Puffles at the Paralympics

Summary

Crazy dragon bloke takes cuddly toy to Stratford Sports Day

No – really, I took Puffles with me and they allowed us both in! I managed to get hold of a couple of pairs of tickets – one for the London ExCel and one for the Olympics Park. Given my past criticism of all things Olympics, why would I want to? Many reasons. There were two big ones. The first was to get a feel for the spectacle with my own eyes and ears. It’s all very well criticising (or praising) things from afar, but as any journalist will tell you, you get a unique insight when you are ‘on the front line.’ The second was because of Tanni Grey-Thompson. No – really. She was probably the only person who persuaded me prior to the first opening ceremony that London 2012 was going to be anything but a spectacular disaster. Which also reminded me that as a taxpayer it seemed crazy to have spent all of that money only to wish for things to go wrong. Hence why via Puffles I tweeted that I’d be keeping tabs on those sports that were not attracting the publicity and celebrity ‘glamour’. It also became clear through her tweeting that far more was at stake for people with disabilities. It was only when I turned up to my first event at the London ExCel that it really hit home just what she meant.

Getting there

The journey to the London ExCel was fairly straight forward. I went outside of rush hour and it was only when hitting the DLR to the venue did the crowds make themselves felt in a big way. What really struck me with all things security was how G4S were nowhere to be seen. The people who were there in huge numbers were the gamesmakers, volunteers and the police. The presence of the former two took a lot of the tension that is often raised (in my experience) by large numbers of police officers. It’s one thing having two police officers standing next to each other alone, but quite another to have two police officers standing next to two other people with the biggest pink foam gloves pointing the crowds in the right direction. The former two may have big truncheons but they are NOTHING compared to big pink foam gloves! Says the bloke walking past them carrying a big cuddly dragon.

“Welcome to London’s biggest box, owned by foreign places!”

…is the branding on the ExCel. It’s owned by a corporation owned by a far away regime somewhere. (I’m poking fun at the idea of a venue owned by the corporate arm of an authoritarian regime, not making a xenophobic point for the record). They say it’s award-winning but really at the end of the day the venue is a big box that stops people from getting wet. I’ve been there for a couple of events and showcases before – once with the civil service. It’s functional more than anything else – big enough to hold all of the people queuing for stuff and to create temporary arenas for the various events. I’ll save further (more critical) comments about the ExCel for a later post.

At first they were bored but then the crowd roared

We all wanted to go and see the sitting volleyball, but it got full too quickly, so we all ran off to watch the judo instead – not that many of us seemed to have much of a clue about judo. Other than it being one of the martial arts that some kids who I didn’t hang around with at school did, all I knew about it was that it was a martial art. (Stealing a theme from Shappi Khorsandi, respectable children like me went to church and did our violin practice. Children whose parents had less respectable values played football and partook in violent pastimes.) Such good it did me. I now don’t do violin practice, despise religious institutions, have lost faith in football and have an anxiety disorder that in part is rooted in not being able to deal with violence.

Back to judo again, fortunately for me the show began with a full explanation of the rules and what to look out for. This increased the viewing pleasure not just for myself but for everyone else. Why? Because it made it clear what the competitors were trying to do to each other – and (perhaps more importantly) what they were trying to avoid having done to them. It became clear that trying to slam-dunk-da-funk your opponent on their back was the name of the game, but the various tricks of the trade used to avoid having this done quickly made it clear that judo was far more than just about rolling around on the mat. The first few contests – including the strongly supported (but ultimately unlucky)  Sandrine Martinet of France – showed huge variety in tactics and approach. Martinet and the women competitors played out a series of tense closely-fought contests across small areas while the men early on were chasing after each other all over the mats.

“Why is yoo supporting foreign places?!?!”

Actually, that’s what made for an extremely vibrant atmosphere – the French in particular – many of whom either live in London or who had jumped on the Eurostar to make their way here. The rapid turnover of contests – timed to last 5 minutes maximum for each one – meant that a different section of the crowd went wild depending on which country was being represented. China, Japan and Russia had noticeable support in the main crowd, as did a few of the tinpot dictatorships in the expensive seats. (I can hear the stand up comics now: “I think there should be a new rule that those turning up to sit in the posh seats should wear morning dress and behave with decorum! None of this #TeamDaveCam in tracksuit tops nonsense! You’re the Prime Minister!”) Everyone else in the latter seats seemed to sit there motionless and expressionless like the Queen at the ceremonies. Personally I’d rather be in with the crowd going wild than in the posh seats – even if it did mean getting accidentally thwacked over the head by an inflatable thingy that you sometimes see continental Europeans using at sporting events – which can be almost as noisy as vuvuzelas – which were (mercifully) lacking. As for Great Britain’s supporters? We shouted and jumped up and down – lots.

Then Ben Quilter arrived

Unfortunately he’d been knocked off a gold-silver showdown earlier this morning, so ended up having a play-off prior to a contest for bronze. It was here that I suddenly realised the difference a home crowd can make (and why the empty seats at the Olympics was even more of a scandal than the media made out). The atmosphere in the arena was absolutely electric – shaking the temporary stands to the core. Bearing in mind many of these competitors will not have competed in stadia or arenas with such intense support before, I could ‘feel’ just what a difference a crowd can make.

It was the bronze medal bout that really got the crowd going. One of the ways to win in judo is to pin your opponent to the floor on their back for 25 seconds. Ben managed to get his opponent into such a position and the clock started counting – for the whole arena to see. It was a bit like a boxing count only longer and more intense for the competitors and viewers alike. This is because the competitors have to concentrate and give it their all continuously for that extended period. When the time expired the crowd erupted – in a manner far more intense than at any football match I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to more than a few!

If anything, it was worth heading down there just to see those two contests by Ben – so a BIG THANK YOU to Ben from me for making the journey and visit well worth the effort.

“Don’t make fun of people who are achieving more with no legs than you can with two”

The actor Will Smith tweeted this just before the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was referring to the achievements of US archer Matt Studtzman – mindful that the target is 70m away. How many so-called able-bodied people could get anywhere near such a target time after time? Exactly. For those that say “Oh well, with the same amount of training and time commitment I could.” Well, they put in that training and time commitment. You didn’t. If you did, you’d have been competing at the Olympics. But you’re not.

After these games I’d like to think that the media will diversify its sports coverage away from top level football and the circus that surrounds it, towards other sports and competitors. The excitement level can match any a football match that I’ve been to – and I say this as someone who went to see Liverpool vs Man United at Wembley during the early 1990s.

What’s really coming through from the coverage is the barriers that competitors have had to overcome to get to where they are, and what they are achieving. Once you’ve got past the annoying BT and Sainsburys adverts, have a look at this goal by David Clark. He did all of that blind/blindfolded past a sighted goalkeeper. Watching the match, it’s clear how you need to be talented with both feet rather than just the one. Remember England’s persistent problems on who to play on the left-wing post Barnes and Waddle? If professional footballers had trained like Clark, maybe this would not have been a problem.

A change in society on the way?

That remains to be seen. What the Paralympics have done though is demonstrated that the achievements of the competitors are being seen by many in a context that goes far beyond a sporting one. This is because the illnesses, conditions and disabilities that the competitors face are ones they have to live with day-to-day. Prior to the Paralympics my guess is that many people now watching were probably unaware that such competitors were capable of such great achievements. It’s made some of us – myself included – aware of what people can achieve despite the problems they face day-to-day. This inevitably makes the whole thing political – but in this case perhaps rightly so.

It’s utterly depressing that in the run-up to the biggest Paralympics ever that we’ve also seen a huge rise in hate-crimes against disabled people. It’s got to the stage where the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Dame Anne Begg (a wheelchair user herself) has had to pull up ministers over the negative portrayal of people receiving state support. There have also been a number of high profile people of impeccable credentials speaking out too – Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson being one of them. (Puffles helped Tanni out with the flying during the opening ceremony – you were just imagining the images of the wires). Despite her profile and sporting achievements, even she gets abuse.

The impact of empathy

Again, this is sort of relates to the ‘change in society’ thing – where there has been genuine local pride around the achievements of competitors both at the Olympics and Paralympics. We can see that in part because the response from local areas hasn’t been this slick publicity operation that you’d expect from a high-powered London PR agency. For whatever reason I can relate more to the competitors at the Games in the more minor sports than any of the others. Perhaps it’s because they don’t get transferred from place-to-place for mega transfer fees but instead move because of similar reasons that the rest of us have to. Perhaps it’s because they use similar facilities that ordinary people use, rather than training inside the golden cages of five-star country parks – magnificent though they might be. Perhaps too they’ve not had the long tidal-wave of ‘colourful’ publicity around their non-sporting lives following the injection of big money TV – Spice Boys anyone?

Legacy?

Inspire a generation they say. For me that depends ultimately on us – the grass roots. The legacy – whatever it will be – cannot be imposed top-down. If it did, we’d still be talking about Live8 from 2005. Remember that? Remember lots of bands scrambling to get onto the billing for all of the publicity? Remember all of the pocketed extra sales? Remember the VIP pit? Have a look at the not-so-crowded bit close to the stage to the bottom left. How is that different to the empty seats at the Olympics? The legacy of Live8? Lots of celebrities got to see lots of top-end bands who made a lot of money from extra record sales while politically, diddly-squat was achieved…or am I being cynical?

What would I want a legacy for London 2012 to be? A society that’s less suspicious and less hostile towards each other. One where people don’t automatically see the worst in each other. One where we’re not in a default mode to screw the other person out of whatever we can get from them.

It’s too much to ask from one sporting event.

So I hope that once everything is over, a few people will be motivated to do positive things for their local areas that they might not otherwise have even thought about doing. Because if a few people can get together to do good stuff, you never know but what they achieve may well be greater than the sum of their parts.

Feel the fear…and do it anyway

Summary

Trying to give some hope, experience and learning to some current and former students

…Because at the moment the whole world is kicking far too much sand in their faces and it’s really not on. Whether you look at the rise in tuition fees for higher education, the replacement of state funding with student loans for further education from early 20s, persistently high housing and rental prices, the withdrawal of EMA, the persistently high rates of youth unemployment combined with penalising systems of ‘workfare’ that anecdotally at least do not seem to be fit for purpose – let alone the mess that is Job Centre Plus. (This time last year I experienced it for myself for real). To say nothing of the utter failure of the political, employer and teaching establishments to get a grip on our culture of exams that led to the debacle of the GCSEs, our young people are not having it great at the moment.

So…what are you gonna do other than moan about it?

Try something COMPLETELY different.

I’ve got a couple of commissions and events coming up this autumn and feel the need to develop some digital resources for my website to help make delivering them that little bit easier – in particular some digital videos. I’ve been meaning to do these over the summer but weather and health have been up the spout. That and (until now) I’ve not really had an idea of how I want to go about doing this. Just under a year ago I did a brilliant course titled Making videos on a shoestring with the Media Trust. The purpose of that was to go out and make broadcast quality videos. But fear and procrastination put me off – followed by my mental health crisis which is still a huge barrier. Not least continual fatigue.

Although I have experience of the filming and editing processes as a result of that course, I don’t have the level of knowledge I want to make it look as sharp as I would like. So, what do you do in such a situation? Call in the professionals? Well…no. Call in the enthusiasts who need the professional experience – not least for their CVs. That is exactly what I’m doing.

I’ve pulled together a team of recent graduates and school leavers to work on a paid commission to work with me to produce some short digital video clips that cover the basics of social media amongst other things. This will allow me to refer to them for future training commissions and workshops, and for clients to refer back to them once workshops are over. Because I stand to benefit commercially from this, it’s only fair that those taking part are paid – and more than the minimum wage. [Yeah – take that w4MP.com advertisers!!!]

But that’s not the only thing they’ll get. I’m getting them to work on this using some of the basic project management tools – introducing them to the concept of project management. Why? Because so many employers now are demanding experience of formal project management. Of course it won’t be anywhere near the detail of some of the things that I have done in the civil service, but being able to describe to prospective employers how you worked with a team using the various project management tools at various times, as well as managing various aspects of the production process (for a paid contract) I hope will make the difference job-hunting wise to at least some of them.

It’s not just the “I get the digital videos and they get the money and experience” exchange though. I actually want to test this idea as a model and for all of us to have fun doing so in the process. That’s what got many of us using social media in the first place. I don’t blog here primarily because I think it might lead to future commissions or employment. I do it for fun. Ditto tweeting through Puffles. After all, why would I wander around Cambridge, London and other parts of the country carrying a big dragon fairy with me?

And people respond

I was with friends from the Government Digital Service earlier this month for a summer gathering. One of the people there asked me why I had turned up with a big cuddly toy. I tried to explain the concept of Puffles & felt I wasn’t getting very far. Then Dafydd Vaughan rocked up – who I’d met at Teacamp.

“Oh hi Puffles!”

…he said to the big cuddly dragon sitting on the bar.

“How do you know Puffles?”

“Everybody knows Puffles!”

It was the same at the Cambridge Beer Festival where I was with my brother and his brother-in-law – and friends. A number of people who I’d not met came up to the table we were at, saying

“Now this must be Puffles!”

Saying “Thank you” to long time followers

With this first group of people, nearly all that are taking part are people who have been following and interacting with Puffles for nearly two years. This in itself brings huge benefits for me in bringing them on board. They have seen how my social media profile has evolved over that time – as well as my career and life fortunes too. Thus they have an understanding of both the ‘world’ I live in and the pressures and challenges I face in a level of detail far greater than any professional consultant (not engaging) would ever have. Amongst other things, it saves time explaining things.

It also strengthens bonds between people too

One of the things I still struggle with today is a lack of focus – though things have become more and more clear in recent weeks. This is because the various gatherings, events and meetings that I have been going to have been fleshing out a whole series of problems and challenges that I feel need to be taken on. Whether it’s a case of coming away feeling “This is not right” or “They are doing great stuff but it could be so much greater!” I’ve developed a burning sense of wanting to help improve things. In the case for the team that I have assembled, it’s a case of giving them something significant on their CV while plugging some significant gaps in my offer on all things digital and social media.

It’s not just me who benefits from this focus too. My hope is that by formally commissioning the team with a clear set of problems to solve and a clear set of outputs – i.e. the digital videos – it will give us all that level of self-discipline that perhaps some of us have been lacking of late. On my part the focus will be to ensure that I get as much out of the time that I have with the team because I’m paying them for their time and services. On their part there’s not only the ‘duty’ to deliver the contract, but also seizing the opportunity to present themselves, their work and their skills to a much wider audience than at present.

Doing this scares the hell out of me

No – really – it does. I’ve never done anything like this before. There are far easier (and possibly more expensive) ways of trying to achieve the improvements to my skills and the resources on my website…but that would be a kop out. I’ve chosen this way because:

  • My desire to make a difference for other people is greater than my fear of everything going badly wrong
  • I’m treading on new ground commissioning and managing a team. (My previous work has been predominantly with individuals)
  • The team I have assembled is not one with years of experience in a professional field – hence there will be a lot of learning as we go along
  • The initial bonds of friendship have already been established via social media – we don’t have to go through an awkward phase of ‘team forming’
  • The incentive for all of us to make this project work – and to produce a superb set of short digital video clips goes far beyond the financial
  • If this model of delivery works, I can expand it for future things that I would like to work on – whether further digital video production, skills shares or social gatherings
  • It’s an opportunity for social media types in Cambridge to meet some of my social media followers from outside the City.

There’ll be lots of free time during the evening too – so if people are in Cambridge on the week beginning 10 September, please let me know. 

How can ‘geeks’ reach out to ‘non-geeks’?

Summary

Another silo that needs to be broken, or are we content with our cylinders of excellence?

This follows on from my post about a coding club for Cambridge, along with a talk at Cambridge Geek Nights.

Observation

“How can we reach out and get more people involved?” – a question that has been asked at almost every gathering of every society that I have been to over the past year or so.

This is something that I’ve given a significant amount of thought to – the initial results of which have been summarised in my thoughts for Cambridge L!VE in terms of how to get more people involved in what happens within my local community, and how to break those silos. This post looks at how people who work/study in science, engineering, maths and computing can reach out to those who have an interest or don’t know where to start.

Assume someone has a dormant interest: What’s already out there for them?

Looking locally in Cambridge, there are a series of academic courses that require a significant time and money commitment – one that the Government is making even more expensive. (Why do politicians never examine the cumulative impact of all of these loans?)

On the ‘computing’ side of things, there are also a series of commercial courses aimed at businesses – which are stupendously expensive. I’d love to do some of them but can I afford to spend £600+ for a day fee to do a course for one day?

Other than that, it’s self-learning via libraries and the internet – the latter through the likes of the brilliant Sarah Castor-Perry and The Naked Scientists. Yet there are other ways of learning too – ways that I think can be much more ‘sociable’ and enjoyable than ploughing through with distance learning or heading towards a summer exam.

Short term evening classes and a series of Saturday workshops

This is what I’d like to see Cambridge put on locally in these subject fields – but break out of the straightjacket of traditional exams. On the science side of things, I’d love to see a programme of “science in society” seminars – interactive ones that allows people from other disciplines engage with science and vice versa. For example it’s all very well saying “The science tells us X” but if your political analyst says “No one would ever vote for that” you have an impasse. How do you overcome that?

The other one is I’d like to see is one that gets people into the laboratory or engineering workshop. Many people in my generation who stopped formal science learning in the mid-1990s have not experienced science in modern science labs with modern equipment. Between then and now, many educational establishments have had huge rebuilding programmes bringing their facilities up to date.

Essentially you – we – have got to appeal to people who last did science when Pluto was a planet. In recent times I’ve bought a series of books aimed at teenagers and the light reader on all things science, geography and pre-history. The leaps and bounds that have been made since my school days have been massive. Pluto being a planet being but one. When I learnt about dinosaurs, a stegosaurus was a stegosaurus. Since then, scientists have established that it’s a damn sight more complicated. Which makes me wonder: Who does the workshops on dinosaurs and astronomy?

About a decade ago I had a great time at Cambridge University’s observatories. A friend I met through dancing sent a group of us an email along the lines of “Mars is very visible in the sky tonight – want to come over and have a look at it through our expensive telescopes?” Despite it being a 1 hour cycle ride there and back, I was there in a flash. Given that this post is being written not long after the death of Neil Armstrong, I thought it was worth linking this post -> If you know of anyone young who could be inspired by science, point them in the direction of Stephanie Wilson – also seen here in photo 19 preparing for lift off.

Going beyond inviting people in – proactively getting out and about

This is what I’m planning to do in the field of ‘Cambridge L!VE‘ but there’s a huge opportunity to take it further with other people in fields that I’m not nearly qualified to talk about. Initially I want to start with the secondary schools and colleges with a series of lunchtime talks across the county, if anything just to see what the reaction is from young people to what is already out there. But to hold attention on these things, it can’t be something that’s ‘one off’ – there’s got to be something more to it than that. There’s also a fair amount of myth-busting that I feel needs doing such as:

  • You don’t have to be a politician to like politics
  • You don’t have to be a scientist to be interested in science
  • You don’t have to be a man to be interested in car mechanics
  • You don’t have to be a woman to be interested in health and beauty
  • You don’t have to be a [insert stereotype] to be interested in [subject area, interest or hobby]

Do people know what’s out there?

Locally to me, my contention is “No”.

The reasons are many and varied. Anecdotally, my take is that we’re forgetting the importance of the human connection. It’s something that I feel chronically because I’m no longer in a workplace surrounded by people, and am still recovering from a recent mental health crisis that has drained my energy levels quite significantly compared to what they were. (I used to liken it to having the energy of a power station crossed with the attention span of a fairy – as one of my former bosses describes here).

 

One of my major criticisms of Cambridge University over the years has been its lack of interaction with those of us that live in Cambridge the city. I remember looking for a venue for my 18th birthday party and effectively being told that if you weren’t a member of the university or the college concerned, they weren’t interested. (Today, for the right price they’ll bite your hand off – emphasis on ‘the right price’). Later on I would criticise them for putting posters up for their really interesting ‘open to the public’ events up in places where the wider public could not see them – in corridors of buildings or in streets that the public would not have a reason to walk down. As any social media trainer will tell you, if you want people to engage you have to go where the people are.

Bringing motivated people from within those big institutions, & getting ‘out there’

That’s one of the many things I want to kick off this autumn. Hence why the past few months have been quite frustrating…playing a waiting and preparing game in effect. What I’m going to try and do is beat a path through the thickets: demonstrating that proactively getting out there & getting people involved can be done. Once I’ve made sound personal contacts within the various groups and organisations I have in mind, then I intend to put them in touch with the many excellent speakers and contributors that I have stumbled across in recent times. Can we stimulate enough interest locally to make things like evening classes and weekend workshops sustainable? Well…there’s only one way to find out.

How do you know if people are motivated?

It’s a lesson I learnt from UKGovCamp in 2011. If people are prepared to give up a weekend (or the equivalent) for it (without pay), that shows motivation. The Government Digital Service would not have got off the ground without volunteers giving up weekends and evenings to get the level of grassroots support and interest going that enabled the GDS to blossom.

There are many who are motivated and who already do lots. The challenge for Cambridge is to harness what they are currently doing and co-ordinate it in a manner so that the city can become greater than the sum of its parts. That’s my vision anyway.

The Olympics goes on a short halftime break and world goes crazy

Summary

Where has all this hatred for women come from of late?

…because I’m at a total loss.

The past few days have been really disturbing – whether the vitriol coming from ordinary people over social media, to those in the public eye who have made statements that have astounded many of their followers. These include the likes of Naomi Klein (of “No Logo” and “Shock Doctrine” fame), MP George Galloway, former UK ambassador & civil servant Craig Murray, and film maker Michael Moore on one particular high profile case. You also have the poisonous atmosphere on the other side of the Atlantic with the US presidential race hotting up. This is just frightening – i.e. that such views can be so close to the mainstream. That Obama has to stand up and defend such basic rights (because they are being attacked and thus need to be defended) that I thought everyone was able to take for granted, speaks volumes. (That’s a criticism of the opposition, not Obama).

Up in Scotland, you have clerics ‘snubbing’ the Scottish Government over gay marriage. As one of Puffles’ followers said, you can’t play the ‘oppressed minority’ card while claiming to speak for the majority.

The vitriol within Left circles

It has been – and still is huge. I for one didn’t see any of this coming. I can’t recall a single issue where so many ‘mainstream’ figures on the left seemed so divided. Not even the Iraq war (which split Labour) had that level of vitriol – perhaps reflecting the level of control one faction within the party had at the time.

The intensity of some of the exchanges I have seen has been immense. A number of people have been astonished at the comments those, both high profile and ordinary person, have made on what are effectively human rights issues: The right to be protected from violence and the right to justice. For me, the defining blogpost on the legal issues is this one from Peterhere.

The fallout – impact on future campaigns?

It’s a serious question because women’s rights are core values (if not the number one issue) for many activists. With the recent exchanges splitting the Left – and it seems to be predominantly the Left in terms of debate on the UK side of the pond – what will this mean for existing groups of activists? This is something that has gone beyond factional splits and one that is almost going mainstream because of the media coverage it is getting. A couple of people raised the issue of ‘trust’ within activist circles – something that is essential. What will the impact of all of this be on those bonds? Strained to say the least? Will those that have taken a stand on one side or another find themselves heckled at future gatherings? Will their presence in future campaigns even put off some of the very people that they would otherwise want to attract? Or as @MediocreDave said to Puffles, would such a split within activist circles be such a bad thing?

I don’t know how the whole thing will conclude. I don’t know how many people will stick to their point of argument at the time or say that they were unaware of the full facts at the time. (Who was it who said: “When the facts change, so do my opinions.”???) What I currently feel is that we’ve all been given a stark reminder of just how far society has to go on the issue of women’s rights – as the EverydaySexism project is picking up.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Summary

Finding activities that give me the ‘buzz’

Some of you will be aware that I used to do lots of dancing around five or so years ago. A combination of price, a lack of a ‘buzz’ at the clubs in London and perhaps growing out of it led me to stop completely. Despite its size, London does not have a large society or venue for ballroom and latin dancing in particular. It wasn’t for a lack of trying – I recall going to lots of different places just to try them out. Yet each of them was tiny in comparison to my old stomping ground Cambridge Dancers’ Club.

What struck me about London was that none of them seemed to emerge to become the size of say The Celidh Club (in Camden), London Swing (in Holborn) or Ceroc London by Great Portland Street. Every time I went to each of the above, the venues were full of people and the atmosphere buzzing, even though the dance styles (particularly the latter two) were not really to my taste.

One thing I never understood with London was why – even at the height of the ‘strictly’ bandwagon – no one was able to put on ballroom events on the scale of Vienna’s ball season. A problem of silos, egos, a lack of imagination, or something else? Why couldn’t they all get together and put on something spectacular?

Over the past couple of weeks, I popped my head around a few local haunts and was utterly depressed with what I saw. Not because the people there weren’t having a good time, but because (for two of the three of them at least) there seemed to be so few of them, and they all seemed to be lacking the energy and vibrancy that I’ve seen them all have at events several years ago. Where did it all go? It was if everything had stagnated before withering.

In the autumn of 2011 I really made an effort trying new things – not least because of a sense of needing to do something with my life post-civil service. Yet with each of the various things I tried my luck with, other than the teaching qualification I did, the lack of energy and vibrancy was crushing. This city (Cambridge) should be a hive of activity and interactivity. Instead what I was seeing and feeling was lots of different groups operating within their little silos. Some seemed quite content with the way things were – to the extent that a few wanted things to stay that way. Others wanted to reach out but seemed to struggle to know how. I can’t help but feel that Cambridge has institutions that are run as if the city is still a market town. The brand is huge, the city is expanding, the pressures are growing and the world is changing – fast. The institutions have to respond – and at the moment I’m not seeing nearly enough evidence of that happening.

Having a vision – and high expectations

I’m still trying to work out whether these are assets or liabilities to have sitting on my shoulders. The past few months have been incredibly frustrating – not least because of my health, but also a feeling of “Nooooo!!!! We are so much better than this!!!” The only thing that’s had any impact on my mood has been the Olympics – so a BIG thank you to all the competitors on that one! Yet it’s almost as if (2006 style for me) I have to go through a period of frustration to build up enough motivation, anger and energy so as to do something about it. Hence my thoughts around this “Cambridge L!VE” project.

What’s Cambridge L!VE got to do with all of this?

It’s my vision with high expectations. Health and money-wise I’m probably here for the next few years. I can’t – and don’t want to – spend that time waiting for stuff to happen. Yet at the same time I’m missing a vibrant sociable atmosphere. All-too-often it feels like a solitary road ahead – not just for myself but for others I’m friends with locally too.

One of the other factors at play here is me having spent time outside of Cambridge. I’ve seen how things are and can be done elsewhere – both for better and for worse. Also, I’ve gotten an idea of how Cambridge is seen through the eyes of people outside of it. The headline? “Brand Cambridge” is bigger than the city. Yet the institutions from all sectors within the latter don’t seem to have acknowledged that. This is something I want to help change. It’s things like:

  • Cambridge University’s Enterprise Office having no social media links on its landing page
  • The Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services not making easily available and accessible its list of charities and voluntary groups available in a useable format.
  • A meeting on parking problems organised by local councillors being organised outside of term time and not containing representatives of the institutions whose members are causing problems for local people.
  • Getting the train operators to talk to the bus companies to synchronise their timetables.
  • Having schools and colleges sending elected representatives to attend area committee meetings, and designating time for them to raise issues.
  • Getting some sort of co-ordination between the County Council that run Cambridgeshire.Net, City Council staff responsible for community centres it runs, and other community venues run by other organisations – such as Centre St Pauls.

And that’s just a few for starters.

I’m not going to pretend it’s as simple as getting everyone to use a Facebook or Twitter account. Social media can provide some superb tools, but it can only be as good as the people using them. I’m not just looking for that buzz in one group or organisation: I want it across the city.

What’s all of the above got to do with finding what you’re looking for?

Lots

Part of it is finding a purpose post-civil service. It’s also about improving my home town – which comes with all sorts of personal and emotional baggage. It’s also a challenge that’s waiting to be taken on. Sometimes challenges don’t need to have reasons. Why did George Mallory try to climb Everest (which would ultimately cost him his life)? “Because it’s there”.

Why not simply join a society locally and build it up that way? Well…I’ve already done that before. This time around, I want to go far beyond that. Rather than saying “Here’s a great society/activity – come and join in” (or a message along those lines) I’d rather harness something like social media and help organisations and societies already doing good stuff do even greater stuff – and grow their memberships as well as the number and diversity of people involved in them too.

But activity-wise?

The list is as long as my arm and I’ll never be able to do all of them in the space of time I’ve got. On top of that, there are some things that are not taught or run in a way that would be easy for me to get into. I’ve blogged about a number of these things too. Music is one of them – but where to start trying to get the equivalent of the ELLSO in Cambridge? I stumbled into one of the music shops in Cambridge, gazing at the wall of lots of people’s business cards advertising music lessons. So many of them – too many of them had been there for a long time – to the extent that the sunlight had faded them. As with the ballroom dancing clubs in London, lots of small-scale operations but nothing to bring them (or their clients) together.

I’ve wondered for years why Cambridge has never had an ice-rink. When growing up, we had to go to Stevenage or Peterborough for ice-skating or ten-pin bowling (until Cambridge Leisure Park built new lanes for the latter). It remains to be seen how long it will take to build Cambridge University’s new sports centre, whether it’ll have an ice rink and what sort of access the general public will have. Similarly with rollerblading, London is the only place I’ve found that does public rollerblading sessions where (amongst other things) you are taught how to stop and fall over properly.

Other things have stemmed from observations or Twitter conversations over social media – such as archery or horse-riding. While the latter is ages away for me to get to (along with hay-fever being an issue) during the spring and summer months, commuters on the London-Cambridge line often see archers in action on the playing fields where many years ago I used to play football.

Talking of which, the one football club I want to keep tabs on this season is Cambridge Women’s Football Club – again on the back of the Olympics. That and the men’s game leaves me feeling all “meh”. At the Olympics the women’s games were played in a completely different spirit to the men’s game.

There are also other things such as the various comedy nights at The Junction (where Puffles ended up on stage with Shappi Khorsandi) and the ADC Theatre (of footlights fame) to Cambridge Wine Merchants’ wine tasting sessions. There’s still the dancer in me that would like to head down to London with a group of friends for White Mink: Black Cotton – the electroswing night.

I’m in sort of ‘open ramble’ mode, continuously wanting to explore new things as well as making things better for those around me – while having fun at the same time. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. Actually, it’s the latter more often than not. But then isn’t that what makes those successes all the more enjoyable? The past few months have blown away some of the fog around the barriers. Now that I can see them more clearly, I have a better idea of how to get round them. If it makes a positive difference to people, I can live with that – even if I don’t find the buzz that I’m looking for.

School sports

Summary

Why a policy of 2 hours a week alone is not nearly enough to get children to take up sports.

A lot of political pies have been thrown in this debate: Should schools be compelled to get children to do 2 hours a week minimum of sporting activity? It’s a policy that sounds great to a political communications wonk, but what does the policy look like in detail?

One of the things that most of us have in common is that we had to do some sort of sporting exercise during our school days. Sometimes willingly (football or trampolining in my case) and sometimes unwillingly (cross country in my first year on freezing winters  mornings). Yes, freezing November mornings with the thought of cross-country first thing.

Sportswise I was quite lucky. I was one of those kids who, while not being outstandingly brilliant at any particular sport wasn’t outstandingly rubbish at any of them either. When a push came to a shove I could hold my own in the short term, but was never going to be challenging for a regular place in the school team – not that I had the drive to. I seldom played sport for competitive reasons. My desire to play sport was for an even more basic reason: Fun.

Changing mindsets

I’m not going to pretend teaching is the same today for PE teachers as it was during the early/mid 1990s when I was at school. My own teacher training in 2011 taught me this in the world of classroom-based teaching. Huge strides have been made since the late 1990s in teacher training, but has that fed through onto the playing fields and more importantly into the mindsets of the parents?

Stereotypically there’s something ‘sadistic’ about being a PE teacher. Getting a group of young people out onto the playing fields against their will and crushing their young spirits with a dose of exercise in freezing conditions wearing ill-fitting clothing made out of itching sacks normally used to store wheat. It’s hardly the stuff to encourage anyone. Have any schools worked with children to design new PE kits that are both suitable for exercise AND are ones that children want to wear?

Then you’ve got the issue of communal changing at a time when children are going through puberty – a time when people are possibly at their most insecure about their bodies in their entire lives. Decades of underinvestment left most schools without decent changing and showering facilities.

Then there’s the problem of the choice of activities – or all too often, the ‘lack of’ choice. One of the things that emerged from Twitter debates is why some sports were ‘men only’ and others were ‘women only’. It was the same with school with me. Why weren’t the girls allowed to play football? Why weren’t the boys allowed to play hockey? Not only that, there were some sports seen as ‘autumn sports’ (for the boys, rugby), ‘spring sports’ (football) and ‘summer sports’ (cricket) – something straight out of the late 19th Century in the grand scheme of things.

Does cricket ensure that most children who play it at school get exercise from it?

Because once it comes to a game of cricket, the reality for too many children (unless you have decent bowlers and batsmen) is that you’re standing around doing very little. If your bowler cannot bowl, most people are standing around on a playing field doing very little Hardly exercise. That’s not to say I don’t like cricket or that it should be banned – after all, I went to a test match last year. It’s more the case of coming back to some first principles around sport – and exercise in general.

Playing fields, the Olympic Games…the clues are not hard to find

“Playing” and “Games” imply some sort of pleasure is derived from the activities concerned. We ‘play’ football just as we ‘play’ computer games. The verb is the same. It’s just that different parts of the body and mind are exercised in different ways.

“Children shouldn’t be going to school to play!!! They should be going there to learn and to exercise! No wonder standards are falling! Wasn’t like that in my day! None of those trendy teaching methods from woolly liberals in sandals!

It’s one of those strange paradoxes. On one side we’d like our children’s school days and childhoods to be the best days of their lives, yet at the same time we seem to do everything we possibly can to ensure that they are not. Whether it’s the forced running in shorts on cold winters days to examining all of the fun out of subjects children have a passion for, no wonder some children turn away from things that they might actually otherwise like.

“The only way to get children to exercise is to shout loudly at them and to threaten them with the cane! Worked in my day and look at how I turned out!”

Exxxxxxactly.

One of the best ways to exercise is to find an activity that you enjoy where it doesn’t feel like exercise when you’re doing it. As an adult, this ended up being dancing. For others it could be something like hill-walking. Some people get a buzz playing team sports, others get their buzz co-operating with a partner, others prefer exercising alone say in a gym.

When it comes to finding out what are the most suitable forms of exercise, the best thing people – and children can do is to try them out (more than once so as to get a feel for it!) and make their decisions accordingly. But how many people and children do this? How many schools and wider institutions offer this? How many of the latter 2 have decent facilities to offer these? How accessible are they for people with varying levels of health and abilities? How do you help people overcome psychological barriers?

If exercise is the answer, what is the question?

…and do the policies that flow from ‘exercise is the answer’ align with other government policies? Numerous administrations have been slammed for the sell-offs of playing fields. The Coalition has also been criticised because of the removal of the duty to have 2 hours a week minimum sporting activities for school children. As I’ve alluded to above, having 2 hours timetabled doesn’t mean that children will get 2 hours of exercise. The problem the Coalition has is that there’s no comprehensive strategy to explain what it’s trying to achieve and how it’s trying to achieve it with regards to health and exercise. All too often, other policies end up undermining such drives. The same was the case with Labour pre-2010. With the Coalition the cuts to local council budgets is having a devastating impact on local voluntary organisations and the provision of health and leisure facilities. Prices at the latter will inevitably have to go up, with predictable results on accessibility. Labour’s obsession with PFI and the badly-drawn-up contracts for new schools mean that the new facilities are prohibitively expensive for those that should have easy access to them.

So…where does this leave us?

In a confused state.

I’m sure that a whole host of sports will see a surge of interest on the back of the Olympics and Paralympics. I hope so – especially given all of the taxpayers money spent. It would be foolish not to wish for such a positive legacy. Why spent £10billion only to wish for failure? (Other than to see the political establishment with egg on its face – but it’s still a hefty price tag).

The power of information

Just as with public transport, people are more likely to use sporting facilities if they know they are there, if they know what is on and if they know they will get a friendly welcome. On the latter, it’s one of the things that gyms try to use as a selling point but in my experience of several, always fall down upon when it comes to delivery.

Are local areas ensuring that there’s a platform that provides a comprehensive, updated and accessible information on what’s happening where? Getting such a platform up and running for me is essential – one where different groups and organisations can upload their events, classes and term calendars (such as On The Wight), as well as having on the same website a comprehensive guide to the various groups and societies that are putting on these activities. (E.g. Cambridgeshire.net).

The hard bit is then persuading people to come along.

Remember your first day at school?

One of the most nerve-wracking experiences I have had – and still have – is turning up to a new place for the first time. Evening class, exercise class, conference, new work place…bag of anxiety. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

At previous organisations and societies that I’ve volunteered for, I’ve made it my business to make new people feel welcome and involved early on. In my book that was – and is part of the responsibility of helping out. It’s not just a case of saying “Hello, welcome, here’s a sheet with more info, any questions come and grab me!”, it’s far more than that. Finding out their name and how far they have come from for a start.

One of the things that worked really well during my dancing days was things like taking groups of dancers (who otherwise did not know each other) over the road for drinks after a class, or to invite them to other events that were being put on. Doing so created both goodwill and a critical mass of people to help ensure succession of the societies concerned after I had moved on.

My point?

For both children and adults, exercise is more than being just about sport. You’re building a community through shared activities – in this case one that involves some sort of physical activity that is also enjoyable.

If you want people to exercise, the activities concerned need to be:

Available: 

Don’t expect people to take up exercising en masse if you’ve got a very limited set of activities available. What may make you tick won’t necessarily be the case for others

Affordable:

Easier said than done, but people won’t come if they cannot afford the sessions or the equipment and clothing required. Is there any way you can make second-hand equipement available to others or ask those who can afford it to donate?

Accessible:

This could range from being accessible to people with disabilities to being accessible to people who live in rural areas or people not easily served by public transport. The challenge for local authorities is whether they can make public transport routes align with where community facilities are, and make bus/train information available as part of co-ordinated publicity.

Enjoyable:

In most cases you are dealing with absolute beginners, not elite experts. What may work with the latter won’t necessarily work with the former. The emphasis needs to be on fun. That doesn’t mean the teacher saying “This is fun!” over and over again.

Sociable:

This may not be the case for everyone – some might want to keep their head down and plough on with the activity concerned. But for the rest of us, does the activity concerned allow new members to get to know each other both during and outside of timetabled classes? Are there other linked activities or special events being put on by the organisation or by a related one. Take ballroom dancing – what’s the point of learning to dance like that if you’re not going to go to a ball? Maybe you play badminton or five-a-side football. Are there any local competitions that you can take part in? Perhaps there is a demonstration on by some experts in their martial art that a group of you can go along to and watch.

If you can start tying up some of these strands together, maybe, just maybe we can get more people active.

[UPDATE TO ADD]

Once you have broadened your pool of people who have increased their physical fitness, then from that pool you potentially have your stars of the future. The training and coaching methods to push for ‘elite performance’ are not necessarily the same as getting those unfit to try new sports.

A more active population also increases the likelihood of a more knowledgeable population around physical activities – not just sport. This increases the support and sustainability of those organisations that run them as more people take part. And from those activities – whether the individuals taking part or the parents, friends & relatives…may be the medal winners of the future.

Men, we need to engage with women.

Summary

Why men need to talk about, with and listen to women.

I think it was in the middle of my university days when I swamped myself with comedy tapes from charity shops that I really started opening my mind to a whole host of issues that until then I’d been blind to. Not wilfully you understand. It was simply the stuff that was either never discussed or that I never had access to in what were the couple of decades before the internet exploded upon us.

It’s difficult trying to put this in terms without anything sounding loaded, pre-judgemental, or running the risk of getting tied up in theoretical knots because different terms mean different things to different people. To some, the title alone may give reactions to “Oh, he’s talking about feminism. And if there’s one thing I don’t like it’s those feminazis! Yeah – Pooffles, why do you hate men?!?!?” to “Oh that’s nice, he’s showing he has a sensitive side” to “That’s it Puffles – bite their bollocks off too!!!” 

Dammit! That’s me being pre-judgemental.

Let’s look at political institutions first

This one really does stem from my university days listening to an old Ben Elton comedy tape. It was first released at the time when they first allowed the broadcast of adverts for sanitary towels and tampons. Elton tore into Parliament and how sexist it was – along the lines of:

“Well that must have been an interesting day in Parliament. “What shall we do today gentlemen? Put the unemployment back to work? Ban nuclear weapons? Solve global poverty? No! Let’s ban tampon adverts from the telly!!!””

He then went onto tear into one brand which apparently had the advertising tag line of

“Ladies, do you have a secret?”

…before reminding everyone that approximately half of the world’s population were going to, were already or had experienced menstruation in their lives. Which hardly makes it a ‘secret’.

Why are institutions so squeamish about normal bodily functions?

You only have to look at the problems politicians have in facing down (in particular) religious groups over the issue of sex education. At the same time, there are very strict limitations on what materials can and cannot be used. The boundaries have been pushed back in recent years, but as recently as the mid-1990s (when I was at secondary school) I recall an horrific session in RE (“Religious Education”) when the (female) teacher had to explain what circumcision was. At the time I didn’t really know what it was – so patchy had my previous sex education been prior to then. With no materials and only a blackboard and chalk for help, she tried to draw some very bad diagrams to explain what it was all about. I came away none-the-wiser.

Yet her hands were tied by the rules and regulations of the day. Publishers simply weren’t allowed to publish materials showing real organs of real people that teachers could use in a teaching context.

Think about it:

Stuff that is so important – relating directly to the creation of new life itself (amongst other things) that…you are banned from seeing real life images of what it’s all about. It’s that essential that the powers that be at the time were (and some still are) so worried that we’d all be corrupted if we saw such images.

We’re in a slightly surreal time in terms of societal change and attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies has been doing some great work in trying to change attitudes of the wider public as well as those of the broadcasting authorities about what can be broadcast pre-watershed. Yet the number of people who appear on that show with various illnesses and conditions who have not been to their GP still raises (my) eyebrows. Even the BBC acknowledges that going to the GP can be embarrassing for many – hence this guidance.

Guidance and information such as the above crushes those that wish to censor. Having these series on mainstream prime time television also means they can reach out to wider audiences. It needs to.

This mindset repressed men too

Boys and men have found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side you’ve got institutional squeamishness while on the other side we’re being bombarded with sexual imagery in order to sell products and services to us. You’ve got the institutions sending out a whole host of mixed messages while at the same time you’ve got advertisers effectively saying “buy this stuff and you might get laid!”

One of the biggest mixed messages for me is that of faith schools. (I tear into them here). All three main political parties in Westminster have backed the expansion faith schools in principle and practice, even though both governments have clashed with faith institutions that run such schools over the issues of sex education and equal marriage. Politicians can’t have it both ways.

What about the world of work?

Well, you’ve got generations of mis-educated men whose knowledge of what women have to put up with is extremely limited at the best of times. This is reflected institutionally in the imbalances across key institutions – whether Parliament, corporate boardrooms, editorial boards in the media to coverage of sports. Having ‘paper policies’ are not nearly enough – as well-meaning as they might sound. If there is any chance of achieving the culture change that’s needed, there needs to be a critical mass of people across organisations to affect that behaviour change. For me, one good example is the “I bet this building was designed by a man” rule of thumb when looking at building design. Think of the last time you went to the theatre, shopping centre or railway station. What are the women’s toilet facilities like? How accessible are they? Are there often long queues?

What about wider society?

“If it doesn’t happen to us, we can become blinded to it” – or words to that affect. Not being a jogger, I had (until recently) no idea the harassment that women have to put up with from men until some of my Twitter contacts started tweeting about them – on a depressingly regular basis.

There’s also the problem of safety on public transport. Would there be such pressure to reduce staffing at public transport interchanges if the critical mass of ‘decision makers’ were women who actually had to use said interchanges on a regular basis late at night? Exactly. Yet all too often we get this macho “We’re tough on crime” line from politicians of all colours which makes for sharp soundbites but does little to make people feel safe or reduce crime.

From the employers’ perspective

Well…it’s all about the bottom line, isn’t it? Or is it?

I wonder how many firms have undertaken a consultation exercise with their employees prior to an office move, asking them what the most important facilities were to them/what they would like to see in their new premises. Public transport access close to to the office? Essential shopping facilities (e.g. food) close by? Number of toilets? Refreshment facilities? Amount of space? Break out areas and meeting rooms? Access to the building out of hours? Flexible/home/mobile working?

One of the things that struck me about many of the women I met and worked with in the civil service was the number who had chosen to work for the civil service because of the flexibility and work/life balance. Many could have worked in (and had offers from) the corporate world and The City but turned down eye-wateringly high salaries to work for the civil service. Whether such flexibility will remain post-cuts remains to be seen. With a Cabinet full of privately educated men from affluent backgrounds, I can’t say I’m not concerned. Parliament doesn’t have the critical mass of women and neither unfortunately does the Coalition. This reflects both in policies and practices.

So…what can men do about it?

Show courage – which is easier said than done. It means challenging that inappropriate behaviour, whether it’s in the office or even online. It also means acknowledging when we’ve stepped out of line. It may also mean having to accept some uncomfortable things too – as Lambeth Council are doing on the issue of rape awareness. There’s also a strong role for women here too to help educate men. If we’re not told about what you have to put up with, it makes it harder to know what to do to help change things.

There’s also a “She’s my mother/sister/daughter” aspect too – If treating any one of the three in such a manner is unacceptable, then it’s unacceptable to all. Isn’t it? Finally, if men are part of the problem, then men are part of the solution – as the White Ribbon Campaign campaigns on.

Quite comprehensive, isn’t it?

Covering schools, large institutions, employers and wider society. It’d be nice to see some consistency and co-ordination from the Coalition and from politicians in general about this. Is that too much to ask for?

 

 

 

Breakfast with Natalie

Summary

Why Green Party leadership candidate Natalie Ben’s idea could be a ‘game changer’ if she gets elected and implements her Leader’s breakfasts idea…but it’s not without its risks.

The election of Caroline Lucas in Brighton in 2010 provided the Green Party with a much-needed boost – finally breaking through into Westminster after decades of trying. Yet as leader and the only MP in the party, chances are she found the demands on her time to have been unbearable. Being a party leader is a full-time job in itself – as is being a constituency MP – as is in effect being the parliamentary spokesperson for…everything the Green Party does. Although Lucas’ relinquishing of the leadership came as a surprise to some, for those familiar with how the Green Party functions may have been less so.

It remains to be seen what impact a new leader will have for the Green Party – both in terms of the individual who is elected and institutionally, where you have one person inside Westminster and a leader outside of it. It also remains to be seen how a leader who might otherwise not hold elected public office (such as a councillor, MEP etc) interacts with those that do – the Greens have a handful of MEPs and London Assembly Members.

As a Whitehall watcher, candidate Natalie Ben‘s proposal for “Leadership breakfasts” caught my eye. One of the things the Green Party has not been as strong on as it could be is its relationships with NGOs, charities and campaigning organisations, local and national. It’s a potential win-win for both sides. Such organisations can (for want of another word) benefit from the ability of elected representatives to table formal questions to those in executive office (i.e. Government, Mayor of London etc) while at the same time the Green Party can benefit from the policy expertise that they might not have within their existing party ranks.

Bringing in policy expertise

 

By establishing personal relationships with policy advisers that work within charities and campaigning organisations, the Green Party can harness that expertise without having to ‘buy’ it in through a consultancy. Far easier to send a tweet/text or make a phone call to get a key piece of briefing (that has been fact-checked) through. How often do you hear MPs standing up on the floor of the Commons saying “Figures from [insert name of reputable organisation] say X, Y and Z, therefore…” making it more difficult for opponents to question the robustness of the figures lest they undermine an organisation that they would rather keep ‘onside’.

Risk of alienating existing members

Transparency is a key issue here. One of the inevitable risks with such gatherings is that policy is decided at such small informal meetings then ‘driven through’ existing party structures to get legitimacy. This is one of the major complaints about Labour over the past couple of decades – that policy was decided by cliques rather than in open transparent forums. How will Natalie manage that risk? Will meetings be minuted (and if so, by whom?) On what terms will the meetings take place under? And finally, does this mean that the Greens risk becoming just another political party with the same established contacts that all of the other Westminster parties have?

How will this be reflected locally?

Different areas will have different organisations and campaign groups dotted about. What criteria will be used to decide who can attend? Will these be niche grassroots organisations or the local branches of national organisations? What can local organisations expect in return for their engagement? Some – registered charities in particular might be wary about being seen to be politically partial. How will she ensure that such charities are not compromising regulations that they are bound by? (Especially the smaller ones who might not be as familiar with the law as the larger ones). Finally, at a local level would she see such a role (if elected) as one where she would bring local activists and councillors together with local organisations in the form of a facilitator or that of a director?

More can be found here on the leadership elections and the candidates for the various roles up for competition.

When the Olympics started going right

Summary

And you know what did it? Not the big celebrities, not the men in suits, not the corporations, but seemingly ordinary people achieving extraordinary feats. And the nation has responded accordingly.

The contrast between the competitors and the bigwigs could not be more stark. The contrast between the volunteers and the well-remunerated chief executives too. Ditto comparing the medal winners with those at the top of the most well-remunerated of sporting pursuits, football.

The competitors

Let’s be honest: Most of us had not heard of most of Great Britain’s competitors prior to the games – let alone the rules of half of the sports that they were competing in. Even with the possibility of success, the financial rewards for most of the medal winners will be few and far-between apart from those that tick the picture boxes of the media and multinational firms. In terms of exploiting their successes commercially, the best many can hope for is advertising something like breakfast cereals (and not without controversy) or car insurance. My point is that few can get away with doing it for the money.

Funding for UK Sport via the National Lottery has provided much-needed stability for UK sportsmen and women. But the amounts are not huge. Prior to 1996, there wasn’t even this. I remember as a young teenager seeing features of the likes of Sally Gunnell working in an office and exercising in her spare time, or Rory Underwood in the days of amateur rugby union in the RAF. It was a disastrous performance at the 1996 Atlanta games (one gold medal) that led to the current system being put in place. Since then, the improvements have been marked. But given the amount of money in grants international standard UK competitors receive, it’s difficult to say that it’s the money most of them do it for. I’m sure many readers of this blog are friends with people who earn more in a year than many UK sporting competitors receive in grants. (Some of you might even be in that position!) Again, few can be doing it for the money. As the table linked at the top of this paragraph shows, funding is dependent in part on how they perform at Olympics and world championships – very short windows to deliver top performances.

You then have how they have interviewed. I’m not talking about accents or media training – more disposition that has reflected lots and lots of preparation outside of the limelight, getting up on cold early mornings – often in darkness to prepare for moments like this.

Empathy

Much as football is still seen as a national sport, there are also lots of people who in their own time take part in all of those sports that seldom hit the headlines. This has come to the fore on Puffles’ Twitter feed – the rowers, riders, cyclists and long distance runners in particular. All are incredibly knowledgeable about their sports and have enriched my timeline throughout the games with their insights.

There was also a very smart advertising campaign in the run up to the Olympics by the national lottery – with lots of posters of competitors saying “thank you” – reminding anyone who has ever bought a lottery ticket that they have in their own very small way contributed towards supporting them – the difference between competing and not competing. Hence the support and thanks going in both directions having that little bit more of a meaning than a top level footballer thanking ‘the fans’. Do you get that same level of ‘connection’ if you support a football club that has no international players?

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t any womanisers or any drunkards within those staying in the Olympics village. But it puts the performances and the behaviour of top flight footballers – especially over the past 15 years – into sharp focus in comparison. From the Spice Boys of Liverpool to the WaG circus of 2006 (fallout from which led to a complete change of approach for Euro 2012) to the various tales of court cases, allegations of rape and general celebrity excess, combined with underachievement at international level, football has not covered itself in glory. If we are looking at bottom lines, our Olympians are winning gold medals. Our international footballers were not winning world cups (despite some very talented individuals and the best coaches and facilities money could buy) or European championships. They couldn’t even qualify for Euro 2008.

Separating the women from the boys?

From watching several of the women’s football matches at the Olympics, the women were playing as if they were made of much stronger stuff than the play-acting players in the men’s game. Great Britain vs Brazil – in front of 70,000 at Wembley was particularly enthralling. One of my hopes for the women’s game is that people take to it in both playing and supporting. (Find your local club here). During my mid-teens, I used to play football with a group of kids, some of whom were girls in their final year of primary school. Spending months at a time playing with and against the boys sharpened their skills that by the time they got to secondary school, they put pressure on teachers to form a girls football team. They subsequently swept everyone before them in matches against other schools with cricket-like scores.

It was also notable that the first clutch of medals were won predominantly by female athletes – forcing the hand of the media who might have otherwise ignored them. One of the biggest scandals of recent decades is the lack of publicity, support and funding our sportswomen have received – especially when you consider what goes into men’s professional sports. It’s also provided wider society with a wealth of potential role models for girls and young women – so far removed from the artificial world of ‘celebrity’. Fleet Street Fox got it spot on here.

The volunteers

The difference between the volunteers and the VIPs could not be more different either. Reports and comments on the unpaid games-makers have been overwhelmingly (if anecdotally) positive. Compare them and their enthusiasm with the apathetic “Olympics Family” (which if ASBOs were still around that family would be due one) and their sponsors that left all of those prime seats empty early on. gain, comparisons between people who were paid lots of money to be there with those who gave their time and effort to be there couldn’t be more stark.

When comparing the otherwise poorly-trained, poorly managed, badly organised & recruited-on-the-cheap G4S security guards with the professionals from the forces and the police who had to step in at the last minute because of the utter failures of the G4S management, you get similar differences. If you treat your staff badly, train them badly, pay them badly then don’t be surprised if few turn up. One group of poorly paid, poorly trained badly managed people whose only “relationship” to their employer is a financial one versus that of the forces and the police, whose sense of professional duty counts for far more.

The local impact

With the athletes living and training within their local communities, there’s also a far stronger level of ‘local’ affinity – none of the ‘club versus country’ that plagues football. When you live, train, work and interact with – and look out for a local community, chances are they will look after you. Again, anecdotally (judging by tweets from various local MPs, councils and newspapers) there seemed to be a much greater level of affinity with specific individual competitors that has gone far beyond anything I’ve seen with football. Has the impact of the money that has gone into football isolated top footballers inside gated communities to the detriment of themselves and the game as a whole?

All in this together?

Finally, the breadth of events across the games seems to be one that cuts across various society boundaries. You had the granddaughter of the monarch winning a silver medal being part of the same team that also had an asylum seeker – Mo Farah in the 10,000m – winning gold in some amazing scenes in the athletics. This exchange speaks volumes:

When asked in a press conference about if he’d have preferred to run as a Somali, he said to the journalist: “Look mate, this is my country.

“This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud.

“The support I got today was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. It was the best moment of my life.

“If it wasn’t for the crowd and people shouting out my name, cheering and putting the Union Jack up, I don’t think it would have happened.

“To win the Olympics in the place you grew up and went to school just means so much to me.”

Home is where the heart is – and the above is a brilliant riposte to the years of inflammatory headlines from the mainstream media. Twitter users in particular started going after a number of politicians, papers and demagogues in what felt like a huge single unanimous backlash against the purveyors of hatred.

That’s not to say all of the problems of the world have been solved – they haven’t. You only have to look at what’s happening away from the Olympics’ headlines to find that out. But what we have seen is not just the moods of many being lifted – albeit temporarily, but a feeling of what we can achieve when we work together and support each other. If that’s something that we as a society can take and run with, then that’s an Olympic legacy I can more than live with.

 

Are businesses right to be turning away from social media?

Summary

No – and here’s why

This post is in response to an article by the Daily Telegraph’s Digital Media Editor Emma Barnett, titled Businesses are right to be turning away from social media. The first thing that caught me was the subtle difference between title and subtitle:

In the same week Twitter has been forced to apologise for prioritising commercial gain over its users, a new study has found businesses are reducing their investment in social media marketing. It’s totally understandable says Emma Barnett.

An understandable action is not necessarily a right action. But that’s a minor issue. The two strands I want to take issue with are the use of social media by profit-making firms, and the functioning of companies that run social media platforms – the Facebooks and Twitters of this world.

Social media is not a marketing platform

Yet all-too-often firms want to use it as exactly (& only) that, in exactly the same way political communicators often see social media as another channel for ‘getting the message out’ to the general public. After a decade and a half of learning all about email spam, the wider public is far more wiser to the concept of advertising that is thrown at them in such a manner. One firm’s direct marketing is another person’s spam. And they don’t particularly like it either.

Unlike junk mail you get through the post or stuff you get through your email, social media makes it much easier to lampoon any advertising campaign that might have the slightest hole in it – which is nearly all of them. Not only that, such campaigns can be lampooned in a manner for all of the world to see…and that’s just on the adverts.

You then have the issue of transparency – or the desire of firms to cover up their blemishes and bad practices less they be paraded infront of the world’s electronic media for all to see, and thus killing the brand. This is something that impacts companies big or small – whether the bar or cafe that gets targeted for banning breastfeeding mums or uniform-wearing soldiers from being served, to large multinationals being brought to heel by a student boycott organised online. In each of these cases, it wasn’t the advertising or the branding that was the problem, it was the decisions taken by the firm concerned in relation to a customer or identifiable groups of customers.

“Why are we being criticised?”

This is the question firms don’t seem to be asking. Yet from a firm’s perspective, social media can (if used well) provide a wealth of information through feedback from (potential or actual) customers that can feed into decision-making processes. The problem may not be with the advertising campaign – more often than not (anecdotally from my viewpoint) it’s something more deep-seated. For very small firms, it can be relatively straight forward to turn things around. In the case of the ‘lactivists’, the cafe owner apologised and gave out free tea and cake to the lactivist flashmob that converged on his cafe. (If the tea and cake was any good, chances are some of them may return). In the case of the multinational corporation, the layers of management and the diseconomies of scale associated with large organisations make such sharp turnarounds that much harder to deliver.

Rather than investing lots in social media advertising, my view is that firms should be investing in social media as a listening, feedback and customer service platform. Some of them already do this proactively – going after negative comments about their companies but treating it as a ‘customer service’ issue (“What did we do wrong for you to feel this way?”) rather than a brand protection issue (“Take down your libellous post or you’ll hear from our lawyers”).

Return on investment

The ‘listening’ nature of social media means it’s very difficult to put a financial value of the positive benefits of investing in a sound social media function. It’s not a case of ‘for every pound you put in, you’ll get a pound and a half of profit back over five years.’ Directors of firms with a very sharp short-term ‘bottom-line’ focus on investments (especially in these tough economic times) are likely to be very sceptical about social media. Why should they invest valuable time and money where they cannot see a firm likelihood of a quantifiable return on that investment over a specified length of time? Far better to invest that money in a direct advertising campaign with the aim of generating extra calls and sales? But then what is the quantifiable value of a sound customer service function? It must be reasonably high otherwise firms would not have them. It would be interesting to see data over time across a range of firms looking at the impact of their investment in social media customer service functions.

What about the social media platforms?

Caught between a rock and a hard place. I agree with Emma in that Twitter is caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to please its corporate customers that pay for valuable advertising (that then pay dividends for investors) while trying to keep its users happy. Twitter has to keep its users or it loses the advertisers. But without the advertisers, it struggles to meet its costs.

The problem that both Facebook and Twitter have is the threat to kill the goose that is laying golden eggs. The more they go after the advertising buck, the more the advertisers will want more prominence for their adverts. The bigger those adverts become, the more annoying it becomes for other users – increasing the likelihood of people switching platforms or abandoning those parts of social media altogether. With the significant Saudi investment into Twitter and the recent controversial stock market floatation of Twitter, the pressures to make short term returns for those investors must be huge – swinging things in favour of the advertisers at the expense of users.

Why should users get a free lunch?

It’s a fair question. Shouldn’t you pay for the service that you receive? Well…this is where social-media-world is turning economic thinking on its head. For decades, the drive has been to bundle up stuff, put a cash value on it and sell it. We see this with intellectual property. The first time I picked up on this was as a child – with computer games. Reading the smallprint of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 back in 1993 I noticed that the booklet said I had bought a ‘non-exclusive license’ as opposed to buying ‘the game’.

As the internet started taking a hold, so firms started giving away things that they had previously charged for, for free. The best example of this is with newspapers – The Guardian being the pioneer. Information that we would normally pay to get (in a paper-based format) we can now access for free. This caused problems that the newspaper industry is still struggling with. With online access, advertisers can insist on ‘pay per click’ advertising rather than by how much space is taken in the paper. The former gives far more accurate metrics into how successful such an advert is than its paper-based counterpart.

What I’m trying to say is that social media platforms are facing a world where society’s expectation is that access to such services is free. It’s similar to where we were with access to top flight football pre-Sky. TV-licence-fee aside, it was taken for granted that top flight sport was free-to-air. Digital technology (in particular encryption) allowed Sky to bid for the rights and ‘scramble’ the broadcasting signal allowing access only to those who paid for a set-top-box and card to unscramble the signal. Would such a move by Facebook or Twitter kill their platforms? Would a move by Twitter or Facebook to offer differentiated products (i.e. one with adverts that was free, and one without adverts which was paid subscription) work?

What about a not-for-profit/loss-making model subsidised by a profit-making sister/subsidiary companies? One could argue that this is what Google does – providing a whole host of basic free tools which are used by many, subsidised by other profitable arms of the corporation.

I don’t think Twitter and Facebook can carry on as normal. Both routes for me – whether ‘selling out’ to advertisers or trying to keep them at bay – are unsustainable given the investments investors have made in the companies. It’ll be interesting to see how both firms evolve over the next few years.