In Praise of Social Media Surgeries (and a few concerns)

Image courtesy Lloyd Davis

Around 18 months ago now, I was privileged to visit the Central Birmingham Social Media Surgery run by the wonderful Nick Booth on two occasions. Inspired by these visits, I subsequently worked with a number of great and supportive colleagues to establish Social Media Surgeries in a number of locations around Yorkshire. I’ve also been involved, beyond Yorkshire in helping to get Surgeries off the ground in Hulme, Manchester and Penrith, Cumbria, and I am hopeful that more will follow.

The original recipe for a Social Media Surgery devised by Nick still holds good as far as I am concerned. The secret of the success of the Surgeries I have been involved in has been their informality, the friendliness of the volunteer surgeons, the fact that the first duty of a surgeon is to listen not to prescribe solutions, the fact that attendees can go away having physically built something new, and that they can come back again next time having had a chance to play with their new found knowledge and get some feedback on the progress they have made. And, perhaps one of the keys to the success of the Surgeries is that they are free to attend.

This is why is makes me sad when I see people running events which don’t fit this model and calling them “Social Media Surgeries”. Of course, there is (as yet anyway) no copyright on the term, so anyone is free to use it. But, it concerns me that the growing reputation of Social Media Surgeries, and the goodwill that goes with them, is potentially undermined by people doing things with the same name that don’t get it right. When I see people running events which are formal, which involve teams of “experts” pontificating from a platform, or which charge a fee (sometimes substantial) for entry, I am worried.

Nick started something in Birmingham which has spread far and wide because it is a fantastic model. I want to appeal to people who want to run events that don’t fit this model please to find another title.

An Inspirational Two Days in Eden

Rory's Reivers 1

I’ve just spent an inspirational two days in the District of Eden in Cumbria, most of it in the beautiful village of Great Asby. I was there for two days of events, the first was the Big Society Information Exchange, which I have already blogged about here, day two was largely about the Cumbria Broadband Champions event. I’ve posted the videos from this event below.

I have to say that I came away from Great Asby feeling elated, energised and optimistic. As I said in the previous post, I retain doubts about the ability of the Big Society agenda to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged in society, but, I am an optimist at heart, and determined to do what I can to join in the effort to empower everyone in every community to achieve what is important to them. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen how it can be done in Eden. Yes, it is a Big Society Vanguard area, and, no, not every area is going to get the support that Eden is getting. And, not every area has an MP like Rory Stewart who is galvanising everybody, at all levels from the senior civil service to the smallest community group, to pull together around the Big Society banner. Every community is different, but I think that already a lot has been achieved in Eden and lessons are emerging. It was really encouraging (if not a little unnerving) to see the numbers of people who turned out on both days to cram into a tiny village hall and talk about their passions. We need to capture this spirit and spread it around, and we probably need to clone Rory Stewart, and the likes of Libby Bateman, who is an amazing dynamo, making things happen on the ground.


Day two was not exclusively about Eden, as Rural Broadband Champions came from throughout Cumbria to talk about their priorities for the Cumbrian Rural Broadband pilot, which looks like it will bring about £10 to £15 million of Government money to help solve connectivity problems in the county’s rural communities. We heard from Barry Forde, the designer of the CLEO (Cumbria & Lancashire Education Online) network, about how there can be fibre cables in surprising places that might make it easier to connect rural locations than we might imagine, and we heard from Miles Mandleson and John Bevan about the Great Asby Broadband network, which is solving the connectivity issue in the host village, and working towards its objective to provide fibre to the home (FTTH) for all its residents.

At the end of the day, community representatives presented the results of their discussions about broadband needs in their area. These were powerful testimonies about their struggles to get the connectivity that many of us take for granted, and their determination to ensure the pilot is used as an opportunity to make a step change towards “future-proof” connections, not short term fixes that will be obsolete in a few years time.  Rural communities need the sort of services (eg. Telehealth and Telecare) that next generation broadband can bring even more than their urban counterparts, and there is a strong feeling that the time is overdue to start delivering them.

I think the rural broadband pilots could be a real test for the Big Society. It is evident from Cumbria that there are community groups out there ready and willing to deliver community-based solutions to their local connectivity needs. As we heard, Great Asby Broadband is already doing it, but, there are also many other vested interests in the broadband world, including some very big corporations who might fight to secure Government subsidies for their own plans, which may or may nor fit in with community aspirations. If Big Society is about breaking through public bureaucracy in the interests of getting things done in the community, then, surely this must apply also to private vested interests where they stand in the way of local communities getting what is right for them.

The Cumbrian Rural Broadband Champions have spoken. Lets hope someone is listening.

Videos from the day

Rory Stewart MP introduces the day, and interviews Barry Forde

More from Barry Forde

Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband

John Bevan, Great Asby Broadband

Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband (again)

Mike Kiely & Robert Ling of Broadband Delivery UK

Simon Jones, Cisco

Nicky Getgood, Talk About Local

Questions and Answers

Feedback from Communities

Rory Stewart MP sums up

Eden Big Society Information Exchange


Yesterday, I was privileged to be part of the first Eden Big Society Information Exchange. During the day, probably around 200 people gathered in the small village hall in the Cumbrian village of Great Asby. It was really interesting to see the Big Society in action, as the dynamic and charismatic local MP, Rory Stewart, galvanised the senior civil servants and agency managers, who he had persuaded to leave their coseted Whitehall worlds, into earnest discussion about how Government might help communities to achieve their ambitions.


It was a really interesting process, a bit chaotic at times, owing to the large numbers of people in a small hall, but, ultimately quite inspiring. It remains a concern of mine as to whether Big Society can be done this way everywhere. Eden is a Vanguard Area, and Rory Stewart is very persuasive, I can’t see teams of high flying civil servants descending on every community in the country, and I also wonder what would happen if you try this in some of the more disadvantaged and / or socially and ethnically diverse areas. But, it seems to me that Eden is making real progress in working out how Big Society might be implemented.


You can see more of the photos I took at the event here.

The day started with Rory Stewart MP introducing the objectives, and then handing over to a number of senior civil servants and national agency representatives who were there to see how the might help local people to achieve their Big Society objectives. Here is the video of that session.

Here is the video of the afternoon panel session:

And some scenes from the round table discussions

Some archived live video

The First Yorkshire Social Media Surgery for Musicians

First Yorkshire Musicians' Social Media Surgery #1

Last night, the long awaited first Yorkshire Social Media Surgery for Musicians finally happened. And it was well worth the wait. As we planned it, the wise words of Nick Booth, the originator of the Social Media Surgery concept kept running through my mind. Nick says that one of the pre-requisites of a Social Media Surgery is “zero expectations”.  I was trying to follow Nick’s advice, but I think I failed miserably, and I ended up having quite high expectations of the whole thing, but, nevertheless I was prepared for failure. As it turned out I need not have worried, the event was a great success. For me, and for everyone else I spoke to who was part of it, it was one of those genuinely uplifting occasions when everything seems to go right. It actually exceeded expectations, and left us all with a warm glow as we wended our way home (via the Midnight Bell pub in many cases).

First Yorkshire Musicians' Social Media Surgery #2The first part of the evening saw the foyer of the Round Foundry in Leeds a buzz of conversation as Surgeons and musicians debated the merits of different social media platforms and worked to develop strategies for reaching audiences more effectively. All the time, Rich Huxley of Hope and Social flitted from table to table passing on his knowledge of music-specific platforms, and inspiring people with his stories about how Hope and Social uses social media to create special events and engage its audience around them. All the feedback I got about this was very positive both from the musicians and the Surgeons. Nearly everyone I spoke to wanted to know when we were going to do it again.

We were very grateful to the guys at get-ctrl for their sponsorship that enabled us to lay on some food and drink for the evening. Please do me a favour and check out their great platform which does more or less everything a musician needs on the internet

First Yorkshire Musicians' Social Media Surgery #3The evening was rounded off by some musical entertainment. And, what entertainment! We were treated to some storming performances by David Henshaw, Gary Stewart and his band, and Wilful Missing.

And you don’t even have to take my word for how good it all was, the video evidence is below.

Scenes from the first Yorkshire Musicians’ Social Media Surgery

David Henshaw

Gary Stewart

Wilful Missing

North West Employers’ Big Society Conference – 2nd November 2010

Today I am live blogging the North West Employers’ Big Society Conference at the Reebok Stadium Bolton.

There are about 80 people gathered here from across the North-West and beyond.

Proceedings were kicked off by Francis Davis, Policy Advisor to Greg Clark MP at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Francis drew compliments from a number of contributors for at last bringing some clarity to the Big Society agenda. He talked about how we should not expect a consistent Government approach to the Big Society, because it is about Government stepping back and allowing communities to take action for themselves. Different Government Departments will interpret this differently.

Some of the examples of action that Francis gave included:

  • There will be 5,000 community organisers
  • Communities First will make between £50m and £100m grants
  • “Pilots” to turn parts of public sector into mutuals
  • DfE – developing national citizens’ service
  • Ministry of Justice instructed staff to “Big Society” every business process
  • DCLG – removed all targets, introduced “Barrier Busting” teams, removing regional tier to return money to local authorities and power to local people.

Francis gave an example of how the Big Society Bank might work. He talked about a housing estate where arson was costing £1m a year to deal with. A plan could be made for drastically reducing this cost by implementing measures led by the community. A social enterprise could be established to implement these measures, with a loan for start up costs provided by the Big Society Bank. Once the savings to the public purse had been realised, 50% of the saving could be paid to the social enterprise to fund local community activities and to repay its loan.

The second speaker was Sarah Longlands Director of Policy for the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). Sarah talked about the contradictions of the Big Society agenda, with its emphasis on community empowerment at a time when resources were being withdrawn from some community initiatives. She considered it will be a struggle to ensure the poorest are not left behind. Some of the issues she highlighted were:

  • What is the link with local economies?
  • Supporting enterprise and entrepreneurship
  • Circulation of money in local economies – social enterprises are more likely to spend their income in local economies
  • Welfare reform – need to make work and enterprise pay (and where are the jobs going to come from?) Public sector traditionally been a bridge to the labour market
  • Challenges of economic growth – need to make sure economic development benefits the hardest pressed communities

Sarah considered it vital that the Regional Growth Fund and the new Local Economic Partnerships fully understand the potential for social enterprise to step in areas where the commercial sector is weak and the local state is being rolled back.

Some of the questions which Sarah considered needed urgently to be answered were:

  • How do we enable every one to participate in the Big Society?
  • Do we all have time to do this?
  • Are local organisations always open and fair?
  • Can citizens and communities really fix their own problems? – there will always be a role for specialists
  • What is role of state and local government?
  • Will big business take over services and does this matter?
  • Will a smaller state make society bigger?
  • What if all the money dries up?
  • What happens to accountability? Where will the buck stop?

The first speaker after the morning coffee break was Kevin Douglas, Chief Executive of Eden District Council, who talked about the district’s Big Society Vanguard area.

Kevin Douglas

Kevin talked about how the passion and vision of Rory Stewart, the local MP had driven the adoption of Eden as a Big Society Vanguard, and how Rory continues to push things forward. He also said that this was the only one of many speaking invitations that he had accepted since Eden had been declared a Big Society Vanguard.

Eden has clustered its communities into groups of Parishes under the headings of Upper Eden, Heart of Eden, and Lyvennet Valley. The Council provides a small amount of financial support and officer resources, but the community plans which these groups have drawn up are very much driven by community priorities, and the Council does not lead the process. A principal source of finance is the parish council precept. Eden is the only one of the four Vanguard areas where senior civil servants from the Department of Communities and Local Government are working directly with the community groups and not through the council.

The main initiatives being pursued by the communities are:

  • Upper Eden – Develop and manage own community centre
  • Lyvennet – Affordable Housing Scheme (on brownfield site – 22 units)
  • Lyvennet – Community-owned pub
  • Lyvennet – Anaerobic Digester – looking to develop sustainable electricity
  • Heart of Eden – Renewable Energy Project
  • Upper Eden – Tourism / Walking programme

Kevin identified the main barriers to the community organisations getting their plans implemented. These are:

  • Bureaucracy – public organisations having to meet centrally-driven targets. In the past, government would not put trust in small organisations
  • Finance – the vast majority of what communities want to do costs. They might be able to do it cheaper, but there is still a cost
  • Experience / Knowledge – Communities need to know where they can go for specialist advice. Local government can sign-post.

Kevin said he needed to address the impact of the CSR spending cuts on the district and how this affects the Big Society plans. The Council is required to find 9% savings in three years, and this has led it to decide to withdraw from certain services including some Public Toilets, some Tourism Information Centres, and some forms of Corporate Support. It will also make it harder to provide financial support to community groups. Obviously, there is a potential for community groups to step in to provide some of these services, but the approach the council has been taking has been dictated by community priorities, and this highlights a key Big Society dilemma in that the local community may not see these services as priorities.

Some of the key lessons emerging, even at this early stages, from the Vanguard are:

  • Procedures and barriers to local action are overwhelming – this wears down the enthusiasm of activists;
  • Access to information is a key barrier;
  • Community Priorities v Council Priorities – there are some areas of conflict which are difficult to resolve. eg. the community wants to do some minor construction schemes which are low on the council’s priorities, partly because of cost. The community wants to do them itself cheaper and more quickly;
  • Finance – Pump Priming – Trying to provide small amounts of finance which can pump-prime or be used as match-funding for other sources. This may dry up following the CSR cuts;
  • Staffed support – this is getting more difficult to provide;
  • Volunteer sustainability – what happens when volunteers move on? We need succession planning to avoid crucial initiatives failing in the future.

Some of the key challenges for the Big Society have been identified as:

  • CSR v Big Society – The fact that the CSR cuts and Big Society come together creates a great deal of cynicism. This puts people off participating
  • Localisation v Central Support – Who arbitrates on issues when communities have different priorities?
  • Opportunity v Excuse – Is it an opportunity to do new things or an excuse for the state to stop doing things?

The final speaker of the morning was Richard Caulfield, Chief Executive of Voluntary Sector North West. Richard started with a word of caution about the negative language he was hearing from some circles about public sector workers. He said that there were many dedicated, hard working, people in the public sector, and now was not the time to be opening divisions between the sectors. While it may not necessarily be true that “we are all in this together”, it is true that the best way of getting out of the current situation is for everyone, in all sectors, to make common cause.

Richard also pointed to anger in the voluntary sector caused by two key factors. The first was that Government had decided to ban the term “Third Sector”. At a time when they need the sector’s help, Government should not be telling it what it should be calling itself. The second cause for anger was the impression being given by Government that the activity described as “Big Society” is something new. People in the Third Sector have been doing this sort of stuff for a very long time, and they don’t take kindly to having this fact ignored.

The sector has also been concerned about some of the messages coming from Government and its agencies. For instance, “Your Square Mile”, the flagship initiative of the Big Society Network, looks like a very southern, metropolitan initiative which does not play well in the North, and is particularly irrelevant to rural areas. It also appears that Ministers are relaxed with the idea that the Big Society might create inequalities, or at least not reduce inequality. This is profoundly scary to many people in the Third Sector who have dedicated their lives to reducing inequality.  There are also some big contradictions going on, in that the drive to save money seems to be resulting in consolidation and mergers in the public sector, which appear likely to result in large commissioning contracts. Big commissions are the enemy of localism, such contracts will not go to the small community groups which are supposed to be at the heart of the Big Society.

Richard thought that Government seems to be suggesting that there are good and bad forms of volunteering. If this is the case, we need to know which is which. The whole Big Society agenda risks changing the nature of volunteering, as most people who came into the Third Sector did so because they have a passion and an interest, not because they want to deliver public services.  Initiatives such as the Metropolitan Police suggesting that, in future, entry to the police force would be dependent on applicants have spent 18 months volunteering as a special constable, risk creating a form of compulsory volunteering. And various suggestions of reward schemes for volunteers veer dangerously close to payments systems, and if you are being paid for your efforts you need at least the minimum wage.

Richard took Lord Nat Wei to task for, on the one hand, accusing the voluntary sector of being too dependent on public funding, and, on the other hand, encouraging it to deliver more public services. The Big Society Network wants to encourage Participatory Budgeting, why can’t we have Participatory Cutting, involving people in making decisions about what needs to be cut? Why can’t public investment in the voluntary sector be seen as just that, investment? If the Big Society is about empowering people to do things for themselves, the Richard with embrace it. But there is too much of a suspicion that it is tied up in the cuts agenda and a negative view about the voluntary sector.

Encouraging the Grass to Grow at the ReeboK Stadium

Following a very fine lunch, Graeme Clark, Peterborough City Council’s lead officer for Citizen Power took to the platform. Graeme described the work going on in Peterborough, under the Citizen Power banner, in partnership with the Arts Council and the RSA. The Council wants to have a different kind of conversation with the people of the City. Peterborough’s citizens do not appear to have a great sense of belonging to their neighbourhoods or the city. There is a low level of capacity to respond to challenges. So the Council and its partners want to engender a new form of citizenship with people more engaged, pro-social, resourceful, self-reliant, resilient and creative.

Three themes underpin the programme:

  • attachment – to place and each other
  • participation
  • innovation – identifying new ways of doing things which make the most of people’s capacities

There are 7 strands to the programme, which include – Civic Commons, a new space for debate and action, fostering Capacity Building, a Seeding ground for ideas, Enabling citizens to engage in bigger-picture issues, and building a Positive reputation for Peterborough.

Another important strand is the Peterborough Curriculum which aims to connect what young people learn in school with what happens in their community, and to use Peterborough as a learning tool. This will promote: Participation in and of the learning community; Attachment to the city; and Innovation in ways of doing things

Another strand is Making Social Media Social which is developing an on-line platform & social media tools to: Improve community participation; Build a sustainable network of community websites; Provide services to the Citizen Power programme; and bring together People looking for things to do & people to help. This can be seen at

The last speaker of the day was Jessica Crowe, of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, whose focus was on the role of the councillor in the Big Society. She began by talking about the situation in the London Borough of Hackney where she lives. A few years ago, there were riots outside council meetings when the authority had to make decisions about some major spending cuts. Now, when even bigger cuts are being discussed, there are no such incidents. This is because the authority has built trust with its residents such that they now trust it to make the right decisions.

Trust is a very important issue in the relationship between councillors and the people they represent. Jessica presented the case against councillors being part of the Big Society, which is:

  • They are part of the local state;
  • they can be seen as gatekeepers rather than facilitators;
  • they operate under bureaucratic principals;
  • they are old-fashioned (the average age of a councillor is 59)
  • they are unrepresentative (low electoral turnout)

The case FOR councillors in the Big Society is:

  • They are the ultimate local involved citizens;
  • they are able to challenge public servants;
  • they stand up for their community;
  • they can be enablers, facilitators and champions;
  • they are the democratic wing of the Big Society

It is time to welcome transparency. Tools like are putting the power in the hands of ordinary citizens to interrogate what happens behind the scenes in public bodies and other organisations. Local government should welcome this, but transparency should apply to anyone who spends public money, including schools, the NHS and voluntary groups. But we also need to be open to risk and plan for what happens when things go wrong. If we are to let 1000 flowers bloom, what happens when some of those flowers fail to take root.

Jessica cited the case of a cemetery in Warrington which was threatened with closure due to its £1m a year running costs. The local community managed to take it over, run it for £85,000 a year, and create 2,000 new burial plots.

Jessica finished with an appeal for the wider use of social media to help councillors and others understand the plethora and diversity of initiatives taking place in their communities.

A thought-provoking and encouraging day finished with delegates in their table groups putting forward their thoughts on the day. There was widespread support for the Big Society agenda, tinged with scepticism about how it might work, and no little fear about the challenges ahead.


Here are videos of the sessions. Sorry about the quality, they were shot from the back of the room. Also, some kind of power issue wiped out the video of Francis Davis’s talk.

Q & A Session following Francis Davis, Dept. of Communities & Local Government

Sarah Longlands of CLES

Kevin Douglas, CEO of Eden District Council

Richard Caulfield, Voluntary Sector North West

Graeme Clark, Peterborough City Council

Jessica Crowe, Centre for Public Scrutiny

Closing Summary

Tackling “Hidden” Digital Exclusion

Today I met with Muriel Stretton, who manages Hattersley and Mottram Community Media in Tameside, east of Manchester. Muriel is one of those people fortunate to have found a role working in the community that she lives in and loves. She describes herself as well-known in the community and perceived as a bit of a troublemaker by some of the local agencies. It seems to me that this probably means she is doing a good job, as, particularly in the age of the “Big Society” community organisers who can retain the support of community members, while making life just a little uncomfortable for the “powers that be” are just what is called for. You can find out more about Muriel’s work, and that of Hattersley & Mottram Community Media here

Muriel Stretton

One of our topics of conversation today was how far HMCM could move its activities online and still engage with local residents. We talked about the proportion of the local population that is online, and Muriel told me that this fluctuates. The principal reason for this is households cannot get fixed line data connectivity without it being tied to a phone line. Muriel described a typical scenario of a low income household signing up for a broadband contract, but then having their line cut off because most of their contacts use mobile phones, and it can be prohibitively expensive to call a mobile from a landline phone. Muriel says this is a very common situation, and means that, although virtually all households in the area are connected to the fixed line infrastructure, very many of them are barred from using it because they have defaulted on their phone bill. This forces them to rely on expensive and unreliable 3G dongles for their data connectivity.

I think this is a “hidden” aspect of digital exclusion that is not widely appreciated. Muriel asked why telecoms companies cannot offer “data only” fixed line packages to avoid the temptation for subscribers to run up large phone bills and risk getting cut off. This seems like an eminently sensible suggestion to me, and I believe it could be an important contribution to the drive for digital inclusion.