London’s Digital Neighbourhoods workshop
Last week I attended the London Council’s Digital Neighbourhoods workshop. The event was an opportunity for council officers to discuss the development of local websites and how this could impact on the engagement of citizens with their local community and with their local council.
After hearing a lot of evidence showing the positive impact that local sites can have on civic engagement, we heard from a few people (some amateurs, some not) who have successfully managed to set up neighbourhood sites within their own communities.
One that particularly stood out was The East Dulwich Forum which was created by a local council officer in his spare time. Since launching in 2006 the site is now so popular within the community that in the last month it has received almost 2 millions views, it has over 15,000 members and receives around 500 posts per day.
So what makes this site so successful and how could a site like this improve communication between council officers and local residents? Mark Collins, the site’s creator, explained that the site works because it is fun and useful and because it allows the users to decide on the content.
This seemed to be the real sticking point for the council officers. During the round-table discussions many officers felt that if they began using online public forums to engage with the public it would inevitably mean a lack of control of the website’s content and therefore a lot of added pressure on them. Of course this has various implications like the site could be ‘hijacked’ by negative comments and if it’s not carefully monitored it may jeopardise the council’s reputation.
Nevertheless, they were all very aware of the benefits of social media and a few action points were identified as a way of addressing these issues: firstly there was a general consensus that if their superiors offered more support, they would feel more confident to explore this engagement method.
Secondly, they felt that practical training sessions on how to set up and run a social media site (and manage the risks involved) and ongoing expert-led support would help with their lack of expertise and time. Lastly everyone wanted to explore how the local councils could tap into already existing local sites or work with locals who have the networks and enthusiasm to want to get involved.
The London Council’s Capital Ambition research will be published later this year.