I initially developed in talking about youth work values and social media in the Youth Work & Social Networking report (PDF)).

Using online spaces to communicate involves finding the right tools for each job, and, finding out the right ways to use them. For example, Facebook profiles, groups and pages look very similar – but offer nuanced different ways of communicating with young people and creating online community. Quite a few of the practicalities of using different social media tools for youth engagement, including issues around organisational policy and safety concerns are covered in the ‘Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy’ report and in posts on Youth Work Online.

I ended today’s presentation by taking a look at three big policy agendas which have a digital edge to them, and trying to relate each to a critical question for organisations working with young people – but the full articulation of each of those I think will have to wait for a future blog post…

Further links
For those who were at the conference, and have made it reading this far without being overwhelmed by lots of links (and for anyone interested), a few more bits that might be of interest:

Youth Participation in the Big Society…

[Summary: explore & add your thoughts to this paper from North West Regional Youth Work Unit on youth participation in the Big Society]

Last week a new paper from the North West Regional Youth Work Unit (NWRYWU) crossed my radar – exploring how a wide range of approaches to youth participation may fare under current government policies and priorities – particularly those framed by ideas of the big society.

It looks at approaches including:

  • Youth led grant giving
  • Youth inspectors
  • Shadow boards and youth panels
  • Youth councils and fora
  • Campaigning work
  • Regional youth fora & youth parliaments
  • Peer education
  • Short-term projects
  • Rights and advocacy work
  • Health service participation
  • Youth-led organisations

Partly to aid my own note-taking on the document – but also to open it up to wider discussion (and with kind permission from NWRYWU) I’ve put the document up as a commentable doc over here where it can be read paragraph-by-paragraph and you can leave your comments on any section.

Whilst I’m not convinced that those supporting young people should immediately bend their language and focus to the priorities and language of a ‘big society’ agenda (and Kevin Harris’s critiques on the naivety of much big society thinking are worth reading), exploring and understanding what big society ideas might mean for youth engagement and getting more dialogue on the future of youth engagement can only be a good thing.

Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy for download

A few people have asked be recently for copies of the Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy resource I worked on with LGIU out of a practitioners action learning set last year. You can get hold of a print copy from the LGIU direct, or a PDF is available for download below or for viewing on Scribd.

The guide contains four sections:

  • What’s it all about? – giving an overview of key concepts
    • Youth participation
    • Social network sites
    • Participation and social network sites
    • How are young people using social network sites?
    • Why use social networks to involve young people?
    • Making the case for using social network sites in youth participation
  • Practice – drawing on learning from practitioners across 20 different organisations
    • Principles and values
    • Strategy
    • Safety
    • Measuring impact
  • Resources – highlighting practical tools and technologies that can be used
    • Three key concepts
    • Listening dashboards
    • Facebook
    • Bebo
    • Ning
    • Blogging
    • Video sharing and YouTube
  • Find out more – signposting to further support
    • Online communities
    • Practical guides
    • Toolkits

It’s a sign of the pace of change in social technology that this report, written back in mid 2009, includes detailed sections on engagement on Bebo, which has virtually disappeared as a platform used by young people. However, much of the rest of the content remains as relevant as ever – with case study sections such as the ‘Social Networking for Young People in Care’ section of increasing interest as Children in Care Councils and other groups look towards advocacy and empowerment when resources are reducing.

Download: Social media and youth participation in local democracy (PDF)

Social Media and Youth Participation in Local Democracy