How the Welsh Government should start engaging with the business community
For the last hundred years the big organisational question has been whether any given task was best taken on by the state, directing the effort in a planned way, or by businesses competing in a market. This debate was based on the universal and unspoken supposition that people couldn’t simply self-assemble: the choice between markets and managed effort assumed that there was no third alternative. Now there is.
The net result of the social networking revolution is that lowered transaction costs have made gathering together so simple that anyone can do it. Recording, searching, and transmitting information is something our communications networks are effortlessly good at. The enormous visibility and searchability of social life means that the ability for the like-minded to locate one another, and to assemble and cooperate with one another, now exists independently of institutional approval or disapproval.
It is an important proviso that many older people in particular are not all on Twitter and Facebook. Many do not even use e-mail. So any use of social media tools by a government has to be careful to avoid alienating existing subscribers used to more traditional forms of engagement.
Having said that, to truly engage with the business community of Wales, both devolved and local governments need to anticipate and adapt to the needs of not just an increasingly technically literate community, but also consisting of members who are used to belonging to myriad communities, many of which are self-organised, digital and completely free.
These communities increasingly use social tools to find out about their interests (such as through Google), share information (Twitter, blogging, Assembly petitions), find other people who share their interests (Facebook, LinkedIn, School of Everything), organise offline meetings (Meetup, Eventbrite) and even disseminate what happens there (Flickr, YouTube).
It is vital, therefore, to genuinely engage the business community through mediums which they like and with technologies they already use. There’s no need to spend a fortune on the latest Welsh Government-procured whiz-bang websites if all potential members are already on Facebook or Ning.
Organisations find it very hard to be honest about the task of managing and engaging with their stakeholders. Change involves simultaneously confronting barriers (such as activist capture, cumbersome governance and stuffy inward looking cultures), building capacity (finding new ways – particularly on-line – of engaging people) and developing new content propositions (what are we asking businesses to do and how can we make this an attractive and rewarding proposition?).
Research by the Carnegie UK Trust reported on the use of social media in civil society, and attempted to find a way through the traditional ways of linking with members, using new social tools. To summarise, they found that the role of social media:
- Helps to engage with segments of the population that traditional marketing may find it difficult to reach.
- Enables conversations to take place, which facilitates the co-creation of knowledge.
- Improves the relationship between an association and individual supporters, as well as between supporters.
- Allows information to rapidly ripple through a community, thus enabling quick and effective mobilisation online and offline.
- Provides platforms for dissent by allowing people to express discontent or highlight abuses of power.
- Strengthens offline communities, and offline events strengthen online relationships.
- Improves the transparency, governance and accountability of organisations, which increases trust in those organisations.
- Used internally, helps improve the effectiveness and efficiency of organisations and enables flexible staffing and volunteering.
- Helps create highly responsive and less hierarchically governed civil society associations.
Many members of local business communities do not feel comfortable with traditional governance formats and do not believe that they are necessarily the best way to work for change. But there is still an appetite for involvement. Consultation, online voting, new meeting styles and fresh democratic forms of governance are increasingly expected.
Instead of passively consuming services, businesses may want to shape activities themselves and expect support for this. This ‘co-production’ needs to change the balance of power which could be a challenge for many organisations. But we need new opportunities for members of the business community to be involved and have an effect: one click, easy access, contributing to the organisation’s decision-making processes.
The bargain comes last, because it matters only if there is a promise that taking part will drive real change. A bargain helps clarify what you can expect of others and what they can expect of you.