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?

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.

Overcoming the 50 obstacles at #localgovcamp

LocalGovCampI spent a fantastic day yesterday in Birmingham Fazely Studios at #localgovcamp – an unConference exploring local government use of the internet. I offered to lead a session based around the ‘50 Obstacles to Open Government‘ which I jotted down a while back  – and to host a discussion sharing tips and ideas for overcoming these obstacles. The notes that I took during the session are on the 50 Obstacles wik (and if you took part – please do add your own notes…), and below are a few quick reflections on the session and where the 50 Obstacles list goes now…

Top down,  bottom up, sideways?

I wrote down the 50 Obstacles based on my experience of working with front-line youth service practitioners through action research and a recent action learning set on youth participation and social network sites. They are challenges as seen from perspective of staff wanting to engage with social media, but without neccessarily having responsibility for driving forward the use of social media across an organisation.

However, the #localgovcamp session drew a wider range of participants – including service managers, web teams and more. Quickly discussions turned to the need for vision from senior management and significant cultural change as key to driving social media adoption. Vision and leadership are important. The importance of styles of leadership in organisational change is something I’ve written about before. But when it comes to social media adoption – there is a strong case for recognising the many different possible approaches. And for recognising that local authorities are collections of diverse and different teams and services with ever more blurred boundaries – not monolithic entities with a single form, function or direction .

Not only is social media adoption something that can be driven by bottom up ‘nibbling’ away at problems (as David Wilcox put it), or by top down strategic programmes, but it is also enabled by social media moving sideways – from services that find ways to adopt and use social technology sharing their stories and experiences with the rest of an organisation.

Edit PagePractical Problem Solving

You can find many of the tips people shared for overcoming hurdles over here – but I was particularly struck by the dialogue around experimentation with social media – and sharing examples of social media use and success to help managers and teams make sense of what they might be able to do.

So – I took 15 minutes out later in the day at #localgovcamp to develop the wiki page for obstacle 48: “Managers do not support staff exploration and experimentation with Web 2.0” and to add a collection of links to sources of information about what other authorities have been doing with social media. And I quickly discovered  there are a lot of great examples out there. Take a look at the wiki page here and see if you can add to it…

We only had 15 minutes in our #localgovcamp session to share tips for overcoming the obstacles, and there are still at least 4o obstacle pages which right now only list the problems and no solutions. However, they are all wiki pages, which anyone is welcome to dive in and edit to share their learning, links and insights.

Where next?

I learnt a lot throughout #localgovcamp about organisational change and social media adoption – and I’ll be reflecting more on the insights gained over the coming weeks. However – hopefully there are also some strong next steps coming up to help turn 50 Obstacles, into ’50 things that use to give us trouble… but we’ve sorted them all out now’ – including a possible session at Reboot Britain. But more on that later…

Update: Just as I was about to post this, David Wilcox upload this clip he took just after the session…