Cambridge Societies’ Fair


Further thoughts on a big idea of mine.

Some of you will be familiar with this from my post Bringing Cambridge Together. Since then, the local elections have happened and a number of seats have changed hands. It also means that local councillors can switch their attention back to being councillors – the activities around local elections understandably taking up a lot of their time. The sitting councillor in my neighbourhood – George Owers – was returned with a sizeable majority in what historically has been a safe-as-houses ward for Labour. As I commented when I took Puffles to the polling station, George was the only candidate who seemed to have made the effort locally. I was also pleased when, asked by someone on Twitter why he bothered door-knocking in his ward rather than focussing his efforts on neighbouring marginals, he responded that he wouldn’t want to take the votes of constituents in his ward for granted. As it is, I’m glad that I have a councillor who uses social media rather than (irrespective of their politics) one of the other candidates who at the moment do not.

The reason why I feel this way is because I think social media provides a huge opportunity to help make Cambridge a better place for all of us that live here. Hence why I think it is important that local politicians – and local councillors in particular – start making use of it. It was one of the reasons why I offered to deliver a free social media awareness seminar for elected members – something that Cambridge City Council was to take up.

Is the voluntary/civil society sector using social media in Cambridge?

Not as well as it could be. I am pleased to say though that following a meeting I had last week with Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services, making use of social media is going to rise up their agenda. You might have noticed they currently don’t have social media links to things such as Facebook and Twitter at the moment. This is one of the things I hope to help them change. The reason for lobbying the CCVS is because they are the local umbrella organisation for many of the small groups and societies in and around the city. One of the things that I came away from that meeting with was the sense of the digital divide. Some groups and organisations are still using snail mail as their primary means of communication. How does a social media advocate such as myself deal with those who either cannot access or choose to stay away from social media?

Why not just book the hall, tell people to come and be done with it?

Because then I’d end up with an empty hall and a huge bill. Organising societies fairs is a big task – just ask any officers of the local students unions. If I want this thing to be something of a success, I have to start doing the groundwork now. Hence pestering Richard Johnson prior to the election about this. He tweeted that he’d support the idea of a Cambridge Societies Fair if elected – subsequently to be spoofed by ShallotCambs that he would completely ignore it if he wasn’t! (Fortunately for the idea, Richard was elected as a councillor for the Abbey ward in Cambridge).

The important thing about Richard – or Cllr Johnson to give his new title – is that the idea has a local ‘champion’ behind it. He’s in a much greater position of influence to secure paid staff time (e.g. from local authorities and other organisations), volunteers and the co-operation of local groups…certainly far more influence than someone whose best friend is a dragon!

The nature of this idea though is non-party-political: It’s one that I’d like to think councillors from across the political spectrum could get behind. At a time when turnout in elections is at such a low level, and at a time when politics and politicians are held in such low esteem, here is something where local politicians of all parties can demonstrate working together for the greater good of the city. And who knows…if it’s successful enough such a societies’ fair could become an annual event like the student ones.

Let’s say you’ve convinced me of the idea. What next?

For me there are two strands. The first involves getting the individual groups and societies using social media if they are not already. The second is around organising an event itself.

Increasing social media usage

The purpose of using social media is to get people to make connections at a grassroots level. This involves a mixture of outreach, awareness-raising and training. The important thing for me here is that social media should be placed within a broader context – that of bringing people together. A number of people have talked about social media isolating people from the real world – a point made by Baroness Deech in a talk that Jon Worth and I attended in Parliament a few months back. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I prefer to use social media to bring friendly like-minded people together face-to-face – with social media keeping people connected when geographically far apart.

One of the things I’d like to test out in my local library is a social media awareness workshop. Similar to the ones I ran for Cambridge City Council customer service staff, I think it’s worth testing to see if bringing people together in a locality to talk about social media issues might just be the catalyst to kick start some of the groundwork. One person in a community doing something can only go so far. When you get lots of people joining in at the same time, the results can be dramatic.

Raising awareness with organisations and community groups

This was something I discussed with the Cambridge CVS. From a ‘strategic’ perspective, Cambridge City Council has already made it clear social media is going to become a core part of how it delivers services. There’s also a huge opportunity for it to lean on community groups and organisations to make use of social media too – for example any group applying for grants. Something as simple as having a ‘mission statement’ of using social media to bring Cambridge together and increase community cohesion, or to increase people’s participation in voluntary and community groups. That way it sends a message out to everyone there’s an expectation groups will interact with each other.

The City Council’s community development officers will be key here. Last year I had a meeting with a couple of them. At the time, social media platforms were blocked. This had an impact on their ability to use social media to engage with the communities they worked in. Fortunately those blocks have been lifted. The next step for these community workers is to become advocates for using social media in the areas they work in.

Organising the event

The experts are on our doorstep in the two big students unions – Cambridge and Anglia’s. It’s not going to be a case of booking a hall, telling everyone and hoping that they are going to turn up. For the students’ society fairs it takes a huge amount of organisation and preparation. Who will be manning which stalls? Who will be making what displays? Who will be bringing what equipment? Do we have enough plug outlets on the day? Who will be designing and printing fliers?

At the outset, it might be worth talking to the student union officers who are responsible for putting their fairs on to find out what is involved. One of the added benefits of this too is it puts this event on the universities’ radars. Some of the student societies may want to have their own stalls too – especially those that are open to people outside of university circles.

And post-event?

Or even before it, the County Council’s resource, Cambridgeshire.Net would need to add social media fields for the groups and societies within its pages.

After the event, it would be nice to do some evaluation of the activities in the run up to, and during the event. How many people turned up? How many new groups and organisations started using social media as a result or preparation? How many people attended awareness-raising and training workshops? How many people joined new groups? How many people started a new activity? What was people’s feedback on those activities? Did it improve their health, wellbeing and morale? Did they meet new people? Did they feel a greater connection to their community? Do they think such a societies fair should become an annual event?

Some food for thought for Cambridge people.


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