An unscheduled tour of The Fens


After getting up at 5:45am & only realising I had got the CommsCamp14 conference day a week early when the train left Ely (north of Cambridge), I decided to go on a mini tour…starting with Peterborough

Exactly – after spending too much on the train ticket. But rather than going home, & with a school governors meeting scheduled for the evening, I asked myself what the least stressful and most productive way of spending the day could be. Having been meaning to visit Peterborough Cathedral for many years, I thought no time like the present.

Peterborough deserves a better railway station

It’s not a ‘St Pancras International’, & never has been. But for a city that is effectively ‘the gateway to the Fens from the north’, Peterborough really could do with a railway station that tells the passing traveller that ‘this is a place to do business’. It doesn’t do that at all. Mind you, neither does Cambridge. A couple of glass and corrugated metal tubes over the fairly large number of tracks is all it is. A sort of upside-down Clapham Junction if you will.

It was still very early (by my standards) by the time I wandered round to the cathedral grounds. The first thing I noticed was how fresh the air was – a damn sight more fresh than the air in Cambridge. My A-level geography recalls that as my bit of Cambridge sort of sits in the middle of a gentle trough, we don’t get much fresh air round here.

Cathedrals as statements to the people

Historically in these parts, the Cathedrals of Peterborough and Ely (along with Kings College Chapel) were the buildings that dominated the local area. Religion aside, they are repositories of our region’s local history. (That region being East Anglia - A list of cathedrals is here). That’s what fascinates me as a historian-at-heart.

Film skool homework

Last week, we played around with big studio lights to get a better idea of how lighting has an impact on filming. One of the things we were told was that early morning light is the best for filming and photography. It was only when I walked through the doors of Peterborough Cathedral did this make sense.

Early morning sunlight...or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? ;-)

Early morning sunlight…or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? ;-)




The above photograph was taken with a mobile phone. It was as I was photographing the interior that I also understood the difference that a top-of-the-range camera can have. I tried a series of different shots – most of which were unsuccessful quality-wise. For a building as grand as this, you need the kit and the skills to match. And I have neither.


The above is an attempted panorama from one side to the other, using a mobile phone. The strange thing for me here is that pre film skool, I don’t think I’d have even attempted a shot like this.


The striking thing about this one (above) for me was the colourful light from the stained glass – again it was more powerful visually in person. We sometimes get the sense of cathedrals being dark, vast and gloomy places without artificial light. In popular film, I always get the sense (perhaps linked to manipulative clerical figures in dramas) that this imagery of the buildings are portrayed in that sense to reflect the clerical characters.

Katharine of Aragon's tomb - the fruits there are pomegranates

Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – the fruits there are pomegranates



Finally, there was Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – something I wanted to see if anything just to get a: “It really happened” sense of tudor history.

The photos above don’t do what I saw ‘justice’ visually

But the difference between this visit and my previous attempts to capture images of interesting buildings is that I have a better understanding of process and what to look out for. In particular the need to take lots of photos in order to find ‘the one’.

Then the organist started playing

In most places, playing anything that loud would have got you arrested – but not here. Again, recorded on a mobile phone, have a listen.

Now, I’m not the greatest organ music fan, but even this made me stop in my steps.

Next stop, Wisbech

It’s taken a kicking in the press of late (eg here in The Guardian). I’d been meaning to go there for quite some time anyway because of an interest in what linking Wisbech up with Cambridge by rail could do for both places. This was something I mentioned in my manifesto in the local elections of May 2014.

One thing that was noticeable was the number of national flags flying compared to the south of the county. North Cambridgeshire is a Tory vs UKIP battleground (the latter with councillors representing the town) – a battle that helped squeeze out the Greens and Lib Dems from taking the final Euro Parliament seat. I noted the flood risk posters (along with appeals for volunteers to help teach basic IT skills) in the local library and council buildings. Put this together with UKIP’s electoral success in this part of the county alongside the lack of a party manifesto for the Euro elections along with a record of climate change scepticism and you get the sense that what’s going on here politically does not match the assumptions of the London politics and policy bubble.

Decades of political failure the cause of Wisbech’s decline?

I’m thinking in the wider historical sense. It’s actually quite a picturesque town that had clearly seen some better days economically. Given some of the plans they had (again, on display in the library), there are people that genuinely care about the town. So why has politics been failing Wisbech?

Certainly the loss of the rail line in the 1960s did not help. How can you have the capital of the Fens not connected to the rail network? Furthermore, as the town’s master plan for transport states, it only has two bridges across a wide river. It doesn’t take much to cause gridlock in the town. Finally, on the bus route into the town, I saw some developments on the edge of town that can only further suck the life out of the market town. A cinema and a large supermarket, followed up with further developments of more ‘out of town’ shops are not going to do any favours to the Georgian town centre. If anything, Wisbech has the potential to match, if not exceed what Bury St Edmunds has to offer – especially with local independent shops.

Instead, charity shops and discount shops, along with the traditional array of clone-town brands are all too prominent. Again, that’s not the fault of the local people (or the recent arrivals) – that’s the result of central government policies over the years. The sort of infrastructure needed to connect Wisbech is financially beyond the reach of the town and district councils.

Wisbech to Kings Lynn

Road-wise, this bit was particularly grim. Although the main roads had been resurfaced, they had not been flattened. Hence the suspension of what was a brand new bus was tested to its limits and made me feel so sick for the rest of the day that I ended up missing a school governors meeting, being bed-bound not eating much at all. This made me think what it must be like for those that have to use such routes regularly – in particular students & those on low incomes.

What struck be about two of the central squares of Wisbech and Kings Lynn (as with Bury St Edmunds and with St Ives just outside Cambridge) is how cars dominate them. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better, more imaginative way to use the central civic squares of our towns than as car parks. But again, this isn’t going to happen without sorting out the public and alternative transport issues. Our local government set up in East Anglia is simply not organised in a manner to have the resources or legal powers to solve these problems locally. All too often they’ve ended up in some quango or in the hands of some all-too-frequently-reshuffled minister in Whitehall.

…and back to Cambridge

It would have been so easy to have gone back to Cambridge, sulked and slept. In times gone by I probably would have done. But there was something in me that said: “You’ve got to do this – and do this carefully too”. Recall things such as this. Hence looking for potential rather than saying ‘Why aren’t you the same as Cambridge?’ (Did I get close with the Bury St Edmunds comparison?) Ditto with the problems & challenges. It’s pointless pretending they are not there, or diminishing their significance. At the same time, writing places off in their entirety means condemning the good as well as the bad.

Wisbech, as well as the villages and towns that surround Cambridge are part of the solutions to Cambridge’s problems of transport congestion and high housing costs. At the same time, the areas surrounding Cambridge could be benefiting more from Cambridge. For example I don’t see many posters at the guided bus stops showcasing some of the local towns and villages along the routes.

At the end of the day, I came away with a feeling of:

“Working together, we can be better than this”

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Events I have been to, Housing and transport, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 2 Comments

Repairing our democracy with a little digital help


Some thoughts from a gathering of the revived Democracy Club of 2010 -> with 2015 in mind

They are tweeting at @Democlub, are on Facebook here and have a website here.

I’ve blogged a lot about democracy (see here for a sample). With Puffles having stood for election in Cambridge in 2014 I took Puffles for a rare post-election outing to London. Miserable rainy day it was too, so being stuck in a lower-second floor basement without wifi or mobile signal wasn’t as bad as the morning tweet announcing this sounded.

There were about 20 of us there, several of us being familiar with each other by reputation if not face to face, and people with a talent for computer coding and development conspicuous by their presence. Hence I noted that as conversations went on, where me and Puffles were coming from was a very different place from where everyone else was coming from.

Bringing people from disparate, diverse communities and backgrounds & getting them to act in unison is never going to be easy

The organisations notable by their volunteers included 38 degrees, MySociety and FullFact. I didn’t get the impression that many had stood for election for the main parties, though most had experience of campaigning and/or community action. Yet the aim of the Democracy Club’s campaign happens to be one of the main aims of Puffles’ campaign: to increase the number of people who feel that they are casting an informed vote.

Two focussed issues for Democracy Club

1) How can we use all things digital to make some of the essential information available to citizens?

2) How can we collect data and analyse the impact that the above has?

This touches on my first draft evaluation (see here – I need to finalise it over the summer) where I noted that there was no way of being able to measure and attribute the impact of Puffles’ campaign on social media use for local democracy by residents. The only thing part of the campaign – the posters – might have done, is to remind people of the date of the elections.

I’ll leave the Democracy Club team to provide more details in their next blogpost (which will be here) on what their plans are. In the grand scheme of things I don’t have enough of the historical knowledge of more established activists or the technical knowledge of the coders to elaborate further on what they have planned. What I do know is that the vision for what they have planned in terms of digital tools are things that will be really useful for someone like me. For example I have no idea how they went about ‘coding’ the freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.Com. I do, however have experience of how to use the Freedom of Information Act to get public bodies to release information – even when they refuse first time around (as this example shows).

Will Will (and Sym – of Democracy Club) create the umbrella organisation that the country could do with – bringing together an otherwise fragmented assortment of individuals and organisations?

Because although there was a huge amount of talent in the room, the scoping activity we did at the start showed there are people dotted about all over the place that want to do something to improve our democracy – but outside of political parties. This was the idea in 2010 – see here. That was an intense period of activity over 4 weeks. This time around we’ve got just under a year to prepare. Can we make the links quickly enough to have a much bigger impact for 2015? Because as Will said to us at the start, by doing nothing we risk having the media and the senior politicians ‘doing the election to us’. Think of the bland churnalism where a reporter says:

“And the economy is going to be on the agenda in the election campaign today as [insert name of politician] is in [insert name of town] to make a speech on …”

…followed by a Q&A session with some hand-picked ‘ordinary people’. The problem is that most people are not told in advance which politicians will be campaigning when and where. The only times I got to meet Ed Miliband in Cambridge were when people tipped me off on Twitter. It’s the same with the main political parties. There’s no means of publicising when senior politicians will be around for the public to meet. The reason parties give is that they don’t want their senior politicians to be ambushed and outnumbered by opponents. Tactically I can understand it, but it ain’t good for democracy. It means the public who might want to ask something substantive and interesting have to rely on luck rather than being informed about who is coming to town.

Within the room, I got the sense that between us we had enough contacts and connections to bring some of the more well-known campaigning organisations together to co-ordinate actions, provide the necessary core funding for the developers to weave their magic and give some user-friendly digital tools for those less technically proficient to run with them. Helping people find out about the tools created by the likes of My Society & bringing them to wider audiences falls within my remit.

The democracy gap

And there are some big ones – ones that several people came up with. The nature of our system and the existence of ‘safe seats’ means there’s no incentive for incumbents in such seats to do anything that’ll make their life harder. I’ve spoken to enough political activists from all over the place who have said they’d quite like the easy life of a safe seat where you don’t have to do much campaigning vs the intense campaigning in a contested seat. (That said, some of the younger activists with ambitions for elected office have said to me they’d rather fight a contested seat than be ‘handed’ a safe seat). The gaps means that there is no one person or organisation with a responsibility to ensure some democratic basics happen:

  • Who organises hustings?
  • Who organises more formalised online debates (rather than some of the over-personalised abuse that is too often becoming a substitute for substantive discussions on issues, ideas & policies)?
  • Who collates, prints and distributes the election addresses so that people can have them all at once?
  • Who puts up posters in places where people wait lots – public transport hubs, cafes, doctors/dentists etc to inform people when elections are on?
  • Who collates the digital contacts and websites for people standing in their area? I tried it in Cambridge when no one else did – see here. And that wasn’t exactly successful.

The above are all things I’d like to see Cambridge’s civic society groups discussing at some point in the autumn so that between them they can create a programme of events & actions in 2015 for people to get involved and informed in the run up to the general election.


Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Party politics, Puffles, Social media | 1 Comment

Trying to focus on digital projects while trying not to get angry about politics


…and trying to stave off the symptoms of mental exhaustion at the same time. On preparing for summer concerts, ‘Change Cambridge’ and me & Ceri preparing to deliver our first term of ‘social media for social action’ evening classes this autumn

Some of you will have seen my first forays into digital video (see here) as I try and go far beyond text-based social media. At the same time, I’m also experimenting with digital audio too – and not just with Soundcloud (see here).

G-flat major in 7/4 timing

If you want to hear me and the chaps singing a track in this key with that time signature (amongst others) you’ll have to come to Dowsing Sound Collective‘s gig on the day of the World Cup Final – Sunday 13 July (there are two showings) in Bury St Edmunds, up the road from Cambridge. See here for details. It’s not just any old concert hall. It’s a very modern concert hall with a very ‘sharp’ sound. This was my reaction to my first group rehearsal in there. There’s also another track where I’ll be doing an ickle solo excerpt – my first since…1996. Actually, in the grand scheme of things, I’m a tiny cog in a massive musical machine, the brainchild of our musical genius director Andrea Cockerton. When I saw them at the Cambridge Corn Exchange just before Christmas, I thought: “Yeah…I wanna be part of that lot”

Also, Dowsing performed for Illuminate Cambridge earlier this year. We’ve had confirmation that it’ll be up again in 2015. Here’s what Dowsing did for 2014.

A fair amount of my time has been taken by working on what are new pieces for me – ones that are really testing my vocal cords. One positive (for me) is that I’m learning a lot more about audio (& digital audio), as well as being kept away from Twitter and blogging. This is not a bad thing – I’ve been trying to reduce (slightly) the amount of time I spend staring at a Twitter feed retweeting stuff. (Not easy given that it feels like an addiction).

Hearing your voice played back

It’s one thing hearing your voice played back on audio. Hearing your own voice singing and then played back…yeah. That takes getting used to! Yet there’s something about doing things repeatedly and improving one step at a time that takes the awkwardness out of it. That said, hearing my own singing voice played back feels at times like an ‘out of body experience’. Sometimes I struggle to make the emotional connection between my voice played back and myself as the listener.

“Change Cambridge” – Saturday 13 September 2014 at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

“Cambridge: A global city with the infrastructure of a large market town”

We have a date and a venue for a day-long open-space event that I hope will bring together a critical mass of people (anywhere between 100 to 250) who are passionate about improving Cambridge for the benefit of all of us. Open by design, digital by default and with young people conspicuous not just by their presence but by their input too. (Especially if they can do things like this).

I’ve mentioned this to several of you, and represents something of a huge risk on my part. I wouldn’t have got this far without the support and constructive cajoling from David Cleevely and Anne Bailey.

I’ve produced a ****very rough first draft*** of what the event might look like at  140622_Brochure_For_Blogpost_ACv1. As you can see, I’m not the world’s greatest graphic designer, but at this stage it’s content that matters. I want to give people a sense of what I’m trying to put together. Please send me feedback – esp if you’ve been to UKGovCamp or have organised similar events. I’m in the process of asking people with a far better artistic/design sense who’d like to play with this to get in touch for a formal final version too. If that’s you, please let me know!

Learning from the early spring SkillsFest (see here) and from Puffles’ election campaign, as well as what I’m doing with digital film school and even all things audio-tech with Dowsing Sound Collective are all feeding into this event. Publicity-blitz begins in early-mid July. Between now and the end of June I’ll be contacting several of you to see what part you/your organisations would like to play in this event.

Ideally I’d like to be further ahead with the organising than I currently am, but this is going to be my focus for the next few months – in particular post-Dowsing Sound Collective performances. That’s not at the expense of other things – rather I’m linking up what were a series of disparate threads.

Introducing social media for social action – a 10 week evening class in Cambridge

See the top of Page 4 in “Computing and Photography“. Ceri Jones and I will be delivering this course for the Parkside Federation at their Coleridge Campus in Cambridge on Tuesday evenings from 23 September 2014!

This stems from ideas Ceri and I have been discussing for quite some time. As the institutions didn’t seem to be driving the idea of joined-up community digital learning in Cambridge (which we blogged about here), we decided to be the change we wanted to see. Ceri’s been the driving force behind this – turning our ideas into a formal pitch to Parkside Coleridge – so a ***Big Thank You*** to them for taking a risk with us. Neither of us have done an evening class course before (although I have a few years experience of being a corporate and social media trainer). Also no on in Cambridge (as far as we know) has designed or delivered an extended tailored course that links social media to community action that is geographically specific to a small area.

Again, this links back to the ‘Change Cambridge’ event as the course begins less than two weeks after the event. It says to people attending that want to take forward their existing community action & branch out online that there’s something ready for them.

“What’s this all got to do with politics?”

It’s been depressing me, so I’m trying to refrain from extended blogposts about it for now, although there have been a couple of interesting talks I’ve been to of late. The most interesting one by former Chesterton Community College student Nick Pearce, now of the IPPR who was back in Cambridge earlier. See tweets from @CSciPol on what Nick said. The big thing I took away was how Nick linked ‘the elite’ and how they behaved with the institutional failings and collapse of public trust within them due to the elite’s behaviour. In particular elites demonstrating in their behaviour that ‘public norms’ don’t apply to them. MPs’ expenses, phone hacking, police coverups, bankers bonuses, FIFA, executive pay…the list goes on.

Far better I’ve found to focus on things where I’m learning and get a better feeling of making a difference rather than becoming (as I have sometimes done – in 2014 in particular) of being a social media retweet machine who does little more than rant and moan online.

Hence trying to be the change I want to see.


Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Education, training and exams, Events I have been to, Music, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

Cambridge Regional College Students question Cambridgeshire councillors


The view from the director’s box as further education students at Cambridge Regional College give local politicians a television media masterclass – and comprehensively myth-bust the stereotype that media is an ‘easy’ subject.

The whole show is below:

First of all, a big ***Well done*** to students (and their teachers & mentors) for producing such a professional production of ‘Question Cambridgeshire’ – our first local version of Question Time. To make it crystal clear, this wasn’t a simulation or some sort of ‘staged learning experience’ for young people: this was the real deal. This was local politicians being put on the spot by students at the college in a production filmed inside the college’s in house TV studio – fully equipped with the sort of equipment you would expect to see in a small professional media firm. And unlike me with digital media at the moment, they knew how to use their kit. Sabrine Hubbard of Cambridge Regional College explains more below:

(I’ve not edited the footage above – hence me saying ‘and cut’ at the end).

The BBC Question Time format

Rather than being on the studio floor, I took up a position inside the director’s box. Although the reason for this was me having to leave early for a medical appointment, (they lock the studio doors when filming – as is standard), it ended up being a very fortunate thing. This was because I had already been in the audience for when Question Time came to Cambridge in October 2013 – see what I found out about TV production here. What I had not seen until today was what happens in the director’s box during the live broadcasting (in this case online) of a show. The time inside the small room watching the students go about their live broadcast was an education in itself.

Just as politicians on the panel go into a mental ‘zone’ (as I experienced at Kings College in the 2014 local council election campaign), the same was true of the students as the clock counted down to the commencement of broadcasting. You could feel the tension too – in particular when small mistakes were made (as they inevitably are – we’re human). Concentration from the students was as total as it was exhausting. Combining strict time constraints – they had 60 minutes of broadcast time – with multitasking made for a very pressurised environment. What was the most draining – particularly for the students leading on the production, was having to be aware of so many things going on at the same time, having to process all of that and knowing that there were their fellow students responsible for lighting, cameras and sound who were completely reliant on their instructions.

Cllr Amanda Taylor (@Librallady on Twitter) as seen on screens inside the director's box

Cllr Amanda Taylor (@Librallady on Twitter) as seen on screens inside the director’s box

“Did the politicians say anything interesting?”

To be honest I wasn’t paying too much attention to what they were saying – I was busy watching and learning from the students. Only on a couple of occasions did I tip off the students as to which politician to focus on for ‘reaction shots’ when say a panellist made a controversial comment or criticised an opponent’s policy. The challenge the students faced with picking reaction shots was anticipation. Long time Cambridgeshire politics watchers might be able to pick out who was likely to give which face/body language reactions to given comments, but there is almost no chance that students would have had the chance to have followed local politics as closely. For a start, some of the panellists were elected councillors before many of the students were born.

As far as ward representation went, there were three councillors from Cambridge – Ashley Ward (Labour), Amanda Taylor (Lib Dem) and John Hipkin (Independent). Steve Count (Conservative) and Peter Reeve (UKIP) were from outside Cambridge/South Cambs – the towns of March and Ramsay respectively. Although I picked up bits of what councillors said, I don’t feel that it’s my place to pass comment – not least because I wasn’t paying attention. The people whose comments matter the most are the students. They came up with the questions, and they selected the best of them to put to the councillors.

Can we make this an annual/bi-annual or even a termly event please?

Yes – really. It was that impressive.

The media production experience alone merits more frequent events like this – and that’s before we’ve even mentioned awareness of elected councillors and local democracy. In Cambridgeshire, the simple fact is that we don’t have Question Time-style events where local councillors have to represent their local political parties alone, and have to look into the eyeballs of a constituency of people that are chronically under-represented in politics. What struck me about this event was how the power was with the students, not the politicians. They decided the questions and the format – though I would have liked to have seen more interaction between the panellists and the students in the audience. When you are up there on a stage or platform faced with an unfamiliar audience, the dynamics are very different to normal council meetings.

At Cambridge City Council area committee meetings (see here), the power is with the political parties. As an ordinary citizen you are going into a political lions’ den. Some local people have privately said to me they fear being mocked or being responded to aggressively at such meetings by politicians. Understandable given how politics and Parliament are reported in the mainstream media. As a result, the few people that turn up and speak regularly are those that either know many of the councillors socially, those that are confident enough public speakers &/or those that are particular passionate on a single issue or theme – such as cycling. For example The Cambridge Cycling Campaign regularly has (very well-informed and educated) campaigners at such meetings. For quite some time I’ve been saying that Cambridge in particular needs to try different things to strengthen our local democracy. Credit to Cambridge Regional College students for being the change they want to see: They put together something that had not been done before and the results were brilliant.



Posted in Cambridge, Education, training and exams, Events I have been to, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media | 1 Comment

My first vlogpost


More little but regular steps with digital media

I spent this weekend taking a fair amount of digital video footage as part of this digital video course I’m doing at evening classes. Here is the digital video recorded on a small camcorder…

…and here is the audio alone as a podcast, recorded on a mobile phone but with a studio-quality microphone that I bought a couple of years ago for one of my previous digital video projects. In that case, it was others (Ceri, Michelle and Dana) that used the mic to do the voice recordings rather than me. This is the first time I’ve used it with a mobile phone.

It would have been nice to have started with this ages ago…but I didn’t have the confidence. My learning style is one where I like to work with other people. I needed the first few sessions of digital film school to get used to the habit of taking random digital footage, as well as being perched in front of a camera talking into it. The first piece of feedback I had in the first lesson was not looking into the camera. The lesson from the digital video guides I commissioned and produced (see here) was about the importance of really good quality audio.

Filming Cambridge

I’ve been lucky to have gotten into the habit of digital filming as now is the time of year when lots of artists and musicians are displaying their wares and performing. At the same time, Cambridge isn’t yet there in taking footage systematically, publishing and then mass-publicising it on a scale that ensures people far beyond core audiences can access. My past attempts have been random and sporadic. All too often I’ve been self-conscious about filming. The past couple of weeks have been different: Taking extended footage of a number of musicians, as well as trying a couple of filming techniques at the Town and Country Fair in Cambridge on 14-15 June 2014.

I took this footage of Will Robert at a local street party. It was me, mobile phone and plastic chair on my side, and him with guitar and the sound system on the other. In one sense, all I had to do was sit there and film. But given the problems I’ve had not being able to hold cameras still, I’m pleased with how well it came out. Will and the technology did the rest. I was also in Hot Numbers Cafe earlier, recording some tracks for The Sound of Pop Art who just happened to be playing a Sunday afternoon session. (Footage coming later in the week as I’ve used up my limit).

With digital video as with journalism generally, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to capture the footage. That means being willing to get out and about. I’m not looking to be a journalist myself. That requires a skin tougher than I’ll ever have. This is more my series of attempts at being creative about subjects traditionally seen as dry or niche & uninteresting to the many.

‘Doing digital media’ vs ‘doing digital media well’

There was one of those ‘inspirational digital posters’ doing the rounds recently about luck. It said that good luck was created by a combination of good preparation and opportunity. At the same time, there’s also an element of risk-taking. If you don’t risk anything, you don’t get anything. You don’t get to push the boundaries – instead those boundaries start pushing in on you. This is what happened to me during my teenage years when I first started struggling with depression. Rather than embrace the challenges I ran from them. No longer. But it’s one thing seeing people creating content – however good, but quite another creating it in your own neighbourhood.

In this era of wanting everything now, getting to a stage where you’re competent and confidence with digital media takes time, effort and passion. But how many people in the world of full-time work feel they have that time? For some of us – myself included, there’s also the challenge of overcoming perfectionist tendencies. I touched on this in a previous blogpost on digital media. One of the things Puffles’ election campaign taught me was to accept that not everything you try will work out. In fact, very little of it will. At the same time, accepting that lots of material won’t be used in the final product is also a mindset I’m still trying to get used to. It’s like asking what sort of painter you are. Do you make small, precise and perfect strokes every time or are you the sort of person that can make big, brash strokes? I’m the former. I struggle with the latter.

Acknowledging you’ll never know everything about social and digital media

…because the amount of knowledge and information out there is simply too great. One of the things a lot of us struggle with is knowing which tools to use. There are just so many. This is why trying to work out what digital learning in the community is a tricky thing to plan and organise – something I looked at here. Everyone who is able to contribute will have their own preferences. Take coding. Even in a city like Cambridge, no one has come up with a standard evening class to teach adults how to code. The corporate world has one-day sessions but these cost several hundred pounds – out of reach for most of us.

Content, context and accessibility

This is what I’m going to be exploring over the summer. It’s all very well telling someone to go out and film stuff, but in the absence of what it’s for (even if it’s ‘for fun’), it’s hard to give it meaning. For example at film skool we were encouraged to take ‘filler’ shots that many of the better examples of short digital films were full of. At the moment though, I can’t help but feel my filler shots are pointless and useless.

Despite all of this, I’m trying to have a context of Cambridge and local democracy in much of what I do - with Puffles having a much lower profile. Puffles has to have a small presence due to the election campaign. Local print coverage as it turns out went far further than I thought it would.

Leading by example?

There’s a little bit of that. During the election campaign I challenged other candidates to do things that I wasn’t doing myself – making digital videos and making vlogposts. If no one else is doing these things in a local democracy/community action context, why should they?  This is also something the Shape Your Place team in Cambridge have been trying to encourage people to start doing – though with limited success. What I’ve produced for this blogpost isn’t splendidly inspiring content by any means. The important thing for me is overcoming a personal barrier: demonstrating to myself that I can create my own digital content beyond text and pictures.

At a recent Net-Squared social media surgery I was helping at, the roles were switched. With one of the couples I helped, it was a case taking them through the process of filming and uploading a very short digital video clip onto one of their community social media pages on a mobile phone. Rather than have me doing it for them, I pointed them through the steps. They went away much more confident and willing to film and upload further content.

There’s still more for me to do and learn

Not least with websites – and my much-ignored personal website which I have been procrastinating over regarding a new theme. But the barriers to some of the positive things I’ve been wanting to do seem to have got smaller of late. And that can only be a good thing.


Posted in Cambridge, Social media | 2 Comments

Improving local government in the context of Trojan Horse story


Looking at some bigger picture issues on a news item that has engulfed Westminster – and examining the principles of some local government roots

Part 1 – Education

Both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary made statements to Parliament (here in response to an urgent Q by the former, and here in a separate statement by the latter). Birmingham Council have made statements published here. Rather than focusing on the story, I want to look at some wider principles around local government and accountability.

Health and education – political hot potatoes

Understandably so – one is dealing your day-to-day existence while the other is about the future life chances of those that are dependent on you. Directly outside of local government, it’s health and education that people tend to be most passionate about at a local level when it comes to public services. Being a school governor over the past few years has given me an insight into what this passion looks like on the ground from parents, teachers and volunteers on the ground – the sort of passion you don’t get to see inside public policy world.

The incentive to centralise

It takes a brave and competent politician to resist the urge to micromanage when they are being blamed for things that go wrong. If you find yourself in an organisation being blamed in such a way, there is an incentive for you to take direct control of things and manage them yourself. Yet the sheer size of our education system – think of the number of schools, colleges and universities that we have in total – means that the sort of micro-management we’ve had in recent times has been a source of the problem. This is one of the reasons why I regularly advise younger political activists and politicians seeking higher public office to get an understanding of how large organisations function.

The faith vs secularisation debate

I’ve gone on record saying I prefer a secular education system – for which I give my reasons here while acknowledging the problems of delivering it. The complexity of our education system means even with the greatest political will in the world, you could not secularise it overnight. As far as the cases in Birmingham are concerned, the schools at the centre of the political firestorm are not faith-based ones. Some of the concerns raised (and the principles linked to them, such as segregation on gender) are ones that go beyond that one geographical area.

Holding up the political mirror to politicians

This pic from Private Eye (various people on Twitter) speaks volumes


This was something that came up on Question Time earlier on as well. Should private schools be allowed to opt out of some of the basics safeguards that politicians are now talking about? (for example the Deputy Prime Minister here. This was also an issue Ed Miliband raised at Prime Minister’s Questions – see here & Cameron’s response).

Education policy

On the private vs state-funded schools, there are those that want to see the former abolished. Nationalise the lot. This was sort of touched upon by playwright Alan Bennett (summarised in the Independent here, and in full at the LRB here –  in the latter effectively calling for the nationalisation/merging of private providers with state providers to reduce the class divides). On the other hand, private institutions are becoming a big export earner as the global elite send their children to England for education – Cambridge being one of the prime destinations. Competing priorities: A growing UK export earner (& the jobs they provide) is solidifying the class divisions not just within UK societies but across the world too. There are other policy examples too Arms sales boosting export earnings but enflaming conflicts abroad (creating refugees)? Some global financial services that support speculation on food commodities that hit farmers in poorer countries?

On the faith vs non-faith schools, as far as ministers past and present are concerned, their figures show faith schools produce students achieving better exam results. (They also ignore concerns about ‘selection by the back door’ when data on free school meals shows differences between high performing faith schools and national averages – i.e. is it a ‘faith ethos’ that drives the results or selecting children of parents from more affluent backgrounds?).

There are also numerous problems with exams – not least the media regularly reporting concerns from employers about falling standards and/or not understanding the complexity of what qualifications actually mean. This is where the almost infinite choice of courses available is a market failure because employers (who are one of the main targets for the system) don’t have the time to find out what each qualification means. If employers either don’t understand or trust the qualifications, what’s the point of having them?

Issues with the regulators

OfSted hasn’t come out well either – why are were we outsourcing inspections in the first place? It simply creates another institutional barrier between the main inspector and sub-contractors. Those barriers create communications barriers – hence issues with consistency of inspections – see here.

Gove vs Miliband/Hunt

The Shadow Education Secretary’s response to the Secretary of State is here. While watching this on TV, I tweeted that Labour might be quickly re-writing their education policies on the back of this. Gove seems happy with the current structure, Hunt and Miliband are not, but as the latter indicated in Prime Minister’s Questions said Labour see local ‘directors of education’ accountable to the Department for Education (and not to local councils) as the policy response. The more difficult policy option is to strengthen local government and local councils to deal with these issues. But given that more schools are being taken out of local council control (under both Labour and the Coalition), what role is there for local accountability?


Part 2 – Local Government

Do the roots of these issues lie within local government (and local housing policies?)

This was something picked up in the aftermath of the riots in 2001 – see here. Given the nature of primary schools which (certainly with state ones in Cambridge) tend to serve small local communities, it’s easy to see how the data on the backgrounds of those attending don’t show an even consistent picture. With Birmingham, various news outlets showed charts cross-referencing the location of schools with geographical data on ethnicity and religion. This was also an issue I found out about when speakers talked about it at various conferences I went to during my civil service days. One councillor said that while in London she mixed with lots of people from a variety of backgrounds, where most of her family lived in one of the northern cities were able to live their lives without engaging with people from different backgrounds.

How do you undo decades of flawed local government housing policies?

It’s not just that, it’s also a wider issue of local government and its place within our political system. Compared to other countries, the UK one of the most centralised – especially when you look at the powers UK cities have compared to other countries. Ditto when you compare their powers during the 1800s vs what they had during the 1990s/2000s. The problem over the past few decades is that Whitehall has seen local government as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

It’s not helped by a civil service culture that has not understood local government. In the training and development for civil servants, certainly until very recently local government experience was undervalued. There was a lack of people with experience in local government working in the civil service. The Fast Stream in particular was one where the ‘glitz and glamour’ of working with ministers and Parliament was promoted, but where looking into the whites of the eyes of people in most need of support on a day-to-day basis was not.  (Note that the Fast Stream system has since been overhauled & is a different beast to what it was when I was on it in the mid-late 2000s. The questions of how diverse the intake is vs the wider population (and the culture of the network) remain outstanding.

Local government improvement put in the ‘too complicated to do’ pile

That’s what’s happened over the past few decades. I don’t like using the term ‘reform’ because all too often it means privatise, outsource, reduce terms and conditions, and cut jobs & services. In the case of local government, whether Thatcher’s decision to abolish the Greater London Council & cap local authority taxes or the centralisation under Blair in the late 1990s (again, irrespective of the political/policy merits),  both weakened the powers and the role of local government to that of administrators. For ministers who are very ‘hands on’, this is very appealing. Take policy control outside of your political opponents at a local level and hand it to a government agency whose boss you get to appoint. If you’re a Conservative minister, why would you want to let a Labour council have unrestricted local tax raising powers? If you’re a Labour minister who prides him/herself as being strong on law and order, why would you want to allow a Liberal Democrat council have a ‘hands off’ approach to problems at a community level?


How do you make local accountability work?

How do you make local government strong enough to resist policies that fragment and polarise communities? Those at the top of their own communities & who like exercising their power/influence without being accountable for their actions. TV over the years has spoofed this brilliantly, whether Hyacinth from ‘Keeping up appearances’ or Mr Khan from ‘Citizen Khan’.

I’m looking at this through the microcosm of Cambridge reflecting a wider picture. We have a fragmented public sector. We know this. Trying to get some level of co-ordination and co-operation was something I campaigned on during the election and have been following through since. The problem is that we are starting from a very low base. For example we have local institutions that don’t even talk to each other. Few people follow what happens in local democracy here, let alone actively and regularly engage with it – particular if they are outside party political networks. Too many of us are ‘free-riding’ on the back of the efforts of too few people to make local democracy work and local government function efficiently.  Cambridge residents hold a wealth of skills, yet so few people and residents for whatever reason apply them to local democracy. We the people are part of the problem. We are also part of the solution.

When you have such a small group of people taking on such big burdens of local democracy, it’s easy to see how small but well-organised groups of people can be seen to have a disproportionate influence by others. In Cambridge, some motorists complain about the influence of the cycling lobby for example. Even though my personal view is that many of the proposals from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign would significantly improve transport in Cambridge, the impression some get is this group is more likely to get its way than the others.

This in part is where I’m sympathetic to the general Liberal Democrats view of bringing local public services under wider local council control. So rather than having healthcare, job centres, the police and education bypassing local councils, bring them under the control of local councils. For somewhere like Cambridge, having a unitary authority rather than a separate city/county divide would go a long way. Making as many of our local public services directly accountable to a local council and people will have a greater incentive to engage. Why shouldn’t my doctor, dentist, hospitals, schools and police officers be directly accountable to my local council? Why is the combination of:

  • the mess that is Lansley’s model for healthcare
  • the farce that is the system of police commissioners (look at the turnout and look at how easy it is for commissioners to give ‘jobs for the boys’ without proper scrutiny)
  • the system of free schools outside local council control

…better than having everything under the scrutiny of one local democratic institution?

If you’re a secretary of state, or an MP looking for a ministerial red box, why would you want to give away so much power and control to a local level? In the case of the above-three-mentioned policy areas, ministers have given away just enough power to distance themselves from bad things that might happen while at the same time ensuring that no other party-political institution can take control. Healthcare messes up? Blame the faceless clinical commissioning group. Police mess up? Blame the commissioner that hardly anyone voted for. Schools mess up? Blame…exactly.

“Why did the Lib Dems sign up to this mess when their original policy of local accountability seems to make more sense?”

Exactly. I guess there are a couple of things. One is the compromises they made inside the Coalition. Another is that they’ve taken such a hammering over being in the Coalition that a lot of talent inside the party has either left or is lying low. Another is that they simply have not made the case for what they want in a strong, clear and persuasive manner.

Ministers and politicians have got to stop bashing local councillors over expenses

It’s an easy target. For the workload that local councillors and executive councillors have to undertake (& the abuse that all too often goes with it), you don’t do it for the expenses. But given the costs of living, who could afford to set aside 20 hours per week for local council business? Again, this links back to the mess that is UK housing policy. The huge pressure of high rents & mortgages mean that families have to work full-time just to keep their heads above water. Few have time to invest in their local communities in the way they would like to. If costs of living were lower, if people didn’t have to work full time to make ends meet, would people invest more time in their communities? What would the impact of a citizens income be? (Frances Coppola discusses this here).

My view is that councillors should be paid – and as a starting point on what that level should be, for simplicities sake I’d go with the median wage. Given the complexity and demands of what they have to do combined with the costs of living,  I don’t think the current system is sustainable. Yes, it’s a noble principle to say that councillors should not need to be paid, but then that means fewer people in lower paid jobs can afford to consider standing for election, let alone be a councillor given the time it requires to be good at it. Given the age we live in – with the rise of ‘portfolio careers’, 20 hours a week on council duties plus 20 hours a week working part-time in an unrelated job elsewhere seems like a reasonable compromise.

Food for thought?

Posted in Cambridge, Education, training and exams, Housing and transport, Law and legal issues, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 2 Comments

Tabled questions to Cambridge City Council’s new Labour council


Some questions (and my thinking behind them) that I will be asking the new council executive team on Thursday 12 June

I’ve written to Cambridge City Council’s democratic services team giving notice of questions I’m going to ask them. (You can do this too – see here). It might sound strange to give notice to councillors of questions that you are going to ask them. The reason is that I want councillors to have time to consider what I’ve asked them and give substantive responses. It also allows them to get any briefing and advice they need in any follow-ups I then come back with.

The Questions

Q to Cllr Herbert (Leader-elect of Cambridge City Council)

Throughout 2014 I have been disappointed to find that local public sector institutions are not just ignoring correspondence from local residents trying to hold them to account, but repeated from local councillors and council area committees too. When I stood as a candidate, my correspondence was also ignored. I would be grateful if, at the outset of your new council you could make it crystal clear to the heads of all local institutions spending taxpayers money to deliver public services that:

a) such behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and is a contempt of the council
b) such behaviour is a barrier towards Cambridge becoming a city greater than the sum of its parts
c) for the Council Executive to consider implementing a new, simple process where the Leader of the Council will write to ministers responsible for those institutions asking for their assistance following repeated refusals to engage with the council – with the knowledge that any correspondence from the leaders of councils in that capacity has to be responded to by ministers of the Crown
d) To report back to the next meeting of the full council on the outcome of their considerations in c)

Q) to Cllr Herbert

Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service inside Cabinet Office confirmed that people in Comms roles would not be eligible for promotions or sideways moves if they did not learn digital skills. (See ). You’ll recall in my manifesto that I called for all local public sector jobs in Cambridge that have a management function should have basic data analysis and social media skills as a mandatory competency. Please can you and the chief executive of the council consider this specific proposal, mindful of the direction of travel coming from central government and report back to the full council on your decision, with reasons.

Q) to Cllr Johnson (designated executive councillor for arts & community)

In April 2012 you’ll recall promising Puffles in a tweet, to deliver a Cambridge Societies’ Fair on the condition that you were elected.

Hence it was good to see the fair in your manifesto and to see you now in the role of executive councillor responsible for delivering this.

Please can ask officials working for you to:
a) begin the scoping and planning necessary to deliver this – in particular how to work best with students in further education
b) give very serious consideration to a ‘community mapping exercise’ – something I called for in my manifesto and repeatedly called for at council meetings, to ensure we don’t miss out on any community groups
c) ask officials if they can work with me and colleagues working on a ‘community action summit’ this September at Anglia Ruskin University – I’ve booked the venue and will be publishing a draft brochure later this month
d) confirm you will report back with a progress update on items a) and b) to councillors at the next full council

My thinking behind this style of questioning

You will notice that each of the three questions/comments I’m going to put to the council contain a clause asking the responsible executive councillor to report back to the full council at subsequent meetings. It’s a simple but effective tactic in that it forces the hand of council officials to act upon whatever it is I’m asking about. Why? Because they have a clear deadline to work towards. At the same time, rather than demanding an instant response, councillors and officials will have weeks to consider their response – hence whatever they come back with has to be much more substantive than an off-the-cuff response.

“Why do you think this style of questioning will have a greater impact?”

Much of what I’m going to be asking councillors over the rest of 2014 will be around items and themes in my manifesto. Recall too that Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner has gone on public record supporting many of the ideas in it.

This isn’t a demand of ‘implement my manifesto, not your one’. As I stated here, Cambridge Labour comprehensively won the local elections in Cambridge and have a mandate to deliver their manifesto. Mine was never meant to be that sort of party-political manifesto. Rather it covered things around local public administration and public policy that don’t really get debated on the doorstep, giving ideas for whoever runs the council some things to consider. Mine is also a manifesto for a very long-term cultural change across Cambridge – one that goes far beyond traditional electoral and political cycles.

Solving Cambridge’s housing crisis

Earlier, Cambridge Labour announced a new council committee on housing – see here. This has a lot of potential, and I hope this could become a future forum where residents (irrespective of the type of housing they live in) can come together with landlords and developers to deal with some of the worst aspects of housing in Cambridge. In particular I think there’s potential around improving how residents can report substandard housing & landlords, engaging with developers at design stage and putting pressure on universities and colleges to be responsible institutions when it comes to student housing. I’ll be interested to see what their terms of reference will be, and how they can also get input from specialist groups, whether the Chartered Institute for Housing, homelessness charities and civil engineering experts at the local universities.

Executive councillors setting expectations

Cambridge Labour’s executive councillors have a massive opportunity to change the way the council is treated by local institutions. It isn’t just the change in political control (after over a decade out of local office) or the size of the majority that matters, but that they’ve got a critical mass of younger councillors with lots of energy and determination. This for me is why Cllr Lewis Herbert’s response to my first question is ever so important. If he as council leader can make it crystal clear to other local institutions that being ignored or brushed aside will not be tolerated (and that this will be followed up – all the way to Whitehall and ministers if necessary) could make the latter think twice.

Now, it could work or it could go badly wrong. From the executive councillors I know, most of them won’t tolerate being ignored or brushed aside. At the same time, an overly aggressive approach could shut some people off. This is why having a clear process of escalation is vital. Far better to have a clear and substantial threat (ie ‘We will be raising your institution’s conduct with ministers as you’ve clearly not complied with our clearly-stated process as approved by the council’) rather than engaging in a shouting match across a table. Furthermore, in 2015 there’s a general election. Irrespective of who wins Cambridge (I still think it’s too close to call between Julian and Daniel), Daniel Zeichner has more connections than on a circuit board inside the national Labour Party. Should Labour get into national government in 2015, expect Labour ministers to be sympathetic to a Labour-run council being ignored by local taxpayer-funded institutions.

If Cllr Herbert proposes a motion to a future full council meeting on the back of my first question, local institutions would be ill-advised to ignore Cambridge City Council and local councillors on the back of it. Because post-2015 they could find themselves caught in a pincer movement.


Alex Aiken of Cabinet Office tweeted confirmation of the new policy of the Government Communications Service:

Digital comms skills are now mandatory from the most junior officer to the very top.

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 2 Comments

‘Reclaim the game – Funk FIFA’


An old band makes a new return – and has the corrupt monster that is FIFA in its sights

This new number’s more than quite good

By ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’

About time we had some protest in music. And as targets, they don’t come much bigger. Rather than have me explaining in detail what it’s all about, have a look at this item from John Oliver:

If FIFA cannot be reformed, throw them out of the game - says this opinion piece in the New York Times.

A childhood based around football

I blogged about it here in 2012. I still remember a priest at my old church complaining that the youth football season meant that families would take their children to football matches rather than church. I ended up stuck in the latter because there were no volunteers at my first youth football club (“Cambridge Crusaders” – we trained on Coleridge Rec, little did I know that a quarter of a century later I’d be standing for election there) to continue coaching us. So yes, football mattered. The distractions of a couple of international tournaments around exam time probably cost me a couple of grades for GCSE and A-Levels too.

Keeping politics out of football

One of the early principles of FIFA was to keep politics out of football. Part of the aim was to keep vicious despotic dictatorships that had a habit of torturing players that performed badly in tournaments out of the game. If only the public had known about this at the time. Yet despite its negative connotations, international organisations need transparency and accountability to stop them going out of control. FIFA is out of control. But how to you ensure the best features of politics get applied to FIFA without the worst bits joining for the ride? At the moment, we only have the worst bits.

In the UK, we have a tradition of self-governing bodies. Courts don’t like to get involved in dispute resolution of things that have happened on the pitch or as part of disciplinary proceedings. When it comes to having poor systems of governance and administration, the English FA has got form – The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee giving them a kicking in 2013. That’s why complaints from the FA about FIFA’s poor governance…exactly. Note too that some of the FA’s official sponsors (see here) are also listed as some of FIFA’s official sponsors.

Buying independence from democratic oversight through the slush funds of sponsors

Now, we’ve been here before – see my blogpost on sponsors and London 2012. Part of the deal for London getting the games was that we’d change our laws and give multinationals and the organisers lots of tax breaks. The amount of money multinational brands have thrown at FIFA and the International Olympic Committee has allowed them to have independence from governments and parliaments. How are FIFA held accountable for the for the financial reserves that are now measured in billions? I’ve always liked the principle of ‘If your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be – and that regulator needs to be accountable to the people of the world’. Of course how you do that is a damn sight more complicated. But it matters.

Feeding the behemoth which is coming back to bite them

This is what has happened to the sponsors – they’re all listed here. When Bloomberg is reporting that your sponsors are unhappy, you’ve got a problem. A big problem. But the sponsors are part of the problem. They’ve failed to insist on proper corporate governance. But then one or two of those sponsors have got ‘issues’ themselves when it comes to human rights. Sponsors have fed this unaccountable monster of an organisation for years without insisting on improvements to corporate governance until it has been too late.

Replacing Brazilian culture with bland featureless globalised culture of the 1%

FIFA has banned samba drums from World Cup matches. Yeah. My thoughts exactly. (I love samba so much I even wrote a blogpost about it!) Not only that, the ‘anthem’ FIFA have come up with has not gone down too well in Brazil either – see here. For me, part of the fun of the World Cup is that you have the crowds bringing in their instruments. The Scots (during the years when they’d regularly qualify) bringing bagpipes with the Brazilian drums was something that Dario G picked up on in their epic Carneval de Paris in 1998. Today, in the era of tickets going to the disinterested guests of official sponsors and delegations, expect to have the sort of atmosphere slammed by Roy Keane. But it’s not the prawn sandwich brigade. It’s the champers and exotic endangered fish eggs brigade. Football’s the bit-part. FIFA and international tournament organisers cannot have their cake and eat it. They cannot expect to have an exciting and vibrant atmosphere while handing over large allocations of tickets to people not passionate about the event or the activity. Remember the early days of London 2012 and all those empty seats?

How do you make football – or any international sport accountable to ‘the people’?

The solution – and the principles around it are straight forward: Make FIFA and national associations directly accountable to supporters’ federations – such as the FSF in England. One other alternative – for the EU in particular is for the European Parliament to declare competency over UEFA as part of strengthening democratic oversight over Europe-wide institutions. Yes, that goes against the political tide in the recent European elections, but think what a positive impact it could have if talented MEPs (and there are talented ones out there, despite what the media might imply) cross-examining UEFA and FIFA executives on an annual basis.

One of the big underlying problems with FIFA at the moment is they are not seen to be accountable to anyone. No institution can haul Sepp Blatter and his executives in front of a committee and subject him to detailed and critical cross-examination. In the UK I’d go further and have the executive directors and chairpersons of the Football Association, the FA Premier League and the Football League appearing annually before the Committee on Culture, Media and Sport upon publication of their annual reports – taking evidence from sports journalists and supporters’ associations on what issues the Committee should raise. You never know, it might get people interested in other political issues and the functioning of politics in general.

“Do you want the tournament to fail?”

For the fans, no. Of course I want everyone passionate about the game and excited about the World Cup to feel the sort of excitement I had when my class at primary school prepared for Italia ’90 – and to have lots of fun! Like the participants in this unofficial video seem to be having!

For some in Brazil – the ones who’ve lost their homes in the clearances, or those that lost their lives building the stadia and infrastructure and who won’t get justice…exactly. That’s to say nothing of FIFA running off with all the money – tax free. How a clique of men (and it is mainly men) that live a jet-set lifestyle in five-star hotels can have connections with the grass roots of football is beyond me. Blatter’s not doing himself any favours with statements like this. Astonishing.

I hope Brazil 2014 marks the start of where the fans across the world started the fight back against the parasites sucking the lifeblood out of the beautiful game. Let’s have the game run by and for the people who care about football, not the institutions that imprison it. The tragedy for Brazil is that the person who had a plan, the calibre of person, the intellect and an awesome footballing and democratic pedigree for overhauling things over there back in 2002 (see here) is no longer with us. Dr Socrates died in 2011. But at least Brazil had an inspiration for both change in football as well as for democracy and social justice. If England has an equivalent, I’ve not found him.


Posted in Law and legal issues, Music, Public administration & policy, Sport | 2 Comments

Going beyond ‘simple’ social media


Branching out into more complex digital media – with some thoughts for how my main Cambridge-based project will evolve

Some of you will be aware that I started a 10 week digital film evening class recently. With good reason: I want to get much more out of the kit that I have. For several years I’ve felt that I’ve never really used the features on things like mobile phones or laptops to their full potential. At the start of the year I promised myself that 2014 would be different. As far as digital media is concerned, I’ve published my first podcast (have a listen here) and my first self-filmed and self-edited/processed digital video. I haven’t done any editing to enhance the audio or visuals, it’s more been a case of extracting media files from one place or one gadget and uploading them. How complicated can that be?

Filming at the Strawberry Fair 2014 in Cambridge

Louise of Flaming June is a local (to me) musician who I first saw performing at a demonstration in Cambridge, followed by a gig as part of Oxjam 2013 (see my review here). I went down to the Strawberry Fair to see her play as she has a new album coming out. I filmed several of her numbers. Here’s her final track – and one of my favourites, ‘Psycho’.

This was taken on an iPhone5 with me lying down on the grass trying to hold the gadget as still as I possibly could. I don’t have a steady hand when it comes to photography and filming so am pleased at how well the unedited footage came out. Make of it what you will. (Louise kindly gave me permission to film – thank you!)

Getting the footage is the hard bit

For someone like me that is. I said to my counsellor (yeah – things have been a bit tough mental-health-wise this year) I’m trying to break away from the inertia of perfectionism: from a mindset of getting everything right first time every time. Now if you’re making satellites to go into orbit, then you have to get things right first time and every time. A few years ago I watched a documentary about a firm in East Anglia that makes multi-million-pound satellites. One of the posters they had in their workplace was about there being no repair vans in space to fix mistakes. Hence a strict regime of regular testing and re-testing, checking and re-checking. When you’re making a film, much of the film footage is left on the virtual cutting room floor.

I found this out for the first time when I took part in a BBC film back in late 2006 as a ballroom dancing extra. It was for the Stephen Poliakoff film Joe’s Palace. This was just before I transferred to London in the civil service. We all had to be in Regent’s Park, London at 5am for filming. It was early December. It wasn’t warm. It wasn’t till just after midday that we were able to leave. The actual length of the scene in the film couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes. But the time it took to film the scene took much much longer. The second part of the scene is below – see if you can spot me in the black velvet jacket and white trousers at the very very end!

Pressure driving innovation

As it turned out, Puffles’ election campaign was a massive driver for trying new things out. Although I wanted to try out a few new things, the sequencing, timing and impact of the pressure were things I had not anticipated. Yes, I wanted to make a couple of digital videos, no I didn’t make any. No, I didn’t expect to make any podcasts, but yes I made one. I didn’t expect the posters I made to get positive feedback but they did – even though I’ve never really seen myself as a creative type. I hadn’t expected to launch a website – especially one that is now going to become the basis of some joint post-election local work, but me and Ceri did.

The most important thing looking back was getting some momentum going. This included stating or doing things that implied a follow-up action. By the time I got halfway through the campaign I felt a sense of being on an ‘autopilot’. Why didn’t I just stop and go back to bed? That in part explains the past fortnight post-elections: I’ve been exhausted – especially emotionally. At the same time, I’ve also looked back and asked myself if I really did all of that stuff for the election.

‘Film Skool’

This has been a good spur to get going because we have a nice small group of us and someone competent in short film making to tell us to do stuff. And sometimes you need that. For someone who is a bit of a ‘beta male’ that thinks too much, having someone else telling me what to do in order for me to learn something that I want to get good at. What was nice last week was seeing a couple of the younger people in our group experimenting with the kit they had, even though they were not at the stage of what a future short video might look like. For me, it was the other way around. I’ve got a clear but flexible vision of what I want to achieve for a series of short digital videos, but not the confidence and ease they have both with the kit and with experimenting. If anything, this shows why having diversity of backgrounds (including ages) in a creative team is a good thing.

Music school

Some of you may also know that since February 2014 I’ve been rediscovering my singing voice with the Dowsing Sound Collective, after a couple of decades of relative silence. The past couple of months have been a challenge musically too. There was the Basement Jaxx recording at the end of March (see here). We also did a recording for Cambridge’s ‘Cycle of Songs’ which is part of our Tour de France celebrations when the race comes to these streets. Finally, there is what will be my first sung concert since my school days and this side of the Millennium.

If you want to come and see us and are in the Cambridge area, we’re performing at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on 13 July.

We get to sing in this! We’ve got two performances – one at 4:30pm and another for those of you that want to avoid the World Cup Final at 8:15pm. (See here for tickets). Given my utter contempt for FIFA and their executives (a contempt that’s spreading worldwide – see here in the NYT) I’m prepared to give the final a miss.

The tenor parts that our musical genius director Andrea Cockerton has arranged for us are challenging. Karaoke this isn’t. But that’s part of the fun. It’s here that the pattern emerges: people from ‘outside’ challenging me on things that I want to do and become good at. In the case of the music, there’s also been a tempo and intensity similar to the election campaign that has generated a self-sustaining momentum. It’s that self-sustaining momentum that is pushing me towards new digital media with a greater level of confidence and curiousity than in years gone by.

The need to, and the challenge of diversifying my own skills

It’s not that I find blogging and tweeting boring. Rather there’s an immediacy and an intensity with mainstream social media that isn’t good for my health – physical, mental and emotional. I’m also at a stage of being sufficiently far away from London and out of the public policy bubble that I’ve gone down my own road. When I turned around to see who else had come with me at the start of the election campaign, it turned out that hardly anyone had. Me and public policy world had diverged.

The challenge I face is that the problems the London-based public policy world is trying to solve are very different to the challenges Cambridge faces. The context is also different too. Learning the differences between those two contexts has taken a good few years of listening and learning. One example of this difference is the recent announcement by the executive director of Government Communications Alex Aiken: No digital skills? No promotions. Note I call for similar in my manifesto for Cambridge – but go further than communications, expanding the principle to anyone with management responsibilities. Much as London is full of interesting events, gatherings and workshops, I can’t afford to get to them. Following a hashtag is not the same as being there face-to-face. If you’re not there face-to-face, you’re easily forgotten – no matter how much you tweet.

Solving the problem that is there, not the problem you’d like to be there

That’s one of the learning points from my election campaign (the evaluation of which I need to do more analysis on – but note the initial findings here). If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the only tools you think you have are digital…exactly. As I found in the campaign, the digital only approach did not work in Cambridge. That’s why what I’m working on in these post-election months are just as much offline as they are online.

Going past ‘Peak Puffles’

In the grand scheme of things, the election result was ‘Peak Puffles’. It also marks the start of a transition period from Puffles towards something called Be the change Cambridge. Note that since the election results were announced, I’ve not taken Puffles anywhere – despite opportunities to do so such as The Strawberry Fair. This is deliberate. Basically I’m learning from Hootsuite’s rebrand – see here. Outside of Twitter it’ll mean more Antony and less Puffles. Because let’s face it: the problems Cambridge faces are ones even a dragon cannot solve. It requires people – all in this together.

Posted in Cambridge, Music, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media | 2 Comments

Cambridge Labour’s young guns take up office


Some thoughts and advice for Cambridge City Council’s new executive councillors – in particular for those that have never held executive office before

They’ve been named here. Included in this list are tweeting councillors Carina O’Reilly (deputy leader covering the city centre & public places), Richard Johnson (community, arts and recreation) and Peter Roberts (environment, waste and health). My local councillors Lewis Herbert (council leader) and George Owers (finance and resources) are also on the council’s executive, as are the two Kevins, councillors Kevin Price (housing) and Kevin Blencowe (planning and transport). ****Good Luck**** to you all in your new posts.

A blogpost about public administration

Cambridge Labour’s manifesto is here for those of you who haven’t seen it. I’m not going to cover what’s in the manifesto – that debate has been had and Labour won the local election here. (For those interested, my thoughts at the time are here). My thoughts in this post are based on having worked with ministers in the civil service – in particular junior Labour ministers who were appointed to executive office for the first time. The party political context matters because I’ve found the parties have different cultures when it comes to running executive offices.

No longer backbench councillors

You are now individually and collectively some of the most influential people within the city. With that comes both prestige (yes – really!) and increased scrutiny. People and organisations that you may never have heard of before might start getting in touch with you on a regular basis. How you conduct yourselves in official business, online and in private will now have a higher profile than when you were in opposition. Please bear this in mind.

Learning and training

Public administration has evolved significantly since Cambridge Labour was last in office. At the same time, the skills and competencies you need to run an executive office successfully are very different to those needed to be an effective political campaigner and ward councillor. Do your own skills review. What are the skills and knowledge you need to carry out your duties effectively? Which of these skills do you not currently have? Where can you go about getting the training you need? The council has a training budget which, across the public sector tends to be underspent. Use it – and use it wisely. For example it might be better value for money to bring in someone who has experience of high public office who can tailor a group course to the demands of Cambridge rather than sending you down to London for courses there. The main ones to consider at the outset are programme management, (within that risk management) and managing teams.

Managing a team of people not in your political movement

This can be the making or breaking of your executive and of your manifesto. Local council officials will be the ones you charge with delivering your manifesto on your behalf. They are the ones who will be doing the day-to-day work. They are also your eyes and ears.

Motivating people

Learn what makes them ‘tick’ – what motivates them. Find out what style of management allows them to perform a their best – and just as importantly, what stifles them. Due to the sensitive and pressured nature of what you will be working on, avoid unnecessary conflicts. Conflicts will happen, but make sure you don’t personalise them and that you all know & use the systems for managing them. While you can block people on social media, you can’t block people who you have to work with day-in-day-out.

Being clear in your instructions

Fewer & more clear instructions are better than a stream of directives. Ensure those working for you know what you want to do, why you want to do it, what your expected result is and how long it’ll take for them to do it. Most importantly, trust them unless/until proven otherwise. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to assume that the council officials are all Lib Dems because they were in office before you. Some Labour ministers made this mistake in 1997 & some Coalition ministers made this mistake in 2010. Please don’t repeat them.

Delegate effectively

Even with all the time in the world you will never be able to do everything. What are the things that with your very limited time you need to be focusing on? Which are the things that you can delegate to officials? In principle, things only need referring to you when you need to make a decision about something. Save progress updates for programme/project meetings so they don’t clog up your inboxes.

Information management

You’ll be more than familiar with the huge amount of paperwork you get for council meetings. Having seen them myself as a member of the public, my worry is that the information you really need to make decisions – the important stuff – is buried. What are your ‘must knows’, your ‘want to knows’ and ‘would like to knows’? (If it’s the last of the three, that information generally doesn’t need to be there unless you’ve asked specifically for it).

How do you want information to be presented to you? Are you someone who likes reading lots of text? Are you someone who likes things on slides? Do you like tables of data or do you prefer charts and graphs? How long do you want your briefing papers to be? Most ministers I’ve worked for say two sides of A4 on substantive issues, with information, pictures and graphs attached in appendices.

Your gatekeepers

You’ll have council staff responsible for supporting you. They will be the ones who will be doing things like managing your council diaries and preparing your papers. Treat them kindly and with dignity. Chances are the more experienced staff will have seen crises that you’ve not seen before. Ask them for their advice on how to handle.

You’ll have even less time for the likes of Puffles

Good! ;-) The point being here is social media users may want to review how they use social media to interact with residents. Content, tone, frequency, subject area. Don’t be afraid to refer things outside of your portfolio to someone else. Your time is now much more precious than it was before.

Ensure backbench councillors & activists pick up some of your campaigning & constituency work

This goes particularly for councillors in Abbey and Coleridge wards (the latter being my ward). Half of the councillors in those wards are executive councillors. This means the amount of time they will have to devote to constituency and community work will be significantly restricted. The demands of executive office are significant. This means that the backbench councillors will need to step up if collectively councillors in those wards are to maintain their existing presence.


Transparency and accountability

You are now going to be on the receiving end of things like the Freedom of Information Act – brought in by Labour in 2000. Expect to be on the receiving end of a number of requests. At the same time, think how you can reduce the number of requests by proactively publishing information. Think about how best the information you publish states what decisions you’ve taken, why you’ve taken those decisions and what evidence bases you have that justify the decisions you’ve taken.

Think also about how the scrutiny and questions you receive from the wider public (ie not just those of us that watch local democracy closely in Cambridge) feed into your decision-making processes. You will always be making decisions on the basis of imperfect information. That’s the nature of the beast. Do your polices, systems and processes allow you to be flexible where the info/evidence bases change?

Managing expectations

Me and Richard Taylor disagreed on this earlier

Managing expectations – whether the public’s, your own or those of your staff, are essential for sound public administration. This is where your management skills will be tested. There are a number of questions you’ll want to ask your staff and advisers, such as:

  • What is the current situation with your policy portfolio?
  • Where do you want to get to with your portfolio given your manifesto commitments?
  • How are you going to bridge the gap between the above two?
  • What are the things that are currently getting in the way of achieving your manifesto commitments?
  • How are you going to overcome those barriers?
  • What are the risks associated with delivering your manifesto commitments?
  • How are you managing those risks?

Much of the above comes down to sound project and programme management principles. Get into the habit of asking a regular set of basic questions at the start of each meeting you have, such as:

  • Progress update – what has happened/changed since the last meeting you had?
  • Top three risks – what are they, how are they being managed and by who?
  • Achievements – what has been done/completed and that can be crossed off the list of things to do?
  • Correspondence from outside organisations

‘Stakeholder management’

Yeah – I hate the term too. One of the first things you may want to do is to commission your staff to draw up an ‘influence/interest matrix’ of people and organisations that have something to do with your policy area. Who are the people you want to be communicating with and listening to regularly? Who are the people and organisations that can enhance what you’re doing in the council? (This comes back to my concept of ‘mapping our communities’ in Cambridge – are there people and organisations that we’re missing?)

Communicating directly

Inevitably there will be a lot of comment on what you do over the next year – a fair amount from this blog. You don’t have to rely on mainstream media or local bloggers to be the means of getting messages or explanations out. Is there an option of having a corporate blog for executive councillors where once a month a different executive councillor writes a short piece about what they have been doing over the previous few months? It also might be a useful outlet for an executive councillor to explain what decisions have been taken and why – even if that explanation is a transcript of a speech delivered to a full council. At least that way if anyone complains as a result of an article in the media or someone else’s blog, you can always refer them back to the transcript of your speech & see if they follow up with a more detailed/specific question. (Parts of the civil service have tried this and it’s worked well).

And finally…

You won’t get everything right. You’ll make mistakes – remember you’re going to be making decisions on the basis of imperfect information due to the time pressures more than anything else. When things go wrong, far better to hold your hands up and say “Yes, we got this wrong.” Then briefly explain the cause (without blame) of why that thing went wrong and what you learnt from it for the future. That’s a far better, more effective and more honest way of dealing with failures – and chances are the public will see you in a better light for it. There’s only so long you can credibly defend the indefensible for. In this environment, that’s not long at all.

Good luck and best wishes!

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 1 Comment