Learning from the Neighbourhood Challenge
We have worked closely with William Perrin from Talk About Local as he and his team helped groups create their online reporting blogs, which replaced traditional monitoring forms. TAL also helped the groups to develop hyper local sites and digital media to suit their local environment. In the guest blog below, he gives his views on what has been learned through working on the programme.
Nesta asked Talk About Local to help open up their Neighbourhood Challenge grant scheme. Working with Alice Casey, Philip Colligan and colleagues at Icarus and NCVO, we helped Neighbourhood Challenge grantees find a voice online and use that to report on their progress.
This replaced the traditional filling in of unaudited reporting spreadsheets that no one outside the grant team ever sees, an innovation for a scheme targeted at grass roots communities.
We had a great time working with Nesta and the grantees all over England. We were delighted to see Nesta being keen to take managed risks in innovation and back us up.
Some marvellous online storytelling has emerged from projects around the country, but what was the experience like in the round?
Transparent online reporting
Here are some observations from our perspective at Talk About Local (we are a small public service company that trains people in deprived or isolated communities to find a voice online).
The Neighbourhood Challenge demonstrates that you can use transparent online reporting in a community grant scheme as a substitute for traditional form filling. Transparent, online public reporting has different strengths and weaknesses compared to the perhaps false comfort of unaudited private forms.
Some of these are drawn out below.
Grantees with no online publishing experience can easily be trained to publish online, as Talk About Local and many other trainers demonstrate day in day out.
It isn't necessarily harder to do so in the more deprived communities, but there is sometimes a smaller pool of capable people to draw upon.
You cut your cloth to suit local conditions. We certainly can't claim all the credit for successful sites some of which got going without our help, such as The Mill.
As with any new thing, public online reporting will edge people out of their comfort zones. People need both an incentive and some support to publish to the web.
In grant-making, the best incentive is to make it a condition of the grant - 'You won't get your next instalment until you have done a blog post about what you did with the last one.' In Britain 2012, this is no longer too big an ask.
In Talk About Local's experience, only about 40 per cent of the people trained will go on to create an online voice; but in Neighbourhood Challenge, all the projects have had a go at reporting their story in various ways.
We and Nesta are definitely still learning about the limitations of this, and how to make it work both for communities and funders, but it is an important first step to show that there is potential to make this information more useful.
Broadly speaking, if a person has the literacy and numeracy skills to fill in a form to apply for the grant, then they can do a blog post. If they can't, then training organisations like us can help, just as a book keeper or accountant might help with budgeting or a lawyer with a contract.
Support should come from a laddered training service that begins with low cost self-help options and escalates through webinars, telephone support and face to face visits as the budget allows. The North London Citizens blogged about a TAL training session and what was learned.
If we are talking about online reporting, this has to be integrated into the grant work flow and should be flagged up front in the application process, so as to make sure the mechanism fits as seamlessly as possible into the process.
This allows grantees to prepare and also sets the right tone for project management. Bolting online reporting on late in the day inevitably reduces the chances of success.
Multiple forms of expression
The joy of online media is that it gives people much more room to express themselves with words, pictures and video. If funding organisations can adapt their reporting expectations to suit the online medium, far more creative insight could be produced than in a traditional reporting format.
Encourage people to tell stories as much as write reports as these people in Speke did.
Photos, videos and conversations with local people are often more informative than bare bones report writing or numbers in a spreadsheet, as the Cambs Challenge did.
More imaginative questions from the grant maker can help this - such as, 'What were you most proud of in the last month?' or 'What did local people enjoy the most?' rather than 'Account for your spending in the reporting period'.
The stories people tell in online reporting can serve a double purpose as a communications device for the project. We had strong suspicions that many of the people we worked with on Neighbourhood Challenge hadn't really told their stories publicly before.
This online asset created by reporting can be a powerful lever in attracting other support - you can just send a link to a potential funder or supporter and it speaks for itself without the cost of producing printed promotional literature.
Public reporting generates an internal network effect amongst grantees in a scheme. Neighbourhood Challenge grantees were scattered across the country, but they stayed in touch by reading each other’s blog posts between meet ups and occasionally commenting upon them, for example Lower Green commenting on Brixham YES.
People were unwilling to report negative issues publicly - this is a human nature issue as much as being an artefact of the web.
In the same way that people are unlikely to stand up in front of a meeting and say 'Cllr Miggins has been a huge pain and obstructed the project', they won't want to say it on the web.
It was important in Neighbourhood Challenge that there was a back channel to Alice and the Nesta team to report negative/personal issues.
Using a balanced solution
Flexibility is also very important.
It is important to find a balance in being flexible about technical solutions without overwhelming people with choice - show them a preferred way (in this case it was WordPress), but help them move to an alternative if that works better (Facebook for instance, despite its limitations) or work with pre-existing web spaces.
However, just like any other type of reporting method, open online reporting doesn't work for everyone. A number of Neighbourhood Challenge participants just didn't take to it.
Eventually, once others have got started, you have to respect that and find another way for those who genuinely can't or won't.
This is often the case with traditional reporting - there are always some who just can't or won't fill the forms in and you have to work around that.
Technology should be free or nearly free mass market products - these are designed to be easy to use by regular people.
Grantors should resist inclinations to build their own reporting website and instead put the money saved into curating the output of grantees to a project blog or invest in more training.
There's no free lunch - just as you would allow for someone to go through the forms in a closed process - maybe by sampling etc - then you will need to do so with an open process.
However, that person could add value by curating the content they find into a project uber-blog, such as Neighbourhood Challenge.
Putting aside meta-issues about the sustainability of any grant scheme - the Neighbourhood Challenge sites will remain on free platforms like WordPress and Facebook, continuing to be used as a reference point for the project.
Once the project money runs out, the grantees can continue to maintain the blog or Facebook presence at low to nil cost. At Talk About Local, we enjoy embedding skills in communities as that is the most sustainable route.
While no digital product is permanently sustainable, they are easy to locate compared to paper which persists through the years, but usually can't be found.
Talk About Local was delighted to be given the opportunity to work with Neighbourhood Challenge. We always enjoy transplanting new skills into communities that have a need to communicate. We are confident that the concept can be scaled up and are talking to several other grant makers about so doing.