Olympians and social media

Summary

Why these ones are much more fun – for me

Well hasn’t it been exciting boys and girls! Actually, if you were watching the archery it was tremendously so. Each country with three archers firing away in groups of three against another country. It was like a penalty shoot-out – only more lethal. Robin Hood would have had his work cut out against this lot. I tried my hand at archery a few years ago, but ended up shredding my elbow with the bow because of my instinct to ‘lock’ my arm with my elbow facing the ground rather than holding it firm facing sideways. But there was something cool about having a bow and arrow…less so trying to aim at a balloon sitting at the centre of the target. It’s like when I tried clay pigeon shooting at a family stag do…you can see why men in particular take a fancy to such things. It’s an extension of our…well…let’s not go there.

There’s also something nice finding out about someone who you’ve not heard of before – especially if they are from your locality and are representing your country. Perhaps after so many negative headlines not just around the Olympics but in general, it’s nice to have coverage of people potentially from your neighbourhood taking on the best in the world as they head to London.

Let’s not forget the volunteers too – Mark Easton‘s account made me smile – voluntarism triumphing over the corporations, which were just made to look ridiculous and petty. I was umming and aahing over whether to step forward as a volunteer because I’d done similar things at local events in Cambridge such as the Strawberry Fair and the Oxfam Walks. But such was the distaste left by the demands of the corporate sponsors that I decided not to bother. I doubt I’m the only one who refrained from stepping forward for similar reasons.

What a contrast from top flight football

…which has been dragged through the mud and will continue so following recent court cases. That’s not saying all Olympians are angels. Perhaps I’m not comparing like-with-like. Personally I prefer the sports that have some sort of a team element to them – i.e. where you either play as a team or compete individually but your scores count as part of a wider team score. I guess it’s another way of the competitors saying ‘this is not all about me’ because they are part of a wider team and part of a wider squad. It would be interesting to hear from the men’s Great Britain football team what difference (if any) has been made as a result of being in TeamGB. Have they made new friends across other sports? I hope so. For the younger Welsh players, I hope for them the experience of international tournament football has a knock-on effect with the Welsh national side. I’m sad for Scotland whose football association decided not to take part. Just as with the Welsh players, I think some of their better young players would have benefited from a big international tournament experience. That said, the mess that is the Rangers fiasco has shown the Scottish FA to be not the best run organisation in the world.

Some epic clashes

Great Britain vs Argentina in the hockey, USA vs North Korea in Women’s football, Japan vs China in the mens gymnastics and womens archery. Maybe that’s how they should resolve international conflicts. Sod war and diplomacy: We’ll sort out the ongoing Falklands dispute over a series of matches involving football, hockey and polo! The mens gymnastics was also nailbiting too. What were your top events (& why?)

But there are always some idiots.

I would say “village idiots” but there aren’t enough villages to go around. Social media has a habit of pointing such people out – whether it’s those posting racist posts to those sending threats. The former was the case when Japan understandably appealed a decision that otherwise would have bumped Great Britain up to silver. The appeal was upheld and Twitter went into meltdown with anti-Japanese tweets even though the decision was made by the judges on both occasions. The latter involved Tom Daley. I’m not going to go further other than to note the law is now taking much more notice of who is saying what on social media – and at present the application of it feels inconsistent. A steer needs to come from the authorities concerned, then cascaded to all and sundry so that people – young people in particular – learn the difference between what is acceptable (& in what context), what is unacceptable (& in what context), what is unlawful (e.g. could get you sued) and what is illegal (e.g. could land you with a criminal record and/or in jail).  There are some calls for phone companies to do this, but I think it goes far beyond the phone companies. It’s got to be incorporated into schools and the workplace too. But where to start. Is Debretts a starting point or too ‘old fashioned’?

Sports stars on social media

This has also been a bit of a game changer. Throughout the 1990s, the public personas of sports stars became increasingly micromanaged – in the same way that it did for politicians. Sports stars employed agents while politicians employed spin doctors. Even if you had the political equivalent of a turd, a sound spin doctor could still spin that into a pot suitable for a safe seat for lobby-fodder purposes. Through social media, we get to see what these people are really like – warts and all. This allows people to make judgements not on what they see on the field and in the papers, but on both style and content of what people tweet. It’s a great equaliser.

It also makes it a damn sight harder for ‘brand managers’ (because top players are brands in their own right these days) to manage their charges. It’s much easier to see when something is put out by a brand manager versus something tweeted by an individual player – especially if the latter is not the brightest (academically) pea in the pod. After all, what’s the point of phoning up a press officer to get the line: “The lady who was led to believe that she had exclusive copulation rights with my client is admittedly currently apoplectic with rage regarding recent allegations that have been made in the media and on the internet” when you can look at the Twitter account of the player concerned and find: “Yeah, toots woz well lairy about Blowjob Beckie – the lads always gettin’ me in2 trubble!!”

I’m yet to see one of football’s intellectuals take to Twitter – are there any left these days? Maybe it’s because Socrates was one of the best players I never saw, but I wonder what he’d have been like on Twitter.

Competitors and social media guidance

The London 2012 organisers have already issued social media guidance for competitors though this is just as much about ‘protecting’ sponsors rights (because a tweet containing a competitor brand might destroy them commercially -> sensitive multinationals y’see).  Only last week new social media rules were issued for the English Premier League. I’m not entirely sure what’s in the guidance as I only have the press release to go on.

The good thing is that it allows supporters to interact directly with competitors and send messages of support. When you’re not in the public eye – as many until now have not been, I can imagine the tidalwave of support can be an incredible boost. The question is what to do about the trolls short of having a full-time human filter for your social media account to filter those ones out for you. (How many can afford that?)

Volunteers and social media guidance

…makes a nonsense of these being the social media games. This was first picked up in January and ridiculed by many in the social media world – and that was before the attempts to police the internet for everyone else was picked up. It speaks volumes that the first thing volunteers are asked to do beyond the preamble is to protect the brand. Not “Thank you very much for volunteering – priority number 1 is that everyone HAS FUN.” No, protecting the brand is more important. I thought they were called the Olympic GAMES for a reason. In the longer term I hope this does not set a trend for future events – and that organisers learn from the error of their ways.

The corporate media and social media

Not just the organisers, the media broadcasters too. Delayed streaming as per the rights holder in one large country meant they could not share in the experiences the rest of the world were engaging in online. They got lots of adverts though. As for ill-informed commentators, the BBC has form on that too. It’s not just a US problem. If people cannot switch over to another channel to watch their coverage, then poor coverage from the rights holder for an event lots want to watch will inevitably get shredded. And rightly so. The corporate media is still to find the right method of how to interact with social media users – especially with complaints & firestorms.

 

EmptySeatGate

Summary

Will the corporations and officials take a kicking over this?

Empty corporate seats at UK sporting events are not a new phenomenon. The first time I came across this was at Euro ’96. I remember watching Romania vs Bulgaria at Euro ’96 and (being football nuts at the time) could not understand why the people of Newcastle were not fighting to get into the stadium to see two of the greatest players of that generation (Hagi and Stoichkov) squaring off. (Unfortunately the latter did himself no favours with his racist abuse towards Marcel Desailly in the match against France). Throughout Euro ’96, the only games other than the England games I can recall being jam packed was the dull draw at Anfield between Germany and Italy that set the latter home. Hence why I really hoped we would have learnt from that experience – especially given that Coca Cola and McDonalds were two key sponsors at that tournament as they are for the current Olympics.

Let’s not kid ourselves with the New Wembley either. The most expensive seats are around the royal box and the players’ tunnel. Yet how many football matches have we seen where the last people to take their seats (and the first people to leave) are those in those very seats. Ditto with the tier of executive boxes which remain unused because the bankers that bought rights for them in the boom time have lost interest.

It’s not nice to see such swathes of empty seats from a spectator’s perspective – whether watching on TV or being in the stadium. It kills the atmosphere. Just look at the Olympics’ football – should they have used smaller more compact stadia? I’m gutted for the Great Britain Women’s Football Team in that respect.

LOCOG investigating

Which may be all well and good but given the scale of events this is something that will be difficult to turn around unless the those at the top of the sponsors and officials from other  Olympic committees (who presumably have all of the good seats) impress on those with tickets to actually turn up. For all we know it may be a case of such people having tickets for different events that clash at the same time.

Question marks over sponsorship and officials

This is one of the things that will have to be looked at in detail after the events are over, but I hope that we will see a sea-change. Chances are the data will be there to find out who turned up and who didn’t. The question is whether it will be released. Which firms or national organising committees had tickets but chose not to use them? I’d be surprised if the data was released. LOCOG is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (because hell would have to freeze over before the IOC and its sponsors agreed to such dangerous concepts such as transparency). When you look at the list of members of the IOC, you’ve got your royals from oppressive regimes and even one of the generals from one country that has recently experienced a revolution. Why is he still on the list?

What’s social media got to do with this?

Yeah…me and social media again. Well…compared to Euro ’96, people are talking about it but in a manner in which everyone can see – i.e. it turns up in trending items on social media. This is what tipped some people off too. What also raised the stakes was that promises were made by the IOC to deal with empty seats following problems at Beijing in 2008. It seems that in this regard, the IOC and friends have utterly failed.

I mentioned in previous blogs on the Olympics that this is the first one where people have been able to answer back en masse. If social media users create a global social media firestorm – and there’s nothing like an international tournament from which to do so – they will. The question is to what extent those all important brands will be tarnished.

A huge market failure too?

The truth is that there was no market. Those multinationals (from the private sector) that secured official sponsorship rights used their muscle to rig the rules of hosting the Olympics in their favour. Those rules included the ‘legislative arrangements’ host countries had to make in order to host the games – as I set out here. As a result, those rules crushed any competitive market in selling tickets. Rather than making those tickets available on the open market (where we know there was huge demand), they were clearly allocated to a group of people from which there was little demand.

Some – in response to tweets via Puffles – are blaming the state for this. I can’t say the state isn’t blameless, but it has its hands tied because of the nature of the IOC (and FIFA to that regard) and their multinational paymasters. The challenge for politicians worldwide is whether they can come together (and whether we can pressure them to) to say that such sporting events belong to the people, not the corporations.

Some have said that multinationals bought the rights and that’s the end of it. I don’t think such rights should have been available in the first place. Multinationals are doing what multinationals always do: seek to crush the competition. With the Olympics they have used their influence to change laws in their favour. This makes a nonsense of small businesses benefiting from such events because of the blanket use of ‘sterile zones’ and brand policing. As if there aren’t more important crimes that need to be tackled without the needless creation of seemingly artificial ‘crimes’. I’d rather trading standards officers were seeking out firms selling dodgy meat rather than hauling up butchers for arranging sausages in the shape of the Olympics’ rings.

I really hope this is all sorted – sorted in a manner that makes lots more tickets available to the genuine fans. It’s genuine fans that make for such wonderful atmospheres. Otherwise you end up with huge swathes of stadia and event halls either with no one in them, or a few members of the prawn sandwich brigade in the parts that the camera cannot see – ruining what should be wonderful sporting spectacles for everyone.

In praise of Danny Boyle’s Olympics’ opening ceremony

Summary

A ceremony that won over even the most stubborn of sceptics – myself included.

With the negative publicity around the run-up to the Olympics, Danny Boyle had his work cut out. Given that context – and the wider global and economic political contexts, this was a challenge that few would not have been found wanting. Yet Boyle managed to achieve what everyone else at the top of the Olympics’ tree failed to do: Unite the nation around something to do with the Olympics. (Well…most of it anyway!) If you want to watch the full four hours again, it’s here.

I’m not going to say everything about it was perfect. These things never are – whether it was the sound engineering failure at the very end with Paul McCartney or issues with Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti appearing at the same time protesters in London were being kettled and arrested. Others complained about some of the political overtones around praising the NHS. But the Olympics were always going to be political. Spending that amount of public money and passing what has turned out to be controversial pieces of legislation to get the games going meant politics was never going to be avoided.

As far as opening ceremonies go, the sheer numbers of people and the manner in which they performed made it feel like a much more humanised performance than some of their technically superb predecessors. The fusing of art, music, performance, new media, technology, science and engineering was astounding as it was brilliant. Yet at the same time, there was something wonderfully anarchic about a whole series of features – whether it was the lesbian kiss streamed live into regimes (whose representatives were in the stadium – where was that camera shot?) where people can be executed for their sexuality to the inclusion of acts such as The Sex Pistols and The Prodigy.

A military pageant this is not. For me this was not a bad thing – because if the opening ceremony was about all things military, it would have ended up repeating the Jubilee. The Olympics Opening Ceremony had to be different. And it was. London is the host city. Therefore it was not unreasonable to have London ‘as is’ to be a core feature of proceedings. Aidan Burley MP may not have liked this, but then he’s got to live with himself – lucky man.

The two things that stood out for me were Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s feature – and the message that the internet was for everyone, and the way the Olympic flame was brilliantly formed. Rather than having one person lighting one flame, it a previous generation of Olympians handing over the flames to a future generation, lighting individual flames that together formed a greater flame when put together.

For me, those two messages alone – that the internet (and by extension the world) is for all of us, and that when we come together and co-operate we are greater than the sum of our parts – are beautiful messages. That’s what I took away from the opening ceremony.

Thank you Danny. (& All who took part & helped make this amazing show).

Fighting mental exhaustion, depression and general lethargy

Summary

How long will this process take?

Some of you may not be aware, but I went through a mental health crisis a few months ago – a crisis that knocked the stuffing out of me. I can’t help but feel that I’ve been asleep ever since. Certainly my otherwise previously increasingly intense exercise regime has disappeared from existence. This is something that has got me down because prior to all of this I felt I was doing reasonably well with stuff & was ready to get back into the swing of working and living.

At present it’s all too easy to stay inside and spend the entire day on Twitter and online. But it doesn’t feel like I’m achieving anything in particular – other than perhaps a slightly more raised profile. I’d much prefer being in an environment where I’m working with lots of other motivated people towards an altruistic common goal. But where to find that El dorado.

The weather

It’s been ‘orrible of late – with the exception of the past couple of sun-filled days. Actually, it’s had a huge impact on me because it’s made it that much easier to stay in and shelter from the rain. Why go outside and do stuff when all that’s going to happen is you’ll get cold and wet? (Especially if you don’t have to). Not only that, the dark skies dampened my general mood and outlook throughout much of May and June. It’s like my mood and energy levels are solar-powered.

The football and Olympics.

As far as football tournaments go, the recent European Championships was the first tournament where I felt completely indifferent to how England performed. So much so that I was laughing at the two penalty misses in the quarter finals – a huge change from 1990, 96 or 98 when I was genuinely gutted. I simply could not – and cannot relate to the people at the top of the beautiful game these days. Following recent court cases it’s in the gutter anyway, and I don’t see the current footballing authorities as having the competence to drag it out.

As for the Olympics, well…you know my view from previous blogposts. People are making interesting comparisons with the Jubilee celebrations (where there was no brand policing) vs the Olympics, where brand policing is crushing the celebration plans of ordinary people who are not seeking to make fortunes from the whole thing. This combined with the G4S shambles and other things has led to wave-after-wave of negative publicity. Hence why the sooner the games start the better – that way it will be the competitors who will be making the headlines rather than your makers of whatever or whoever is sponsoring it.

Social media fries your brains!

And mine is in the deep fat fryer. One of my earliest posts asked when social media switches off. Because for me it’s the last thing I check at night, the first thing I check in the morning and sometimes intermittently if I cannot sleep. The other thing my older brother commented on when he came over to look after me during my breakdown was that I went into this “zone” – similar to when toddlers are watching TV. It’s just me and the gadget that I’m engaging with. I see this in others when I’m out and about too.

The biggest impact I notice is shortness of breath. There are times where I simply have to put down my phone because I feel I’ll end up headrushing. Dryness of eyes is another. Too much time in front of the screen…yet at the same time it’s as if breaking from it means breaking away from interaction with other people. This is because day-to-day I no longer have the stability of going into an office with the same group of people.

There is also the tightness of chest/intercostal muscles which in recent weeks has really started doing my head in. It’s as if I want to take a sharp instrument to them and cut them free from the bones that they are attached to. The problem for me is that the muscles that are tight feel like they are on the wrong side of my rib cage to ‘massage loose’. Hence coming up with madcap schemes in my mind of plugging my ribcage to some electrodes and frying them loose. Not that I’d do such a thing, but the frustration with the condition is doing my head in.

“I can’t get no sleep”

The problem here is having a bedroom that is main-road-facing – & not being able to completely sound-proof it in the way I would want to. Moving isn’t an option. In a nutshell it feels like I’ve not had a good nights sleep in years. It’s not just me that has issues. Baby house sparrows do too. It’s also got to the stage where people have decided to form a national anti-noise association. Should they be lining up with the CPRE (who want to protect tranquil areas) and the Ramblers (who want to ensure we all have access to them)?

It gets to the stage where I just crave being somewhere far away from the noise of road traffic and aeroplanes. Since 1998 the amount of air traffic has increased, and I‘m not best pleased with the plans for expansion either. But then it’s not as if those that benefit financially are going to be the ones living in the flight path.

Procrastination and not being able to stay still

I procrastinate with the best of them at the worst of times. All too often I’ve found myself at the stage of wanting to know about stuff without having to go through the process of learning and finding out. The books or the software are there, but sitting still for five minutes feels like an impossibility at the moment. It sort of reminds me of some of my former fellow students who, in the run up to exams would spend hours and hours in the library revising, but who would end up with seemingly similar results to me even though it felt I had not done nearly the same amount as they had.

I guess part of the problem is there’s no urgent and essential pressure to put myself through all of those things individually, nor is there a group of people who I’m working with and interacting with who are going through the same thing at the same time. It’s one of the reasons why I’d love to start a Coding Club in Cambridge. I want to get to the stage where I’m reasonably competent at it, but for some reason cannot break through that initial starting process to get the ball rolling. Hence needing people to bounce off on a regular basis.

My record with evening classes in Cambridge – or over the past few years generally has not been good at all. All too often the things I’ve enrolled in – with the exception of teacher training – have lacked energy and a real world application. I’m one of these people who likes to work towards something – so long as there’s no exam at the end of it! For example such as having constructed something, made something or even having a performance or event at the end of it. Part of my problem is straddling between having become used to London living and working versus the much smaller bubbles that exist in Cambridge – and the even smaller silos. In one sense it takes a lot more to get me stimulated as far as gatherings and events go.

So…what’s the plan for the autumn?

Well…the problem is what to plan for? This is the problem with uncertainty – it makes planning for anything very difficult. (As an aside, it’s one of the reasons why I don’t like the easy-hire-easy-fire/zero working rights employment practices that some call for, because it really messes with your head if you are in a low-paid job in unstable housing.) Much as I have a big list of stuff I want to do, realistically I won’t have the time, money or energy to fit all of it in. As for what will take the back seat, I’ll have to wait and see.

 

Tax evasion, tax avoidance, tax breaks – can we get definitions right please?

Summary

Trying to find clarity in the tax debate – and a way forward

These terms are bandied about by all sides and unfortunately only succeed in blurring what for me at least are very serious issues. Tax evasion, tax avoidance, tax breaks and tax havens have all been featured in recent news reports – whether on the Olympics or whether on the report in the Observer.

Tax evasion: Criminal offence. Get caught doing it and you could get prosecuted.

Tax avoidance: Not criminal offence – but something Parliament, The Treasury and various campaigners don’t like, but some business people do like. The definition of tax avoidance that I go with is the one from The Treasury – from the executive summary (p5) of Tackling Tax Avoidance:

“[Tax avoidance] involves using the tax law to get a tax advantage that Parliament never intended. It frequently involves contrived, artificial transactions that serve little or no purpose other than to reduce tax liability. And it enables some taxpayers to gain an unfair advantage, undermining confidence in the tax system”

Tax breaks are not the same as tax avoidance. Tax breaks can be misused to avoid tax, but the breaks themselves have been approved by Parliament for a specific purpose. ISAs being one. So if anyone says you shouldn’t save in an ISA account because you’re against tax avoidance, they are talking nonsense. Parliament brought in tax exemptions for the Olympics – most probably because the IOC and LOCOG had their arms twisted by their sponsors. i.e. Give us these breaks or we’ll take the Games away from you. Hence why 38degrees and friends (using unfortunate language) have gone after the big sponsors getting them to commit publicly that they won’t take advantage of any tax breaks they might be eligible for.

Tax havens vs low tax jurisdictions.

When is a tax haven not a tax haven? I agree with the CBI here – a distinction needs to be made between transparent low tax jurisdictions versus those that hide behind secrecy. The Republic of Ireland for example over the past decade tried to run its economy as a low tax jurisdiction – i.e. with low rates of corporation tax (despite understandable pressure following the banking crisis to raise them). The advantage for the Republic was that you got the benefits of being almost integrated with the UK and EU markets without the huge corporation tax burdens that go with them. The Republic, being part of the EU has to comply with EU regulations. Somewhere like Liechtenstein which is not, does not. But being where it is, and following a tax scandal in 2008, several EU states including the UK negotiated treaties to find out more about wealth held there.

You then have the well-known ‘offshore’ ones such as the Cayman Islands – which has more registered companies than it has people. Up to 80% of its income is from financial services (40%) and tourism (up to 40%). In the 2008 US election campaign, Obama put the spotlight on one building supposedly housing over 12,000 corporations – one which was tracked down by the BBC as being a law firm hosting over 19,000.

Tax havens belonging to The Crown.

This is one of the big unanswered questions: Who should do what about them? The Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, the Cayman Islands…all have some sort of Crown oversight – but not a Parliamentary one. The Foreign Office is responsible for advising The Crown on overseas territories. The Ministry of Justice has oversight of Crown Dependencies. My take is that any debate around tackling tax avoidance from a UK perspective needs to have reform of the UK’s relationship with such territories at its heart.

Co-ordination with international counterparts

If it hasn’t hit politicians already, I don’t know where they have been. I’m still in favour of the principle that if your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be. As far as Europe is concerned, at the moment it feels like the best of a very imperfect bunch. Given its inability to sort out the Eurozone crisis, I don’t hold particularly high hopes for it sorting out tax avoidance and tax evasion given the scale that its at. Not least because it turned a blind eye to such activities within existing Eurozone states.

The problem the UK faces is a political establishment with a disposition against any co-ordination or harmonisation in the area of tax – lest it be seen as the next step towards an EU superstate. The Coalition has already made clear its opposition to steps such as a financial transaction tax. Given where much Conservative Party funding has come from in recent years, that should not be a surprise. The challenge for Labour in the coming few years is whether it will commit to doing the opposite – and (should it get elected in the next election) holding firm under a deluge of lobbying form The City.

One area where I agree with those on the centre-right of the political spectrum is simplifying the tax system. I don’t agree with all of their steps – for example I don’t agree with flat taxes or poll taxes to replace income tax. But the number of tax breaks and concessions that litter the current tax code make things much easier for those that want to partake in tax avoidance activities to do so.

More tax inspectors?

Imagine if the levels of reported tax avoidance and tax evasion were attached to levels of benefit fraud. What would the response be then? Again, going by the figures reported from Treasury, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke MP (C) said the ‘tax gap’ was estimated at around £40billion. I like quoting from this document because most of the people who seem to defend tax avoidance to me tend to be Conservatives – and this document was signed off by a Conservative Minister.

What we have at the moment is a massive imbalance of people doing the regulating (as opposed to regulations) versus the firms being regulated. You can have all the traffic laws in the world but if you only have one police office responsible for traffic…it’s a similar thing here. Simple question to all political parties:

What plans do you have to rebalance the number of skilled regulators with the number and size of firms that should be regulated in the financial sector of the economy?

Part of the answer in tackling these tax issues is international co-operation, part is in changing the laws and regulations, and part is in ensuring there are enough skilled regulators to ensure the law is being abided by. Because if the banking scandals have taught us anything, banks cannot at present be trusted to regulate themselves.

Are young people politically apathetic? Not this lot

Summary

Wingtips for some fine young minds – with more to be added

Well…they have had sand kicked in their faces by the political establishment for stuff they didn’t do and/or wasn’t their fault, so they have a right to be angry, don’t they? Note I’ve not put a number on what ‘young’ is. This is deliberate.

One of the other reasons for doing this is I have stumbled across a number of brilliant young bloggers and tweeters – the majority of them women. As they are more often than not on the receiving end of a ridiculous amount of hatred, I wanted them to know that there is lots of support out there – not least from this lot below.

The format will be Twitter account followed where applicable by link to blog or website.

I’m going to start with Cat Smith – who posts here. Tribal Labour/Christian Socialist type who stood at the 2010 election. How many of us automatically assume that Christians are  right-leaning?

Kelly, who tumbles here was one of the first vocal feminist atheist types I started following, followed very quickly by Zoe Stavri, who is one of the most brilliantly fiery bloggers I’ve ever met. It was through her that I also stumbled across Ellen Yianni who between the two of them have busted many-a-myth about feminism. Both @ShutupCaf and Katie McAlpine (alongside sidekick Lauren Cole) have also provided their own splendidly clear feminism myth-busting articles in recent times too. I like the way they challenge me to think about stuff in a way that you seldom get with the mainstream press. They also have an energy that I really wish I still had sometimes. Someone else who is absolutely hard-as-nails and who takes no prisoners is Anna Fleur (blogging here) – who I met with Millie Epona on my first visit to Liverpool. Into the similar crowd can also be found Mediocre Dave. In a similar vein and league is PiercePenniless – blogging here.

Louisa Loveluck used to study at Cambridge and is still my first port of call for all things happening in the Middle East – blogging here.

The first scientist I stumbled across was Michelle Brooke – also from Cambridge. It was through her that I started making a few links between scientists, sceptics/skeptics and atheists. With science still in mind is Heather Doran, beavering away for a PhD in Aberdeen. Also on a science theme is Sarah Castor-Perry, one of the loveliest of girls I’ve met and the first person who was able to explain what the Higgs Boson was to me in language I could understand. Lauren Reid is also one to look out for – though some science tweets may not be safe for thin-skinned bosses!

One of the strongest proponents for atheism is James Croft – who’s father I used to work for during my civil service days, and who’s sister DottySparkles was one of Puffles’ earliest followers. Another young secular humanist who I recently discovered is Eliza Black.

The first person who I started interacting with on Twitter who was still at secondary school at the time was LissyNumber. This bundle of brains has got a wise head on young shoulders – the quality of her blogging is very mature for her years. The same goes for young astronomer Hannah H – similar age to LissyNumber but blogging on all things space-related. (If you like all things space, see Dr Lucy Rogers too).

Some of you may have noticed Puffles and I going after the Olympics. Jennifer Jones, who I met when she came to Cambridge last year, has been blogging about this for a lot longer. She also has a voice and raw passion in what she does that reminds me of Amy McDonald. Talking of all things Scotland, there are a number of Scots whose presence prevents me from being trapped permanently in the Westminster political bubble. Stevie Wise is one of them, as is Ceilidh-Anne – the latter who also covers literature and US politics so that I don’t have to! If the more nuttier types on that side of the pond have dome something stupid and I find out about it, it’s normally because she’s tweeted about it. Also in Scotland are a couple of people not keen on Westminster at all. Gail Lythgoe of the SNP is one of them. Hannah B takes a slightly different few, being one of the people behind Liberal Youth in Scotland. Hop over the Irish sea and you find Susie, who has a habit of pulling the rest of us up on what bad stuff can happen if faith schools are allowed to run riot and divide societies – amongst other political things.

At the opposite end of the country is Maddie Soper – one of two people who have mentioned Puffles on student radio – the other being one of the youngest councillors in the country, Cllr Kerri Prince – who was still doing A-levels when elected. Not far from Maddie is Ruthie Dee – who I bumped into on a visit to Bristol – along with @TheNatFantastic (the latter having previously met at PufflesCamp in Brighton last year).

I want to give a mention to Rosianna – whose eyes hypnotise me and who also set the standard for vlogging before she got to university. (She recently graduated).

On the young liberal political side of things are Daniel Furr (blogging here), Ellie Sharman (blogging here), Hannah Claytor, Kat DadswellCllr Daisy Benson (who set the standard of having digital media bouncing off social media) and Political Parry.

For young labour types, I’ve mentioned Cllr Kerri Prince above. Around the edges are Emma Jackson Stuart, Emma @Zetlandi, and Andy Hicks. someone even younger than Kerri, Sophie Nash who has just done her GCSEs. Owen Jones you know about. More involved locally to me is Cllr Carina O’Reilly – known to Puffles ( for plying not-so-little-dragons with beer) who sits on Cambridge City Council, as does Cllr Richard Johnson. Unfortunately we seem to have lost Cllrs George Owers and Adam Pogonowski to Twitter – which I think is a big shame. In and around university circles is Simone Webb Closer to Westminster is Lauren Edwards. Shelly Asquith recently campaigned for Ken Livingstone. I’ve not met her yet though get a feeling her heart’s in the same place as Cat Smith’s. (See top).

In trade union circles is Helen Flanagan – still a PCS rep like I once was during my civil service days. Hamish Drummond – who I had the pleasure of meeting during those days is still there too.

I also keep tabs on environmentalists. Jess Stanton of People and Planet – the first non-Puffles account to feature Puffles in her avatar is one. Within the Green Party is Georgina Bavetta and Elliot Folan – along with Adam Ramsay and Gus Hoyt

Working for the Young Advisers charity is Sean O’Halloran. On the Youth Parliament is Rhammel Afflick. Both are the sort of types you’d see engaging with BBC Free Speech – the new politics show for young people that many a mainstream politician has the habit of getting completely roasted on. They think it’s going to be a shouting match but end up getting skewered at the same time.

Moving in media circles – and custodian of Puffles’ first set of house rules is Sophie Warnes. Caroline Mortimer is another in such circles. See her post about Tony Blair’s return.

There are four young medics that are also worth keeping an eye on. Top of the pile is Natalie Silvey, but not far behind are Fi Douglas, Hannah Johnson-Hughes and Kate Bowman. (I’ve met the first two but not the latter two but if they are as nice as the first two, we’re in safe hands).

Is the Cabinet too big?

Summary

Yes. (In my opinion). But why so, and what would a smaller Cabinet look like?

This post in part is based on a select committee report calling for fewer ministers, along with a line in Ruth Porter‘s column in The Telegraph where she says she expects some departments to be scrapped in their entirety in an autumn review/reshuffle of the Coalition.

I seldom agree with Ruth in the field of politics, but having watched from various distances and under different prime ministers how “The Cabinet” functions, that particular comment jolted me into blogging about the Cabinet as an institution.

To headline, my take is that the Cabinet should be made up of:

  • Prime Minister
  • Deputy Prime Minister (if Coalition)
  • Economy/Finance Secretary (of State)
  • Expenditure Secretary
  • Foreign Secretary
  • Interior (Home) Secretary
  • Infrastructure Secretary
  • Justice Secretary
  • Health Secretary
  • Education Secretary

Currently the Cabinet looks like this. You also have a “quartet” within the Coalition made up of Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

As a decision-making body, the current Cabinet is far too big. With over 20 people around the table, that’s more than 20 sets of views to potentially consider on every item that is placed. In what is an extremely pressurised and political atmosphere with lots of room for disagreement, this is far too unwieldy for anyone to run – whether as a ‘command and control’ body or a ‘first amongst equals decision-by-consensus’ body. Top two aside, my take is for a Cabinet with departments of state under those listed secretaries of state. And that’s it.

What? No defence secretary? What about ‘our boys?!?!?!’

The principle is simple. Defence – or rather the military – is a function of foreign affairs. When foreign affairs cannot be resolved diplomatically, our ‘weapon of last resort’ is the  military. Anything that is ‘internal’ in the grand scheme of things is a policing matter. Hence the only authority that can authorise the deployment of the military/special forces in the UK being the Home Secretary.

Something like this would only work on the back of a major strategic defence review and a massive reappraisal of what the UK’s role in the world should be. The mindset of the political establishment for too long has been one of ‘world power’ while at the same time not providing the military with anywhere near the resources or support that it needs in order to carry out that function. It has been a credit to the military that they have achieved such great things not because of the political support, but inspite of it.

What’s the difference between finance and expenditure?

Currently the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is junior to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My take is that the role of controlling and monitoring public expenditure alongside regulating the finance industry is too great for one secretary of state. Essentially a “Finance and Economy Secretary” would combine the role of the Business Secretary alongside the oversight roles over banking and finance that the Chancellor currently has. Taxation and expenditure would rest with a Secretary of State responsible for Expenditure. Keep them both in The Treasury by all means, and refer any disputes between the two to the Prime Minister for resolution, but recognise that both are full-time.

Does the Home Office change?

I’d be tempted to move responsibility for the fire service to the Home Office if anything to ensure control of civil contingencies is far better co-ordinated within one department  of state rather than across two.

What’s an Infrastructure Secretary? Is this where Climate Change has gone?

In a nutshell. Transport and the built environment are the greatest contributors of carbon dioxide emissions. Doing this would involve a significant appraisal of what went wrong with Labour’s experiment in 1997 with John Prescott‘s super-ministry – DETR. In the run up to the 1997 election Labour promised an integrated public transport system within 10 years – and fewer journeys by car. My take is that one of the primary causes of this failure was the regular turnover of transport ministers/secretaries (six in the first five years, and five in the last five years of Labours 13 years – Alistair Darling’s four year tenure being a sea of stability). Labour’s failures on housing were also not helped by this regular turnover.

Given the switch towards a different model of cabinet governance, I’d like to think competent secretaries of state with an understanding of how large organisations function could make this sort of set up work.

This would then allow for more empowered cross-cutting ministers of state not necessarily tied to one department (along with their civil servants) working on issues that naturally span a number of different departments. It could also make it easier to co-ordinate across Whitehall with fewer departments of state needed to ‘show their heads’ at cross-Whitehall meetings.

Any other changes?

Quite a few – something like this could only work as part of wider comprehensive constitutional reform. Amongst other things this would mean a separation of legislature from executive as there’s no guarantee that a parliamentary intake would provide for a wide enough gene pool of potential ministers skilled in the art of managing large organisations. That’s not to say the private sector or beyond has a monopoly on this. We found this out with Nick Buckles’ comical appearance in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee. It also has to synchronise with moves to reform how the public sector is scrutinised too.

Ultimately if there are going to be fewer MPs – in particular as a result of devolution, there have to be fewer ministers. Otherwise the executive is going to be strengthened ever further, thus weakening the ability of Parliament to scrutinise it. It’s bad enough with whipped votes as it is.

Cambridge railway station woes

Summary

It’s my station and I’ll moan if I want to. But for those interested in contributing positively towards Cambridge transport, please respond to the County Council’s transport strategy consultation!

Cambridge Station: It seems slightly random for a blog to feature a post moaning about a railway station, but this public transport hub – being in my childhood neighbourhood – is one of the few permanent buildings in an ever-changing part of town. Cycling back and forth over the railway bridge during my paper-round days did wonders for my fitness, even though in those early days cycling up hill wasn’t something I particularly looked forward to until I noticed it did wonders for my fitness. It was only when I had to use the station regularly that I began to notice its shortcomings. In a nutshell the station is too small and its surroundings too poorly-designed for a growing city.

So, what are the problems?

Let’s list a few of them:

  1. Not enough ticket machines
  2. Not enough (staffed) booths – in particular at peak times
  3. An entrance hall that is too small
  4. Not enough ticket barriers to allow smooth flow of people – in particular at peak times
  5. Departure boards too small
  6. No step free access from platforms to trains, and from station to taxis
  7. Lack of alternative pedestrian exits north and south of the station
  8. Toilets – in particular the lack of for ladies & people with disabilities
  9. Stupendously expensive trains to London
  10. Lack of suitably-placed guides and information points for tourists arriving and (understandably) clueless about the place
  11. Bus stops poorly sign-posted and too far away from the station entrance
  12. Poorly-sited taxi drop off points
  13. Poorly sited smoking areas
  14. Lack of cycle parking
  15. Lack of decent shelters for people waiting for buses soon after getting off trains – especially during cold rainy winter nights
  16. Opportunities for better cycle links to other parts of the city – e.g. to the north of Cambridge or to the south/western side of Hills Road
  17. Lack of suitable shops that sell the emergency stuff – though this may change with the developments. (For me, a pharmacists, a convenience store and a really nice bakery are essential. Coffee-wise, AMT for me are the best ‘branded’ coffee going though).

So, who can do stuff about this?

Well, that’s part of the problem. The fragmentation of the public sector has meant that all the problems become someone else’s. Then everyone blames each other for not doing anything about it. The station is run by Greater Anglia [Thank you to Jon Worth and Sarah Brown for the correction] The trains are run by First Capital Connect, Greater Anglia and Cross Country, although signalling and track maintenance is done by Network Rail. Within the county  Cambridgeshire County Council is the transport authority but the buses are run mainly by StageCoach (the political views of its chief executive I have ‘issues’ with) while the taxi licensing is done by Cambridge City Council – which is also the local planning authority. Confuddled?

It’s stuff like this that makes people quite like the idea of one person or one institution having the power to ‘do stuff’ – assuming that person is competent enough to sort stuff out. There’s no guarantee that this would happen though.

Going through the problems.

Problems 1-8 rest purely with the station operators. It would make so much more sense either to knock through the back offices on the southern side of the main hall (where the booths are) to expand the entrance hall and add some more entrances on either side so that more people can flow through. Either that or create additional entrance and exit points to the north and south sides of the station. If anything, there is a more compelling case for a southern side entrance/exit where the bus stops are – not least because the land between the bus stops and the stations doesn’t seem to be in any use at the moment. Far better to create an alternative entrance/exit there for use in peak times if the main hall cannot be expanded.

Toilets – in particular for ladies and people with disabilities. It really saddens me to see the sight of people queuing for the toilet – and it’s seldom men that do the queuing. Can’t our planners and architects do better than this?

The lack of step-free access for me is a basic failing – especially given existing legislation requiring organisations to take appropriate action. It would also save a huge amount of staff time in terms of having to get manual ramps for wheelchair users. Is it really that complex a problem to resolve? Don’t people with mobility problems deserve better given the amount of money they pay for tickets too?

Given the queues at peak times and weekend mornings, there’s also surely a case for putting some ticket machines outside, and managing the queuing system. Does each machine have its own queue or is it one big queue where people move to the next machine becomes available? A person may be an intelligent individual but people in crowds are … far less so. Where you have crowds – especially at public transport hubs with lots of tourists, you need people to manage them. Otherwise you get chaos.

Stupidly expensive trains

This is a national issue which strikes at the heart of housing and transport policy. I’m not going into detail other than to say that a £309million operating profit for the First Group Plc (which owns First Capital Connect) is a nice little earner. It’s a local issue but requires a national solution.

Dealing with tourists and visitors

Cambridge gets lots of them. 4.1million in 2008. That’s quite a lot for a city not much bigger than 100,000. Cambridge had a tourism strategy some 15 years ago, but I can’t find much record of one now. The problems I’ve identified would need to be part of a wider plan to manage tourists, visitors and short-term students that come to the city. The reason being that each brings their own benefits and challenges. Day-trippers that come by coach need to be managed in a different manner to visitors that come to see friends and family to the language students that come for a couple of weeks or months. It’s not just about how to handle a bunch of people who turn up at the railway station standing clueless in front of the entrances not realising their suitcases are blocking the way.

One thing I’d like to see at the station is a tourist information outlet – precisely so tourists arriving for the first time have somewhere immediately to go to ask all the questions they like without getting in other people’s way.

Buses, taxis, car parking and dropping off

The main problem with the current station entrance is they are trying to squeeze too much into too small a space. In part having the entry and exit points clashing with each other makes very little sense. Far better to have a separate area for entry and a separate one for exit. One of the biggest causes of traffic jams – in particular in peak times is taxis and people dropping off passengers. This is due to a combination of lack of space/poor layout, a complete self-awareness failure on the part of taxi and car drivers, and finally a lack of enforcement by police. A police office issuing fixed penalty notices for all the traffic offences in this part of Cambridge could make enough money to fill the gap in the cuts. But that won’t solve the problem in the long term.

Taxis – picking up. Currently you jump into a taxi which then takes you back past the station entrance. Ideally you want to jump into a taxi where it takes you away from the station entrance. There also needs to be a short-term waiting area for ordinary traffic because at present there is nowhere reasonable for people to wait to pick up train passengers.

Taxis – dropping off. Currently dropping off involves blocking much of the traffic behind. Both taxis and ordinary car drivers all too often show a complete lack of awareness and end up blocking traffic – especially buses behind them. They then get angry or embarrassed when irate people behind them start blowing car horns. It also doesn’t do local air pollution any good either. Again, this is something that can be fixed with much wider entrance and exits and much better planning.

New bus stops. My problem with the bus stops is that they are too far away from the main station entrance. Otherwise they work far better than the previous ones. At the moment it’s not clear what infrastructure is going to be built around them, but there is vacant land by them that presents the station with a huge opportunity to do something nice while at the same time providing an alternative entrance and exit. My personal favourite would be to have a combination waiting room/coffee shop/entrance-exit there (by platform 3) to make waiting slightly more bearable during cold winter nights, because at present the stops are incredibly exposed to the elements.

Poorly sited smoking areas: Not only do these need to be further away from the main entrances, there needs to be some sort of security presence to enforce this. My preference would be to have police/PCSO presence but chances are it’ll be a poorly-paid Group4-type person – if the station management even got that far. Automatic ticket booths either side of the entrance doors would go some way to moving smokers further down too. Yes, there needs to be some provision for smokers but yes, it also needs to be enforced too.

Cycle-parking, or the lack of: I defer to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign on this but in a nutshell, there needs to be far better cycling provision. It was because of this that during my commuting days I switched from cycling to using a bus to get to and from the station.

Better links to other parts of town

On my side of town, I’d wondered why no link was made for cycles or pedestrians from the cycleway next to the guided bus to the south side of Hills Road. Amongst other things it would take some of the cycle traffic away from Hills Road – in particular the crossing of it. This was picked up by former local councillor Amanda Taylor. The only thing that astonishes me is that it might cost up to £500,000 to put it in place. Really?!?!

You then have the Chisholm Trail which again to me makes perfect sense because it takes more cycle traffic off the roads. The case for it is here. Combining this with the opening of Chesterton Station in 2015 should help take more commuter pressure off of Cambridge station too.

Synchronising public transport: They do this in Switzerland. Surely we’ve got the technology to synchronise some of the buses to arrive and leave bus stops in a manner that matches when trains arrive?

Shops – or the lack of.

In a strange way I’d like them to add a storey to the main building in the station – for example throwing M&S upstairs. But the challenge is locating shops in a manner that matches the traffic flow of people. Where M&S is there was once a cafe/pub. Again, the problem is that the buildings next to the main hall are simply too small to meet the needs of the station. My personal preference is to see the building style of the main hall extended both north and south so as to accommodate a much wider entrance hall as well as shops for the essentials. A convenience food store, a pharmacist and a large newsagents for me are essential. Given the nature of your average Cambridge regular traveller there is a huge opportunity for the more specialist magazines to be sold there too. One of the things that Cambridge has been missing since the closure of Borders is a specialist magazine retailer with a massive selection. As it is, WHSmith, Cafe AMT and the cash machines are all on the platform side of the station. Useless for the rest of us.

Transport strategy consultation

Having written all of the above, I guess it’s incumbent on me to respond formally to the County Council’s transport strategy consultation. Oh well, here goes.

The unintended consequences of the Olympics’ spotlight

Summary

When issues previously mainly known about in activist circles hit the front pages.

Such as:

My last blog post about the Olympics – “The Olympics: Why it has all gone wrong” – gave a plotted history of the legislation, which was enacted in 2006. This was before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and before the explosion of social media use. The London Olympics for me is going to provide a huge number of lessons learnt for future Olympics events. The two key strands that stand out for me about all of this are:

  • The social media explosion that parliamentarians  (MPs and peers) had little awareness of when passing the legislation six years ago
  • The very open and international nature of London as a host city

You also have the impact of the economic downturn which, during the final years of the bubble between 2005-08 were not spotted by many in Parliament. Certainly the scale of the crash and the length of the downturn that has followed was not anticipated in may decision-making circles. Thus issues such as tax avoidance or people in poorer countries making clothes in miserable conditions were not really on the radar as we (and I consider myself in this category) indulged in the consumerist feeding frenzy.

As one tweeter put it, this will be the first Olympics for the social media world. This is something that those organisations that wrote the rules are really struggling with. What the Olympics has done is it has brought together a whole host of controversial issues and distilled them down into a nice single package – making the problems the Olympics faces reputation-wise far greater than the sum of their parts. 

It’s also had the impact of bringing together people who might otherwise be single issue campaigners together as they find that their cause is caught up in the problems facing the Olympics.

Big corporations

I first stumbled across Corporate Watch during my university days. It doesn’t surprise me that a number of official sponsors find themselves subject to their scrutiny over the years.   The London Organising Committee of the Olympics and Paralympics Games (LOCOG) have set out their reasons for ‘protecting brands’ here. My concern is that in the negotiations between sponsors and the Government/LOCOG, the latter were so keen to secure sponsorship funding that they made far too many concessions.

As I mentioned in my previous Olympics blogpost, large corporations have used the Olympics – and the legal mechanisms within them – to enforce legal monopolies where actually there is no “market” justification to do so. The legal structures put in actually crush markets – especially small scale producers and sellers. How can a local hot dog stand possibly compete with a fast food multinational to bid for ‘official sponsor’ status? It’s not a level playing field. Stamp yourselves as official sponsors by all means, but the economic lockout of small businesses is utterly uncalled for – and makes a mockery of claims that local firms benefit from the Olympics. Even more so given the tax breaks given to Olympics sponsors.

Is the problem with international sporting organisations?

Yes. Big time. Massive time. Yet this was only publicised in a very big way with the award of the 2018 and 2022 world cups. It wasn’t so much Russia in 2018 in my mind – the country has a strong enough footballing pedigree alone to justify awarding it its first world cup. But the decision to award the 2022 games to Qatar – which caused uproar in Australia  – sent alarm bells ringing given that Qatar has an almost zero history of football, is in a climate completely unsuited to the game, currently has laws that might cause problems for fans – whether on consumption of alcohol to human rights – to the lack of an existing sporting infrastructure.

The problem with international organisations in general is that their membership is (inevitably) made up of countries that include repressive dictatorships – for whom transparency and good governance isn’t exactly top of their list. Combined with multinational corporations that have a … ‘colourful’ record on things like human rights and environmental degradation. Apart from the destruction of rainforests, I first became of wider issues with McDonalds – one of the official sponsors – when I was at university. This was with the McLibel trial – which ended up with the UK being hauled before the European Court of Human Rights. It was a combination of the publicity around this case combined with a High Court Judge upholding the claims made by the McLibel two that forced McDonalds to act – hence it advertising its UK outlets source from the UK rather than from abroad.

I can’t help but feel we are given the impression that there was a genuinely independent and competitive process for sponsoring the London 2012 games. Yet when we look at the history of sponsors for previous Olympics, we find it’s the same companies over and over again. There is also the ongoing sponsorship of the International Olympics Committee (IOC). To what extent were clauses in the contract between the IOC and LOCOG written by (or at least influenced by) the sponsors? Given that 40% of the IOC’s income comes from sponsors, is it a case of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune?’ Combine this with the membership of the International Olympic Committee (which includes quite a few royals) and a number of other ‘notable’ individuals such as Fifa boss Sepp Blatter – recently slammed by MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Is the bigger picture finally becoming more clear?

“Follow the money” – it’s one of the things many a forensic auditor has said before. A number of the things I listed at the top of this article all seem to come back to the financial drivers. Merchandise manufactured in shocking conditions, tax breaks for firms that can most afford to pay tax, the crushing of any competition through legal means rather than through producing better goods and services more efficiently than the competition, very public special treatment for VIPs through the VIP lanes in Central London – on the last point didn’t anyone on their side see that this was always going to be a problem in a city full of traffic? Or are they just blind to the consequences?

Which will be the first city or host nation to say “No more!”???

Or will it be a case of people putting pressure on their governments (in more open societies) to say that there are some things we are not prepared to give up in return for hosting such events? The imposition of monopolies in areas that crushes competition through use of the legal system sits uncomfortably with the claims of free-market proponents. I’ve noticed that a number of Conservative-supporting people have raised this issue as something they really dislike about the Olympics. You then have the freedom of speech issues – relating to the stupid, petty and unenforceable rules around linking to websites to ones about what amounts of food and drink you can bring into venues. (i.e. very little so you’re forced to buy from outlets.

The really sad thing is such rules and regulations only increase the likelihood that there will be protests at the Olympics. Personally I’d rather the focus be on the competitors rather than on the problems outside of it. But the problems are there and they must be reported and highlighted if something positive is to be done about them – even it is too late for London.

So are you going to boycott the Olympics?

I’m going to do something slightly different. I’m going to avoid the big-name events (and the sponsors) and keep an eye out for the less-well-publicised sports – in particular at the Paralympics like boccia. That way I’ll learn something new. At the same time I will be less likely to buy something I don’t need when a recognised medal winner turns up on telly in 6 months time saying “I won yellow shiny disc made of the chemical element ‘Au’ at Stratford Sports Week [they are not allowed to mention the words ‘gold’ or the Olympics] – therefore you can trust me when I say you will save money when you buy car insurance from this lot!” I don’t have a car. Many will follow the games, some will be boycotting it, quite a few may buy ‘alternative merchandise’ while others will be taking direct action against it.

I’d still like the London Olympics to be a success – not least because we as tax payers have paid for the vast majority of it. Unfortunately those at the top – in their drive to make as much money as possible have created such draconian rules and regulations that for many it will take the fun out of following the events, while for others they raise very serious issues about things like civil liberties. On the latter, they’ve lined up a series of bee hives and knocked them all over like dominos. It’s not surprising that the bees of social media world have come out stinging.

Scrutinising an ever-fragmenting public sector

Summary

How can we improve our systems of scrutiny following the G4S shambles?

This was something that Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee raised in a recent evidence session with the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee. It’s something she has also mentioned in other forums too.

The move towards outsourcing and privatisation.

This is something I’ve touched upon in previous public administration posts. Governments with ministers of all the major three parties have transformed public services through much greater use of non-state organisations. This has raised issues of accountability – which I discussed earlier this year. Interestingly, in the last paragraph of that blogpost I noted that the first time I came across this type of outsourcing was when “Group 4” took over the transfer of prisoners from the prison service back in 1993 – with a high profile break out not long after.

One of the basic concepts of economics I learnt was that of diseconomies of scale. The principle normally is that as tiny firms grow, they are able to specialise and thus become more efficient. But when they become too big, inefficiencies creep in. Think about getting IT permissions to use certain programmes or get changes done, or approval for this that and the other and you get what I mean. The Guardian’s business blog asked the question whether G4S is too big to manage – just as the banks being too big to fail.

It’s not like buying cabbages and peas

The financial relationship between buyer, service provider and recipient is far more convoluted than buying food from the shop. It’s much more indirect – the council ‘buying’ (more often than providing the service ‘in house’ in days of old) from separate providers, citizens being the recipients but ultimately paying for it through taxes. Yet this method is far more efficient than having a ‘pure’ free market where each household ‘buys’ their own refuse collection services. For a start there’s no guarantee that everyone would do so – even if compelled. (Think all of those drivers that drive without insurance). Then you have the problem of traffic congestion with potentially lots of firms clogging up the roads with their vans. This is why for me things like privatisation of mail services and ‘choice’ for schools is not cost free. An indirect consequence of it is increased traffic which itself has a knock on impact.

How do you scrutinise the service delivery?

In house provision, in principle is straight forward. You have elected councillors who scrutinise the directors of service deliver over the services they are responsible for. An extra layer is added where there is an external provider. One good example local to me is with buses – Stagecoach has a director responsible for bus services. But then I’ve never been entirely sure of what the relationship of accountability is for a member of the public when moaning about public transport issues. Do I go to my councillor? Do I go to the executive post-holder on the council? Do I go to the bus company concerned? It’s all very well someone responding to me on this blog on how to go about this, but then my blog and Twitter accounts are followed by a number of very informed and knowledgeable people that I can tap into. Most other people are not in this situation, so for them, where would you start? If the effort involved and barriers to overcome, to progress the complaint is greater than the likelihood of getting it resolved, then people understandably will give up.

What do you do if you really don’t like the person who runs or owns the firm that has a monopoly of service provision?

For example I strongly disagree with the beliefs of the owner of the local bus firm. In free market land, I’d boycott the service – but I can’t because his firm has a monopoly on the local bus service that I and many others depend on. At least having services ‘in house’ means that the politically partisan issues are taken out of things.

There is then the issue of how high profile the heads of large companies that secure big public contracts should be. G4S for example was relatively obscure to the general public until very recently. How many people are familiar with the people at the top of firms such as Capita, Serco, Honeywell and Mitie? Should the chief executives of these firms be subject to regular and continued scrutiny by Parliament due to the virtue of being responsible for delivering such huge public services?

Should such large firms be compelled to have public sector and/or trade union representatives on their boards?

It sounds strange at first – shouldn’t the board only be accountable to its shareholders? Well…no. A firm’s decision-making can only be as good as both the people who are its decision makers and the quality of information that it has with which to make those decisions. Wouldn’t having representatives from both their customers and their workforces improve the information available to decision-makers within those firms delivering those services? What would the impact have been on G4S if it had representatives from both its customers and workforce? Would problems have been raised far earlier and all of this been nipped in the bud?

Should such firms be subject to the Freedom of Information Act? 

Yes. In fact during my early civil service days I was told that some firms were already subject to some access to information legislation such as the Environmental Information Regulations. You can imagine my dismay to find out that this has since been overturned – in particular with water companies. Hence my take for both the FOI Act and the EIR regulations to be updated to include private firms delivering public services.

How can we get the scrutiny talents of the likes of Robert Jay QC and avoid the shambles of the Treasury Select Committee’s failure to pin down Barclays?

…Other than paying huge amounts of money to lawyers and barristers for extended public inquiries? One of the jokes flying around is that we risk becoming an inquiry-based economy because it’s the first call when something goes wrong. My take is that the bar rightly should be high when considering cases for public inquiries. But at the same time we should recognise that our existing systems of scrutiny leave room for significant improvement because they have not kept pace with the evolution of how public services are delivered. If these systems are not improved, we risk having future cases of G4S-style failures.