Trust people to tell their own stories of how they use BIG grants

In this guest post, Will Perrin suggests local websites can help the development of People Powered Change – if people are trusted to tell their own stories about their grant-funded projects. Will runs Talk About Local, a company that has helped hundreds of individuals and groups set up local websites and online communities.

Giving people their own voice through the lottery to talk for themselves about the change a grant has made is the ultimate in people powered change.

The lottery is one of the most remarkable new institutions of my generation – changing lives and communities across the nation without the dead hand of policy nor political favour.  Yet when historians look back on our contemporary records for the impact that the billions of pounds of grants have made they may be disappointed.  There will be far more column inches (whatever ‘columns’ and ‘inches’ are) on a handful of ‘failed’ projects than there will be on hundreds of thousands of successful ones.  They will mainly find press releases, turgid case studies and carping academic studies.  Sadly, the voices of people who received lottery grants largely won’t be there.

In the newspaper age, this was perhaps inevitable – the only way you could get your voice heard was through the distorting lens of the mass media.  Durable, accessible personal accounts only arose through academic mass observation.  Today in an age of the mass market internet the lottery could help people find their own voice online.  It’s incredibly easy now to create a simple website or twitter account that gives you your own voice.  Web companies have spent hundreds of millions creating online services that are easy to use for the regular person online for free – wordpress.com, posterous, blogger, twitter, Facebook etc.  If you can use web mail (hotmail, gmail, yahoo mail) then you can make a simple website. But many people don’t know these services exist.

The lottery could encourage or require people in receipt of grant to write about the experience online in simple blogs that they own and run or twitter accounts or Facebook pages.  This requires a simple change of assumption – the lottery must generally assume that people are literate, numerate, honest etc – and in 2011 they can assume that the majority of people they work with are proficient enough to master, the very basic skills to create a voice online once they have been pointed to the right service

There are some important caveats though – this isn’t and mustn’t be confused with journalism.  It’s simply people finding their own voice, calling something citizen journalism is a quick way to finish it off so low is that profession in public esteem. People should be encouraged to use free mass market platforms like posterous.com wordpress.com blogger.com, twitter, Facebook pages.  Then they have a stake in something they control themselves.  They aren’t doing something on a Lottery controlled platform.  It also removes liability, technology risk and makes things fairly cheap and quick to start.  People need to be given a nudge – perhaps being let off reporting requirements in return for writing to a blog or being made to do so. The lottery could experiment with the best approach.  And above all the Lottery has to be comfortable with letting go of control and engaging in conversation with its grantees in public.

My public service company Talk About Local helps people do this across the country. We give people the basic skills and confidence they need to tell their stories online.  We have helped NESTA support their grant winners in precisely the sort of public reporting described above.  It led to wonderful colourful storytelling about the marvellous neighbourhood challenge projects.

The Lottery could be at the heart of a remarkable grass roots flowering of local voices as a by product of its grant making.  Unleashing the voices of thousands of people as they change their lives and communities is a tantalising goal.  And it’s easily in reach.

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