'100 million comments a year' – mutual support and advice in a shrinking state

The deficit reduction programme might drive government bureaucracies and the voluntary sector to adopt more modern means of providing information-based help and advice.  A shrinking state results in fewer people to answer phone helplines and staff desks in public offices.  But state systems and public policy problems are not becoming any more simple yet.   So can advice providers tap into the potential of self help networks online?

There are several well known forums where people support each other on what are often described as public policy issues – NetmumsMumsnet, Rightsnet, The Student Room, Moneysavingexpert etc. But forums to support people on public policy issues are only the tip of an iceberg of mutual support forums on the web covering everything from Ford Cortinas to HiFi and city life (5 million posts on Sheffield for instance).

In an excellent Consumer Focus pamphlet (pdf) Phillip Cullum says:

‘Our findings suggest that UK consumers are leaving well over 100 million comments a year on the realities of service  performance…According to our survey, more than two-thirds  of people (68 per cent) say that they trust what  other consumers tell them more than what  companies say; just five per cent disagree.’

The government is finally dipping a toe into the water in its consumer empowerment strategy of March 2011.

‘The Government recognises the great potential of feedback in public services to empower users and drive service quality improvements.’

There are huge networks of people helping each other where there is no authoritative, trusted central source of advice.  The help is sourced horizontally from peers not vertically dispensed from on high.  People get on and empower each other rather than waiting for the state or company to do so.  They create a form of social capital as they do so.

At talk about local we often find ourselves working with public or voluntary sector bodies that want to provide help and advice online.   This is an area I did some work on in 2007 with only limited success and wanted to revisit now in a series of blog posts.  I ma not going to suggest, simplistically that all top down advice can be replaced by horizontal forums, but that these forums should become a vital part of the mix supported and encouraged by the public and voluntary sectors. In the 2007 Power of Information Review we said of online information:

‘Using these tools, citizens have increasingly changed their role from passive recipients of information provided by experts, to active producers of information  themselves, and consumers of information made by other citizens…People become regular users of such websites because the sites contain the sort of things they need to run their own lives: hints, tips, suggestions, moral support, stories, reviews and so on, written and shared with other members of the public. Often advice dispensed in such fora trumps official guidance in terms of popularity simply because it is written in language that means something to users and has the name of a real person attached.’

Here’s some generic observations on horizontal advice networks:

There is no central authority with a monopoly of wisdom.  Or there is little trust of a body that purports to be so.  E.g. that car isn’t made any more, people don’t trust a bank or government department  on which they are dependent  Or the access to authoritative sources is rationed by capacity, affordability or intellectual property.

The systems on which advice are sought are complex and varied, with many special or personal cases that come down to a matter of judgement.  The judgments can often only be made by experienced peers.  Judgements sometimes need to be debated or challenged.  Pro-forma, ‘average case’ guidance doesn’t cut it.  The traditional public or voluntary sector response is to set up a phone line or open an office to provide bespoke advice – both of which look increasingly unaffordable.

People ask superficially simple questions that are in fact very complex and often require revealing of much specific information about the person or thing in question – ‘what course should I apply for’ ‘my engine is making a knocking noise’

Networks are question-driven – people either can’t find pre-processed information that answers their need or they just prefer to ask, rather than read a lengthy tome.

Knowledge about a network is distributed amongst practitioners in the field, where the knowledge is built up by often years of hands on practice.

Knowledge is created publicly in the network when one person helps another and that answer is visible to all.  This is in contrast to a person telephoning or emailing an organisation or specialist that and receiving a reply that no one else can see, perpetuating closed knowledge systems.  Central government receives over 300 million phone calls a year, none of which are shared with other callers – each is independent of the other and repeats costly effort.

But often knowledge created in a forum or discussion network is hard to find and doesn’t show up well in search engines.  In some forums, this has evolved into a ‘forum and wiki’ model where knowledge generated in the forum is copied out into a wiki where it is much easier to find and consume. This improves the usefulness of the knowledge to people who don’t know or aren’t members of the forum.  Moneysavingexpert and Mumsnet for instance both lead these days with specially created or curated content for their audience, with the forums in the background

Networks are run by humans and have a human voice, not a robotic or latinate legal or official voice. This makes them more accessible in some ways.  But the behaviours are not always welcoming – especially occasional intolerance of new users asking basic questions aka ‘newbies’.

Forums are not flat in structure even though anyone can pitch in. They need a large network of committed moderators to keep things under control.  Moderators and other active contributors need to be nurtured in some form, often with peer-status rewards.  A particularly elaborate example is Stackoverflow a questions and answer forum for programmers.

People who work in bureaucratic systems often use the external forums quietly.  I spoke with a former Citizen’s Advice Bureau staffer: ‘we had our own carefully drafted internal knowledge base, but it was much easier to ask a question in Rightsnet’

The technology enabling a network is often unfashionable in trendy internet circles yet free to cheap – discussion forum software has been around for 15 years or more and has few ‘web2.0’ attributes.

This is all very big society, but predates that.

This is by no means a complete list – any helpful additions are welcome in the comments.

All this is difficult for bureaucracies or top down C20th institutions, companies and systems.  I covered a lot of the above in the Power of Information work I commissioned in 2007 for Ministers when a civil servant.  But unlike the open data work that Power of Information  kicked off, the work on forums went almost nowhere until resurfacing in the coalition government’s 2011 consumer empowerment strategy.   Steph Grey a former civil servant has kept grass roots interest bubbling with a good event last Autumn organised by his company Helpful Technology – he has some handy slides.  Since 2007 the odd minister or adviser has popped up in a forum, and occasionally public sector contact centre staff give advice in forums, rumour has it that HMRC might help out the excellent Rightsnet.  The Department formerly known as DfES used to run a school governor forums for governors to help each other, which was closed down, probably correctly in the face of a good governor-run forum.   But there seems to be little systematic work.  Why is this? Here’s some suggestions:

Bureaucracies don’t like to admit that other people know their systems better or that their own systems have gaps and holes in. There are huge and expensive legal liability issues in admitting this.

Forums create a new source of ‘information power’ that is a challenge to bureaucratic authority.

It can be difficult for public sector moderators to do necessary moderation without being accused of ‘censorship’

Sometimes forums get it wrong and this gives bureaucracies an excuse for ignoring them.  This ignores the fact that their own bureaucrats make mistakes.

When bureaucrats make public recorded mistakes in advice, on a benefit say it can be very costly if precedent is established.

The dialogue in forums are rarely as prim and proper as senior bureaucratic managers like to think their organisations are.

Politicians are often bruised by rough discussions on political forums and tend to think support forums are similar.

Many politicians and most of their communications handlers are still more comfortable with broadcast communications and enter into these forums to broadcast, rather than have a long term engagement.

It’s just culturally tricky for a top down organisation itself to start a bottom up network in its own space – there are very few if any examples of this working well.  Especially so if the top down, vertical authority has a regulatory role.  Some companies, especially in the technology space do run their own customer support forums in which their engineers take part.

The Government’s consumer strategy touches on this as a consumer phenomenon, largely rating companies and products, not as a public service issue.   They dip a toe into mutual support networks as a form of consumer choice tool:

‘Consumers now have access to a number of online tools that allow them to compare products and suppliers, notably consumer feedback sites and comparison sites. These ‘choice tools’ provide sources of information and discussion that help consumers to compare and choose between different services and can help consumers to make decisions that lead to better outcomes for them, whilst also putting pressure on providers to improve their product and service offerings and efficiency.’

‘Identify barriers to private sector provision of online tools, and adopt cross-government solutions to mitigate them…. Identify Government assets, such as websites and advice centres that could be used to promote public sector choice-tools. It may be possible to link to a range, promoting diversity and competition in the market.  Engage with the private and voluntary sector to improve the financial viability of sites for public services….

‘There may be things that Government could do to assist private and voluntary sector providers, such as providing seed-funding to help set up choice-tools or by allowing the payment of referral fees by service providers.’

‘The Government recognises the great potential of feedback in public services to empower users and drive service quality improvements. We expect this to be a major feature of public services and the Government’s drive to improve them in the coming years.’

But it misses a wider public service opportunity by focussing on choice not support and empowerment.  Maybe we shall hear more on this in the public services white paper.  For what it’s worth, in the Power of Information Review we said that:

‘Departments, monitored by COI, should research the scale and role of user-generated websites in their areas, with a view to either terminating government services that are no longer required, or modifying them to complement citizen-led endeavours.’

Maybe that was too radical then.


Steph Grey tells me that MArtin Lewis of Moneysavingexpert has recently been appointed to head up the BIS Student Finance Taskforce.

Disclaimer: I am writing in a personal capacity.  The above does not represent the view of any of my clients or business partners at talk about local.

Edit history: I had a saving problem on publication and made some small amends a few minutes later.  I tend to update posts a bit as I go along and new information emerges.

Follow Will

William Perrin

Founder of Talk About Local, Trustee of the Indigo Trust, member of UK Government transparency panels, former Policy Advisor to UK Prime Minister, former Cabinet Office senior civil servant.Open data do-er, Kings Cross London blogger. Loves countryside. Two kids, not enough sleep.
Follow Will