Research findings and recommendations for Councils

I’ve finally finished my MSc dissertation which is a massive relief. After four years of part-time study I am looking forward to having my weekends back! And I plan to get back to blogging, now that I’ve more time on my hands.

My research study investigated:

Attitudes and perceptions of Council officers and citizens to using social media to engage with local government.

My research was driven from a human-computer interaction (HCI) perspective, as I’ve been studying HCI and Ergonomics at UCLIC.

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Reactions to the coalition’s crowdsourcing experiment

I noticed an interesting article in the Guardian today about the coalition Government’s recent crowdsourcing experiment. The article reflects on how despite thousands of suggestions being received from members of the public, the Government’s published responses indicate that no policies are changing as a result.

The coalition asked the public to respond to its programme on government websites. It received 9,500 replies online. However, its formal responses, published on each website, shows Whitehall regarded the process largely as an endorsement of what it was already doing. In cases where most of the submissions conflicted with existing policy, the department simply restated the policy. The departmental responses were published last Friday without publicity.

The Guardian quote Simon Burrall of Involve who highlights the impact this may have on trust and confidence in the Government and willingness to participate in future.

I also found the article very interesting in light of some of the findings I’m currently writing up from my own research, into attitudes and perceptions to engagement with local government via social media.

I’ve found that if people believe they will receive feedback and that their participation will lead to a positive outcome, their attitude towards using social media for engagement is more positive.

And a positive attitude towards participation via social media is more likely to lead to actual participation. So if, as a policy maker, you are looking to increase participation among groups who are traditionally less inclined to participate, changing their beliefs about the outcomes and feedback they will receive is likely to be important.

It sounds obvious, and it probably is. But there’s nothing like a bit of empirical evidence to back up your hunches.

Another of the findings in my study was that participants perceived resource constraints to be a major issue in dealing with online participation. I wonder if the government found that it simply didn’t have sufficient time and people to moderate and evaluate the suggestions it was receiving?

Participants in my research also perceived the quality of dialogue to be a factor which would influence their willingness to participate. Another recent Guardian article mused about the difficulties encountered by the Spending Challenge website with malicious attacks and offensive posts.

So, an interesting time for the government and its use of crowdsourcing techniques.

Thankfully I’m glad to say that crowdsourcing does seem to work well for some forms of civic participation, but they tend to be more ‘bottom-up’ than ‘top-down’ driven. Both FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix are good examples.

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Mysociety

Crowdsourcing user experience design

I am intrigued by the latest mini site from MySociety. Launched today Brief Encounters is described by MySociety founder Tom Steinberg as:

“a technology test-bed to help us crack a new design and data problem: how do you make it as easy as possible for users to pinpoint a specific bus stop, or train route, or a ferry port, as easily as possible? There are over 300,000 such beasties, and nobody has ever really tried to build an interface that makes it easy to find each one quickly and reliably.”

As Tom outlines on a recent blog post how Brief Encounters has been developed to provide design input to one of the more challenging projects MySociety has undertaken – FixMyTransport.

 Brief Encounters

Brief Encounters provides a cost effective, fun and engaging way to crowdsource user requirements and user testing. I gave it a whirl and had a few thoughts on how to improve the mini site.

  • The site is using Google maps but it could include Google Street View so you can check if you’ve selected the right bus stop.
  • Somehow it wasn’t entirely clear when I’d selected my stop on the map and that I had to complete another form – perhaps a progress indicator would be helpful.
  • I wasn’t asked to provide feedback after submitting my story. I noticed a feedback link in the footer, but it would have been good to get my feedback while I was in the flow of things.

I’m wondering whether the developers will get enough input from the types of users who are most likely to be the target audience of a service like FixMyTransport. Especially people who don’t have particularly good skills in using interactive mapping and web interfaces.

I was also reminded of the interesting discussion back at UX Camp London a few months back about how UX professionals could (and should) get more involved in projects like this.

Anyway, regardless of who you are, go try it out and give MySociety some feedback!

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Reflecting on my MSc research

For anyone that’s familiar with my posts on social media or usability this one is rather academic and self-indulgent, so bear with me!

I’m making fairly good progress with my MSc research, having completed a few interviews and some of my literature review. Every so often I take stock of the approach I’m taking and re-evaluate my research question and approach. I decided that writing about the issues I come across would be a good form of therapy and also a good way to reflect on my situation and decisions.

“[We] become reflective researchers in situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict.”
Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, 1983

I have chosen to research attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens to community engagement via social media. Because this is a potentially vast and complex area I have chosen to focus my research around a project I am working on in Fenland, Cambridgeshire. I decided to limit my research to council officers and citizens. Because within the scope of an MSc project I didn’t have sufficient capacity or time to also interview colleagues working in the Police and Fire services or elected members.

Because there is not much existing research or theory in this area of investigation, I’ve chosen to use a Grounded Theory method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Corbin and Strauss, 1990; Charmaz, 2006) . I’m carrying out semi-structured interviews to collect my data. Once I have transcribed the interviews I am carrying out a detailed analysis of the data to identify emergent concepts or themes. As I identify concepts I start to categorise them and compare them across all the data. As the process continues I am starting to develop theories which I can in turn test out by collecting and analysing more data. And so on until saturation point, or until I need to write up my dissertation and hand it in. Whichever comes first.

So far I’ve interviewed four colleagues and am lining up several more interviews. My sample is probably what you would describe as ‘selective’ rather than ‘representative’ or ‘purposeful’ (Coyne, 1997). Simply because of the constraints of doing research within your own organisation and in the timescales of an MSc.

I’ve encountered a few issues with the approach and method I’m taking so far. Using social media for community engagement is a new phenomenon, certainly within the organisation I work for. The colleagues I have interviewed so far do not have hands on experience of using social media for community engagement. So their stated intentions may well not reflect their actual behaviour (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980).

Now for me using social media has been experiential. I personally believe that you can’t really understand the possibilities and impact of the social web without experiencing it yourself. Hence the JFDI mantra which is so often mentioned by those who are active in the local social media or digital engagement field (see Dan Slee, Sarah LayDave Briggs and Steph Gray to mention a few). To get round this I have shown my participants a range of sites which I feel represent how social media can be (and is being) used for community engagement.

Whilst initially I found it problematic that I was not interviewing participants about their actual behaviour and experiences, I feel there is still merit in my research approach. Many local authorities have been reluctant to adopt social media. Some are blocking staff access for fear of time wasting or the risks of security breaches or damage to reputation (Socitm, 2010). Other authorities are cautious of the benefits of allocating resource time to monitor social media spaces and interact with citizens.

By researching the attitudes and perceptions of authorities and citizens I hope to gain a better understanding of perceived barriers, threats and opportunities of using social media for community engagement. I hope my findings can be shared with other authorities, organisations and researchers. I am also hoping my research could be a useful reference to anyone researching attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens who are actively using social media for community engagement.

At this point in time I don’t want to have too many lofty ideas about the impact of my tiny microcosm of research. But even as a student researcher I have to consider the value of my research to my employer and the wider research community.

I’ve also had concerns about interviewing colleagues who are unlikely to be using social media in a very hands on way for community engagement. This is primarily because they are at a more strategic level and not what you would describe as ‘front-line’ staff. But in reality they are quite likely to be the people who make the policy level decisions about how social media is used and incorporated within community engagement activities. So understanding more about perceptions and attitudes is important, to be able to sell the benefits and persuade senior managers to take risks and innovate.

So far the data I’ve collected has been fascinating and has led me to reflect on how we are approaching our project in Fenland. I’m really looking forward to interviewing some residents in Wisbech in the next couple of months to get their perspective.

References:

Ajzen, I. and Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior. Prentice Hall, facsimile edition.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis. Sage Publications Ltd, 1 edition.

Corbin, J. and Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. SAGE Inc, third edition edition.

Coyne, I. T. (2007). Sampling in qualitative research. Purposeful and theoretical sampling; merging or clear boundaries? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26, 623–630, Blackwell Science Ltd.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine Transaction.

Schon, D. A. (1984). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Basic Books, 1 edition.

Socitm (2010). Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it.

Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it

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Fenland social media project

I’ve been working on a project for the last few months up in the rural Fens of north Cambridgeshire. We’re piloting the use of social media by public sector agencies to engage local communities. I’ve blogged about governance and a digital engagement framework in relation to this project before.

We’ve now set up a project blog so we can share what we learn with other local authorities and public sector agencies. Or anyone that’s interested really. I’ve written a bit of blurb about the project.

It’s also an opportunity to share some ideas about community engagement using social media and reflect on how social media is changing local government and local democracy.

There are some other really interesting projects going on that I’m keeping an eye on:

I’m fascinated by top down vs. bottom up approaches to using social media to improve local democracy. I’m also researching the perceptions and attitudes of council officers and citizens towards the use of social media for community engagement.

If you know of any other projects in this area please let me know by leaving a comment.

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Public Sector Transformation Summit

I’ve got my first speaking gig at the Public Sector Transformation Summit in Birmingham on Thursday 18th March. I’ll be speaking about the impact of social media on customer services.

I’ve decided to focus on 4 social media case studies within Cambridgeshire County Council, one of which is our Chief Executive’s internal blog. Dave Briggs has recently interviewed our Chief Exec Mark Lloyd about his blog, in his role as Community Evangelist at Learning Pool.

At the recent Localgovcamp in London I ran a session on embedding social media in your organisation. One of the outcomes of the session was that the participants agreed that we need more stories (case studies) about how social media has been used – good and bad. We agreed that publishing our social media stories on the (forthcoming) IDeA Knowledge Hub would be the best way to convey that the potential uses of social media by local authorities can vary considerably, dependent on context, purpose and target audiences. A number of these stories are now being developed at Work Together.

Updated 19/03/10 – My slides are below:


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Localgovcamp London 2010

Well I had a great day today at Localgovcamp in London catching up with my localgov Twitter friends and meeting lots of interesting new people.

Many thanks to Anke Holst and Hadley Beeman for organising and for all the sponsors and participants for making it such an inspiring and enjoyable day. Check out the Twitter feed from the day and also the timetable of sessions and photos.

Because my time is at a premium at the moment (and I really need to spend the weekend working on my dissertation), I decided to do some live blogging during the day. It was really a spur of the moment decision when the first session started and I’ve never tried it before. I set up a Posterous account there and then and it was pretty straightforward. Luckily I can type fast so hopefully I have captured the flow of the conversation, however I may have misrepresented some of the points made. If you have any comments/inputs do add comments.

I ran two sessions in the morning. One on embedding social media in your organisation which turned out to be a very lively and useful discussion. I hope someone has some notes as I didn’t make any! However we did note that embedding social media is a full-time role (and some councils have taken on social media officers). We also agreed that more social media case studies are needed as the use of social media is very contextual and depends on service area, service users and circumstances. It was suggested that we use the IDeA Knowledge Hub for sharing stories.

The other session was on usability testing tools and there was a good discussion around usability testing in councils. I’ve added the slides with links to the usability tools below for information.


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Social media elections 2010

A thought I’ve been bouncing around in the last few days is how the 2010 UK elections will play out through social media. Not only from a national perspective, but from a local campaigning perspective.

A number of blog posts have pointed to the fact that the two main parties have not yet managed to generate much positive user generated content online or truly harness the power of social media to build networks. There have been many reports that unofficial blogs are ranking highly in Google search results for terms like ‘David Cameron’ or ‘Gordon Brown’. I can vouch for this fact, as a friend’s rather excellent ‘unofficial site’ was ranking highly in Google search results for ‘David Cameron’ a few weeks ago. However within a day or two it suddenly dropped down in the rankings (bah!).

But at a local campaigning level there is still a huge disparity between those councillors who blog and tweet and those who don’t. Just recently I did a quick audit of the number of blogging county councillors in Cambridgeshire and found 17 blogs out of a possible 69 county council members, just under 25%. Now I may have missed a few, but those who do blog and tweet will definitely have the edge if they can communicate well online and use it to their party’s advantage, with the potential to reach a far wider group of constituents and potential voters.

It will also be interesting to see how the main parties deal with hyperlocal bloggers. How will they respond to stories at a local level that could potentially have a significant impact on the party’s reputation at a national level?

One thing is for sure, the 2010 election will bring the use of social media in UK politics into sharp focus. There will be lots to learn about how national and local politicians adapt to using social media and how voters are influenced by social media.

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A digital engagement framework adapted for local government

I’ve been doing a bit of research into citizen engagement models for my MSc research and started to think about how these models relate to digital engagement. I looked at various models and frameworks and combined them to help me conceptualise digital engagement.

Firstly I evaluated the participation model provided by David Wilcox in his 1994 participation framework, which was based on Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of participation’ from 1969.

Wilcox’s participation levels

Arnstein ladder of participation

Arstein’s ladder of participation

I noticed some similarities with Charlene Li’s and Josh Bernoff’s ladder of Social Technograph profiles. The profiles are based on survey research into consumer participation in social technologies. The ladder was recently updated to include a category for Twitter users!

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UKGC10 round-up

I went, I participated and I got the geek-tastic T-shirt!

UKGC10 logo on the freebie t-shirt

At last I’ve made it to a gov barcamp! Yesterday I attended UK GovCamp 10 (or #ukgc10 on Twitter) which was organised brilliantly by Dave Briggs and generously hosted by Google at their HQ in London. As a barcamp newbie I really enjoyed myself and talked far too much. The best thing about this type of event has to be the diverse range of interesting and enthusiastic people from the UK gov webbie community who attend (on a Saturday). And I really appreciated the opportunity to meet and chat to the people I know through Twitter and those I hadn’t come across before.

It was hard to pick and choose which sessions to go to from so many good ones, but here’s a quick round up of those I attended.

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