In reply to this post by Dave Briggs.
Dave and I were chatting the other day about local engagement issues, especially in Lincolnshire (the land of big sky and sausages) where we both live. Lincolnshire is a complex county, with seven district councils, county council, town and city councils, parishes, NHS, police, etc etc – the plethora of public bodies is confusing to me (and I work in the public sector) let alone to members of the public.
Dave’s idea (better explained in his excellent blog) is to treat places as systems, with complex processes that sometimes fail to work as they should. What is needed is somewhere for members of the public to report such ‘bugs’ with the expectation that the appropriate body will resolve them. So far not very revolutionary, and as Dave points out www.fixmystreet.com offers much of this functionality. However, what is really required is not the passing off of responsibility to someone else, but recognition that we all have a role in making our communities safer and better.
As an aside I think there are at least two different types of bug – the things that fail to work as designed (eg street lamps not working, damage to local amenities etc) and things that may work as designed, but that can be improved to deliver better outcomes. One system may not address both types of bug…but I digress!
One analogy that has been used in the field of community safety is with first aid. Ben Rogers published an excellent paper through the RSA about the gap between people’s aspiration for their communities, and the way in which we act. He argues that just like first aid training, people should be trained in basic community safety skills, giving people the capacity to respond to anti-social behaviour and defuse conflict in their communities.
The danger of creating just another website is how many public sector bodies will actively monitor and respond to issues – particularly those complex and difficult areas like anti social behaviour that fall to several organisations to address (and often fall between those organisations). It is clear that without the support of public sector organisations any such approach will fail, but it should also be apparent that without the active involvement of citizens it will also fail.
To illustrate this, there are many stories in police circles of community meetings where local residents complain about groups of youths hanging around. Often many of the parents of those youths are amongst those complaining. The solution seems simple – know where your children are and be aware of their actions impacting on others – but in reality anyone with children of their own know that this can be difficult, and appropriate support is often needed to create a positive partnership that can deliver real results. This support may be straightforward – many young people complain that older people don’t talk to them like grown ups, or that they have nowhere to hang out with their friends. Often where there are youth clubs and the like they do not meet the requirements of their target groups – ‘boring!’ at the wrong time, too difficult to get to. In some circumstances the support required is more significant and formal – coaching, mentoring, or educational or social services intervention. There are roles for the community across this spectrum.
So back to the theme of community bug fixing – what would make this work? Should it be built upon existing community resources – such as school governing bodies, local websites and community groups? To my mind this would maximise the involvement of local people, and increase the likelihood that people would feel able to get actively involved. DirectLinc in Lincs is another approach using community representatives such as Councillors, Parish Clerks, and Neighbourhood Policing Teams to report issues online. This ensures that local government is engaged, but relies on traditional methods of reporting issues to local dignitaries…which few people do.
If one of these is the approach then how could it better connect into the bureaucracy of local government, yet maintain local interest and involvement? Perhaps some form of ‘widget’ that can be dropped into local websites, and aggregated up to address specific areas of concern, presented in such a way that local government (or local dignitaries) can action the issues raised in partnership with the community. I could imagine something framed around three simple questions: ‘what is the issue?’ ’what would you like us to do?’ and ‘what are you prepared to do to make this work?’. Feedback would be displayed (via this widget) on the website where the issue was first raised, thus encouraging others to raise issues and get involved.
I think that simply addressing all community ills from the start may be too big a task. There are however some discrete areas where local partnerships are already quite developed, and an approach that marries local groups with local government through technology and mutual effort may work. One that particularly interests me is community safety, but I am sure you will suggest others.
So over to you – what is required to make this work – technically, financially, politically, culturally? How can this idea be improved and built on in the best ‘open source’ tradition?