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eParticipation in Birmingham, UK

3. March 2010 – 13:38 by John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

My name is John Heaven and I started work at TuTech Innovation on 1st March 2010. I will be working on – amongst other things – PEP-NET. Part of my role will be to work together with Bengt Feil on establishing what members would like to get out of PEP-NET membership, how we can improve what we offer to them, and ultimately ensure that PEP-NET can support itself into the future.

But before I set about that, I thought maybe you’d like to hear about where I’m from and what I’ve been doing until now, especially around eParticipation!

For the past two years I worked at Birmingham City Council, the local government in my home city. I worked in different departments and with a huge number of people from across the city. During my placement at Digital Birmingham, I became involved in social media from several perspectives: working closely with the Director of Communications on a new corporate social media strategy; working with Kate Foley, then Neighbourhood Manager for Lozells, one of Birmingham’s more deprived neighbourhoods; and keeping in regular personal and professional contact with people on Birmingham’s blogging scene.

All of this has given me a good idea of the potential of digital technology to enhance participation in democratic processes, but also of some of the problems — or some may say excuses! — that public sector organisations need to overcome to embrace technology more readily.

So my first PEP-NET contribution is about issues that face local government when engaging with social media. I’ll start off by outlining three problems, then offer some reflection about how to overcome them.

Digital inclusion

This is always a difficult one to counter. It’s true: there are people who lack the skills and equipment to use social media to engage with government. Paper publications and telephone calls don’t make everyone participate, but at least in theory they have had the chance to participate in decisions without being excluded right from the start.

Further, with sophisticated Customer Insight databases that can pinpoint specific demographics and exactly how they like to be communicated with, there are areas where we know digital communications will fall on deaf ears entirely. Why bother?

Internal limitations

Many public agencies continue to use Internet Explorer 6, which often has problems rendering web pages (in the near future many major websites, for example Youtube, will drop support for IE 6 completely) and doesn’t fully support RSS feeds.

Installing third party software is not possible because of security restrictions — so forget Skype and Tweetdeck — and social media sites are blocked during core hours by default. There are even members of staff who have access to the internet blocked. Not all employees have the skills to use social media because they don’t necessarily use them in their personal lives.

On top of all this, a culture of discretion — not putting anything in the public domain unless it’s specifically allowed — means that social media are sometimes perceived as a threat.

How many people actually use it anway?

We’ve all seen blog posts with no comments, Facebook pages with few fans, Twitter accounts that fizzle out after a couple of weeks, and discussion forums that no-one posts on. What’s wrong with tried-and-tested offline participation?


Each of the above is an issue that can be overcome, but only with determination. Unfortunately, it suits some people for things to stay as they are: those who do not feel they have the necessary IT skills; those who feel daunted by the prospect of working more openly and being the subject of public scrutiny.

Thankfully, there are people within government — and certainly at Birmingham City Council — who are pushing this agenda because they see that there is a lot of potential in social media. Part of the solution to the above problems is to allow enthusiasts (both within and outside the organisation) to come to the fore and shape an organisation’s approach to social media. Changing an organisation’s culture doesn’t happen overnight, but at least this way an organisation can quickly make the most of its employees’ enthusiasm.

There are good examples of social media enabling people to participate in local government and their local areas: ‘hyper-local blogging’, Big City Talk, Birmingham News Room, and I should also mention Demos-Monitor now that I’m working for TuTech!

Even where groups don’t use social media at the moment, it is important to develop these new channels so that people who are not online develop the ability to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities that digital technology can offer. This doesn’t just allow them to engage with government — which, let’s face it, not everybody wants to — but also to find job opportunities, communicate with their local authority more cheaply, and take advantage of buying stuff cheaply online.

Using Birmingham as an example, social media allows Brummies to tap into a network of businesspeople, university lecturers, local government officials and many more besides. Some may call this an elite, others deride it as the ‘twitterati’. But it is growing in numbers and is an important source of personal and professional contacts. Digital inclusion is all about helping everyone to be part of the twitterati, not about ‘not doing digital’ for fear of being unfair.

It’s a long game, it takes effort, and it’s no panacea. But overcoming the hurdles outlined above is worth it.

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  1. 7 Responses to “eParticipation in Birmingham, UK”

  2. By Andy Mabbett on Mar 3, 2010

    We miss you!

  3. By Paul Hadley on Mar 3, 2010

    Thanks for writing this John.

    In a similar way, our research (ongoing) is confirming many of the points you have raised- https://eventwith.me/authority2/2010/03/03/heavens-external-comments/

    Hopefully you will be pleased to hear that the work you performed is continuing to expand in the area, although, as you have pointed out, there is very much a long tail to the process application.

    Hopefully see you again soon.

  4. By John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH) on Mar 3, 2010

    @Andy: Thanks Andy, I miss you (singular and plural) too! Great to be able to keep in touch through SM though!

    @Paul: Thanks for the comment. Sounds like really interesting research you’re doing, and I’d love to see the results when you’re finished.

    I hope all’s well in Birmingham and the Brum Bloggers are continuing to thrive!

  5. By Daniel Cremin on Apr 3, 2010

    Congratulations on your new post John

  6. By John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH) on Apr 6, 2010

    @Daniel: Thanks for the congrats. I hope CivicoLive is still a success!

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  2. Mar 3, 2010: Heaven’s external comments
  3. Apr 14, 2010: PEP-NET » Blog Archive » “The internet is changing society and public administrations need to adapt”: Interview with Nick Booth

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