March 12, 2008

Public service web: moving towards civic innovation and participation

I've been working with a group of web service people from all over the public service in the UK, from education to Local Authorities, health boards to city facilities services. The main message: citizens need to be able to participate more in their online civic world.

The message ties in with work at the RSA, LTS and other public sector projects. Civic innovation needs to flourish, but with our current attitudes to information gatekeeping and fear of handing the speaking stick to citizens this will not happen any time soon in the front garden of the public service organisations themselves. Even where appearances would seem to indicate a desire from our most senior civic leaders to participate in discussion with the citizen, we can see from the lack of linkage between one blog post and another, and the lack of conversation in those 182 pages of comments, that we are seeing a real Meatball Sundae - the cream's on top, but nothing has changed underneath. The result? The number of us wanting to participate in a discussion online with our leaders is diminishing. Fast. Instead, we will have to be savvy webusers who know of the existence of those other ways into the halls of power. Give me Bill Marriott's real leader's communication any day.

I try to show where our citizens have come to in recent years, from the simple act of uploading a 'silly video' to YouTube, to participating in the coverage of a concert or an event, to being highly creative in remixing content for different purposes and using the social web to coordinate smart democracy mobs. I showed how volunteer computing and the world of Alternate Reality Games had changed the nature of participation, from 'press the red button' to something much more profound, where 'consumers' really were the ones in charge of the TV show (think, I Love Bees). It's not just for entertainment or play: scientists are harnessing group thinking power and computer power to channel scientific data, find extra terrestrial life and make the world a better place.

Key to this, for the public sector, is working out where they stand in relation to their 'secret' information and the public/private relationships they have with their citizens.

Hopefully a few seeds have been sown in the minds of these web pros, from this enthusiastic amateur. I am, after all, first and foremost a citizen that wants to participate more in his civic (online) life, but who currently can't.


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You say

I am, after all, first and foremost a citizen that wants to participate more in his civic (online) life, but who currently can't.

Can you explain a little bit more what you mean ?

I don't think I have such a dark impression of the future as you do. There appear to be examples of civic society catching up and using public service data, albeit there is undoubtedly lots more than can be done.

The BBC, mysociety, community groups, groupsnearyou are emerging. I do agree that entities like Ordnance Survey could open up a lot more.

Patient Opinion is another very powerful mechanism.

Sorry I can't add hyperlinks to all


I think you're right, in that there are plenty of mechanisms for certain areas of public life, but they are pretty disparate, and you have to be in the know to be able to access them. No links from the Parliament website, or from local MP websites as standard, for example, which would open them up to wider, less geeky or switched on audiences. I think that's what I'm driving at. It's OK having online services, but the average person in the street needs to know they're there, that they can use them, and that they will have an effect.


this is where something like the bbc has a large role to play, without "crowding out" the other providers

on their edinburgh and east lothian site, there is fix my street and write to your mp

so I tried to write to my MP. the process worked, but I have not heard anything three weeks later. Am I tempted to re-engage with politics, or cast a vote on the result of this - I am unsure, but it has not been a gratifying outcome.

perhaps parliament could do more - after all they did have a leading edge petitions process when they opened, but they may be slipping.

for children, the youth sector amd the elderly there is probably real dispossession of involvement. I really don't see how their voices are heard. Likewise those without ICT or lives too chaotic to spend time footling on the PC.

working in east lothain, is there anything you have managed to persuade your local elected members to do to promote civic participation ?

We managed to get some local councillors blogging and the local politicians certainly read the blogs of our parents and those working in education in East Lothian, so success there, both ways.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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