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Supporting Networks, Encouraging Participation

Supporting Networks, Encouraging Participation
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Increasingly in this digital age many of us find ourselves working remotely as part of an organisation that is scattered geographically. We may be members of organisations that depend on building networks of people connected by common concerns and values. In my working life I am a trainer for a national network that provides CPD (Continuous Professional Development) for teachers. Over 60 trainers work across the UK engaging teachers, pupils and whole schools in training.

I really value my fellow trainers and look forward to national and local events where we get the chance to meet up and share our experiences and practices. I have formed close friendships over the years forged on residential courses and maintained through social media and emails. We have a Facebook page where people from the wider network post and ask questions. We celebrate our practices through blogs, newsletters, tweets and a Facebook page. I’m sure many others who enjoy the benefits of networks mirror my experience, but increasingly I realise that this is not enough.

What is lacking in my training network is an effective mechanism to ensure there is genuine dialogue and involvement of the trainers with the central office and because we are a charity, with our trustees. Day-to-day correspondence to do with the nitty-gritty of course provision and management generally works well.

What is missing in my view is an opportunity to promote and ensure genuine involvement of the trainers in decision-making and strategic direction for the organisation. There is often whispers and grumbles about who seems to have the ear of the trustees and workers on the ground, about who is making all the decisions. That is not to say we aren’t consulted, but the ‘survey monkey’ type consultations are just one-offs and can only provide a snap-shot in time in response to questions the central organisation want to pose.

I have spent a fair bit of time wondering how best we can stimulate a continuous conversation between all parts of our network – trainers, central office staff and trustees – that can draw on the views and ideas of everyone and take ideas for improvement forward to action. I believe my network genuinely values my engagement but lacks a mechanism to engage us.

This raises an important question for me:

How can we establish a new culture of continuous consultation where everyone in our network is valued and build on our individual strengths and capacities for supporting the growth of the network for the benefit of all?

My work network is not the only network I am a part of, I’m a member of my local political party, I belong to several activist and interest groups, all of whom could benefit from better communication with its members. Fortunately I have recently discovered a way forward.

VocalEyes is a digital platform that is designed to support genuine and democratic participation in the organisations it supports. The platform can be used in a variety of ways for different purposes. I have used the platform in a number of ways, for example, I took part in a big conversation on the ‘Well-being and Future Generations Act’ in Wales.

Swansea Well-being Conversation on VocalEyes

Swansea Well-being Conversation on VocalEyes

I am a member of a grassroots, action-orientated local VocalEyes group that operates at the level of the political ward in which I live. And in my capacity as an educator I have been working with schools to introduce a VocalEyes pupil voice platform. Having experienced the platform in a number of different contexts that has facilitated genuine conversations I would love to see the various networks I am part of start using this approach to digital participation.

The VocalEyes platform provides a safe and secure space for information sharing and online discussion. It works very simply. A site is established for each specific group. The managers of the group send out invitations to their members inviting them to log in using their email address. Once logged in members can suggest ideas for improving the group’s operations and activities and respond to ideas already suggested. This part of the process is completely anonymous.

The organisation can seed in ideas that they want to members to consider. As ideas are added all members can rate them on a simple 1-5* system and add comments ‘for’, ‘against’ or ‘neutral’. As ideas are rated some emerge as priorities for the organisation as they are rated highly by a significant number of the membership. These ideas then move to the next stage as people can indicate if they want to be part of an action group to take the prioritised ideas forward.

In sum, the VocalEyes platform facilitates the generation of ideas, prioritisation of the ideas for action and the opportunity to pledge support to project and action groups to take things forward. In my experience the platform can deliver genuine member involvement to shape the practices and services of user groups. It enables people to have a voice and offers choice and control in decisions that affect the network or organisation and puts members of the group at the centre where they can help shape the future of the organisation.

The networks and groups I am a part of would all benefit from this platform. All networks and organisations working across geographical areas can hold successful consultation and productive conversations through VocalEyes. It is a strategic approach that offers the chance for members to have meaningful input to important decision-making. Of course, such an approach won’t work if it just becomes another talking shop – it has to be action-focused.
VocalEyes is already working well in schools and colleges and in the public sector to support planning a targeted digital approach.

It is currently helping various groups with the following:

  • Identifying target groups for conversations
  • Working with client to encourage participation from target groups
  • Identifying best practice ideas and seeding them into the target groups for rating and prioritising
  • Teaching digital skills and democracy to staff charged with responsibility for public or user group participatory engagement
  • Supporting methods for open and transparent participatory budgeting
  • Providing community organising training and support to help local people turn priorities into locally owned projects.

If you are part of a network that you think could benefit from on-line productive conversations, please contact VocalEyes to see how they can help you develop on-going conversations with your target groups to generate, rate and prioritise ideas and turn them into action. I am certainly going to recommend it to my networks.

Authentic Member Participation for Networks using VocalEyes Digital Democracy