The Empowering Citizens Through Technology and Participation Symposium has posted a couple of webcasts of the two-day event. I was presenting on the first day on the topic of building communities in the local government sector, using metaphors to describe how village communities developed around meeting places such as the village hall in by-gone years, and how communities of practice can flourish once a domain of interest is established (I used the Gosport Allotment Holders association as a contemporary example, where the mix of gardening experts and novices find mutual benefit in belonging to a collective). The key point being that just because we now have much better on-line collaboration tools and technologies, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s the people that make communities (of interest, or practice or whatever). A message that was probably lost on a speakers platform that was almost exclusively devoted to Web 2.0 technologies as the panacea for enabling more effective citizen engagement with the public sector. Reinforced of course with a veritable blizzard of ‘e’ prefixes – e-Collaboration, e-Empowerment, e-Participation, which never fail to give the uninitiated the impression that we’re all in the technological fast lane (though some of us suffer from deja vu when we recall a similar e-word blitz associated with the previous dot-com era of the mid-90’s. It meant nothing then, it means nothing now!).
The Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP gave the keynote presentation on day one. She was clearly well briefed on social media tools, but I couldn’t help chuckle (quietly) when she expounded the virtues of Youtube and how her department (DCLG) were now using it as a key channel for getting their information (aka ‘spin’) out. I trust someone will have informed her by now that most government departments and local councils block access to the likes of Youtube, Facebook and Flickr, which are all deemed to be social playthings, where staff cannot be trusted to use them properly.
I’d like to think that the government is investing in the right ‘e-programmes’, but I can’t help feeling that their inherent lack of agility and the propensity for the big consultancies to sell them hugely expensive and over-complex Web 2.0 solutions will mean yet more missed opportunities. In the mean time, us citizens get on with life as best we can!