“And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.”
[“Four Quartets”, T. S. Eliot]
I’ve been waiting for a day when I’m neither cross, exhausted nor incoherent (or any combination of the three). I’m still not certain whether that day has arrived yet.
There’s some extraordinary and baffling behaviour going on in local government at the moment. Nothing in my immediate surroundings seems to make much sense. The headlong rush of people trying to stamp out a space for themselves has trodden all meaning out of the ground that I thought we were standing on (don’t people know not to trample on a crime scene?). I’m wondering how long it’s going to take for us to unearth our path again, and whether we’ll find ourselves heading in the right direction.
But, like a muddy-kneed archaeologist on rainy day, I’m still doing something that I care about. The daily quagmire is punctuated with little gems that remind me of this – ‘finds’, I think they are called. For example, it’s not every day that you pick up the phone to find an archaeologist from Orkney on the other end of it, asking for your advice. How thrilling that I’ve perhaps helped to inspire someone who I’ve never met (though I’m sure she doesn’t have muddy knees) to have a go at using open data.
My surprise caller is working on a proposal for NESTA’s Make It Local Scotland programme. She has seen my work with Thumbprint Co-operative on the Who Owns My Neighbourhood? project, which was funded by Make It Local in England. She’s interested in using open data as a way of enabling people to interact with Orkney’s heritage sites. Based on our conversation, I’m pretty interested in that too now.
I’ve never been to Orkney, but it looks like an inspiring place. It’s crammed with ancient monuments, including Standing Stones dating from around 3,000BC. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney – the area of the West Mainland surrounding the Ring o’ Brodgar – was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1999. You can see why people would want data to help decipher these enduring monuments. You can also see why people are keen to share their experiences of being there.
If I was able reassure and encourage this lady, it was because she valued hearing what someone who had “been through it” had to say. I told her that not everything had been easy, but NESTA are genuinely interested in sharing the learning process. In our case, we had a very clear idea about what we were trying to do, on a very local level, and we managed to get all the bits into place to make it happen. We learnt a lot along the way, and I recommend it. I’m fascinated to see what other ideas for using open data are going to emerge from Scotland in this phase of the programme.
It occurs to me as I say this that I’ve taken my fair share of reassurance this week too. Like others, I followed the UKGovCamp from a distance. As someone who is perched on the verge (precipice?) of Communications, I really noticed the comments about how few Comms staff there were at UKGovCamp. The tweets from some of the sessions and the reflective blogs that people have posted since have also reminded me that there are clear and thoughtful voices in other organisations, in different kinds of roles. You know who you are. The trouble is, I suspect that some people nearer to home might be more inclined to listen to those other voices than to me. But listening is always a good start…
My great frustration with local government communications is the seemingly relentless focus on broadcast messages. It certainly feels relentless at times. I’ve worked for my council for 9 years (and with my council before that as a volunteer), and I’ve spent all of that time helping people to create their own digital content, using lots of different kinds of technology. I was horrified to discover that some colleagues believe social media is about “doing what we’ve always done”, but using different marketing tools – just more ways of talking at people. I desperately want us to move on from this one-sided way of thinking, but I fear that somehow we’ve got stuck.
This worry about us missing out on the opportunities for real engagement and participation is why I asked to write our social media guidelines (insisted on it, some might say). I published the first documents a year ago, but only today have I finally been able to promote these guidelines to our staff – because when we get stuck, the work gets stuck too. Fear is pretty sticky stuff, and other people’s fear has grabbed me by the ankles every step of the way. In the meantime, dedicated staff who want to give a voice to our communities have not known where to look for reassurance and advice, for someone who has “been through it”. Good job that I’m a persistent bugger then.
I hope that today is a step towards making new connections within our own organisation – connections which are so badly needed if we are to transform the way that we work with local people. Today is a milestone for me, even if it’s a milestone with no markers.
Some days, it’s the connections I have with people who I rarely see that keep me sane. Most days, probably. They remind me that because our work, our dialogue, our experience is shared we continue to influence and inspire each other, even on rainy days. So even when we’re stuck – standing still, going apparently nowhere – we are still making things happen.
Even a Standing Stone casts a shadow. Both where it stands, and in people’s imaginations.
p.s. I’m not cross anymore.