Digital communities: enabling and participating
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The communities that people form have traditionally been local. Our friends and work colleagues are local. Our leisure activities are local. Communities have formed locally where people support each other. We share tips, advice and good practices in the shop, in the pub, in the workplace.
As the digital world has moved into our personal lives many people’s communities have changed. The Sunday football team might organise themselves using a website with players declaring their availability for particular matches before meeting up on the day. We now share tips and advice with friends and peers on social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter in between our social catch-ups with them. We might develop best practice with colleagues in our professional fields using blogs and LinkedIn groups in between conferences.
This digital approach has led to new collaborative networks being formed: networks that are partially digital and partially face-to-face. A purely digital form can work for suggestions and feedback but this mix of digital and face-to-face is also needed.
Government should support this approach both around public services and in other areas where these networks would be useful but are not forming themselves. Such networks could provide part of the solution for Assisted Digital, where people may have digital skills but are unable to complete a transaction by themselves.
Such networks could also provide support for, say, jobseekers or medical patients by providing them with support between each other and between the community and government in between face-to-face meetings with frontline workers. It would provide an avenue to assist people to gain the trust, skills or confidence to complete some of the more complex government transactions.
Such networks would also be useful to help grow local economies and businesses , to form new Sunday league football clubs or other community activities, to find safe places for breastfeeding via services like Feed Finder , or to allow people to share spare portions of home-cooked meals with services like Casserole Club .
The latter case is useful to understand. Government is providing confidence in the service by performing criminal record checks but otherwise the service is acting as a matchmaker between supply and demand. This is not a classic public service, it is truly innovative and one that was created by a small company, but it is one that a digital government can enable. It is also one that improves people’s lives.
There are two prongs to our recommended approach. (1) Where communities already exist, government should participate in those communities rather than attempting to create new communities. But (2) government should also act as an enabler and active participant to create new communities.
Specifically government can enable new communities by:
- Building scaffolding in the form of a recommended digital toolset(s) 
- Providing community guidelines
- Providing confidence in people’s identity and skills through services such as identity assurance, criminal record checks, verification of status (for example a student, an employee of a local authority) or verification of skills (for example teacher or medical qualifications) 
- Providing links to sources of training
And Government can facilitate the flow of information between communities by:
- Providing global analyses & insights
- Providing timely and relevant contextual information (about the locality, similar localities, and across the country) to inform local decision making
- Facilitating the collection of comparable information by providing platforms and standards
Consider an active and engaged community that has been working with an authority on planning or education issues. The authority can make a general open data release but can also specifically target the release to this community as a significant new issue arises. This means that the authority and the community can then work together to create a solution. People can use the data and the community to help them organize; better democracy and better solutions can result from this.
We do have to be careful to avoid the trap of making digital not only the default but the whole story.
If we build this digital scaffolding and these online communities then they should be one of the ways to contribute, not the only way. Some people prefer face-to-face conversations. But with digital we can more easily allow people to contribute when it is convenient for them to do so and we can reach more people more quickly.
The effect of such communities will be beneficial for people and communities; will provide more reason to go online for some of those choosing not to go online; and will gradually increase the nation’s digital skills and confidence.
“The power relationship needs to be reversed so that the digital services are seen as a tool to influence and shape government in the interest of the people rather than as a way of shaping people in the interests of government.” – Local Authority
 To be clear we do not expect that government will necessarily have to build these toolsets, many already exist, but government will need to be careful in their selection and in clearly communicating any issues around privacy and use of personal data
 From a digital point-of-view we see many of these things as turning activities that currently happen by paper forms or phone calls into APIs that can be integrated into automated solutions, for example this could be an expansion of the GOV.UK Verify service. It is very similar to the service that the DVLA has created for insurance and car-hire firms to allow those firms to check people’s driving records yet being used for wider benefit
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