BLC07 McIntosh No.2: How Public Is Your Public Body?
I don't know one public body, particularly in the education world, that doesn't have the mantra, the strategies or the policies which make sure that stakeholders are consulted, that dialogue is continuously deepened and that the organisation "really gets to know its public".
But when you ask the question about how public your public body is, or how open your organisation is, you are immediately going to have to answer the question of how private you want it to be. The two words are inextricably linked and most organisations still tend to tread on the side if private rather than public.
So when you are comfortable with your organisation's background and the myths of 5 Million Years on which you are going to base your future strategies, how can you move forward when the world is so, well, new and ever-changing?
Who am I?
"Hello, my name is Ewan McIntosh and I am... oh. Who am I?" More people than ever are having trouble introducing who they are and what they do. Gone are the days where we decide what we want to do aged 17 and stick with it for the rest of our lives, but so, too, are the days where simply being good at something means that you will stay with it forever. It's more likely that the job title you have bears little relation to what you do if, indeed, you have the luxury of just one job title. LinkedIn and Facebook are full of people with multiple employments, multiple identities.
So who are you? Let's try something. I want you to grab a small piece of paper or post-it, open notepad on your computer or take a look at your own Facebook profile. In no more than 2 minutes, try to write down who you are, in the same way these tools invite you to define yourself:
- Name, relationship status, birthday, hometown
- Education and Employment
- Favourite activities, TV shows and music
Does this really define who you are? The problem, to use some language from Dave Weinberger's zeitgeisty masterpiece, is that you're trying to make explicit who you are, when so much of who you are - your friendships, attitudes, the nuances in your work and play - is built up over time and, for you and those around you, remains implicit. Attempting to make the implicit explicit makes it sound flaky, not quite right, pretentious even.
Trying to make the implicit explicit
What do I mean by this implicit-explicit play-off? How many of the elements you were writing down just there were crying out for an asterisk here or there, just a little more information than would comfortably fit in the space or category. How many pieces of information did you hesitate to add, not knowing if the audience was close family, extended family, friends, work contacts, online-only contacts...? The chances are, a lot. How many of you wanted to fill in gaps, add extras, show how things developed over time (how many jobs, for example, change form one day to the next? Many now evolve and morph into new projects). How many of you felt that adding the context to the element you were writing down would make it clearer for a stranger or long-lost friend coming across it?
Our online-offline worlds are raising more questions about what we can and should share with different audiences. My colleague Matt Locke over at Channel 4 has come up with what I think is a pretty definitive rundown of these different private-public spaces which compete for our information (read his full post for more detail):
Examples: SMS, IM
Examples: Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, etc
Examples: Flickr, Youtube, Revver, etc
Examples: MMORPGs, Sports, Drama
Examples: Meetup, Threadless, CambrianHouse.com, MySociety
Examples: Television, Cinema, Sports, Theatre, etc
Now, try adding all those elements you wished you could include, again, in a couple of minutes - no epics here. Adding the context, the development, you'll find that you make it so far before the exercise seems futile, that the information you are plotting still seems incomplete, that there will always be more to add, that writing it down to make it clear for others is actually over simplifying things and leaving gaps open to misunderstandings. Being explicit will never cover all the implicitness in our complex, interconnected lives.
Yet being explicit is what schools, districts, Local Authorities and whole countries require, isn't it? We need strategies and policies to make sure that everyone is involved in the decision-making process. Yet, if you've been a teacher in a school with 100 teachers (or a company with 100 employees) you know how hard it is to keep track of who's coming and going, let alone get to know them. Add on top of that 1300 students and the strategies and policies of our 20th Century decision-makers aren't going to cut it. We're never going to get to know people in a school, let alone across a whole district.
Well, that's not entirely true...
In East Lothian, a Local Authority to the East of Edinburgh, there is undeniably a heightened understanding from the Authority management of who is working in their schools and what skills, aptitudes and mindsets they have. This has been achieved, in part, by creating an online community where people, not a forum or a blog or a website, have been at the centre of its growth. You can find out more about how this was achieved next week on a revamped eduBuzz.org and the next post in this series, We're Adopting.
Teachers have been able to talk about what they want, make explicit the things that have been implicit in their teaching and learning. But rather than being limited to a form, a questionnaire, a survey, a tick-box, they have been given an unlimited space over an unlimited time to eek out their implicit gems, bounce off each other, be inspired into revealing more of one thing they didn't even appreciate was different from other people.
They've been given as many blogs as they want, for free, with our help. Over a third of the teachers, over 300 of them, have taken up this opportunity to document what makes their teaching tick, what makes their school cool, and have served over a year or so as inspirations to countless others, and a source of valuable person information to the management of the education authority.
Can you have more than 100 'friends'?
I don't think we could say that all those we read on blogs are friends, although large numbers become that. Blogs and the media we put on them do, though, provide a more human opening to a person than any other electronic medium we have at the moment. So when you have over 1000 teachers and support staff in your organisation, of whom 300+ are actively participating in online spaces, can anyone expect to get to know them adequately enough, like a friend perhaps, to gain enough information to inform decisions? How public do people have to get to make that amount of information valuable, instead of same-y, clichéd and not-quite-public-not-quite-private blogging that you get in organisations where the PR machine is more important than the human one?
The answer comes in two parts. The last point helps: people need to feel entrusted to say what they want to say, and communally constructed guidelines with all involved will help get that balance just right. It will also help people see who they need to consult before pressing publish, in case they are unsure about the content of their post, and will help construct some organic pathways through the myriad of blogs: no hierarchical tree of options on a homepage that sends you from the Head of Education's blog "down to" the others, but rather an individual voyage for each individual, discovering what's useful to them.
But this brings up the second point. Hierarchies have traditionally been used to artificially create an upper limit of interactions any one individual can have. It's well-meaning, taking the Dunbar Number of maximum interactions and friendships one can have (150) and turning it into rigid structures through which information flows. It's much the same way the Roman army operated, with groups always set in multiples of close-to-eight, the Centurion being the lynch pin with his 100 men.
Back in real life, though, we do not operate as if we are in the Roman army. Information flows back and forth over coffee cups, glasses of wine, after-school interest groups, school orchestras, garage bands. Information tends not to respect hierarchy, and when this happens the top-down command and control of hierarchy, from the Press Office to the employee, for example, cannot operate, either. We operate, rather, in wirearchies, less command and control, more "champion and channel".
How do you get the hierarchy to embrace its self-destruction?
The worst thing you could do, arguably, is plan how you're going to give people a voice. The reason for this is that people will misunderstand the word 'plan' and start coming up with criterion-referenced strategies (we will have n people blogging by next month) and shoe-horn 'real life' in around it. The kind of cultural changes that might required are less about scaling up and more about getting face-to-face with key people, those who are likely to spread the word and those who potentially could get in the way.
Live in conterburnia
When the time comes to scale things up beyond the initial 20-150 people that have been canvassed and schmaltzed to see the light then far more successful are small changes, prototypes to borrow another Weinbergerism, around which people can cluster when they wish to take part. Lots of small prototypes, cheap or costless, to attract just a few people each time. Eventually, when you add all these small parts up you see that the organisation has, in our case in one year, become incredibly more open than it was before.
The trick, finally, is not to make explicit all the implicit things that make being open so great. When you attempt to make explicit why blogging, Twitter, podcasting, filmmaking, gaming or photography is such a wonderful way to learn and share what you're up to, or why sharing is even a good thing in the first place, you'll lose it. The fragile implicit joy of it all is destroyed. People have no personal attachment to any of these things to start with and evangelising will tend to turn them off further.
People do have a personal attachment to playing, though, and providing some space, some tools and some time to play in small groups (why not make them the size of the Roman conterburnium ?) has made a big difference in how many and who takes up sharing through technology in our corner of the world.
To see what kind of framework can help you keep track of all these smaller projects and maintain a clear way forward, you'll have to wait until I thump out the third and final part of this three-parter. In the meantime, you can listen to the talk here or
wait a day or two longer to view the audio-visual version on Slidecast (above) (I'm sorry it's not synced - Slideshare was playing silly games)