Friends, Romans, Courserans


As it’s clear from this blog and my other blogging home, I’m a bit of a fan of Rome.  So I decided to do a free MOOC (massive open online course) with Coursera on Roman Architecture to see what I could pick up, and to exercise my brain a little as well.

I’ve taken online courses before, but in English Lit, which was more within my comfort zone.  I loved the whole experience there, including engaging with both tutor and fellow students in real time through the forums on the course.  I’ve gone on to maintain contact with a few of my classmates through Facebook (and Goodreads to a lesser extent) where we continue to share our thoughts on our reading and more.

Those were paid-for courses, and it gave a little taster of the Oxford experience – so detailed feedback, email contact and more, with a finite set of people able to enroll on the course.

A Mooc was always going to be different – this one apparently has 40,000 people signed up.  Whether they’ll all finish is open to question, but that’s not really the point. People are learning in different ways, sharing experiences, and interacting on a subject that interests them.  They’re dipping in to varying degrees, and that’s all good.

Like the Oxford courses, here the online discussion forums are active ways of sharing with fellow students, with the staff at Yale, and also with a worldwide set of experts.  All for free.

And, from a digital engagement perspective, it’s really interesting that the course leader, Professor Kleiner, is a keen advocate of using digital tools to bring the course to life a little more through sharing stimulus material on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.  I’d love to see how this develops in future.

Birthdays, visions of democracy and back to BIS


So, this is my last day with Involve before I return to my day job.

It’s been a very different week in a small third-sector organisation as opposed to a large government department.  There are fewer people around, it’s a smaller building, and Old Street/Corsham Street is very different to Victoria Street.  It’s given me an insight into the different issues faced by smaller organisations, and I’ve been lucky to get a little insight into their work and projects over the last few days, as well as having a little space to reflect more on some of the aspects of my day-to-day job.

I’ve had an introduction to the NHS Citizen project, and a timely reminder of how facilitation skills can be applied in other settings – including in the type of digital training that we offer to policy makers  My time has also coincided with the organisation’s 10th birthday, and I was delighted to be able to attend their anniversary celebration at the University of Westminster last night (on Tweeting duty, although the team all share the digital load normally, and have got really strong online profiles).  As Simon let the cat out of the bag that I was tweeting for @InvolveUK during the event, I’d have to say I didn’t find it necessarily freer, although it was fun trying to distill some rather cryptic comments about pigs and cows.

The focus of last night’s event was a forward-facing one, with guests asked to think about their visions of democracy. While some of that, unsurprisingly, focused on areas that the impartial civil servant in me can’t really comment on or influence, it was gratifying to find such a resonance with what we in the BIS digital team are trying to achieve by empowering policy makers to listen and engage online – that’s our contribution to shaping the future of democracy, enabling both policy makers to have a voice online, and ensuring that the public voice as it’s expressed online is more easily heard.

So, I was really interested in some of the thinking last night.  Geoff Mulgan, for example, from Nesta discussed a European project that Nesta is involved with to make digital participation more widespread. But equally, later, in the speed dating/networking session I was reminded that some members of the public have the same misgivings about engaging online as policy makers.

It was also great to catch up with many of the current and past Sciencewise teams that I don’t get to speak to in my current role, and to hear about some exciting projects that will definitely be of interest to staff across BIS.

So, as I go back there it only remains for me to say a really big thank you to all of Simon’s team at Involve for making me so welcome over the last few days.

NHS Citizen & The Discover Space

This is the full text of a blog post that I published for Involve on the NHS Citizen Project’s Discover Space.

NHS Citizen

The NHS Citizen project is about NHS stakeholders and citizens working together to co-design an Assembly space that will enable the NHS England Board to take the concerns of everyday citizens into account when designing and delivering services.  So, it’s very much based on an understanding that services are best delivered by listening to the needs and experiences of those using them.  It’s not a new structure as such, (there’s already a history of public input into NHS and health-related issues) as opposed to a new approach bringing people together in new ways.  And most importantly, it’s got the full backing of three key members of the NHS board, showing the importance of senior level buy in.

There’s not a predetermined outcome for what this Assembly will eventually look like – that’s being played out and developed in a very open and iterative way.

Building 3 spaces

I was particularly interested that the Assembly is going to have 3 distinct elements to it:

  • A Discover Space: as its name suggests, discovering what intelligence exists in both on and offline spaces on  health (or should that be health, the public healthcare system and how people interact with it?)
  • A Gather Space: a bridge between Discovery and Assembly. Here flagged issues from the Discover Space will be worked on and explored in more detail.
  • The Assembly Meeting: twice yearly meetings where the NHS Board will meet directly with citizens to consider a selection of issues in a deliberative and open way.

Discovering & Listening

From a digital perspective, the Discover Space concept is fascinating, and is in itself similar to what we’re trying to get to with our Listen, Engage,… model  within BIS,  bringing social listening and offline intelligence into the mix of evidence available to policy makers.


Why? Well, the Discover space is very much about  gathering and flagging opinions through both on- and offline engagement to give a “picture of the conversation” around public concerns about NHS- or health-related issues. I love the fact that it’s going to be “always on”, and that it’s place in the system represents a high level understanding of the importance of online insights.

Within NHS Citizen, listening will be driven in two ways:

  • Citizen driven listening: identifying what the public are discussing around the Health system.
  • NHS driven listening: when policy makers and the NHS itself  wants to hear more about particular topics.

Having the perfect combination of the two is probably something that most of us involved in social media monitoring and embedding digital are aspiring to.  So, in BIS, we know that – from both corporate and personal channels – we’ll be listening out for intelligence on particular policy areas.  Equally – if our ultimate ambition of getting all teams to listen online is met – this should see us moving towards greater citizen driven  listening by individual policy makers (in this case citizen including consumers, businesses, universities and the full gamut of possibilities dictated by our audiences).

Challenges for Discover

At the minute, there’s a deliberately open vision of what the Discover Space will look like.  The scale and breadth of the people and topics that could be embraced under such listening are huge.  And that in itself creates its own particular challenges for the success of this project, including:

  • The volume of sentiment that’s likely to have to be discovered, explored and analysed;
  • The fact that issues aren’t always likely to be discussed in the most obvious spaces;
  • How to frame the breadth of the necessary search criteria;
  • Where to set the boundaries of the listening process;
  • The impact that listening could actually have on existing naturally-occurring conversations;
  • Integrating the intelligence from online discussions effectively with that from offline discussions;
  • Balancing prejudices against “anecdote” versus data that’s been collected in more (traditionally speaking) robust ways.  Involve and the other partners are perhaps well-placed to advise on that issue given that similar arguments exist around the use of small scale deliberative projects versus larger-scale data collection methods.
  • Ensuring that the conversation isn’t deliberately skewed by people who may want to try and impact results.

So, for example if @NHSCitizen are going to listen beyond those “in the know” about the project, then it’ll be (hopefully) be a continuous digging exercise, with detailed drilling down into web-based conversations around health and the NHS happening beyond the usual suspects of Twitter and Facebook. We know, for example, that contentious employment issues are discussed in unexpected places, including online forums and networks where trust has already been built up:  how will the system be able to listen to those conversations. And does it matter if they don’t?

There were also a couple of interesting tweets from people in yesterday’s open session to shape the Gather phase  around people at work missing out on the conversation.  That doesn’t necessarily have resonance for a project where listening can take place at any time, but does serve as a useful reminder for those of us trying to actively engage with employees or businesses during the working day that there will be people who just can’t always be online.

I’m sure that Public-i, who are delivering on this part of the project, are already well-immersed in dealing with all these issues.

Finding out more

It’s still possible to get involved in helping shape the overall shape of the Assembly process  by listening in to and commenting on the live blog and Twitter feed from events

Involve, NHS Citizen and an inside out look at public participation

20140130-115300.jpgMy normal day job at BIS can be summed up as building digital engagement capacity and skills within policy teams, helping them to think through how to engage before, during and after consultation, and making online interaction just another part of the day job.  The barriers that we have to that are rarely digital ones: instead they’re cultural, with an associated basket of issues around engagement that we like to call the Fear.

But, this week, as I’ve already said, I’m going to be spending the week at Involve as a bit of an opportunity for me to look at engagement with the public sector from the outside in (or is that inside out, I’m not sure!).

One of the most interesting projects that Involve are currently taking forward in conjunction with a range of partners is NHS Citizen, a so-called Citizens Assembly that is being designed to bring the voice of ordinary citizens right into the heart of the NHS.  It’s got a few main aims

  • To give citizens and organisations a direct transparent route for their voices to reach the heart of the NHS England decision making process, in a way that cannot be ignored.

  • To give the NHS England board and others a new source of evidence and opinion on the NHS now and future.

  • To give the public an open and robust accountability mechanism for the work of NHS England, and opportunities to participate in every aspect of the organisation’s work.

  • To establish a mechanism/system that leads to action, quickly

I’m particularly interested in the second bullet point, as I think it’s this one that we need to be using more in our arguments about why getting beyond the fear is important.  As we get past the early adopters of digital engagement – those who come to it naturally as opposed to through our corporate activities to stress that this is A Good Thing – that’s the question that we’re going to need to be more actively considering: how does engagement give us better, more robust, evidence than we’ve ever had before.  It’s not enough any more to just know it instinctively.

For those in the know about how government is redesigning its digital services, it’s also particularly interesting to see that there’s quite an emphasis  in the documentation on digital by default, and that an agile approach is being taken to developing this project.  I’ll talk about that in my next post, as I’m particularly interested in the so-called Discovery Space and how it relates back to the work that we’re doing within BIS to promote social listening as the first step in the road towards normalising digital engagement.

Bye bye BIS (Hello Involve)

I’m saying goodbye to my normal day job in BIS. But not forever. As part of our commitment to outreach and learning from other sectors, I’m going to be spending the week with participation organisation Involve.

So starting tomorrow (who said working weeks have to start on a Monday?), I’ll be heading a bit little further east in London every day to join the team, with a few key objectives:

- to see what I can learn and apply from their work on embedding engagement;
- to actively get involved in that;
- to help them celebrate their 10th anniversary.

I’ve been aware of the organisation and the work they do since my policy days, so I’m excited to see what I get up to. I’ll be blogging about it here and on the Involve blog, so watch this (and that) space!

Santa Maria degli Angeli at Piazza della Repubblica

The last internal visit on this trip.  This church (properly known as Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri),another building which has been sculpted out of the remains of the Baths of Diocletian, dominates one side of the Piazza della Repubblica. The basilica was designed by Michelangelo, with work beginning just a year before his death in 1564, and is a stunning blend of old and new, ancient and modern.

Piazza della Repubblica


The church was originally dedicated to the Carthusian order, who owned a monastery next door until the unification of Italy when the site became the official state church of the Italian Kingdom. The original 16th Century façade was also removed at around this time to expose the original walls of the Baths complex. The bronze doors are a rather more recent addition, having been designed in 2006 by sculptor Igor Mitoraj. Here’s a detail from one of the doors.


Mitoraj also designed this sculpture of the head of John the Baptist, situated within one of the side chapels, and atmospherically lit – this contrasted with the rest of the church as sunset was fast approaching during our visit.

John the Baptist

Internally, it was possible to appreciate the scale of Diocletian’s baths complex – even more than our visit to the museum complex had enabled – with the part below being the walking area between the hot, and tepid baths.






The basilica is known for its meridian line, which according to the accompanying plaque, was used to regulate the time across Rome between 1702 and 1846, when a midday cannon took its place.  The meridian line, and its commissioning, show a growing appreciation of science by the church, or at least its ability to make a statement over pagan timekeeping!  Every day, at solar noon the sun shines through a hole in the wall to cast its light on this line.

If you’d like to see how the meridian works, there’s a quite long video (in Italian) below showing how the last Winter solstice (in December 2013) was marked.



There’s also a nod to astronomy in the work on the dome, seen below.


Unlike the other presepi we saw in our few days in the city, this abstract one was designed by Carlo Lorenzetti, and brings the basilica right up to date.