Local council buildings as civil spaces

Summary

Do modern council buildings reflect the castration of modern local government when compared to their Victorian foreparents? Some thoughts on a key pillar of Tristram Hunt’s book Building Jerusalem: The rise and fall of the Victorian City

I took Puffles to South Cambridgeshire District Council for a seminar on Twitter and social media today. (A big thank you to all involved for organising & for allowing Puffles and I to participate). This post stems from some thoughts I had, having read Tristram Hunt’s book mentioned above.

For a large part of my childhood the Council had offices on Hills Road in Cambridge before its move out to Cambourne – a name which for me is now forever associated with the trainer of Cambourne Exiles Rugby Football Club.

The comparison between Cambridge’s Guildhall and the offices of South Cambridge District Council’s new home in Cambourne are striking. The Guildhall “is” Cambridge City Centre. As well as the council chamber it also has a huge hall and a smaller hall next to it – places where events are held regularly. I’ve even been ballroom dancing there. The district council’s offices on the other hand are stuck out at the end of a business park in the in a place that’s not on a ‘natural’ transport route – buses have to take a noticeable detour in order to get to the offices.

Tristram Hunt’s take in his book is that the architecture of modern council offices reflects the ‘administrative’ purposes of modern councils rather than the pioneering decision-makers of days gone by – where councils were more than just the local administrative arm of a centralised state.

Yet just as technological advancement made the centralisation of the state an easier task to carry out with industrialisation, social media is making the decentralisation of the state seem like a more logical step across a number of areas. At the time Hunt’s book was published (2004), the direction of travel towards centralisation was only just coming to a halt. In the years since then, Whitehall began to appreciate the limitations of centralisation and top-down target setting, leading to Local Area Agreements via Labour’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act in 2007, and in the Coalition’s Localism Act 2011. How long it will take for this decentralisation to reflect in municipal architecture (especially given the ratcheting up of energy efficiency regulations)?

Okay, so where do you locate a district council in an area of villages and small settlements?

This post isn’t about giving the people or the councillors of South Cambridgeshire a kicking – anything but. The district envelopes many of the settlements and villages that dwell in the rural sea that surrounds Cambridge. Many parts are beautifully picturesque too, with churches, pubs and houses that in some cases are hundreds of years old. Hence the importance of parish councils as an essential link between people and local government.

I’ve never lived in an area that was ‘parished’ – the closest level of civic/political representation I’ve ever had is where I am now – at district council level. It was only during my time in the civil service that I got a feel for the diversity of parish and town councils. Some are described as a couple of people and their dog maintaining responsibility for maintaining grass verges and the village green, while others – such as Shrewsbury Town Council, that deliver a far wider range of services to far more people.

Perhaps it was only with the development of Cambourne that a decision was taken to move South Cambridgeshire District Council out of Cambridge and into what was hoped would become a beating heart of a rural district. Perhaps it reflected the mindset of the time to have a building of that nature located where it currently is when the Council relocated. I invite those with greater knowledge of the deliberations at the time to submit comments to enlighten me on this.

Update – minutes of the deliberations & the final decision can be found here – wingtip to Holly Adams.

Some of you may also be aware of the proposed development at Northstowe, in the same district but north-west of Cambridge. It was originally proposed as an ecotown several years ago but never materialised for a variety of reasons. The criticisms have not gone away – not just of the eco-side of things, but comparing the concept of the original post-war “New Towns” to what’s planned for Northstowe. Does it risk becoming a commuter village full of executive housing? I’ll leave that one for those closer to the ground to respond to the points made in that article in The Guardian.

Accountability, creativity & going alone

Summary

Rambling thoughts on moving from accountability within a hierarchy to the free world

This is something that I’ve been pondering more and more as I reflect on my time in the civil service with the benefit of lots of time having passed. I’ll always look at my time in Whitehall as a time where I grew up. In one policy area, I said to people that I aged 10 years in just over 10 months. One of the things that has also become apparent to me is the amount of general ‘observing’ I had subconsciously been doing – reflected in a number of the articles and blogposts that I’ve since written.

The nature of the civil service is one of hierarchies – everyone accountable to someone else above them. I blogged about this in Accountability. Having led a generally solitary existence since leaving the civil service, I want to pick up on a number of observations between the two ‘lives’ – one that I led and one that I’m leading.

Crushed

One of the things that I observed with secondees to the civil service, or those with experience of the private sector, was their frustration over some of the systems and processes within the civil service. Things that should have taken only a few minutes can have the habit of being dragged out for far longer. That said, this was also my experience of large organisations in the private sector too – having spent time in both banking and retail. The term ‘diseconomies of scale’ spring to mind.

While my seven years inside the system were fascinating, with hindsight I can’t help but feel that I wasn’t cut out for rising all of the way to the top. One of the lessons of growing up is finding your boundaries and limitations. Since leaving the civil service I’ve felt a number of mini-explosions of creativity – limited only by my own shortcomings and a lack of people to bounce people off of on a daily basis. Not just “people”, but friendly people with a variety of talents, passions and skills to bring to the pot.

There were a number of occasions where I had this in a couple of teams I was in, in the civil service – normally when the more senior managers were out. In one, there were four of us – all of the same grade, working on a particularly tricky problem at the time but coming from different perspectives. When the four of us got together as we every-so-often did, there was something anarchically pythonesque about it – picturing the scene of a board member or minister coming down on the day everyone else above us, asking who was responsible for us.

“We’re all responsible!”

“Then who is your leader?”

“We don’t have a leader!”

“Then who takes the decisions?”

“We all do!”

And we did. In those teams – but not in many of them. The system of briefing and minute-taking – while essential for Whitehall to function was something I found to be utterly soul-destroying. Imagine it being like writing an essay, having it torn to pieces not just by one marker but by several, re-writing it, having it torn to pieces even more by the same people, repeating it over and over again before you get the grudging approval ensuring it could go up. Briefing and minute-taking is an art that I never became a master of because it is ever so subjective, with mountains being made out of molehills. Things I was panicking about all those years ago seem absolutely trivial now.

One thing I’d never be able to do in the civil service is writing a blog on public administration like this. It would be too risky – a lightning conductor for media firestorms. Having Puffles buzzling around was about as far as I could push the boundaries – the House Rules being one of the key safeguards. I tipped off a couple of very senior civil servants about the existence of Puffles while I was still in the civil service, how I was using the account and the safeguards I was taking. I didn’t want anyone ‘up top’ to say they didn’t know about Puffles were there to be a media firestorm around a rogue tweet.

Beyond the hierarchy

In general, I can write what I like on this blog regarding all things public administration and policy-making. The only restrictions are related to information that I’ve been given in confidence during my time in the civil service that I was under a duty not to make public. Think of it like when a lawyer or a doctor retires. They don’t go around telling everyone commercial secrets about the firms they worked for or the medical notes of patients.

There’s also the feedback issue. Briefing and minutes by their nature are painful things to put together – and all-too-often I’d take that criticism personally. The feedback on these blogposts whether in comments or in tweets has been far more positive. This inevitably spurs me on to do more of it. Last week in particular was particularly ‘successful’ as far as number of hits were concerned – just short of 2,500. (Well over twice my normal weekly average).

Over the past few weeks I’ve delivered a number of talks, presentations and workshops. Compared to the ones I was doing in the civil service, I felt at much greater ease. The one last night for the Open Knowledge Foundation in Cambridge was a classic case – even though content-wise the things I was talking about was probably fairly basic to more than a few of the people in that audience. There were a couple of points that people pulled me up on which I didn’t feel the need to be defensive about as perhaps in the past: I wasn’t defending Government policy. This was about feedback and learning.

Then there’s Puffles.

Every so often I’ll take Puffles to these events – or even to a coffee shop or library. In the civil service I wouldn’t have got away with taking Puffles everywhere with me. Yet it was via Puffles that Cabinet Office in part began the process of crowd-sourcing ideas for their new social media guidance. (Will Puffles get a credit in the final document?)

When people say “Aren’t you worried about your image?” my response is that Puffles IS my image. When people say that I look a bit silly with Puffles, my take is that if they’re not family, friends or followers of my Twitter account or of this blog, why should I worry about what they think?

As an observation, there’s something that makes several people revert to childhood or motherhood when coming face-to-face with a big cuddly toy. You only have to look at how people interact with Puffles. Puffles breaks down barriers between people, giving a nice ‘safe’ route into talking about what can often be serious and/or complex issues.

 

It’s good to talk – and even better to listen

Summary

Can People and Planet and The National Community Activists Network link up? I hope so.

Click for People & Planet’s Facebook Page

Click for National Community Activists Network Facebook Page

After three very heavy mainstream politics-related posts that picked up more than enough speed (1,500 direct hits on 3 articles in about 3 days), this blogpost looks at the grassroots activists of People and Planet (P&P) and The National Community Activists Network (NatCAN). I was in Preston last week for NatCAN’s north-west conference. Late last year I was also at Shared Planet – which I blogged about here. It’s on the back of both events that I’m putting two and two together.

P&P – as in their strap-line is a student activist network primarily campaigning for the environment and against poverty. Such is the breadth of those issues that many issues and causes end up being covered & discussed at their gatherings. NatCAN is possibly even more broad, aiming to to support those who want to make the world – or their/your part of it a better place. What struck me about Shared Planet in the autumn and the NatCAN conference last week was the differences in demographics of the two networks alongside the similarities of what they are campaigning about. P&P’s gathering was a younger audience of mainly students and postgraduates with “London & the South East” accents dominating. NatCAN’s audience was generally older, with “Northern” accents being in the majority. Both conferences showed a limited Twitter presence – hence why I’ve put two Facebook links at the top of this post as both seem to have a stronger presence with Facebook than Twitter.

The NatCAN conference

Part of the challenge for me was getting there – a 04:45am start due to having to go into London and back made things more than a little painful, though I managed to get there on time.

There were about 80 people who came along to the conference – actually, it was more of a gathering. I resorted to type dressing in a suit because…well…it said ‘conference’ and that’s what you do for conferences…don’t you? Actually, in the grand scheme of things I find that such formal gatherings subconsciously impede the flow of conversation and learning. You’re not there representing you, you’re representing your organisation and there’s an expectation that goes with that – especially in your comments.

The conference followed a standard pattern – speeches before lunchtime, breakout sessions after it & feedback at the end. The first couple of speeches provoked some interesting reactions. Tim Gee (author of Counterpower) and David Malone, author of Debt Generation were the two speakers. Some felt that the two speeches (Tim’s primarily around the Arab Spring and David’s around the global financial crisis) had little to do with finding local solutions to local problems. Others had never come across the issues in the manner presented and found the speeches really interesting and stimulating. I commented that both speeches were the sort often found in “University-style campaign teach-ins” – the like of which I’ve been familiar with for quite some time. Yet many of the people in that audience (judging by the questions & comments) had not. Hence the desire to get NatCAN activists to link up with P&P activists – the latter organise these sort of events & gatherings for fun. The communities that NatCAN activists live and work in may well be interested in getting into these issues, but may not have the first idea of where to go and who to talk to. The problem of advertising within a university bubble? Challenge to P&P: Can you work with NatCAN to break out of the university bubble and expand your reach beyond the campus? Because the potential audiences are there, and there’s lots you can learn from each other.

What I think would be lovely to see is a number of NatCAN activists going along to P&P’s Summer Gathering at the end of June to discuss and debate many of the things and more, that were covered at both the events I was at. What you choose to do on the back of those conversations…is up to you.

 

The politicisation of the civil service

Summary

Why this is an issue – on the back of some … ‘controversial’ tweets from @DWPPressOffice

Until the age of about 20, I had no idea the civil service existed. While I followed politics more closely than most people, I never really gave things much thought in terms of what happened when administrations changed. In the grand scheme of things, I assume that the same is true for many people.

Politicisation of civil servants – a very brief history

The politicisation of the civil service has been an issue for the past few decades – whether one thinks about the role of Bernard Ingham as Thatcher’s press secretary to that of Alistair Campbell and his actions during Tony Blair’s years. The purpose of this blog is not to look in detail about the generic issue over history, but to zoom in on a number of issues raised about the relationship between civil servants, ministers and political appointees in the world of social media.

I was still in the civil service when John Denham, former Communities and Local Government Secretary stung his former department, extracting a formal public apology from the then Acting Permanent Secretary Irene Lucas, due to overtly-political press releases. Denham had the advantage of having worked with members of that press office – and with Irene Lucas (who left the civil service shortly after Bob Kerslake’s appointment as Permanent Secretary). Although the apology came from Ms Lucas, his criticism was aimed at ministers. If civil servants weren’t behaving in that manner under him (Denham), why would they behave in such a manner now? – he asked.

The thing is, most people are not aware of the nuances between a departmental press release coming from civil servants, and a party-political press release coming from politicians. To most people, the party that’s in government morphs into one and the same. Hence my desire to do something about helping educate people on how large public institutions in this country function. (Of which this blog forms a part).

The Civil Service Code

Civil servants are under a series of restrictions on what political things they can and cannot do. I used to be in a politically-restricted post – Fast Stream postings are politically restricted – see also the Civil Service Management Code para 4.4.9. With good reason. If you were a minister, would you want your press officers and senior policy advisers in the civil service actively campaigning for the opposition at the same time? Could you trust them? Hence all of the issues around the NHS risk register. When developing policy, ministers will want to make informed decisions – including all of the risks associated with them. They’ll want to know what the impact of the risk materialising is likely to be, the likelihood of the risk materialising, the steps being taken to reduce both, and the ‘residual risk’ – impact and likelihood after those steps have been taken. Now you can see why many opponents of the NHS Bill want the risk register associated with it to be released – and why ministers & civil servants are fighting tooth and nail to keep it under wraps. Documents such as this being leaked can be political dynamite for both ministers and their policies.

So what makes a departmental press release party political? My take is that it’s anything that involves going after political opponents. It’s the minister’s prerogative to do the political stuff in the Commons/Lords and in outside speeches. It’s not the prerogative of civil servants to help them do it. Civil servants in general should not be doing detailed research into the policies of opposition parties. I recall in the run-up to one of Alistair Darling’s budgets that opposition politicians complained that the Government was directing civil servants to do number-crunching on the opposition’s policies – a major no-no. (I’ve not been able to find a link to this though). It’s one thing to do the number-crunching to support the Government’s policies, it’s another thing to do number-crunching to undermine the opposition’s. That’s the role for party machines, not for civil servants. Otherwise you run the risk of co-opting a civil service machine of thousands of policy-makers becoming an arm of the incumbent party in government.

In terms of who upholds the Civil Service Code (& the more detailed Civil Service Management Code), that’s the job of the Civil Service Commissioners – who have guidance here. If you’re a civil servant with concerns, follow that guidance. If as a citizen you are concerned with a specific example, you need to contact your MP and ask them to write to the Permanent Secretary of the department concerned.

DWP in hot water.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post of the virtual car-crash nature of the Government’s welfare reform policies as far as social media is concerned. Essentially what campaigners have realised is that firms with a large public-facing element (especially retail firms) are far less resilient to protests than ministers and their advisers first thought. A combination of social media firestorms alongside the mainstream media coverage of the firestorms has had a number of firms retreating or ‘clarifying’ what their relationships should be with the DWP and Job Centre Plus on the various Work Programme schemes.

The thing is, social media users are catching them out left, right and centre. One example includes the alleged editing of documents which some accuse the DWP of trying to rewrite history – this one put together by @LatentExistence. This for me is a classic case of the knowledge of the network and the hive being far greater than that of the hierarchical organisation – observations I first stumbled across in a coherent manner by Paul Mason. Again, I refer back to the slides at the end of my post about UKGovCamp. Any attempts to try and ‘manipulate’ the historical record is likely to get into hot water – especially on something as controversial as this policy. Press offices and policy teams simply do not have the knowledge, resources or, to put it harshly the competency try and cover stuff up like this in social media world. They are hard-pushed enough as it is trying to ensure that the policy is sound, rather than taking on the fun and games of the dark arts of spin.

Another example includes the questionable tweets being put out by DWP’s Press Officewhich has been Storified here by @EvidenceMatters. As you can see, through Puffles I went after DWP over this. It is not the business of the DWP to be going after their opponents. That’s the business of the Conservative Party and/or the Liberal Democrats and their party political functions. It’s the responsibility of the Met Police to deal with protests if there is anything that could be affecting people’s ability to get to the shops or not. It’s not for the DWP to get involved. It’s way outside of their department’s remit and competency. The department of state closes to having competency is the Home Office – as Puffles tweeted. Even then, there is a longstanding convention of the police having operational independence – the Home Secretary does not get involved in operational matters – for which protests against shops in Oxford Street (or anywhere else) would fall under.

Basically DWP have screwed up here. In the grand scheme of things I tend to view stuff like this as screw-ups rather than conspiracies. The reason being that most conspiracy theories make one key error in their assumptions: They assume the competency of too many people.

Departments are still learning what is and what isn’t acceptable in social media. Many – including my last department are taking a very cautious line – understandably so. DWP has a Twitter policy. It’s one thing quoting a minister calling something “misguided” in a tweet. It’s quite another for a civil service press office to do so in their own words. This is because it’s going beyond the remit of being purely defensive of government policy and going on the offensive against political opponents. Again, that’s the role of party political press offices.

All of this reminds everyone of the importance of Cabinet Office’s drafting of new social media guidance. To get an idea of why it is important that Cabinet Office and the wider civil service gets this right, have a read in full of “We the web kids” – which gives an idea of how the first generation that has grown up with the internet. It speaks volumes as to why generations more used to pre-internet ways of working are struggling to cope with the demands emerging from social media world.

NHS risk register and freedom of information

Summary

Should the government release the risk register on the NHS Bill?

Declaration of interest: I am opposed to this Bill – see my first post on the Bill.

I’m not going to use this post to kick Lansley over the NHS Bill. I’m going for something more challenging in this post – summarising some of the key issues of whether the risk register should be released or not.

During my time as a civil servant I supported a civil service bill team taking a piece of legislation through all of its stages in Parliament. I was also a freedom of information officer for a now closed regional office. It is in the context of that experience that I’m drafting this post.

I can imagine that there are a number of civil servants in the Department of Health who are screaming blue murder at the prospect of a legislative departmental risk register being released. Hence why ministers have appealed to the Information Tribunal on the back of the Information Commissioner’s ruling of 2nd November 2011. (Search for case ref:  FS50392064 at http://www.ico.gov.uk/tools_and_resources/decision_notices.aspx if the previous link does not open).

I’m not going to go over the Commissioner’s arguments – they speak for themselves. In the debate in Parliament this afternoon on the Labour motion calling for the Government to release the risk register, what’s interesting in the debate is how the focus from Conservative MPs has been on the principle of protecting advice to ministers during the process of policy development. Labour MPs on the other hand have widened the debate beyond the risk register – with few people really going after the exemptions around sections 35 and 36 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. You can find summaries of these exemptions here, from the Ministry of Justice. Hence why some Conservative MPs have accused Labour MPs of using the topic of this debate as a ‘trojan horse’ to give the Coalition a kicking over the NHS – “a gift horse that keeps giving” according to one unnamed Conservative MP as one TV news journalist tweeted earlier today.

Putting myself back into the mindset of a civil servant with an FoI background, in the grand scheme of things I always viewed the release of information as being generally positive. However, something as sensitive as a risk register for a bill proceeding through Parliament would have had me racing for a Section 35 or 36 exemption.

How do you identify risks?

One exercise I like using – and have used in a couple of seminars I’ve facilitated during my civil service days, is ‘reverse thinking’. In a nutshell, you take whatever it is you want to achieve (in this case for the Coalition, the passing of a bill) and then ask what steps you would take…to ensure the complete and utter failure of achieving said objective. i.e. what steps would anyone against the bill need to take to ensure that the Bill falls, that ministers fall and possibly even the Coalition falls? And then you go to town and have a bit of fun coming up with all sorts of scenarios.

You then distill all of those ideas and thus you have a whole host of risks. Then you begin the task of trying to mitigate for those risks.

What are the risks of releasing all of that information?

You could say there’s a big political aspect to this. In one sense it’s the equivalent of telling your enemy not just of your battle plans, but of your plans to deal with your enemy’s threats too. Knowing all of that, your opponents can plan accordingly.

And this for me is one of the reasons why ministers and their advisers are worried. Chances are that risk register contains possible actions that individual groups & organisations could take that could scupper the Bill and the implementation of the Coalition’s plans. Can you imagine ministers willingly releasing such information to their political opponents? It could bring down the legislation, the policies and the ministers, as well as weakening the Coalition. (I discuss possible scenarios here).

Sequencing of policy-making

One of the things that John Healey amongst others commented on in the debate was about the failure of the policy-making process. One of the things that raised my eyebrows is that the Bill has been built on such shaky foundations. Essentially the policy was not secured both politically and with the professionals who have to deliver the outcomes, prior to the legislation being introduced. And it’s showing. Big Time.

But what of the risk register? Will it be released?

That will be a decision for the Information Tribunal. In this case, the Information Commissioner has weighed up the balance of maintaining the convention of confidentiality of advice to ministers during policy-making, versus the sheer scale of the NHS reforms and the public interest in the transparency of it.

It’s worth noting (unless things have changed) that the decision of the Information Commissioner should not set a precedent. (Legal people, please pull me up if I’m wrong on this). Each FoI case has to be treated on its merits, which I believe the Information Commissioner has done here. The Tribunal will have to go through the same arguments over Section 35 exemption on advice to ministers, and decide whether in this case the public interest is best served in releasing the risk register & upholding the Commissioner’s ruling, or best served in maintaining the confidentiality principles and overturning the Commissioner’s ruling.

What the Tribunal won’t be ruling on is the merits of the policy itself. It will be on whether the public interest is best served by having a certain piece of information in the public domain or withheld from public view.

Can ministers take some of the sting out of this?

Well…they can. But that would take a huge amount of leadership that at the moment I think the political establishment – ministers and former ministers from this and the previous administration are lacking. Ministers could publish a summary document highlighting some of the key risks that they acknowledge and indicate how they are dealing with them. I can’t see this happening because ministers, the policies and the legislation is on such unstable ground, the fear may well be that releasing that information might compromise ministers and/or the policies, leading to the collapse of the Bill.

Under a less controversial piece of legislation built on stronger foundations and with greater support from those charged with delivering the reforms within, such a course of action may have worked. As things stand, party-political opponents to the Bill have accused ministers of not allowing MPs and Peers access to all of the information they need to properly scrutinise the Bill. Such has been the weakness of ministers in this case is that such charges are beginning to stick in the mind of people following the NHS reforms. Ministers on stronger ground I think would have been more successful in fighting off such accusations. But such is the scale of the problems around these reforms means that things that should have been brushed off relatively easily from a public administration perspective are causing significant problems for ministers and policy makers.

Despite all of the above, the Information Tribunal will be focussing on that public interest issue around Section 35: Is the public interest best served in maintaining the convention of confidentiality around advice to ministers, or is it, in this case best served by going against this convention given the scale of the reforms, that the register should be released?

Social media guidance for public servants

Summary 

What should new Cabinet Office guidance on social media contain? What challenges does it need to address? 

Just under a year ago while I was still in the civil service, I started making representations to the great and the good about updating social media guidance for public servants. Some of you may be aware of existing guidance here, produced by the COI. Some of you may have also noticed the planned closure of COI – which means that either the new guidance has to be out before its closure or Cabinet Office will have to think where best to host this guidance until the new guidance is published.

Since leaving the civil service, I have raised this issue in public forums on a number of occasions – most recently at a Hansard Society event late last year. It was at that event that the chair, Andy Williamson invited me to introduce Puffles to the audience after my local MP Julian Huppert made a passing reference in his remarks that it was “Nice to see Puffles in the audience”. I explained to the audience that I decided to sign up to Twitter under an avatar/nom de guerre because there was no guidance from Cabinet Office on how to use social media in a manner that blurs the personal and professional.

In those early days, I drafted a series of “House Rules” for Puffles – and for me. The idea came about after I realised that the character limit in Twitter profiles was not nearly big enough to get the disclaimers in that I needed, or the expectations that I wanted to set. Not hosting a blog of my own at the time, Soph Warnes was kind enough to host the original rules for me.

Today, Emer Coleman at Cabinet Office started publicly the process of writing new social media guidance by crowd-sourcing ideas on what should and what should not be included.   This post covers a number of issues that such guidance (I think) needs to cover.

What problem is the guidance supposed to solve?

Over the past few years, a number of developments have happened that have completely changed the landscape in Whitehall in a manner that many ‘decision makers’ are still struggling to come to terms with. The fear and unfamiliarity in several quarters means that too many people in decision-making posts find themselves not really knowing how best to respond to the situations that they are now finding themselves in. I covered some of these in this analytical slide pack The impact of social media on Whitehall. (This link opens an 8MB .pps file) – the commentary of the accompanying workshop that I hosted at UKGovCamp in January 2012 being here.

The key developments to note include:

– The general election of 2010: Social media use by political activists and the general public was almost unheard of in the last election. In this one, people were engaging in social media in a manner that made things much more difficult for central planners in parties’ headquarters. (See 2010: The first social media election – posted before the results – for some of the trends happening).

Social media now being a source for mainstream media articles: This includes hatchet jobs along the lines of “Look at what this public sector worker posted on their account! Isn’t this despicable?!?! Should they still be in their job?! Read this and get angry!” to journalists directly quoting what politicians have posted on their social media accounts – not in terms of catching them out but when looking to find who has said something/commented in response to a news item of the day. e.g. “In response to the Minister’s statement, an MP said…”

– The rise of fact-checking and data journalism: One of the key phrases in the final years of my time serving the Labour administration was “evidence-based policy-making”. Interestingly, a few senior managers after the Coalition came in said the civil service would have to cope with a move away from evidence-based to more ‘principles-based’ policy-making. Yet journalists and campaigners have started using social media far more effectively to hold decision-makers to account in particular when their policies appear to lack a sound evidence base.

Dealing with a social media policy firestorm: As I write this, Puffles’ Twitterfeed is showing the Department of Health (DH) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) seemingly reeling from social media policy fire storms. While DH’s one is a firestorm that has high-level political involvement, the DWP one on its welfare reform and work programmes have caused huge problems for policy officials because activists are using social media to target key partners in the delivery of this policy. Because these key partners – in particular retail outlets – have a significant public face, they are vulnerable to activist-inspired boycotts. And the activists know this too. Social media allows the dissemination of both the evidence bases and of proposed actions. Have politicians and policy officials acknowledged this?

Opportunities

At the same time, the publication of this new guidance allows Cabinet Office to set some expectations and some protocols on how people use social media. Many organisations already to this to some extent – such as Cambridge City Council on Facebook or Department of Health for Twitter. Currently there is a lack of consistency across the public sector as different organisations. Some see social media as a threat while others – such as Monmouthshire County Council are seen as pioneers. The challenge here is producing guidance that deals with the fear in those more cautious organisations while not overly restricting those pioneers.

I’ve lost count the number of times speakers, politicians and senior managers have talked about the importance of innovation. The problem with innovation is that it inevitably involves a high rate of failure. The problem of innovating in the public sector is that the mainstream media has a very low tolerance threshold of failure – it makes for cracking stories amongst other things. If organisations are going to innovate using social media, there’s got to be strong leadership – in particular at the top, where innovations are tried and fail. Should guidance cover this issue or is that outside of the scope?

The blurred line between professional and personal

This is the big issue that the social media guidance has to tackle head on. The line between what is personal and what is professional is no longer as clear cut as it might have been in the past. The number of public servants – and the range of roles that they have is significant. Doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, civil servants, soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, local government officials, web specialists, press officers, scientists, academics, researchers, scientists, politicians…lots of people from lots of different career paths…[all following a not-so-little dragon fairy on Twitter] and that guidance has got to encompass all of them.

Twitter in particular is such a versatile medium that it can be a goldmine for those wanting to write a hatchet-job article. One minute you’re crowd-sourcing something, the next minute you’re having a 1-2-1 (or 1-2-2) trying to organise a post-works drinks session. One minute you’re commenting on an article written about a niche interest, next minute you’re expressing outrage over something that has happened in the news. When is a public servant fair game on what they’ve commented?

The need or otherwise for guidance on things like this was challenged by some of my former colleagues during my time in the civil service – and with good reason. They argued that the Civil Service Code was enough for most sensible people to interpret what they could and could not do using social media.

The Civil Service Management Code however, is far more detailed – one that I doubt many people have read through. It’s 87 pages long. I imagine one or two amendments will be required to update it for the social media world – in particular how to protect members of staff subject to internal disciplinary action for things they have posted on social media sites that could be deemed a disciplinary measure.

I’ve not yet seen any formal consultation or discussion pages regarding this new guidance, but if any of you have ideas or suggestions, please put them in the comments field at the end of this post and I’ll ensure they get to the powers that be in Cabinet Office.

Preparing to deliver my first paid commission

Summary

Ponderings and preparations for four social media workshops I will be delivering. 

I’ve built up a sizeable book collection over the years. I can’t pretend that I’ll get to read through all of them in detail. Too many of them are bought then seldom touched. Part of me wants to be able to download all of the information onto a memory card and insert it into my brain and bingo! But life doesn’t work like that. I procrastinate too much and am easily distracted – traits that I hope will diminish with age. (I’m not counting on it though). Like many, I have a habit of leaving things until just before they are required.

Sharing knowledge – teaching

Tomorrow marks my first paid commission as a teacher/trainer/tutor/facilitator (call it what you will – just don’t use the word “consultant”). It’s for my local council – training up  around fifty members of staff on the basics of social media – in particular Twitter and Facebook. I’m delivering the training (with Puffles) in a series of small workshops spread over a day and a half. What’s significant about this for me is that after three decades of learning stuff, this marks the start of where I start teaching people in a formal setting with a formalised relationship between myself and client organisation.

I’ve delivered a variety of different training workshops both within and for the departments that I’ve worked for, but those have generally been within the course of existing duties. Ditto with presentations and public speeches. This is the first time anyone has approached and commissioned me effectively saying “We would like you to deliver X in return for Y”. Hence why I’m sort of feeling the pressure.

Not that I should be worried or anything. I spent the autumn doing teacher training for post-16 students, and some key concepts from that training formed part of my pitch. (The big one being acknowledgement of and accounting for people’s different learning styles.) Secondly, I’m going to be educating people about something that has been part of my life to an extent that I now take it for granted – social media. That’s not to say I know everything there is to know about social media: I don’t. (I do know more than enough to deliver this commission though!) Such is the wealth of information out there that to comprehend all of it is beyond the comprehension of the human mind. (That’s my take anyway).

Comparing my experiences of being taught with what I have planned

On some days it still seems like yesterday that I was at school. Yet during the mid-1990s we did not have access to the wealth of resources and information that we now take for granted. I still wonder what the impact on my grades (and general life path) would have been had I had access to the sorts of digital video and online resources then that are available now. Would they have helped compensate for mediocre teaching elsewhere? Yes, little chip on my shoulder, but one that’s got a lot smaller in recent years. Some battles are no longer worth fighting. The adversaries are no longer there, and someone’s gone and built luxury flats on the battlefield.

One of the things that excites me about this commission is being able to use a range of different learning/teaching techniques. Ditto the idea of having a continued professional relationship with the client organisation and its staff. The difference here for me is social media.

During my civil service days, I did lots of one-day and two-day training courses. Some were interesting, others fun, a few a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. One thing that was consistent in all of those courses was the ‘discrete’ nature of them. i.e. The consultant came in to deliver his course and off he went. No further opportunity for dialogue – even though they left email contact details. The culture of communications was very formalised to the extent that I can’t recall a single occasion where there was an ongoing “conversation” that occurred between trainer and delegates.

The same was true when it was me delivering seminars, speeches, presentations and workshops. My contact details were nearly always put on the slides – even though one or two managers frowned upon this practice as one that made extra unnecessary work. Social media increases the opportunity of having these post-workshop conversations. For this commission, I’ve gone one further and have written a commentary piece with the slides and feedback survey on what will become my professional website. I’m keeping it under wraps for now – awaiting the delivery of a bespoke WP theme from Karen Arnott – a local graphic designer. Again, during my civil service days, I can’t think of anyone who provided commentaries, electronic copies of their resources and links to further reading and resources following the delivery of a workshop.

Time pressure

Coming back to the procrastination issue, I was dragging my feet on the issue of upgrading/improving this blog as well as creating a more professional website. That was until I was asked to provide a quotation for social media training a few weeks ago. What was previously one man and his dragon fairy suddenly had to become much more professional – and focussed. As a result, the vision of what I wanted my ‘electronic front door’ to look like finally began to take shape. The focus in part came from gaining an idea of what ‘the market’ looked like – i.e. a prospective client telling me what they needed. At the same time, it also became clear what wider skills and knowledge I felt I was lacking.

Plugging those gaps

The bare minimum for a workshop of this sort is a few set of slides plus a couple of demonstrations on the websites concerned – all projected onto a big screen. That struck me as being a little boring and excessively safe. As well as the post-workshop commentary and resources, I’m also experimenting with a smartphone demonstration projected onto a big screen via a webcam. It’s also meant learning the hard way the limitations of my existing hardware as well as using one or two contraptions not in the manner their manufacturers intended. Smartphone holders for cars work just as well on tables – providing a stable platform for which the touchscreen can be pressed. Fingers crossed it will work on the day.

As with Karen developing the theme, I also went local with web-hosting – with Vera Analytics for those of you wondering. For me, this is what I see as the ‘formal essential’ work that I need to get right. Getting both the theme wrong and making a mess with a remote web-host could have negative knock-on effects later on down the line. While I spent part of the autumn playing with a number of Creative Suite products, I was never able to achieve the vision for my online presence that I had set myself. My preferred method of working for essential stuff is to have such people close by. In both cases they are local. Also, all are followers of Puffles – which is how I found them. Just as the workshops tomorrow started out life with Puffles receiving a Twitter message, the same happened here (only Puffles being the sender.) Examples of using social media to source and secure business locally? There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Will spam kill Twitter?

Summary

Why does Twitter seem to be unable to deal with Spam?

In Puffles’ early days of Twitter, I estimate that around four in five new followers was a form of spambot. It takes a huge amount of patience and vigilance to keep spammers away from Puffles. I clear them out several times a day. Not many people have the amount of time available. During my civil service days, a falling workload (due to the closure of the programme I was working on and the winding down of my civil service career prior to redundancy) and a long commute enabled me to do this.

In those days, spam accounts varied. Then I started noticing trends. There would be a period of spam accounts sending tweets containing various account names followed by a link that had no explanation. Then there was a period where such tweets would have a short “click for free [insert name of consumer good/voucher]” slogan. In very recent times, there has been a plethora of p o r n b o t s – some that post directly, others that don’t tweet but just follow – for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Some people see these accounts as harmless – others quite like the idea of such accounts bumping up their follower count. I quite like my list of followers to be both reasonably accurate in terms of numbers of people following, and that they are ‘real people’ with whom I can engage with in debate and/or learn things from. Spambots are a barrier to this.

Apart from the annoyance of spambots, some of the things that they have in their profiles are…how to put this… “not the stuff you’d want your young children reading” – to say nothing of the misogynist messages that others also object to. From an environmental perspective, spam is also not free. It costs in carbon emissions. If governments are serious about cutting carbon emissions, does cutting spam form part of the solution? If the vast majority of email is made of up spam…exactly. I don’t know what the solution is, though I do recall Bob Crow of the RMT Union being ridiculed at a suggestion of an email tax not so long ago.

But what of the technology companies? Why can’t they get a grip of it? Why can’t Twitter?  Part of the explanation may be to do with the number of staff they employ. For a firm with a huge global presence, Twitter employs very few people – 600 at the last count. Does Twitter’s valuation and revenue provide any further light on this? The WSJ covered this issue here.

One of the things social media companies are supposed to be good at is responding to the needs and demands of its users. Yet the problem of TwitterSpam seems to be getting worse. What can Twitter do? What should it do?

It’s one thing being reactive to TwitterSpam – I report every account that looks like spam that appears in Puffles’ followers list or Twitterfeed. But I have no idea as to whether it is acted upon. This system also does not deal with the sources of the problem. Can Twitter be more proactive in how it deals with spam? Looking at the relatively small number of people it employs, I’d like to think that there’s room for expansion. But that in itself is not the solution.

This then moves us into the realm of law enforcement online. This was something that I touched upon in my blogpost Puffles (*takes plate away*) on the issue of internet trolls. There are only so many technological tools that a firm like Twitter can use, and only so many people it can reasonably employ to deal with this problem. TwitterSpam – and generic email and internet spam is a global problem – it needs a global solution. (That does not inevitably mean centralised top-down draconian agency tackling it). Amongst other things it means social media companies working not just with law enforcement agencies and grassroots organisations too in order to deal with it.

I have no idea what Twitter plans to do about it – but do something it must. Failure to do so could result in people leaving in droves leaving little but the spambots. The road of the internet, digital and social media is littered with firms that grew very quickly, peaked and fell back at a similar speed. Facebook and Twitter may be top dogs today, but that’s no reason for them to remain that way in what is a very fast moving and evolving environment.

Puffles’ Twitter Lists – Transparency, Open Data & all things digital

Some of you may have seen my attempt at a spoof article and blogpost on Freedom of Information. This group are worth following for all things transparency, open data and digital things.

The first is an official one – UKTransparency – the UK Government’s Twitter end of the Data.gov.uk project that is looking to get lots of information and data sets held by the public sector published. At a Parliament level there’s @PictFor – Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology Forum, and @POST_UK – the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology.

One individual who I only recently found out about and am already realising what a loss to the nation his untimely death in 2007 was, is Chris Lightfoot – the article linked to by Tom Steinberg of MySociety (which I first stumbled across via a tweet from the also-brilliant former civil servant and key mover & shaker for UKGovCamp, Steph Gray) shows why the sorts of skills and talents Chris had are the ones that todays politicians and policy makers need, but don’t have.

“Mixed in there are wholly new, alien group of skills that the recent SOPA, Wikileaks and ID cards debacles show that modern leaders haven’t got anywhere near to internalising: they include knowledge about security engineering, intellectual property and how new technologies clash with old laws and ideologies. They are skills that nobody used to think were political, but which are now centre stage in a polity that can’t keep up.”

Staying with all things innovative, I keep tabs on Dominic Campbell and Carrie Bishop. Ditto Glyn Wintle, sidekick to the bundle of endless energy that is Hadley Beeman. Someone else who’s knowledge I’m also in awe of is Sam Smith who’s probably spent more time having coffee with Puffles than most people. Stefan Czerniawski is also part of this wider group of public sector-related digital titans.

I mentioned a number of public sector digital titans in a previous twitter list, but I’ll mention a couple of them again. Mike Bracken is top dog in Cabinet Office on all things digital, putting flames to the cobwebs of many a departmental board. Two people who are also familiar with how things work with senior civil servants are Andrew Stott and Alex Butler.  Jane O’Loughlin is the logistical brain behind the monthly #Teacamp gatherings in London – normally on the first Thursday of each month. If you are in London and are interested in all things digital media in the public sector (even if you are a private or other sector creature), get along there. From there you’ll be able to put a number of faces to Twitter accounts – in particular those mentioned in Public Service Titans. At the very top of the Pyramid is Neelies Kroes – EU Commissioner with responsibility for all things digital.

On the broader Freedom of Information front, there’s Ibrahim Hasan who’s carved out a very useful niche discussing all things FoI on Twitter. Ditto Jon BainesLynn Wyeth, FoI Monkey and FoI Man. The Information Commissioner’s Office has an account too, but I feel it’s still a little rough around the edges.

Continuing on a semi-legal theme, Joanne Flack is an intellectual property and technology legal eagle. IPTechShark seems to swim in similar waters too.

In the more general open data field, there is the Open Knowledge Foundation, which has the lines of Laura Newman and Lucy Chambers driving things along very nicely.

For those of you interested in investigative journalism, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is a good place to start.

For all things libraries and archives there is the lovely Nora McGregor, digital curator at the British Library. On a similar theme there is the World Digital Library which every so often tweets nuggets of gold. Parliamentary Archives is also a mine of tasty things for political historians.

People I’ve stumbled across in the Private Sector include Kerry at Dell who was one of the people who gave me a feel for what the interface between public and private sector is likely to become in the digital field. It was also here that I met someone who’s gone on to become one of my closest friends, social media trainer Penny Homer. Chris Osborne, who I’ve mentioned on previous occasions is also someone who I could not go without mentioning given his work on all things transport data.

In terms of staying safe online, I spotted a combined government and industry initiative Get Safe Online. I also keep tabs on the BBC’s @BBCClick stream, catching up with it as and when on TV. Rory Cellan-Jones is the BBC’s journalist you want to be keeping tabs on with these issues in mind.

On a “Holding large organisations to account” there are a number of people and organisations that deserve a mention. The Financial Accountability & Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition is one, The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is another. (Both of these are US-based). In the UK we have our national branch of Transparency International, and the Open Rights Group. There’s also the likes of Brian Cathcart, Thais Portilho-Shrimpton, Fleet Street Fox and Tim Ireland who keep tabs on all things politics and media using digital platforms. There’s also the Public Law Project, Open Corporates, Who’s Lobbying and The Justice Gap which you may also want to keep tabs on too. Ditto Open Democracy, Corporate Europe and Democracy Now.

Twitter now seems to have broken down for the evening so I’ll finish this one here.

“Politicians push for new Freedom from Information Act”

Summary – a spoof article followed by a defence of Freedom of Information

NEWZ-SPOOF:

In a new development from Westminster, senior figures within the Whitehall jungle have come out in support of a proposed new “Freedom from Information Act.” Its supporters say that the propose bill due to be introduced to Parliament following the next Queen’s speech is essential to cutting the deficit and helping the Government hit its targets.

Whitehall has estimated the costs of responding to freedom of information requests has topped £1billion per year. At current rates senior unnamed sources have claimed that civil servants will have to stop doing their day jobs of pushing paper and counting paperclips so as to concentrate on responding to requests about what ministers had for lunch yesterday.

Politicians have also claimed that there is widespread support from parents for this new measure. One introduced us to one of his constituents, who said the following:

“My daughter had her heart set on becoming a doctor, and was doing so well at school. But when she found out the true details of what the new higher education funding arrangements were, she became disheartened at the prospect of huge debts that she’s abandoned her career hopes. This has had an appalling impact on her exam results. The Freedom From Information Act would put an end to such damaging information being made accessible to young impressionable minds.”

Transparency campaigners claim that this proposed piece of legislation would stop scandals such as the MPs’ expenses from ever seeing the light of day. But proponents of Freedom From Information disagree.

“Parliament is perfectly capable of dealing with with financial misdemeanours – as was made perfectly clear by longstanding parliamentarians Jim Devine, David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and the noble Lord Hanningfield. It was this transparency nonsense that led to the downfall of many a fine politician. Being a politician is an expensive business – requiring expenses. What politicians choose to spend their expenses on should be a private matter.”

When asked whether he agreed with former MP Anthony Steen that ordinary members of the public were jealous that politicians had big houses, he said he agreed.

We then asked former Cabinet Secretary Lord Appleby about his thoughts on the new proposals.

“Oh they are excellent! What transparency campaigners have never understood is that it takes years and years of dedicated hard work, long hours of training and many a holiday spent on independent study and research to become a top policy official. Things that may not look good in the morning’s papers are often done for very good reasons – but for reasons that are either too complex and too complicated to explain for the world of soundbite journalism, or for which further discussion could prejudice national security. My old chums are terribly excited and are really looking forward to the passage of this piece of legislation – it’ll be just like old times!”

Another unnamed manderin concurred with Lord Appleby.

“How can you go about the complex business of public policy making and trying to formulate how to deliver public services when you are being constantly scrutinised by the public? Their role is to receive public services, not to comment on the service that they receive and certainly not to take part in deciding how they should be delivered! If they started doing that, where would it leave the civil service? There’ll be even more job losses than of the like we’ve seen in recent years. All of those delicate carefully-formulated plans will have gone to waste. And then what? Anarchy! That’s what I tell you! Anarchy!”

Now…all of the above is a spoof – with a wingtip to The Onion from an article I read over 10 years ago while at university.

But the real issue is around post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The BBC reported on it here and states that the Ministry of Justice said FoI had made authorities more open but had not improved decision-making. (MoJ’s full submission is here). I disagree – strongly.

The first job I had in the civil service involved helping prepare a regional office for the implementation of the full Act – Whitehall had first notice of a possible Freedom of Information Act when Labour was campaigning for the 1997 election, and would have had more than enough notice both preparing the Bill that became the 2000 Act, and the five years to prepare their records management systems for its implementation.

I’m not going to go into the details of some of the conversations I had with people, or compromise individuals. What I will say is that my observations from those conversations convinced me that the Act – and the push for transparency was, and is a good thing. For a start it encourages civil servants to think whether their decisions can be reasonably justified. In particular it puts a greater focus on the evidence – both what they have and what they need, in order to come to decisions. Transparency has also helped boost people’s understanding of how Whitehall and Westminster function. This means that they are able to ask more targeted and focused questions of those in power. As a junior policy official, this is the sort of stuff that made me want to get out of bed in the morning. Amongst other things it showed that people were taking notice of your policy area because they were asking reasonable questions about it.

There is also the digital and social media aspect of things as well. I described in a recent presentation how several years ago I described the internet as the antithesis of censorship. The development of social media makes this even more so. How to deal with it? Labelling more information as secret/classified is not the way to go about it. The less information that is locked away from prying eyes, the less likely it is to go walkies and end up on some website at the start of a social media firestorm.

Martin Williams at Liberal Conspiracy has written a very useful blog on how the delivery of Freedom of Information can be improved without changing any laws. Number 9 is particularly good. One of the things I did on a number of occasions when dealing with FoI requests was to phone up or contact the requester. This was to have a discussion about the request, to clarify points that were not clear and sometimes to say that either we had more information that we could supply/publish or that other named organisations may hold other information that may be useful for whatever the purpose was of their requests.

Culturally there are a number of people within Whitehall who see Freedom of Information as a threat or as an inconvenience. I saw it as a public service. I still do. I’ve given out (and still give out) advice to individuals and grassroots campaign groups. Last summer I stumbled across one while down in Sussex for PufflesCamp. I gave an ad hoc seminar on a picnic table to a group of campaigners at a climate camp. The local authority woke up on Monday morning with a handful of very painfully targeted freedom of information requests that it then had to deal with. The process of doing all of that I hope helped local people hold their local council to account for its plans on the issue they were concerned about.

If you want to see who submitted what to the Justice Committee in terms of written evidence, have a trawl through this link. Anything interesting crop up?