Collecting, publishing and publicising information – a community perspective

Summary

Putting open knowledge and open data into practice – how we could do this in Cambridge and what its impact might be: A heritage case study. Also, why it is important to respond to the local plan consultation: deadline 30 September 2013.

Some of you may have seen Puffles the dragon fairy sparring with some local councillors in Cambridge earlier on. If you are elected to public office representing Cambridge, it’s an occupational hazard – politically aware mythical creatures. This post stems from being a historian by heart, a number of comments from my previous blogpost and comments following the Opengov Teacamp on 5 September.

Puffles pointed a handful of councillors to comments relating to Cambridge Guildhall in my previous post. I rarely get six detailed comments on anything – especially from people that have not commented before. Hence raising the issue with councillors.

Cllr Tim Ward's response to Puffles regarding comments on Cambridge Guildhall

Cllr Tim Ward’s response to Puffles regarding comments on Cambridge Guildhall

The full Twitter-exchange can be found here. In a nutshell, councillors from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pleaded lack of funds regarding any further work on the Guildhall. Understandable given the scale of cuts faced by local government nationwide. Why would you spend up to half-a-million from council funds in the current financial climate – especially given pressures on housing?

“Does that mean we should walk away from it and leave things as they are?”

No.

This reflects some of my frustrations about the lack of a future vision about the sort of community and society we want Cambridge to become. Part of the problem is structural – being an executive councillor (ie with portfolio responsibility) is a full-time responsibility with expenses-only remuneration. Too many people simply do not have the combination of the time or money to make a real go of being a councillor – especially with costs of living. That leaves a small pool of people to find those passionate about their local area and who are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to stand for the role of lightning conductor councillor.

“But simply saying “raise money through private means” isn’t much of a solution to the Guildhall’s problems either. That takes effort. Lots of it.”

Exactly. Thus we come back to the issue of a community development strategy – something that would give a framework to find out what are the things we need and want funding for (in terms of capital projects – buildings and stuff). Part of the problem for me is that we as a community and a city don’t have the information we need to make judgement calls about which projects we want to back.

I’ll give you an example. My old primary school – at which I’m now a community governor – dates back to the late Victorian era. When the school was first built, the builders put up some beautiful tiles on one of the classrooms. Some years later they were boarded up, & remained so until the late 1980s when the boards were removed prior to building work. By that time, the tiles were nearly 100 years old – and were beautiful – to the extent they captured the imagination of a number of children, myself at the time included. Somewhere in my house I have a copy of a detailed drawing of one set of tiles – a pheasant. That pheasant was also turned into the design for a school logo that is still in use today. The tiles were carefully removed during the building work of the late 1980s and put into storage, where they have remained ever since.

But 25 years on, few people have been around long enough to know the history of that logo and of the existence of the tiles. Those tiles have been in storage in a hidden location, waiting until someone has enough money to pay for them to be restored to the school fabric. One of the reasons why I volunteered to become a community governor and return to the school was to see those tiles restored. Much of the past 2 years for me has been undertaking that extensive ‘listening exercise’ to get some idea of how I might go about achieving this. What I’ve learnt is it won’t be achieved by a standard community fund-raising model. Not in the current economic climate.

“Are there other similar projects in Cambridge?”

I reckon there are – but we simply do not know about them because we don’t have that single resource that brings all of that information together in one place that is easily accessible for the community and potential supporters. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a list of all of the different things that various community groups and hubs needed and/or wanted, with a brief description of the potential impact that funding and/or support could have, and details of how to get in touch?

“A bit like a community wish-list?”

You could say that – but city-wide. That way, people could pick and choose who they wanted to support and with what level of time and resource. Given then wealth coming into the city, there’s a big risk that redevelopment will swamp the place with bland boxes, destroying the history of the place. Hence the campaign to save Wilton Terrace. The councillors may have backed the locals this time around, but developers will simply go a planning inspector or resubmit plans until the community caves in. After all, these chaps are back for a THIRD time (see here) to extend a hotel, despite losing to a Prof Stephen Hawking and Griff Rhys-Jones-backed campaign – twice. Too many developers wanting to build things in and around Cambridge are demonstrating utter contempt for the people that live here.

“Is there anything anyone can do to stop the developers?”

The best hope we have is responding to the current consultation on the draft local plan. A number of people and organisations have done so in order to stop developers and big money stitching up the whole thing. PACT Cambridge covering Petersfield is one (see here) have responded, as have Cambridge’s Association of Architects (see here). I’m due to go through the draft plan this week in detail to stop my local dry cleaners being turned into student flats. (It’s one of the areas identified as converting industrial use to housing – to which I object strongly as it’ll deprive the local area of stable jobs for local working class people and also deprive the community of a service not provided within walking distance anywhere else.

At the same time, there is also a local transport consultation going on – from Cambridgeshire County Council (that I’ve already responded to).

“Another consultation?”

Yes – the transport consultation is here.

“Consultation fatigue?”

This is an inevitable problem with consultations. On all things planning, they can be ever so technical that it confuses people. You’ve seen some of the examples of clone-town-Cambridge here. Can’t we have a local plan that says “We don’t want clone town bland box buildings in Cambridge”? Can’t we have a local plan that says “Architects and developers need to engage with the community proactively at design stage, so they are absolutely crystal clear about what the community ***does not want*** was well as getting ideas for what it does?

“What’s open data and open knowledge got to do with all of this?”

Challenge number 1 is locating all of the information we need. Cllr Ward’s tweet for me showed that there was information that councillors and a few other people are aware of that the rest of us are not. Hence sending this Freedom of Information request at the council regarding the Guildhall. Just how much money are we talking about here? Do we have any detail of the costs, along with any other studies that have been done? What would the impact on the Guildhall and council finances be, along with the number of events hosted if facilities at the Guildhall were invested in?

The second challenge is publishing the information in one place in a manner that is easy for people to access and understand. Part of the problem at the moment is the fragmentation of public services and the number of different organisations with both an interest and an influence on the community and the city is not small. Persuading them to co-operate is a huge challenge – something far harder than I had ever anticipated back in 2011.

The third challenge is publicising the information – communicating with people in a manner that will get them interested and inspired. As far as the ‘big picture’ is concerned, I feel that we are utterly failing as a city to do this in a co-ordinated, systematic and comprehensive manner. I saw a symptom of this only a few weeks ago – see this blogpost. That communication in particular involves offline as much as it does online. Hence the importance of a community development strategy to enable the co-ordination necessary.

[Updated to add a fourth, via @Annonymoosh: Referencing it]

“What is a ‘strategy’ for those trying to make sense of civil-service-speak?”

It’s basically a high level plan. It’s also something that can be useful when people in some organisations start being obstructive – as some inevitably will do. You know the stereotypical middle-management empire-builders? Something like that. An agreed high-level strategy gets signed off normally by people who are at board level within an organisation. ie people with the competency and authority to commit an organisation to something. That means whenever you come across a barrier lower down the chain, you can always point to what the organisation has signed up to, and escalate if necessary.

A strategy also sets out some agreed high level actions and commitments. For example:

  • We will undertake to train up our staff on using social and digital media in a manner to help our organisation engage with the community. [Declares interest as a provider of such services]
  • We will undertake to work together to identify all of our staff that have a responsibility for community-related work and persuade them to engage with this initiative
  • We will undertake to work proactively with partner organisations to create and sign off a communications plan covering cross-publicity of each others events and the planning of events over each calendar year
  • We will undertake to work with local schools, colleges and community groups to attend our events

The strategy doesn’t need to say ‘how’ – that can be done in detail later on. At this stage it’s more a case of getting the larger organisations to sign up to a vision and agree a series of principles of how to achieve it.

“Do you think we’ll get an agreed city-wide strategy?”

Yes.

But it will be a damn sight harder getting agreement and publicity than I first thought.

This entry was posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Collecting, publishing and publicising information – a community perspective

  1. Pingback: Collecting, publishing and publicising information – a community perspective – A dragon’s best friend | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Cllr Richard Johnson says:

    Interesting article. As a councillor, I would say that it is still part of our job to be the community’s ‘eyes and ears’ and speak up for our wards where we have identified, through our own conversations with residents, what can be done to improve their quality of life. However I agree with the principle that the general public themselves should have more of a role and a say in identifying and supporting community projects.

    I should point out that something akin to what you suggested has gone on in the last year with the devolved decision making process of S106 developer contributions to city and ward-wide projects, which involved the public making suggestions, and councillors chose which of these suggested projects to fund. A workshop held was organised in each of the four ‘areas’ of the city last September, with residents’ associations, interested parties and so on present (although I was conscious that even though many invites went out to known groups, probably 90% of the general public did not know that this was going on), to discuss what they want to see improved in their local area. As an example, those present from Abbey ward at the East Area workshop made the point that play equipment in Ditton Fields and Dudley Road needed updating, an idea came up to enhance the biodiversity of Stourbridge Common, improvements were suggested to the Leper Chapel to make it DDA-compliant, someone thought about refitting the Church of St Andrew the Less on Newmarket Road as a community facility, and so on. Officers subsequently identified viable projects and whittled them down to a select few which councillors could prioritise.

    Perhaps better ways of ‘crowd-sourcing’ ideas for future workshops and making the process more user-friendly to the general public are needed. It depends on how far you want to go. Social media is one way but I think it has a limited appeal. The old analogue ways of communication such as door-knocking, leaflets and press coverage still work for a lot of people! A better strategy of communicating and networking with interested groups and resident and community associations would be a good idea.

    In regard to ‘providing information’ having appropriate data for each ward, showing the relative deprivation, number of play areas, community facilities, and so on to give an informed opinion to what is needed would be useful. Again, using my own ward as an example, County Council community engagement officers recently compiled a report into how residents in East Barnwell saw their area, and what could make it better, together with key census and other available and relevant data. This was very useful in confirming and underlining what ward councillors already knew, but gave additional and important information as to what residents prioritised as key for community renewal.

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