Factors for success in community networking

by Debbie Ellen INFO.UNLIMITED@MCR1.poptel.org.uk

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

What outcomes are we looking for ?

What will it take to implement and sustain ?

How will you know that you are reaching your goals ?

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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