Digital engagement? Just let the keen beans do their thing

Local Government Training Board 1987

If you want better digital public engagement you need to encourage the keen beans; the front-line innovators - because they are the people doing the cool stuff at the boundary between citizens and public organisations.

This was my main takeaway from DemocracyLOL — an event hosted last week by INLOGOV and Local Government Studies exploring how the use of digital by public bodies helps shape day-to-day public participation.

We heard three presentations. Stephen Jeffares (INLOGOV) talked about police use of social media and how automation and AI are increasingly being used to front public services. Angus McCabe (Third Sector Research Centre) shared his research on community action and social media. Leah Lockhart (The Democratic Society) then drew on her experiences of supporting Participatory Budgeting in Scotland to explore digital engagement in public services more generally. Peter Matthews then chaired what was a really rich discussion.

We touched on a lot of interesting issues and I won’t even try to cover them all here.

Instead I want to argue one point that I think is particularly important; if public bodies want their digital engagement to be effective they need to let go of their corporate policies and instead let those people who innovate on the front line do their thing— the people that Leah Lockhart calls the keen beans.

Here are some reasons why:

They are probably doing it already

We heard about comms team members who respond to all the direct messages on the corporate account even though it wasn’t part of their job and nobody knew about it. We also heard about environmental health officers using facebook on their phones so they could get more info for hygiene checks — again, under the corporate radar.

The best place to start with digital engagement is to notice the good work already being done in the organisation. And then recognise it. And then support it. And then think about how to do more.

It’s more innovative

Stephen Jeffares gave some great examples of how police officers were using twitter to engage with their communities in often very idiosyncratic ways. The keen beans are the ones who can take digital media and, with often small changes, get things to work in their context. They are the hackers on the front-line of public services. Instead of ensuring that everything is done consistently, public bodies should be encouraging a culture of small scale experiments and then sharing the things that work.

This reflects something I found through my PhD research — organisational rules, both formal and informal, can make effective public participation very difficult for those working in public bodies. There are, however, pioneers who can break the organisational chains — but they need to be supported and encouraged.

After all, if you have an activist like Lesley Knope working for you why would you want to hold them back?

It’s more human

Angus McCabe’s talk underlined that, while public bodies like to engage as an organisation, and often inhabit digital spaces with a corporate identity, citizens prefer to engage human-to-human. Trusting your front-line staff to engage as people just fits better with the digital world. As Angus noted, many community groups had corporate social media accounts that are essentially unused — set up just to tick a funding box or because it seemed the thing to do.

Stephen’s discussion of automated kiosks and AI advice desks reminded us that, as citizens, we didn’t necessarily mind accessing public services this way but we always want the option of a real human — I suspect this is true for most people.

It’s more coproductive

Coproduction is also something that happens on a human scale. Stephen’s talk reminded me of Elinor Ostrom’s 1970s research with the Chicago police. She found that when they started patrolling in cars the crime rate went up because, she reasoned, officers were no longer able to form productive relationships with residents as they had on the beat. In the same way corporate social media accounts are a little like those police cars — public engagement is much more effective when officers are allowed out to do their own thing in the community.

It’s more responsive

Leah’s talk highlighted how difficult it can be to ‘attach’ new public engagement initiatives to public bodies (again, something I looked at as part of my PhD). She argued that initiatives, such as participatory budgeting projects, need to be working with the keen beans if they want to get things done. I think this is sensible advice for any new project — seek out the enthusiasts within the organisation first and build from there — others will come along when they see something happening. For public engagement initiatives surely it make sense to have the front-line keen beans involved reardless of whether they happen to work in that particular department.

From a corporate perspective I think the same point applies. If there is a new external initiative look for the enthusiast who is the best fit to work with that project rather than have the same person always act as point of contact or rather than always going to the most senior person.