The music industry – from a consumer perspective

Summary

How the music industry has changed – in my eyes.

I can’t help but thing the music industry was setting itself up for the most almighty collapse throughout the 1990s. I remember in the very late 1980s (when I was still at primary school) the emergence of the compact disc. My first sight of one was when I was round a friends house – Tim. His now sadly-departed older brother had what I remember was a mini-disco in his bedroom, and was the first person I knew of to get a compact disc player. He’d bought the then new Michael Jackson album “Bad” – and his version had the bonus track “Leave Me Alone” which did not appear on the cassettes or the LP – the latter of which my younger brother got hold of after a particular piece of housework.

I still had this idea that compact discs were like LPs, just squished into a smaller space. I knew nothing about lasers, the sharper sound quality or anything digital. The only thing I observed was the higher prices. Why would I want to buy a CD that seemed to be up to 50% more expensive than a tape or an LP? Remember that in early 1990s prices, you were expected to pay £15 for a new CD album. Work inflation backwards from £15 today and you get a feel for just how painfully expensive music was.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I weaned myself of cassettes – I took a year out and worked full-time in a bank. Just my luck it was in one of the weakest years for music. It didn’t stop me from spending my first couple of salaries on lots of it though. It’s also just my luck that I didn’t think of going to charity shops. I was still in this vain period of my life where charity shops were not the place to be seen in. It was only when I went to university that this changed.

In part it was due to the culture of ‘rethink, reuse, recycle’, a backlash against multinational corporations and cash pressures at university that made me switch from traditional record shops to charity shops. I sort of went back to tapes for a couple of years – if anything because they were as little as 25% of the price of CDs in both charity and second hand music shops. I still have box-loads of them stored up somewhere. Brighton in particular in those days had what felt like a vibrant second hand music shop scene. As recently as 2002 my music collection was predominantly cassette based.

Between 2003-06 I moved away from (and have never since been back to) popular music. “The charts” used to be a central plank of my music collection in the mid-1990s (to the extent some called me “chart boy” because I never really took to grunge). Much of the music I listened to was around what I could dance to on a ballroom or salsa dance floor. There was little ‘down time’ in those days. From 2004 in particular, I was working full time (normally 10-6) followed by 7-10 at some dance class somewhere. The weekends were for sleeping.

Then came the advent of the MP3player. My first was an awkward piece of work – I refused initially to succumb to the industry leaders Apple. I just wasn’t prepared to pay 10x the price of my little gizmo until it got to the stage that converting purchases from the latter’s online store into a file format readable by my MP3 player was more hassle than it was worth.

It was only when I moved to London that all things Apple became a sound investment – lots of time on public transport. By that time I had diversified my tastes – as had the rest of the buying public that the music charts ceased to be of any note with perhaps the exception of Christmas number 1.

We’ve come a very long way in a short space of time.

…is what I am trying to say. Two decades ago, it was all LPs and cassettes. The manufacturing of the physical items was a significant industrial process indeed. The idea of a “Fast Forward” button almost seems quaint. (Who remembers the magazine of that name?) Today I can store my entire music collection on a memory card about the size of a postage stamp, and play it on a sound system not much bigger. The days of carrying sackfuls of cassettes and CDs on long journeys are a thing of the past for me.

You could say that innovation in the field of music was in part driven by the high prices. Who remembers paying extortionate amounts of money for the computer games of old? £40 was the going rate in 1993 for a 16 bit Mega Drive game. It made fortunes for the companies but bankrupted the rest of us.

There was then the exposure of record company tactics that sought to use the singles market as a means for promoting albums. In days gone by, records would slowly climb the charts and slowly fall back down again. By the mid-1990s there would be a flurry of publicity and airplay in the run up to release, followed by release in which a single would expect to make the top five, before disappearing without trace. What it turned out the record companies were doing was offering retailers lots of ‘free’ stock in the first week – or just enough to get it to peak in the charts. e.g. for every one single a store purchased in advance, the record company would give one for free – allowing the store to halve their sales price. This was one of the reasons attributed to Blur selling more singles than Oasis in the Battle of the Bands in 1995.

The above was exposed to the general public by Roger Cook, who hired former Tory Minister Edwina Currie’s daughter Debbie in an industry expose. I remember picking up on the publicity at the time – prior to Cook’s show thinking “This can only end badly” – not realising it was part of Cook’s set up. Yet by that time, the record-buying public seemed to have cottoned onto the deal. If you wanted a single that badly, the first week of the release was the week to get it. For the record companies, the best way to promote a single was to get it into the charts – given the publicity that inevitably went with high-selling singles.

Yet that still left the problem of people buying albums full of songs that they did not necessarily want. This was the genius of buying music online. Apple made it clear in the early days (if I recall correctly) that record companies needed to make songs purchasable individually rather than as entire albums. Combined with the pressures of people downloading music illegally and not paying for them, intuitively it made commercial sense to come to some sort of an agreement so as to at least get some of the otherwise lost revenue back. The figures from the BPI are stark on this change. Sales of CDs by 2008 were only a tenth of the level of 2002. It’s interesting to note the digital sales more than making up for the difference.

I do wonder what impact price has had. With digital sales you are not buying a physical product – so none of the post-production manufacturing costs are involved. With digital and social media, sharing of information – i.e. the ability to access and listen to music before buying becomes much easier. Remember the days when you could only listen to a handful of albums on some skanky store headphones? You don’t need to do that now. You can listen before you buy. My older brother has gone further with Spotify – streaming everything online. I’m not going that far yet, simply because of the dependence of an internet signal.

Live music

Until last summer, there was also the boom in live music festivals. The only one I’ve ever been to is the Cambridge Folk Festival – in 1996, 2004 and 2007. It’s close by. Essentially I’ve never had a like-minded group of friends to go to any of the big music festivals. During the last decade, my equivalent was spent on going to grand balls in continental Europe – Vienna twice and Zurich once. Does that count?

I guess I’m also not really a big camping/festival sort of person. If I was, I’d have been much more driven about finding others and going to them. The truth is that I’ve not really been passionate about any individual bands or musicians to the extent where I’d want to spend several days in the rain just to listen to them play. If they turn up somewhere close where I can pop along for the day – as was the case with the Folk Festival, then yes. (Ray Davies of The Kinks, The Levellers and Oysterband for the years above).

There’s also the cost too. There’s a lot of money to be made from stadium tours. The biggest (and best) gig I’ve ever been to was Oasis and The Verve in 1997 at Earls Court. Shows have since become more spectacular – and more expensive. “Security” – by which I mean the protection of advertisers’ and sponsors’ property rights has become more draconian. We’ll see far more of this at the Olympics I fear.

The VIPs

Anyone remember “Live8”? Exactly.

For those that don’t remember, in London there was some controversy around the VIP pit which put the front end of the normal ticket holders incredibly far away from the main stage. I guess there comes a point in corporate music where you have to have special arrangement for the super-rich and the well-connected. Again, something I fear we’ll see more of at the Olympics with the VIP lanes. Only this time it’ll be right in people’s faces.

The rent-a-popstar-for-private-parties has also got some of them into trouble – especially when those hiring are part of not-very-nice regimes. They say music and politics – and sport and politics don’t mix. Who remembers “Cool Britannia” with the Noel and Tony show? It all got a bit comical at Leveson with the release of those emails.

“Does that mean you and Jeremy will not be coming to Take That?”

Brilliant! No longer is it a night at the opera as of the politicians of late 19th Century UK I sometimes read about, but a VIP box for a stadium pop band. That’s not to say such shows are rubbish. Seeing say Sir Paul McCartney or U2 live are probably things I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to if given the opportunity. I just wouldn’t spend several hundred pounds for the pleasure. (Not that I have it anyway, but you get my point).

Music to dress up and dance to?

One of the things that I’ve been missing for quite some time is precisely this. Ballroom will always be one of those lifetime skills which once you’ve been doing it for so long you’ll never forget the basics. A bit like cycling or playing football. Yet in my mind there’s something a little bit too 2005 for me. (I recall someone saying Salsa was a bit 2001 on some internet boards some time ago). The music industry tried to jump on the ‘Strictly’ bandwagon with a handful of jive tracks, but finding really interesting, danceable to and that hasn’t been overplayed is a labour of love. I still go searching even though I’ve not been dancing this year.

In a sense, that search for music to dance to reflects the anarchic beauty of what we have today. Social media makes it much easier to share, much easier to find new niches and much harder for corporations to dominate in the way they have done in the past. For me anyway. It was through social media that I randomly discovered all things electro-swing kicking off in Vienna.

There’s also the invention of Shazam, which if you hear a piece of recorded and published music and want to know who it’s buy & how to get it, you point your smartphone at the speaker, press the app button and wait for it to listen, search and reply. Every so often I’ll be in a cafe somewhere, pointing my phone at a speaker trying to find a particularly nice piece.

On electro-swing, I’d love to go to an electro-swing night somewhere sometime. But they seem to be few and far between. Feel free to point me in the direction of one if you know of any.

On mental exhaustion

Summary

Some thoughts on my recovery, and what next for the future.

No recovery is pain free. As Mind point out in How to rebuild your life after breakdown, some of my relationships with people have come under strain. A few of them have broken completely. When you have a broken mind, it can become very difficult for people to cope with that – and quite understandably they choose to break things off. I can only apologise to those who have been hurt and give thanks to those who are supporting me whether close to home or online from whichever distance. (For those of you not aware of any of this, please see my mental health posts from 18 March onwards).

The doctor agreed that I was suffering from mental exhaustion, and also had some interesting comments about the thoughts I put down in On patient choice and Quacks. With the first, he said the days where the doctor said “Take/do A, B and C and you’ll get better” are long gone. In decades gone by it was the force of personality and community standing of physicians that had as much an impact on the patient as the treatments they were receiving. Treatments themselves are now much better than in the past, but also the culture of working with rather than on the patient is becoming the norm. Hence (as others have said) I’m the one who has to make the choices here – even though at times I feel completely overwhelmed by it all.

On those treatments, with the second point he said that both sound a bit like quackery but there was nothing to stop me trying. By their very nature they sound intriguing but then such treatments apparently often do. Just by having something physically (albeit benignly) done can sometimes have a powerful impact. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been going to The Park Studios for massage treatments by trainees recently. (£15 for a hot stones massage? Yes please! (Such treatments are normally over four times that price)).

Not being able to work full-time – not yet anyway

The other issue is time taken to recover – and being caught between a rock and a hard place. I was at the At Ease With Each Other conference earlier this week – something that would have been par for the course during my Whitehall days. Yet at the end of what should have been a normal day I felt utterly drained – spending the next day in bed. Yet at the same time, I found spending the day engaging on stuff that I have some background in (one of my former policy areas is community engagement) took my mind off a lot of the negative stuff going on in my mind. How to find the right balance of doing stuff but not to the extent where it leaves me dead the next day. Hmm…

In part I wanted to bounce back quickly from all of this. But my mind wasn’t ready and my body was clearly suffering as a result of my exhaustion. A job involving a daily commute to London again is probably not in my best interests at the moment – even though in the distant future I’ll be back there again, hopefully in better shape than last time! For now though, my plan is to keep things simple, stable and local.

A couple of people have said that the day-to-day bustle of life in Whitehall (combined with six years on anti-anxiety medication) suppressed a breakdown that seemed otherwise inevitable. Perhaps there was also the ‘broken dreams’ aspect of what had been a career plan since 2000 at play. Until the start of 2011 the prospect of what to do after life in the civil service had never crossed my mind. I was going to be in it until retirement – or at least that was the plan. But the road to hell is paved with the best laid plans and good intentions.

On work

I went to a couple of temping agencies today – just to pop my CV in to see if anything will come up for a few days a week to keep me busy. I’ve also got a number of voluntary things in the pipeline that either involve me learning stuff, me speaking at events or me teaching people things. But the nature of much of this is one-off, not regular. In terms of recovery, let alone income it is the latter I feel I need: Spending regular quality time with a friendly group of people working together on something. Just out of interest, if you or anyone has an opening workwise for a social-media-savvy former civil servant to spend a few working days each week with you, please let me know.

What of teacambs?

Well, one of the things that I want to do with this is to branch it out beyond the County Council – and even local government. We meet every month on the last Thursday of each month. May’s event will be on open data featuring the lovely Laura Newman of the Open Knowledge Foundation, and will provisionally be in Waterstones. (From the last one, “man dressed as dog comes second in dog competition” had me in stitches as we learnt about hyperlocal sites). So as part of getting out and about, I’m on a little mission to persuade some senior managers to let their staff out of their boxes and come along. And if any of them say “Well it’s not in their objectives” Puffles will tell you all about them and how they are being a barrier to innovation!

On creativity

I guess one of the other things I’ve come to realise is that I’m far more creative than I have allowed myself to be – especially since my teenage years. The academic route pushed me away from it, as did the relative lack of ‘options’ with my GCSEs. I was one of those kids that could have gone on and done any subject that was available and done reasonably well – hence being part of a group on the receiving end of a fair amount of pressure from teachers to do ‘their’ subject at GCSE and A-level.

I put a couple of posters up around town looking for musical types to spend about an hour a week with me just to get me back playing my viola again. Some of you will be familiar with my musical journey – in a nutshell I’m looking to avoid cold emotionless rooms. Too much baggage. Give me a warm sunny room with someone who has a friendly enthusiastic patient disposition and chances are I’ll come out of my musical shell. Do you know of anyone reasonably local to Cambridge who fits this bill?

On learning

I’ve said to myself that I have a few years of breathing space to get better – i.e. no huge urge to get back into full time high pressure stuff. I sort of have my heart set out on the Institute for Government despite having been knocked back by them twice! (I was knocked back for promotion five times by the civil service before getting onto the Fast Stream, so I am nothing if not persistent – I’ll be back IfG!!!)

Actually, what I am pondering from September is an applied science BTEC for a couple of years – one full day per week to get my mind back in all things scientific. Because the last time I studied science properly – i.e. with labs and things, Pluto was still a planet. Just think of what scientific advances have been made since the mid 1990s when I was last at school! There’s also the incentive of playing with some computer programmes that go beyond the traditional Office software that is appealing too. When I hang around with people who are far more knowledgeable about these things, while I can get the concepts I can’t yet get the detail. These are some of the things that I want to be able to play with, rather than feeling like a bit of an ignoramus.

I don’t want to feel like those politicians who talk about how important things like science and computer programming are without having some sort of an understanding of what these things are about and why they are important. Hence pestering Lucy Chambers and Laura Newman about the Open Knowledge Foundation. They are doing some really brilliant stuff there, and I want to learn more on both what they do and how they do it.

The weather’s not helping though, is it?

I’m not good with cloudy rain. Dulls the mood. It’s also not good for Puffles’ wings. Have you tried flying with wet wings?!?! Exactly!

Not many of us like going out and about when it’s wet and ‘orrible, and we’ve got until at least mid-May before things dry up again apparently. Not that the water companies seem to be able to collect any of this in their reservoirs or underground anywhere. For those of you who are wondering why it’s so wet, have a look at this from the BBC. (I did a module on atmospheric systems in A-level geography which I found fascinating so could talk till the cows come home about weather things – but I won’t coz it’ll bore most of you. I’ll finish this one here).

Did Jeremy Hunt ask civil servants to act unlawfully?

Summary

As Jeremy Hunt fights for his political career, this post looks at the role of his civil servants.

The Culture Secretary is in more than a little bit of hot water – the testimony and written evidence causing something of a storm on the day the UK officially entered double-dip recession territory.

Arguably Hunt has bought himself a little bit of time with the resignation of his special adviser Adam Smith. But that’s unlikely to be the end of it. David Leigh covered four key points in an opinion post for the Guardian which speaks for itself. This post looks at the conduct of civil servants – in particular his private office, and that of the private office of Department for Culture, Media and Sports’ special advisers.

Hunt made a statement in Parliament yesterday. Tom Watson MP asked whether this was a ‘one rogue adviser’, and a number of MPs asked the question as to who advised/suggested to the DCMS permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens that a special adviser could be the point of contact for News International rather than a civil servant. No response seems to have been forthcoming on the floor of the House, but I expect MPs will want to follow this up when the permanent secretary next appears before the Culture Committee – as he has to on a regular basis.

David Allen Green has made allegations of the Secretary of State’s conduct – and that of his private office. I won’t repeat them on this post but you can see them here and here. Given the allegations made about the conduct of Secretary of State’s private office, there are questions to be answered on what civil servants were asked to do – whether by the Secretary of State or his now ex-special adviser. I refer to 5.1 of the Ministerial Code and to paragraph 18 of the Civil Service Code, and to paragraph 17 of the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct. Ministers (and their special advisers) should not be asking their civil servants to do anything unlawful or illegal.

It’s rock and hard place stuff – in particular for junior officials. It can be a very lonely place when asked to do something that you have strong reservations about when very influential people seem to be moving full pelt. I’d like to think that someone put something on record with the email exchanges to say “I’m not comfortable with this”. This then puts the senior management – in particular the senior civil servants in the department under the spotlight. Were they aware of the activities of Mr Smith? Was anything raised? Were junior officials aware of the channels available to them to raise concerns if they had any?

What about the policy officials advising ministers on this case? Were any concerns raised about the alleged activities of the Secretary of State, his special adviser or the private offices? Were they even aware?

These are issues of propriety and public administration – not party politics. In this post I am asking questions, not making allegations. These are issues that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee may wish to follow as a line of questioning. One for Tom Watson and Louise Mensch?

“Election candidates suck up to cuddly toy”

I simply had to post a link to this one!

Shallot Cambridge (a local take on The Onion in the USA – responsible for gems such as Congress passes Freedom From Information Act and Congressman Hurt To Discover Lobbyist Not Really His Friend) launched recently with a remit of lampooning local politics and politicians.

Today’s blogpost from the little onion features Cambridge’s most high profile dragon fairy – lampooning the politicians that engage with Puffles. Here’s Puffles with my local MP Julian Huppert, and here’s Puffles with my current local councillor George Owers of Labour – who is standing for election again at the local elections next week. (The list of candidates in my neck of the woods is here, but none of the other candidates has called round, delivered any leaflets or contacted me on social media, so I don’t really know much about them.)

Puffles must have done something right – Shallot even has its own Puffles-inspired house rules! Keep up the fun work everyone.

Teacambs – a meeting of public sector social media types in Cambridge

Just a short post today.

Some of you will be familiar with the Teacamp network in Whitehall. Well, a few of us decided it would be a good idea to start something similar in Cambridge. So we did. We call it Teacambs – click on the link to see what we’re about.

Puffles launched the first one where around ten people came along to talk about social media guidance in the public sector – a few weeks before I talked about the same thing to the Whitehall group.

Teacambs is not restricted to people in the public sector – it’s open to anyone locally who has an interest and/or a passion for using social media to help improve public services in Cambridgeshire.

The next gathering is this Thursday 26 April from 4pm. Matthew Hall from Cambridgeshire County Council will be doing a short talk about the ShapeYourPlace work in Fenland and East Cambs. Is this something Cambridge and South Cambs can learn from?

All of this I hope will help in our efforts to Bring Cambridge(shire) Together

What happens when ministers don’t answer questions at conferences?

Summary

What happened when Puffles put The Impact of Social Media on Whitehall to the test

[Update 1 – Dr Julian Huppert submitted the questions to Mr Stunell in a letter to him dated 07 June 2012. Awaiting DCLG’s response]

My friend and former civil service colleague Maxine Moar of GrantMoar Communities invited me to a community cohesion conference that she and others had been organising for the best part of a year. Max has significant frontline experience in the field of working in deprived neighbourhoods – it was working on one such programme that I was fortunate to stumble across her. (She’s also been one of my rocks to lean on during my recent mental health crisis too). Always open to the opportunity to throw questions at politicians as well as meeting up with friends (in this case Max and later on Kate Leary (a similar rock for me to lean on, and a must for all you scientists to follow)), I wandered down to London.

Community cohesion is one of those agendas that is incredibly complex and one where everyone has to tread very carefully for fear of stepping on eggshells. During my time working on this agenda, I found my visits outside of the glass towers to be incredibly useful and enlightening. What frustrated me – and still frustrates me with the civil service is that policy officials don’t do nearly enough of it. (Visits, that is). They seldom get to feel the tug of the day-to-day issues that affect people in the communities that they are meant to be helping one way or another. I guess that was one of the things that made me different at the time: Energy of a power station, attention span of a fairy on fructose, turns up to the opening of an envelope or a front door. I like to think I’ve mellowed a little since then!

It was Max who was one of the first to invite me on a visit ‘up North’ – which to me meant north of the A14. Mixed-heritage kid (I had a lot of growing up to do – & still do now) who likes drinking full-bodied red wine and who liked ballroom dancing while having an encyclopaedic knowledge of their local football team’s good days some 20 years previous…who seemed to talk dead posh. You can imagine the fun and games they had with me – their assumptions went straight out of the window. Just being there – having made the trek from London (where I was living at the time) seemed to make a huge difference. Visits like that put the human faces onto the dry policy briefings and the glossy guidance documents that in those days were flying off of the printing presses. (It’s mainly online only these days).

The conference itself

I’m not going to go into the policy detail of the conference (titled At Ease With Itself) – I don’t consider myself a policy expert in this field. Max is. It’s why the Home Office brought her in on secondment for a year from Oldham Council. I defer to her on comments about the event. Suffice to say that to me, the picture felt pretty gloomy.

That’s all well and good, but what about your question?

Oh, that.

Tom Stannard of Blackburn Council made the point that the underlying issues around cohesion are primarily economic rather than religious or racial. At around the same time, @Rattlecans, one of my Scottish Twitter followers who I met a year ago (who takes no prisoners in all things politics) posted:

@MaxMoar I’m working class. Let’s flip this around. It’s folk in suits who need integrating! @Puffles2010

I thought there was some mileage in this – especially as the minister mentioned social mobility. This got me thinking about people at the affluent end of the economic scale. The people in the gated communities of Berkshire (around where what was the National School of Government in Sunningdale – where the minibus would regularly drive us past on residential courses) to the expensive elite private schools…what about integrating them? It’s all very well talking about ‘poor’ people integrating with each other, but when it comes to telling people what to do, the Government has been taking a bit of a kicking over the ‘We’re all in this together’ line given the affluent and privileged backgrounds much of Parliament and the Government is from.

Pointing out the disproportionate levels of privately educated people there are in the worlds of politics in particular, I asked the minister whether he was considering any specific policies to get private schools and the affluent to integrate, given Tom Stannard’s point. (I’m thinking beyond far beyond the traditional sports matches between schools) His response?

‘We have brought in VAT on private jets – something the Labour Government didn’t do in 13 years.’

…before moving on.

Lib Dem Councillor Mike Galloway, one of Puffles’ followers also asked a question – about the limits of localism – which the minister successfully dodged.

Now, in pre-social media world, I might have moaned to a couple of people at the conference and to a few after it, but not much more. In pre-social media world, I would also have agreed with Rob Berkeley of the Runnymede Trust, who said that dragons were a myth. (It was St George’s Day after all). But hey…this is social media world we’re in, and in social media world, dragons exist and dodged questions don’t go unnoticed!

So I’ve gone and tweeted my question (and Mike Galloway’s one) and the minister’s dodged responses to Puffles’ 3200+ followers and have followed it up with this blogpost – a blog that got over 8,000 hits last month.

That’s great – he’s still not answered the question.

Not yet.

My next port of call is to drop a quick email to my local MP Julian Huppert (who I met on Friday during my brief visit to SciBarCamb and who is a big fan of Puffles), asking him to put the question to the Minister (both of whom are in the same party), inviting a more substantive response. That this blog and my social media account is followed by a fair few people locally and beyond means there will inevitably be some interest in the answer that comes back. I sort of feel sorry for the HEOs who will probably be tasked with drafting the response. In pre-social media world, such responses don’t see the light of day beyond the MP & constituent concerned. But this is social media world.

How will the Minister and the department respond?

For those of you not familiar with ministerial correspondence systems, it works like this:

I write to (or in this case email) my MP with my query. Being familiar with the system, I draft my correspondence in a manner that makes it very easy for my MP to read through, go “Yes” and stick a covering letter saying

“Dear Minister, please see the enclosed piece of correspondence from Puffles’ Bestest Buddy. Grateful if you could respond to the question that he has enclosed. Love and handbags. MP”

Simples-dimples? No? For those of you unfamiliar with structuring a letter to your MP in a manner that will elicit a substantive answer, I prepared this guide.

The correspondence will then go from MP’s office to the ministerial correspondence unit of the department concerned, where a team of civil servants will allocate it to the senior civil servant (normally deputy director/Grade 5 level) responsible for the policy area. They will then be responsible for allocating it to a team leader who normally then allocates it to a policy adviser (like I used to be) to draft the response. At this point ministers normally have no idea the letter has been sent, let alone arrived unless they get collared by the MP during votes in the House.

Once the draft has been done, it will be amended by the team leader concerned – perhaps with feed in from other policy areas if the question covers several policy areas – before being signed off by the senior civil servant as ready to go to the minister’s private office. The minister’s assistant private secretaries when preparing the ‘red boxes’ of papers to read through and sign, will enclose both the draft and any briefing that may be required to annotate the draft.

If the minister is content with the draft response, pen will be put to paper and the signed letter sent off by the correspondence unit back to the MP, who then passes on the response to the constituent.

And in social media world?

Should I so desire, I can scan the response and put it up on my blog. Thus more people will see the response.

What will this mean for the civil servants concerned?

This might be the difference between including an attached briefing note or not. Chances are there will be a briefing note attached – because I’m going to put both questions in my note to my MP. The questions themselves are pretty straight forward. To my one they could simply respond that there are no current plans to look at this within the current policy framework, and for Mike’s question, chances are there will be a stock briefing ‘line to take’ on the limits of localism. Answers to both on one side of A4, job done…in pre-social media world.

But this isn’t pre-social media world

Exactly. And that is the big unknown. For me, for civil servants, for MPs, for ministers…for all of you that read and comment on this blog. Assuming Julian Huppert agrees to forward on my email (and with a good MP-to-constituent relationship on what is an issue of Coalition policy rather than party-political point-scoring, I can’t see there being any issues), it’s not just me that the Minister and his policy advisers will have to consider. It’s all of you too.

I would expect for something like this, a paragraph or two on “social media issues” might be included in any briefing. It might include things such as background information on the Twitter account – who’s behind it, number of people that follow, nature of people that follow and engage, influence (if any) that said account has. Ditto with this blog. Chances are the Minister hasn’t heard of either. There may also be a ‘handling strategy’ that might need to be cleared. Is the Minister content with a single response and to consider the matter closed? Is the Minister willing to allow a press officer, someone from the digital team or from the policy team to respond directly to comments made against the Minister’s response? The Minister has an obligation to respond to my MP but is under no obligation to respond directly to me – either personally or through this blog.

The Department for Communities and Local Government have experimented recently with live tweeting of an event – Enquiry Week. I blogged about it here. What considerations will civil servants make of both ministerial and treat official correspondence featuring in blogs? Current and former civil servants especially, feel free to respond in the comments section.

The Thoughts

Summary

I wrote down all of the thoughts going through my head between 7:30 and 8:00 am on the morning of 22 April 2012. This I hope gives you an idea of what my mind has to deal with in every waking hour.

  • Trying to make sense of 2 dreams. One turning up at a cinema with my sister to watch a new James Bond fil – yet ended up watching 2 top movie stars doing a ballroom skit with Len effing Goodman! They then suddenly appear out of the screen and I give them advice on the foxtrot. Male movie star (I want to avoid celeb spam in the comments) then sings a “thank you” tribute! That has me in stitches.
  • Next dream is argument with my younger brother on helping take 2 huge towers of files to London on the last evening train from Cambridge. I said wait till next morning as no tubes when we arrive.
  • Wonder whether to check tweets – No.
  • Sadness over loss of friendship over breakdown
  • Do I want to watch the FA Cup Final or would I rather watch a re-run of the 1989 final? Am more familiar with players in the latter.
  • Do I open the blind? Yes – Oh what a lovely sunny  morning!
  • Why did all the UK spa breaks I checked yesterday only have them for 1 or 2 day breaks?
  • Do I want to commit to a 2 year applied science course part time?
  • How long will this recovery really take?
  • Will I cope with Monday’s conference? Can I afford it? Should I take Puffles? I want to meet up with another new friend. Should I offer to meet with an existing one?
  • What about my finances and taxes?
  • My room is a mess – I want to tidy it but feel so exhausted and disempowered
  • Song/earworm: “Every time we say goodbye”
  • Why is there so much pressure in my head?
  • Will CES work for pressure in my head and will my parents help pay for it?
  • Counselling doesn’t start till next month – should  I go private and will family help with costs?
  • Why is there so much tension in the back of my neck?
  • Arrrrgh!!! Road traffic noise! I hate it!
  • What shall I do today
  • Reminded of “Blazin’ Squad” – what ever happened to them?
  • Teeth clenching – bruxism😦
  • How can I get rid of spasmed intercostal muscles in my chest? They’ve been like this since 2001.
  • What is my medium-longterm employment future to be?
  • Does this breakdown make me undateable, unloveable and unbearable?
  • How do I protect others from the fallout – I’ve already lost 1 friendship over it and don’t want to lose any more.
  • Impact on social networks of loss of friendship – I don’t want a polarisation or taking of sides
  • When I type this up, should I ask lost friends to read this? No
  • Sadness again over lost friendship
  • Bad memories of my last major implosion in 2005
  • Need to get back to old workmate who I bumped into on Friday
  • Money worries
  • Need to renew passport as invited to stay for a week away with a friend
  • Do we go to a spa while away?
  • Crikey this writing is intense!
  • Notice birdsong – can they eat more of the annoying insects please – and leave the honeybees alone?
  • Reminded of a documentary on bees vs elephants & hives linked by wire used by farmers to protect crops. What about domesticated dogs to protect from smaller herbivores that creep under the wire?
  • Thirsty – need a drink
  • Notice the chocolate bar on table. Chocolate for breakfast? No. What about jellybellies? Only if I want a sugar rush. Anxiety?
  • How will I tame anxiety?
  • Can I soundproof my bedroom from traffic noise?
  • Converting the attic?
  • And breathe out!
  • Head pressure
  • When should I start yoga again?
  • When will it be safe to cycle?
  • What about my driving licence?
  • Lost friend drives
  • Lost friend supports football team
  • Who am I going to support if anyone football-wise? Need to reconnect with football
  • And breathe
  • Need to clean laptop screen
  • Need to learn WordPress properly
  • Why am I spending 80% of my energy on angst? Why can’t I redirect it?
  • How long will recovery take?
  • Will I recover or am I destined to be dependent on my parents? What happens when they’re gone?

All of the above went through my mind (plus a little more) in the space of 30 minutes. Now, multiply all of that out for all day, every day for the past however many years and you get an idea of just how draining having an over-active mind can be. It sucks the life out of you. If I could redirect even just some of the energy that is consumed by this over-activity of thoughts, I’d be far more productive.

Edited to add:

One of my first bosses during my civil service days (who got out soon after I moved down to London to do far more fun creative stuff) wrote an interesting response to this post here. Her blog will be of interest to anyone who is a feminist and takes an interest in body image issues in the media.

On A-Level reform

I posted this on The Student Room in a thread about reforming A-levels and am reposting it here.

What exams boil down to are a measurement of someone’s ability in a given field against an arbitrary measure at a given point in time. The score that is given is then used by other people for whatever means:

  • Universities to decide who should get in and who should not
  • Employers to decide which person to employ, if any
  • Parents to boast to each other about how wonderfully their offspring have done

(I half-jest with the last one!)

One of the many problems with the changing standards over the decades is that it brings in uncertainty – which destabilises the whole system. As an employer, I would want to know whether someone with an A-level in Maths gained in say 1998 is the same as someone who had gained it in 2008. The problem also extends to universities. Without a reasonable idea of comparison between the universities, it’s very difficult to make a judgement in a short space of time as to which applicant may be preferable. It’s one of the reasons why top firms spend a huge amount of resources on their own assessment centres. (I went through the Civil Service one several years ago – they are intense).

As an employer, you have a very limited amount of time and resources to spend on recruitment – you want to concentrate on your day-to-day work. In return for paying taxes, you expect the state (amongst other things) to run a system of assessment at the end of a person’s education that allows the former to shorten the cost of recruitment. So if an employer wants an applicant to be reasonably numerate and literate, they can set a standard at requiring C-grades at GCSE for maths and English – rather than testing each applicant themselves. If people with those grades then turn out to be struggling with literacy and numeracy, then the examination system – and the teaching beyond it is then called into question.

Why competitive exam boards?

This for me is where competition did not work. Rather than using competition to drive up standards, it went in the opposite direction – in part because of flawed incentives. School funding from the government is in part dependent on exam results. With that pressure, the incentive on schools is to select the exam boards that are most likely to give the highest number of top grades. The incentive is on the teachers to teach to the test because their pay in part is related to how successful the school is – especially with further decentralisation and independent academies.

The privatised exam boards have an incentive to meet this demand. Make your exams too stringent and fewer schools will choose you. Because you are a profit-making organisation, you need to make a return on your operation. Therefore you ‘dumb down’ in order to fill your order book. It’s big money too. In 2009 secondary schools alone spent £281million on exam fees alone. There is a lot of money to be made out of exams. [UPDATE: For 2010/11 that figure is now £328million]

You then had the recent scandal exposed in the Telegraph. With such big money in exams and incentives for exam boards to make money, it’s not surprising that things have become aggressively commercialised.

The question then is how to rein things back in. For me, taking the profit motive out would be a start. What may be in the interests of shareholders may not be in the interests of the wider economy. As the assessment of exams and awarding of results underpins so much of the economy, shareholder interest where this conflicts (as I have outlined above) means something needs to be done.

This may mean the restriction of who can accredit qualifications and may ultimately mean the nationalisation of exam boards under an executive government agency accountable to ministers.

Coming back to the employers’ perspectives, they want to know they can trust the grade attached to the qualification. They don’t have time to look into the ins and outs of exam boards and syllabuses. I remember my old geography teacher saying how the syllabus we were following was a damn sight harder than ones at my old school, but that it allowed the ‘better’ students to shine. That didn’t stop me from feeling peeved about having to work into the ground for my grade B versus those from my former school who seemed to have a much easier time of it. A university admissions tutor may be able to make some distinction, but the wider world?

Another perspective from me is that I don’t like the idea of “You have to take your GCSEs when you’re 16 and A-levels when you’re 18”. (Or the expectation of). I couldn’t help but feel I needed one more term with my A-levels (even though my grades were quite good in the end). I’d prefer to move to a system and a culture of people taking exams when they are ready. Ditto with university and the expectation that ‘it is the next thing to go on to’ (which was a phrase I often heard from fellow undergrads when I was there – though I expect the stupendously high fees will have changed that expectation significantly now).

At the moment, the system and culture of exams costs too much, is damaging to people who genuinely have a love for the subject by being taught to the test, produces qualifications that employers don’t seem to have enough confidence in and seems to lack consistency over time. Yes, there needs to be reform, but I’m not sure the political establishment have the will-power to bring in the reforms that are needed – i.e. taking control of the situation. It sounds like they want ‘someone else’ (whether universities or otherwise) to do it for them. I am however, open to persuasion that this is not the case.

Bringing Cambridge together

Summary

This blogpost is aimed primarily at people in Cambridge – my home town – who can “make good stuff happen”.

“For quite some time now I’ve felt Cambridge has the potential to be far greater than the 
sum of its parts,” Puffles told Cambridge First.” [A local weekly that has since folded]

The above is still my view. #IAgreeWithPuffles. I want to see more people and community organisations using social media to break out of their silos and get more people involved in whatever it is that they do. It was one of the final observations I made at a social media seminar I delivered for councillors in Cambridge at The Guildhall this evening. It was when I mentioned Teacambs (that Puffles helped launch in March 2012) that one of the councillors asked why I was launching another one. Quite.

I still think the Teacambs is a good idea – one that will grow because of the size and nature of the public sector institutions in and around Cambridge. Yet the point remains. Haven’t we got lots of networks already and how can we bring them all together? Cabume, the news outlet of Cambridge’s technology cluster produced a growing guide of Cambridge’s existing networks. 47 at the last count – and these are just the work related ones. Is there room for some merging and linking up? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

What about the community sector?

Ah! Public sector jargon. Now you’re talking my language! No, wait – I’m not in that sector anymore. And this is sort of my point. Just as social media use blurs the professional and the personal, it also blurs the lines between the various sectors. I can’t see why the various ‘professional’ networks shouldn’t engage with and get involved with things going on at a community level – say with Transition Cambridge and Cambridge Carbon Footprint both of whom which have started bouncing off each other in recent times.

One of the big ‘areas for development’ locally is with Cambridge’s CVS. I’ve been in touch with them about social media things and will be getting in touch with them again shortly about using social media to bring people together. At the moment they don’t seem to have any social media presence – which is a shame because they are the ideal umbrella and connecting organisation for all the networks and community groups in Cambridge. In an ideal world there would be seamless connections between the CCVS and networks such as the Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce and the Cambridge Network. For example whenever there is an event of interest to wider audiences, simple links and messages via Facebook or Twitter can make things so much easier for people, widening participation and increasing audiences too.

A number of organisations have said that they are in the process of writing social media policies and strategies. One of the best quotations (I think from the brilliant Steph Gray) at the Whitehall Teacamp that both he and I spoke at was the following:

“People who read social media strategies don’t use social media, and people who don’t read social media strategies use social media.”

Exactly. There’s only so many ways you can say: “Set up an account, play with it, and play nicely”. (Even though organisationally the little trade unionist in me says there must be a 100 page in depth guidance document that covers every possible eventuality to protect both staff and managers. But I’m weaning myself off of that!)

“Come on Pooffles, what’s your big idea?”

Well (My former team leader from my civil service days used to call Puffles “Pooffles”), my big idea takes its inspiration from the societies fairs hosted by universities. Can we have one that goes beyond the universities?

Cambridge Societies Fair

That’s my big idea. Hire out the Guildhall or the Kelsey Kerridge Hall – somewhere central and accessible and invite all of the professional networks and community groups to set up shop. Then invite people in. Have lots of multiple plug sockets and functioning public wifi (but check with the technical staff that neither of these will explode under the demand) and allow people to use laptops and smartphones to join up online and link using social media, allowing them to follow things up in their spare time.

The best timing for this would be in the autumn – early September just after the kids have gone back to school and when lots of people are considering which courses and evening classes they want to do for the year. You never know, this could be a nice little task for the new council administration that comes into power after the local elections in May 2012. Can they bring the interested groups together to deliver this? One for Cambridge CVS, Cambridge Network and JCI Cambridge perhaps?

The outcome? A more connected and integrated city, stronger friendships between people, groups and organisations and more sustainable, vibrant groups and organisations as people find out what’s really available throughout the city.

Quacks – and I’m not talking about ducks

Summary

Search for a cure

One of the things that is a cause for angst for me is having gone in the opposite direction mental health-wise despite doing what felt like so many of the textbook things to improve my mental health. I was exercising regularly, trying to build up my community of friends, trying CBT-self-help to combat negative thought processes, improving my diet by cutting red meat, alcohol and caffeine, started yoga (until breakdown got in the way) and had taken a step away from a lifestyle of commuting that was clearly doing me no good.

So here I am thinking: Now what?

It got me thinking about my physical symptoms – the worst being permanently tight/spasmed intercostal muscles (that I’ve had for over a decade but on which no one has ever given me a decent answer as to how to relieve them) and pressure in my head and the back of my neck.

The two treatments that sounded interesting to me were Cranial Electrical Stimulation (CES (for my head)) and Ultrasound massage for my chest. CES seems to be different from ECT which within society seems to have a bad press. (I’ll let medics & mental health experts amongst you explain the differences). Basically both are things that don’t involve talking therapies, are non-invasive but seem to manipulate organs in some way.

OK! What are we waiting for?

The nagging historian in me. One of history’s figures I’ve read lots about is Nicholas II’s wife Alexandra – one of Queen Victoria’s many grandchildren. After giving birth to four daughters, she gave birth to a long-awaited son…who had haemophilia. At the time, there was little that anyone could do. They could bring in the best scientists money could buy – for they were stupendously wealthy, but to no avail. Alexandra, being a devoutly religious type turned to many charlatan before finally settling with Rasputin, who seemed to have some sort of an impact on her son but no one could really figure out why. And the rest is history.

That’s not to say science failed. If we had discovered everything then scientific research would stop completely. What I want to know is whether something works – and get opinions from reasonably credible sources. When you’re suffering from a long term condition, anything that seems to give you hope can feel like it’s worth reading or looking into – even if it is in the Daily Mail. That’s what is so cruel about some science journalism in mainstream outlets – bad reporting gives false hope to those who are most in need.

Now, I’m not going to go around accusing people and firms of being charlatans or quack-sellers. I leave that to Ben Goldacre & friends at Bad Science. What I am saying is I need more evidence and more credible opinions before going down either of those routes. For example this microcurrent treatment has a centre in Cambridge. Part of me wants to go racing down there, hook me up to a set of batteries and flick the switch in the hope that the pressure balloon in my head (or rather the tension across my scalp & back of my neck along my upper spin) will deflate. Or perhaps getting a couple of electrodes, sticking them into my ribcage and turning up to ‘fry’ those spasmed muscles back into life again.

Going beyond a pill again?

This comes back to points I made in my first mental health article. Medication ain’t gonna sort this. I’ve been on the stuff for over six years continuously and I feel no better in terms of tackling the causes, even though they do suppress the symptoms. It’s how I functioned in Whitehall for so long. Yet as I mentioned above, the stuff that I had been doing of late – and in particular since the start of this year didn’t seem to be working either. So now where do I go?

You could say that’s part of the ‘fun’ of it in a darkly comic manner. I’ve just got to keep trying new things until something comes up that I click with. But it’s terribly exhausting and isn’t cheap either. Well…Okay…the hot stones massage today was, but that’s because I was helping trainees by being a body for someone to work with. It was at Cambridge Regional College – where I did my teacher training last autumn. For those of you interested, have a look at The Park – and give some young people a hand. (I was my trainee’s first client for this particular treatment, so please be patient with them if you are going).

What about public administration issues?

“Yeah Pooffles! When are you gonna get stuck into the Toreeze with their cutz?!?!”

Not today. On the issue of wider treatments, I have no idea other than the claims of manufacturers whether this stuff works. There are a number of scholarly articles out there but they are not written with ordinary patients in mind. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) seems to come up blank too. Not that I know of many non-medic people who would go to NICE as a port of call. I’d guess that most people have never heard of NICE let alone know what they do. In one sense I am lucky in that I can call on some medics via my Twitter network – all of whom that got back had not heard of this. Hence being that little bit extra cautious.

What about h o m e o p a t h y ?

Yep – I don’t want that sort of spam either. I tried such a remedy back in 2001 and was like “Wow! That really stings!” after being told to drop two pippet droplets onto the glands underneath my tongue. Then I thought: “What’s in this stuff?” Cherry brandy with 1/400 essence of some flower. Yes…my thoughts exactly. This was one of the areas where my former flatmate (who is now a pharmacy Ph.D student) and I disagreed – she stood by the treatments and I didn’t.

All of this from a public administration perspective makes me wonder why we don’t put more resources into testing of these things – and the regulation of advertisers claims. It’s not just about stopping the wild and inaccurate claims but also about giving credibility to those treatments that actually do work. It’s one of the reasons why whenever any statistical claim is thrown at me, I always ask “Show me the sample size – are your results statistically significant?”

I’m sort of tempted to give the CES treatment a try – what harm can it do? (Famous last words). I’m sure I’ve wasted more money on worse and at least it will put my mind at rest either way. But again, open to advice.