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Six months in…

March 29, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write a post for a while reflecting on six months in the field of social technology, local government and communities, so here goes. My background can best be described as community work; for the past six years, in one job or another, I have been working with communities to try and change local areas through community development and neighbourhood management.

First reflection: learning about how social technology can support community work has been invaluable. I remember in a previous job offering to create a basic website for the project I was working for. At the time I had just begun using Facebook (2006) and I don’t think engaging via social media had really occurred to me – I was all set for creating a basic informational website (it wasn’t needed in the end). At the same time the Chief Exec of the organisation setup a blog for everyone to contribute to. We were lukewarm to the idea if I remember correctly! I think I wrote one blog post; it was intimidating.

I want to rectify this missed opportunity and I am really looking forward to putting new found knowledge into practice. The projects we have planned in Kensington and Chelsea, Kirklees and Kings Lynn and West Norfolk are going to be challenging, exciting and developed with a good group of people.

Second reflection: I must admit I have found some of the evangelising – particularly around social media – a bit too much at times, and I think it puts a lot of people off. A bit more subtlety is definitely needed and a bit of restraint when it comes to talking about all the things (especially the more geeky things…) that can be done would be welcomed. When my colleague Chris, who is interning with us at the Young Foundation, went to LocalGovCamp, he was greeting with utter astonishment by one attendee when he said he didn’t have a Twitter account.

As is said often enough, it’s not about the technology; it’s about how people use it. Some of the evangelists need to remember this as much as the new adopters. It will help to demystify social technology and make it a bit friendlier to newcomers.

My final reflection is on the whole culture change argument. As I said, my background is in localism – particularly the kind of localism seen in the last ten years – a time during which the whole culture change issue has endured. Lots of things have been tried to convince officers within public services that localism is a good way of working: strong direction from local leadership, bottom-up pressure, major grant and mainstream funded programmes, conferences galore, central government policy and legislation, good and innovative practice.

Social media is facing the same battle within local authorities, albeit one that is probably easier to win. For me, the key lesson from the localism agenda is to start working with the people you know you can convince. Rather than spending too much time trying to get everyone using social media, or reluctant services or departments, focus on those whose inclination is positive. Leadership buy-in should be used to give these people the space to operate and bottom-up pressure will provide the people and content to engage with. If bottom up pressure doesn’t exist, it can be encouraged. Good practice will emerge from within your own authority and then it will be time to tackle the sticks in the mud!

The truth is, a lot of people working in public services don’t feel they need (and some don’t want…) to engage with the public. If community engagement is not embedded into their work, they are unlikely to appreciate the value of it – regardless of the medium it is done through. It’s often left to the community workers and other frontline services to do it instead. I don’t see this changing with the advent of social technology; it will only change when the role of the public servant changes to become much more focused on building relationships (another key lesson from localism; the best services to work with are the ones who want to develop relationships with communities – I wrote a report which highlights this here).

This may well happen in the next five years. Severe cuts in public finances will mean that services will have to find new ways of doing things, perhaps becoming enablers rather than deliverers. There will be no money, so relationships with communities will be essential. And once relationships become a central component of the public servants role, social technology will be much more widespread.

Hopefully localism will be too.

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