The social council – Municipal futures

spiral pattern diagram‘Municipal futures’ is a collection of essays from the Local Government Information Unit. It brings together thoughts and ideas from the LGiU’s policy team about how we might begin to think differently about local government.

One of these short essays is ‘The social council’ by Ingrid Koehler, which is about building relationships.

She says in her introduction:

Councils need to think less about service and more about relationships. Good relationships underpin individual wellbeing and community resilience. They are the key to real demand reduction and to better outcomes for everyone.

Ingrid talks about the importance of relationships within communities for creating wellbeing and encouraging mutual support. She also talks about the relationships between people within councils, which can enable employees to feel secure and to innovate. The most important aspect of all relationships is trust, and Ingrid questions whether we’ve thought enough about why councils often don’t trust residents.

Ingrid suggests that for most areas of council provision, we could do more to connect people by simply stopping to consider things with relationships in mind.

Think about what you’re working on today and ask yourself “how could this help to build relationships?”

Municipal futures (pdf)


Time to stop watching the letterbox?

Should doctors prescribe networking opportunities to patients who have long term health conditions? This was one of the interesting questions posed by Ed Miliband in the 2014 Hugo Young Memorial Lecture.

Ed MilibandIn Newcastle, some GPs don’t just prescribe drugs to patients, they also put patients who have chronic or complex conditions (such as diabetes, cancer or Parkinson’s) directly in touch with others who have the same concerns. These options for making local contacts “flash up on the doctor’s computer… in exactly the same way the other treatment options do, and they are passed on to the patient.”

Mr Miliband suggests that with just a small change to the existing information made available to GPs, we could enable all GP surgeries to create these connections.

A less “prescriptive” example of creating connections through health settings can be found in the Rushey Green Time Bank, which is based in the Rushey Green Group Practice. In timebanking schemes everyone is equal – everyone is both a giver and a receiver – which particularly helps those with health conditions to feel valued and have opportunities to connect with others.

What both these examples demonstrate is that social connections are an important part of everyone’s health and wellbeing. It’s no surprise that ‘Connect’ is the first of nef’s Five way to wellbeing.

In the public sector we know that creating connections is important, but how much time and effort (and money) are we able to put towards this? At a time when we’re defining what our ‘essential council’ looks like, and only then working out what budget will be left to do everything else, how much importance do we give to creating and strengthening networks?

In the Hugo Young lecture, Mr Miliband outlined four principles for people-powered public services that could help tackle inequality in income, opportunity and power. The idea that users of public services should be linked up and not left on their own was one of these four key principles. He reflected that “too often at the moment, rather than helping people come together, the official services feel they’ve been told by people at the centre that their job is not to help put people in touch.”

He issued a challenge to the established view of successful public service delivery, in which we measure how professionals deliver a service directly to a single user. This “letterbox” model of public services, in which users are passive recipients waiting for their service to be delivered, fails to attribute any value to our social networks (and fails to devolve any power to our communities).

The challenge is how we can make the “quality of people’s social networks with other patients, parents and service users” a part of how we evaluate public services. If we viewed good networks as a measure of success, how might we use our resources differently to build and strengthen those connections between local people?

Ed Miliband delivers Hugo Young memorial lecture – video
Ed Miliband: we need a new culture of people-powered public services – video highlights
Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture – script
About Timebanking

Five Ways to Wellbeing

Connect, one of the five ways to wellbeing

The Five Ways to Wellbeing are a set of evidence-based actions which promote people’s wellbeing. These activities are simple things that people can do in their everyday lives – and connecting with other people is top of the list. The Five Ways to Wellbeing were developed by nef from evidence gathered in the UK government’s Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. The five ways are…


With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.

Be active

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

Take notice

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

Keep learning

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.


Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.

Five Ways to Wellbeing
Five Ways to Wellbeing: The evidence (pdf)

Putting faces to names (and putting your name to content)

participants at the LGcomms event listening to Dan Slee

Dan Slee talking about sharing the sweets

The LGcomms social media seminar in Nottingham on 30th January 2014 was a chance to catch up with some of the localgov social stalwarts and to meet others for the first time.

The morning was packed full with tips about how we can use social media to achieve outcomes, make connections and improve service delivery.

The afternoon was a series of unconference style sessions for us to discuss some of the issues and share ideas, with just the right amount of gentle encouragement from an almost post-manflu Andy Mabbett. It was an interesting and thought-provoking day.

In the context of developing networks, one of the things that really stood out was Sarah Lay’s comment that the linking of person and content is becoming increasingly important. Sarah explained some of the many things that contribute to SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). For example, items appearing in search results that have an author picture (such as blog posts) are more likely to be clicked on, as people relate to people. This sentiment was echoed by Dan Slee, who shared research showing that people are more likely to trust “a person who is like themselves” and much less likely to trust an official spokesperson.

If we think about local networks in this context, it’s easy to see the value and importance of creating content that’s relevant and useful for local people – and encouraging people to share it. To get this right, we need to have trust between local people and local organisations (Darren Caveney also talked about trust in his introduction, as one of three key barriers to developing social media in local government – trust, technology and training). We also need to have content that is engaging and ready to share. Paul Taylor talked about content that is “hashtag ready” and Sarah encouraged us to “think about content assets not just web pages”.

Another thing that we can do to put a face to our content is to build confidence amongst our staff. Paul told us that at Bromford digital skills are seen as a performance objective, led by the chief executive. Staff are therefore encouraged to learn and to participate, to blog, to get involved in conversations online. When I’ve run blogging workshops for staff and community groups, I’ve found that often it’s our own staff who are most nervous about authorship and who feel exposed when asked to write as an individual rather than as a service. Paul suggests that we need to get over this because the corporate tone of voice is ending. His most memorable tip about this was: “look back at what your organisation talked like 12 months ago, cringe, then move on…”

Putting a name to content also cropped up in a different context, as part of David Banks’ presentation about legal issues. This included some clarifications about the Defamation Act 2013, particularly around user generated content. The Act means that organisations have more legal protection if we don’t pre-moderate user content. However, in cases where we do want to pre-moderate, it’s important to ask users to register their name and contact details first. If there is a complaint, this gives us the opportunity to seek permission from the author to share their details with the complainant.

Another useful bit of advice from David was that the ‘any views are my own’ statement doesn’t mean that employers can evade liability. If you use a personal account to regularly mention your employer, then make a defamatory remark using the same account, your employer can be held liable. Murky waters to fathom here.

Dan talked a lot about focusing on outcomes (hurrah). He asked us to think about what keeps the leaders of our organisation awake worrying at night, and to think about the impact of our work on local people. We talked more about this in the unconference session about having a social media map. Tools may change – tools will change – but the importance of focusing our efforts on what matters to the people who live and work here won’t. Richard Clarke also made a good point about how “being nice but failing to resolve the problem doesn’t work” – a polite customer services failure is still a failure.

So what then is our measure of success for using social media in local government? I think it’s about whether we’re really part of useful conversations, whether those conversations help us to build better relationships, whether people trust us enough to talk openly about their aspirations and concerns, and whether together we’re able to do something useful for the people who live and work here. I think we need to do small practical things every day to help make this happen.

bagpusMany Trojan mice working together can surely fix anything…

My notes from the day

If you’d like some more details about the issues we discussed at this event, have a look at my notes from the day and see some of the slides from the speakers:

Dan Slee – Walsall Council
Notes: What the future of public sector comms looks like (pdf)
Slides: What the future of public sector comms looks like* (*and what you can do about it.)

Paul Taylor – Bromford
Notes: Using social to progress innovation internally (pdf)
Slides: After the social media wall came down – a case study

Sarah Lay – Nottinghamshire County Council
Notes: Digital Skills – SEO (pdf)

David Banks – Media law consultant
Notes: Staying legal (pdf)

Richard Clarke – 02
Notes: Social Media and Customer Services (pdf)

Connecting foster carers through Yammer

The Monmouthshire Foster Carer team helped to connect foster carers in their area by using an external Yammer network. Yammer has enabled the foster carers to support each other (including out of hours), share their views (including commenting on council policies) and feel that they are part of a community. In the video, one of the foster carers comments that “We spent three years feeling quite alone”. They didn’t really have any contact with other foster carers unless they were attending a training day. Since joining the Yammer network, she says “We actually feel very connected now”.

This example shows how facilitating connections between residents can have benefits beyond just information sharing. The network is private (you can control who signs up to an external Yammer network), so it’s a safe place for the foster carers to discuss difficult issues, and all the participants already understand the need to keep personal information private. It’s a good example of how you can network and still be careful about safeguarding.

Rewind story: fostering communication using Yammer – Monmouthshire County Council

Poverty, ethnicity and social networks

Joseph Rowntree Foundation logo

This research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at how social networks can help or hinder people in moving out of poverty.

Some of the key aspects of this research are:

  • Personal characteristics, such as confidence, can be important in developing useful connections, as well as things like ethnicity, class and gender.
  • Social networks tend to be ‘like-with-like’. People use their networks to find employment, but this is often into low-paid jobs which rely on informal recruitment processes.
  • Strong bonds with family and friends help to mitigate the effects of poverty, but we need to develop bridging and linking ties to move people on from poverty.
  • Voluntary, community and faith based organisations are important for helping people to access to cross-cultural networks.

The research shows that social networks can help people stay out of poverty and deal with its effects. For example, interviewees described instances of sharing food, exchanging fuel cards, or finding out about low-cost clothing and food outlets or free exchange services. The report also identifies some limitations and makes some recommendations, such as incorporating Social Value into commissioning procedures, to recognise the added value of access to community networks.

Making the links: poverty, ethnicity and social networks – Summary (pdf)
Making the links: poverty, ethnicity and social networks – Full report (pdf)
Social networks, poverty and ethnicity – Programme paper (pdf)

Connected Communities

Connected Communities logoConnected Communities is an action research programme from the RSA that explores ‘social network’ approaches to social and economic challenges and opportunities. This has included looking at the connections that make up people’s day-to-day lives, working out ways of mapping these connections across communities and thinking about how we can build more connected communities.

The results are reported in:

Local, Social, Networks

chalk writing on boarded up window, banner strung between treesWhy local? Why social? Why networks?


Most of what I know about using technology to connect people has been figured out with residents and community organisations, by spending time together in their own homes and neighbourhoods. I think it’s only by working on small, focussed neighbourhood projects that we can really understand how digital tools and other technologies can have relevance for people in their everyday lives. This is why the simple text message that lands in your pocket, the chalk writing on the boarded up window of an old mill and the hand painted banner strung across your neighbour’s front garden have a power and immediacy that the most sophisticated digital tools just can’t match. Just being there (or just being here) matters. One of the many things that people do better than organisations is to stand in the queue at the corner shop. To listen. Communities are not abstractions. We need to understand how technology fits in, not how it stands apart. Andrew Wilson says that the most interesting and valuable digital projects happen “where technology almost touches the ground”.


I live in a place where there’s lots of community activity. I didn’t always feel such a part of it. Yet making contact with a few people in my area who have similar interests and concerns has somehow led to me co-ordinating a thriving local food community, being a heritage campaigner, running a local funding panel and being involved in (and creating connections between) many local groups. Some of this activity is recorded, evaluated and celebrated, but I reflect a lot on the huge and often hidden impact of people getting to know each other and quietly helping each other, week in, week out.

When we talk about ‘not being fair weather gardeners’, we don’t just mean that we carry on digging the allotment when it’s raining, we also mean that we support each other, even when it’s not easy (especially when it’s not easy). I’ve come to understand that we’re not just growing fruit and vegetables, we’re growing a resilient community – our relationships with each other are our greatest asset. Robert Putnam says that participating in community groups and activities has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing: “Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.” (now read that again)


As part of Huddersfield’s first timebanking project, I’ve seen how the principles of co-production can help us to value each individual and create new opportunities for people to support each other. These values have helped us to progress from knowing the names of other local organisations to knowing the names, skills and interests of people within those groups. There’s a big difference. It’s these personal connections that start to enable people to support each other. Most people don’t like asking for help, but acknowledging our interdependence is a means of valuing individuals and strengthening communities. One person in need of support is also one opportunity for someone to do something to help, and to feel useful and valued. The act of asking for help becomes not a show of vulnerability, but fuel for a more resilient community.

I believe in the value of always listening to the quietest person in the room. That person might be me (or you). It isn’t that we don’t have anything to say or contribute, it’s that somebody else isn’t leaving a space in which others can speak. Networks are about listening. When you listen to and begin to understand the other participants in any network, it creates lots of possibilities. I’ve learnt a lot by listening to people who live and work here and by making connections further afield. Everyone should.

What might be possible if our council embraces the principles of co-production and understands where we fit in as part of local social networks? What new things might we learn by being in spaces where others have the confidence to speak? And how can digital technologies help us to create and strengthen local social networks? Edgar Cahn says: “One cannot create trust without memory – about who did what when. Computers provide a new kind of neighbourhood memory.”

Maybe some of those social tools that many people are suspicious of could actually help us to trust each other, in the same way that I’ve seen timebanking become a tool for building trust in my community.