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Building a practice out of building communities

Lately we’ve been working with the public sector on some community building efforts. In a recent session we introduced a team to open source principles, general use of collaborative web technologies, and the latest on-line civic participation work. Then, we asked them to do some searching on their own for public sector platforms or campaigns for participation.Here’s what they came up with during the short span of time. You may have seen most of these sites, and many more are out there. The team was quick to point out that some organizations are definitely doing it better than others. If you have stellar, or not-so-stellar, examples share them.

Open Government Innovations Gallery
Santa Cruz Budget
Wikified Army Field Guide
CDC IdeaLab
Apps for Democracy
Massachusetts Open Data Initiative
Kansas Transportation Online Community

Clearly, it’s no longer groundbreaking. And, as people make that necessary switch from evangelist to practitioner, the question should be: Are we paying attention and doing things as effectively as we can?

Not all these efforts have the same aim, and with the ever-maturing taxonomy of all things open it’s important to know what model is best suited for the situation. But, what we’re interested in is community building. The most basic distinction we can make is the difference between the two often-thrown around terms crowdsourcing and open source.

This is where the real work and next frontier for practitioners exists. It’s not just technology, press releases, or prize money. Rather, it’s the overall strategy, design, and message of the platform (loosely defined) constructed and carried out as a coherent method for creating and engaging a community.

There are some things to pay attention to here. They might be brushed off as questions and challenges, but more importantly they’re opportunities to do things well.

  • Is what we’re asking of the community in line with interest and ability?
  • Are there clear goals; ones either agreed to or developed by the community?
  • Is this platform reinforcing or improving a representative democracy and all that comes with it, rather than replacing or detracting from it?
  • How sustainable is the community, should it be a short-term or a long-term effort?
  • Do we have a way to measure the health of the community and the know-how and tools to guide it when needed?
  • Are the legal and technical dimensions set appropriately so that innovation happens within and external to the community?
  • Do we bring the right physical world characteristics, attitudes, and norms that we want and maybe discourage the ones we don’t want?
  • Do we have an idea of even what this “we” means and where that “we” should fall on the spectrum from free-for-all to facilitator to despot?

These are just a handful of the things we work on and pay attention to daily (along with my collaborators at Georgia Tech). Anyone embarking on a community building or participation project, especially in the public sector, needs to be, too. Community building like many things will always be more of an art than a science, but with the growing examples out there we need to do a better job generalizing knowledge from both successes and failures.

Tinkering with a brand, whether public or private, and requesting the participation and precious time of others, is not something where you just roll out a platform and hope. We can and should get to the point where there is a degree of certainty in practice. And, of course, share the knowledge.

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