Making a short film about Puffles


Challenges of striking out in this new world of social and digital media

Despite fighting off a persistent cold, with the help of Andy Bower and Ceri Jones (who are at polar opposites of the political spectrum if there ever was one) I’ve managed to make some progress on something vaguely resembling a ‘professional’ website. Getting other people to give me the kick up the backside was what I needed in what is a huge experiment (or rather, lots of little experiments that are greater than the sum of their parts) on my part.

The most important part at this stage has been getting the structure working. The content is fairly straight forward in comparison – mainly because of my next-to-zero knowledge of coding. Much of the next three to six months involves filling a number of gaps through these mini-projects, as well as producing a portfolio of ‘digital stuff’ that is greater than the sum of its parts – a regular theme.

Puffles with Dr Julian Huppert MP (LD - Cambridge) - my local MP

During my civil service days I toyed with the idea of producing a short film about me. I have no idea why. I just wanted to make a short film with some pumping music with something at the end saying in a very stylish way “This is me!”. Back in those days, one of my biggest flaws was that I took myself (and life) far too seriously. Now? My best friend is a dragon and I wander the streets of Cambridge and London carrying it. (On occasion). Who else can wander into an Institute for Government seminar carrying a big cuddly purple dragon fairy? Exactly! It’s not just the Institute for Government – it’s Parliament too. It led to an ‘interesting’ exchange with one security guard asking as to why Puffles had come along. (He thought I was crazy)

Coming back to this short film idea, I found the sound track that would be perfect for it. Even more so, I’m also toying with the idea of completely spoofing it with a version containing Puffles. It means going a little ‘over-the-top’ with the original version to make some of the ideas work, but then that’s part of the fun.

One big problem I have is how to go about getting the licence for the soundtrack that I want it to use. It’s from a US TV show that I’ve never heard of. Is it possible to licence those sorts of soundtracks and use them in a manner for what in the grand scheme of things is a little light-hearted fun?

My other big problem is a broader lack of routine and lack of a regular group of people to bounce things off, collaborate with, support and work together with. At present I’m taking feedback and opportunities as they come. Up until Christmas my mindset was to apply for standard ‘line-managed’ jobs because that was what I was used to. Since then, I’ve been dwelling on whether I need time away from ‘line-managed-world’ to unleash some of the creative energy that is clearly there. Line-managed-world can be a very restrictive space – if a safer one. (When stuff goes wrong you can escalate it upwards for someone else to deal with). There are a couple of projects that I know a number of public servants would love to unleash but their superiors are not prepared to take the risk. My take is that such projects will eventually get the go-ahead as senior managers begin to realise that trying to pretend that social media a) isn’t there or b) is only a threat, simply won’t wash anymore – especially as more adventurous parts of the public sector start reaping the results of a more proactive approach.

One of the most interesting aspects of all of this has been the learning process – the journey. I’m only part of the way through it at the moment. In a field like digital and social media, people are finding out new things all of the time. Hence why I’m not even going to pretend to be the finished article. There’s no such thing.

Putting together some training materials for a prospective client this week has made me realise even more so that knowing where to seek guidance from (and where to point people to) is just as – if not even more important than knowing the content of all of that inside out. The best example of this I have is about safeguarding young people as they use social media. There are far more authoritative voices on this issue than I could ever claim to be – despite a civil service background that covered amongst other things data protection. Far better for me to point people in the direction of the Information Commissioner’s guidance for young people (and possibly take delegates through some of it) during a training session than try to replicate what his office has produced. If I have any suggested improvements I can feed those back, knowing that changes that are incorporated would have a far greater impact than me trying to produce my own ‘improved’ version.

One of the other things that I’m trying to give myself permission to make is mistakes. I’ve made more than a few in the past, but that time around I would beat myself up over them. I still do so now. The joys of being a perfectionist. There are few teachers that I’ve met who’ve been able to deal with the perfectionist streak in me giving me the ‘it’s okay to make mistakes’ reassurance. One of them was my former orchestra teacher at the Mary Ward Centre who said that in the early stages of playing a piece of music, the most important thing to focus on first was the rhythm, not the individual notes – they can come later. It was the same with the ‘making digital videos on a shoestring’ course I did with the Media Trust – who basically showed that you needed to take a significant amount of film footage for a relatively short film piece. Modern technology makes this process much more straight-forward than even a couple of decades ago where it really was proper cutting and pasting for the editing processes.

While I want to produce something that looks and sounds good, for me the process of creation is just as, if not more important than the end product itself. That’s what makes the journey all the more interesting…for me at least.


On faith-based schools


With the expansion of faith-based schools, politicians have a duty to put in place better safeguards for those who choose to turn away from/reject the faiths that they have been brought up in.

Some of you will be familiar with the reforms on free schools that Michael Gove has been pushing forward. Free schools and faith-based schools are not inherently the same thing. However, the policy of the former allows more of the latter (or rather makes it easier for more of the latter) to be set up.

The key issue around free schools is that of local authority control. This is not new. I remember while at primary school regularly seeing posters up all over the place saying “No to GM schools” – this being before the “No to GM crops” – something completely different. The Grant-Maintained debate of the late 1980s was a precursor of what we have today. Weaken local authority control and give greater power to those organisations that run schools day-today in order to improve ‘standards.’

In the drive to improve standards, there has been ongoing debate about whether faith-based schools achieve better results than their non-faith counterparts. Detractors point to covert (or even overt) selection while supporters may point towards something unique about their religion’s ethos that helps deliver better exam results.

My own position as far as principle is concerned is in favour of secularising our entire education system. (Similar to the top lines of the BHA). Take faith institutions out of them completely. I’m also pragmatic enough to know that such a move is unlikely to happen in my lifetime in part because churches have been running schools and providing education up and down the country for centuries. Overturning centuries of history is not something that is done lightly or overnight – not least without doing some damage to what may otherwise be in many cases very settled communities. I grew up in one such community – I blogged about it just before Christmas. Where the interaction between church, school and other outside activities is relatively benign – as it seemed to be during my infant school days, no real problem. A sing-song on Sundays, somewhere to have Christmas concerts and somewhere to have organised/supervised fun and games (we’re talking under 10s here) isn’t really a problem. But where you have institutions trying to separate people from each other on grounds of religion, then I have a problem. I should know – I grew up with this, having to go to a church separate to that which my primary school was originally attached to. How do you reasonably explain to a child under 10 the reasons why you go to a different church to your friends are because of differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism?

Coming back to the policy of promoting faith-based schools, this is not a party-political issue. It’s one that politicians put down to one of conscience. I recall Peter Hain MP discussing this in Parliament many years ago when defending Labour’s policies on faith-based schools. You could say that the key difference between what Labour had and what Gove is proposing is scale. Blair’s administration established some new principles (whether bringing in the private sector to help deliver public services in areas of say health and education) and the Coalition has increased the scope of those new principles. The same could be said of tuition fees. Blair introduced the principle of students/graduates paying, and since then the ‘mainstream’ debate has been predominantly about scale.

The narrative of all of this is something I don’t buy. The narrative seems to be something along the lines of:

Schools are under-performing and standards need raising. On paper it seems that faith schools deliver better exam results than non-faith schools. Look at the league tables – which we [The Government] use to measure standards. Those at the top of the league tables tend to have a stronger faith ethos/base than those that don’t. Therefore we should  have more of those schools that deliver better exam results because that will improve standards.

The above is not a direct quotation from anywhere. It’s what I like to call the ‘mood music’ around the policy. It’s an example of the sort of narrative that someone with little understanding of a policy area (or of politics in general) could follow and generally go along with. It’s only when you start unpicking things – asking for evidence bases (“Is faith a statistically significant variable or are there other explanations?”) or questioning assumptions (“I don’t buy the assumption that improving exam results automatically equates to improving standards”) then things start looking less clear cut.

The two issues that I am interested in are:

The policy inconsistencies of encouraging faith organisations to run schools even though those faith organisations may have very different views to what the government wants to achieve on things like sex education, women’s and gay rights.

Support systems for those who found themselves to be emotionally scarred by an upbringing/education in a faith-based institution.

The first one almost goes without saying. But from a public administration perspective, how do you go about ensuring that such institutions are not behaving in a manner that is storing up problems elsewhere? (For example in its teaching of sex education). Through Puffles I follow and am followed by a number of people from the Republic of Ireland. Every so often there will be a popular hashtag that appears where people flag up both painful and humorous examples of shockingly bad examples of sex education teaching. I’d like to think that the advent of the internet, social media and changing social attitudes have had positive impacts since then.

The second one is one that’s close to my heart. Breaking away from a religion that you have been brought up in was one of the hardest decisions of my life – but I could not continue to live a lie. But it’s not just a religion that you are breaking away from. It’s an entire community – people who (especially if you are a very young adult) you have known for as long as you have lived. Knowing that you and your family are likely to be judged because of it can be incredibly crushing. That all of this took place while I was at university meant that for two-three years at least I did not have to face people in the street to explain myself to others as to why I had made the choice I did.

By expanding the number of faith-based schools, there will inevitably be more people in such a situation. Are such people to be left as they are, or will politicians ensure that there are sufficient safeguards in place for those who don’t want to have anything to do with the religion of the schools they find themselves in (irrespective of the views of their parents)? What about providing support for those who find themselves being ostracised by the only community they may otherwise know and have grown up with? Because if politicians are going to be bringing in policies that promote faith institutions, it is essential that they put in systems (and publicise them) to support those people who choose to reject or turn away from those institutions.

Religious institutions have vested interests in keeping people within their fold. Where can people turn to for independent impartial advice when faced with decisions of this magnitude? For me, it ended up being a counsellor – but by that time the damage that religion had contributed to my mental health problems had already been done.

“If you don’t like what we do, don’t buy our products!”


The metrics of sales and votes are very blunt when trying to understand what people are trying to tell both firms and political parties. Are there more sharper, more intelligent feedback mechanisms? 

It’s a line that every so often seems to come up in relation to the behaviour of large firms. A similar equivalent could be made for political parties – “If you don’t like us, don’t vote for us!” We well-targeted consumer boycott or an electorate turning the other way every so often changes thinking from the testosterone-fuelled testicle-tennis. But by the time it’s got to that level, the damage either to the firm or to the political party has already been done.

Votes and sales on the whole are incredibly difficult to achieve from scratch – i.e. starting at a zero base. Getting to the stage where sales (or votes) are slightly more straight-forward – for example because of habit (“We always shop there”/”We always vote for X because we are an X family”) is nearly always on the back of someone else’s hard work. The company had to be started by someone and built up. Ditto the political party, which is why it can be dangerous to start taking both customers and voters for granted.

By the time someone has decided to stop shopping somewhere or has chosen to boycott a brand (or even helping drag it through the mud in say a social media firestorm), it’s too late. By that I mean that it will either take a significant effort to turn things around to persuade customer/voter to come back (which doesn’t come cheap in terms of time and resources) or that customer/voter is lost completely.

On the politics side, one interesting case study of this for me is my old stomping ground of Brighton Pavilion. The Conservative vote stayed broadly constant over the past 15 years (just over 10,000) while the Labour vote fell from its peak of 26,000 in 1997 to just over 14,000 in 2010 – the year it lost what was a safe Labour seat to the Greens. In that same period, the Greens went from being a minor also-ran with just over 1,000 votes to taking the seat with Caroline Lucas securing over 16,000 votes. The graph speaks volumes. What went wrong for Labour over the past decade in Brighton that resulted in this trend, and what went right for the Greens? What makes this case study different is that the Greens effectively started from nowhere, but managed to plug away consistently over the decade ultimately to take the seat. What this was not was a swing back to different established party with a presence in the public’s psyche. I’d be interested to know what local Brighton Labour activists attribute all of this to – both in terms of their own views and the feedback they’ve been getting on the streets.

Firms spend a fortune on market research – the total UK industry alone valued at just over £2billion – perhaps in recognition in part of the cost of those ‘lost sales’. That figure I don’t think accounts for any internal work that firms do. Essentially though, this is all part of wider information feedback mechanisms that inform decision-making in organisations. The growth of digital and social media, along with things like Google Analytics has significantly increased the ability to feed in much higher quality data and information into decision-making processes.

One of the things I’d like to see more of is transparency in decision-making and the feedback processes in large organisations – in particular with its structures and practices. Social media provides a huge opportunity for this. The problem at the moment is that too many firms – and politicians, see social media primarily as a broadcast mechanism for messages/adverts rather than as a conversation medium and for receiving feedback. How do consumers other than trying to organise consumer boycotts lean on firms to change their practices – or the practices of their suppliers and manufacturers? There are often cases where people don’t want to make the choice between having to compromise on their values in order to get hold of a product or service that they quite like or value. How do consumers say to firms “We like what you make but we don’t like how you make them” with a view to firms acting on such comments and changing their business practices?

While it’s the bottom line that ultimately counts in business (and votes at general elections for national politicians), as metrics alone they are very blunt instruments. My take is that it is better for business to become more transparent to their consumers in terms of how they operate – in particular how their corporate values manifest themselves in the real world. (All too often, value slogans are completely meaningless and stink of things like green-washing).

It would take some very brave firms to open up their operations (or supply chains) in this manner to such scrutiny in order to improve both products/services to customers and to how their businesses operate. Ditto for politicians at the top of the big two political parties – could they do the same regarding transparency in policy-making and decision-making?

My favourite German

…historical figure

Summary: In praise of Kaiser Friedrich III (b 1831, d 1888)

In my second blogpost I said I’d one day blog about the greatest emperor Germany never had. Well…he reigned for 99 days in 1888. “Long-live the dying emperor” was one phrase I picked out in one of several history books I have around that cover the time period that Friedrich lived in.

Make no bones about it, this man was a titan amongst a class of weak and feeble-minded royals. When I look at the generation of monarchs that followed his generation – in particular Wilhelm II (Germany), George V (UK), Nicholas II (Russia) I see a picture of intellectual feebleness and, for two of the three individuals at least (Wilhelm & Nicholas), were hopelessly out of their depth for the roles they inherited. George in many regards was fortunate that the UK political system had evolved significantly enough to ensure that blame for bad stuff happening landed at the feet of ministers rather than himself. For those of you interested, have a watch of this Channel 4 documentary.

Friedrich’s marriage was essentially an arranged marriage, even though it was also both a love match and a meeting of minds. His bride? Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter – known as “Vicky”. Vicky was Prince Albert’s pride and joy – bright, intelligent, hard-working…everything that her younger brother, Edward was not. Germany was a mix of small states, kingdoms, duchies, principalities and free cities. Both Victoria and Albert dreamed of a unified liberal Germany. In Friedrich (who at a young age was already showing liberal tendencies), they saw the perfect leader of a united liberal journey. In their daughter, they saw the perfect companion to help him achieve that journey.

And it so nearly worked.

But Otto von Bismarck had other ideas. (I’m currently reading a new biography about him). Bismarck too wanted a united Germany, but not one that was liberal and certainly not one that was being influenced by the English. Hence Anglophile liberal Friedrich with the Princess Royal as his wife were inevitably going to be politically opposed.

Friedrich’s father, Wilhelm I also ended up living far longer than many expected – staying on until the age of 90. By this time, Friedrich had developed throat cancer and at the time of his ascension to the throne, was only a few months away from his own death. By the end of 1888, Wilhelm II was on the throne while still in his late 20s.

The contrasts between Friedrich III and his son Wilhelm II are striking – and I’m sure there has been many a comparative study done (in Germany at least) between the two. You could say that Friedrich showed extraordinary pacifism (as far as his politics were concerned) given that he was a leading Prussian and then German field commander of his day – yet extraordinarily competent in the same role. His son Wilhelm was the opposite – showing extraordinary bloodthirstiness as a ‘war lord’ (certainly in a number of his speeches in the run up to the First World War) but extraordinary incompetence in the same role. Once the First World War broke out, Wilhelm as a major ‘actor’ in the conflict seems to all but disappear from the stage as the generals (in particular Hindenburg and Ludendorff) took control of the German war effort.

Wilhelm had no experience ‘in the field’. His father, Friedrich, did. It was during the wars against Denmark, then Austria and finally France that Friedrich was awarded the Pour le Merite (for gallantry) and – during the last of the three, promoted to field marshal as a result of his exploits as a field commander. You could say that this is the equivalent of Prince Charles taking to the field during the first Persian Gulf War (1991) and winning battle honours. Mind you, the latter has a few medals anyway.

Here was also someone who took a very public stand against rising anti-semitism during the latter part of the 19th Century. This was in complete contrast to the views that his son was to develop later on in life. (John Röhl is regarded in history circles as one of the most authoritative historians of Wilhelmine Germany).

One of the things that stimulates my imagination about this era are the myriad of counterfactuals around it – all of the “What ifs?” One of them ponders what would have happened in Europe if a combination the following happened:

  • Prince Albert surviving the illness that killed him, going onto live for say another 30 years (to 1891)
  • Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany dying shortly after the unification of Germany / the Franco-Prussian War, giving Friedrich a much longer reign to implement his liberal reforms
  • Alexander II surviving (unscathed) the bombing that killed him in 1881

This I think could have led to an interesting combination of two reform-minded monarchs alongside with the reforming Prince Albert (the man behind the Great Exhibition of 1851). What would have become of both Germany and Russia if the Reichstag and the Duma respectively had gained significantly more powers during the latter part of the 1800s? What would it have meant for Wilhelm and Nicholas if they had found themselves as politically impotent as Edward VIII found himself in 1936?

One thing that I would love to see a UK television production company take on is a biopic of Friedrich III. There is an absolute wealth of content to deal with and a brilliant story to tell. It combines love, war, heroism, hope, political change, family feuds and tragedy all on an international scale. Anyone going to ask the powers that be to run with this?

The right to be forgotten – II

I first blogged about this during my early blogging days. The reason why I have come back to this is because of recent coverage of Facebook’s announcement regarding the compulsory Timeline, and due to the announcement from the EU Justice Commissioner regarding the reform of data protection within the EU. I strongly recommend reading the FAQs on data protection reform from the EU.

Not so long ago, I zapped my Facebook account. Most of the people who I was ‘friends’ with had long since ceased interacting with me in any meaningful way. In the five years I had that account, I changed significantly as a person – to the extent that the way that I was using social media then was completely different to how I use it today. Even considering incorporating such an account into my current activities was a non-starter – as I explained to the few people who queried why I was closing it. The fact that only a handful of people asked why I was closing it showed that in recent times at least, my interactions on Facebook were the equivalent of shouting very loudly in a forest surrounded by nothing but the trees.

So I chose to be forgotten.

I’ll need to create a new account though – primarily for business/work purposes. I’ve already had inquiries about delivering training that incorporates Facebook. This is a challenge in itself. What do you do if you want to move away from a certain platform that your potential customers are asking you to deliver training on?

But what price privacy? 

This was something Leveson dealt with today when cross-examining Richard Allan of Facebook today:

Having dealt with the product in outline, and the corporate structure, can I ask you, as I did with the witnesses from Google, a little bit about Facebook’s approach to privacy in principle, please.  Can we start with the document at tab 11 of the bundle.  It’s an article published by the Guardian on 11 January 2010, so just over two years ago, reporting the words of the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and he was saying that he thought that privacy was no longer a social norm.

He’s quoted as saying — I’m looking at the third paragraph: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.  That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” Can I ask you: what it is Facebook’s approach in principle to the privacy of information? [See Leveson 26 Jan 2012]

Allan (for Facebook) responded:

…Our core raison d’etre is to give people the ability to share personal information with others. But crucial to that is the notion that the individual controls what information they’re sharing and who they may share it with, so they control both the content and the audience.

I have a number of issues around this. The first is the awareness that people have of what others can do with the personal information that they share. It may seem counter-intuitive for Facebook given the above, but I think the firm has a wider social responsibility to help educate people on issue of information security.

This is not just about personal safety – vitally important though it is. It’s also about how firms can use personal data and information that people have put up on their social media accounts to target them with adverts, or taking the mainstream economics concept of price discrimination to an individual level. Online behavioural pricing – a firms’ dream and a consumers’ nightmare. In a nutshell firms using your internet history to decide which goods and services you are statistically more likely to pay more for, and upping the price accordingly – and doing so for each person individually. I really hope it does not come to this.

There is also arguably a cultural issue (reflected by the differences in the legal systems) between Europe and the USA on privacy and personal information. One of the things that has tripped up a number of American firms in the past is over jurisdiction on their activities. Whose law applies? Yahoo vs France over the issue of war memorabilia is a classic case. One of the other things that causes friction between the EU and the USA is data protection. EU laws are much stronger – something reflected by the air passenger data negotiations that have only recently been resolved.

What about people who have grown up with social media?

Young people who started their social media accounts while still at secondary school are now starting to graduate from university, or are already in or looking to enter the workplace. How many firms have done internet searches on candidates that have applied for their vacancies? Are you aware of any candidate who has been dropped like a stone because of a dodgy message on a web board or social media platform, or perhaps a compromising photo from freshers’ week? I’m used to ‘competency-based’ interviewing styles as far as job applications are concerned. Amongst other things, it’s crystal clear as to what criteria you will be assessed against. Should prospective employers make it clear in their job adverts that applicants will be subjected to internet searches about their past as part of the assessment process? On one side it could be a gross invasion of privacy, while on the other hand it could reveal where a candidate has been lying in their application form. The line becomes blurred. Emma Barnett of The Telegraph goes into further detail saying that we must fight for the right to be forgotten online.

For those of you who have or know of children who are at school/college, please point them in the direction of the Information Commissioner’s Youth Advice pages. Help them to protect themselves.

Social media has ways of making big businesses talk

…even when they don’t want to.


Big gym firm forced to climb down after social media fire storm – but not until the damage was already done.

It all started off with Lisa Bachelor’s article on LA Fitness & unwanted gym contracts. A few days later, the case went viral on Twitter, forcing the firm to make a rapid climb-down. Was it Twitter that won it or was it The Guardian that won it? The Media Blog says it was somewhere between the two.

Just as I have argued that Whitehall needs to adapt to social media world, so to do firms. This is even more the case where such a firm is providing an extended service over a long period of time, as opposed to a discrete/one off purchase.

Social media appears to be treated as something that is ‘bolted on’ to a communications operation. Possibly something that can be outsourced to a professional public relations firm or, where that’s not affordable something that can be given to the young work-experience chap or the graduate on that long-term unpaid internship. The fact that no one person is in control of what ‘social media world’ does makes it exciting for the likes of general social media users, and makes it absolutely petrifying for those charged with ‘managing’ brands. What do you do when your brand is trending for all of the wrong reasons?

For me, firms should be treating their social media accounts as a minimum as an online customer service desk…but one where the whole world can see what’s going on. Have you ever been behind someone at a customer service desk where someone is really going off on one at some unfortunate teenage college student who’s trying to help make ends meet? Imagine that, but with thousands of people watching on as if it were a spectator sport – where, as Jonathan Hemus says, the spectators influence the game.

The big challenge for firms is their structures of decision-making – which (especially for larger firms) are hierarchical in their nature due to the need for accountability. These structures however, build in delays to decision-making and responses in a world where firestorms can occur instantaneously and seemingly at random. As a result, larger firms end up looking like blundering behemoths being stung by a swarm of bees that they can do nothing to fight off.

LA Fitness now face a number of problems. The first is the loss of revenue from the number of people who have confirmed that they will be terminating or not renewing their contracts with the firm following this story. Given the amount of money they were originally chasing the customer concerned for, this in itself is a disaster. Secondly, their practices are now under the spotlight of social media. Someone out there plus three will inevitably be keeping a close watch on LA Fitness to see if their policies on enforcement of contracts will now change. This will inevitably have an impact on their bottom line, but the failure to make any changes could lead to another media firestorm if people feel that the firm only backed down in that one case (but not others) because of media and newspaper coverage. Finally, the brand has been dragged through the mud over this. This will inevitably mean executives in the firm will want some sort of remedial action to deal with this. This costs money – at a time when people are looking to save as much money as they can in these tough economic times. There’s money to be saved too.

It wasn’t just the climbdown by LAFitness that struck me, it was the manner in which it was done that spoke volumes. First they put out a single response to a single individual who tweeted to their LAFitnessTips account. It was along the lines of ‘We don’t comment on individual cases’ – which is a standard line both in government and the corporate sector. The problem was that social media world felt differently, and responded in unison along the lines of “We have ways of making you talk! (Mr Bond)”.

Later on that evening, they deleted that ‘line to take’ as it was clearly the proverbial red rag to a raging bull. They then sent out NINE tweets explaining their position all at once.  This paints a picture of decision-makers panicking and not having a clue about the etiquette of social media. Twitter is not the place to be making long statements like that. At the very least they should have published a full and considered statement on their website and then tweeted the hyperlink to it. In said statement content-wise what people would probably be looking for is an apology for the firms conduct and a commitment to start a review of its policies – and to update everyone on what changes will be made once the review is complete.

For me, social media cannot be treated as a ‘bit part’ of a communications department. It has to be integral to the operation of the organisation – if only because of the insights you can gain from feedback that comes from the front line. Elizabeth Linder of Facebook said at the Institute for Government that her firm used such feedback (and users’ habits) to improve the functionality of Facebook. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you agree with her or not). The point is that organisations can take the viewpoint that the customer/citizen is wrong and adopt a ‘bunker’ mentality to fight off all criticisms come-what-may, or they can take on board what is being said and use it to improve both what they offer and how they function.

Until then, I imagine there will be a few more social media firestorms coming to a large firm near you.

Beyond UKGovCamp 2012


At future UKGovCamp gatherings, civil service policy officials and elected representatives  – councillors and MPs – should come along. 

At the 2011 UKGovCamp I was one of the few ‘policy civil servants’ who came along – and it was an eye-opener. Unfortunately in my final six months in the service, I never made any traction with fellow policy people within my department as to the impact that digital and social media is going to have on their day-to-day work. (See my slides and the previous post for my thoughts on this.)

Early on in proceedings someone commented about the lack of elected representatives there. While there will inevitably be an issue of mixing civil servants with party-political types, I think there is space for elected representatives to come along to events such as this – not least because a number of elected representatives hold executive office – whether as ministers or as executive councillors with responsibility for delivering public services. For the next gathering, my strong view is that representatives from the Public Administration Select Committee should be invited to attend. (Greg Mulholland for the Liberal Democrats, Robert Halfon for the Conservatives and Michael Dugher for Labour are all on that committee (as is Bernard Jenkin, the Committee Chair) so you could start with them).

What difference would their presence make? For me, the next challenge for the UKGovCamp community is to branch out beyond its current audiences. For the excellent ideas that emerge from such gatherings, too many can get lost in the black hole that can be the policy-making processes along Whitehall and Victoria Street. Can politicians with a national profile bring some of these to the forefront of policy-making? Can elected councillors take some of the ideas on public service delivery and make them work in their own councils and communities? This is particularly important in the area of hyperlocal issues, the which I defer to the expertise of Dan Slee and Will Perrin.

In terms of policy officials, the mindset I wanted to see changed (but didn’t have a hope in hell’s chance of doing so) was trying to get policy officials to think about digital and social media as integral to what they did, rather than a bolted-on thing that formed part of the press office or directorate of communications’ operations. By maintaining the current mindset, ever-shrinking digital teams end up having to answer the same questions over and over again. Or we end up with problems such as poor consultations that go through the motions of asking about something that’s going to be done anyway.

That said, the impact that Mike Bracken – the head of the Government’s Digital Service seems to be significant in terms of changes that are already happening to government websites, and the changes that will be happening. MPs, peers and councillors that follow/interact with Puffles and/or this blog may want to consider asking Cabinet Office Ministers if Mike can give MPs, Peers and the Local Government Association a briefing on what he and his team have planned. (Also, to webcast that briefing if possible so as to get it to a wider audience).

I imagine the unConference format will make some people uncomfortable. The idea of facilitating a workshop or delivering a speech where over half the audience are tapping away on a super-advanced gadget can be difficult to get used to. The idea of coming along wearing what is comfortable rather than in a suit may strike some that those attending are not taking things seriously. They are taking things seriously – just on their own terms, not someone elses. Finally, what do you do when a dragon turns up to your workshop?

(Photo credit to Justin Kerr-Stevens - caption competition anyone? Feel free to add comments!)

UnConferences won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are mine. For a start I get to bring Puffles along. The attendees get to create the agenda. I also can’t help but feel that more problems are brought to the table which are then solved – or at least discussed and debated. This gives a completely different feel to the ‘keynote speakers plus Q&A session” of traditional conferences. That’s not to say organising unConferences is easy. It’s testament to Dave Briggs, Steph Gray, Lloyd Davis and Hadley Beeman who got us all together (again) this year. Let’s go and get some policy people and elected representatives for the next one.

The impact of social media on Whitehall


I ran a workshop at UKGovCamp to try and tease out how attendees thought social media was impacting on Whitehall. Please read the blogpost UKGovCamp2012 (and the slide pack at the end) before reading this post.

Puffles got about everywhere – from the speaking platform, to the front row of the main hall, to the workshop itself.

(Credit to Eddie Coates-Madden for that pic)

To some people, the sight of a thirty-something bloke wandering around the smart headquarters of a big IT firm carrying a big dragon fairy around was more than a strange sight. I have no shame. I even took Puffles out for a lunchtime coffee with one of my former managers in the civil service.

Around 20 people turned up to the workshop, with a handful of people following things online or going through the slides in the previous post. I was saved by Catherine Howe who lent me an adaptor that allowed me to have the slides on the big screen. This I think was the first time I had used my current laptop for for a big screen presentation.

There was little reaction to slides covering the forming of networks. However, some people did make the point that the forming of networks as described just as easily applied to ‘offline’ communities as well as online ones. Linking up different social groups isn’t exclusive to social media – though part of me thinks that there does need to be a relative level of stability within such communities to allow this to happen. In areas with very transient communities – think some of the more economically deprived inner city London boroughs for example, people are less likely to be around for long enough for those linkages to be made.

The two issues that did raise debate and disagreement were the issues of what the rapidly growing use of social media meant for the traditional departmental press office, and what safeguards and/or guidance should be put in place for civil servants that use social media in a manner that blurs the personal and professional lives.

The press office in an era of social media.

I put it to the group that the press office as we know is becoming rapidly obsolete. The operation of a traditional press office in my experience is one of command, control and rebuttal. Commanding the actions, controlling the message and rebutting anything put out by anyone else that conflicts with the controlled message. This is very much in the mould of messrs Campbell and Mandelson in the mid-1990s. The thing is, people have now become wise to such tactics. This for me is reflected in part by the stale debates that are had on BBC’s Question Time, where it’s a competition to see which politicians can get in as many of their ‘lines to take’ as possible – as if the post-programme drinks from their advisers depended on it.

The disagreement in terms of the future of press offices was around who does what. The nature of social media for me means that policy officials are going to have to take risks. I pictured this in the slides where policy teams may have to become ’embedded’ in conversations on social media that they no longer control. At the moment, senior civil servants see this model as ‘too risky’. There are few central government bloggers that blog about their policy areas and invite genuine engagement from the wider world. Will this change? Others argued that there will still be a need for press offices, but that how they work will have to change – and substantially. The biggest example for me in terms of how this needs to change with press releases and comments from press officers. The general public can only take the word of the journalists who report on what spokespeople say. For some reason it takes ages for press releases to make it to the ‘news centre’ pages of large organisations. I think there needs to be a shorter, sharper smarter way for getting things that otherwise go out only to specialist/known journalists, to go out for the rest of us.

Protecting civil servants…from themselves?

“Don’t be a [phallic object on a forehead]” I think was the phrase that paid. I’ve jumped up and down about the need for guidance to be published by Cabinet Office. A couple of people felt that the Civil Service Code was more than enough – and with good reason.

“You must…always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings”

The issue of guidance amongst other things is about managing expectations – not just of the civil service but also of those that engage with them. There is also the issue of ensuring that civil servants that use social media are protected from the more abusive aspects of the social media world. I have a very firm line about people and accounts that disrupt either Twitter or blog. My accounts, my rules.

Where does the balance rest? On one side, we don’t want a series of rigid micro-managed rules that end up stifling any of the innovation and knowledge-sharing benefits of social media. On the other side, the conventions of digital and social media have not been set and are still ‘up in the air’ to some extent. My view is that Cabinet Office can go a long way to help shaping the conventions by producing guidance that public servants can refer.  And not just for public servants – for journalists and members of the public too. One comment suggested that this was an issue that Leveson should consider. It may well have to – the case of Night Jack – the detective blogger is going to be covered at Leveson as David Allen Green gives evidence this week.

Finally there is the issue of leadership. I think chief executives, permanent secretaries and directors need to be much more explicit as to what their expectations are on the social media usage of their staff. Amongst other things this sets the expectations amongst staff as to how social media firestorms will be dealt with. Even if there is a disciplinary case to answer, trial by media at the same time really does not help. Should such organisations be more robust in protecting their staff from such firestorms while due process is taking place? Rhetorical question. The point is that senior managers need to become much more aware of and much more savvy with digital and social media. They are doing their staff and the wider public a disservice by keeping their heads in the sand.

For those of you who attended the session, I’ve missed out on a number of things that have slipped my mind – feel free to add, comment and disagree.


UKGovCamp 2012


What I want to give to the UKGovCamp 2012 gathering after a splendid time last year. 2 workshops – one on protecting public servants that use social media, and another on the impact that social media is having on policy-making and Whitehall.

Some of you may recall my earlier blogpost on unConferences. This type of gathering first appeared on my radar this time last year at the UKGovCamp conference in 2011. Lots of my time there – and in subsequent unConferences in 2011 was spent listening, looking and learning.

This year is going to be a little bit different. For a start, I’ll be bringing along Puffles – along with a handful of baby dragon fairies for those of you who would like to adopt one. Secondly, to give something back to all of those who shared their advice and knowledge with me last year, I am planning on offering two workshops. Offering a workshop and actually delivering it at unConferences can be a hit-and-miss affair. Poor Puffles offered to run one on Using Twitter for campaigns at the autumn People and Planet weekender last autumn but people opted to choose other workshops instead. (This is not a criticism of the organisers or the people – it’s an observation that offering to run something is no guarantee that people will turn up to it at unConferences – especially if there is a workshop or three that people really want to go along to that clashes with it).

Safeguarding public servants that use social media – background

The one good thing to come out of the tabloid hatchet job of Sarah Baskerville was that I got to meet her as a result of it. She brought me along to UKGovCamp 2011 and the rest is history. I stumbled across the case around the time I launched Puffles onto the Twittersphere.

Restrictions apply on what civil servants can and cannot say publicly. While this may have worked in pre-social media world, it does not work today. My view is that the current guidance dated 2009 is obsolete. It does not cover that growing blurred area between the professional and the personal. During my civil service days, I had no official role on digital and social media. It was stuff I did in my spare time and during ‘down time’ when things were slow on my day job.

I launched Puffles onto Twitter rather than myself because I did not want to be on the receiving end of a media firestorm over what might at the time have been an innocuous tweet. And with good reason. Several years ago I had the media chasing after me because I happened to be in the same school and year group as someone that happened, over ten years later to be accused of a serious crime, name splashed all over the newspaper front pages. Receiving panicked calls from your parents that correspondents from national newspapers were trying to push their way into their homes is not pleasant. They didn’t know how to handle it, & I didn’t know how to handle it. But I was lucky. My civil service team at the time swung round and pulled in one of the department’s top press officers. He reassured me that if there were any further calls from the media over this – either to myself or family, to put them through to him & to leave everything with him. We didn’t get a single call after that. That is why for me, the proceedings at Leveson are ever so important.

Safeguarding public servants that use social media – the workshop

This workshop will briefly introduce the concept of tweeting and blogging under what I call a ‘nom de guerre’ to older people, an ‘avatar’ to younger people and a ‘daemon’ to anyone who has read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy (Think “Northern Lights”). Some like me remain relatively innocuous and harmless, while others get into big trouble.

I’ll then move onto the concept of Puffles’ House Rules – a set of rules that I wrote for Puffles to keep the two of us out of trouble – and out of the papers, for what was left of my civil service career. What do you think of them? Do they work as a reasonable template for other public servants? How can they be developed to encompass problem solving for people interested in areas far beyond their day job but that are of public interest? Not everyone attending the gathering will have social media incorporated into their day job – they do a lot of their work in their spare time unpaid.

Finally, there is the question of whether and/or when Cabinet Office are going to update their guidance on social media usage by public servants in that blurred area that was the line between professional and personal. How can we engage with that process? My local MP Julian Huppert has already tabled a written PQ on this issue and no response has come back on this. Any further delay and Puffles might have to ask him to make it an oral question where ministers have to stand up on the floor of the House and account for it.

Impact of social media on how Whitehall works

Although I have lots of slides on this, I’m going to avoid doing a ‘death by powerpoint’ session on this – or at least try. This workshop will hopefully cover:

  • Social Networks – what they are and an example of how they can work
  • Who holds the knowledge? A look at how knowledge that was once the monopoly of large institutions and policy units is now no longer – & what this means in practice
  • How social media dissects traditional “media management” approaches
  • Communications case studies
  • Policy case study
  • User analysis
  • How can Whitehall respond?
  • The need for more evidence

I’ve uploaded the draft slides to this post in advance to give you some idea of my thinking.

SLIDESHOW: The impact of social media on how Whitehall works (Approx 8MB)

Decentralised trade unions

I’ve been pondering this one for quite some time – something that first kicked off in my mind while I was a trade union rep during my civil service days. It was around the time the student protests kicked off in the autumn of 2010. What struck me was how quickly the protesters mobilised and acted in a manner that at the time made it very challenging for the authorities to deal with. What was particularly interesting was how they used social media to organise both in advance of and during street demonstrations and occupations.

Sitting in my then Westminster office I watched as the likes of Laurie Penny and friends updated everyone via Twitter what was going on and where on a variety of hashtags. The implications for policing were huge. They still are. As Paul Mason noted in points 6-8 in Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, new technology allows horizontal networks to run rings around their opponents who work in rigid hierarchical structures.

One example of this I noted that an innocuous-looking person can be standing at a given point live tweeting, live blogging and pin-pointing where police and law-enforcement agencies are deploying their resources in their vicinity. Multiply that across a wider area and the picture that in the fog of mobile protests was every bit as clear (if not more so than) the picture being fed back to the command centres. This in part was where the Sukey coders came in, developing an app that helped protesters avoid police ‘kettles’.

During the Senate House occupation at Cambridge University I was also impressed by how well organised and peaceful it was (as well as the cosiness of the main room that was occupied). There were some comical scenes that confused police that were straight out of Monty Python.

Officer: “Please can I speak to your leader?”

Crowd: “We don’t have a leader!”

Officer: “Then who is responsible for you?

Crowd: “We all are!”

As a trade union rep at the time, I wondered what this sort of organisation would look like if trade unions were organised in a similar manner? I’ve attended trade union meetings that have drained the life out of people. What felt like hours and hours of needless bureaucracy was dealt with by the student protesters in Cambridge in 2010 with a series of short points & a series of wavy hands around the room indicating assent or dissent. I recall trade union types having similar challenges that the police had at the time of trying to engage with what was a ‘leaderless’ movement. I’m choosing not to address what has happened since then in this blogpost.

The trade unions that we have at present have grown into ‘super-unions’ on the back of a series of mergers over the past few decades. Even now there are rumours of Unite The Union and one of my former unions, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) merging. With such a merger would come the inevitable bunfight between those within the Labour Party and those on the far-left for the powerful posts.

The Electoral Commission keeps records of who donates what to which political parties. The figures for Labour’s donations from trade unions for Q3 of 2011 was over £3million. These donations have left Labour open to the accusation that they are in the thrall of militant trade union barons from their political opponents. In terms of whether Labour was/is in the thrall of them, has anyone done a study of the resolutions passed at union conferences/ the TUC annual conference to see how many of them became government policy, and to what extent were they implemented?

The stalemate over party funding amongst other things rests on the issue of union funding. The Official Review has made a number of recommendations that politicians are still disagreeing over. One of the issues is limiting the size of individual donations to political parties. One of the points trade unionists make as to why there should be no restrictions to union donations to Labour is that such donations come from the subscriptions of millions of trade union members. This is different to single multi-million-pound donations from big business figures. However, the control of who signs off the trade union cheque with the former potentially gives (at least the impression of having) a lot of influence with the Labour Party hierarchy.

Personally I think that trade unions should be reformed – just not by government. Rather I’d like to see it come from within. There are many reasons, but the big one for me is that the working patterns that people had when unions were at their peak are not the patterns that we have now. The idea of having sector-specific trade unions that you join and leave as and when you move jobs or sectors I think is obsolete in a world where people are much more mobile – and also one where people are also more likely to be freelancing.

This is where one of the best ideas to come out of the trade union movement recently is the ‘community membership’ scheme by Unite. In part it reflects the utter failure of the National Union of Students to encourage its membership to make the sideways move from NUS membership to trade union membership when graduates move into the world of work. That aside, for 50p a week, both students & the unemployed can join and receive the benefits of being in a trade union. This might be the start of a recognition that the trade union movement and hierarchy needs to do far more to ensure that union members who are made unemployed (such as myself) do not ‘drop off the radar’ but can remain members of the broader trade union family for longer – for life. One possible model is having the trade union equivalent of a national insurance card – like a TUC card. Rather than having to go through the bureaucratic fun and games of form filling in each work place, moving from union to union could be made much more straight-forward – seamless even. The technology is there.

In terms of where the money goes, would a larger network of genuinely federated decentralised unions work? For example one where – as far as Labour was concerned would have much closer community and financial relationships with constituency parties? For example one that by-and-large bypassed the need for everything to go through a central bureaucracy? Rather than having a smaller number of big payments from big unions, would a a larger number of smaller donations from a larger number of say county-level autonomous-but-federated unions give a greater incentive for Labour to reach out to grassroots trade union members directly rather than having to go through the conduit of big-name leaders?

It’s not straight forward and the above is ‘thinking aloud’ more than anything else. The big challenge is the rise of the multinational corporation and the rise of outsourcing & franchising. While the trade union movement has had a long history of internationalism, do the current international trade union structures allow unions to face off the activities of multinationals and the companies that they outsource to? How can a trade union movement try to engage with a corporation so big but that runs a model that has lots of franchises all over the place? Think multinational fast food and coffee outlets. How do you begin the process of “thinking global but acting local” in an attempt to unionise a workforce that is largely casual and transient?

There’s also thinking about unionising up and down supply chains. Does outsourcing of activities mean the outsourcing of responsibility? I remember around the time of Naomi Klein’s No Logo of the representatives of multinational corporations telling various news and radio stations how horrified they were to hear of the poor working conditions those making their products were working in. The real cost of cheap clothing eh? Many of us have done it – in part because it was all we could afford. But how do you even start trying to unionise a supply chain when we have this zombie-like addiction to consumer goods?

Thus we have this strange paradox: How do you try and give ordinary trade union members more say and more input into the work of trade unions (which inevitably means those at the top having to relinquish some of their control) while at the same time trying to find a structure that allows unions to face down multinational corporations that ever-so-effectively outsource and franchise their operations to the extent that they are not in day-to-day control of said operations and can potentially wash their hands of any responsibility for any bad stuff that happens?

No, I don’t know either.

[Addendum – Mhairi McAlpine pointed me in the direction of for those of you wanting to explore social media & trade unions]