Community Organisation ICTs Uptake in Aotearoa New Zealand
Stephen Blyth, Department of Internal Affairs
Presented to: Electronic Networks 2002 – Building Community, fifth Community Networking Conference, Melbourne, 3-5 July 2002. Revised 29 July 2002.
But still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here
Lead me to your door
The Long and Winding Road, The Beatles
The promise of information and communications technology (ICTs) has been heralded as a godsend to iwi/ Maori and community groups. It is hailed as a set of powerful and flexible tools that can contribute to networking and efficiency gains, enhance participation in democracy, enable cultural expression and support social change. The question that hangs over us is whether this promise is being fulfilled. Are communities on the information superhighway, or trailing around on the byways, waiting at the door?
The purpose of this paper is to examine what situation iwi/ Maori and community organisation find themselves in. The limited evidence available suggests a very mixed picture: some pioneering organisations are using the ICTs in very powerful ways, while the vast bulk of groups are struggling. Targeted services, training and content directed specifically organisations are few and far between. And the recognition for community organisation needs is weak.
In this paper I am trying to make some sense of what is happening, why and what can be done about it. In tackling the issue of ICTs uptake, I am doing so as a professional working to support community initiatives who is concerned about the slow rate of progress. I cannot claim to speak on behalf of organisations, nor would it be appropriate for me to do so. In putting these views forward I draw on my experience working for government, but the opinions stated below do not reflect government or departmental policy.
In this paper the following will be covered:
- An outline some of the potential benefits to community organisations of using ICTs.
- A description of the situation in Aotearoa, drawing on anecdotal and survey material.
- An exploration of the key reasons for the level of uptake.
- An outline some suggestions about how to address issues.
The potential of the Internet and other new technology for community organisations
There is a lot of hype about what ICTs can deliver for community organisations, yet not all of these claims are accurate. Organisations need to have a healthy sense of realism about what ICTs can really offer. I outline below a few of the common claims made about the use of ICTs in the community sector.
Starting with the basics, ICTs have a role in improving business processes within organisations, and contributing to the delivery of a service or organisational mission. The oft-repeated mantra of efficiency and effectiveness is as relevant to in the not-for-profit sector as it is for any business or government agency. Discussing voluntary sector use of the computers and the Internet in the UK Jeremy Wyatt describes the following three benefits of using ICTs:
- Efficiency – benefits for day-to-day running of organisations, reducing costs and improving response times.
- Effectiveness – improvements to service delivery, providing access to information and communication not readily available in other forms, new forms of outreach and visibility.
- Networking – online communication catalyses new collaboration, or helps underpin face-to-face networking.
A survey of 203 US non-profit human service executives found that “eight in 10 executives see IT as a time-saving and production enhancing tool and believe that improvements in their organisation information technology would yield a wide range of benefits”. Improvements cited relate to research, sharing information, performing day-to-day operations, fundraising, carrying out programmes, and attracting and retaining staff.
Of course these arguments about the potential productivity gains need to be treated cautiously. As Davidson and Voss note: “…there is an increasing awareness of what has been called the productivity paradox: that there is little relationship between investment in information technology and productivity gains”. The over-estimation of productivity gains is likely to be particularly acute within community organisations as they do not have the powerful technology available to business, nor access to technical support and ongoing training.
If we now shift attention from the offices to the streets, there is emerging recognition of the role of ICTs in social change. New information technology tools are being added to the toolkits of community activists, both as a way of promoting facilitation and collaboration, and as projects around which to focus. Terry Grunwald has begun developing a taxonomy of community tech tools and projects. Amongst the tools are local media and telework centres, video-sourced distant learning, NETrepenuers, cybertots, laptop lending and community networks.
Some of the most powerful uses of technology come about when the tools are adapted by a change activist. So while in some situations large scale projects may have little hope of success, “[t]echnology applications can enable certain individuals, especially “early adopters”, to spark catalytic change in their communities.” There are some risks that decisions will be on technical grounds, therefore it is necessary to ensure they are grounded in a community development approach. This does not mean turning your back on the technology but, as Randy Stoecker says, the point “…is to focus on it in the context of bigger goals – building and rebuilding real communities in real places with real people leading the way.”
This insight is particularly important when it comes to the role of iwi/ Maori and community organisation running projects providing public access to ICTs. There is a strong push for provision of access and transferring skills to disadvantaged communities as a way of enhancing their social and economic situation. In this context, the role of community organisations is described as that of mediators, with organisations “…acting as front-line conduits between disadvantaged groups and ICTs”. Mediation revolves around providing access to audiences that cannot be reached by formal education institutions. For instance, providing access and training at local facilities like community centres or marae. Community organisations bring their integrity and trusted relationships, and provide access to knowledge and resources that ensure the success of projects – all assets organisations need to carefully protect.
This leads to the final area of potential of ICTs for iwi/ Maori and community organisations: participation in civil society. The Internet and email, in particular, can be used to promote engagement in official democratic processes, and to organise citizen-led campaigns. Human rights, social justice, environmental and many other non-governmental organisations are harnessing the Internet to amplify their voice, engage citizens, and challenge both governments, international agencies and corporations. This is occurring within countries and increasingly across international boundaries. Powerful and innovative tools have been developed by NGOs to capitalise on the support they have to advocate on issues, and to share information. This is at its most advanced in the United States where organisations are using tools to allow members and the public to lobby politicians without having to lift a pen. The low-cost and high impact of Internet, in particular, means ICTs is an increasingly vital tool for advocates.
The potential of ICTs within iwi/ Maori and community organisations ranges from the humble, for example using a PC to generate mailing labels, to projects that actively address social change. It seems that the big gains are to be made when we look at the wider picture.
ICTs uptake by community organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand
Awareness is growing of the positive role that ICTs can play in the work of community and iwi/ Maori organisations. It can be said with absolute certainty is that there are some very successful and innovative uses of ICTs by iwi/ Maori and community organisations. It is impossible to do justice to the rich diversity of projects that are underway, nor capture how ICTs are being used to enhance efficiency. If we looked at sample of initiatives are drawn from two Department of Internal Affairs projects (the Flaxroots Technology conference, and the booklet Communities Online: Information and Communications Technology Case Studies) you will find projects being used to monitor natural resources, undertake advocacy, share cultural knowledge, deliver services, provide training, coordinate activities, recruit volunteers, and provide support.
So, there is no shortage of innovative and creative projects, but it is trends that are more important. It is, however, difficult to discuss trends with any confidence due the scarcity of data and the relative newness of community informatics in New Zealand. It is frustrating that the data is so limited, and confined largely to what level of connectivity groups have, not what actual use of ICTs is made by organisations. It is obvious that further research is required.
Community-based initiatives to identify barriers to the uptake of ICTs and look into opportunities indicated the extent to which the lack of access is becoming problematic. For instance, a taskforce of community organisations in South Auckland is looking at issues of organisational capacity, including how to purchase and maintain ICTs. In Nelson a community worker association is exploring how training and support can be provided for people working for community organisations.
These types of initiatives suggest barriers are widespread and persistent. In April 2002 community organisations throughout New Zealand expressed their frustration at barriers preventing their effective uptake of ICTs within their organisations. The Association of Non-Governmental Organisations of Aotearoa (ANGOA) held a series of hui and meetings to collect ideas and comments about how to strengthen the capacity of the community sector to do its work. The following notes give an indication of perceptions of barriers to ICTs uptake:
- “To progress we must be on an equal footing to cope with digital divide and that means equipment, training, security, space, phone lines, and a person to replace those being trained.” (North Shore, 24 April)
- “Local/ central government could provide key equipment to allow access for community groups.” (Hamilton meeting, 22 April)
- “Access to internet an issue for many.” (Palmerston North meeting, 12 April)
- “Currently groups experience difficulties in accessing information and maintaining information to keep it current.” (Hamilton meeting, 22 April)
Very similar comments were recorded during research for the Department of Internal Affair’s community online strategy in 1997. It was noted in the strategy that:
[s]urvey results tell us that information services for community organisations need to be cheap, readily accessible including rural areas, easy to use and relatively low tech. The majority of community organisations have neither the skills nor money available to buy and maintain sophisticated information products, nor is it a priority for resources.
The strategy recognised the need for services, products and training to be presented in culturally appropriate ways and languages.
Pauline Proud reported to participants at the first Flaxroots Technology conference, April 2000, about her experience delivering training and providing support as part of the Public Health World Wide Web Networking Project. Proud conveyed the following comments from smaller organisations:
- Insufficient funding at this stage to purchase a computer.
- Questions as to how a website will assist the services provided by a community based health service to its community.
- If there is value in this, how about funding for it?
- Not relevant to a smaller organisation.
- Very enthusiastic, but management not supporting resource reallocation.
Discussion about the needs of organisations followed the conference on the Flaxroots email list . A similar vein of sentiment was expressed: financial and technical barriers were blocking uptake. As one email group participant noted:
There is a need for specialised assistance such as …. a strategy to provide computers to all community centres, grants for acquiring second hand computers, exemptions from software licensing for voluntary organisations, … an online facility to enable cooperative purchasing of fixtures, fittings and equipment, a nation wide register of successful projects.
Visitors to the CommunityNet Aotearoa website has provided feedback about community organisations levels of access to ICTs. One visitor pithily noted: “Great website: pity the community and voluntary sector is not as resourced to make more use of this site” (unattributed feedback). During a review of the performance of the website in March 2002, participants in workshops expressed a cautious view about using the Internet. The general consensus was that:
The use of the Internet is not seen as a high priority for many organisations. The main reason for this is that with limited resources (both time and dollars) the focus is on using those resources to serve the communities that they are focused on. In addition most people in the community and voluntary sector tend to be relationship-oriented people rather than technology-oriented people, with many of the volunteers in the older age range.
In a survey of applicants to funding schemes administered by the Department of Internal Affairs in May 2000 an average of 55% groups had access to the Internet and/ or email. There were marked variations in usage depending on the size and mission of the groups. Larger organisations tended to have higher levels of access, with (ie those with annual budgets over $100,000, applying for larger grants). Applicants with turn-over under $15,000 or applying for grants less than $2,000 had significantly lower average levels of access. Those applying to the Marae Heritage Fund were least likely to have email or internet, with only a third of marae applicants connected at the time of the survey.
Although respondents expressed positivity about going online and there was growing awareness of the services and information available, many barriers to using Internet based services were observed, including:
- A preference by Maori and Pacific Island people for face-to-face contact, therefore they less likely to favour online services.
- A lack of phone lines and high costs meant Internet access is kept to a minimum
- New users lacked awareness of how much use would be made of online services.
- Unreliable telephone lines in remote rural areas.
- Different skill levels among users.
A familiar refrain of efficiency gains and improved networking were recorded as reasons for getting connected in a research paper by a Waikato University Management student. His survey of 60 community groups in the Waikato region found that while 97% of workplaces had a computer, there was a wide range of models, including some that were ‘badly outdated’, and/ or unusable for Internet connectivity. A relatively high proportion of groups were Internet connected (81%, 47 groups), of which 72% (34) used email. Just a quarter (16) had their own website. Levels of usage varied (including some groups who had connections but didn’t use them), and included information gathering, training and education, chatrooms/ discussion, and to a lesser degree fundraising and job searching. Advanced networking or e-commerce were not recorded as uses. The familiar refrains of lack of resources to upgrade computers and absence of support and affordable equipment and services, and a perception that costs outweighed benefits were recorded. Some respondents noted satisfaction with existing systems.
More detailed information about attitudes toward and use of websites was collected in a survey by the Wellington 2020 Communications Trust . The survey of 582 Wellington community groups fond that 45% of organisations had email, and 36% had websites. Although those organisations with websites expressed strong interest in maintaining their website (70% put a high or very high priority on continued development), 40% have difficulty keeping them up-to-date because of a lack of time or expertise. Despite the perceived difficulties, 52% of groups without websites put a medium to very high priority developing a website in the next 18 months. Factors putting them off were lack of time (74%) and expertise (68%). Just 31% showed no interest in developing a website. Two thirds of organisations expressed a medium to very high interest in training. Again resourcing was identified as a problem. As one respondent commented:
We don’t have a computer. I have tried 27 companies for donations/ sponsorship but to date we have had no success. If you can help please let me know.
So, braving some generalisations, the following trends can be observed:
- Strong interest by iwi/ Maori and community organisations to use ICTs
- Community organisations struggle to get connected because of a lack of resorcing
- Better resourced organisations do not face the same barriers.
One wonders if community organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand are suffering the same fate as their British counterparts. As Wyatt comments:
Although 82% of organisations have computers, and 67% have an internet connection, these computers are often at a level too low to make use of the opportunities of core cost savings, productivity gains and service developments that have been achieved in the public and private sectors.
Woe! Why should this be?
The situation of iwi/ Maori and community organisations, traversing a long and winding road, is due to a number of inter-related factors. Below I examine what I consider to be the most compelling explanations for current patterns of ICTs uptake by community organisation. The five areas I examine are related to concerns about negative social impacts of new technology, the fragmentation of community policy-making within the public service, an absence of leadership, poor resourcing, and lack of critical infrastructure.
Within civil society iwi/ Maori and community organisations bring unique values and perspectives. Analysis of the impacts of policies and social changes, including introduction of new technologies, is a natural role for organisations. For many the advent of the knowledge economy/ society brings with it many perils.
Organisations point out that the pace of technological change means new technology is introduced before society has an opportunity to critically consider the potential impacts. The meeting notes from a gathering of community representatives stressed the “Speed issue: [we do not have] control of technology, [there is] not time to reflect, [nor time for] understanding limitations.” (Strengthening the Sector workshop, Wellington, 19 April 2002) This applies as much to wider societal concerns, as it does to impacts within organisations. The central role of the Internet in daily life, in particular, is being criticised for leading to a loss of basic social skills, increasing social isolation and addiction, negative impacts on people’s basic learning skills, health side-effects, and a loss of economic, social and democratic opportunities for those without access. There are also concerns about loss of privacy, fraudulent activity and exposure to objectionable content. And even while there is some acceptance that technology can bring about:
… improvements in productivity or in addressing basic social needs [it could] … nonetheless [be] associated with further unintended declines in political engagement, attenuation of community bonds, experiential divorces from nature, individual purposeless, and expanding disparities in wealth.
Concerns of this nature are reflected in the behaviour of groups (eg their particular patterns of uptake) and in the policy positions they put forward critiquing the negative side-effects of the knowledge society.
The practical aspect to the social critique helps explain the pattern of ICT uptake described above. Organisations lack of control over the shape and direction that technology takes, yet at the same time there are few alternative solutions clearly articulated and available. If we take software as an example, some organisations have a principled aversion to supporting commercial products where profits and intellectual property benefit distant countries and support a economic system which perpetuates injustice. The alternative software solutions (eg open source applications) are generally unsupported and not as user-friendly as commercial products. So only a few organisations use these types of solutions, generally where there are knowledgeable and motivated individuals, and the timeframes are flexible. For the majority of groups, alternative software options are not currently viable. This, I believe, leads to self-imposed limitations in the level of sophistication, or outright rejection of ICTs use beyond the basics. Organisations are hamstrung as they express their values.
For Maori, there is another dimension to concerns about ICTs, with the Internet being of particular note. The World Wide Web can open the door for the uncontrolled publication and manipulation of Maori cultural and intellectual property, including graphics, images, stories and whakapapa (genealogy), and IT projects risk being established and managed in ways which are contrary to Maori values. Robyn Kamira argues “Maori need to be masters of information and the technology because of the potential loss of knowledge through irresponsible or inappropriate use that can undermine Maori aspirations.” Discussing the implementation of the kidZnet health resource project, Kamira describes the difficulties Maori faced in retaining control and ownership of their knowledge in the absence of legislation or policy to meet iwi requirements and needs related to cultural and intellectual property. Reflecting Maori rights and concerns requires attention to active participation in projects, clarification of data ownership, involvement in ongoing governance, mechanisms for protecting collective privacy for whanau, hapu and iwi, and ensuring Maori are the first beneficiaries of data collected.
It is not so much not a question of using or not using ICTs, but having the knowledge and power to do so in ways which support self-determination and cultural values. The examples cited by Kamira show that it is possible to manage projects and development initiatives in ways which respect Maori values, and there is significant knowledge available in other fields (eg community development). A central challenge is to strengthen the power of communities to express their values while engaging with new technologies. Ultimately this could lead to a shift in the way in which society regulates technology.
The public sector is showing promising signs of tackling the issues faced by iwi/ Maori and community organisations. A government-community working party has been investigating ways of building effective working relationships between the state and non-profit organisations and Maori. However, the public service is still recovering from 15 years of public sector and economic reform. During this time policy relating to the community sector was fragmented to the detriment of community organisations.
Public sector reform had far reaching implications across society, including many negative impacts on relations with community organisations. The notion of community was marginalised as social policy focused on the individual and the family. At a practical level, government supported social service provision through a market approach with contracting the preferred funding model. Collaboration and mutual support between organisations was replaced by distrust and competition. The ability of organisations to build their own capacity was eroded, including any capacity to engage in new technology developments.
As well as competition between community organisations, the government agencies supporting iwi/ Maori and community organisation had different values and approaches consequently struggled to work together. Therefore there was no strategic or planned approach to government investment in the capacity of the community sector. The message from organisations was “…that the social and economic reforms of the past two decades, particularly in the state sector, had a profound effect on the relationship between government and the community sector leaving a residue of mistrust and tension.”
The “Statement of Government Intentions for an Improved Community – Government Relationship (December 2001)” signed in December 2001 indicates a change in approach. The value of the contribution of iwi/ Maori and community organisations to society has been publicly acknowledged and a formal relationship building process has documented concerns and recommended ways of improving the community-government relationship. A sector-led working party on strengthening capacity, including use and access to ICT, is due to report on key actions in July 2002. Government officials are working together, both developing policy and implementing projects.
There are some challenges and the shift from fragmentation is not complete. There still is no government-wide approach to supporting iwi/ Maori and community organisations to utilise ICTs. Some ministries have are investing heavily in the capacity of the sectors they work with, while others are not. There have only been a very few Internet based projects initiated by government agencies focusing on the community sector, and to date, the largest investment have gone into projects that improve business processes or access to raw information (eg community directories), rather than those that develop usable tools or applications. The level of spending devoted to supporting ICT community organisations barely registers when compared to spending on communications infrastructure, e-government and e-commerce. It will take a shift to a sector wide approach to resolve these sorts of issues.
The appointment (or self-appointment) of e-champions, e-vangelists, e-envoys or cyber-visionaries is a trend that seems to have largely bypassed iwi/ Maori and community organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand. A few visionary pioneers have initiated some very innovative projects but there is an absence of strong, sustained voices from within the sector mediating the adoption of ICTs: identifying and promoting the best bits, and warning about the pitfalls.
The role of leadership is critical to uptake of ICTs because of the nature of the opportunities and impacts. Ultimately, when we look at introducing ICTs we are talking about cultural change within organisations. The rising use of email provides as example of how new technology creates new challenges. Email has its benefits, such as providing low cost, rapid and robust opportunities for people to access information and communicate both within organisations and externally. However, associated with the use of email are a raft of oft cited tensions including: information overload; loss of productivity as staff send personal emails during work hours; reduced face-to-face contact; and system breakdowns because of viruses. There are challenges to existing relationships as gatekeeper roles are bypassed, and the ability of staff to effectively use new systems does not follow traditional channels of authority.
In a paper about use of ICTs in the public health promotion field, Pauline Proud argues that bureaucratic barriers as more enduring than financial ones. She cites the following example:
Team leaders and managers often know less about the Internet than their employees and can be embarrassed and avoid learning. It has been important to provide presentations for these managers so they can advocate for resource development where appropriate.
For staff and organisations to be empowered, the culture change issues associated technology need to be addressed. Tensions can be resolved, and policies written, but it is leadership that enables organisations to get on with it.
If we look beyond the usual constraints of limited time, resources and knowledge, and competing priorities, a reason community leaders are averse to technology is because of the mystique that surrounds it. As Grunwald argues:
Since the earliest days of the Community Technology movement, tool selection has been the province of technophiles rather than community activists. Savvy grassroots leaders who have no problem making their voices heard on issues like affordable housing, childcare, and education, often feel uncomfortable around technology issues. In some cases, they feel just plain dumb. Consequently they give up power – to ‘boxes and wires’enthusiasts or increasingly to mainstream economic developers pushing a high tech corporate agenda.
Opportunities for potential leaders to undertake professional development and experiment are required, yet these opportunities seem to be few and far between.
Across the broader community sector there has been a tendency for people not to engage in thinking and strategising about how ICTs could be deployed. Governance of CommunityNet Aotearoa website provides a case in point. The website was designed and built on the premise that ownership of the site would be transferred to the community sector at an appropriate point. During the development phase, in 1998, a mandated group developed a proposal for the establishment of a trust to own the website on behalf of the sector. This recommendation was rejected at a meeting of representative national organisations in March 1999. The response was due in parts to: a lack of vision amongst national organisations; pragmatic concerns about additional work; and a failure to understand the development potential. Despite strong support from some, the reaction was characterised the lack of leadership to get involved in an initiative that could significantly benefit the sector. Since then stakeholder involvement has tailed off, though a recent upgrade has re-activated stakeholder interest in participating in governance.
Resourcing is perhaps the most obvious barriers to successful uptake of ICTs by community organisations. The full costs of using ICTs can represent a sizeable proportion of an organisation’s budget, particularly for smaller organisations. Although many of these costs are common to any user of IT, the characteristics of the sector mean that are particular problems faced by which community organisations. It is useful to look at the costs issue in some detail.
A simple breakdown of technology costs includes:
- Direct costs: hardware costs; technical support; software, including upgrades; training; ongoing operating costs, eg ISP charges, consumables; staff time maintaining websites or undertaking other online activities.
- Indirect costs: downtime due to repairs or virus attacks; duplication from operating multiple communication means, eg email and paper based forms; productivity losses, eg staff use of email and Internet for personal purposes.
Indirect hosts are typically hidden and not only unaccounted for but difficult to measure. Given the relative low levels of technical knowledge within community organisations the ability to budget and plant to meet these the indirect costs is problematic.
Other obstacles I have observed include:
- Organisations are often using older equipment that is more likely to be prone to failure
- Inadequate systems for computer back-ups therefore increased risk of downtime
- Purchase of cheaper equipment to achieve short term cost savings has higher operating costs as it is often less reliable
- Incompatibly between software creates problems opening attachments, requiring additional time and/ or a loss of access
- Maintenance is often deferred
- Training is either limited or non-existence
- Reliance on volunteer technical support, therefore delays and quality of service not always briliant.
The net result is that the potential efficiency gains are not realised. It is no wonder that organisations describe resourcing as a major obstacle to uptake of ICTs, and committees and boards harbour deep reservations about technology whose obsolescence is assured. In a situation where budgets are minimal, static or shrinking finding resources for ICTs is a hurdle groups can fail to clear.
The attitude of funders towards the purchase and operation of computers and associated costs is highly variable. There is a tendency for grant makers to favour front-line service delivery over activities related to administration, including ICTs. There is also an expectation that the costs of using computers should be incorporated into existing budgets. And innovative projects whose benefits are unproven seldom gain acceptance, falling to the ‘oh god, not another website syndrome’. In general, funding for capacity building in any form receives limited support.
There are many priority areas for investment in the community sector capacity. Research, training and work force development stand along ICTs as needing renewed support. Although part of the problem will be addressed by increased resourcing it will take more than this, it will also require hard decisions by organisations to commit themselves to using ICTs.
Considering the size and impact of iwi/ Maori and community organisations, and the level of government, public and philanthropic funding, the sector is poorly served in terms of infrastructure that meets its unique characteristics and needs. With few exceptions, the only choice for organisations to meet their ICTs needs is to turn to commercial providers. However, because of a combination of limited budgets, wide geographic distribution, variable levels of technical skill, and preferred delivery styles, groups are not necessarily able to get the support they need or want. This has profound implications in terms of value for money and quality of service received.
Looking at the supply side there is a noticeable gap in the market. With few exceptions, tailored support for organisations is by and large non-existent. Marketing of ASP services to not-for-profits has yet to take-off. The one non-commercial hosting service, Converge, has not proved sustainable, and the telecommunications industry have not recognised the community sector as a distinct market that could support a mutually beneficial package for ISP services, including hosting.
Constrained by a lack of resources, skill and knowledge organisations can find themselves with inappropriate, ineffective hardware and software. When it comes to web development I have heard of horror stories of groups being sold over-priced, under-performing websites. The common thread here is lack of access to unbiased technical advice. Part of the problem is the lack of availability, because of cost and often remote geographic location, but it is also because there are few commercial providers that understand the requirements and values of community organisations. As a consequence the benefits of long-term planning and good purchasing decisions are not realised.
Another aspect of the infrastructure that is weak is access to mechanisms to effectively share experiences and lessons, and to generate content. The Internet is designed for collaboration and sharing, but to date NZ community organisations have largely relied on free services with their associated pitfalls, or one or two regional services. The experience of many groups of shared services is inclusion in a community directory, some of which are little more than lists. While the CommunityNet Aotearoa website is trying to fulfil some functions that promote electronic publishing, it cannot be all things to all people. A project to develop a community friendly listserv application is in the wings, but its implementation is still some way off.
In those situations where good infrastructure is provided, even if it is not optimal, then organisations are in a better position to effectively exploit the technology. I’ll cite just two examples. SeniorNet has flourished with 77 SeniorNets currently operating. Key success factors include a package of support from Telecom NZ for two years, establishment grants from the Lottery Grants Board, access to standard documentation and access to a network for mentoring and mutual support. Another example is the Wellington Community Network (www.wcn.net.nz) where a city council supported initiative provides free web-hosting and training to community groups. Beyond this basic support, the WCN provides a supportive environment in which new initiatives, such as provision of services to a distinct geographic community, can be trialled.
Obviously development of appropriate infrastructure does not happen in a vaccum. It is dependent on improved policy recognition of community organisation ICTs needs and increased levels of funding. However, some of the infrastructure can be created through negotiation and brokering.
What Is To Be Done?
It would be easy to simply provide a wish list of all the programmes and technology solutions that would get iwi/ Maori and community organisation onto the information superhighway. However, it is not really what needs to be done that is most crucial but how things are done, and by whom. If we are serious about respecting iwi/ Maori and community organisation values then the process must come first. Only when this issue is addressed can we look at what initiatives should be supported, something I consider briefly below.
To build the capacity of the community sector in the long-term iwi/ Maori and community organisation governance of capacity building processes is paramount. Maori have particular reasons for involvement, related to control and ownership of their knowledge, and expression of their rights to self-determination under the Treaty of Waitangi. The necessity for ‘buy-in’, gaining the active support and access to knowledge and relationships, is at the core of good process. When developing a response to current patterns of ICTs use the first questions that need to be answered relate to:
- Who will make decisions?
- How will they be made?
- What level of transperancy and accountability will the process have?
- Is their a role for different values?
When this does start happening we can see values coming through. Preferences can be expressed for open source software, employment of identified groups (eg people with disabilities, local youth), support for local business, and protection of cultural and intellectual property.
In advocating a community-led approach it is necessary to acknowledge that this is likely to be a slow and frustrating process, particularly for government officials. But there are no short-cuts. The trade-off for a slow process are robust and lasting solutions. Government agencies need to find ways of acting in support, and facilitating developments but also challenging ideas while respecting values and ways of working. Iwi/ Maori and community organisation will also face challenges. There will be questions about the legitimacy of leadership in the absence of formal structures to confer mandates on leaders, and communication amongst such a heteroegenous sector is always problematic.
To promote a good process, and develop collaboration, a number of things need to be done. The top priorities I have identified are:
- Support champions and innovation, eg recognition for excellence, scholarships, opportunities for professional development
- Create opportunities for information sharing and networking
- Get practical, and learn by doing. Create opportunities for building relationships through partnerships and collaboration.
As well as government working with the community sector to develop policy and programmes, there is also a need to build relationships and develop joint ventures between iwi/ Maori and community organisation and business, tertiary institutions and the philanthropic sector.
Only when these basic principles and processes are well established can we turn to the nuts and bolts. The types of things we might look at include:
- Infrastructure: provision of free or affordable unbiased technical advice, including hands-on planning and implementation, and other forms of support. This could be provided through:
o establishment of a free-phone
o a roving technical advisory service, or circuit riders programme
o establishment of a IT volunteering programme
o bulk purchase scheme for hardware
o ISP package for hosting and connectivity.
- Training: support for training at the needs of community organisations. This could include:
o enchanced opportunities for professional development
o roving training proving
o negotiationg with existing tertiary institutions to deliver community organisation focussed courses, including adding a new unit in Diploma for Not for Profit at Management Unitec.
- Content: development of applications and tools to support electronic publishing by community organisations. Services could include email listservs, databases, events planning and management tools for online communities.
Competing priorities for both time and money mean that action on building community sector ICTs capacity is likely to be a slow process. It is important that the different activities are linked and mutually supporting. Set within a wider strategic context will lead to lasting solutions.
The dilemmas faced by iwi/ Maori and community organisations getting connected are mostly not about technology. Instead the crucial issues relate to culture change and relationships. Successful responses are dependent on community engagement and good process: something that is relevant to any project or activity not just ICTs.
Although it is difficult to come to firm conclusions about connectivity due to the lack of quality data, it does look like community organisations are struggling to effectively use ICTs. This is supported by analysis of the values within the community sector and leadership gaps. At the same time there are some very exciting and innovative projects, and ICTs is increasing be used to improve basic day-to-day operations. Support from government agencies, including the Department of Internal Affairs, is creating momentum. There is a potential for community organisations to leapfrog developmental barriers faced elsewhere, and to adopt new technologies or approaches.
What is required is cohesion and integration of different strands of thinking and activity. It is likely the Community-Government working party will provide some guidance, and the Connecting Communities Strategy will provide a framework within which some work by iwi/ Maori and community organisation is supported. Establishment of a governance body for the CommunityNet Aotearoa website provides another opportunity for creating direction. The community sector itself is likely to have plans I am not privy to. However, more needs to be done to support leadership within the community sector, and to promote advocacy, networking and information sharing.
Along the road to the information superhighway, long and winding as it may be, the whole of society is facing many challenges. Iwi/ Maori and community organisations are more likely to face barriers and opportunities more acutely as a result of their values, the limited resources available to them and the diversity of people they work with. In tackling the various obstacles, as long as we keep the focus on people, not the technology, then the journey should be a rewarding one.