Citizen Smith
Not happy about this letter from OFCOM. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Damian Radcliffe is the author of “Here and Now – UK hyperlocal media today”. In this post he argues that at a time when media and digital regulation is under review, hyperlocal media should be left alone. This is a contribution to our media regulation discussion event on Wednesday afternoon.

The recent announcement of £1m in funding for new hyperlocal ventures is a welcome shot in the arm for this nascent media industry. The UK is full of great examples of hyperlocal activity. However issues of trust, scalability and sustainability are all key challenges for large parts of the sector as it moves forward.

The NESTA and TSB funding may offer some solutions to these challenges, but as the sector grows, so issues of regulation may start to loom slightly larger on the policy agenda. In my view, where possible, regulation of online hyperlocal media should be avoided. That might seem a strange thing for a former regulator to say, so let offer five reasons why the sector should be unregulated, and why I think attempts at regulation would ultimately prove unsuccessful.

1. Online Philosophy

My starting point is a simple one. If you are a believer in the open internet, then the web should be a predominantly unregulated space. Clearly there are exceptions, such as the need to protect the exploitation of minors, but most of these concerns are not applicable to hyperlocal websites. Provided that the law of the land is not being broken, then websites should generally be left alone.

2. The historic rules of regulation do not apply

In a broadcast world, regulation was used to create a framework for licensees. In return for abiding by the rules, which included signing up to a code of conduct and agreeing terms of trade (e.g. what type of service you are, or specific obligations such as the amount of local news you produce), then license holders got access to a precious commodity: spectrum, and with it the right to broadcast direct to people in their homes. This two way contract has been a key tool in making broadcast regulation work, but it is not a framework which logically transfers to the online space.

3. Practicalities

Anyone can set up a hyperlocal website or channel using tools like Facebook, WordPress or Twitter. These tools are often free, and fairly easy to use, with the result that you can set up your website in minutes. And it also means that if your website gets into trouble, you can dismantle and remove traces of it pretty quickly too. The net result of this is that not only is it impossible to comprehensively capture what hyperlocal sites exist, it will be equally impossible to monitor them effectively.

In contrast, launching a newspaper, TV or Radio Station which has often required specific licenses, equipment and training, as well as clear monitoring requirements. Broadcasters, for example, have a legal requirement to keep a record of what they have transmitted, whilst newspaper owners see their physical product in the public’s hands, making it rather hard to hide any potential crimes and misdemeanors.

4. Citizen Smith

Whilst commercial hyperlocal outlets and networks do exist, the majority of hyperlocal content in the UK is produced by citizens, often for free, or certainly very small sums of money. This in itself is no bad thing, indeed I have previously suggested that the best sites stem from local need, by people steeped in their communities. In many cases, but not always, this means active citizens investigating and reporting on what matters to them.

Most citizen practitioners would be unable to afford any inevitable regulatory fees, and the very presence of such fees would deter some citizens setting up their own sites. More likely most concerned citizens would not even know that their Facebook Group, or a Blogger site fell under a regulatory regime, until the point when they fell foul of the law and received a demand letter from the regulator.  This is probably a situation best avoided – certainly Mrs Miggins being told she has to take down her site reviewing local pies, or else face a $1,000 fine – will simply be spun by the press as the Nanny State gone mad. I do not think anyone wants to see that happen.

5.            Innovation

Lastly, there is the issue of innovation. Regulators the world over like to talk a lot about their role in encouraging innovation, creativity and new business models. Perhaps the extent of this is overplayed, but regulators can certainly play a role in ensuring that barriers to innovation are kept to a minimum. With the online hyperlocal sector still in its infancy there is a very real risk that innovation would be stymied by unnecessary regulation.

In looking at these five reasons, you could argue that each point may be sufficient to argue against regulation. Certainly when collectively put together they suggest that regulation of hyperlocal media is as impractical as it is unwelcome.

In the interests of balance, I also tried to identify five reasons *for* regulation, and I confess that I struggled.

I considered the option of income thresholds – that sites above a certain income would need to be regulated – whether sites might opt in to be regulated by the PCC or some other body, or indeed if the industry should come together and devise its own system of self-regulation.

But the only benefits that I could see from such approaches were that becoming regulated might boost the credibility of the sector in some circles, and that it might also make it easier to unlock union and legal support. These are important considerations, but ultimately I am not sure that regulation is the way to achieve these outcomes. Rather, they require changes in mindset from big media, the NUJ and in some cases consumers.

In my experience most hyperlocal outlets take questions of balance and accuracy very seriously and where they do have an editorial agenda it is usually pretty clear. I am therefore not quite sure what regulation would achieve, so suggest that for now, we should leave the “responsible punks” of the quasi-underground hyperlocal movement to manage themselves.

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How do we create a positive vision of Localism? How do we ensure that everyone who wants a say can have a say? What role can new technologies play in answering these big questions? Add these questions to a wifi keyboard, a bank of red sofas and some deep fried nibbles and you’ve got yourself an interesting evening.

BFI by night

These questions and more were discussed last night in the lovely surrounds of the BFI at an event run by Sandbox part of the University of Central Lancashire. It was a chance to use their innovative Red system – a way of capturing, organising and interacting with responses typed by participants, all displayed in super-massive-humungo-widescreen projection.

Sandbox are also doing exciting work in Preston on Cultural Mapping using mobile technology to look at the relationships between individuals and communities and how they locate, operate and flow through certain environments and public spaces. They hope that this framework will be useful in informing planning and  public engagement.

They use a similar approach in a project with wheelchair users, using handheld computers to record their experience of the built environment. In conjunction with the Cultural Mapping Project, it will provide city planners with a unique data layer when considering the future shape of Preston.

But we were there to talk about Localism while playing with the techno toys. A range of people from the innovation, social enterprise, policy and arts worlds were asked about what localism means to them, what are the benefits, the challenges. Perhaps a rather simple questions, and certainly a homogeneous audience in terms of outlook, but some useful ideas were thrown up nonetheless.

Two of the key challenges noted were firstly, the lack of an ‘invest to save mentality’ – how can we do things really differently if there isn’t the willingness to commit and invest in long term change? Change that is not tied to the average tenure of a local authority chief executive, or term of a politician local or national.  How does democracy transcend politics?

And  secondly, concern about how a wide range of voices can genuinely and fairly be heard and acted upon threaded throughout the discussion. It’s really interesting that when you start to talk to people about better democratic conversations, they start to play that back to you from their own perspective. So, widespread scepticism of true motivations of government, and concerns about how localism can be successful with no resource becomes a discussion about developing existing mechanisms of engagement and improving their reach, influence and ability to innovate.

I was particularly interested in two contrasting approaches. One very local and personal Spots of Time, which is about ‘having a minute’ to do something, and the positive engagement that is created on a very micro level. At the other end of the scale, Indy Johar of 00:/ is thinking about the macro concepts in the global/local economic context and socially driven sustainability. Look out for his book Compendium for the Civil Economy written in conjunction with NESTA, launching tomorrow.

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The Skunk Works logo as seen on one of Lockhee...
Skunkworks image on a Lockheed Martin hangar. Image via Wikipedia

There has been a big response to Dave Briggs’s blogpost, Is there a need for a local government skunkworks?, some of which Dave summarises here. Dave’s point goes beyond the traditional technology-prototyping skunkworks, familiar from companies like Lockheed Martin, and I think he is really asking “do we need to have a machine/structure that will create and implement innovation in local government?”.

The answer is yes, both for local and national government, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about some thinking I’ve been doing with Ruth Kennedy of ThePublicOffice, and John Barradell, Chief Executive at Brighton & Hove City Council.

Let’s start by stepping back. There are great opportunities now for participative, innovative public service initiatives that use technology and systems thinking in new ways. There are some good examples of work that is making a difference, such as Safeguarding 2.0. However, although I’ve been involved in innumerable conversations about networks and social innovation and skunkworks and app stores, the impact of this thinking on mainstream services is still narrow, and dependent on the energy of a few high-impact people like Dominic and the FutureGov team. Innovation has nowhere near the scale or sustainability needed to make a meaningful difference.

Ruth, John and I think there’s a reason why the wheels are spinning. There is a three-way divide between existing public service providers, who understand the context and constraints on change, the public themselves, who give legitimacy and are best able to articulate their needs and aspirations, and innovators both inside and outside traditional public service organisations.

The separation between these three elements is reducing rather than increasing the scope for innovation. Barcamp events produce good ideas, but are not networked into existing power arrangements. Public services are trying to innovate within existing structures, but cannot access the local enthusiasm and expertise which could keep programmes running and maintain innovation after outside agents have moved on to other things. Existing structures, cultures and processes within public services hinder innovation, not by building brick walls, but through a thousand little difficulties and inconveniences. As spending cuts take hold, there is a risk that innovation and energy will dissipate.

Building a network of open and participative spaces – outside the wall of government, but with their active involvement and participation – can connect these different elements and allow better, more focused conversations, massively increasing the opportunities for participation, innovation and local co-production. These spaces should:

  • Connect innovators (and frustrated innovators) from the local area with public services interested in change and able to provide funding, context and access
  • Allow the public to articulate their needs and aspirations in a discursive rather than simplistic discussion format,
  • Build a shared public to provide deeper democratic legitimacy to innovation, service change and co-production
  • Give the public access to the context and information held by services, enabling people to explore, develop and challenge local public services in new ways
  • Provide a forum in which existing services can truly open up, going beyond consultation and bare data into rich conversations with local people.

This is more than a traditional skunkworks, not just because it looks beyond technology, but because it has an explicit involvement for the public as citizens as well as service users and innovators.

It needs to be run in such a way that the innovators are not just twenty somethings with MacBooks (declaration: I am 37 and own a MacBook). Really the term we should use is “problem solvers”, because the solution to problems doesn’t always come from people who see themselves as innovators, much less professional creative thinkers.

The window for creating such connectivity is small – spending cuts are already starting to affect service decisions, and without early joining up, there will be uncoordinated action, lopping off services rather than preserving them for redevelopment. Councils and public services are under pressure to balance the books by cutting services now, without strong public engagement or new models of service provision in place. That means oppositional conversations between the state and the public, on the “decide-defend-appease” model, and the deepening of already-deep public disillusionment with the political process.

How would we do it?

The creation of an innovative civic space needs all three local elements – public, innovators, and public services to work together. It needs to bring in the private and third sectors, community groups, hyperlocal media and others as connectors and enablers for the conversations and the outcomes. 

Most of all, it needs people who are attracted by the initial excitement to get involved, and to have continuing reason to stay involved. This means that the space needs an ongoing rhythm of activity that participants can easily understand, and which is presented in such a way that people who are time-poor can quickly grasp the highlights of what is happening.

The “ground” for the space has to be the democratic conversation, since that provides an audience for ideas, establishes need and aspiration, and gives a continuing reason for the engagement of local public services.

The space then needs to create and nurture shared vision and intent, and identify innovation and co-production opportunities. This means drawing out and networking “positive deviants” within existing services, and linking them with innovative thinkers in the locality and from elsewhere.

The space needs to provide connections, context and means of implementation. These are likely to focus around events, co-design sessions with public services, opening up seed resources or research, and links with innovators and ideas beyond the local area. Throughout this, the democratic conversation takes and informs citizens’ views, and engages them in the design and delivery of improved services.

The democratic element

On cost and access grounds, the democratic space should be primarily online, but it must include and supplement existing content and discussions both online and offline. It cannot be a “portal” or single site to which people are expected to (and will not) come. This means that the technology solutions that are needed are not the simple bulletin board or WordPress installation, but instead a mix of solutions providing a lens on existing conversations elsewhere, with the ability to view them in a single place, and also to make further contributions. The online element also needs to be accompanied by an active offline element, including local meet ups, reach out to underrepresented groups and community building.

The democratic discussion needs to have a rhythm of engagement, and a reason for participants (even the time-poor) to return fairly regularly. This could come from a monthly vote or discussion topic, preceded by information giving by local public services or campaigners. The topic for the vote could arise from the group, or come from the space’s innovation or service change work, or be related to a strategy area such as transport where the local authority needs citizen views.

The problem solving element

Democratic involvement is wide-scale. By contrast, success on the problem solving side is smaller-scale, and consists of identifying and networking problem solvers around a place or issue, bringing in outsiders to give external experience and creating an open community of people with ideas. The network must be open, if it is to attract the fullest range of ideas. It must be rooted in the context of the issue or place, to ensure that solutions work in practice, as opposed to on Powerpoint slides or in some other context.

The networking of problem solvers needs to be face-to-face, perhaps through meet ups interspersed with larger-scale events along the lines of City Camps, but with closer public sector involvement, and the ability to prototype and trial potential solutions in real services. Perhaps the best pattern is to have regular Place/Issue Camps, with the winning idea or two given resource and time to prototype and run a live example in the relevant public service, and then reporting back a few months later on success.

The public service element

We have to remember, first, that the number of public service organisations that are really ready to receive the results of any skunkworks/innovation is very small. Most are, understandably, focusing on getting the job done at a difficult time and handling downsizing. They understand that “more of the same” isn’t possible. Some – but not many – understand that “less of the same” won’t work either. Innovation and new ways of working won’t take root sustainably or at scale without active involvement of public services and their leaders, but that involvement needs some profound culture changes to be pushed throughout the organisations.

This culture change starts by building (in a safe space) a better collective cross-organisational understanding of what is not working in the current system, particularly from the perspective of service users. Then services need to co-create a different, shared sense of what should count as success.

The safe spaces for these new conversations don’t arise by accident, we have to create them deliberately. The new vision will mean new skills and capabilities being prioritised from front line to Chief Executive/Permanent Secretary. We also have to ensure there is the energy to escape the gravitational pull back to old ways of working (in some places, several rounds of change have been needed). In general, we need to build an organisation which has high trust and a desire to do things in the right way, rather than an organisation with a well-written strategic plan that is ignored or worked around.


Ruth, John and I have put together some slides to try and show some of those concepts and approaches visually. You should be able to see them below, but you might need to go fullscreen to see some of the smaller type. You can also see them directly at Slideshare, or download them (PDF).

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