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COMMUNITY INFORMATICS AND THE LOCAL STATE IN THE UK: Facilitating or assimilating an agenda for change?

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The emerging discipline of community informatics (CI) has begun to trace out a distinct agenda for change in the social uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Focusing upon the appropriation of ICTs by local communities who have been disenfranchised by technological development, this agenda foregrounds uses of the Internet in the pursuit of distinctly community-related objectives. However, the role that the local state ought to play within this agenda for change remains marked by a degree of controversy and ambiguity. Assertions of the need for community autonomy coexist uneasily with a recognition that the local state can help develop and sustain CI. Much current work therefore focuses upon exploring notions of 'partnership' between the local state and local groups in developing CI. Against this background, this paper draws on a case study of Birmingham City Council (BCC) in order to explore a series of significant organizational changes to local government, which have seen BCC adopt a fundamentally new 'community leadership' role. This shift to community leadership is being expedited by innovative uses of Internet technology. It is argued that, rather than straightforwardly re-creating BCC as a better partner to community groups in developing CI, such changes are deeply paradoxical. In the first instance shifts to community leadership have enabled BCC to develop valuable web resources that enhance their role as a partner facilitating citizen-led CI. Conversely, however, these changes are bound up in a broader attempt by BCC to reassert managerial control at a time when its legitimacy as a social institution is being questioned. Faced with a series of external challenges, BCC has replicated important CI activities in the pursuit of its own interests. Ultimately it is argued that this assimilation of CI could eventually undermine the broader CI agenda for change.
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Keywords: Community informatics; Internet; community leadership; local governance; local government; partnership

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of English and Media Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Massey University Wellington Campus, Wellington, New Zealand

Publication date: April 1, 2007

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