Saturday, October 19, 2013

Local groups, capacity-building and the smartphone analogy

About a month ago I switched mobile phones under some duress to a Nokia 520. It has the traditional virtues of a Nokia - durability and great battery life - but it also has a gorgeous, colourful and above all intuitive user interface. 

Good design makes a device easy and effective to use. But it's still down to the user (plus attendant tech support) to get the most of a piece of kit.

Me, I've downloaded some apps - Twitter, rail enquiries, The Guardian, Foursquare, finally and reluctantly Facebook - but I've tried to keep it simple. To respect the fact that my attention is finite and there's only so many ways I can divide it.

So, what does all of this have to do with capacity-building and local campaign groups? 

Answer: good design + support + empowered user = awesome. Doesn't matter whether you're talking about tech or social change.

Cue Swiss Toni segue.

Step 1 - we give you the phone

Friends of the Earth local groups all come - more or less - with the same basic design and operating system straight outta the Partnership Agreement and the Local Group Handbook, not to mention long years of oral and written tradition.

Making sure all of that is up to date and - kaizen, y'know - is a whole lot of behind the scenes work you don't always see. But it's the foundation of what makes your basic Friends of the Earth group a top-notch, intuitive (hopefully also colourful and gorgeous) change-making device.

Step 2 - we show you how to use the phone

Of course, if we've got the design right, there will be people who don't even need to RTFM but just get cracking - probably coming up with uses for a phone local group we haven't even imagined.

This is why people worship at the altar of Apple. And this is why whatever you think of the strategy the initiation process in Transition is so beautiful it sometimes makes me want to weep.

But most people (myself included) need advice and support to use to its full potential the extraordinary social machine that is a local group. Not so much to tell you what to do as to show you how it works. On a good day, being the small-group equivalent of Geek Squad is what most of my job actually consists of.

That's also why one of the basic principles behind our new Campaign Organisers programme is teach the methodology. We don't really care exactly what you do with your local group, we just want to make sure it can help you achieve wonderful things with it.

Putting smart(phone) theory into practice.

Step 3 - you sort your apps out

Sooner or later, your group is going to want to do more than make calls, text their mums and send their mates artfully posed selfies. And they're gonna need apps for all of that.

Campaigns. Film screenings. Local issues. Parties. Global problems. Council consultations. Publicity stunts. Call 'em what you want - they're all activities groups choose or don't choose to do. And there are as many possibilities as there are apps in the Store, which explains while local groups represent so many different permutations on a basic model.

And just like apps, campaigning and organizing is a meritocracy. People develop and share their own ideas from every quarter and, y'know what, the good ones get used. 

And us? We support and facilitate that choice, giving the best a boost as well as developing our own ideas in house.

Does your local group have too many apps? 

Of course, it is possible to download so many apps that you lose sight of what your phone is actually for. It can allow you to watch the final scores while your brother is getting married (or even while you're getting married) but at the core it's meant to be a social device, not an anti-social one.

And so it is with local groups - we risk having so many campaigns, issues or activities you're committed to that we neglect to pay attention to the social ecology of the group. Such groups burn out; reduce the number of meetings; become more of a closed circle, harder for newcomers to enter.

Alternatively, does your group have the equivalent of a Gangnam Style ringtone? Something which actively deters people from listening and getting on board?

If so, don't worry: you can delete apps. Play Angry Birds less, phone more. You can stop doing things which don't help your group, and just because you used to do something doesn't mean you still have to do it

You can simplify, focus on the basic design again, receive help and support. You can get back to the group itself.

Metaphor ends

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