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Factors for success in community networking

\ by Debbie Ellen\


Debbie Ellen was researching factors for success in creating and running community networks - so she invited practitioners to add their criteria through email discussions in the UK and US. Here is a summary of their brainstorming which she produced in 1996, and some comments she added in June 1999. The criteria were used by Communities Online to develop a 10 point charter to guide community network development.

Key principles and values

  • each community will have different expectations about what this new media can do
  • ground work to investigate what the community's needs and wants are.
  • commitment to the principle of social inclusion in the Information Society
  • free public access at a wide range of venues
  • communication as well as information
  • room for dissent / freedom of speech within the law
  • availability of information in minority languages
  • spaces for children to participate
  • independent spaces for entrepreneurs, groups and citizens
  • community involvement in decisions about content from the outset
  • community ownership of the project (i.e. feeling a sense of ownership amongst the community)
  • willingness to evaluate as an ongoing process of improvement / development
  • commitment to awareness, access and support
  • a financial model to ensure their ongoing viability and sustainability
  • complementing electronic interchange with other means of communication (letters, telephone calls and meetings)

What outcomes are we looking for ?

  • improving local democracy
  • improving links between schools, parents, companies and other local communities of interest
  • improving business and work opportunities
  • improving public access to local information
  • improving public feedback to organisations
  • improving input into local planning and development
  • strengthening of self help initiatives and local organisations such as LETS, Credit Unions, Food Co-ops, volunteering, homeworking
  • widening access to information amongst those previously not able to access it (elderly people, women, disabled people, ethnic minorities)
  • improving communication for ethnic groups to build up their cultural identity
  • local services including home learning, shared entertainment, net friends
  • easier collaborative work
  • increased understanding and use of online opportunities
  • community building, increased local pride and participation
  • new skills, services, jobs and opportunities arising from the above
  • long term aim that the community network becomes part of the fabric of the community

What will it take to implement and sustain ?

  • preliminary work in the community to establish communication and information needs
  • investigation into levels of information awareness
  • vision, co-ordination, co-operation and consultation amongst interested parties
  • partnership of interests and recognition of practicalities of partnership
  • a viable plan for making the network self sustaining
  • appropriate (and ongoing) local publicity
  • building on existing networks within a community
  • awareness of resources required to get something up and running, then maintain it (funding, volunteer support energy, credibility, partnership)
  • skilled support to ensure the website(s) are effective and well maintained
  • training and education programme to involve those not familiar with the technology
  • agreement amongst those involved about scope of the system
  • agreement to focus on activities that achieve visible results locally
  • commitment to involve local people in production and development
  • finding encouraging, inspiring local champions in as many spheres of activity as possible
  • clarity and agreement about who owns information and equipment, who is responsible for maintaining it
  • recognition of the importance of participant feedback at all levels
  • commitment to make resources available to evaluate the project against hoped for outcomes
  • recognition that networks grow according to their reputation and may outgrow their original constituency

How will you know that you are reaching your goals ?

  • by monitoring and evaluating progress

Draft guidelines for a charter

These guidelines were developed by Communities Online in 1997

1 Community participation. Community networks and similar information and communication systems should be designed with the participation of the communities that they aim to serve. This should include offline as well as online methods to ensure awareness and encourage participation by the widest possible cross section of the community.

2 Social inclusion. Networks should be designed and managed to ensure that all sections of the community have access, and as far as possible there is 'something for everyone'.

3 Partnership. Community networks should be partnerships of public, private and community interests to ensure they reflect this holistic approach.

4 Content and communication. Network users should be encouraged to contribute as well as receive local content, engage with wider online communities of interest, and use the network to address and resolve local concerns.

5 Freedom of speech. Networks should include independent discussion forums which guarantee freedom of speech within the law.

6 Training. Programmes of training and support should be available for individuals and organisations so they can enhance their use of the network.

7 Evaluation. Networks should be designed with clearly stated objectives whose achievement is evaluated and publicly reported.

8 Sustainability. Unless networks are intended to be short-life projects they should be designed for operation beyond the start-up phase.

9 Interoperability. There may well be more than one network in a community, each developed for different audiences. These networks should be designed so that they can be linked to create an integrated communications platform.

10 Leadership. Local authorities should play a leading role in promoting these principles, and the mechanisms by which they can be implemented - but should not assume that they are the sole public network or platform managers: that may be the role for a partnership body.

Comment from Debbie Ellen in June 1999

The criteria for success that were developed back in 1996 reveal (if even some of them are followed) what a complex task it is to set up a CN.. and sadly, the majority of projects that I have come across have not taken this apporach. Re-reading the criteria and then the guidelines (see above) that Communities Online came up with I was struck by a key difference between the two documents. The criteria are very much about processes, whereas the guidelines seem to focus on technology - compare the number of technology related words in both documents.

It seems to me that to be successful the focus of community network development must be on the communication and information potential .. that the technology enables. I don't know of a community network where development has taken a people/process approach rather than a technology first approach. At a conference I went to in 1998, talking about eletronic democracy, Irving Rappaport said that it should consist of People + Values + Process + Technology in that order.

I also think that too many community networks in Britain have focused on the Information angle (probably why they tend to be called Community Information Networks here).. and neglect the communication aspect.. which is the harder one to achieve without putting people, values and process at the forefront.

As far as the Treasury (or any other funder) is concerned.. I'd want to see research funding provided to adequately evaluate some of the projects that we have (successes and failures) before adding more to the pot. There is a tendency to look at 'exemplars' and to avoid looking at the projects that haven't worked.. but we need to learn from both to move forward.

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partnerships/articles/charter1.txt · Last modified: 2017/06/12 10:20 (external edit)