A bit about Devon Grapevine – a local success

The great thing about a new job is you get to hear about lots of interesting things that as a council we have been involved in supporting.  Once such example is Devon Grapevine.

What is the Devon Grapevine?

Devon Grapevine is an online network for people from different cultures, living in Devon.

Why was the Devon Grapevine set up?

In 2009, the Safer Devon Partnership commissioned the Olive Tree Association to carry out the Community Safety Mapping Project (CSMP). Over 250 people from minority ethnic communities were interviewed across rural Devon. Areas of concern raised by inerviewees included health, crime and education. Devon Grapevine was set up to respond to these areas of concern.

What can the Devon Grapevine offer individual members?

  • a one-stop shop for information and advice about living in Devon
  • an online place to meet and share experiences with others from minority ethnic backgrounds living in Devon
  • direct contact with organisations through messaging, forums, and scheduled chat sessions.
So why is this interesting, well one of the key successes in my eyes is that before this site, a community like this didn’t exist, people were disconnected from each other.
Now there are over 250 people representing over 40 different cultural backgrounds and most if not all have actually met each other offline at what they call “meet and eat” sessions…these are simply a way for the group to come together and connect.
Approximately 80% of content is user-generated, with the facilitator providing a steer and direction on some issues.
Now this presents lots of opportunities not only for the newly formed community but for public service providers in Devon…however as a starting point and as one model it is a great place to be.
If you wanted proof that stuff like this could happen, then this, in my humble opinion is a good starting place.

Customer Service and Engagement – are they aligned?

I’ve read two kind of related blog posts this week and they got me thinking about the current culture in Local Government and the approach by many councils on customer service  and engagement.

From what I hear from other councils, progress is being made on rationalising services and centralising common functions to enable cost reduction and in the harsh reality we face redundancies. Now I’m not suggesting this is the wrong approach but I do wonder what the intended outcomes are for all of these councils.

I’m going to acknowledge up front that the scale of public sector cuts and the speed in which these are happening are also causing me a slight concern, not because I think they are wrong but because of the potential for decision makers to make knee jerk reactions to situations without really thinking or considering the longer term outcomes that the local government sector in particular has a role in.

Lets get to the blog posts, the first post Via CapGemini:  What can we learn from small businesses about social media and customer engagement? made me think about the skills and approaches required to do customer service effectively. This then made me think that is “good” customer service really something that the public sector ought to think about right now in the context of huge cost reduction and job redundancies…It took me a few minutes, to argue with myself and accept that Customer Service is essential and a fundamental aspect of delivering and contributing to cost reductions in the medium to long-term. I don’t believe we have a short-term approach available in this area. My view is that if you haven’t started a customer service programme of any kind then it is likely to be about 2 years before you start seeing any return on investment.

Coming back to the issue of rationalising and centralising functions etc…This can and does work, but I think it needs to be approached in a way that de-couples the layers of those functions so that only the relevant parts and the appropriate processes are actually rationalised and centralised.

For me Customer Service is not a process that can really be centralised or rationalised, it need to be main-streamed and embedded in the core culture of an organisation in order to really support success  – in local gov terms this really means cost reductions – and the following extract from the blog post sort of highlights my thinking.

There’s a counter that many people from our offices get their lunch from that also draws in a long line of people from the local area. Like most business districts the block is crammed with competition, all essentially selling the same product at the same price. And yet this little spot, tucked away on a side street, is always consistently busier than the competition. So what’s driving people to make the extra effort to reach this small corner of the city to buy highly commoditised products; sandwiches and coffee?

The business is run by just two people, one front of house and one in the kitchen. For the front of house they apply three key principles to engaging with customers;

  1. Know who I am; know my name and what I like / don’t like.
  2. Respond appropriately; consider my current mood. Am I looking for a quick purchase, do I have time to explore new products, do I have time to engage in a more lengthy conversation.
  3. Make me feel valued; make me feel like a valued customer and reward me for my loyalty (but make this sincere by building it over time so I feel like I’ve earned it).

SO the scale of operation is very different from local government – But let me explain my thinking….Local Government is being pushed to become even more local and connect with people and to ensure service users and wider citizens are involved in service design and decision-making, but how can this level of connection and relationship exist or even emerge unless we start to build relationships in new ways and understand what people really need.

The 3 principles are very relevant to Local Government Channel Management Strategies:

1) Know who I am – This is supported through approaches to Customer Relationship Management but also and probably increasingly through local engagement activities whether online or offline…We have already created relationships in many different contexts, but have perhaps not connected up the relevant information.

2) Respond appropriately – Ensure that the channel is able to meet a variety of user scenarios…quick reporting of a problem, to a slightly more complex application process…Whatever the channel it needs to respond, signpost and direct people through an appropriate and efficient process to meet their request.

3) Make me feel valued – I simply see this as acknowledging someone in a community has something to say and contribute to the design of services, we need to reach out to these people (offline and online) and ensure that their views are recognised and valued alongside others.

The second post again from the CapGemini blog : Are you willing to crowdsource your customer support to a p2p community? got me thinking about how customer service agendas need to be more aligned with our underlying democracy and engagement agendas.

When I read about engagement strategies, approaches and frameworks I always read about connecting with existing communities to ensure a long-lasting connection and relationship or if one doesn’t exist work on nurturing a community over time.

Now I am more than happy with this and it makes so much sense  – however have we in local government or central government connected this engagement agenda and the focus on connecting with existing communities with the customer service agenda and in some ways the Big Society agenda.

The following extract might help explain my thinking a bit more:

The advantages of integrating customer support communities into your customer service strategy include:

  • Increased credibility: Studies show that 44% of consumers trust people that are just like them (Edelman Trust Barometer 2010), and 74% of consumer purchasing decisions are affected by key influencers on social networking sites. Gartner shows that customers value advice of other customers more than that of a company’s employees. Real customers providing a service to other customers improves the credibility of information.
  • Expert Knowledge: Users with a strong interest in the product often have profound product knowledge and can provide detailed answers to even complicated issues. Especially with highly technical products these experts are closer to other customers than contact center employees because they face the same challenges in using the product. Dell’s IdeaStormcommunity, for example, addresses its customer’s expert knowledge and creative power by providing a platform for new ideas and suggestions around its products.
  • Lower cost to serve: Enabling customers to help other customers can also reduce the volume of direct customer contacts, thus reducing contact center resources. The transfer of customer service to online communities ensures 24/7 support which would create high cost to service when provided by conventional channels. Linksys by Cisco Systems for example stopped its email support one year after its community launched. Since then peer-to-peer support has replaced a large number of customer contacts (Forrester May 2010).

When I first read this part of the blog post, I wasn’t sure whether they were really talking about customer service or engagement or both and I’d missed the connection between them?

Anyway, I had started to think that the 3 main areas are also linked to the cost reduction agenda and whilst I am not advocating we make even more people redundant, one could argue that in time if our engagement strategies are successful, then we could look to create “community based” helpdesk and service support groups from within the community itself and support the over-arching customer service agenda.

After all this thinking I asked myself – are Customer Service and Engagement Agendas aligned and should they be to maximise the opportunities to government and communities?

This is merely a collection of thoughts at the moment and it likely to be some way off into the future before the levels of maturity around engagement reach a stage where government can have meaningful conversations about taking over some support and assisted self-service functions.

Sometimes I wonder whether I think too much 🙂

Facilitating a Social Media Strategy

Updated: included wordle graphic

I’ve had quite a number of conversations  about social media strategy at the council recently,  as well as with a number of people via twitter and other networks.

So I thought I’d share my thinking on this and also share the strategy (co-developed by Martin Howitt) which I use to help others as well as a framework to developing a Social Media Action/Implementation Plan.

This is intended to be a reusable framework and strategy – as the detail and local variations will come in your own action plan.

To put this into context the council has already made significant progress around Social Media – In January 2010 the Council introduced a Social Media Policy and Guidelines which states:

Devon County Council is committed to making the best use of all available technology and innovation to improve the way we do business. This includes using all reasonable and cost-effective means to improve the way we communicate, reach out and interact with the different communities we serve.

It includes guidance around personal and professional responsibilities, using social media in different scenarios and key things to consider.

We don’t yet have a formal Social Media Strategy (yet), but the following is what I am personally using and promoting internally as a method and approach to adopting social media within our business operations.

The Strategy:
We will maximise the positive impact of our use of social media in support of the councils business aims and social objectives.


  1. The use of social media, like anything else the organisation does, must be informed by business strategy and social objectives.
  2. Social technology does nothing on its own. To create value from social media, it is people and processes that must change.
  3. Becoming a truly social organisation will yield benefits in terms of sustainability, responsiveness, reputation, lower operating costs, and higher social impact.
  4. Social media can in theory pervade every part of the organisation’s value chain. But it should only do so if there are defined and (where possible) measurable positive business impacts.
  5. There is no such thing as a social media project: there are only business projects that utilise social media tools to some extent to achieve their objectives.
  6. A social media capability must therefore be built or adopted specifically to serve the objectives and current projects of the organisation.


  1. Identify which organisational processes / service areas which might use social software or social media tools
  2. For each process / service area – state the key objectives and outcomes
  3. List the available tools and their best-value use cases
  4. For each process/service area identified in (1), identify the most useful tools from (3) and map the potential benefits to objectives/outcomes in (2)
  5. Consolidate the list in (4) by channel and/or by organisational role.
  6. For each role identified in (5), evaluate the cost, benefits, and risks
  7. Create a prioritised portfolio of projects, expected benefits, and Key Performance Indicators based on the outputs of (6)

I appreciate that this may sound easier than it actually is, but to be honest if it were that easy everyone would be doing it and no one would have trouble justifying its use. If you can build this approach into the service business planning cycle you (as facilitator) and the service area will yield higher results in terms of potential Social Media projects supporting and delivering business outcomes – that is the theory anyway 🙂

As a starting point I’d recommend that you look at your own service area as well as highlighting or at least acknowledging other “high value” organisational processes which could benefit from this exercise, so that you can get familiar with the process and the level of understanding you will need around some of the tools and best value use cases.

It is worth trying to separate the cross cutting processes from the actual service areas for example “community engagement” might be a service area in your organisation as well as it being a cross cutting activity. In my opinion you are likely to identify a better value proposition looking at the cross cutting process of community engagement then the service itself.

In my Council a sample list might look something like this:

Process / Activity Areas

  • Community Engagement
  • Customer Service
  • Staff Engagement
  • Community Consultations
  • Staff Consultations
  • Personal and Self Directed Learning
  • Knowledge Sharing
  • Policy Development
  • Service Planning
  • Emergency Communications
  • Press and PR Relations

I’ve separated the activities of engagement and consultation on purpose as different social value can be created depending on your approach.  By tackling a cross cutting process or activity you can influence and impact a greater number and range of people who can add value when you start looking at this on a service perspective.

Service Areas

  • Trading Standards
  • Libraries
  • Road Safety
  • Highways (roads and traffic)
  • Waste Services
  • Registration Services

The reality here is I could have included a list of nearly all services, but you really need to stay focused and work on a service by service basis sometimes.

I envisage that the best approach would be a twin track approach –  During the prioritisation process outlined in stage 7 – try selecting one activity area alongside a service area to increase the organisational learning opportunities.

Hope this is helpful –  and I wish you luck….I’d be very keen to hear your stories on how this works or doesn’t for you.

We need to stop feeling so guilty and the birth of #twitternar

Yesterday evening I participated in a conversation with @LouLouK @kazwccsocialnet and @808Kate about how the #lgovsm Friday lunchtime discussion session could improve and develop and increase the opportunities for people as well as ensure variety.

Now I’m not going to talk about the future development here in this post as we are also going to chat more at #ukgc11 on Saturday and then more will no doubt be shared etc afterwards. Feel free to join us for a chat about this on Saturday if you are attending – I think we suggested an informal lunchtime chat (even more informal than the open plan aspect) – not sure where just find one of us and join in.

So two interesting things happened during the conversation, the first being the creation of the term #twitternar (by yours truly) – it is like a webinar but supported via twitter and possibly slideshare or a blog posts – the second being the more important one – whether participation in the discussion is considered work.

The discussion touched on the issue of whether people who participate feel like they can contribute more during a lunch period or whether this just contributes to the perceived view that twitter is merely social. A comment was made that you could perhaps feel guilty if you participated during work time.  I have a few issues with this but can more than understand why this is the case for the majority of people.

1) Would phoning another public sector organisation to ask them what they are doing or to share what you were doing around a particular subject or topic be considered work or something someone would do in their lunch break?

2) Would attending a meeting with another public sector organisation to ask them what they are doing or to share what you were doing around a particular subject or topic be considered work or something someone would do have to schedule during a lunch break?

I think it is fair to say that these are generally considered a core aspect for most people’s jobs – using twitter to do the same thing which is what #lgovsm is really trying to achieve in my view but at a much reduced cost is a great idea. However the benefit is that using twitter means that no one will have to travel, some can participate whilst on the go (mobile) and there is really no limit to who could participate or attend – surely a win – win situation.

This is a new approach and a more cost-effective and efficient method of doing this. The conversation accepted that perhaps twitter might not be the best platform but we also accepted that the #KHub would offer new opportunities on top for increased discussion after the initial #twitternar.

So all I would say to people is Stop feeling so guilty and try to see this as a cost-effective way of doing what you would do anyway.

The Big Society isn’t really for everyone

It’s true the Government does understand the principles of social media and the principles of reuse as Big Society is relaunched yesterday (was the the 3rd time, i personally lost interest and count during the election).

Anyway yesterday the twitterverse was awash with a variety of views on what is and what isn’t Big Society and how risky it could be and whether capacity exists in communities to do what essentially paid employees do now – but for free. Also without any money how will this actually happen, which services, how it will turn government on its head and transform society and bring us all together like one happy family…it really was a fascinating discussion you can check it all out here.

I have thought about this quite a bit since i first heard about Big Society, well actually since i started thinking about digital participation and engagement (to be honest i can’t even remember when now, but it was definitely before yesterday!!) and have wondered how inclusive it really is and who actually will be part of this Big Society.

It is worth saying that i think the concept of the Big Society is a good one, it is afterall already happening in many parts of the country right now. It will be a difficult challenge, but i fear unless we really appreciate the impacts, effort and commitment required we will end up creating poor quality replacements that could put people’s lives at risk. We need to be clear about the risks and mitigate and manage these.

People do this all of the time, but these people are few and far between, the following comments are generally concerned with a wider adoption by society of this and my at time somewhat cynical view. BUT i am trying to be optimistic about this, after all it will happen – we need to shape how good is actually is.

I did like reading Shane McCracken’s post about how he saw the Big Society developing and emerging (even though it isn’t a new idea – just new branding – Shane points to an asset transfer scheme which is almost identical)

One thing that did occur to me though after reading Shane’s post and it joined the dots in my head about this also is that the Big Society isn’t really for everyone.

The Big Society will *really* test people and communities and their tolerances around the quality and variety of services available to them. As Shane points out in his post the Big Society is already here and is well established across communities up and down the country – what the government wants to more of it so that the impact of cutting or stopping services is reduced by the willingness of active and committed people.

I spot Flaw number 1 – Active and Committed people….Hmmm, well when i look around my community now i do see active and committed people, some are only temporarily active and are based on issues but on the whole there is a good few people – notice the use of *few*.

I was also thinking about what type of services people – the active and committed kind – might be tempted to run – well this to me seems like and endless possibility really as there are already groups that exist that manage quite complex services and are accountable (this is a key aspect which we must not lose sight of) an example being School Governors. They really do an excellent job and it isn’t something you would do because you felt like it, you would need to be passionate about the school and the education of the children in it. You would be a committed and active person. This is why not everybody becomes a school governor nor actually wants to – for some it just sounds like *a bit too much like hard work* and for what return? Flaw number 2 – Motivation.

However society isn’t made up of active and committed people – i very much see these people like i see the high value contributors in social media spaces. They generate most of the content and develop the conversations for others to engage in and consume – The sad truth is that the majority of society are in fact *lurkers* and they are happy to consume and participate in a low-cost way – providing it doesn’t take up too much time.  Here comes Flaw Number 3 – *Time* – Now i agree with Shane in that those people who are passionate will find the time, but i suspect that these people are *already busy* and more than likely using all of their available *participation bandwidth* supporting services which the government has already decided not to support or simply wouldn’t exist without their input.

One of the  biggest challenges to Big Society for me is not identifying which services a community might decide is too important to lose but how the community itself – the people in the communities who are already active and committed – can tap into and access the people on the edges, the people with *participation bandwidth* and provide the sustainable connections to maintain the service.

In my post the World of GovCraft it refers to  “gamers” and the super powers they have developed and how these super powers can help us solve the worlds problems.

The 4 super powers that gamers have are:

Urgent Optimism – extreme self motivation – a desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
Social Fabric – We like people better when we play games with people – it requires trust that people will play by the same rules, value the same goal – this enables us to create stronger social relationships as a result
Blissful productivity – an average World of Warcraft gamer plays 22 hours a week: We are optimised as humans to work hard and if we could channel that productivity into solving real world problems what could we achieve?
Epic meaning – attached to an awe-inspiring mission.

All this creates Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals – People who are individually capable of changing the world – but currently only online /virtual worlds

There are clearly lessons in there about how we can all tackle the issues facing us and how those active and committed people can support a new kind of active citizen, one who has being doing epic problem solving and giving huge amounts of time willingly for the sake of a wider community.

Perhaps the challenge is about defining community and associating stuff to it for people so they see value in helping to keep it alive.

I think i’ll need to blog again on this at some point as there is of course the models by which communities and groups can organise themselves to manage and provide services, which will provide better opportunities to bring communities together – Social Enterprise anyone!!