5 #bigsociety questions

Interesting news this month that Steve Moore has taken over as Director of the Big Society Network, and that the Network is poised "to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit." Having worked a little with the Network already on their NESTA-funded Your Local Budget platform, I think it's time I posted a few of my thoughts and questions about the Big Society project. Like many others in the social innovation world, I've been tentatively exploring what the "Big Society" actually means and whether I want to be part of it. I think I have a general understanding of what the Big Society is (unlike most of my friends, who have never heard of it at all!), that it is about clearing the way and providing support for individuals and communities to solve their own problems, rather than waiting for the government to save us. Part of this I assume is about removing the regulation and bureaucracy that gets in the way of citizen action and involvement, and part of it is about creating the conditions for individuals and community groups to contribute more to the running and improvement of the society we live in.

This is all good stuff, and certainly my conversations with the individuals involved has confirmed my general sense that there is good work being done here by good people. However, I still have a few significant questions about how it will work in practice, and these are questions to which I need to know the answers before I would be happy to say the Big Society will be a good thing for this country. By posting them I do not intend criticism (and I'll also post some positive Big Society ideas shortly), but to trigger a debate and get some answers, so that we can all be clearer about what we are supporting here. So here goes...

  1. Does anyone ever get paid? If good work is now to be done on a voluntary basis, then what is the future for those of us who currently earn money improving society? I believe that if we can make improving society something that financially sustains and rewards those who do it, we will get a lot more good done. For many years now, I have been proud to be part of the social enterprise movement, working to create new ways to use business principles and revenue generation to achieve greater social impact. Yet now almost every week I seem to be approached by another public sector organisation asking me to give my time for free to help them transform their business, because "it's a good thing to do". So is money now only to be used to reward people who are not delivering social benefit? Must we all become lawyers and bankers to fund our expensive habit of improving the world? Or should we look instead, as Windsor and Maidenhead have proposed, to alternative currencies to support ourselves? And do we really know what the socio-economic impact of all this will be, particularly on the voluntary sector and the social enterpreneurs that the Big Society claims to support?
  2. Who's in charge? One of my consistent surprises about this Government is the top-down nature of many of their announcements, which seem to be the continuation of New Labour's behaviour change programmes rather than the traditional free-market Conservative approach I was expecting. If the Big Society is to flourish, it cannot be led by the Government, or the credit claimed by the politicians. The role of the State should be to support the activities of communities and create the conditions for the activities they want to encourage, and make things easier - through funding, infrastructure, resources, support. Yet it often feels as though by launching this initiative (and particularly in a time of radical cuts) the Government is calling on citizens to work for the State, to help out with public sector projects, deliver public services. So do we, the Big Society, work for the Government to help them achieve their aims, or will public servants become what their name suggests, and support us to do what we think needs doing? And if it's the latter, how do we decide what the State should support?
  3. Who is accountable? Schools, hospitals, policing and the like are the responsibility of the state: we pay our taxes on the expectation that critical services will be provided to all of us on a fair, equitable and democratically-accountable basis, presumably because we grasp that the wellbeing and prosperity of the people around us is important for our own health, wealth and happiness. Ensuring greater involvement from service users and community groups in public services is fantastic, but it takes time and money to get right, and proper democratic accountability to ensure vulnerable people remain protected. Volunteers also have their own agendas and problems to worry about, particularly in a recession, and the Government still remains ultimately accountable if things go wrong, so are they just creating more problems for themselves later by not taking responsibility now?
  4. Who pays for volunteer management? Volunteer management is a complicated task and requires a considerable amount of work to get it right: not voluntary work, but full-time work by reliable staff who aren't making their money elsewhere - and this work must be paid for. My experience of running voluntary projects (and I've run a large one, unpaid, for two years now, in Mindapples) is that getting people to volunteer is the easy bit, especially in the internet age; the hard part is finding time to tell them what to do and make their efforts join up properly. I don't need more volunteers, I need money to pay for staff to organise them and scale up our efforts. The Big Society Bank is excellent, but the sums being proposed are tiny compared to previous state funding for the voluntary sector, so what is the plan for sustaining and strengthening our existing voluntary infrastructure in a time of social change and fiscal constraints? Unless we have a plan for how this is going to be paid for, I will be relying on the only people who have any spare cash (or Nectar points) these days: wealthy philanthropists and large corporations. And that isn't the Big Society, that's Victorian England.
  5. What happened to democracy? The Big Society aims to "take power away from politicians and give it to people". But the State is us. The public sector exists to represent the views of the whole population, serve the interests of the many whilst protecting the interests of the few, and answer to the people for its actions. How have we become so alienated from our State institutions that private, independent organisations seem now to offer more possibilities for putting 'the People' in charge? Democracy and equanimity are difficult and expensive to achieve, and by cutting away these layers we may achieve greater efficiency, but do we leave ourselves vulnerable to increased social injustice, and subservience to the needs of the wealthy and the confident? There are tools for ensuring this of course, democratic organisational structures and community governance models, but when I hear talk of creating "the U.K’s biggest mutual: to which all citizens will be able to belong", it feels like we are trying to rebuild the State in parallel, not because it will be any better, but because we have lost faith in the current system. And replacing it... well, that sounds very expensive indeed.

I believe in the aspirations of the Big Society. I believe that the people of the UK are the state, and the Government serves us and should help us achieve our goals. I believe people are basically good and can be trusted, and that current public service culture disempowers vulnerable people and makes it hard for individuals to contribute to their own lives and communities. I believe that passionate individuals and grassroots organisations outside the Government should step in to solve problems which cannot be tackled by top-down authoritarian solutions, such as community and social care, public health promotion, invigorating communities, guiding the cultural and social development of our children, monitoring the activities and efficacy of the state infrastructures. However, I do not think that this work should be free, nor that paid civil servants can hand over their jobs to volunteers and remain in their lofty positions. And I continue to believe that the running of our state infrastructure is ultimately the job of a democratically-elected body of paid agents acting in the service of the people.

These are just my current questions: I have heard many others, and doubtless others will emerge as we go. The message for some time has been that we are in charge and we must find the answers to these questions. As Steve says, "it is a work in progress". However, if the Prime Minister and other prominent figures are prepared to say the Big Society is a "Good Thing" for Britain, I'm presuming they must have thought these issues through first? If the leaders know the answers, please let them share them with us - after all, they're part of this Big Society thing too. If they don't, then I would question why they are telling us how great this will be when so much remains uncertain. Either way, I believe these questions need to be answered, and that means we need to get on with it together.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit.

RSA Fellowship Council live-blog

Well hello folks, and welcome to the live blog of today's RSA Fellowship Council. Keep refreshing for updates, I'll be sharing all the discussions and activities here in the interests of open governance and general digital engagementyness. All opinions are, of course, strictly my own. Questions and comments? Tweet me on @gandy or e-mail andy[at]sociability.org.uk.

1:15 So, slightly delayed by technical hitches, and we're underway. Nice welcome from David Archer, stand-in chair for today along with Zena Martin, reflecting on our first year of operations and providing a transition from outgoing Chair and Deputy Chair Tessy Britton and Paul Buchanan, to new leadership for the coming year. Lots of new appointments to the council, but rather than mis-spell everyone's names I'll just say "welcome to all of you, nice to have you with us." Big thanks to Michael Devlin too who has done such a stirling job rallying fellowship activities and leading on some key projects with us. Oh, and we have a baby here too.

1:20 More new appointments announced, this time by Lord Best on behalf of the Trustee Board. Vanessa Harrison is joining on the financial side, and lots of encouraging things around fellowship figures, finances and governance. Gosh we've been busy.

1:30 and I've nearly caught up with myself now. David Archer is giving us a pictoral history of the house and discussing some of the limitations of the RSA Great Room, and proposing some changes which the RSA would like to make. The intention is to upgrade some of the technology and equip it for flexible use, rather than the one-use seated format currently. Apparently David says there will be some "virtual stuff" in there too, but the details will have to be left to your fertile imaginations... One staff-member says from the floor that having looked at the Great Room for many years under three separate chairmen, this is the best design we've ever had, and will really be the "jewel in the crown" for the RSA as it moves to a new phase in its history. English Heritage are also happy with the proposals, which in fact will restore the Great Room to be closer to its original design. The Council is being asked for input from fellows into this, and particularly the usage, prior to more detailed plans and costings being developed.

1:35 Comment from the floor that flexible raked seating is needed to enable good sightlines for the hearing impaired, and the flat floor will cause a problem. Response from David that the flexibility is important, but the design challenge is to incorporate these concerns, plus a comment from the floor that the designs should be consistently deliver good sightlines for all speakers. Question about funding: what else has been de-prioritised to pay for this? The response is that this is an income-generating investment to be paid for out of capital, and part would need to be paid for anyway due to maintenance etc. Observations that the new space must meet fellowship needs and commercial needs and should have a good business case. David Archer is particularly interested in the possibilities to open up the space for fellowship meetings, and also open up access virtually to international audiences via streaming and live Twitter feeds, a very exciting time. Also a comment from the floor that this is a great opportunity, only done every 60-70 years, and very exciting.

Just remembered that I forgot to eat lunch. Oops.

1:45 John Elliot now reporting from the Fellows Education Network, co-convened by himself and our favourite fellow Tessy Britton. Becky Francis, Tessy and John had a meeting about creating Fellows Education Forums to draw in a range of fellows, not just those working in education, to discuss education and potentially feed in to a fellows policy forum. Trying to concentrate on the details but all I can think about is my poor missed lunch.

1:47 He's holding up a piece of paper. I think it's the minutes of that meeting.

1:48 Really good progress here, a Fellows Education Forum has been set up in Norwich, East of England and seems to be going nicely, with good local support and "splendid food and drink". Lovely. The East of England RSA Committee was very supportive too, inviting all the fellows. Not sure how many people they had, I'll try to find out.

1:51 Ah, ok. 10 fellows attended the meeting, 14 expressed interest, including some quite important people locally, and notable people in education and pupil-voice organisations.

1:53 Aiming now to identify the community issues and other contextual factors affecting education locally, create links with other organisations, and with the local communities. Next meeting on 3rd November, and aim to share best practice to help other regions set up their own groups. Support from the Chair about the importance of this project and also of connecting to local communities.

1:55 Now we have people dialling in from Chattanooga - oooh! Shifting the agenda round so they can join the conversation at the right point.

I should have had a sandwich.

1:57 Update now from Gerard Darby  on one of my favourite projects, the RSA Catalyst fund. A streamlined process has asked fellows six questions about what they want to do and the impact they think they will have, to apply for small grants to kick-start new fellow-led projects. Fellowship council representatives on the assessment panel (Gerard, Charles, Rosie and Charmian) judge partly whether the project is good enough, but also whether money would be the most useful thing, and the intention is that all interesting projects will at least receive in-kind support and advice from the RSA, which is great. (Big thanks to Alex on the RSA staff for his work making this process really work well.

2:01 Hello to Sharon from Chattanooga who has called in on Skype to discuss her project which received funding to support the project to regenerate Alton Park  (recently voted the 10th most dangerous neighbourhood in the USA).

2:02 Oooh, we have video! Sharon looks very polite and organised, with a lovely smile. (Why is dental care so much better in America?) The project sounds very interesting, using art in schools to engage kids locally, with many kids involved.

2:04 The Skype video link was short-lived, the sound kept cutting out - but we're soldiering on. Not as bad as last week though, when I got to ask Bill Hicks' brother a question about where he saw Bill's influence in the world, and then Skype denied me the joy of hearing his reply. Frustrating doesn't cover it.

2:05 Now we're seeing some fantastic artwork from the kids, really impressive and it sounds like they really got very engaged in the project. I'm seeing the "RSA Fellows rescue school" headlines now... Opening up to questions next.

Or a bagel.

2:06 Question from the floor: was it community-led and delivered or run via formal educational establishments? The answer, interestingly, is that they were keen to circumvent the council, which are seen as "holding pens" and very mistrusted. They held their own graduation ceremony for this project, which was the only graduation many of these kids will have. They worked with Bethlehem Centre and some churches, but basically the community has been destroyed by crime and social breakdown and there are few institutions and social networks right now to work with.

2:09 Good luck to Sharon, who's leaving us now - sounds like a great project. She very graciously thanked the RSA and the Catalyst Fund, without which there was virtually no way the project could have happened, and also signposted to future projects elsewhere using the same model.

Heather Wilkinson from Breakout Media next...

2:10 Heather has joined us - no video though so can't offer a comparative study of UK-US dentistry I'm afraid. Hi Heather. Her project is helping young ex-offenders and prisoners I think, by offering them meaningful employment opportunities rather than them just being "cheap labour".

Tessy has started reading my live-blog and is now collapsing with giggles next to me...

2:13 Breakout media formed in April 2010 and sought seed-funding, and launched in August. Struggling to hear the details a little bit on this Skype connection, I'll see if I can find a web link with more info... Ah, here you go. More support from Heather for the Catalyst Fund, "it's very difficult to get money for capital equipment for a project like this" - couldn't agree more, great work being done by this fund, really plugging a gap in the social investment market I think. Thanks Heather!

2:18 Now Paul, Chair of RSA Australia and New Zealand is giving us another international update - but this time he's here with us in the room! Thanks for joining us Paul... Lots of interesting things going on over there, starting with formal talks about things like "modern-day slavery" (sounds v interesting...), and major events based on fellows' interests. Now they've moved on to fellowship networking, with the cracking "Big Ideas for Breakfast", a morning networking and discussion meetup, and "Evening Enlightenment" where fellows can share their passions and network around them rather than their day-jobs. Sounds like they're doing a great job over there.

2:20 Fellows there were asked what support they needed, and the result was the "Passion Proposal Progress" fund, similar to Catalyst, which enables fellows to bid for money and also support e.g. connections, promotion, for their projects. It's a similarly small grant level, c. $2000 per project per year, but has funded some interesting projects including an environmental education centre. Lots of passion from the fellowship, but they've decided they need to support fellows in bringing focus and clarity to their projects, so they've started offering visioning workshops too to help people write better PPP applications. Latest application is from an aboriginal reconciliation organisation, which they're all very excited about.

Ooh, I passed a nice-looking sushi place on the way here. Should have grabbed some sashimi to nibble...

2:25 The Catalyst Fund has given out around £22000 so far of the £40000 pot, and they'll be adding an extra £10K from the reserves next year. There's a possibility that next year the Catalyst Fund will also offer follow-up grants to projects of £5000 in addition to the £2000 grants currently, for those that have received funding this year who can show impact. Question from the floor about the international proportionality of the grants, are we going to fund projects internationally in proportion to the size of the fellowship? The answer is that the committee will fund great projects and does not have a quota for the international elements. Comment from the floor that we should target replicability and international successes based on what's working already, but Gerard is sensibly suggesting that we need to take it step-by-step for now. Paul from Australia is keen to emphasise that it needs to be bottom-up and led by fellows.

2:30 Another comment from the floor is that in Scotland the similar Venture Fund has existed for a while too and should be recognised for its excellent work - perhaps we can get an update on that next time... All the links are on the RSA website for people who want to read more about the funds.

2:31 Comment from the floor that RSA Fellows are people with skills and we need to focus on the high skills and connections of the fellowship and prioritise projects that tap into the expertise of the fellowship, which marks us out so much from other societies and organisations. The response from Gerard and others is that RSA Support is very much about that, allowing fellows to give their skills to good fellowship projects - although I think the point is well made. Good point too that RSA Support only has 27 fellows signed up and really needs to be promoted more - another good point I think. It needs more communication and promotion and should be seen as by far the most important and valuable part of the mix. But there has been some good work done to connect fellows to projects via digital channels, and strong emphasis from the staff that the network is vital and they work very hard to leverage the support of the fellowship - but the Council must support this.

I wonder if there will be biscuits in the coffee break...?

2:37 Request from the floor that we develop a framework of criteria for the funding decisions, and particularly focus on sustainability of projects, and how they fit into a broader strategic vision of change for their particular communities. Response from Gerard that we need to avoid putting too many blocks in place though - and I couldn't agree more. But there is definitely an issue of accountability and consistency here, and the point about getting the criteria right and publicly available is important. Sustainability is important of course, and is definitely a key consideration, as is the potential to leverage further funding.

2:39 Question about what happens to failed applications - can they be sent to region reps for support and further consideration?

Awwwww, Vivs Long-Ferguson from the RSA staff has apparently gone upstairs to get me something to snack on. And who says no-one reads these live-blogs?!

2:41 Thanks from Zena to all the contributors. Bob Porrer now reporting on the regions, and begins by acknowledging that we've all been sat here for a long time and should probably have coffee and biscuits. I love you Bob.

Vivs has brought me a pile of biscuits - yay! This is real power you know...

2:43 Bob's talking about trying to assess what the fellows want in the regions, and has had a lot of good responses to the survey of Regional Committee and Panel members. He's reading out some of the points, but I've got biscuits to eat...

Ah, that's better. Thank you Vivs. :-)

2:44 Lots of interesting observations from the fellowship which I won't go into now because I'll get chocolate biscuit all over my keyboard

2:45 Now identifying what this all means in terms of support, and also the Fellowship Council. Next step is to widen the consultation and discuss the points raised with fellows to identify "the key points that need to be dealt with in our review", with a view to writing a skeleton paper about how to address these actions. Careful progress here from the ever-steady Bob and his colleagues.

I really fancy a cup of tea now.

2:47 Someone has astutely pointed out that Scotland is a Nation not a Region. Bob agrees, and apparently this has been recognised. Thank god eh, I was really worried about that one.

Now Tessy is pouring me some water to drink. You get really well looked after doing this live-blogging stuff.

2:48 Coffee break!!!

2:49 Oh, I spoke to soon. Next up are some breakout sessions addressing the following questions and setting ourselves some targets:

  1. How can we increase the number of Catalyst applications from our region?
  2. How can we increase the number of fellows registered for RSA Support?
  3. How can we encourage fellows to pick up successful Catalyst projects and pilot them in other areas?

Someone just called my name and I'm panicking in case I've been naughty

2:51 We're being divided into the groups now, but hopefully we can have some coffee first. They work us hard here you know.

(It's ok, it was another Andy)

Right, 2:52 Coffee Break!!!!!

2:52 (and 10 seconds) no such luck, someone's just asked another question. It's about the importance of our intended review of how projects across the RSA are decided, funded and managed - a vital point actually, so I guess I'll let her off. We did say we'd review the overall RSA approach to projects, and there hasn't been enough communication on that one - but there is some discussion going on behind the scenes as part of the Catalyst discussions.  The intention has always been to have a standardised process for fellowship projects, Catalyst projects and RSA staff projects - but they aren't sure if this is entirely possible yet. More discussions needed on this one, but everyone has giant biscuit and teacup shaped lights flashing in their eyes and I think they might riot if we don't all shut up soon.

2:56 More discussion from the staff side emphasising the openness of the discussions but acknowledging the difference in how staff-led projects are conceived and the smaller-scale Catalyst pilot projects - convergence is the aim, but we've only just started the journey. It's definitely not been forgotten though.

The people who had stood up for coffee have now sat down, defeated.

2:58 Some criticisms from Council-members that they feel side-lined from these discussions and are unhappy, and that it is vital to engage the Fellowship Council in this review of projects. We need tea, and quickly.

Ok, right, 2:59 COFFEE BREAK!!!!! (no, I mean it this time)

Half-time update: well, it's been a good clean contest so far, with both sides pretty evenly-matched and some attractive gameplay all round. A few stand-out individual performances too, which is good to see. Difficult to say who's going to win it, but my money's on the Australians.

3:12 Just realised I wasn't listening when my group was called. Bad Andy. Now milling aimlessly.

3:13 My aimless milling has been spotted and I've been placed in my appropriate grouping now.

I think this is a good moment for me to slow down a little and let the caffeine sink in. I'll blog the notes from the London sub-group rather than the discussions - unless anyone says anything particularly hilarious.

3:20 Very lively discussions here, mainly about governance issues and the role of the Council. Zena is bravely trying to make us focus on the three questions, the trooper.

3:21 Michael's brought the baby in. Maybe that will calm everyone down a bit. You can't be annoyed about governance when there's a baby around.

3:22 Awww, the baby's gone now.

3:31 The baby's back, and he's crying. Maybe he's upset about the lack of democratic accountability in the RSA Trustee Board.

3:32 No, I think he's just hungry

Comment from @melanieshearn via Twitter "I think @gandy types fast.  Imagine if he'd had lunch first!" I've had quite a lot of coffee now Melanie, who knows what I may say next...

3:37 I've been quiet for too long and my fellow Councillors have been missing my pithy input. All eyes turn to me and I have to say something intelligent to justify my existence.

3:38 Think I got away with that one...

3:40 Good discussions here, well done Zena. Now we're rejoining the collective to report back. I'll try to blog what the various groups say in the feedback round next.

Question from @kmachin via Twitter: "wondering why you're not using coveritlive - this refreshing the page lark is a pain" Good point Karen, I'm new to this live-blogging thing but will look into it. Jemima who normally does this taught me everything I know so you can blame her for my inadequacies...

3:42 Not sure which group this is, but they think communication is an issue for the Catalyst, the Ning is a start but we need to share success stories and communicate better, e.g. via regional meetings and AGM. Also feeling that the Catalyst application form might be off-putting, so can people share their passions and ideas up front informally to get people thinking and spot good projects? Also identifying local needs would be good so fellows can respond. They don't want to put a number on it, but suggested 60 applications as a good target.

3:46 And now the results from the Australian (well, international) jury. Different abroad, much smaller organisations and communities and identifying people's passions first - and can't assume that these passions are transferable, they can be very local.

One comment I missed earlier from @stuarthoneysett via Twitter: "I particularly like that your liveblog is followed by an "All you can eat in London" advert from Google. Targetted marketing FTW" All part of the plan Stuart, I'm making a killing on Adwords.

3:48 The Scots now, the "working core of the RSA". Support is crucial, and so is encouraging sharing best practice and getting fellows to tell their own stories. Personal invitations to join RSA Support is also vital - good point there I think. Person-to-person is always best.

Grrr, internet fail so I lost that last one, can't remember what they said now...

3:51 Leaving that last group trailing in our wake, we're on to London. We need to lead by example with the RSA Support signups, and also we should start a mentors network - and again, a direct ask from a peer is the best way to recruit people. The notion of encouraging projects to be ported to other places is also being questioned: those addressing national needs might work as pilots in multiple locations, but many projects are just locally-specific and should stay that way. We also refused to set targets - yeah, that's how we roll people. Up the revolution.

3:54 More nations and regions banter is followed by some nice thoughts from the next group on returning to the first principles of the society, the promotion of arts, manufacturing and commerce. Also important to ensure local projects flow from the central purposes of the RSA, with clear criteria for selection so people can tell whether they should apply. We should aim for fewer, more relevant applications. We should also be able to tell the difference between an RSA project and projects by other organisations like the Rotary Club etc. Point from the floor: what distinguishes RSA projects is that they involve lots of RSA fellows - but others respond that this is circular and unhelpful. Movement for clearer sense of central, core values steering our work emerging again here, a theme I've heard before.

Fanmail now from @lulabellalondon "@gandy your live-blogging skills are remarkabl....y entertaining! Guardian needs YOU! for the next election." Lucy, you're too kind. Maybe I could get David Dimbleby to bring me a fruit pie next time.

4:00 Some suggestion that people come to the RSA for something different, and we want to define what that difference is. Beats me sir.

4:01 The last group is frustrated at how difficult it is to get fellows to list their expertise, but we still need to try. Also a suggestion that, when doing big projects with the RSA, the best way is to bypass the bureaucracy of the organisation and do it yourself. (This guy's holding up bits of paper too. Must be important.) Also huge praise for one of my idols, Tim Smit, who's just been called "the best fellow of his generation" because of his support of this project.

4:02 The last group just said they agree with everyone else.

4:03 Oh no, actually they've added something: we should have an open database and web platform for fellows to share skills and support each others' projects. Now where have I heard that before...?

4:05 And now the bit I've been waiting for: Zena is thanking the outgoing Chair Tessy Britton and Deputy Chair Paul Buchanan. We've made huge progress on embedding the new Council, the Fellowship Charter, engaging fellows, and reviewing the regions - and huge thanks to Tessy and Paul for their work. Tessy's been given a huge bunch of flowers, which she is very grateful for but also worried about being laughed at on the train home, the shy shrinking violet that she is. Well done particularly to Tessy, who's my favourite RSA Fellow and has genuinely done an amazing job under very difficult circumstances at times, and deserves our full and enthusiastic respect.

4:06 And welcome new Chair Bob Porrer, and Deputy Chair Irene Campbell - congratulations to you both. Bob's opening speech now... Greater synergy is needed between John Adam Street and the Fellowship. Bob and Irene will be focusing on "facilitating productive and co0operative dialogue between all parties", accepting that there has been frustration in the past, and intending to work in an even-handed way to resolve all these issues positively. Fellowship Council needs to be developed to meet the needs of fellows, to enable them to input properly into the organisation - not an easy task, but a noble one I think. They also intend to be more visible at regional meetings, and online - and also to lift the profile of the council via the newsletter, journal and elsewhere. Bob is keen to stress that we need to be realistic about what we can achieve in a year: we're all busy and it's not always possible to progress everything we want, and we must set realistic timescales on group work particularly. But Bob and Irene will work hard to connect fellows, support project groups to continue, embed the charter, and improve the work of the Council. We need a committed Council, but also to recognise that we are all volunteers; we need support from staff and an understanding of the pressures on their time too. Most of all, Bob is keen that the Fellowship Council will look forward, not back, learning from the past but focussing positively on the future. Principles must be debated, and new ways of working must be found, and Bob and Irene are very committed to making this happen.

4:11 Lovely round of applause for Bob and Irene - welcome guys, and good luck.

4:12 Awww, now they're thanking me. They obviously haven't read what I've been writing about them all. Hopefully I'll make it out of the building before they find me out.

4:13 The next meeting will be in January - and preferably not on a Tuesday this time apparently. And in the interests of international co-operation, the next meeting will be held in Chattanooga! You heard it here first folks...

4:14 Close Big thanks to David and Zena for chairing the meeting, lovely work. I'm off to find myself another snack, and possibly an ice cream. Thanks for all your comments, texts, e-mails and tweets, and particularly for the biscuits. A draw was a fair result all round I think, difficult to separate the sides even after extra time. For my part, I hope I have entertained, if not necessarily informed. Until next time...

Public Sector Online 2010

psonline Just a quick note to say that today I’ll be speaking at The Guardian‘s Public Sector Online conference.

I’m on the closing panel at 3:30 titled “Innovation in social media”, along with Dave Briggs, Sarah Drummond, Lauren Currie and Gordon Scobbie, asking:

As more people use social networking sites to keep informed, and organisations use them to spread information and market services, what are the best ways for public sector bodies to engage with the public?

Hope to see you there - come find me on Twitter if you want to say hello.

Hand Made Communities

I settled down this morning to have a proper read-through of my friend Tessy Britton's new book, Hand Made, and feel inspired to write a post about it. In fact, two posts - you can see my thoughts on it from an individual and health perspective over here. Inspired is the perfect word for this book actually: a collection of hand-picked stories from all manner of collaborative and creative projects the world over, which collectively represent an "emergent new community culture". From more familiar examples like The Big Lunch, to lesser-known gems like Maurice Small's Community Gardens project, and one of my favourite projects ever, Jerry Stein's Learning Dreams (disclosure: Mindapples is also included), Tessy has unearthed an amazing set of stories of creative, positive projects that are bringing people together and building connection and community in startlingly effective new ways.

Seen collectively, the projects tell a story of a new model for community-development - or perhaps an old one that we have somehow forgotten. They are all positive, constructive and creative, based on people designing and building the world they want to live in, and finding others to join them in this work. They route around existing systems and do it themselves, using the assets they find in their communities to build and strengthen their communities. And most importantly, they all start from individuals taking immediate action to shape the world around them and change things for the better. Hand Made is a book that reminds us we have far more control than we think over the world around us, and shows us that the best way to engage people is to help them do what they want, and build what they need.

Everyone seems to be talking about "community" at the moment, particularly in the context of the "big society" - and there is much that can be learnt by policy-makers from this humble little book. If the Government is serious about supporting and nurturing community development, it needs to build an infrastructure and a supporting culture for the kind of creative, inspired people - what David Barrie calls the 'militant optimists' - that are featured in Hand Made. We need to build a cultural and economic context in which human-centred, positive, creative projects like these can thrive and grow, without telling people what to do or what they need. This will take a serious reinvention of the culture and mechanics of government. As Tessy observes in her introduction, "our existing systems can supress creativity and [attract] individuals with management mindsets rather than including essential creative or community-building ones". Someone told me recently that the policy world doesn't understand humanity, it only understands statistics, and community-building is human work. It's easy to forget that when you spend all your time looking at the big picture.

I've been reading Visa founder Dee Hock's extraordinary autobiography One From Many, about which more in future posts. His definition of community particularly appealed to me: "the essence of community, its very heart and soul, is the nonmonetary exchange of value. The things we do and the things we share because we care for others, and for the good of place." Community is relentlessly, unapologetically voluntary. It does not correspond to the tools of the state, the mechanics of the economy or the mindset of management. In Dee's words: "It arises from deep, intuitive understanding that self-interest is inseparably connected to community interest; that individual good is inseparable from the good of the whole". You can't build this common interest - this "community" - through top-down commands and centralised management: all you can do is create the conditions for growth and support what people want to do.

This isn't the harsh world of the open market though. This is not a free-for-all in which the state rolls back and a thousand entrepreneurial flowers bloom: this is about creating a nurturing, managed space in which the projects and people who are enriching our lives and strengthening our communities are supported and cared for. Community development of the type described in Hand Made does not take place in the wild, competitive scramble of the jungle; but nor can it be found in the safe, highly-regulated, controlled worlds of the zoo or the factory. Instead, it is found in the garden, the managed space where the conditions for growth are carefully maintained, but growth itself is not controlled. When building digital communities, or developing Mindapples, I have developed a habit of saying to myself: you can't make flowers grow faster by shouting at them. Gardening is not an industrial process: it is far more powerful than that, and much, much messier.

If this Government is serious about stepping back and allowing communties to take more control of their destinies, first it must accept that its role is to support people without commanding them, and protect them without controlling them. Its role is, in short, to serve - and let us lead.

Some thoughts on facilitation

Gosh, what a long time it's been since my last post. I've been busy over here developing Mindapples(check out our lovely new website, as funded by UnLtd and Nominet Trust), and also doing various writing pieces which will hopefully see the light of day soon. Meanwhile, I've also been doing more facilitation and speaking work lately, and it's been a while since I posted anything about that side of my and Sociability's work. I've done a fair bit of work with the amazing The People Speak over the years, and I recently spoke to my good friend Saul Albert there about facilitation as part of their research project into the subject. Here's what I said in response to his questions:

Saul: What is the first issue on your mind when you have to facilitate a highly diverse group?

Andy: People are often very suspicious of the facilitation process. They have their own agendas, and want to know immediately that the process will accommodate them. People come into the room with clear ideas about what they want to achieve, they want to see whether the day will give them that opportunity. So I'm mainly trying to read the room, get a sense of where people are at emotionally and intellectually, how happy they look about being there, and how vocal they will be if they feel the event isn't meeting their needs. Figuring out why everybody is there is the first job of any facilitator, and speaker for that matter, and it's an easy one to miss.

Saul: How did you deal with this?

I usually begin by stating my agenda very clearly, what I'm there to do and what I want to get out it myself, personally. Making it personal to me is very important: I am just one person and what I want is just one of many voices, so if I claim to be an authority or representative of the establishment, I deny people the space to claim the event for themselves.

After that, I'm really open about asking each person/group what their agendas are. I don't necessarily expect answers, but by creating a space where people feel able to say that the process isn't meeting their needs, people feel that they can articulate their critique immediately, that there's a space where they can be critical if they need to be. This means they don't sit there waiting for things to come up that they can bend into a critique. They say their piece, then they kind of forget about it and get on with the discussion. As long as people know they can influence the agenda if they need to, and they trust me to be true to that commitment, then they can relax and engage.

This might sounds strange, but there's also an important element of amateurishness involved. If I'm too slick then people feel they can't shape the structure, they become afraid of "getting it wrong". By stepping out front and being human, even making a few little, light-hearted mistakes, I give people the confidence to step forward and contribute. It's very important to step into the role of leader, and hold uncertainty.

Saul: Who do you know who does this that you admire? And what other techniques / technologies do you know of?

Johnny Moore does a lot of work in this field and I like his style. He's very explicit about what the process will be, what will happen and how it will work, so people can understand whether it will meet their needs, get over that question and then get on with it. He's quite rigorous about getting clarity on structure, which is an important thing for me to remember to do too.

Theres also the unconference approach where there's no plan, and if you're not getting much out of it, it's your fault! But you don't really learn very much in this situation, and I think people often end up having the same conversations they'd be having anyway - it's nobody's job to bring any fresh content to the party.

Saul: At your events, is facilitation all your responsibility? Who else shares that responsibility?

In one particular example where I felt this worked well, I had an 'assistant'. She was actually my client for the event, a part of the development team of the organisation, so like me, she was interested in everything working well. I gave her the task of taking notes to make sure that everything was recorded, which she did brilliantly. She sat with a laptop and wrote up notes on a projector for everyone to see. The audience could see whether their points were making it into the notes, and I would also keep an eye on them and when I saw something important that hadn't been noted, I'd bring people's attention to it and make sure it was included.

The interaction between what's happening and how it's documented is really important, because it's how people become part of the official chronicle: they need to feel that history is including them.

Saul and the team at The People Speak are evolving the art of facilitation all the time, and I really enjoy working with them because for my money they're the only people who really know how to let a crowd run an event for itself. If you'd like them, or Sociability, to run one of your events, drop me a line at andy[at]sociability.org.uk.

Q: What is the first issue on your mind when you have to facilitate a highly diverse group?

- People are often very suspicious of the facilitation process.
- They have their own agendas, and want to know immediately that the process will accommodate them. People come into the room with clear ideas about what they would achieve, they want to see whether the day will give them that opportunity.

Q :How did you deal with this? 

I start off by naming my agenda very clearly, then I'm really open about asking each person/group what their agendas are.

By not expecting answers, by just creating a space where people feel able to
say that the process isn't meeting their needs people feel that they can
articulate their critique immediately, they feel there's a space where they can
be critical. This means they don't sit there waiting for things to come up that
they can bend into a critique. They say their piece, then they kind of forget
about it and get on with the discussion.

There's also an important element of amatuerishness. Not being too slick means
people feel they can shape the structure. It's very important to step into the
role of leader, and hold uncertainty.

Q: Who do you know who does this that you admire? And what other techniques / technologies do you know of?

Johnny Moore who does a lot of work with the RSA. 

He's very explicit about what the process will be, what will happen and how it
will work, so people can understand whether it will meet their needs, get over
that question and then get on with it.

Theres also the unconference approach where there's no plan, and if you're not
getting much out of it, it's your fault! But you don't really learn very much
in this situation, and tend to have the same conversations you'd be having
anyway - nobody brings content to the party.

Q: At your events, is facilitation all your responsibility? Who else shares that responsibility?

In the example I was thinking of, I had an assistant, who was also my client
(internal to the commissioning organisation). She sat with a laptop and wrote
up notes on a projector for everyone to see. 

Like me, she was interested in everything working well. I gave her the task of
taking notes to make sure that everything was recorded, which she did really
well. I would also keep an eye on the notes and when I saw something that
hadn't been noted, I'd bring people's attention to it and make sure it was noted.

The interaction between what's happening and how it's documented is important
so people see how they become part of the official chronicle: they need to feel
that history is including them.

Poor social entrepreneurs

Tonight it's the launch of the RSA Social Entrepreneurs Network, and I'm actually rather looking forward to it. There's been a very interesting discussion on the group forum already about how social enterprise can reward the entrepreneurs behind it. Social enterprise is one of the fastest-growing sectors in our society, and I think it has a lot to teach the policy world, traditional charities and the commercial sector. The problem, as I see it, is this though: social enterprise is good at generating revenue through doing good, by selling products and services, delivering contracts for the public sector and so on. What it isn't so good at though, is looking after the people who make it happen. The sector suffers a lot of burn-outs, and many people who are starting successful social enterprises can only do so because they have made money in the commercial world, or because they are able to live cheaply without overheads like children or sick relatives. The sector is thriving, but at the expense of the people at the heart of it - and without the money from the lucrative public and private sectors, much of it wouldn't exist at all.

I think what's needed is greater liquidity in the social enterprise sector, which starts with making it easier for successful entrepreneurs to set up their next venture. Social capital is great, but it doesn't pay the bills while we work for free for a year raising funds and building brands. We need to make sure the people who have set up organisations with strong social impact get a return on their "sweat equity", or the sector will always be parasitic on the commercial world and dogged by burn-outs and drop-outs.

I think there are two obstacles to allowing this "liquidity" to happen. The first is the psychology around "non-profit": how can I as a social entrepreneur claim my financial reward when my project is based on goodwill and channelling profits back into the community? The second is structural: how can non-profits pay dividends on in-kind investment, in the way they pay a return on cash investments? Time invested for free in building an organisation should always be regarded as a loan, to be recouped with a reasonable return when the venture is successful. I don't want to be a millionnaire, I just don't want all my hard work to go unrewarded. And I think we need new corporate vehicles, and a new culture around money for good causes, to make this possible.

With Mindapples, my second social venture after School of Everything, I'm looking at ways to write in profit-shares and bonuses for founders and volunteers if we build a successful revenue model for our non-profit community organisation. Does anyone know any good examples out there of when this is done well that I could base our model on?

Change world have fun

One of the best things about my job at the moment has been spending lots of time with people who work in consumer branding and marketing. No, wait, really... hear me out. Yes, I work in the internet, and specifically how to use it to achieve social change through grassroots campaigning and providing better services. I've also been part of the social enterprise sector for a few years, and written a few bits of policy advice, and between all these worlds I've met a lot of amazing people who want to use the power of business and media to change the world.

What's striking though is how little awareness there is in the social sector of the tools and techniques that are used every day to launch and grow international brands. It's almost as if, just because it's good for you, it has to be boring. Or, if it's commercial, it can't be changing the world.

But why can't a better world be fashionable, or aspirational, just like a new bar or a great pair of trainers? Why can't social enterprise be as fun as www.springwise.com? And more to the point, why can't we harness the awesome skills and powers of big brand marketeers to sell things that heal the sick, help the poor, or make our society work better for all of us?

I used to look down from my worthy pedestal on my friends in advertising, lifestyle magazines and brand management. Now I'm asking for their help. With Mindapples, we're asking everyone to choose a 5-a-day for their minds, with the ultimate aim of making looking after our minds as natural as brushing our teeth. It isn't a social project, it's cultural: we're building a new social trend, starting conversations, influencing culture and habits to change the way people live. Looked at from the right angle, Mindapples is actually a rebranding project: we're taking the concept of "mental health" and turning it from something frightening and depressing into something everyone wants to buy.

As we get closer to another election, someone said to me recently that the Government like to think they run the country, but really they're just the janitors. They make sure the heating's turned on, and the bins are emptied. If you want to influence the hearts and minds of people, speak to Nike, Ikea, or Pepsico. Just imagine what might happen if all those channels for influence were being used to build the world we all want to live in?

Local by Social published

I'm pleased to announce that Local by Social, my new policy pamphlet about government and social media, was published today by the Improvement and Development Agency and NESTA. Social media is changing the world in which we work, socialise and govern. From Twitter to eBay, Facebook to YouTube, new tools are emerging every year that place the connecting power of the internet in the hands of every one of us.

In this context, the expectations on councils to engage, work openly, be accountable and move more quickly on issues are growing. Meanwhile, councils are facing the biggest cuts in spending in the post-war period and are being asked to do more with less just as demands from local people are rising. Higher expectations combined with drastically fewer resources make the imperative to innovate critical. A new set of tools is needed to meet this challenge.

The pamphlet outlines how local authorities can use social media to achieve more for less. It also highlights the risk to councils if they ignore the technological advances of social media and the people using them, and the importance of government working sensitively with the community groups and social enterprises who are developing great new projects in this space, which is rather timely given the current MyPolice saga. It's designed to be read alongside our 2009 book Social by Social which can also be downloaded from the Social by Social website.

You can download the pamphlet from IDeA's site now, and also discuss the content on the Social by Social network too. There are some more links and examples on the IDeA website too, and printed copies will be available from NESTA and IDeA shortly.

Activity round-up for October

Consistency has never been one of my strongest points, and consistency of blog posting especially. I've had quite a lot of things going on lately which merit a post though, so here are a few of the headlines. The main thing to announce is that Social by Social is now in print and also available to download in PDF at socialbysocial.com. It's a detailed practical guide to using social technology for social impact, and it's intended to be especially useful for civil servants, social entrepreneurs and campaigners. It lists the best software to use, explains how to use digital tools to engage communities, and tells some stories of the what happens if you do. Thanks to contributors like Euan Semple, Steve Bridger, Dominic Campbell and many more.

My co-authors Amy Sample Ward, David Wilcox and I have also decided to put our ideas into practice by building an online community of people who are using social technology for social good. If you're involved in trying these tools out, sign up to the SxS Network at socialbysocial.net and connect with others in this field, share best practice - and get personal advice from us too.

Mindapples is progressing well. Tom, Ana, Sangeet and I have been working on a new brand and a new website and we'll have something ready for alpha testing next month ready for a beefed up PR campaign in December. The team is growing and we've been analysing the results to produce some interesting stories for public consumption. The next step is to secure some seed funding to accelerate the project, so please do introduce us to anyone who wants to fund public mental health education programmes. Read more on mindapples.org.

There's lots going on at School of Everything too. This month we've launched School of Everything Gifts, which means you can buy your loved ones some lessons with hand-picked teachers in anything from breadmaking to Twitter lessons (with personal tutoring from yours truly).

And finally, I'm very pleased to be working with Futuregov on a consultancy project for the DCLG on ePetitions. We're writing some data standards for all local government petitions systems to ensure our collective efforts to call the Government to account are processed and shared smoothly. More on how to get involved with that on the Futuregov blog.

So, lots happening, especially in my favourite areas of education, democracy and mental health. There's more, including fun (and occasionally cheesy) things going on with the Courvoisier Future 500, plus interesting plotting with Luke Nicholson at Kept, and some new writing projects in the pipeline. Watch this space for more, when I have time to post.

In the meantime, a little plug for my friends at Castle Galeazza, where I will be spending a few days this weekend to unwind. Reading retreats in rural Italy - the perfect antidote to all this high-tech sociable London living.

Social media and social conventions

On Friday I spoke at Sadlers Wells at the Arts Council's Art of Digital event, Do the arts speak digital? The topic of the talk and the subsequent Guardian PDA panel discussion was "does the phenomenon and the tools of social media change expectations and relationships with audiences?" A few people asked me to blog it, so here's (roughly) what I said. Having recently published Social by Social, I didn't want to focus on the details of the tools and how to use them - anyone looking for information on technology tools and how to deploy them should check out the book. Instead I focussed my thoughts on the new ‘social conventions’ being created by these tools, and the implications on our culture and power structures as a result of all these technologies. How does it affect my relationship with my audience if the audience can talk back, and talk to each other?

I began with a story my friend Charlie once told me about a speaking job he did in Finland. He arrived to find he was speaking to an audience of one man. He gave his talk anyway, as best he could, and was rewarded with a large and pleasing round of applause from this audience member. Moderately satisfied, he gathered his possessions to leave but was stopped by a cry from the man: "But you can't go yet: I'm the next speaker!" Because that's the thing about audiences: you never know who's in them or what they might have to say.

I was speaking here to a silent audience in a darkened theatre: a common format for these events but actually a relatively recent convention. Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (thanks to Dougald for putting me onto this) narrates the shift in the 19th Century from performances where the audience talked and participated, to a new social convention of a silent audience. But in this talk, I had a Twitter feed behind me showing the things the audience were saying to each other about what I was saying. So what are the conventions for interacting with that? Is it rude of them to interrupt me, or is it rude of me to ignore their comments?

The point is, it's not the tools that matter: it's the impact they have on our social structures and conventions. The media has changed: we already have a completely new ecosystem of news. It’s changed marketing too, with sites like Dell's Ideastorm and Skittles turning their website into a Twitter feed for conversations about their product acting as living proof of the Cluetrain Manifesto's "markets are conversations". Organisations and work have changed too: my various friends and followers on Twitter act as a distributed consultancy and community of practice for me.

I see this as a time to play with social conventions and find new ways to interact, with and without technology. A conference is a set of social conventions of audience silence, expert performance and public conversations - and these can be played with, as we do at the People Speak with things like the Twitter stream visualisation, or the talkaoke table. A blog is another social convention, in which we agree to listen patiently to what the author has to say before making our comments on their ideas. Discussion forums are flatter, with no hierarchy except a custodian keeping the space active and safe. Twitter is more complex again, a vast multiplicity of asymmetric relationships, public and private conversations and even old-fashioned broadcast. With each of these new tools comes a set of new conventions, each of which - as Rohan Gunatillake rightly observes - eventually leaks back into the rest of our society.

So if it's a time to play with convention, it's also a time to challenge some of the 19th Century assumptions about how things "should" be done. At the same time as the silent audience emerges, so too does the culture of street silence, the shift from the noisy, sociable marketplace to the silent, impersonal shop as the context for commerce, and the shift from consumer-commissioning to mass production of products. Amidst technological revolution, economic recession and climate change, all of these conventions are now open to challenge.

School of Everything is a social marketplace for face-to-face learning. We're moving from a 19th Century broadcast model of teaching to a social media approach where everyone can be a teacher. Similarly, Mindapples is about respecting everyone's "expertise" about what works for their minds. As I say in the introduction to Social by Social, it's about helping people do things, not doing things to people.

So for cultural organisations, what is cultural production when it’s not mass production? What are the conventions and power structures for facilitating social production of and around the arts? And what are the implications for expert practictioners when they are not stood in front a silent audience? Someone asked a question in the following panel about quality control on School of Everything, and also about quality in arts production, and my answer in both cases is that just because an organisation isn't taking responsibility for quality control, doesn't mean individuals aren't doing it themselves. We can all take responsibility for assessing expertise, curating content and making our own judgements; and the price we pay for moving up the power chain is that we must sit through more poor quality material. Thanks to these new tools, the choice is ours.

I believe that social tools make the invisible networks of our culture visible, and therefore possible to engage with. A good arts organisation can rally a community around a cultural event, but all the ripples in the pond become visible too and arts organisations can engage with them. At what point does it become rude for them, and me, to ignore what the audience is saying? Cultural production can create meaningful culture, but it is social tools that embeds it and makes it diverse and relevant to a wider audience.

I think the biggest issue for arts organisations within these shifting social conventions concerns the role of performance. Social media is most certainly performative: when I Twitter I speak to a larger audience than were present at Friday's event, so don't for a minute think I'm not performing when I tweet. In fact, if you want to understand Twitter you could do a lot worse than read Keith Johnstone's Impro. But there are times when it is appropriate to improvise together, and others when it is better to be silent and listen. I don't want to send text messages during a play, I want to really watch the play (unless it's a really bad play...).

Arts organisations, like the rest of us, now need to consider the role of silence and performance in all their work, and deploy appropriate tools to assist the performance and embed the culture it creates. But that doesn't mean the moonlight sonata is improved by twittering through it or making Domain Exploration easier.

Announcing Social by Social

Yesterday I was at the Reboot Britain conference to launch Social by Social - my first book, co-authored with David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and Nigel Courtney and Clive Holtham of Cass Business School.

The book, which was commissioned by Nesta and published by Openmute, is a practical guide to how to make use of the amazing opportunities of social and digital technologies for social impact. We've collected the most useful resources around and woven them together with some inspiring stories, practical advice and thoughts on the future.

The book is aimed at anyone working in the public or third sectors, plus campaigners, community groups and even concerned citizens. It's 250 pages of practical advice and reference materials, and it's available to buy here for just £7.99.

We've also released all the content free online under a Creative Commons license. Read and download it, add your comments and remix it for your own purposes now at www.socialbysocial.com. We want you all to make use of these resources in your projects and consultancy work, so as many people find out about these technologies and what they can do as possible.

After the launch itself, David Wilcox and Drew Mackie ran another version of the Social by Social Game, which introduces people to new technologies and helps them develop their own social by social projects. If you'd like us to run a similar event in your organisation, or if you'd like more tailored advice, please drop me a line.

Real world marketing

I'm at b.tween in Liverpool today speaking on a panel with Adam Gee at Channel 4, Andy Bell from Landshare and Lucy Willis from Battlefront. We've been talking about using online and broadcast media to create action in the real world, in relation to School of Everything and other "social by social" projects. My main point was about the intersection of social tools and media content. Battlefront helps young people campaign and then tells their stories on TV and online, and so creates action in the world. Meanwhile, School of Everything is creating action by building tools to enable and inspire people to teach and learn from each other: the existence of the tool is the trigger for creating the stories. Landshare is the model I can see emerging between the two: an integrated commission of TV content and social platform, with TV content to inspire people to grow things on spare land, and a social tool to help them find and use land near them. In other words, the TV content is creating a culture in which the tool will thrive, and providing marketing for the site.

Web 2.0 can also feed back into traditional media by creating and locating stories for cultural programming. Whatever the model of commissioning, if you are fortunate enough to be creating real activity in the world, you can use that activity to create a feedback loop which rallies more and more people to your movement. Here's how it can work:

  1. Create a tool which helps people do something in the world - share land, teach each other, campaign for change, or whatever. Write the stories you want your tool to create, and build it so it supports those things to happen, smoothly and simply.
  2. Collect stories of the activity that results by engaging with your community, and share these stories back with the community through newsletters, blogs, Twitter etc. - and also with the public through any media channels available. Tell these stories in a way which makes audiences feel they could do it too.
  3. Give users a way to share and promote their activities too, to amplify the effect of the activity and let your users help you market the tool. Help the people who have figured out how to do it share that with their peers.
  4. The stories and media activity then become valuable resources in recruiting more users to the platform, which creates more activity to use in promoting the movement, and so on. By creating activity in the world, you create news; and by telling the stories through the media, you create a culture in which that activity is commonplace.

That's what we've been doing at School of Everything: we talk to our users (or rather Claire does), find out what they're up to, and tell those stories to encourage more people to join in. The media, social or otherwise, helps us turn the isolated interactions into a social movement.

As for media commissioning, I think there's a rich seam here for media companies to invest in start-ups, and also in media content to tell the stories they support. The question of legacy is problematic - Landshare and Battlefront are commissions that need to generate stories, so what happens to their community when they have to stop "broadcasting"? So I think you also need a business model to sustain the existence of the web platform (School of Everything relies on real-world transactions for its business model), and finance it as an autonomous start-up that isn't dependent on the continuation of the commission. We need more integrated partnerships between broadcasters and start-ups. And with the mutual benefit a well-designed broadcast and social campaign can bring, a TV-financed web start-up with broadcast tie-ins looks like an increasingly smart business proposition.

So all we need then is to come up with ideas for really compelling things we want to happen in the real world, that are interesting enough to make good way to learn how to buy twitter followers. Anyone?

The Social by Social Game

David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I ran an event on Tuesday night taking non-profits through a process of brainstorming and developing projects using social technologies for social impact. The event, called the Social by Social Game, was inspired by the Social Media Game and also by the book we've been writing for NESTA called Social by Social.

Rather than repeat the details here, those of you who are curious should check out David's excellent blog post and videos documenting and explaining the event. The whole game is Creative Commons but still in development, so please take it and rework it, and let us know how it might be improved. And if you'd like us to run a similar event in your organisation or community, please do drop me a line.

Social by Social Game at Net Tuesday tomorrow

If you are in London tomorrow evening, June 2 with a couple of hours to spare, and an enthusiasm for exploring how to use social technology for social benefit, join us for a run of the Social by Social Game at Net Tuesday. As organiser Amy Sample Ward explains here:

The Social by Social game is a fun session to help people explore how social technology can be used for social benefit: whether that’s by a nonprofit, a social innovation startup, within a neighbourhood, or across a community. We’ll invent some of those places, then challenge each other in groups to develop plans using a pack of specially-developed cards and other props. It will be a mix of collaboration and competition that should give you lots of practical ideas that you can use in your own projects.

We facilitated a version of this game recently at SHINE09 and this should be a greatly improved second version. The game will be run by me, Amy and David Wilcox, and we’ll also give you news of the Social by Social handbook we've written, with Cass Business School, for NESTA.

Our intention is to link the game to the book content, which will also be available online under a Creative Commons license, so after developing your social technology plan in outline during the game, you can use the Social by Social content to follow through. The game is Creative Commons too.

* Date: Tuesday, 2 June * Time: 5:30pm doors, 6 pm start * Location: Charity Technology Trust - 1 London Bridge, SE1 * RSVP: London Net Tuesday group

Why I'm standing for the RSA Fellowship Council

The RSA is an Enlightenment institution, but progressing the Enlightenment today does not mean perpetuating the beliefs of the past. A modern enlightened approach requires a richer understanding of the human mind and an appreciation of the new values of our digitally-enabled age: an enthusiasm for collective action, a more participatory view of membership and a fundamental belief that people are inherently good and should be trusted. The RSA has worked hard to embrace these values through the RSA Networks project, on which I was a consultant and volunteer. However the level of culture shift is great and the support of an engaged fellowship is essential. In standing for Council I intend to represent the energies of a young, digitally-savvy, ethically aware generation that is already reshaping the world in its own image.

I bring to this all my experience as a reformer and innovator in education, democracy and mental health. I am Founder of the Mindapples '5-a-day for your mind' campaign, recently featured in the RSA Journal, and a Co-founder and Company Director of the innovative education start-up School of Everything, which won both a New Statesman Award and a Prime Minister's Catalyst Award in 2008.

I am also co-author of a forthcoming NESTA handbook on the use of social technology for social impact, a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, a long-standing volunteer at Social Innovation Camp and a pioneer of new models of social enterprise, digital campaigning and democratic participation.

All my voluntary and commercial activities are directed towards building a fairer, healthier and more sustainable world. I challenge old structures and assumptions, not through opposition but by building more compelling alternatives. I hope that with my support the RSA can lead the charge and help us build the society we all want to live in.

I hope you will endorse my candidacy, or disagree with my ideas, by leaving me a comment below. If you're an RSA Fellow, I hope I can also count on your vote next month. (I've always wanted to say that.)

Shine 2009

The Shine UnConference for Social Entrepreneurs starts today at Kings Place, York Way, London. If you're there already, you may encounter me helping out Anna Maybank of Social Innovation Camp with a short session on developing your own SI Camp ideas. And if you're coming tomorrow, please join David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I at The Hub Kings Cross for the Social Collaboration Game. We'll be showcasing a new event format based on the content of our forthcoming book Social by Social. We'll be brainstorming ideas for how collaboration technologies can solve social problems in your neighbourhood, and then developing your proposals into a full pitches for funding - in just 2 hours.

Hope to see you there!

Community Consultancy

I'm looking for a research intern to help me develop Mindapples and other Sociability projects, so I wanted to know where I should post the opportunity to attract a bright, enthusiastic graduate (if you know anyone, please let me know). Rather than trawl the web looking for good sites and hunting out advice in forums and social enterprise communities, I twittered the question to see what my friends and contacts would suggest. Almost immediately, here's what I got back:

tomstafford@gandy mindhacks.com could do you a shout out if you'd like

adamrothwell@gandy W4MP works really rather well for us, even though we're not (err) an MP...

tomnixon@gandy Brighton and Sussex unis would both be v. happy to talk to you and help you find a graduate

noelitoRT @gandy looking for a bright, enthusiastic graduate to be my research intern on @Mindapples and other projects.

And because my Twitter is linked to my Facebook status too, I also got these responses through Facebook:

Aly Ripoarts jobs Imran Khanw4mp? Anthony McCannwww.jobs.ac.uk

Great stuff - thanks to everyone for providing such valuable advice and offering to help, you've solved my problem perfectly.

So what's just happened there? It's the sort of knowledge that isn't quite worth paying a consultant for, but which is still incredibly important when building an organisation. Traditionally you might get it from peers, mentors and other people in similar situations; you could also get it from Yahoo Answers, LinkedIn Q&As or potentially School of Everything. But Twitter is simpler and quicker than talking offline, more personal than the normal online solutions and well-suited to the tiny drip-feed of questions that comes with running a business. It's not a replacement for these other tools, or for mentoring, training or consultancy. It's something new, or rather a scalable version of something old: a peergroup of fellow professional supporting each other.

I have around 500 followers, plus various overlapping Facebook friends - not many in the grand scheme of things but they're generally quality people who know their stuff and with whom I have genuine relationships. They didn't cost me anything to acquire except time in being friendly and creating valuable content, and now they provide me with free consultancy that is worth a huge amount to me and my projects. In return I help people out and the whole 'economy' seems healthy and mutually beneficial.

The point is, there's far more to Twitter (and Facebook) than brand awareness and self-promotion. In engaging with a community of peers, I gain not just a media channel but an educational resource too. Much like a guild or professional association, Twitter allows me to build my own network of specialists with whom I share knowledge and swap industry insights. It allows me to build my own personal "guild" directed entirely to the skills and industries that interest me. They can teach me how to do my job better, whatever my job happens to be today.

So the next question is, how can you put a value on that? And the question after that is, why on earth isn't your business on Twitter?

A Visual History of the Internet

A little Friday fun for you: a lovely animation about the history of the internet, via my friends at Cognac.

Who Wants to Speak?

I've been doing some work as a host/facilitator for my friends at The People Speak this month, and in timely fashion they've just released a video of their recent Who Wants to Be? event at the Unicorn Theatre. The People Speak are the funkiest events company in London. They produce democratic gameshows and innovative event technologies to get audiences genuinely engaged in discussions. Co-founder Saul Albert is also a Sociability Associate, and their work in events ties in nicely with the online projects we've been building to engage communities and unlock the power of networks.

Who Wants to Be? is their most ambitious event yet: a gameshow in which the audience pay £10 each for a ticket, and then collectively decide what to spend the money on. Watch the video to find out what we decided this time - and watch this space for future events they and Sociability are running.


Webby, Steady, Go!

School of Everything has been selected as an Official Honoree for the Education category in The 13th Annual Webby Awards. Yay! This is what they say: "The Official Honoree distinction is awarded to the top 15% of all work entered that exhibits remarkable achievement. With nearly 10,000 entries received from all 50 states and over 60 countries, this is an outstanding accomplishment."

So well done to our hard-working team and thanks to the Webbys for giving us a well-timed boost of publicity following the launch of our new payment system last week. We'll put the award in our growing trophy cabinet alongside the New Statesman New Media Award and the Catalyst Award we won last year. Onwards and upwards!