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It’s time to round up the usual suspects

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There is a story, probably apocryphal, about one of the “usual suspects” in an authority where I used to work.

He was an audience member at most committee meetings - and would complain when meeting arrangements meant that a housing committee clashed with a licensing panel. It was said that he had attended council meetings so diligently that when a committee document from a few years previously was needed, and could not be found on the council file, the democratic services officers went to his house to borrow his copy.

We all know about “usual suspects” - not just the people who sit at the back of every council meeting, but also the community representatives and third sector organisations who are familiar friendly faces at partnership meetings, on boards, and wherever strategic discussions are taking place.

We will never have the current knowledge to keep a full map of the network up to date but it can be expanded by working through civic connectors

There was a time when people in local government were constantly urged to “get past the usual suspects” - and when social media tools like Facebook or Twitter were promised as ways of building relationships with individual citizens, unmediated by other organisations, but I am starting to think that our usual suspects are the most useful people we know.

We have started work recently in Lewes to build a network of civic networks, bringing together innovators, citizens, and civic organisations interested in doing positive things for the local area.

We know it isn’t realistic to plan for a network that will contain 100,000 people. We know that even the most extensive social network, Facebook, won’t get us close to a conversational relationship with more than a small number of these people. We know that we will never have the current knowledge to keep a full map of that network up-to-date – even if the council put in the time and money to create one.

However, we do believe the rough knowledge of the network that we have can be expanded massively by working through civic connectors (or usual suspects) to bring less-involved areas and groups into the conversation.

We hope this encourages local civic activists to increase their representativeness, but also create a collaborative environment for doing so. Moreover, once groups have expanded their reach it will be in their interests to keep those connections live, without necessarily requiring a huge amount of council money or time to maintain them.

We are still just at the very beginning of this process, and the first challenge is what we use to connect the different networks. Offline meetings are cumbersome and will have patchy attendance at the best of times. Online tools favour more connected groups and those with existing familiarity. Where we can see the need - creating flexible connections that make information flow quickly online and offline - it is hard to define the method. Where we have the methods – monthly meetings, social media, forums, blogs – we know they don’t completely meet the need.

Our thinking at the moment is that we need to work with the local civic activists to create the right mix of connections that work in Lewes, and in my next column, I’ll talk about where we get to. Whatever we do create, however, will need to start by rounding up the usual suspects.

Anthony Zacharzewski, founder, Democratic Society

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