Puffles’ Twitter Follow Friday List – Media

This is another instalment (still not the final one!) of the various people, creatures and organisations that appear on Puffles’ Twitter Feed.

The first person on this list is Sue Llewellyn – who along with David Allen Green (of media law fame (who has Natalie Peck on his side)) gave me the virtual kick up the backside to get these lists going. Apart from being an expert in her field, Sue’s posts have a general loveliness about them. She also has hypnotic eyes too.

I’m inserting Jayne Secker of Sky News and Penny Marshall of ITV News because they tweet to Puffles while they are on the telly! (Or rather during the advert breaks). On the radio, Sian Williams also pleasantly surprised Puffles too with a follow.

Naomi Klein was one of the first authors I came across just over ten years ago when I started university and found out just how screwed up the world economy was – ditto with multinational corporations. This made me something of a pest on my degree because I kept on picking apart dodgy assumptions that formed the basis of my degree course at the time. (I studied economics).

Mark Steele has been on the lefty-media-comedy scene for quite some time – and has a few Youtube video-clips up too. He also has made a number of documentaries and written a handful of books – Reasons to be cheerful (about political activism) I particularly liked. Another Mark I rate is Mark Thomas, in particular for his work against the arms trade. Although both these Marks are not prolific tweeters. However, it’s worth keeping tabs on them if anything to find out when they’ll be appearing on tour. I’m still yet to see another up-and-coming comedian Josie Long, though have seen (twice – and am continually ignored by) Shappi Khorsandi on Twitter! Another comedian coming out of somewherefield is Imran Yusufkicking prejudice in the parts where it really hurts.

Also giving the media and journalism worlds a good kicking in the blokey-bloke-jangles are Belle de jour and Fleet Street Fox. Keep it up ladies!

Red Pepper magazine was one publication I used to read a lot at university, but less so now. Strangely enough, I’ve also struggled to get into reading Private Eye magazine – mainly because the font is horrible, the text too small and the layout displeasing to my eye. If Mr Hislop get this account going, his sales would soar.

Stirring things up along the blurred lines of TV and newspaper politics is Kevin Maguire – Old Skool Daily Mirror type. Often found alongside Andrew Neil – formerly one of Murdoch’s executives but now a BBC stalwart. Patrick Hennessy of The Telegraph provides a nice balance with a bit of football thrown in. Otherwise Puffles’ Twitterfeed becomes a noise of screaming lefties. Talking about football, there only one publication worth reading – When Saturday Comes.

Not everyone who has/does work for Murdoch is an evil henchman/woman. Jo Geary was a delight when I met her and also had a number of people I trust who vouched for her too – her professional record and expertise more than speaking for itself. Neal Mann‘s contributions this year have been little short of outstanding too – especially on the revolutions in North Africa.

When Polly Curtis of The Guardian started following (when I was still in the civil service) I hid underneath my desk. Actually, I didn’t, but had mixed feelings ranging from “Yes! Puffles has made it!” to “Is she going to try and ‘out’ Puffles’ Bestest Buddy and lead to a media firestorm outside my parents’ house? (And “Will I get fired as a result?”) You’ll all be familiar with Mark Upton – aka Naked Civil Servant

One up-and-coming journalist I met ages ago is Emanuelle Esposti who, along with Louisa Loveluck and Ruwayda Mustafa are my three most trusted sources on Middle Eastern reporting. Does it speak volumes that all three are women?

An unlikely personality I keep tabs on is Al Murray – the person rather than The Pub Landlord that is more well known in the public’s psyche. Like me, Alistair is a historian – only better than I am. (He has a degree in the subject from Oxford). He’s also made a number of documentaries too – most recently one examining (and standing up for) the Germans. (I should declare an interest in thinking that Germany is a lovely place too, having been there on a few occasions).

In terms of the Westminster Village, Ben Page is a regular on the departmental and television circuit. I’ve met him on a couple of occasions but as with these things being in a world where he’s meeting more people than is sensible, he probably has no recollection of any of those times. Ben was also the person being interviewed when Kay Burley of Sky got heckled in the run up to the general election. (No, I don’t rate the latter as a news anchor at all). Like Ben, I’ve also bumped into Emma Maier of the Local Government Chronicle on a couple of occasions. I had to get a couple of people to vouch for her first when she started following Puffles on the grounds that I had been stung before by a ‘trade’ magazine that follows the goings on in certain parts of Whitehall and wanted to be sure that Emma wasn’t going to do the same. Talking of the ‘trade press’, Civil Service World exists covering Whitehall which may be of interest to suit-wearers unfamiliar with Whitehall, but it’s a bit too old-style for me.

I keep tabs on Gaby Hinsliff and a number of people in different fields like her because having spent time in the furnaces of – in her case political journalism, insights from current/former professional ‘working mums’ shine a completely different light on a whole host of issues that you just don’t get from the predominantly male full-time commentators. I also include the lovely Liz Fraser in that description too – having made her name in documentaries and also in the ill-fated “Cambridge Red” during the late 1990s. (She’ll hate me for mentioning it but at the time, I did think “Liz! You’re so much better than this!)

In a nutshell, once you get a ‘critical mass’ of female voices on any issue, you notice the subtleties in how women can view things differently to us men.

Local to Liz (when she’s in Cambridge) and I is Eleanor Turney who keeps me up to speed on things happening in the arts world. Keeping tabs on the arts world is Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society for Arts.

Those of you who grew up watching telly in the late 80s and early 90s will remember Chris Packham‘s days on the Really Wild Show. (Only these days he doesn’t have spikey bleached blond hair.

On the “professional” journalism stage are Brian ‘the professor’ Cathcart, Media Law UK, and Mark Stephens. Holding up high standards when others lose theirs. Ditto with the Frontline Club.

Hiding away in the background is one of the few ITV tweeple I follow – Jess Brammar. In the past I kept away from ITV News because I felt it went downmarket towards sensationalising stuff unnecessarily. I don’t like the way its anchors read news as if the world is going to end on every single broadcast. “News at Ten! You’re gonna die and there’s nothing you can do about it!” But the arrival of Laura Kuenssberg has helped turn that ship around. That along with wider social media interaction is, I think helping drive up standards. Another news type who stays in the background is Isabel Hardman.

At a more specialist level, Alistair McLellan of the HSJ covers the health bases, Lou Woodley for nature, Christian Wolmar (again) for transport and the BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones for technology. The great thing about Twitter is that it allows you to get random nuggets of brainfood that gives you insights into things from specialists in the field that you’d otherwise miss.

I’ll probably need to do another serving of media types, but I’ll finish this one here before you get overwhelmed.


A chugger’s worst nightmare

…and I’m not talking about people who blank them or people who shout at them. (Chuggers – ‘charity muggers’ who try to accost you in the street seeking donations via direct debit – might be annoying, but don’t deserve rudeness or violence).

I take a different tack. Hey, I’m an ex-civi servant who’s been institutionalised!

“Oh hai Poofflez, Like to donayte to chariddee?!?!” Or something along those lines. When not in a rush and if the person stopping me looks like the kind of person you could have a reasonable conversation with, I ask them for their spiel – or ‘lines to take.’ After giving them the opportunity to say ‘I’m a chugger, don’t really know much about the charity but I need the money’ (which we all do in these tough economic times) I then start with the interrogation from hell. Well…I don’t actually – I’ve only ever done this once, and it goes a little something like this.

“How much did your charity spend last year?”

“What are your charity’s current cash reserves? (i.e. are you hoarding cash or are you spending it?)”

“Give me some examples – case studies if you like – of projects where your charity has made a real difference”

“Give me a ballpark figure of what your charity spent on administration last year, and what percentage of donations did this make up?”

“What are the salaries of your charity’s top executives?”

I can be a real beast if I want to!

The problems with charities are not just with chuggers – whose activities can tarnish the name of the charities that they are fundraising for. There is a wider issue of how ‘charity’ and ‘charities’ are seen in society.

Campaigning vs Service Delivery

This is an issue that Andy Bower (a local (to me) Conservative activist regularly raises with Puffles. Do the campaigning activities of charities compromise their political neutrality – especially those that generate funds through the delivery of public sector contracts? It’s a reasonable question. Before anyone kicks off on this, please see the Charity Commission’s guidance first. (It regulates charities).

But the answer is a little bit more complicated. In times gone by – thinking in particular of the post-1945 settlement, public services were predominantly paid for and delivered by the state. To get a feel for how public services were built up from a historical perspective, I strongly recommend Tristram Hunt’s book Building Jerusalem which he wrote before being elected a Labour MP in Stoke.

Now, with the state delivering and funding public services and with charities raising money, campaigning and/or delivering things separate to the state, the lines between the two institutions was pretty clear cut.

The thing is, charities can be better at delivering some services than the state. My experience with Centre 33 in helping me deal with mental health issues was far better than with my local NHS provider. You may well have your own examples too. With this in mind, it’s understandable that politicians started to look at ‘non-state’ providers to deliver public services – in particular where those charities already had a developed infrastructure on the ground and were highly regarded in the communities that they operated in. Hence the development of the “commissioning model” which is weaved into “New Public Management” thinking. My own reading into this made me question where all the empirical and academic studies were that demonstrated that this model was any more efficient than delivering stuff in house (e.g. do they take into account costs of outsourcing and contract management, as well as the ‘soft services’ that inhouse teams provide through goodwill rather than saying “it’s not in the contract, ask someone else.”?)

Financial dependence

Once there is a financial link between the state and a not-for-profit organisation, things can become complicated for the latter in particular. This is especially the case with the huge cuts that are being made to public service budgets. Charities in their campaigning roles are inevitably speaking out because of the social impacts of the cuts, while their delivery arms have to cope with reduced budgets or contracts that are not renewed – inevitably having a knock-on effect on their additional activities – which increases the pressure to speak out.

Getting into messy politics

You’ve seen the political speeches and the parliamentary exchanges.

“You don’t have to take our word for it – all of these organisations have said that they agree with us!”

It’s a bit like saying “We know that the public think we’re lying toe-rags, but those institutions over there have good reputations and they are saying they agree with us so we must be right!” (Hat-tip to Colin Hay and his book “Why we hate politics” for the tip off on that one). Understandably tribal political types start getting angry if a registered charity starts getting a little too close to the sides that are not theirs – hence why charities must be very careful when speaking at one political party conference and not another during conference season.

When is a charity not a charity?

Being a charity brings with it a whole host of rights and responsibilities. One of the things that has caused problems for local businesses – second hand bookshops in particular – is the rate relief charity shops get on their activities. Cambridge has lost a number of independent bookshops, including Browns which was a goldmine of knowledge. I don’t know to what extent the Amnesty International Bookshop took away its trade, or to what extent Amazon had on its closure but it’s understandable that small businesses feel particularly aggrieved when faced with a charity shop in the same area effectively being given an advantage.

There’s also the issue of institutions that predominantly serve the affluent and the rich – thinking the top public schools. This came to a head in the latter years of the Labour administration when through the Charity Commission and its then head Dame Suzi Leather tried to tighten up the rules to force such institutions to demonstrate far more of a benefit to those less well off than they had otherwise been providing. (See also the BBC’s take at the time).

Executive pay and remuneration

In the era of coverage on high pay and the pay of executives, just how much are chief executives of charities worth? There are a number of chief executives on six figure salaries. Do these salaries undermine the reputations of these charities in the minds of the general public? Should charitable donations be ‘ringfenced’ with administrative costs coming in from service delivery contracts or income from investments? I feel uneasy at making charitable donations knowing that some of it might go on the chief executive’s courtesy car. Hence why most of my charitable donations are in kind.

Celebrity endorsement

This is always going to be a controversial issue. The well-known public figures I tend to have more respect for are those who develop long term and consistent relationships with a small number of charities – the former cricketer Sir Ian Botham being a good example with Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. Problems arise when celebrities ‘misbehave’ and/or do something that tarnishes the reputation of the charities they publicly support. In my mind, the whole ‘celebrity culture’ of recent times has brought the term ‘charidee’ into the public lexicon – which I think is a reflection of the ‘cheapening’ of the hard-won reputations earned by those who do the ground work but don’t get the publicity or acknowledgement for what they do. There is also the ‘transparency’ issue which I first clocked on the back of Live8 – Live Aid 20 years on. A number of performers had significant increases in record sales on the back of those performances. Was that concert a simple case of free marketing? (Or am I a cynic?)

Tax avoidance and tax evasion

This is a tricky issue not least because it is so politicised – to the extent every time Puffles tweets about it a number of people come after Puffles. Just so we are CRYSTAL CLEAR, tax avoidance is legal, and tax evasion is a criminal offence. Tax AVOIDANCE is defined by The Treasury (in a document signed off by a Conservative minister – so any Conservatives who have an issue with this, take it up with your minister, not me) as:

…[involving] using the tax law to get a tax advantage that Parliament never intended(First paragraph of the executive summary on Page 5)

Remember too that this document was written at a time when the Conservatives were – and still are the biggest party in Parliament. Labour too are not off the hook – things got this bad on tax avoidance under your watch.

There. Political rant over.

Now, what are the two issues?

One issue is the use wealthy people make of the tax system to reduce their tax bills through exploiting charitable tax relief. Another issue is people trying to excuse tax avoidance because an individual gives a lot of money to charity. We tried Victorian style philanthropy in the Victorian era. It did not work – hence the (imperfect) welfare state – which will be the subject of a future blogpost in itself. Charitable giving is what people choose to give irrespective of their tax obligations, not instead of. People who excuse tax avoidance because of charitable giving in my mind undermine the very charities – and the acts of charitable and philanthropical giving. This for me is not in the public interest.

To conclude…

On the whole, I think charities are a good thing. That said, there are a number of areas that policy makers – and charities themselves – need to consider in order to ensure charities and charitable giving is not undermined in the eyes of the public.

Today at the job centre

Today was my second appointment at the job centre – following on from my interview last week, described in the blogpost Signing on.

There’s still a mixture of fear of the unknown and a fear of being judged in this whole process that made the run up to today’s visit a little bit worrying. It’s a bit like going to the doctor or going to the dentist. It’s strange when you think about it. These people are public servants who in principle are there to help you out and make life’s trials and tribulations that little bit easier. So why worry? Is it the individual or the treatment that we worry about? The dentist or the dentists drill?

I reluctantly ploughed through the paperwork knowing that this was all a box-ticking exercise. As a former civil servant I’m more than familiar with box-ticking exercises. Badly-designed performance management systems are an example – and I’m yet to see the ‘holy grail’ of both a fit-for-purpose performance management system combined with a capable competent and inspiring people management culture that allows lots of people who work for such an organisation to hit their potential.

I’ve got my ‘job seeker’s agreement’

It’s written for a seven year old. Really. (What I mean by that is its patronising tone rather than accessibility of language – bearing in mind our continuing problems of illiteracy and innumeracy)

“I know I must do everything I can to

  • find work
  • improve my chances of finding work
  • overcome things that might be making it harder for me to look for and get a job”

No one will be able to do everything they can to find or improve chances of finding work. There will always be something more that individuals can do.

It gets worse

“I know I must:

  • actively seek work by doing at least [insert number] things a week
  • show I have been actively seeking work every week, every time I attend the Jobcentre
  • be available for work for the hours I have set out in this agreement
  • apply for all jobs that Jobcentre Plus tells me to apply for”

The first bullet point above is a classic box ticking exercise. Making a speculative phone call, sending an email, asking a mate if anything is available – that’s three things for the week; job done. The problem with this approach is that it feels as if it has been written to catch people out rather than to help them into meaningful longterm employment. Stick rather than carrot.

The second bullet point wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they didn’t make the whole thing such a paper-based exercise – in particular with phone calls and conversations. As mentioned in my last article, my experience of seeing the screens that Jobcentre Plus uses clearly demonstrated that they were so last millennium. Last time I saw fonts like that I was playing a computer game from 1993. I’d like to think we’ve moved on from the decade when Darren Day was on Saturday Night TV.

As for the hours set in the agreement, there was the implication that I would be available to work a 9-5 or full-time job. What if people are only available or willing to do part-time work because of family/caring commitments? What about if they are doing voluntary work or are on a training course? Well…I have another form for that one. Again, another box-ticking exercise but no real acknowledgement that what I’m learning on this teacher training course is actually really useful and is more than likely to improve future employment prospects. And not because it’s a bit of paper either. (I know, bad form to start a sentence with the word “And”, but I had a bad experience at secondary school with English teachers…and art teachers…and music teachers…and physics teachers….I’ll stop there).

Finally, there is this bizarre final bullet point saying that I must apply for all jobs that the Jobcentre Plus tells me I must apply for. This is a completely counter-productive condition to have, and only increases the resentment between institution and citizen. The nature of working in a job centre means that the civil servants who work there will never have the amount of information that they need on an individual to have any idea on what jobs or careers that will be suitable for applicants.

Given the grades that front-line staff are employed at and the salaries that they are on, the chances of those staff having the competencies needed to make sound judgement calls on which jobs to apply for (and advice on how best to apply & present) is unlikely. Those that do should be paid far more than they currently are – in particular those that.
The adviser who I was with today recognised that the systems and processes he had to work with were hopelessly obsolete and were more of a hindrance than a help in my situation. I’m not looking for an entry-level admin job. I was nine years ago, but am not now. Jobcentre Plus struggles with people who are in effect freelancers and those who – like me effectively have portfolio careers. (i.e. we might be on college one day a week, volunteering one day a week, and working three days a week – all at various different times).

In the Jobcentre, just as with any other customer service environment, the calibre and attributes of the individual dealing with you makes a huge difference. My experience of job centres and job agencies also showed me the difference in incentives and demands for/of the two. In a job agency, the incentive is primarily a financial one. Taking on a sound agency worker provides a steady income stream for the agency (the cut that they take from the commissioning firm will make you wince) while securing permanent employment secures them a ‘finders’ fee. Fair enough – that’s what such agencies are for and that’s part of the deal.

The challenge that civil servants in job centres face is one similar to other frontline public service providers – they are the final safety net. Anyone who cannot find work through any other route finds themselves at a job centre. It is civil servants who then have to deal with them. This is not easy as this inevitably means having to work with people who are more than likely to have multiple problems and needs. Not the sort of stuff that hits the inboxes of executive headhunters.
My issues with the set up in Cambridge? (I’m going to list them here because I know a number of councillors, council officials and local activists read this blog so I hope this gives them food for thought)
As far as I’m concerned, the Cambridge Job Centre is effectively in the middle of nowhere. A hideous building on a prime piece of land overlooking the river and Jesus Green. Why not sell the site off and relocate the job centre to somewhere that is on more public transport routes and that is closer to other public service providers – or even keeping them all in the same area. Is there scope to incorporate the council’s housing benefits office, the local CVS (volunteering advice centre), the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and even setting up a local NHS health and dental clinic all in one accessible venue?
Sparseness of the inside of the building
There’s no privacy for anyone – something I have a massive issue with because having too much of an open plan set up I feel strips some of the dignity that as human beings I’d like to think that we are all born with. The lack of a presence from anyone or any other organisation inside the job centre in a strange way gives an ‘adversarial’ feel to the place. I don’t get the feeling that the institution is on my side – when it should be.
I also did not see any newspapers or publications – such as the local jobs papers much in evidence. On both occasions a number of the ‘jobspoint’ machines broke down. I don’t know how reliable those machines are supposed to be – can any current or former civil servants shed any light?

The lack of other facilities adjacent/next to the job centre
This sounds strange but bear with me. There are no cafes or bakeries or convenience shops visible from the job centre. If anything something like that might give somewhere for people to go other than the waiting room waiting for their appointments.

No visible links with other employment agencies or established large (private sector) employers.
I’d like to see a much stronger presence from both employment agencies and the large private sector employers – is there a role for bringing in human resources staff from those agencies and firms (e.g. high street shops and supermarkets) to have day-release days to job centres on a regular basis and/or at scheduled times when demand for work is expected to peak? (For example in the run-up to Christmas – I’ve not seen adverts/posters for seasonal work, even though now is the time high street firms need to start recruiting).

The job centre systems and processes not being fit for purpose – not just for the long term unemployed but also for the growing numbers of ‘professional’ people who have become unemployed.
I’ve mentioned this in my previous post. During the ‘boom’ times, relatively few professional people found themselves dependent on the services of the job centre as an institution – and this point can be extrapolated nationwide. The PCS Union – whose members have been regularly raising problems in job centres (I declare an interest as a former PCS Union member and elected rep – so read about these regularly in union magazines) seemed to be one of the few organisations that spoke out both for the people who worked there and the service users during the good times. Now that unemployment is hitting the ‘middle classes’ (I hate that term but I’ll go with it for now), people with the knowledge, contacts and bloody-mindedness are beginning to speak out about how the systems and processes that they have funded and paid into through national insurance, are not working for them in their time of need.

As far as job-hunting is concerned, I’m not dependent on the systems, processes and facilities that the job centre has. I also have the support of my family – who I live with (because of their kindness and generosity – and because house prices are ridiculous in these parts I could never hope to afford my own place – even on my salary towards the end of my time in the civil service). This means that a withheld benefits payment is not the difference between eating and going hungry for the week. This blog post is not about me – it’s about trying to improve things for my fellow citizens. (No, I’m NOT Jon Culshaw’s Jeremy Kyle)

The public service ethos? That’s me. I spent a year working in banking between sixth form college and university. I was not cut out for it. Ironically out of the four 18/19 year olds that back office took on that year, the two people with university places secured for the following year decided to drop their places and stay with the bank, while myself and the other guy who joined the bank without having applied for a deferred place chose to apply for university and left the following summer.
I’d like to see more of Cambridge’s ‘professional’ types lean on those in power locally and nationally to help improve the systems and processes of our public services to help those less fortunate. The other thing that alarms me is the level of unclaimed benefits that people are entitled to – something that I picked up on Dr Eoin Clarke’s excellent blog The Green Benches. £13billion plus per year. Some might say that this saves the Treasury money. Yet this is an entitlement that we as a society, through Parliament have decided that people are entitled to as members of society.

If there is are problems with how the payments are made and who receives how much, improve the system. Where individuals break the law, we have a legal system to deal with that. It’s called the rule of law – something that people tend to appreciate only when that rule of law comes under threat. Let’s stop the stigmatisation of people on benefits – whether unemployed, disabled or the full time carers. After all, isn’t this the Big Society and aren’t we all in this together?

In praise of charity shops

“Rethink, reuse, recycle”

Prior to going to university, I wouldn’t have been seen dead in a charity shop, let alone alive. During those days I was stupendously and embarrassingly vain and insecure about image and what people thought of my image.

That mindset swung in completely the opposite direction during my university years – in particular when I found out about some of the huge injustices that were – and still are – occurring all over the world. The transition towards charity shop hunting was driven by a number of things:

  • a higher education culture that made it acceptable – desirable even, to purchase things from charity shops
  • changing financial circumstances that meant buying from the high street became less and less affordable
  • becoming aware of how goods are made in this consumerist culture – and the abuses that go on
  • becoming bored and dissatisfied with the general blandness of the high street
  • the sense of satisfaction from finding something that was particularly nice to wear (clothes), a book that was particularly interesting or some music that I had been searching for but had not yet found – remember this was pre iTunes days
  • the sense of ‘I’ve done something to help other people’ in the process
My years in Brighton between 1999-2002 were characterised by regular charity shop trawls. They are where much of my book collection came from – and most of my clothing wardrobe too. In fact, more often than not I was dependent on them because getting things from normal shops was beyond my financial means. Until mid-2004, this trend continued – in particular as I struggled to find a meaningful job and career. During some of those years I was working part time and, old-skool style received a pay packet with cash in and small statements saying how much the deductions were (for tax and NI – the joys of being a temp at a high street shop).

One of the things I realised when joining the civil service was that I’d need to make the transition from mayhem at the students’ union from to settling down into a career. This meant that spending habits changed as my income rose. However, I still made sure I regularly donated clothes, books and music no longer wanted or needed. One of the things I wanted to do was to ‘cleanse’ my wardrobe of everything from my pre-civil service days because of the struggles between 1999-2004 that they constantly reminded me of. But what was no longer wanted by me was more than likely to be wanted and needed by someone else – someone in a position that I was once in – struggling to make ends meet.

Ironically my move down to London – and the jump in income that this lead to – did not mean things became more comfortable financially. They did not. But part of that was down to spending choices that I made, as well as the general costs of living in London. That said, I was still keeping an eye out on charity shops for those hidden bargains and hard-to-find books. Technology however, was changing – and rapidly. Ten years ago charity shops would be full of cassettes and LPs. Today, charity shops selling tapes are much harder to come by – as are those selling videos. DVDs and computer games are much more to the forefront.

The clothes are still there – and I still donate regularly – especially as over the past few years my body size and shape have changed. Yes, the prospect of knowing that you’ll never be able to fit into a 32in waist or a 15in collared shirt does come as a shock to the system. (Especially if you have items of clothing of those fittings). I guess part of growing up and growing old involves letting go of the stuff that you like but that will no longer be of use to you. Rather than consign it to landfill, I’d rather have those items having a second life. Not because of a ‘look at me, I’m being nice!’ mindset – it’s more basic than that. My take is that our planet cannot cope with the ‘throwaway’ culture we have with clothing. In 2008 The Times reported 74% of clothing bought ended up in landfill. That statistic is painful. The rise of clothing appearing in landfill also makes for painful reading.

It’s one of the reasons why I started looking at the labels inside the garments – & familiarising myself with what the descriptions meant. What is the item made of? What is the quality of the fabric and manufacture? Where was the item made? What reputation does the manufacturer have? What are the washing instructions? I still do exactly the same thing in normal shops as I do in charity shops. Hence finding a very nice leather jacket for little more than a fiver in Oxfam. Problem was that it stank of tobacco and the dry cleaning bill to get the stench out is setting me back almost £50 (and is going to take ages as it has to be sent off to a specialist).

Mill Road and Burleigh Street in Cambridge are where many of the charity shops in Cambridge can be found. George Street in Hove and the area around Waitrose on Western Road & also around North Laine in Brighton were my stomping grounds for charity shops during my university days. In more recent years, Marchmont Street near Russell Square tube station was somewhere where I regularly frequented – and still do when I’m in London. Some charity shops have started selling items online – Oxfam being one of the pioneers of this.

I’m not going to use this blog post to tell people to shop in charity shops – or that if they don’t, that they are somehow ‘bad’ people. (How many times have you heard the “If you are a [insert description], then you will do X and if you do not then you are bad!” phrase being bandied about in anger?) Ultimately as with all shops, if they do not stock what you’re looking for you won’t go there. You may also have charities who you choose to support and those that you do not – for whatever reasons. Please be aware that they are there and that, for those things that you no longer need there are people out there who do. I was one of them and – if I remain out of work for an extended period of time there is a risk that I could become one again.

There’s no shame in that by the way. Part of the deal with being a positive and constructive part of society I think is being able to contribute towards helping those less fortunate when in the good times, and feeling able to accept that help during the bad. Hence why I worry that social stigma can prevent people in need from seeking out and/or accepting the help that actually they are entitled to/that people are willing to provide.

I will follow this article up in due course on the need for charities – and regulators and policy makers to tighten up on a number of things. But for this article, I’ll leave it at this.

MPs and political parties

One of the things that has regularly riled my regular social media contacts is the ‘whipping’ system within Parliament. People have been genuinely distressed to see images of parliamentary debates on issues that are really important to them and to thousands of other people taking place in a sparsely-filled chamber. Why is this so?

As my local Member of Parliament Dr Julian Huppert MP (Lib Dem) said at a Cambridge Sceptics in the Pub meeting, a debate in Parliament is not the same as a debate that you may have say at a university debating society. In a debating society debate, you listen to points made from people favouring a motion, and people opposing the motion, and then all those present vote to decide who has won.

Parliamentary debates work very differently. I saw this first hand from a ringside seat during my civil service days, when watching the full second reading of a piece of legislation I was supporting ministers on being debated in Parliament. My ringside seat That debate lasted the best part of seven hours – and my job was to concentrate throughout that entire time, listening out for any questions that were put by MPs to ministers on my policy area. (My three hour exams at university were nothing compared to the intensity of that experience). For part of that debate I was sat on the civil servants’ bench which is to the right-hand-side of the Speaker’s chair.

It was already a foregone conclusion that the Government was going to ‘win’ that debate – a three-line-whip and a substantial majority in Parliament ensured that. What struck me at the time was my reaction to seeing most of the debate (on a big screen in one of the committee rooms) being sparsely attended, then watching the chamber fill up before my eyes with people who were household names on the telly. I saw Ed Balls and I was like “He looks a lot smaller than he does on the telly!” (How big’s your telly?!?!) But it was the feeling of seeing the chamber fill up with all of these people who had not been in the chamber for the debate filling the chamber to cast their vote which made me feel uneasy.

Some MPs may have done their bedtime reading, made themselves aware of both sides of the argument and said to themselves that there was no point in them attending because they knew which way they were going to vote anyway. Other MPs may have had other commitments in Parliament that day – for example a select committee hearing. (Remember that a third of all MPs serve on select committees and another sixth of MPs are members of the Government so have to spend much of the day doing ministerial work rather than sitting in the Commons listening to debates – unless it is their department having to answer questions).

This means that when there is a debate on a substantive legislative issue – such as a second reading or third reading/report stages, or the approval of a statutory instrument (such as the one that brought in the £9,000 tuition fees by the Coalition under primary legislation brought in by Labour), most points made by those who sit through the whole debate are quite often done so to raise awareness of an issue, or to put something on public record.

To be fair to those MPs that do this, my experience is that ministers on the whole direct their civil servants to draft formal and substantive responses to points made by MPs during debates where such points are on the substantive issue and are not about party-political handbagging. (Civil servants have to stand back from the party-political debates). That’s one of the reason why I tend to rate those MPs who make substantive non-party-political points more highly than those that spend their time in the chamber either asking toady questions (“Does the minister agree with me that the Government’s policies are great and would he like to elaborate as to why?”) or ones that can easily be slapped down (“When is the minister going to resign over this latest shambles?”). Civil servants (whose salaries are ultimately paid for by tax payers) spend a lot of time preparing and briefing ministers on the substantive non-party-political points of debates and questioning sessions due to take place. The least the MPs can do is to ensure that ministers have to make use of the information they have taken on board during those briefing sessions.

Having said all of the above, there is a very good reason why MPs need guidance from their party machinery on which way to vote. That simple reason being that MPs cannot be experts on everything that happens in the world. Life is too complicated for that.

Political parties in principle are made up of groups of people who broadly share similar views and opinions in the grand scheme of things. Therefore I think it is reasonable for an MP to trust the advice of people who share those general principles who have expertise in those areas the MP does not, to advise that MP on which way to vote. Part of the deal with that for me is that the MP concerned has an area of expertise that he or she can bring to enrich Parliament and public life. MPs with a specific expertise that they can bring to bear on issues they are familiar with are ones that are worth listening to – especially when it means that they drop the party-political point scoring.

What seems to have happened in recent years is that party whips seem to have gained too much control over MPs in recent years, leading to tame and compliant MPs not giving the governments of the day nearly enough scrutiny and admonishment that in a number of cases they strongly deserve. This is one of the reasons why I like select committees – they are different beasts altogether and more often than not these days (in part due to the election by secret ballot the chairs of select committee). Select committees take their roles of scrutinising the executive very seriously. Even during the previous administration there were a number of very damning select committee reports issued by select committees with large majorities of MPs from the party in power.

The dead hand of the whips can severely impact on the level of scrutiny that ministers have to face. You can spot evidence of whips at work on the order paper of any departmental question time session. You see it when different MPs all seem to have asked the same question because they’ve all been told by the whips to submit questions to the ‘ballot’ only to find that more than one of them has been drawn. The introduction of ‘topical questions’ has given MPs more flexibility in the time allocated following the pre-published questions, but and MP wanting a future ministerial career has to keep the whips happy.

There will inevitably be a tension between the desire – in particular from the non-party-political general public – to see MPs being more outspoken and defying the whips, and party leaderships wanting their MPs to be extensions and advocates of them. In the 1980s and early 1990s, political “indiscipline” caused huge problems for all the main political parties. Since then, I can’t help but feel that the main political parties went too far the other way. To what extent is the pendulum swinging back?

Non-executive directors

This post ponders on the crises of large organisations in this social media age of ours – whether it’s in relation to the economic crisis as in Paul Kingsnorth’s article in the Guardian, or in the field of political parties, charities and trade unions. I also pay particular attention to the role of non-executive directors.

This weekend I joined a gathering of Puffles’ followers at one of what have become monthly Sunday pub lunches in Central London. What started off as a handful of people (4-8) people is growing into an interesting gathering of people from a diverse range of backgrounds who have a broadly similar world outlook of wanting to make it a better place for all of us. Today we just happened to be talking about (amongst other things) the crisis of large organisations & institutions.

In terms of the banking crises (see this summary from the BBC regarding the hearings), one of the things that has struck me by its absence in terms of discourse is the role of non-executive directors – and their failures in all of this. This is something that I’d like to think would make for more than an interesting PhD/DBA thesis – a comprehensive study into the role and behaviour that non-executive chairman and non-executive directors had in the banking crises. (I use the plural deliberately).

John now Lord McFall provides an excellent example of what this looks like, skewering the then chairman of Northern Rock, Matt Ridley in his appearance before McFall’s Treasury Select Committee. The official transcript here as well as George Monbiot’s take here. One question that critical observers may want to ask is what qualified Ridley for the job of chairman of a big bank, paying particular attention to both his academic and family background.  But this is just one particularly high profile example.

I stumbled across this paper by Christopher Pass from 2002 – which makes for more than interesting reading. There’s this definition of the role of a non-executive directors which is worth quoting in full:

Non-executives are appointed on a part-time basis and perform various duties including (in some cases) acting as the company’s chairperson and sitting on various key committees:

The Nominations Committee, the Remuneration Committee, the Audit Committee.  Nonexecutives are seen as ‘guardians’ of the corporate good and act as ‘buffers’ between the executive directors and the company’s outside shareholders, i.e. they monitor executive actions and question executive decisions and are required to ensure that the company is acting in a ‘responsible’ way and in the best interests of the shareholders and other stakeholders.

In the cases of the banks that had to be formally bailed out by the taxpayer, something went wrong – badly wrong with the non-executive directors in their role as the guardians of the interest of shareholders. Similar rumblings have been heard off of the back of the inquiry into hacking and the corporate governance of large media organisations with particularly powerful chief executives or proprietors. What sort of individual is able to stand up to such powerful figures, represent the interests of shareholders and also ensure compliance with the law?

This also raises the question of how companies appoint non-executive directors.

  • How do they recruit non-executive directors? (Is it a case of going to this place and saying “He looks like a splendid chap – he’ll do!”!?!?)
  • How do people become non-executive directors?
  • What qualifications and/or attributes does a person need to become a non-executive director?
  • How do shareholders, investors, regulators and wider society judge whether a particular individual has been a successful non-executive director or not?
  • Should the role of a non-executive director involve far more ‘contact time’ and regularly go beyond board meetings, all the way to the front line? (Especially in the case of large corporations and organisations).
  • Should the responsibilities and duties of non-executive directors be extended to go beyond merely ensuring ‘value for money’ for shareholders? (In particular large organisations where their failure could have significant negative impacts on large numbers of people and linked businesses).
  • Should greater pressure be put on (larger) organisations – in particular those with a significant public face (e.g. lots of retail outlets) to ensure that their non-executive directors are a reflection of the society that they operate in?
  • Should there be workers’ representation (whether trade union or otherwise) on boards of large companies in a non-executive role? (Would this make management-to-staff relationships less adversarial or would both sides be compromised?)
  • Should non-executive directors engage directly with both workers, shareholders and customers of the company/ies whose board/s they sit on?

I don’t know the answers to the above questions. (Probably why I’ve asked them). What does concern me is the prospect of another massive banking bailout – and society’s response to it in these difficult times. The first banking bailouts came very shortly after the bubble burst. The sheer scale of those bailouts are as such that part of me feels that the general public is still coming to terms with just how big they were – i.e. we are still dealing with the shock of it all.

Today, we are a few years past that point – a point where we’ve since had both the MPs’ expenses scandal, the hacking scandal and the huge cuts to the public sector (and the rise in university tuition fees that have no electoral mandate whatsoever – because the Browne Review was published after the election & Labour and the Conservatives refused to state their position until after that review was published) that have not only impacted on those who are most vulnerable, but also those who – like me – have found themselves out of a job. I can’t imagine that the general public will tolerate another bailout.
Is reform of the role of non-executives part of the solution, or is it the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the proverbial sinking ship? Have we reached the stage with the very large (and predominantly centralised) organisations of this world where they have become flailing behemoths unable to cope both with the scale of the financial floodwaters engulfing their lairs and the small but constant stings of nimble social media users running rings around them at the same time? 

When Big Business got one step too close

Some of you may have seen this from the headline in The Times (which I won’t link to because they have a firewall). This story being about alleged plans for the heads of big business to be given a ‘hotline’ to ministers – which was trailed in both the Telegraph and the BBC. There are a number of reasons why I am very worried about this.

Due to watching the trials and tribulations of the global economic system in horror – if only because of the human impact of lots of people being made and staying out of work because of the lack of jobs, this story seems to have snuck in without any real scrutiny. The proposals – as reported (I’ve not seen any detailed briefing or press releases so am going on trust by what I’ve read in the mainstream press) are flawed for a number of reasons.

Pro-business vs pro-market

I’ve always been sceptical of any politician who claims to be “pro business”. Being pro-business and being pro-market are not the same thing (in my book). The role of the state in a market economy is to ensure that a legal framework is in place to ensure a level playing field for all of those who want to enter a given market. The USA and subsequently the EU have at least recognised this in parts of their legislation, if not in the application of it – e.g. the US anti-trust laws. In terms of being ‘pro-market’, the responsibility of the state is to reduce the barriers to entry to markets so as to promote competition, reduce prices, increase quality and output and generally be of benefit to the consumer. (I’m going by traditional textbook economics here). This role includes taking action against individual firms that take steps to increase illegally those barriers to entry. This might be from the well-known such as price fixing and the formation of cartels, to the less well-known such as artificially lowering prices to below cost price when a new competitor comes in for long enough to send a competitor out of business, to buying up land or inputs that might be essential for a new competitor to set up, thus preventing them from doing so. These less-well known ones are both hard to prove and some of them may well be perfectly legitimate. Favouring businesses just because they happen to be big – i.e. giving them privileged access to ministers of whom regulators are directly accountable strikes me as being irresponsible at best – especially given the current perception the general public has on politicians anyway.

What is the selection criteria?

The Telegraph reports the ‘top 50 firms’ and quotes a BIS spokesman as mentioning ‘strategically useful firms‘. BAE Systems is a ‘strategically useful firm’ in terms of our defence industry but when it comes to corruption allegations, it has form. BAE Systems was fined again by US authorities only this year. Shell has also been mentioned as one of the firms – yet it too was fined this year following a gas terminal blast at Bacton a few years ago. What sort of firms are being given very high level public access to ministers that other firms can only dream of? How do we know that the firms that are being picked are not firms on the decline? Is the Coalition picking firms today that in a few years time may wither on the vine? Who fancies sending a freedom of information request to BIS to ask them what the selection criteria were for selecting the firms?

Will this help innovation? 

By selecting big firms, what message does this send out to small firms – in particular small but successful and growing firms? One of the continual messages from NESTA (the former non-departmental public body that in 2010 cut its ties with state funding) is how small firms are one of the key engines that drive innovation. Why put so many eggs into the basket of big business? Would it not be far better for ministers to focus their efforts on levelling the playing field and rebalancing things towards small businesses rather than giving even more advantages to big business that can already afford to recruit and retain full-time lobbyists to do their bidding?


Apart from the issue of tax avoidance and tax evasion – issues that have risen up the ladder of the public’s conscience to the extent that ministers are being forced to take action in a way the previous administration to its shame never did – transparency is a big issue here. Familiarise yourselves with Michael Cockerill’s series Inside Whitehall – and in particular the roles of private offices. Whenever I have met with ministers someone in my team (usually me) always took a note of who said what and what was agreed. The same is true of one of the minister’s assistant private secretaries. This is essential for transparency and for the public record in terms of decisions taken.

How will we know that ministers have not been unduly influenced by big business to behave in a manner that is of the benefit to big business, but not to consumers and the general taxpayer? Will these telephone calls and meetings be minuted? Will these minutes be published? How will Parliament scrutinise what happens as a result of these meetings? This is a completely different league to businesses ‘buying access’ to senior politicians at party political events – all three main political parties have sponsorship opportunities for their big conferences. The reason why this is in a different league is because the civil service – and by definition the tax payer – is footing the bill for all of this.

There is nothing wrong with ministers meeting businesses and representatives from businesses as part of their ministerial duties. In fact, I’d argue it is essential – especially where the private sector is going to play a key role in the delivery of a government policy that has been developed in a transparent manner, or where the input of the private sector is essential for reasons of public safety or the delivering of a service that later on may become universal – radio frequencies for the next generation of mobile phones or exact designs and arrangements for charging points for electronic vehicles. (Thinking off of the top of my head there). But with those sorts of developments, all interested parties are invited to take part, the consultations are public and the meetings with them are minuted. What unnerves me in particular about these proposals – and they are only proposals at this stage – is the issue of transparency.

Read the first paragraph of the ministerial code.

Will these proposals really help restore the public’s trust in politics and in politicians? These proposals must be dropped and they must be dropped now.

Signing on

I signed on today

It’s not something that I’ve done before – and for that I know I’m more than lucky compared to some others. This blogpost is another difficult post to write – both in terms of personal reactions but also in terms of writing in a manner that doesn’t sound condescending, patronising or insulting.

Economic crisis

The first thing to mention is the current global economic situation. The news headlines have been telling us how bad things are. Those of us who have been made redundant one way or another, or those who have been out of work and who are struggling to find work don’t need the news headlines to tell them how tough things are in the jobs market. Not only that, there’s the fallout – something that the newspapers only seem to take notice of when “middle classes” start to become affected. As for the 15 year economic boom from the mid-1990s, there are parts of the country that were completely bypassed, or that seem to be the first to suffer and the last to recover. (See the BBC from 1999 and from 2011). Hence I’ll try to avoid the ‘Middle class is magical’ meets tough times with a spring in step.

My point? Less than four years ago I was stepping into the shoes of a Minister of the Crown at three hours notice to deliver a speech at City Hall in London to an audience of several hundred because he had been called in on a three-line whip to deal with the banking crisis. Today? I signed on. There are far more people who were far higher up in the echelons of the public sector who, as a results of the cuts found themselves out of work very quickly – whether it was their organisation closing down or cutting back. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. It can.

The Welfare State – supporting the unemployed, whatever their class

This brings me to the welfare state. Through Puffles I’ve commented that we tried Victorian style philanthropy to deal with society’s problems and we found out the hard way that this went nowhere near to solving society’s problems – hence the welfare state. The welfare state is plagued with problems and imperfections – whether its from the unrepresentative stories of some individuals claiming hundreds of thousands, to the stories that don’t make the papers involving individuals being passed from pillar to post in order to get their claims sorted out properly.

There is however, something to be said about being a citizen of a country and claiming things that you are entitled to as such a citizen – something that Ed Miliband made a point of when defending universal child benefit payments. (Means testing can be a bureaucratic nightmare – hence the risk of spending more on the means testing system than on the payments that are issued to citizens.) While I think there’s something to be said and debated about ‘human responsibilities’ alongside ‘human rights’, my fear about moving towards a Victorian style philanthropy system I think runs the risk of undermining some of the basic dignities I’d like to think we are born with as human beings, and certainly for those of us fortunate to be born citizens of the UK with the benefits and entitlements citizenship brings.

Signing on the line

Moving onto “so what was it like signing on?” I don’t want this to sound like “Oooh! Let’s see what poor people have to put up with!” or present this as some sort of journalistic expedition to parts of the world where the middle classes fear to tread. I’ve paid into the system of national insurance for the best part of over a decade. Now that I find myself no longer in work, part of the deal of having made all of those payments is seeking the assistance that the state provides. My fear is that large parts of the media and the middle classes that they claim to represent have forgotten this – and as a result there may well be a number of people out there who are not claiming the benefits and support that they are entitled to.

The online registration was straight forward, and fortunately they were able to book me in for an appointment the following day. I originally thought that I could do that bit in person at the job centre – hence turning up yesterday to do so. I wanted to see if I had the courage to turn up to the job centre to say “I am unemployed, I need to sign on, I need some help” to someone while looking them in the eyes. They sent me on my way to register online anyway.

The appointment today was straightforward enough – sign this stuff, agree to do a list of things before your next appointment next week and the benefit payments will be in your account accordingly depending on if you provide paper evidence of having done the stuff agreed. But it was the stuff around it that as both a human being and an ex-civil servant that made me think: “Surely we can do better than this?!?!”

The first thing that raised my eyebrows was the presence of three burly-looking security guards. Nowhere has security guards unless there is form of having problems with people being violent towards staff. This made me feel sad for the people who have to work in an environment where people can and do become physically abusive and threatening. No one should have to work in that environment.

The second thing that hit me was the agitated man on the phone who was clearly being pushed from pillar to post over a stopped payment. Although not wanting to listen into his conversation, the phone booths (which presumably put you through to a call centre somewhere) don’t allow nearly the amount of privacy that, if in the same position I would want if discussing what are very sensitive personal issues. In a nutshell, this mans benefit payments were (according to him) the difference between him having a half-decent meal that evening and not. Hence it is understandable why people in his position get agitated if it is not clear to them when and why benefit payments are stopped.

The third thing that struck me was how dated the systems and processes of the job centre seemed to be. It’s all paper-based. When I first noted the lady filling in these note cards on which she wrote my name, my first response was something along the lines of “OMG Old skool!”

She then showed me the screen for which I had to decide up to three types of jobs that I was interested in looking for. I decided that “dragon fairy guardian” was probably not on their list so I went for social and digital media given that this will be the theme of my soon-to-be-completed ‘digital CV’. That wasn’t on their list either so I think we selected something to do with computers and management. The others I selected involved working in what we now know as the civil society sector, previously the voluntary and community sector, and the final one being local government.

Being in the process of coming off medication and having Monday afternoons for my post-16 teacher training course meant that I was able to state that I was not yet looking for full-time work. i.e. I want to complete my course and I want to come off the medication before making myself available for full-time work should a decent opportunity arise. But I want to keep my options open. Some of you may have come across the concept of a ‘portfolio career’ – where you have a variety of different things on the go to the extent that it is difficult to describe a person by a given occupation. This is something that I would like to explore – if anything because there are a number of projects that I’ve got lined up that I would like to work with a range of different people on. Hence the challenge of dividing my time up in a semi-organised manner. The problem with this sort of mindset is that the job centre’s systems don’t seem to allow for this. When looking at the screen the lady showed to me I refrained from saying “Get out of the ’90s!”

The final problem of me not fitting the boxes in the job centre is that all of the evidence I need to provide has to be on paper. I don’t have a printer, rarely have the need for one and don’t want to bother with the expense of getting one so early on. (I’ve got my eye on an A3 printer/A3 scanner, but am waiting for the January sales as I want this for creative rather than job hunting purposes). I did say to her that all of the stuff that I was being asked to do I could record on my phone and hold the evidence there. Cloud computing has still to hit this part of the civil service.

General thoughts and possible improvements to the system

Now, some of you may respond by saying that job centres predominantly deal with people who are not nearly as skilled and qualified as someone who has had the educational and working background that I have. In the grand scheme of things perhaps. But given the scale of graduate unemployment as well as the familiarity that younger people have with digital and social media, the risk is that there will be growing numbers of people will job centres as anything but. Rather, they run the risk of becoming somewhere that they have to put up with in order to get their benefit payments as opposed to somewhere that can actually help them find work.

But all is not lost.

I’ve seen a number of excellent examples of local councils bringing together a number of their public service providers and basing them in single places – “One stop shops.” I’ve not seen one in Cambridge and really think that we could do with one. For example having Cambridge City Council’s housing benefits office based in the same place as the job centre alongside say a health centre and even a library/training centre too. It can be done – I’ve seen it.

I’d also like to see a role for senior family caseworkers who have delegated powers ultimately to “pull rank” in order to get things sorted out. Whether we like it or not, the public sector is a very hierarchical organisation and unfortunately this means that some things don’t get done unless someone of a high enough grade within an influential organisation decides to take an interest. Such is the scale of the problem across the public sector that the Department for Communities and Local Government set up their own ‘barrier busting team’ to help deal with issues that communities are facing.

One big barrier is that social work is not viewed in particularly high esteem by the public – in particular on the back of high profile failures. The funding and work pressures social workers face are also well known across local government circles. In an era of funding cuts, which local council has the resources and the co-operation of other public sector providers to appoint well-paid senior case-workers to work on the front line AND give them the authority needed to secure the day-to-day co-operation of other public sector agencies? (Especially at a time when everyone is watching their budgets).

One of the things that was regularly in the news on the job centre front during my trade union days (I used to be an elected rep for the PCS Union) was news of various cuts at job centres everywhere. I can’t imagine what it must be like working in a workplace that can often become adversarial, where your main aim is to get people into work while you face the continual threat of job losses. There’s also been the regular reports of outsourcing of job centre functions ever since I joined the PCS back in 2004, and the transfer of job centre functions through outsourcing is likely to continue apace.

Given what I’ve mentioned of the job centre’s systems and processes, some might say ‘about time!’ – which is understandable. But is it the right solution to get people not just into work, but into jobs that match their skills, attitude, aptitude and disposition? I’ve been in jobs where I have been hopelessly overqualified and accordingly had the wrong attitude. I’ve also been in jobs that match my qualification but not the right aptitude and disposition. My final civil service posting (which achievement-wise was the most satisfying personally) was one that matched my qualifications, skills, attitude, aptitude and disposition. How do you build matching people to jobs that match all of those things into an outsourcing contract? The statistic that will matter is bums in jobs – irrespective of whether a person is suited to said job.

In terms of other solutions, part of me would like to call for a massive IT upgrade for JobCentrePlus’s systems, but the civil service has… a ‘colourful record’ when it comes to managing IT projects. In fact it’s downright diabolical. The civil service has a very poor record when it comes to outsourcing. But the outsourcing of IT support is something that has continued apace across the public sector and I can’t see this changing.

The other is investing in its people. Many of the ‘front of house’ posts in job centres are administrative/junior grades – AOs and EOs for those familiar with civil service grading systems. My experience today did make me wonder whether JobCentrePlus has been investing enough in training its staff in terms of the sorts of jobs and careers that are out there, those where opportunities are growing and those where they are diminishing. I mentioned earlier that the existing system seemed to be completely oblivious to social and digital media as areas of possible employment. (As is my general disposition, my criticism is for the institution and those at the top that run it, rather than those on the front line who, in general alone have very little influence to effect a cultural change in an organisation).

Finally, there seems to be little systematic engagement between job centres and recruitment agencies – which is a shame. In an ideal world, as soon as I had selected the three work areas that I was interested in, a half-decent system would have picked up the contact details of both agencies and websites (as well as firms recruiting) that specialise in those fields to say “These are the agencies, websites and organisations that you need to look at.”

I’m due back next week where I have to show what steps I’ve taken – stuff that I’ve signed up to as saying I’d do between now and then. I also start the first class of the teacher training course too. Cambridge at this time of year also begins to wake up as the university terms kick off again. (Many organisations go into hibernation over the summer months). Here’s hoping things across a number of fields will become more interesting – whether it’s turning up to events, getting involved in some local organisations and even finding something workwise that pays the bills.

Puffles’ Follow Friday Twitterlist – Public Service Titans

Titans – think of them as wise friendly cloud giants. Most of people are giants (reputation-wise (in my book)) but for a variety of different reasons – and yet paradoxically for the same reason: Their commitment to public service. There are also one or two who I’d like to see get up to speed too.

The first of these is Capt. Doug Beattie MC. For those of you not aware, MC stands for Military Cross and is awarded for gallantry in the face of an enemy. The citation for Capt Beattie’s award speaks for itself.

On the same military theme is Major Paul Smyth of the Territorial Army who has a big hand in running the army’s social media operation. Major Gen Nick Pope’s twitter feed is for the Strategic Communications Officer for the Chief of the Defence Staff. It’s less of an interactive feed, rather more of an old school ‘telegram-style press release’ but over Twitter – which is a bit of a shame. It has a feel of ‘this is who we are bombing, where we are bombing, what with and for what reason’ – or at least that’s how it seemed in the recent intervention in Libya. Warfare is far more complex than that.

Puffles follows and is followed by a number of police officers of various ranks. Puffles gives the police a kicking when they deserve it – think some of the #Hackgate failings and the abandoned legal action against the Guardian. However, Puffles also stands up for the police who have to do a stupendously difficult job as ‘the public servants of last resort’ – i.e. if all other attempts at trying to deal with bad stuff has failed, they are the ones who have to sort stuff out.

The pioneers of policing on Twitter are the officers of the West Midlands Constabulary – who have Supt. Mark Payne keeping tabs on those the rest of us would rather pretend did not exist. If you are a police officer from another force, please read his blogpost on social media and the riots. Can you apply this to your force?

The Custody Sgt gives an insight into the rogues, ruffians and rapscallions (and innocent people who are released without charge too!) that find themselves on the wrong side of the police. Ditto with WPC Pink. It’s sometimes too easy to forget that there are human beings on both sides. Standing up for police officers we have Constables and Clive Chamberlain.

The police officer who’s got responsibility for overseeing social media development use in police forces across the UK is DCC Gordon Scobbie of Tayside Police. The big dymano behind the spread of Twitter throughout the police is Nick Keane.

On the other side of the table is Kim Evans, a criminal defence lawyer – because we all have basic legal rights – even the bad guys. Charlie Fox also tweets on criminal defence, police and military issues (follow her & you’ll find out why). Someone who I’ve worked closely with who has experience on the front line of deprived communities – including post-riot situations is Maxine Moar.

Keeping tabs on how our money is spent are the National Audit Office and (until they are finally abolished) the Audit Commission. I’ve blogged about the importance of NAO in my posts on select committees – NAO officials are the engines behind the Public Accounts Committee that regularly grills failing ministers, ministries and public officials. The Audit Commission came into being and was instrumental in tackling the ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal.

Mike Bracken has recently taken up the reins of being the UK’s digital director – one of a number of social and digital media pioneers who are light years ahead of the rest of the mainstream public sector in trying to help improve public services through digital and social media. Two other drivers behind this agenda are the delightful Jane O’Loughlin and Hadley Beeman who are regulars at the monthly “teacamp” gatherings in Whitehall.

What makes this network particularly interesting is that unlike other networks I’ve seen in Whitehall, this one has a critical mass of women – and very bright women – who brought me under their wings when I took my first tentative steps as someone relatively new to the field but someone who wanted to make the links between social media and policy-making. Ann Kempster & Sharon O’Dea were brilliant in those early days, as was Louise Kidney who is a local government legend when it comes to getting things moving at a local government level. Kudos also to the lovely Sarah Baskerville who was the person responsible for bringing both myself and Puffles into the world of Whitehall digital media – and giving me something in the way of a post-civil-service career too.

The thing with digital and social media and its application in the public sector is that the line between is not nearly as clear as it was in the last millennium. The roll-call of gentlemen that follow are all people who have either delivered commissions, done some (computer) modelling for, have worked in and/or have generally contributed to the very exciting (for me at least) developments in digital and social media in the public sector.

Will Perrin, who has been pushing the hyper-local model for quite some time now, introduced me to On The Wight – a hyperlocal events site on the Isle of Wight. It was this that made me wonder why we did not have something similar in Cambridge.

Sam Smith, who was one of the brains behind the brilliant OpenTech gathering in May 2011 gave a few of us some ideas for a similar event that we would like to host in Cambridge. Lesley Thomson has been behind a similar gathering in Scotland. It was at the former that I stumbled across Tim Ireland, Lisa Evans, Joanne Geary and Jon Worth in person.

Mark O’Neill is the brains behind HMG Skunkworks – something that at the moment is a little bit beyond me as a non-techie. But I’ll get there soon.

Stephen HaleTim Lloyd and Shirley Ayres are three health policy tweeple I’ve stumbled across over the past year. General public sector digital media tweeple whose names come highly regarded for a number of reasons include Dominic Campbell, Steph Gray, Nick Halliday, Seb Crump, Dennis North, Jenny Poole, Ingrid Koehler and Dave Briggs.

In the world of medicine and health research, there are five lovely ladies that stand out from the crowd. The first is Dr Anne-Marie Cunningham who has been making a waves in the world of digital and social media in health fields. Taking their cue from her have been Dr Natalie Silvey, and Fiona Douglas, the brains behind the Twitter Journal Club who regularly discuss general issues in medicine with all and sundry. Clare Gerada is the Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners who has been a regular commentator on the mess otherwise known as the Health and Social Care Bill. Finally there is the wonderful Dr Petra Boyton who has been instrumental in destroying many of the bad myths around sex education. Before anyone forgets, there’s also the Royal College of Nurses too.

Keeping tabs on local government in general include Karen Smyth in Northern Ireland, Derek Tickles giving Uncle Eric a good kicking, Reluctant Auditor keeping a close eye on the pennies. On the side of local parish and town councils is Justin Griggs of NALC.

At a ‘local to Cambridgeshire’ level, Liz Stevenson who is one of the people behind the Hive project in Cambridge who is worth following – as is Michele Ide-Smith who seems to be light years ahead of much of the County Council. (My view, not hers – please don’t get her into trouble). Dan Stagger is also one of our local tweeters being one of the driving forces behind CRIFCAMBS – the county’s renewables and infrastructure framework. Alice Kershaw‘s heritage work in Peterborough also stands her out as a local top tweeter – especially for historians. The same can be said for Rebekah Higgitt of the Royal Observatory in terms of national history.

The main local authorities in Cambridge are Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County Councils. (Also South Cambridgeshire District Council too). Cambridgeshire Police, Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue and Cambridgeshire NHS also tweet, though what will remain of the latter after the restructure remains to be seen. My current take is that Cambridge public sector bodies are approaching social media very cautiously at the moment – focussing mainly on ‘press release’ style tweets rather than engaging in conversations.

In the world of education, there is a wealth of people who tweet and I could not hope to fit them all in. Picking out a handful at random, Professor Mike Weed is worth following if for the Olympics as Professor of Sport in Society at Canterbury Christ Church University. Nicola Morgan has the difficult task of teaching politics at a time where politicians are not exactly in the public’s high esteem. At a tertiary level are Professors Colin Talbot & Steven FieldingDr Dave O’Brien and Stuart Long who all have been keeping tabs on public policy.

Watching the skies (and sometimes flying above them sometime soonish (hopefully) is Dr Lucy Rogers, while closer to the ground, running things at the British Library is Nora Daly. Talking of public records, I also keep an eye on Parliament’s archives.

Finally Catherine Baker who knows more about the Balkans than most people.

There are a number of civil servants who tweet under avatars who I don’t follow and don’t want to publicise. I totally understand and sympathise – especially in these fraught times in the public sector where a serving Prime Minister can call civil servants ‘enemies of enterprise’ but civil servants – in particular those who are quite the opposite – cannot respond.

Finally, there is one final shout out for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Human Rights Team – especially in these uncertain times. When you have a head of digital engagement such as Jimmy Leach onside, you can see why that account has picked up speed.