Exploring the Citizenscape

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Earlier this week Public-i launched a new brand and a lovely new design for their product suite . I’m not going to get into the details of relaunch as Catherine has already provided a post on that.

In my role at Public-i I’m focused on the product Citizenscape, It has got a bit of a facelift, which I personally feel brings it to a stage where the design will start to match the capability it provides. If you aren’t aware of what Citizenscape is or does the product webpage states:

We see Citizenscape as a new way to work with your users, citizens or stakeholders – harnessing the power of the social web. In the world of the social web, where everyone has the means to publish themselves, the days when you could build a website and expect people to visit and to use it are gone. Instead, Citizenscape is a dynamic online engagement platform that enables you to connect with your citizens, stakeholders and partners in a way that supports the work you are already doing together and is in keeping with the way they are already communicating. With Citizenscape you can build shared civic spaces and networks that support, encourage and enable the people you want to connect with to find new ways of collaborating and co-creating.

Now what I think is hard to get across is the actual power this product has in connecting people and networks…The technology underneath is actually really clever but it isn’t really that which creates the value. Obviously it is valuable and does what is required at the moment but let me explain what I mean a bit further.

I read with great interest this blog post from TEDGlobal 12 about Rachel Botsman where it talks about trust in strangers and reputation and provides examples of websites and platforms which facilitate connection between people and also help validate aspects of that trust through sharing others experiences. The examples referenced in the post are TaskRabbit and Airbnb, which are good examples of how trust develops and can be fostered. Rachel says:

The amazing thing, is how fast our ability to trust online has evolved. But with her optimism, there is a note of caution about how this will work in practice: “How do we mimic the way trust is built face-to-face online?

When I think about Citizenscape as a platform, it is aiming to address the heart of these issues, in the projects where it is used, it is really about fostering empowerment within communities and networks online and offline. Rachel also refers to empowerment as a key outcome of platforms like TaskRabbit and Airbnb – I’d almost go as far to say that her description of them matches my view of  Citizenscape, she says:

At its core, it’s about empowerment. Empowering people to make meaningful connections, connections that are enabling us to rediscover a humanness we’ve lost along the way.

So when you consider this and then what Citizenscape states its value is, the value isn’t directly in the technology itself (although without it, it would be pretty empty) but in the connections, the networks, the communities that are now able to come together and share learning, to reconnect at a civic level to address local issues and problems. The key role for the platform (Citizenscape) is to facilitate those connections, without it those networks may not get the chance to reconnect.

When I look back and reflect on how I thought this role would develop, how I thought the product would develop and find its place, how it would differentiate itself from the free social media monitor tools out there. This is what I said back in February:

The CitizenScape pages  state a set of assumptions which I feel are a good starting point to focus my thinking around the product – are these assumptions still correct for example.

“The assumptions behind Citizenscape are simple:

Council’s should not be building social networking sites themselves – there is already a lot of activity online. Local Authorities need to connect to that rather than starting from scratch

You need tools that reach out and exist on the sites that people are already visiting – not waste your time trying to get them to visit you

The social web encourages co-creation and participation – this makes it the right place to start to engage people in democratic debate”

…On the whole they are still valid..but how does this actually translate into real life…

It is important for me to state up front that the product doesn’t quite work yet, I mean it does work technically, but in terms of the real opportunities I think it has some way to go.

The current version does make me think whether or not I could achieve perhaps 70-80% of the output within some free products like pageflakes or netvibes…that isn’t to say the existing product is poorly made or developed because it isn’t but the challenge is trying to build or create something that is actually still hard to articulate and explain even with the assumptions listed above.

Now whilst the redesign provides opportunities to simply make it look more engaging and to ensure that the responsive design allows it to be delivered across multiple devices. It has now come to a point where the value is easier to understand and communicate. The challenge is no longer about “what the product is” but do public services understand and recognise the value of providing spaces, opportunities and platforms for networks to come together and reconnect online and offline.

My take on this is that some are and some already do in various ways but the future of public services pretty much requires it. It will be at the core of the re-imagining and re-designing of public services. It won’t be an easy journey for many people as the budgetary situation in local government will only get worse and the past few years don’t even represent the real reductions in budgets across local government…so the only option has to be to open up to a more co-operative and collaborative future with networks and networks of networks being at the core and heart of local change.

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