I’ve just started working on a project where we’ll be exploring digital engagement methods, using social media alongside offline forms of engagement such as neighbourhood panels. The aim of the project is to improve community cohesion in a semi-rural community. The project is being developed as a partnership between the County Council, District Council, community centres, a rural development agency, housing associations, the Police and the Fire & Rescue Service.
The partners are all relatively new to the concept of digital engagement but are aware that any form of social media (e.g. blogs or social networking sites) requires governance and moderation. In the initial meeting I presented what I think of as a ‘governance dichotomy’ which we, as public service providers, should be open to when we consult with the community. By this I mean that we may end up with either a community led or a partnership managed approach to governance, depending on what the community and partnership jointly decide will work best.
I outlined the pro’s and con’s (as I saw them) to the partners as follows.
Council / partnership managed approach
* A level of moderation and facilitation control
* Less reliance on volunteers, who are often transitory and hard to coordinate
* Focus on specific issues relevant to public service providers
* Council hosts system and data – reliable and secure
* Potential for integration with other systems, workflow etc.
* Top down = undemocratic
* Resource intensive to moderate
* Not as sustainable longer term when funding runs out
* Lack of focus on community interests may disenfranchise the community
* Liability and data protection issues
* Technology less flexible and higher support costs
Community led/managed approach
* Democratic and self-moderating
* Sustainable model – owned by the community
* Building community skills in digital media and citizen journalism
* Public service providers have no liability
* Low / no cost technology and flexibility to try a range of different tools
* Lack of control, public service providers not engaged due to fear of criticism
* Reliance on a few motivated individuals, could be hijacked by one community group
* Lack of motivation / interest from community in digital media
* Lack of community access to internet and skills in digital media production
* Unclear how to intervene if there are tensions or conflict arises
* Reliance on continuing existence of providers of platforms / tools
In the last year or so there has been an explosion of hyperlocal
blogs, web sites, networks, searches and aggregators appearing as well as a number of funding programmes and initiatives such as Talk About Local
and Local 2.0
. The hyperlocal movement enables ‘bottom up’ democracy and fits the government’s community empowerment agenda
perfectly. But in many instances hyperlocal blogs and networks are popping up without any intervention from local government whatsoever. They are often initiated by a few committed residents and offer:
* platforms for collaborative publishing and distribution of local news and information;
* the ability to connect people with shared interests and locations through groups and networks;
* the ability to support activism on local issues.
My perception is that developing and maintaining a successful hyperlocal online resource will require commitment, coordination (of volunteers), skills (e.g. researching, investigating, writing, communicating, technology), time and local knowledge. Tenacity and a willingness to work with a diverse cross-section of community members will also be invaluable.
Local authority or partnership managed approaches range from those that have a more ‘top down’ approach to consultation and governance, for example Ask Bristol
and Redbridge Conversation
, to those that are more ‘bottom up’ and democratic in their approach, such as the partnership initiative Talk2Croydon
My perception is that a successful partnership managed approach will require funding and resources (to ensure sustainability and sufficient promotion), flexibility (to respond to community needs) and a clear partnership agreement. In addition strong links with the community are required to ensure sufficient trust and representative participation.
The current feeling among the stakeholders in the partnership is that a community led approach would be desirable to ensure greater buy-in and sustainability longer term. However, as we enter into the consultation phase of the project it will be interesting to see which model of governance is identified as being both feasible and desirable.
Another key factor is that the area in which we are running the project suffers from socio-economic deprivation and has a significantly lower percentage of internet usage per household, as opposed to the national average.
If you have any thoughts, comments or fresh perspectives on this ‘dichotomy’ (especially anything backed up by research) I would be very glad to hear about it! I will be conducting some qualitative research throughout the project into stakeholder perceptions and attitudes, as part of a personal MSc research project.