Mathew Lowry

This post provides the content from my EuroPCom session on online communities, plus some takeaways and extra links.

I might follow it up with a Communities 101 post, as I was surprised by how many attendees had not heard of some of the fundamental concepts.

In summary

Firstly, a simply incredible executive summary composed by @drawnalism during the session.


The more I look at it the more I learn from it. How he can do that several times a day is a mystery to me.

Our slides are below, but first let me recap my summary I gave after having heard my speakers for the first time. Communities are useful for:

  • communicating within and across government, as Steve Clift showed with Knowledge Hub
  • communicating between government and stakeholders, and between government and citizens, as both Steve and Michelle Brooks showed
  • actually doing the business of government, as Christel Vacelet showed with eTwinning.

The What and the Why

My as-short-as-I-could-make-it intro to what online communities are, and why public sector communicators (and others) should care:

Key take-aways, slide-by-slide, starting with…

3 Reasons to launch an online community

  • [slides 3-4]: integrating an online community into your public communications strategy will do wonders for your content marketing
    • you’ll effectively be creating an audience for your content which will be far more likely to pay attention to it, and share it, and can even grow itself
    • because it’s not your community, it’s theirs
  • [5]: which means that if you see it as a communications project, it’ll fail:
    • an online community needs goods comms, and is hugely beneficial to comms …
    • but should be seen as a way of implementing what you do, not selling it.
    • so consider an online community if you need to help people meet, network, to exchange ideas and best practices across institutional, cultural & linguistic barriers, create project proposals together…
    • because ideas do not flow between organisations or online databases, they flow between people who know and trust each other. Communities create that trust.

“ideas flow between people who know and trust each other. Communities create that trust.”

  • [6]: finally, they are an excellent platform for widening participation in both policy development and programme implementation, sitting in the middle ground between:
    • the slacktivism of getting likes on Facebook (high volume, low effort and thus low value)
    • and traditional stakeholder inputs (high value, but low volume and certainly far from representative)

Key Issues to address

There was no way I had the time to cover How to create an online community, but I could list the Key Issues you’ll need to address, and outline three very briefly:

  • [8] The Chicken & Egg problem:
    • borrowing Metcalfe’s Law: a community’s value is proportional to (number of Members)2
    • but when you’ll launch you have no Members, and 02 = 0…
    • so how do you kickstart your community and get Metcalfe to build you a virtuous circle, which becomes more valuable as it grows?
  • [9] In online communities, USP stands for Unique and Useful Selling Purpose
    • the bad news: if you can’t convey how your community’s purpose is unique and useful in one glance, forget it. Don’t be vague – to be useful, be specific!
    • the good news: there are many ways the public sector can be unique – after all, if you’re a regional government, how many other regional governments are there in your region?
  • [10] Online community management is an important and challenging job.
    • this person is your organisation’s voice to the community, so don’t hire the latest intern just because s/he knows Facebook
    • s/he is also the community’s voice into your organisation – you’ll need to give them ‘policy traction’ inside the organisation for the community’s ideas, concerns and questions, as well as internal access to subject matter experts to get answers to questions within days, not weeks
    • you’ll need to demonstrate that traction and access if you want to keep your credibility and not betray your community
    • the community therefore cannot simply be “the communications unit’s problem”
    • consider building on the internal networks you use to manage questions via social media

Christel Vacelet on eTwinning

Christel’s presentation acquainted most, if not all, of the attendees with a great ‘Hidden Champion’ of EU-convened online communities – eTwinning:

(slides uploaded to my Slideshare account with permission)

Key Points

Personally (and what follows are my notes, not Christel’s), I think the numbers speak for themselves:

  • [slide 3]: a data visualisation of the interactions between teachers in different countries via the platform – every line is a collaboration between teachers in different countries, working together to improve education
  • [4]: 40,000+ classroom projects created by 300,000+ members, of which half are active in any given month
  • the platform has a clear USP due to:
    • [5] the wide range of useful services it provides to its members
    • secure space: all Members are actual Teachers, validated by national governments
  • [6] Support is crucial and can scale: as the platform grew, the support load did not grow linearly, because online community management turned active Members into volunteer Ambassadors. This is how you avoid becoming a victim of your own success

“online community management turned active Members into volunteer Ambassadors. This is how you avoid becoming a victim of your own success”

Good implementation is the best marketing

So this is what I meant about a community being an implementation of a policy or programme, not just something that sells a policy or programme – eTwinning provides practical support to help teachers do a better job.

But this also illustrates the communication benefits a community brings. Every time eTwinning – and hence the EC – helps a Teacher do their job better, and every time it helps classrooms in different countries work together on a project, who do you think notices?

The teachers. Dozens of kids. Even more parents.

Rather than telling people how great we are, perhaps we should focus more on being great at what we do (more: Being Useful beats Being Tuneful and Brand exchange & the new citizen conversation).

Michelle Brook on NHSCitizen

Next up, someone who has my undying respect and thanks – literally one day before the event, Olivia Butterworth – the long-announced Speaker and Head of Public Participation at NHS England – fell ill.

Because irony. The NHS is, after all, the biggest healthcare provider in the world.

Within it, Olivia heads up NHSCitizen, so Michelle Brook, who works in one of NHSCitizen’s subcontractors (Democratic Society), found herself presenting her boss’s slides 24 hours after discovering the conference’s existence. Respect!

(slides uploaded to my Slideshare account with permission)

There are many fascinating aspects to this project – the multi-channel dimension, ensuring the process isn’t simply hijacked by the usual suspects, the interplay between offline and online, the Rewards provided by the process, etc. – but here are the Top Two:

Listening is an Act of Communications

As with eTwinning, this is not a communications project at all, but brings enormous communication benefits. Just think how your communications projects would change if:

  • instead of broadcasting “this is what we’re doing!”
  • you approached people and asked them: “what do you think we should be doing?”

Cultural Change is a Goal, not just a Challenge

If there’s one challenge I would suggest you not underestimate, it is cultural change. In fact, Michelle put it this way:

“our measure of success is changing the culture within the NHS itself”

So changing the culture of the NHS is not seen as a condition for success – something you need to do to succeed the project – it is an integral part of the goal.

Steve Clift on KnowledgeHub

Next up, @democracy himself: Steve Clift has been using online technologies to deliver public services and improve democratic processes since the early/mid 1990s. Honored by the White House as an Open Government Champion of Change in 2013, he brought over 20 years of experience to the workshop:

Steve is now Global Engagement Lead with KnowledgeHub (“K-Hub”), so his focus was on the lessons learnt via this platform over the past decade.

A private sector spinoff of a platform originally developed by the UK’s Local Government Authority, K-Hub – like eTwinning – is ten years old and has some pretty impressive numbers [slides 11-14]: 100,000+ registered members from 450 public sector organisations in 11 countries. Over 1500 groups. 16 million knowledge exchanges.

I’ve written a couple of posts about it myself (Porous government: build it yourself, social or dedicated platforms? and Discovering K-Hub’s Import Blog feature (disclaimer below), as well as holding a Hangout-on-Air with Steve and two of KHub’s online community experts (video & heavily-edited transcript on K-Hub) to learn from their experience in helping Group managers across the Platform deliver for their Members.

The Key Do’s and Don’ts, with examples, are found in slides 18-29.

Case study: Fostering Information Exchange Group

I particularly liked the example online community focused on fostering children in need of stable homes [slide 24]. Here’s an non-Member’s view of the Group’s Home Page:


As I mentioned in my Porous government post, most K-Hub Groups are, like this one, Restricted. This means that anyone can discover that it exists and see that there’s something going on in there, and that logged-in K-Hub Members can apply to join.

So here’s the same page now that I’ve logged into K-Hub:


This approach reflects the same lesson as eTwinning: having a degree of control over the community membership can be important to creating the right level of trust.

However, sometimes you may want more or less control, which is why K-Hub’s “Restricted” option sits in the middle of a spectrum stretching from Private (secret, invite only) through to completely open.

More resources

kubcookbookFinally, slide 29 lists some useful resources, and I can’t recommend the first one enough (left): the Facilitator’s Cookbook takes the knowledge their own staff have developed from years of helping community managers build their online community and distills it into 6 one-page guidelines and checklists.

There’s a lot more, including – inevitably – an online community for almost 800 facilitators of online communities, as well as the Public Sector Communications Group, created in preparation for the EuroPCom conference.




[Disclaimer: Knowledge Hub (“K-Hub”) engaged me for a few days to manage the “Public Sector Communications” Group, which I accepted because it’s needed and I think K-Hub rocks and has a lot to teach me. My opinions remain my own.]

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