LocalGovCamp 2014 by Suraj Kika“Okay, so, Catherine Howe and I would like to do a session that follows on from something we’ve been talking about recently, roughly that social media is not the whole of digital…and nor is comms.”

And so went my pitch at LocalGovCamp 2014. I was near the back of the queue and I’m not sure I summarised what the session was about overly well, partly because I was still trying to define it myself.

That meant that when the session came around there was a small group gathered to find out more in a session that Catherine Howe* and I had hoped would be a continuation of an open conversation that had begun online, fleetingly surfaced at the recent LG Comms Academy and seemed a good fit for LocalGovCamp.

The starting point was really a set of tweets a few weeks back which left me feeling I needed to assert that ‘while all comms should be digital, digital is more than just comms’. And I’m not just talking about integrated campaigns here.

Catherine and I had separately begun to notice that ‘digital’ was becoming synonymous with ‘communications’ and that this was limiting the potential for technologies to enable social change, innovation and democracy. I posed the theory that as communications professionals include more digital communications in their daily work and become adept with the tools to do so they become blinkered to other lanes of digital running parallel to them (and that’s no disrespect to comms colleagues who are doing great work). Catherine asked whether normalising social media and digital into the profession of communications was in fact damaging the wider potential.

This led to a lively discussion on whether we needed an common understanding of ‘digital’ and the recognition that everyone was broadly talking about the same thing but looking at it through a different lens and therefore at cross-purposes much of the time. This fitted with an exercise Carl Haggerty did at a recent workshop in Nottinghamshire where he asked attendees to complete the sentence ‘Digital is…’. The range of answers was really interesting – some people said culture, some people said technology, some said it was about services, some said it was about doing things better. And the best thing is that these are all right, but given that you need to have an awareness of the range of views as well as the one that makes most sense to you.

In his blog following on from this session Phil Jewitt asked whether this debate around ‘digital’ was in itself holding us back from actually progressing things. It’s a great post and a pertinent question so go and have a read (but come back, deal?)

Conversation then followed taking up one of the ‘digital is’ suggestions of it being about connections or networks. Cathering talked about ‘starburst networks’ – where the person or organisation at the centre is connected to lots of others but they aren’t connected to each other – and a connected network – where the person at the centre is connected to lots of others and those are all well connected to each other. I likened this to the current and emerging models of local government with a council as provider with connections to lots of individual service users and the council as commissioner with connections to lots of individuals or other groups and a need to help them connect to each other to strengthen the community. I asked how we helped an organisation move from starburst to connected community. A strand that needs more thought I think.

The last part of the session was Catherine trying out her theory of the Seven Tribes of Digital. I won’t steal her thunder by going through it here but it certainly seemed to fit with my own musings on how many different areas, views, professions and types of people make up the whole of digital. I still remain convinced that comms is just one track within the wider field and the while upskilling professionals running that line should look up and around for a perspective on what else is happening, what else is possible.

I ended the session by lobbing a thought grenade, something I like to do to hear a collective intake of breath but also keep cogs turning. I suggested another conversation for another day would be discussion around: ‘is councils being forced toward transactional digital services at the expense of their online relationship with the community and how damaging could this be?’

I’ve already written it on a post-it and am ready to go – I just need an unconference to pitch it at.

* I love talking to Catherine. A brilliant mind, full of passion and talent to actually make some of these big leaps forward for networks and digital in society. She has that rare gift of never making you feel inferior in the presence of her immense talent and intellect for which I am grateful.


There are loads of blog posts, tools, resources and videos from LocalGovCamp, the hack event and the Leaders’ Summit which I’ve handily gathered together in one place on the LocalGov Digital website. You can find them on the LocalGovCamp and Fringe 2014 page.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so leave me a comment below or come and chat on Twitter.

Thanks to Suraj Kika for the image, from a set he took of the whole day at LocalGovCamp.


12 thoughts on “LocalGovCamp 2014: Digital is…

  1. Great post and it was an interesting session, as was the day.

    I’m sure folk did come back if they did go have a read of my post and thanks for the link. I just stayed here though 😉

    I have a question re your post-it and proposed session on “are councils being forced toward transactional digital services at the expense of their online relationship with the community and how damaging could this be?’

    My question/suggestion is – why would it be at the specific expense of ONLINE relationship? Perhaps it might have more of an effect on other relationships – phone and face to face or are you suggesting that the technical/digital support/resources might be shifted and online interaction would suffer?

    I have a model of ‘social publishing’ (for want of a better term) that I’m using to explain the relationship between ‘information and transaction’ and ‘engagement’ and ‘signposting’. It’s amateur but it has been helpful in bringing together different workstreams to see the integrated requirements. I’ll send you a copy for further discussion and challenge please.

  2. I would *love* to see that please Phil – it sounds as if it is in line with conversations I’m having at the moment and would be happy to be a critical friend on it.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the session and the day. I was certainly glad to have been able to talk out some of my thoughts and questions around digital tracks and the way we’re talking about digital in so many ways, and in some ways not at all. I’m looking forward to Catherine publishing her Seven Tribes theory as I would like to have a look more deeply at the different views and ambitions people have when approaching digital delivery of services.

    As for the transactional / relationship quandry. I think I mean all relationships. It is perhaps easier (perhaps!) to ask what relationship element is lost or detrimentally changed when you channel shift away from phone or face to face (if any)? But you’re right that the other way to question it is by focussing so keenly on transactions are online relationships being neglected? And what is the value in those relationships that is lost?

  3. This is a fascinating conversation, particularly because I have long thought that in many ways digital makes things – or at least some things – less like comms in a separately identifiable way and more just how stuff gets done. Just as there is more to digital than technology, but it doesn’t work without a core of effective technology, so there is more to it than comms, but equally comms is unavoidably a constant element of it.
    One example of this is leaflets. In my (central government benefits) world, leaflets belonged to the comms people, for very good reasons: what mattered about them was that they were clearly expressed, effectively designed and legally accurate. So there was some input from policy people and lawyers, but otherwise they were pretty self-contained.
    In a digital world, things start to look very different. The information in the leaflet doesn’t make a self-contained product, it becomes part of the process or service it used almost to sit above. The intelligence on its effectiveness comes from observing what people do and what they ask, and so it’s much more an element of the operational dialogue which is about making sure the process works as well as it can do, not just that it’s described as well as it can be,
    That feels to me to be an example – to reverse Catherine’s question – of how communications needs to be normalised into social and digital, or, in a trope which pops up from time to time in various forms, we don’t want to pull expertise into how we do social media, we want to push social media into how we do expertise.

  4. Thanks Stefan – you’ve just added even more interesting thoughts to an already fascinating conversation!

    I agree with you that something like social media shouldn’t be ‘boxed off’ and done artifically by a single department (whether comms or something else) and that certainly digital content as an operational dialogue makes sense. Certainly that user experience and observation is as vital for me to digital content as clear wording. My concern is that because comms people are very good at amplifying their view and so the lens that look at digital through is obscuring other views. This worries me when I read articles by comms people that promote the idea that digital content should be created by a communicator, and that disciplines like design psychology and usability aren’t worth bothering with. I was actually so stunned by this narrow focus and dismissal of other parts that I can’t find the link to the article!

    Maybe it would help to begin some sort of ‘digital is…’ list? (or maybe it won’t but I’m going to do it anyway!)

    Digital is…
    -more than the sum of its parts
    -data (both of the Big and Open varieties)
    -the way we do things

    Maybe people could add their own thoughts to that in the comments?

  5. Great post, and great comments.

    The “Digital Is…” question (btw very blankety-blank, do excuse me if I reminisce about Les Dawson!) has come up a few times for me recently as well. For example there was a whole MoreTeaVicar Unconference evening spent on the topic a couple of months back.

    I gradually came to the conclusion that, currently, digital can mean different things to different people and can also mean multiple things simultaneously. That conclusion has encouraged me to stop and check context when I hear the word, to be aware of other people’s mental models as well as my own.

    Anyway as well as your great list (I’d pick out “how we do things”, that’s a great rallying cry!) some of the best definitions I’ve heard are:

    Digital is
    — a way to do transform how we deliver services
    — one of the communications channels we use to deliver services
    — 2-way
    — participatory
    — adapting technology to people

  6. I wonder if you are setting yourself up for a version of Fermat’s last theorem: I have a wonderful list of what digital is, but this comment box is too small to contain it.

    The list of what digital isn’t might be easier and shorter. I don’t mean by that that digital is the only thing there is, but that digital gives us tools and approaches for doing a wide range of things, it permeates a lot of what we do even in areas where it isn’t the ultimate doing of it. I used to include a slide in almost every presentation I did which just said “e-government is government” (which tells you how long ago that was). I think we need to aim for the point where we don’t talk about digital government because we no longer think we need to.

  7. I’ve only just come back after going to read Phil’s post, but I did come back.

    I don’t feel that I made a very valuable contribution to this session at LocalGovCamp. Half the words in my job title are “digital communications”, but I find that the work I am, or could be, involved in stretches beyond the boundaries of what I consider to be purely digital comms. Both the words “digital” and “communications” are causing me to think quite a lot about my role, and where my work starts and ends. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. But if I had mentioned this during the session it may have a) helped me to think it through more and b) added a useful angle for others in the room to discuss.

  8. Very thought-provoking post, Sarah. Thank you for it.

    I suppose if you are being pulled into thinking that digital is all about communications, it could be that this is a consensus among those you talk to most. In actual fact, there are millions of people out there doing interesting stuff with digital that is nothing, or little, to do with communications. In a local government context, I suppose the work being done on service re-design is the most relevant. Some of this is, indeed, about comms, in that it is about reducing the costs of relating with the public, but there is much more about how services are delivered and restructured, with is not really comms-focussed at all. And then there is all the work on telehealth and telecare, which is going to transform all our lives, but doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

    I suppose sometimes we get drawn into conflating “digital” and social media, but the reality is that social media is just a very small part of the panoply of things can can be delivered digitally. It just happens to be the most “noisy” part of the landscape.

  9. Next time Albert!

    I’ve had similar quandries around my own job titles in the past – at the moment I have a simple ‘Senior Digital’ which I think has helped me be nomadic between tribes in order to help shape the organisation’s digital transformation but due to where I sit within the structure I’m exposed to the communications tribe more directly than others!

    In the past I’ve been ‘digital communications’ and while this didn’t really change my desire to contact other tribes working in other parts of digital I think on occasion it has stilted discussion and progress and I’ve been seen as just the final stop on the digital journey – the presentation, the cherry on the top but not the ‘real’ grit of the thing.

    I guess, just like music, we must be wary of categorising too much and artificially boxing people in. The last thing digital needs as a whole is silos working in isolation! So challenge the constriction you feel the wording of your job title adds and define your own boundary.

    If you were to create your own job title what do you think would best reflect or help what you are working on?

  10. I agree John – digital is much wider than comms and I’m not in danger of thinking any differently. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head though with your comments about social media being noisy. My thoughts started rolling on this one after seeing conversations between others in my timeline and blog posts supporting the view that comms is all being retweeted in. I guess this is becoming a prevalent view because comms people are good at what they do – amplifying views and generating discussion!

    My own role is closer to service design at the moment but crosses lots of different parts of digital – communications, technology, innovation, change, data. I guess because I’m somewhat of a nomad moving between tribes it’s easier for me to see the landscape and the great work happening in local government, public sector and elsewhere!

    I suppose my consideration now, following my conversations with Catherine, this session and discussion around this blog post is how do we expose more people who are very closely aligned to one tribe, to the activity and worth of the others?

  11. My tuppenceworth…

    The thing that means that passionate people are thrilled by “digital” is because it is an utterly customer-focused, action-oriented view of a positive future for the world.

    This is nothing at all to do with technology … except that it sort of is, because (1) it’s actually technology that has enabled some extremely customer-centric stuff to happen, that couldn’t be done before, and showcase customer-centricity in action, and (2) because some of the methods for developing really user-centric technology are applicable to wider questions of service design, which is why some techy customer heroes such as (but not limited to) GDS have made an impact with it.

    This means that there’s an interesting dilemma. There’s a constituency of motivated intelligent people for whom the word “digital” means the good stuff I mentioned, but the brand is absolutely LOUSY for getting other people on board without shedloads of explanation. And I think it means that when some clients are asking for “digital” it’s not clear what they want – are they really asking for the big stuff, or in their heads is it about comms or websites. And are there folk selling “digital” in good faith (because they are selling, literally, digital stuff) who are diluting the bigger brand, and confusing the bigger picture?

    If we take the essence of this as being about relentless customer orientation then it exposes that we need many tools for understanding customers, before worrying about whether the solution is an app or whatever. Some of the most exciting stuff that’s happening at the moment is in that relentless understanding space:
    – analytics (what does the actual data say) and structured (ethical) experimentation
    – co-design: participation
    – co-production: asset-based thinking, empowerment etc
    – ethnographics – forgetting what we appear to know and what people say – what do they actually do!

    And where the Catherine Howe stuff (and eg Demsoc and others) feels like it might be exciting (if I could ever truly get my head around it) is that it goes beyond the customer perspective to the citizen one, and understands the extent to which it is necessary for the citizen meaningfully to empower the system which engages with him or her. And “digital” really doesn’t feel like the right word that. At all.

  12. As John says, social media is “the most “noisy” part of the [digital] landscape”.  I’m certainly finding that in my job. Social media takes up a significant portion of my time, despite it only being part of my role. In the 8 months I’ve been in the job, there have been numerous times when I have heard people refer to me as the Council’s social media person, presumably thinking the “digital communications” in my job title is just a posh way of saying “social media”.

    Sarah, I like your use of the word “nomadic” to describe your role.  That’s what my role is supposed to be about: working across numerous departments, helping them improve their digital wotsit.  I was going to end that sentence with “helping them improve their digital communications”.  But I have hesitations about using the word “communications” in this context.  I’m not too sure why.  I think it’s that I’m seeing occasions where there is more than simply a need to communicate digitally, but where digital service redesign is arguably as important. And in these cases, digital communications are, as you say, “not the ‘real’ grit of the thing.”

    Your question about defining my own job title has got me thinking. My actual title is Digital Communications Development Officer. But, still being relatively new to this job, I don’t yet feel able to “challenge the constriction” of its wording. I wonder what would happen if I simply took out the word “Communications”. It would be controversial because, like you, I’m exposed to the communications tribe more directly than others!

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