Friday, 2 December 2011


In September I enrolled on a 12 week evening class at the Midlands Arts Centre called Talk Film. The course is led by Michael Clifford (@bikefilm), a BAFTA Award winning Director. One of Michael's most recent projects has been to make a no-budget film, Turbulence.  The story of how this was done and how it turns the conventional approach to film-making on its head has intrigued me, with obvious parallels in community work.

The starting point was that Michael and producer Natasha Carlish @natashacarlish) were keen to work together and embark on a huge learning journey around an idea to get a film made and shared. They started with no budget, which is not at all normal for making a film. British filmmaking culture is to get money up front (as we tend towards in relation to grants in the voluntary sector). Filmmakers can spend years languishing in the development phase while they seek backing or apply for funding to make their film.

In filmmaking the resources you really need are people, places, props and skills. The resource Michael has easiest access to is actors. He has worked with many and is friends  with lots of actors on Facebook. Final year undergraduates from the Birmingham School of Acting were auditioned to be cast in the film. A series of workshops with the actors followed, with the original idea being that a series of short stories around characters they created would be written. In another unconventional move, scriptwriter Stavros Pamballis was given loads of ideas to generate a script from, rather than him starting with the ideas. He used his skills to weave a humorous and believable story from the masses of information, and apparently drafted it in one weekend!

A lot of investment was made in drawing out the skills and strenghts of the actors. Michael spent a lot of time talking not just to the actors themselves, but also to people that knew them. The fact that the students had been studying and living together meant that they knew each other really well and were able to share with Michael what strengths they saw in each other. Character development was influenced along the way, including changes to the story when they discovered that one of the actresses could sing.

In terms of a place, Michael and Natasha negotiated use of the Hare and Hounds in King's Heath, Birmingham. They were able to use it for filming for three weeks. Usually a full-length feature film like this would take six weeks to shoot.

Equipment and props were begged for and borrowed, each day of filming Michael and Natasha would put out requests on twitter and Facebook for props and so on. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Equipment was easier blag  than consumables - borrowing £3000 worth of lighting equipment was straightforward compared to finding food 5 days a week for cast and crew.

Online networking has had, and continues to have, a significant role in the development of this film. Natasha was new to online networking, but keen to harness it's potential to support both the production and post-production of the film. Natasha's first ever blog post was on the film's site. The idea was to build the audience while the making film. Traditionally things are kept secret until polished marketing is ready and a film close to release. However models of film distribution are changing, with awareness and audience and loyalty being developed onlineNatasha said that doing it this way means that as filmmakers "you have the power, you don't have to wait for £30,000 marketing budget". Natasha and Michael decided not to go to any traditional distributors, their experience has been that it is very hard to make money that way. So the strategy they adopted was to get beyond their own networks online.

Despite being told "you'll never be able to to do it", a collaborative approach to filmmaking has resulted in a great Birmingham based film being made and screened, with audiences across the West Midlands and and online being nurtured. Michael and Natasha said that they felt more entrepreneurnial going about it this way.

I went to see Turbulence, and hear Michael and Natasha talk about it, at the brilliant social cinema flixfixer, with a fellow community development worker, Chris Florence (@sententiachris). We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, and discussed excitedly the parallels between what we had heard about the making of the film and the current context for community projects and participation.

Not waiting for a grant, creating links to others and just doing it is how some amazing community-based activities start. Some that I know of locally include the Black Country Food Bank and the Hope Centre in Halesowen. Many others are shared in Handmade - Tessy Britton's lovely collection of inspiring stories about creating connections and community.

Recognising and building on the strengths of people as assets is in the spotlight at the moment in community work, with the government promoting 'Asset Based' approaches (a great introduction to this is Appreciating Assets), the BIG Lottery's People Powered Change approach, and the work of people like Tessy Britton (@TessyBritton) such as Community Kitchen

So what can we learn from innovative and enterprising film makers like Michael and Natasha? I think at the very least that it's worth trying, it is possible, understand and make use of people's strengths and connections and just get on with it. We might well experience some turbulence along the way, but we don't have to wait around for a funder to give the go ahead.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Ageing Well Dudley and social network analysis

Doreen Collins
Last week I attended a meeting to scope an Ageing Well initiative in Dudley. Ageing Well aims to provide a better quality of life for older people through local services that are designed to meet their needs and recognise the huge contribution that people in later life make to their local communities. Local authorities are being supported to improve their services for older people while there are the dual challenges of public sector cuts and an ageing population. Support is through Local Government Innovation and Development

I haven’t been to this sort of meeting for some time and was pleased that the session was being facilitated, and was done so excellently by Carol Hayden from Shared Intelligence

During the meeting, Maggie Venables (Assistant Director in Dudley Council's Directorate of Adult, Community and Housing Services) shared information about Ageing Well in Dudley (see below), and Bridget Brickley from Dudley Community Partnership gave us an overview of what a whole systems approach is and how this had given insights in to other services in Dudley.

A core proposition that underpins Ageing Well Dudley is:

That Dudley MBC and its partners can, despite the challenging financial context, promote the health and wellbeing of older people thereby reducing or delaying their need for acute support for as long as possible, through:

  • Meaningful and sustained involvement of older people in their communities and in a wider range of service areas than health and social care;
  • Realising a vision of a whole system offer for older people through improved links between relevant organisations and services (including the voluntary and community sector) at a borough-wide and locality/township level;
  • Improving intelligence about how older people access services and using this information to improve access routes
And that this proposition is best explored in detail at a locality/township level.

My reflections on the meeting and the above core proposition led me to three questions:

  1. Could work on social network analysis helpfully inform Ageing Well initiatives?
  2. In order to achieve the social change desired, are systems approaches enough, or do we also need (for example) approaches which analyse and develop understanding of power?
  3. To what extent is this work likely to lead to changes in the roles and work of employees across a range of organisations, and if so, what should we be doing to prepare for this?

I will consider the first in this post and the second and third in future posts.

Social network analysis

During the meeting Maggie Venables suggested that the Ageing Well in Dudley initiative could ask older people how they would like things to be more joined up, and how they could be more involved in decisions. I think it would be great if, in addition to this much needed look at how services could work better together, Ageing Well also asked older people how they join up to different sorts of support.

This sort of questioning and mapping would help to answer another question Maggie posed in relation to information about support services and the fact that there is lots of information out there, but: on the day an older person needs some specific information, where do they go to get it? Her question reflects a key issue of concern described in the meeting briefing paper, which is related to how a wide range of older people access services that are appropriate to their needs.

I feel that a really helpful thing that those involved in Ageing Well Dudley could do at this early stage is look at the RSA’s work on Connected Communities. I think this would fit well with the systems approach being proposed.

The report suggests that: “Taking social networks seriously means recognising that the elementary unit of social life in neither the individual nor the group. Social networks allows us to move beyond this classic theoretical distinction.” 

And that: “The network perspective offers a distinctive explanatory tool because it reveals patterns of relationship and exclusion that would otherwise remain invisible. Patterns of connectivity can serve as a diagnostic, revealing opportunities to connect those who are disconnected, and ‘spreading’ constructive social norms through highly connected individuals whose behaviour is likely to be imitated by those in their network”

The Connected Communities report includes descriptions of the research methods used and generously shares an example of a research questionnaire used. The fieldwork undertaken in two areas suggests that:

  • A potential benefit of social network analysis and reflection is that it is a process which can itself strengthen networks – it can be both an intervention and a diagnostic.
  • A networks approach gives a clearer understanding of patterns of social inclusion and exclusion, so can help in addressing the problem of loneliness and social isolation. Mapping bridging nodes and organisations was identified as critical for building network structures that offer mutual support and reduce isolation and loneliness. (p59 of report)
  • There is a developing understanding of how community resilience can be understood in network terms. The strength and variety of hubs and the propensity for network decay were considered key elements of resilience.
  • Empowerment is likely to be a function, in part, of a person’s social networks. Key aspects include network position, the nature of the network core, and the degree to which local organisations are co-ordinated.

A related note on geography

The Ageing Well Dudley work intends to focus on two areas which have different demographics so that interventions can be compared and contrasted. I was pleased to hear that although demographic data is often collated by political ward boundaries, the two areas for this work won’t be defined by a line on a map drawn for the purposes of political representation. Cllr David Vickers usefully suggested that the areas chosen might helpfully comprise of a mixture of wards.

And in relation to geography:“The principal lesson we have drawn from community policy and practice over the last two decades is that defining ‘communities’ solely in geographic terms has major limitations.” (Connecting Communities Report)

I am confident that while Ageing Well Dudley work will focuses on two geographical areas, it will recognise that individual’s networks and relationships reach beyond whatever geographical boundary is used to manage focus of the project. I wonder if it also possible to use social network analysis to develop an understanding the patterns of connectivity (or lack of them) in the two areas to compare and contrast.  I would anticipate network maps relating to demographics, however I think the network maps provide more in the way of pointing to solutions than does data which says that one area has greater levels of home ownership, for example.

Rebecca Daddow from the RSA who works on Recovery Capital explains that they use social mapping wherever they can because “understanding social networks and relationships between individuals, groups, communities and organisations is the key to changing lives, reinvigorating communities and increasing wellbeing.” 

I think that the importance of relationships is illustrated by the work of the Dorset Partnership for Older People Programme, which I blogged about here. I was really inspired listening to Sue Warr from the partnership explaining that amongst other fantastic things, the programme has made over 250 small grants to groups in Dorset. 14 of these projects run by local people are estimated to have saved the taxpayer £600,000. A £370 investment in a table tennis table has led to a social network which supported a man to leave hospital days earlier than expected after an operation.

I therefore advocate use of social network analysis and network mapping in the Ageing Well Dudley initiative, because it will help to take thinking beyond the boundaries and mindsets of public services and place the focus on individual older people and those around them.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Tackling Child Poverty in Dudley

15,000 children in Dudley live in poverty.

That's 22% of children in the borough. Child poverty in Dudley is rising at a faster rate than the average. Dudley has a higher proportion of parental couples in poverty than lone parents.

Nicki Burrows at Dudley CVS supports a network of voluntary, community and faith-based organisations who work with children, young people and families. The network is hosting a cross-sector event focusing on child poverty on Tuesday 18 October, Child Poverty - not in our backyard Twitter users can follow the event using #cypfpov11. As well as the interest in the event which has been generated (150 people have booked to attend), I have been incredibly impressed that Nicki and the network will make this happen without spending anything. Everything has been contributed for free, from the venue to the coffee.

And then I heard something even more inspiring...

In working with Children's Services on the Child Poverty Strategy, Nicki discovered that 3,000 children in Dudley receive a free school meal during term time. Some of them may go for 2 or 3 days without food during school holidays. Local food banks and soup kitchens see an increased demand during school holidays. Ever keen to create innovative solutions to problems, and to involve the private sector, Nicki has developed an activity to encourage local businesses and food outlets which provide hot meals to provide meals to children in school holidays. I interviewed Nicki to find out more about all this work:

The information about Child Poverty in Dudley above is from Dudley's Child Poverty Needs Assessment available here. The measure of child poverty is the number of under 16 year olds who live in households whose income is below 60% of the national median income.

This post was made as part of Blog Action Day - an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. The aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion around an important issue that impacts us all. The topic of discussion this year is food.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A balancing act

Martin Smith
This post is written in response to an article posted by Jenny Morgan on the Open Democracy site on 15 September, which I just became aware of today. Jenny was in Dudley attending a meeting of the 5 Estates Project, which was initiated by Martin Smith and other volunteers from Tenants and Residents Associations in the Netherton area, who are reaching out to isolated migrant newcomers and challenging myths about migration across their estates. However she talks evocatively of a freezing wind battering the faded bunting of the Fountain Arcade in Dudley, and of it not just being the weather that is forbidding. She is referring to prejudice, discrimination and racism against migrants.

I feel moved to bring balance to this representation of Dudley by presenting another perspective, which focuses on great things people are doing and we can all build on to make progress in Dudley, rather than writing the area off as being stuck in the past, or labelling Dudley as a place which has a culture of excluding newcomers and a ‘local dialect, impenetrable to English-speaking outsiders’.

It’s a real pity that while Jenny was in Dudley with Kenneth Rodney on what sounds like a dismal day weather-wise, she didn’t seek refuge from the wind in the warm and welcoming Caffé Grande on Stone Street, which is next-door-but-one to Kenneth's office. Martin who runs the café not only offers great coffee and cake, and healthy eating options, but also hosts reggae and soul music nights, our Social Media Surgeries for local clubs and groups, and has recently welcomed a local neighbourhood watch group to hold their meeting in the café. Looking at the recent news on the website I see that the cafe is also supporting an upcoming talented singer from Dudley.

While I agree that Dudley Town Centre is struggling, as are the other town centres in Dudley Borough, including Brierley Hill and Halesowen, this is not peculiar to Dudley (see some of Julian Dobson's blog posts, such as this one about ghost towns). And while Kenneth is reported as saying that Dudley lacks vision, I think what is sad is that a vision Dudley did have, for which special planning permission was sought, was to build a huge out-of-town retail development, including the Merry Hill Shopping Centre. My understanding is that the decline in the high streets of Dudley Borough started when Merry Hill opened, local traders feel that it sucked the lifeblood from the High Streets. So the evocative description of Dudley in decline, in my view, is as much a result of the ‘vision’ of the planners in Dudley as it is the recent recession. Perhaps the challenge is to ask how can we better harness the vision of the people of Dudley? I am convinced they have vision, but perhaps aren’t often offered appropriate safe spaces in which to express it.

And for me, rather the diverse and independent local businesses of Dudley Borough (like Caffé Grande and the Egyptian Scarab Café and gift shop) than the identikit retail outlets and chain coffee shops of Birmingham, whose profits go to multimillionaires who evade taxes, rather than recirculating back in to the local economy.

However I feel I understand the essence of what Kenneth might have been getting at in contrasting Dudley with Birmingham. Birmingham feels vibrant with its diverse population and cultural offerings. Dudley Borough is less than a third of the size and much less diverse, and perhaps from the outside the pace of things feels slower. But surely that would be the same when contrasting any borough or town with the second city of England? Whilst I can find the pace of change frustratingly slow in my work in Dudley, what I wouldn’t wish for either is a knee-jerk local authority, acting before they have thought.

It’s interesting to compare my experiences of Dudley MBC and supporting empowering approaches to working with communities, to those of Birmingham. Between 2000 and 2005 the Labour government funded the development of Community Empowerment Networks (CENs) in 88 local authority areas across the country. The aim was to develop local civil and civic action, and improve representation and community influence in statutory sector led partnership structures. An awful moment for Birmingham CEN was when the staff were suspended by pressure exerted on the employing body by the Local Authority. For no good reason. They were soon reinstated. Once government funding had ended, Birmingham City Council and its partners didn’t choose to continue resourcing the CEN, and CEN members gathered voluntarily to set up Network4Birmingham (‘Big Society’ in action in the last decade?). Travel a few miles west to Dudley and what would you find? Dudley MBC and its partners, through the Dudley Community Partnership, using shared funds to continue resourcing Dosti, Dudley’s CEN. That funding doesn’t end until March 2012 … 6 years after many other CENs shut down due to lack of support from the local statutory sector.

And it was thanks to the passion and drive for social justice of a worker of Dosti, Katherine Rogers, that Martin Smith was supported to develop what is now the Five Estates Project. The Centre for Equality and Diversity were, we felt at Dosti, the appropriate partner for Martin and his TRAs, and we invested a lot of time and energy in gently brokering the relationship to try and ensure that it would become the successful partnership that it is today. A lesson in why there is a need to carefully balance the amazing ‘get-up-and-go’ of Dudley activists with the slow burn of developing relationships and trust between people and the organisations or groups they are involved in.

Mona Bhatti
People like Martin Smith are the reason I’m still working in Dudley after 14 years. Back in the late 90’s it was Betty and Geoff Clayton, Mary Growcott, George Williams and Allan and Myra Miles. More recently I’ve been inspired by people who I see gently and sensitively challenging the status-quo and working slowly towards social justice in ways which bring others with them. Martin and his colleagues involved in the 5 Estates Project in Netherton. Mona Bhatti and the Asian’s women’s group she has started in Brierley Hill. Naghmana Kauser and the women at Dudley Asian Women’s Network. I mention Dudley Asian Women’s Network because they are also dealing with the racial harassment which Kenneth talks about (and let’s remember that prejudice isn’t peculiar to the people of Dudley). At an event earlier this week hosted by Dudley Asian Women’s Network we heard from a woman who has accessed their services and support, and started volunteering with them. She wasn’t an Asian woman. She was a newcomer from Hungary.

There is lots of activity taking place to recognise and celebrate the voluntary action of residents of Dudley. Next Thursday evening will see out annual Volunteer Awards event (I'll be tweeting from the event, probably using #volawards - follow @DudleyCVS to hear all about amazing volunteers).

Senior decision-makers in Dudley are embracing an approach to the ‘Big Society’ which, like Kenneth has done, recognises that people in Dudley (and across the globe) have been doing this for decades. We call it Our Society in Dudley Borough.

So don’t be deceived by what you might glimpse on a day trip to Dudley, whatever the weather. Behind the walls of houses and community buildings, and inside the local council offices, there are hundreds and thousands of people with ‘get-up-and-go’. You simply need to make time get to know them.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

How should my organisation approach listening, learning and sharing online?

I now work for Dudley CVS, a voluntary sector infrastructure organisation which employs 18 staff, has a board of 14 trustees, and is helped out by some long serving volunteers, as well as volunteers who are with us for shorter periods. To date the organisation has not developed a coherent approach to supporting its staff, trustees and volunteers (or indeed members) in the use of online social and collaborative tools. Despite this Dudley CVS staff have led some advances which are pioneering for Dudley, for example establishing and hosting regular Social Media Surgeries for local groups, clubs and societies, and being social reporters at events.

I am in the process of drafting an approach which the organisation could take to develop listening, learning, sharing and collaboration online. So far I’ve come up with three elements to the approach and some intended outcomes.

I’d most welcome your suggestions on anything important that I’ve missed, or information out there that I’d find useful.

The approach I’m suggesting is to:

  1. Agree and adopt organisation-wide use of specific platforms (e.g. Flickr for photograph sharing) for the coming period, based on what staff already use and are familiar with, and which will support our organisational aims and work. For some of this I’ll use the advice in @carlhaggarty’s blog post on facilitating a social media strategy.
  2. Develop support which can be implemented across the whole organisation, so extends to all of Dudley CVS’s staff, trustees and volunteers.
  3. Provide support in the form of:
    • a simple policy – using great advice from @davebriggs in this blog post
    • skills and needs analysis 
    • peer support e.g. Social Media Surgeries, cascading training
    • written guidance sheets e.g. for creating, uploading and sharing video, using twitter etc. – in creating these I will revisit some fantastic posts by @theverytiger on her blog
    • access to external training and support, including criteria/guidance to help line managers decide what is worth paying for or promoting to staff

I will also check out how existing strategies and policies in relation to ICT, communications, data protection, HR/training and personal development relate to the above.

The outcomes I’ve framed are that:

  • Staff, trustees and volunteers feel confident to use the Web to listen, learn, share and network. 
  • Staff, trustees and volunteers receive support they find useful in order for them to develop skills and knowledge to use online networking tools confidently and appropriately.
  • There is clear, consistent, accurate and responsive online communication by staff, trustees and volunteers on behalf of Dudley CVS.
  • Staff, trustees and volunteers understand and regularly review the balance of the personal and professional facets of their online identity as an individual representing Dudley CVS. (Thanks to @sburrall for this blog which made me think more about this.)
  • There is alignment of social networking and sharing with other communications including offline communications.
  • Dudley CVS model good practice to both organisations we support and those we seek to influence in relation to effective online networking and engagement.

I found the aforementioned blog post on a good social media policy by @davebriggs really helpful in framing some of the outcomes.

In addition to all of this there is also the consideration of how we provide support to local groups and organisations too, which we’ve started with Social Media Surgeries and I’m hoping to have a regular column in our printed and online newsletter providing tips on using online tools and networks. But in terms of the internal approach – have I missed anything? And/or can you recommend relevant reading?

Friday, 19 August 2011

On Reflection

Although I haven't posted here for a while, I've found that my use of online social tools is greatly facilitating my reflective practice. Previously I sought to carve out time to record reflections on work I had delivered, arranged meetings with colleagues to reflect on activities we had undertaken together, and shaped supervision time with my line manager to aid reflection. Although much of this reflection involved conversation or dialogue, notes of what I had learned always ended up on pieces of paper in lever arch files, gathering dust. Which feels quite different to the reflection I've engaged in through blogging, forum and groups discussions on sites such as changes network and the Our Society network. By making observations in these spaces which promote dialogue, sometimes over long periods of time, I find it more simple to refer back to my learning and continue learning, as the discussions and work evolve. It feels a lot less static than those sheets of paper filed away until I sort through a folder and rediscover them. 

Paulo Friere
To this end, I've re-named my blog 'Seeking Praxis', in the hope that I'll use it more to reflect, and learn through the process of reflection. The term praxis is, I feel, a complicated one which I don't fully understand. It has been described as a unity of theory and practice. Paulo Freire advocated praxis as being fundamental to understanding and transforming the power relations of everyday life. 

Action Learning Sets have been one way that I have developed some grasp of what praxis is. I was fortunate to have taken part in an Action Learning for Managers Project run by NAVCA (then NACVS) from 2001-2004, giving me the opportunity to be part of a facilitated Action Learning Set. My experience of Action Learning is that it is an very simple but incredibly powerful way of learning. 

An Action Learning Set will often consist of a group of 4-6 people who agree to meet for a full day at a time, usually every 4-6 weeks for a period of 6 to 12 months. During a meeting, each set member has around 45-60 minutes in which the focus is on an issue related to their work. They spend 5-10 minutes 'presenting' the issue, which sounds much more formal than it is - essentially they describe a problem they have identified which they have some control over, and explain this and any relevant wider context to other members of the set. The other set members act as 'supporters'. They may ask questions for clarification, and then move on to asking questions which help the presenter to explore their issues, their feelings, possible actions and so on. The supporters are not there to offer solutions, but one thing I have found really useful in sets beyond the questions is that supporters might reflect back to me that I said a certain word a number of times, or my voice or other body language changed when I talked about a particular part of my issue, or people related to it. Towards the end of the allocated time slot the presenter has space to develop actions. They commit to undertaking them and reporting back to other set members at the next meeting, both on what happened, and what they learned as a result.

Reg Revans
My understanding is that Reg Revans, who pioneered action learning, was happy that the approach be played with. I think what I have described above is pretty much the basic approach. 

Revans strongly held that the key to improving performance lay not with 'experts' but with practitioners themselves. Hence he devised Action Learning as a process whereby the participant studies his own actions and experience in conjunction with others in small groups called action learning sets. (source: Wikipedia)

I have been part of an Action Learning Set which has just finished meeting due to a member moving away. (This is the third time in three sets I've been part of that  someone has moved away, prompting my own reflection on how long people stay in posts in the voluntary sector.) Looking back over notes from our set meetings, I was surprised to discover that we met only 9 times in just over 2 years (with a year long gap in the middle) and that our 5 set members were only all together for one full set meeting and the introductory session. This contrasted with sets I've been part of previously with 4 members in which we met more regularly and pretty much were all able to attend all sessions. Despite the flux in participation and gaps between sessions of my latest set, we've shared some deep learning, become very open with each other and gained hugely from the process.

A member of the set who works in the public sector feels that it has fundamentally changed the way she works and approaches things. Rather than things going round and round in her head, she starts to focus in on the issue and look at what she can do to change things, using action learning type questioning on herself.

At the end of every set meeting we reflect on what we've learned, often focussing on what we've learned about ourselves, the set, and the world. It has been interesting to look back and read the reflections of four people who were new to the process and see that their reflections on the set swiftly shifted from worries about the way that they were supporting, along with fears about presenting and being questioned to expressions of comfort with the interactions, trust, going with the flow and the robustness of the process. It feels as though one thing which has really emerged from this particular set is how the use of the sorts of questions we use in action learning are so useful in our work. Here are a selection of reflections from set members:

"I didn't realise action learning questions are so much use in other contexts"
"it struck me thinking about how this approach could help with my team, it works beyond the set meetings - there arer wider-reaching consequences"
"It's amazing how you can bring any issue and it works"
"I don't know anywhere else that you can achieve so much in such a short space of time"
"The set is a powerful way of unpacking things that are complicated - you can sort out things, and leave with clear thinking and actions instead of the muddle you came in with"

I can hugely recommend action learning. If you can identify a set member with experience of action learning you can probably manage with a self-facilitated set. Then the only cost is time and perhaps the hire of an appropriate room. You will need a space which is comfortable and in which you won't be interrupted. We like to meet away from our own places of work. If you have access to some budget I would recommend identifying and working with an experienced facilitator (there are a number listed on this site), they can really help the set to work in creative ways. One thing to remember in relation to identifying set members is that no-one in the set should have line management responsibilities for any other set member. Other than this, it is fine for set members to all be from the same organisation, although I think there is a lot to be gained from being part of a set with people who work in different sectors, in different sorts of roles, and in different geographical areas. 

Monday, 18 April 2011

Basking in Social Glow!

Despite us feeling a little unprepared and as if we were stepping in to the unknown, the first ever Social Media Surgery in Dudley, held on Thursday 14 April, was a roaring success.

Having rushed out to buy a back up mifi that afternoon, Melissa Guest and I arrived in good time at Café Grande in Stone Street, Dudley, where we had arranged with the owner Martin Williams to take over the café for a couple of hours (see Dudley News article). Martin had equipped the café with extension cables for laptops and we quickly settled in as our helpers started to arrive.

We’d had over 30 bookings and we filled nearly every seat in the café as people joined us to get a bit of help using blogs, photo sharing sites, Facebook, Twitter and other free web tools. If you’ve never heard of or been to a Social Media Surgery, here’s a bit of background and a video clip of our surgery.

Social media surgeries are basically informal gatherings of people active in communities, groups, clubs or societies who want to learn how to use the web to communicate, campaign or collaborate. They get to sit alongside someone who understands good ways to use the internet and lean about useful free tools. Most social media surgeries have an event every few weeks, so that people can keep coming back for help. The helpers are people who volunteer their time and know enough about using social media tools to help someone else. Some may have spent years understanding the internet, others will have started learning a few months ago but want to share what they know with other community groups and active citizens. (Most of this is from the social media surgery site.)

Melissa Guest and I had been trained by the amazing Nick Booth (@Podnosh) and Gavin Wray (@gavinwray) from Podnosh to manage social media surgeries, using the fantastic social media surgery + website built by Josh Hart (@joshhart) – who I was delighted to meet at a recent Central Birmingham social media surgery. There was no hanging around for Melissa after this, in her trademark enthusiastic style she started approaching people to be helpers, and we quickly put our first surgery date on to the website, invited loads of people …. and quickly filled our available places.

And on the night, once I’d managed the arrivals and matching of our learners with our helpers, I was able to wander around the café, a huge grin spread across my face, soaking up the sight and sounds of people learning from each other. It gave me a warm feeling inside, the helping is such a simple, beautiful act, and everyone seemed to be learning something and getting something out of it.

I was rather excited about it all, and as everyone seeking help had someone to help them, I was busy tweeting about how great it all was, and Paul Webster (@watfordgap) suggested that I was experiencing ‘social glow’. I think Melissa and I are still glowing! And perhaps Rob Hall (@CPStourbridge), one of our volunteer helpers, was glowing a little bit too – see this video:

The main things I learned through this experience were:
  • Never underestimate the power of sharing knowledge, skills and experience (crucial in community development practice)
  • Social media surgeries are to help active citizens to join the massive conversation which is taking place on the internet 
  • Social media surgeries are not basic IT training – we can signpost to adult learning for that
  • Individuals working in the public sector, voluntary sector and involved in community groups are willing to give their time
And on this page you can see what people at our surgery learned.

If this has inspired you and you would like to join us at a future event, whether looking for help, offering help, or a bit of both, there is more information here - clicking on the event dates takes you to pages you can book from.

There’s also a blog post about our surgery from Nick Booth, who came along to help out.

I really would like to to say massive thanks to Melissa for making this happen at a rate of knots, to Martin and his staff for letting us use the café and serving lovely coffee, and to our first helpers: Jason Whyley, Catherine Hickman, Wendy Fryatt, Richard Johnson, Rob Hall, Steve Sparrow, Becky Pickin and Nick Booth.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Online engagement of young people

This evening I met with Rob and Chanai, who are Young Advisors. They have been asked to set up an online tool which will encourage young people to talk online and respond to various consultation activities which local public services wish to involve young people in.

Having just finished reading Clay Shirkey’s excellent Here Comes Everybody I shared a couple of key points made in the book. When Rob talked about a goal perhaps of attracting 500 young people to an online site, I immediately thought about the power law distribution which Shirkey describes really accessibly in the book, and a tad more technically in this blog post. In his book this is described as a predictable imbalance – where we see user-generated content online the bulk of the content has been contributed by a small fraction of participants. This is observed widely, and Shirkey says that the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users. The power law might be more familiar to some as the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule which states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So even if 500 young people can be attracted to an online space, how will it feel if 5 or 10 of them are engaging most of the time and otehrs only once or twice ever?

Given the context of the discussion with Rob and Chanai, I couldn’t help also thinking about how it feels as though this applies to involvement in consultation or other community engagement activities. Those ‘usual suspects’ that some public sector officers feel exhausted by can also be seen as our golden nuggets, the few who do participate, and can be supported to do so in the interests of the many.

We also talked about how people network, and the few people who act as connectors between different networks. These Small World networks highlight the importance of a few highly connected individuals. In terms of inviting young people to engage with the public sector we might wish to identify these important connectors.

The area I’ve really got stuck on though, and hope to help Rob and Shanai out with, is where their project fits within a process of engagement, or in this case any number of unknown future processes of engagement. Putting the tool before the process really is putting the cart before the horse, and yet it somehow feels good to want to create a space where young people can chat and also potentially influence change. And there’s the rub. As yet there’s no definition of what is open to influence, no promises of influence, no promises of dialogue with people who have influence. I’m hoping to work with the Young Advisors and other young people that they convene on an advisory group for this work. I think we should be looking at lessons in David Wilcox’s excellent Guide to Participation, which I still use on a frequent basis and has stood the test of time, and also Voice and Echo

And I will return to Shirkey and his suggestion that the successful use of social tools relies on a successful fusion of a plausible promise, and effective tool and an acceptable bargain with the users.

I would welcome ideas, thoughts and signposts to anything else which might be useful. I’m meeting Rob again on 14 March to think through some of this.

NB. I haven’t covered the issue of safeguarding and engaging young people online, as I intend to blog about that separately following a great discussion at our recent Community Engagement Network event in Dudley.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Keeping Empowerment Working - learning from the South West

Last week I was really pleased be part of a gathering of 80 delegates from the South West for Keeping Empowerment Working. I was invited to the event in Bristol by Isabel Livingstone, Voice and Influence Co-ordinator at the South West Forum. The South West Forum supports voluntary and community sector networks, groups and associates in the South West region. Isabel was keen for me to share the empowering approaches to engaging communities which we have developed in Dudley, and are involved in more widely across the West Midlands Region through the Take Part Pathfinder.

The day began with a warm welcome to the Southville Centre, the fantastic venue which we spent the day in. The Southville Centre is very successfully run as a social enterprise and has an array of community activities on offer behind its welcoming doors.

Making the case for empowerment

We then heard from 3 speakers, each providing a very different perspective on empowerment. Simon Burall from Involve had been asked to make the economic case for empowerment, and shared with us details of a tool which Involve were funded by the government to develop, but which is no not being published by the government. The tool is for non-economists to make the case for effective engagement. The tool encourages you to put financial value on the benefits of engaging which can be valued this way, such as health improvements, crime reduction and reduced duplication. The tool also asks you to think about the costs of what you would do if you didn’t engage, and if you do engage to consider what is going on in the wider context which your focus on your engagement activity draws your attention away from. If you’d like to see the tool, do contact Simon Burall, Director of Involve.

Sue Warr from Dorset Partnership for Older People Programme then made the social case for empowerment, with an inspiring description of their approach, services and activities, involvement of older people and outcomes. Amongst other fantastic things, the programme has made over 250 small grants to groups in Dorset. 14 of these projects run by local people are estimated to have saved the taxpayer £600,000. A £370 investment in a table tennis table has led to a social network which supported a man to leave hospital days earlier than expected after an operation.

Peter Lipman from Transition Towns Network was asked to speak on the environmental case for empowerment, though like the other speakers he felt that the economic, social and environmental case are fundamentally inter-related. Peter shared some local initiatives underway and in development, including the Bristol pound, a new local currency to be launched later this year. Those behind the initiative believe it’s better to run a money system that shares out all the benefits and profits that a money system can make and not just benefit a small number of people controlling private banks.

There were then opportunities to reflect on and discuss what we’d heard from the speakers, pose questions to the speakers, think about what had worked in relation to empowerment in the South West, have lunch and then attend 2 of a selection of 8 workshops. I attended a workshop facilitated by John Skrine from Creating Excellence in which John presented some of the thinking behind the Big Society and we talked about this in relation to empowerment. I then delivered a workshop on whole area approaches to empowerment, describing those which have evolved in Dudley and Wolverhampton, facilitated by the involvement of both areas in the Black Country Take Part Pathfinder

My reflections

Reflecting on what I heard and learned, and conversations I was part of at the event, there are three things which stand out for me – around understanding empowerment, using online social tools and our values.

Understanding empowerment

I noticed that when people are introduced to the community empowerment dimensions developed by changes they find them really useful - a delegate fed back that this was something useful they had learned during the conference. (The 5 community empowerment dimensions are described in brief at the bottom of this page , they are from changes DiCE evaluation and planning framework

Using social tools

The second thing which stands out in my mind is how different attitudes to using online social tools are. I was speaking to on officer from a Housing Association over lunch and she mentioned some community activists she works with who would like an online ‘chatroom’ to be able to meet and talk in online. She confessed that she wasn’t up to speed with social media, so was interested when I suggested that her residents could join and set up their own group for free on the Our Society networking site and be part of a wider conversation there, linking in to people from across the country.

This was quite different to the reaction when I mentioned the Our Society online activity in the first workshop I attended. While some very legitimate issues were raised about the accessibility of websites, the fact that not everyone is online and web savvy and that some don’t like online networking, the discussion ended up in a place which seemed to reject this way of networking. This was in contrast to the effort that the South West Forum and Isabel Livingstone in particular have gone to in order to ensure an online space for bring together people, tools and information at Empowerment Works in the South West, built on a free platform (blogger) thus not requiring future financial support. Isabel had also gone to great effort to involve people in the conference itself through an array of online social tools – people were tweeting from the event and others from around the country were tweeting in and watching the live video feed of the speakers. Still others have been reading and adding to blog posts on the site, and writing their own blogs as a result of being involved in the event, including Simon Burall, and me!

As someone who has discovered online social tools in the last 12 months, I am astonished at how much they are now part of how I connect with others, they offer a whole new dimension and level to other networking tools we might make use of, and enhance face-to-face networking in so many ways. I can’t help thinking that those relying on face-to-face gatherings, emails and static websites will be missing out on wider conversations with friends they haven’t met yet but would find great to know!

Our values

The third thing which stands out in my memory from the day is how welcoming and eager to network the delegates were, and the feeling of a really strong shared value base of everyone I spoke to and heard from. I really felt at home among this collective of people, and will close this post with a question I heard asked twice during the day Mark Robins, Senior Policy Officer with the RSPB (of which I’m proud to have been a member since I was 7): “Are we too timid in expressing our values?”