As Involve prepares to close PeopleandParticipation.net in favour of our new platform ParticipationCompass.org, Edward Andersson reflects on the past 5 years and what has changed.
It’s been nearly five years since Involve launched our practitioner site www.peopleandparticipation.net and in a few days time the site will close forever.
It was on the 19th of October 2007 that then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears launched the site as part of the ‘Empowerment Action Plan’. On reflection it has been a good five years; although 2007 feels like a very different time compared to today’s reality. The Government in power was different. The organisations were different (of the three key funders of peopleandparticipation.net -The Sustainable Development Commission, The Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government – one has since folded, one no longer has a remit around democracy and one has seen drastic changes in focus). The budgetary situation was of course vastly different –the operating assumption was that next year’s budget would be bigger than the last.
The buzz word of the day was ‘empowerment’ –the ‘Big Society’ lay three years into the future; Participatory Budgeting was unheard of outside of a few pilot sites and Twitter was a small niche service just over a year old.
Much was different back in 2007 when we set up peopleandparticipation.net, but on the other hand much remains the same. One of these constants is the need that policy makers and Government has for impartial advice around engagement.
Peopleandparticipation.net was one of the first interactive sites which provided people with the ability to find methods that worked for their situation. We’ve since had a number of other good examples like Participedia.
Peopleandparticipation.net has been a great success for the field at large and Involve. We still receive thousands of hits per month and we get a steady stream of positive feedback so it may seem a shame to close the site and redirect the trafic. However over the last years we’ve begun to worry about the site. It was very popular but also beginning to show its age.
The platform it is built on is a wiki –exciting in 2007 but old news in 2012. The design seems a bit old and sadly due to the custom nature of the site the whole thing needed revamping.
The content was also feeling out of date with many case studies referring back to 2007 and earlier. The online community hadn’t really developed in a way where the wiki platform was really useful and the experience of using the site wasn’t great on a mobile device. In 2011 it turned out that due to upgrades to the platform we’d need to invest thousands of pounds in rewriting code in order to keep the sites functionality up and running –an investment just to stand still.
At this point we were approached by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German Foundation with an interest in democracy who suggested a collaborative venture. Using the information and structure of Peopleandparticipation.net they wanted to create two new German and English language sites. Here we are 8 months later with participationCompass.org.
We launched the English version a few weeks ago and your feedback has been great. There is also a German version.
When it comes to ParticipationCompass.org I am excited by what is new: the mobile app, enhanced video content and real time search; as well as being comforted by what has not changed: the focus on providing impartial advice on Methods, Experts and Resources around participation. See here for a tutorial video.
I will feel some sadness when we pull the plug on peopleandparticipation.net, but I am also excited about the recent launch of ParticipationCompass.org and what we face in future. I can’t help wondering what new platform we’ll be launching in 2017?
Edward Andersson discusses what digital technology means for engagement and what the strengths and weaknesses are of engaging online. A week ago I gave a talk at Government Digital Services on Digital and face to face engagement. This post is a summary of what I said.
First of all I acknowledge that Involve is different from many others in the digital engagement field; we’re not software producers, we’re not trying to sell software and we focus on engagement as whole rather than digital engagement. Our mission is to make the public sector into better commissioners of dialogue and engagement. I’ll start with the question to what degree digital technology represents a breakthrough?
Two quotes illustrate how differently new technology is interpreted:
“The world is poised on the cusp of an economic and cultural shift as dramatic as that of the Industrial Revolution.”
Steven Levy (Wired journalist)
“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”
Clifford Stoll (US Author and astronomer)
My view is that both quotes are true, in their own ways. We tend to overestimate changes in the short term (where many people hype up relatively mundane technologies) and underestimate the shifts in the longer term.
There is a tendency among consultants to create artificial distinctions between digital/online engagement and face to face engagement. Human nature is the same in both settings and of course a badly designed online consultation without a clear purpose is just as much a waste of time as a face to face process without a purpose.
I think people get excited about digital for the wrong reasons.
People often think that the key defining characteristics of digital are:
Speed –The internet is making things go faster, but the obvious question is ‘so what?’. The really big qualitative differences in terms of speed of sending messages happened in the 1860s. Nowadays the speed of communication is already faster than human beings can react to.
Scale –The internet does allow a larger number of people to take part than was possible before. It is a great thing but it can also lead people to focus too much on the number of people taking part. Many of the websites or articles which have attracted the most number of hits do so for the wrong reasons; scandals are great for hit rates but not for much else.
Cost–The Internet does have the possibility of reducing the costs of engagement; while this is true it is often oversold by consultants.
There are also very good reasons for shifting to Digital which are often overlooked:
Enabling -Digital technologies allows the third sector and individuals to self-organise and do things that in the past the council would have to do. This opens up tremendous opportunities (if we are willing to give up some control).
Networking –the Internet opens up possibilities of networking people who wouldn’t normally meet, for reasons of time, space and who they are.
Flexible -finally the nature of digital information allows comparison, aggregation, mashing up data, and ability to make it easily accessible. And to make lots of different sorts of outputs which would not be possible using pen and paper.
There are of course areas were online engagement doesn’t work as well as face to face, for example:
But of course it is not an either/or. In many cases face to face and online complement each other; and of course let’s not forget that digital technology can be used in face to face meetings as well.
Adding digital technology to face to face engagement allows:
The award winning Geraldton 2029 process in Western Australia has made use of a wide array of face to face and digital processes in determining the future of the town. 4000 people have been actively involved through world cafés, online surveys, online moderated deliberation, 21st century town hall meetings™, community events to celebrate milestones including BBQs. They have also used the local Newspaper facebook page heavily. What I like about the Geraldton process is how they have understood the strengths of face to face and online and worked with both.
- The Crowdsourced Icelandic constitution has been in the news a lot over the last few months. The Constitutional council has drafted and posted clauses each week open for public comment, and has live streamed their proceedings. The focus has often been on the online elements but it was made possible by in depth face to face deliberation, both from the elected Constitutional Council and a randomly selected national forum.
So to sum up my key points from my presentation:
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.