Hello, I’m Leah and I joined the Democratic Society’s Scottish team in early January as a Digital Engagement Officer to work on a digital integration project with a focus on participatory budgeting (PB). A main purpose of the role is to help local government and community groups think about how they can expand reach and have greater participation in their PB work by using online idea generation and voting alongside their traditional engagement methods. I have been working for years to promote better use of web and social media in government, both for outward communication and internal collaboration so I was glad to see Democratic Society is taking digital integration seriously enough to bring a dedicated Digital Engagement Officer on board. It’s been a really hectic couple of months but here are my key reflections so far.
The importance of objectivity
My background is in local and central government work so everything I’ve ever done working from those places always had some kind of barrier around it. In government there are so many points at which I had to risk assess plans, sometimes to the detriment of seeing out innovative and creative projects. Now that I’m part of a non-partisan team that approaches advice and support from a totally objective place, I remain very focussed on the needs of the individuals and organisations we are working with. This is especially important when looking at technology and digital platforms: we can research technologies and understand their core features without having to worry about breaching procurement frameworks. A core part of our current PB work with organisations is to hold up our knowledge of different online platforms against the need of the client so we can offer up a suite of options that come from an objective place. We hope this will help organisations choose the right tools for successful digital engagement, building both their online communities and their skills.
I had been freelancing for about a year before joining Democratic Society and it was a big decision for me to become an employee again. Freelancing is all about independence and the freedom to choose your own working patterns, clients and approaches. I had been feeling isolated and a little bit deskilled after working inside government, at a proper 9-5 sort of shackled to a desk. The thought of going back into an office environment seemed risky. I had to consider the impact of losing ties to the freelance community on future work and the impact on my wellbeing in case I started feeling stifled or constrained. However, from the start, Demsoc has been flexible with my working patterns and style. I’m with them four days a week, I still have small freelance jobs on the side and I feel comfortable setting days for working remotely. We use Slack to keep in touch most of the time and staff are trusted to get on with their work. I am just back from my first ‘away day’ with the whole team and it was an incredible experience. I couldn’t feel any more encouraged to try things out, to know anyone is available if I need support or advice and that we are all motivated by our desire to help create better democracy everywhere. Working in this kind of supportive environment has a huge positive impact on the quality of work we deliver and the relationships we forge with our community and clients.
The struggle is real
Encouraging discussion and action about how to engage citizens and communities in new and better ways is rough. Old ways of working, status quo, skills gaps and nervousness about change are always around. We are passionate about real, long term change so we are always thinking about the best ways to support people in learning and shifting the way they work and plan engagement activity. Working closely with people on the ground in communities has been so valuable in helping me to see the landscape view of current engagement practices in Scottish public services. I’m seeing strong patterns in opportunities and challenges that will help us further develop our offer of support and professional services for 2017.