The scale of ambition for the coalition government’s big society is so huge, involving so many people, dispersed so far across the country that only the internet can bind it together. But if government wants to help the big soceity develop, as it must, then a shrinking state makes government’s customary top down, expensive websites unaffordable. For the big society, government has to fight its controlling tendencies and support an expansion of the bottom up, mutual advice and support stratum on the web. An increasing emphasis on web based advice makes critical both Martha Lane Fox’s work to get people online critical and Ed Vaizey’s work on rural broadband.
This post, the first of a series looks at how mutual advice and support on the web can better support the big society than the traditional top down systems such as websites and contact centres. I discuss below how a mutual, co-operative approach can help civic activists get started and be more effective, then how advice on public issues in general could also benefit fro minformaiton co-operatives. And then make some recommendations. The article is by no means fully comprehensive, but a starter for ten.
Mutual support and civic action
In 2006 with a neighbour, I took on Cemex, a Mexican billion dollar multinational. Their concrete plant on my road made a ridiculous amount of noise from 0630 am and at weekends. I made simple videos of the noise stuck them in youtube and mailed the link to the CEO and the council noise officers. After six months we came to an agreement and Cemex restructured their plant. A couple of people took on a huge multinational from the shabby backstreets of Kings Cross and won. I wouldn’t have got very far though if I hadn’t understood my rights on noise pollution and most importantly hadn’t thought I could prevail.
No one locally had been able to solve the problem – so i turned to the online world for help. The old Noise Abatement Society discussion forum was vital in the way that sometimes only forums can be:
I was able to see other people talking about tackling real noise complaints and then adapt their approach to my own local problem. It was very important to my own motivation that i could see real people ‐ not just a leaflet explaining my rights.
Even though it was a small forum, it gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone and that it was actually possible to win a noise complaint.
The forum discussion was in the vernacular ‐ not obtuse, guarded legal language or ‘guidance’ – it was real people talking about their problems.
As people they helped each other bi-laterally i could see the information they were creating and act on it myself, even though not part of their conversation.
The emotional boost was vital – campaigning is as much about mental attitude as it is about your strict legal position.
Sadly the forum has now closed and the NAS site has become more trendy and web2.0 but lacks a community feel. NAS tell me that the forum is under review ‐ I hope they bring it back.
Of course, if you take the internet out of the above, there isn’t anything unusual – when you want to do something you haven’t done before, you tend to ask a friend or someone you know trying to do the same thing. But of course when you want to do something different ‐ like take on a multi national – you aren’t likely to find someone nearby. The internet changes that – we are firmly in a world where people who want to find something out Google for it.
An activist, or a potential activist is never fighting an original campaign – there is almost always someone who has done it before ‐ but they might be in Corby while you are in Cleveland. Many of your antecedents would love to help if only you could find them.
There is huge potential to make existing activists more effective by connecting them online and to encourage and support new activists by giving them advice to follow. There are surprisingly few mutual support forums for activists in the primary areas of local civic action (by forums I mean anything that is like a discussion forum or bulletin board no matter what its underpinning technology). There’s lots of stylised advice around provided by traditional NGOs but it is often stilted or lawyerised into a form that doesn’t inspire and is a slightly offputting.
A proper gap analysis needs to be done as part of the big society work – for the top 20 things people might be expected to do in the big society there should be a good mutual support forum online. Filling gaps here would help drive big society action ‐ but this doesn’t mean that the government or public sector should do publish forums themselves: they generally aren’t good at it and are unlikely to be able to afford to keep it going. Government should catalyse and support people active in the area to start up their own. See my generic advice at the end of this piece.
Advice and support
More broadly than civic action, millions of people use online forums for mutual support in areas where the public sector traditionally gives advice ‐ forums are inexpensive, simple and bottom up. Sites like netmums, mumsnet, the student room, moneysavingexpert, sheffieldforum, rightsnet.co.uk etc between them have millions of members, tens of millions of posts and orders of magnitude more views of those posts. People get advice, emotional support and empathy from contributors. Forums bring a transparency to advice and support one-to-one private advice you get on the phone from the public sector or NGOs. You can see real stories unfold with which you can be empathise and be inspired.
It’s striking that people use forums for a whole range of things where the state in its many forms traditionally gives advice on everything from personal finance to bed wetting. Yet politicians so far have largely restricted themselves to broadcasting to discussion forums containing key electoral demographics ‐ netmums, mumsnet, the student room. There have been some minor engagements with the big forums on specific campaigns ‐ notably on health by the (late) NHS Direct. But no systematic engagement to add value to forums by public sector experts, nor to stimulate people to create forms.
In well run forums people generate original information in an exchange with another, which can then be consumed by thousands. It’s common to see a good response to a request for help viewed hundreds or thousands of times. An act of individual altruism can be shared with the world. To make this advice better it can be made more searchable so it shows up better in Google or Bing ‐ in the technology field, the problems of searching discussion forums for the right answer is well understood.
Many good forums are now supported by a wiki or a knowledge bank. The ‘good’ answers from the forum can be flagged by users at the click of a button and a moderator inserts the answer into a wiki that is easily searched by Google and promoted. You can find the right answer quicker without having to wade through the iterations in the forum. Small fan forums through to large companies such as Dell use this simple technique.
As budgets for centralised, traditional top down state information provision shrink (R.I.P. NHS Direct) much of the gap can be filled economically and from the bottom up by forums and wikis or knowledge banks to capture and codify the knowledge forums create. This is not risk free, but it is less risky than just allowing huge gaps in information provision to appear.
Even a shrinking public sector can help create it advice-giving successors in several ways. The public sector should:
- not run forums itself
- make sure that there is always a public sector expert in major discussions to provide help to individuals that can be leveraged by thousands
- put its own knowledge on line in knowledge banks where others can link to it when helping someone solve a problem
- provide legal cover or limited indemnity to forums working in areas of public good that meet a basic set of kitemark standards, with an excess of say £5,000 to guard against moral hazard
- encourage people to set up forums in big society topic areas where there are gaps, using very small amounts of funding or other support
- help people to use the wisdom generated in discussion forums to produce decision trees that tackle complex problems one click at a time(see the HMRC decision tree on whether to register for VAT)
By thinking more broadly about how to provide advice and following some of these steps the big society can unlock the huge potential of online information co-operatives to help people help each other in the face of a shrinking state.
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