February 28, 2012

In November I mentioned ‘Tell Us How’ as the latest attempt at ‘crowdsourcing’ by central government to save money in public services by asking those who help to deliver them. The project has apparently completed its first phase and it appears there are 266 ideas up there. How many people have been involved is difficult to say but it would appear that it’s a few hundred – with more than 8000 people employed in central government IT alone, the representation factor is pretty low. Whilst a few of the more rational ideas may offer some savings, overall they tend to represent confirmed prejudices.

In a similar mode I reported the recently launched ‘GeniUS York’ project in Ninging Up York. So far it would appear to have achieved nominal public attention, whilst the key ideas on there are foisted upon it from a higher authority, which was one of my concerns. Along with some other members of a Forum who felt their proposals were being sidelined or dropped, I raised the matter publicly. The following is the question as phrased by a Council Officer and the response from the person leading the project:

Forum members questioned the transparency of the decision-making process that went on to decide the 4 major challenges. How and who decided the final 4 challenges in the end?

“The four challenges were chosen based on a number of factors which aim to develop the culture change required to implement the Open Innovation Process within the city. In order to implement an organisation-wide change in the council, challenges had to span many departments and involve specialists in a number of areas and through developing an innovation team based on competencies not job titles, we aim to embed the process in council working for the future. These pilot challenges had to fit the NESTA parameters of solving ‘medium to long term issues’, to be ‘scalable to other areas’, to ‘open up the conversations with diverse groups’ both within and outwith the council, and to ‘demonstrate in practice the process we are trying to implement’ through using 4 pilot case studies to work with. They were chosen after conversations with NESTA, Visit York, council members, SCY and were refined and developed and commented on at a senior management meeting last October. This last meeting is on the platform as a video for all to see (and comment on, although I don’t think anyone has). NESTA approved our challenges in December and gave us the go ahead (and the funding) to continue the pilot using these 4 as a starting point.”


“No ideas which have been posted on the platform have been ignored, but in order to manage such a colossal change, we can’t post a stack of challenges up there willy-nilly without the capacity to implement the ideas born from them, within a reasonable time frame with a reasonable amount of resource backing. The council has committed to implement solutions from all of the challenges and in order to do this effectively we need to manage our resource well, and stagger the challenges on the platform accordingly.”

 What effectively we have now is the exercise focusing on four ‘challenges’ that were decided by the University, the Council and NESTA back in December 2011 before all this went live. The initial Ning site had these as a part of a video, but when asking for challenges it was never made clear that they were already decided – ‘fait accompli’.

What the response does indicate is that public consultation, even online is a massive exercise, even when aided electronically and should not be undertaken lightly. It also, for me, indicates that if you have specific challenges spit them out in large letters and don’t pretend you really are asking open questions…


Ninging up York

January 31, 2012

With all the recent debate about e-participation, tools to do it, along with the why’s and wherefore’s of whether it can actually work, it’s a coincidence that the local authority where I live has implemented Ning to do some consultation. In the sites own words “GeniUSYork is our chance to generate and develop lots of ideas around about how to make York a better place. Many brains generate more ideas.” The project is part of a nationwide project funded by NESTA, and the City of York was one of 17 councils to get to this stage. If they make it to stage 2 in April they receive support and funding to roll the best ideas out nationally.

I hope something comes of it. It’s not the only Ning community I’m a member of but like many such places they have a tendency to become talking shops with little practical resulting. It’s OK if you wish to spend your time looking into a computer rather than delivering practical change or if the suggestions made actually are implemented in some fashion, but how many times does that happen?

The operators, implementors or whatever need to consider the suggestions that were made following the discussions earlier about participating in a democracy i.e. for a start, how will the outcomes be measured, implemented or reported?

According to Heather Niven who is one of those behind it, the “main criteria are sustainable, scale able to other places, good for everyone involved, viable with resources we’ve got. Pilot length can be as long as it needs to be but a range of short-long term solutions would be good. We are flexible and open to all ideas and our forum section has a section on all things innovative. For other suggestions if people want to raise other ideas. Outcomes we want are 1. A culture change in the way the city solves its problems and develops/evolves through introducing a channel to communicate and develop relationships with the motivated creative problem solvers in our world who want to make a difference. 2. To use a series of challenges to focus our efforts and show ourselves how much better we can change things through working together and to try the process out. 3. To record and share the whole project including what didn’t work for others to learn from. All of that will be shared here too.”

My personal challenge to them is to rationalise the dark magic that is government bean-counting – if we could do away with all this cross-charging, recharging, offcharging and focus on customers, particularly where they aren’t able to deal with such bureaucracy the better! Avaunt thee CIPFA and all thy complications…