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Monday, April 20

Local hubs for local people

Leo Zogmayer, Change, No Change

Sorry, but here we go again. New Minister equals new pet projects. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?

Hazel Blear's Department for Communities and Local Government has just announced a series of 'pilot projects' which are supposed to connect up councils with local people.

The national egov strategy over the past decade has been nothing but an endless series of 'pilot projects'. Most of which have ended up in a drawer somewhere. Vast sums have been spent and what has been the ROI? Is anyone calculating it? Certainly not HM's Opposition.

Here they all are:

  • London Borough of Barnet - will create an online consultation tool showing information on planning applications in a more useful format. It will allow users to track applications, comment on decisions and communicate with other users
  • Birmingham City Council - will develop an online community that will enable local people to influence the planning and delivery of services
  • Cambridgeshire County Council - will develop a one stop shop website for use by parents and carers of disabled children that will include specialist information from third sector organisations
  • Gloucestershire County Council - will create 18 online community notice boards for neighbourhoods that will provide information on local services and allow people to contact service providers. There will also be dedicated space on notice boards for partners such as police who will provide crime maps for the area
  • Kent County Council - will provide online information on local services in a way that allows people to choose which areas of information they use to provide a customised online service
  • Lancashire County Council - will provide tailored information on support to citizens affected by the downturn such as advice about debt, jobs and training
  • Leeds City Council - will create an interactive information site for older and disabled users of adult social care that will enable users to find out about different options for services near where they live and see the reviews of services by other older and disabled people in their area
  • Liverpool City Council - will develop the 'My Neighbourhood' portal that will allow people to request services, report problems in their neighbourhood and track how they are being dealt with
  • Norfolk County Council - will create community websites to provide up-to-date local information and support local campaigns
  • Wigan Council - will provide an interactive database to help people find opportunities for local volunteering and participation.
All very 'worthy' but all either directly or indirectly related to either existing work by other areas in egov or, more importantly, other work elsewhere on the web.

Fact is that all localities already have a number of blogs and forums which discuss local topics. As well, people who mainly talk online about other things than local issues or politics occasionally dip in.

So why not do the job of supporting (funding) the less-enfranchised to contribute to this - existing - debate? Why not facilitate engagement between this existing local debate infrastructure?

Why not support local hubs for local people?

In my city one local activist has a blog which reports in details on what local bodies are doing. His extremely dedicated and detailed work is undoubtedly pooh-poohed by authorities but he's managed to grab the attention of at least one council leader and I suspect many saw the worth when he exposed that local police were planning on doing away with pensions for police officers injured in the course of their duties when they turned 65. Something which the local paper managed to miss.

We also have an extremely busy former usenet group (now Google Group) and a busy youth-orientated bulletin board which sometimes covers local issues (as well as dozens of local blogs).

An example elsewhere which has built a lively community - but which fails to draw in the wider local online debate - is Haringay Online.

What I'm envisaging is a hub which contains what's going on in these sorts of communities alongside council input, gardened links, gardened local content from elsewhere (such as local newspaper reports), services pages, campaign pages, groups pages, blogs, (tagged?) blog content, local tweets, local pix, audio and video and more (the merrier).

I can think of two big things which might stop council's supporting this idea of local hubs in its tracks:
  1. the political implications of being associated with potentially politically disagreeable viewpoints or people
  2. resistance from local newspapers
The first can be dealt with by developing robust, transparent terms and protocols which work in the real (political) world. It's not like there aren't plenty of examples of people in the wider web having to sort out how to deal with nutters, racists and the rest. Think of CIF or the BBC, for starters. Or in another way Indymedia and the growing citizen journalism base of best practice.

The second is more difficult, as Mirror Head Sly Bailey highlighted in her threatening comments in her keynote speech to the Digital Britain summit last Friday. She (presumably) thought local council magazines undermined local newspaper ad revenues.

The way to get around that is to encourage local newspaper involvement. If you are driving traffic their way and highlighting the sort of local journalism with "deep and intrinsic value" which she spoke of there is a business case for them here.

It's also a two-way street. I wrote last year about how a Swedish newspaper was getting free hyper-local journalism from citizen reporters in villages. Local newspapers gain not only from that but from being seen to be connected into what's actually happening locally. And if they can't figure out how to monetise that it's their own silly fault. Old models are plainly doomed.

Richmond council has done some work here which is worth a look.

Another problem might be resistance from other sorts of commercialised walled gardens. There are stacks of national websites which pretend to be localised.

Again, some of this needs to be negotiated or co-opted, some needs to be ignored. Think of whose interests are being served.

Of course there's other issues too. Anything which is seen to be controlled by a council won't work. It has to be independent yet still representative. But here again there are existing models such as relationships with housing associations or town centre management which bring in other groups as well as interested citizens. A local council's role should be catalyst or enabler, not big momma.

But maybe that sounds like too much hard, patient work when you can just fiddle around with 'consultation' on a sexy site ready to be launched via a photo-op for the local paper? Which then fails to report on low usage six months or a year later?

We just had one local exception which proves the rule where a council housing 'consultation' had been costed at £2700 per response. This made the local paper.

The tools by which such local hubs could be built exist and there's stacks of rich content and debate already out there waiting to be tapped into and joined-up. What there isn't is a need for local councils and the rest of egov to built its own (expensive) spaces, within its own walled garden, and then expect the citizens to flock towards their good works. That's simply wasting money.
The true definition of madness is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.
Albert Einstein


  1. Thanks for mentioning Harringay Online Paul. I've asked a few people what they think you mean by "fails to draw in the wider local online debate". We can't really work it out. Can you help?

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