I wrote recently about how large organisations may be able to reach out to bloggers to promote conversations in the public interest, and the sensitivites involved. Here's some news of a project along those lines that I and colleagues been working on recently for the BBC Trust.
It has given me some insights into what may be involved to make this type of blogger engagement work. Actually it could better be described as organisational engagement. More later on that, and the new-to-me idea of transliteracy which may be the space within which the engagement takes place.
The project also brought home to me what an extraordinary resource we have in BBC online - bbc.co.uk - and how very difficult it is to judge whether we are getting good value for the two per cent of our licence fee (£74 million) that goes on it. (Note to non-UK readers - each household pays more than £130 a year for BBC TV, radio and other services .... and bbc.co.uk costs about 36p a month of that according to this Wikipedia round-up).
No, that's not quite right. I've personally no doubt at all about paying that amount for the wealth of goodies on offer ... what's much more challenging is helping licence payers provide feedback via the Trust on just what mix the service should offer.
The Trust has taken over from the BBC governors as the body responsible for standing on the side of the licence payers, making sure we get a good deal, and that the people who make the programmes and run online services - the executive - stay on track to provide a splendid public service. But just what should that public service be?
The Trust - and the BBC - has recently been very taken up with staff cuts and other savings brought about because the licence fee isn't going up as much as the BBC wanted.
At the same time the Trust has been running the first of a long series of service reviews, during which the public (licence payers) will be consulted on the contractual agreements between the Trust and the BBC executive who provide the services. Before the Trust came on the scene no such explicit agreements were in place, so it is very new territory.
The first review is of bbc.co.uk, which the Trust started a few months back. There is an online questionnaire which takes us step-by-step through the issues the Trust is examining. (I'll return later to the work Lizzie Jackson, Ed Mitchell and I have been doing.)
The BBC's purpose is " To enrich people's lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain" with a vision " To be the most creative organisation in the world." It aims to create public value in six main ways:
- Sustaining citizenship and civil society: the BBC supports civic life and national debate by providing trusted and impartial news and information that helps citizens make sense of the world and encourages them to engage with it.
- Promoting education and learning: by offering audiences of every age a world of formal and informal educational opportunity in every medium, the BBC helps build a society strong in knowledge and skills.
- Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence: the BBC enriches the UK's cultural life by bringing talent and audiences together to break new ground, to celebrate our cultural heritage, and to broaden the national conversation.
- Reflecting the UK's nations, regions and communities: by enabling the UK's many communities to see what they hold in common and how they differ, the BBC seeks to build social cohesion and tolerance through greater understanding.
- Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK: the BBC supports the UK's global role by being the world's most trusted provider of international news and information, and by showcasing the best of British culture to a global audience.
The review of bbc.co.uk is looking at how that service serves the public purposes and, in particular, the citizenship and educational purposes. It is also looking - among other things - at how far it is distinctive and innovative, whether it extends the range of BBC's broadcast services, whether it enables users to search easily, leading users beyond BBC content, and whether it makes the BBC more accountable to licence fee payers.
The questionnaire takes you through these issues, with examples of what it would take to fulfil these requirements. There have already been several hundred responses, and consultation has been extended to mid-December.
Lizzie, Ed and I became involved because the Trust wanted to extend engagement further online ... to encourage more conversations as well as formal responses. It is difficult for the Trust to do that up front because it must be strictly neutral, so we spent some time with the Trust team working from broad ideas of what might be possible, towards a workshop with bloggers leading to wider online engagement.
We ran the workshop last week, and you can see how some noted bloggers picked up the challenge.
Charlie Beckett, the director of the new journalism and society think-tank POLIS, highlighted the difficulties of the consultation process, while wishing the Trust well in the process.
Simon Dickson, a new media consultant specialising in news and government work, suggested the Trust had its own blog pulling together conversations from different places, acting as a neutral moderator.
Sunny Hundal, who is editor of Asians in Media magazine, and runs the Pickled Politcs site, raised the issue of how satisfactory, or not, the management of interaction is on bbc.co.uk.
Sue Thomas, professor of new media at De Montfort University, questioned whether the BBC is transliterate ... which is a term I'm ashamed to say I hadn't met before. It means the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks. Very relevant.
Although the number of posts is so far small, they have started discussion ... with for example 20 comments on Sunny's site, and eight on Sue's.
We made suggestions to the Trust about how to carry the process forward, and already our client Anna Coghen has joined in the discussion on the blogs. On Sunny's site, Anna says she hopes that the Trust will run a bigger event later in the process with a wider invitee list.
The bloggers are also sharing ideas on how to collaborate between themselves, and with the BBC, so I'm hopeful we'll get a second wave of activity soon.
The process so far has reminded me yet again how far engagement is a process, not an event. I think the workshop went well, but in a few hours we barely had time to get to know each other and start some conversations. I hope more of those who attended post their thoughts, that Anna can find time to respond, and there may be further stimuli to discussion.
But maybe the main lesson is that it is possible for an organisation like the BBC Trust - which by its constitution is rather cautious and "official" - to get together with bloggers and do two things. First, invite involvement in topics of public concern and hopefully mutual interest, and secondly to say, in effect "we aren't entirely sure how to engage online. Can you give us some ideas and share your experience?" I think that admitting you aren't yet transliterate is lesson one for effective online organisational engagement.
More here in Wikipedia on transliteracy. Meanwhile, do please take a look at the questionnaire, and add your own views.
Anthony Mayfield writes on Citizen regulators: BBC Trust reaches out through blogs in its review of bbc.co.uk
Nico Macdonald writes on In the BBC we Trust