Reactivating democratic institutions: Networking the networks
This mission report is on a pilot project called We Live Here, which is running in two areas of Brighton, UK.
We've tried to create a civic space by networking the networks that already exist in the community. Our idea is that people won't come to portal sites, and they already trust and feel comfortable in their existing networks. Rather than setting up single conversations, or debating sites (where only the few interested in debate will go), we wanted to strengthen the existing network, make it's reach wider, and use it for democratic conversations.
Here's what we did:
1. Used an interative mapping process to map the key civic network in the area. We asked local public services for the names of the five people they thought were particularly active in that community. We went to find them and asked them who they spoke to about their neighbourhood, who they trusted for reliable information about their neighbourhood, and who they would recommend to someone who was new to the neighbourhood. Then we asked the people they named the same questions.
2. Using basic network analysis on that information, and also social media and online searching to find people who weren't part of the traditional network, we produced a civic network map for each of the areas. The process is described more fully by one of the other project partners here.
3. We collated the content from that civic network, plus relevant social media searches, in a website for each area (like this one)
4. We started (and are still continuing) conversations with activists in each neighbourhood on what they would want to see added to the website or contributed to the activist network in order to build democratic capacity, or support volunteering. The main requests were:
- a tool to ask public questions of the council and see public answers
- social media surgeries to bring more people online, and get them introduced to volunteering opportunities
- tools for smaller sub-groups to help them arrange events, and see conversations in very small communities
- an event calendar
Here's what we learned:
- You have to keep community leadership, inclusion and co-design at the heart of what you do - and communicate that more than you think you need to. Innovation can sometimes come across as "testing our brilliant idea on you", particularly in communities that have had a lot of different projects tested on them. Communities have long memories.
- Make sure that community voices are heard on the project team
Communities are suspicious of hit-and-run engagement, particularly when the project explicitly links itself to innovation. Make clear that you are setting up the localities to carry on their networks for the long term, and to become self-sufficient.
Relationships need reciprocity. At time of cash constraints civic activists are suspicious of possible new burdens. Work to deliver positive by-products through the process for example the social media surgeries.
People don’t think about “democracy”, they think about needs. Although people felt that there were issues that they wanted to raise with the council and with public services, the civic activists we spoke to were largely uninterested in “democracy” conceptually. They were interested in getting solutions to community needs, and expressing community voices - goals that actually would need to be delivered by democracy.