Joining up the dots in Cambridge

Summary

More observations to throw into my CambridgeL!VE project

Some of you may be aware that I’m playing around with an idea that I call CambridgeL!VE. (Have a look at that link). My view is that Cambridge as a place to live & work can be far greater than the sum of its parts. But we’re nowhere near getting even to the sum of those parts. I believe that we can use digital and social media as tools to getting to that sum and beyond. Cambridge is growing

I’m still at the research stage at the moment – getting out and about to get a feel for where the baseline/starting point is. The reason for this there’s only so much social media can do to help bring people together. A hammer doesn’t hammer in nails by itself. It needs someone to do the hammering. Ditto with any website or social media platform: they need people to provide the content and to interact with.

I met the great and the good with Puffles at the Cambridge Family Law Practice open house event this week, along with attending Centre33‘s 30th anniversary party at the Guildhall this week – the latter having provided me with free long term counselling in 2002/03 just after I had graduated, trying to make sense of what to do with my life as well as dealing with my first real mental health crisis. With the people I spoke to at both events, there is a sense of wanting to break out of the ‘bubbles’ that they find their professional circles are currently inside – but are not entirely sure how.

This compares differently with London, where there feels like there is something of a critical mass of people who are beginning to break out of those professional bubbles. Dare I say it, but there is less fear associated with using social media – that risks leading to a bizarre situation of those users less fearful becoming trapped inside their – our – own bubble. This is what struck me with the Bristol event – stay within your own bubble and you end up believing that the force of your own argument will win through, if only you repeat it loudly enough times over. It doesn’t work like that.

This is one of the challenges with explaining Puffles to people

In order to understand Puffles (or the concept behind), you need to have some understanding of social media, which involves having some understanding of the internet. Otherwise I’m just a bloke carrying around a cuddly toy everywhere.

An audience that is a mix of social media users and non-users tends to be the one that has the greatest impact in terms of showing the influence of social media use. At a number of events in recent months I’ve had conversations with people trying to understand why I’d carry a cuddly dragon with me everywhere, only to have the latter interrupted with “Hi Puffles!” – much to the surprise of the listener, who otherwise cannot understand why someone from seemingly out of nowhere would choose to interact with Puffles like that. It was more difficult at the Centre33 event where I knew fewer people, but as a result of which I’ve agreed to do a free social media workshop for a local sexual health awareness charity. Interestingly, Puffles was the ice-breaker for the conversation that led to it.

It’s not just about putting stuff on a website and waiting for stuff to happen

If it was, my article on my main website would be a sea of comments and expressions of interest. It isn’t. But then no one said this would be easy or straight forward, and I have had a bit of sand kicked in my face from one or two quarters locally about all things social media.

Part of the problem is that there is no problem – in the minds of some in a few of the silos that I’ve blogged/written/spoken about. It’s the “this is the way things have always been done” mindset. If things are functioning with no major problems, there isn’t a huge incentive to change things. However, there is a fine line between stability and stagnation, just as there is between change and chaos. I’ve seen the impact of both – where the domination by people who have been in place sometimes for years has led to stagnation (not because they don’t put in the work, but because there isn’t anywhere for new blood or fresh ideas to come in from), to where continued ‘restructuring’ has destabilised entire organisations.

CambridgeL!VE – it’s got to be more than just about networking

There are a number of phrases that I’m not particularly comfortable with. “Social media” is one of them – mainly because I don’t like the elongated “e” in ‘media’ – the word itself bringing up negative connotations with people. The other is “networking”. I detest the term with a passion & cringe when I see the word listed on an agenda. “Networking lunch” or “networking time”. I prefer making friends rather than networking. For me the line is blurred between professional and personal – despite efforts in some quarters to sharpen it again. Different people have different world views. Mine is one where the people I interact with are people who I also want to socialise with as well. This differs from my time in banking in the late 1990s where the entire cultural mindset of people in that office was that 9-5 was one life with one group of people, and everything else was outside of it. In one sense it’s safer separating the professional and personal – especially if you’ve got appearances to maintain. Wouldn’t want the boss to see X or the wife to see Y? It’s that sort of mindset.

The way I have seen networking done locally is that it’s all too often financially driven. Money is the incentive. I can see why, but I can also see that it puts people off very quickly. A number of people who have asked me for advice on social media have complained that contacts they have made or people they have linked up with on social media have simply thrown direct marketing at them. A sort of behaviour I find incredibly anti-social on what is supposed to be a social platform.

Hence why at the heart of (for want of another word) vision for what CambridgeL!VE could become, is a sense of ownership about the place that many of us here call ‘home’. It’s one of the my main drivers. Why here? Because it’s home – and I think it can become a better place. I’m not getting paid for it – the attachment to Cambridge (the city rather than the university – which institutionally had a habit of kicking sand in my face as a child) runs far far deeper than that.

In order to get on, you have to get out to get back in again

The former Cabinet Secretary said this to an audience of civil service fast streamers I was in some years ago. The same could be said about wanting to improve your home town. While there’s something comforting about staying in the same part of the world for most of your life, in order to see the differences that can be made, getting out and about to see who has made what differences is a great help. “If they can do that there, why can’t we do that here?” sort of thing. There’s a sense that this is happening in the civil service – especially at the top where a number of high profile vacancies are being filled by people from outside the civil service.

You could say my previous eight years have been like me acting like a sponge – certainly when it comes to engaging with all things political. (Being in the civil service puts restrictions on political engagement – especially if your post is a politically restricted one, which half my career was in such posts). When it comes to ideas like this, politics cannot be avoided. One example is my desire to host free or low-cost social media workshops and awareness sessions for the general public – like some of us did with Net2Camb earlier this year. In order to get the suitable facilities, we need to engage with schools and libraries – the latter in particular meaning engaging with the county council. (We’re a 2-tier area here, with Cambridgeshire County Council running things like transport, education & libraries & Cambridge City Council running things like planning & housing, waste disposal and leisure).

It’s going to take time though

It’s taken nearly 2 years to get Puffles up to 4,000 broadly high-calibre non-spambot followers. Even though it hasn’t felt like it, it’s taken a lot of time, thought and consideration. My first take was that everything set out for a societies fair, a hack camp and a fully-functioning community portal was something that could have been delivered in a season – this autumn. Now? No chance. It simply isn’t long enough for people from different professions and backgrounds to get to know each other, let alone trust each other. Yes, I could organise each of the three things mentioned in the link above, but going ahead with something prematurely can do more damage than good. If you talk something up as being huge without doing the preparations, it can end up putting off the very people who might want to work with you. Ever been part of an office/organisational restructure? Think of all of the people that say they’ve heard it all before. It’s the same with ministerial initiatives. Too much goodwill is wasted because things have not been properly thought-through or planned. I don’t want this to be one of them.

Hence much of the rest of this term will be more of me in listening mode with Puffles. There’s still a lot I don’t know about my home town.

Authenticity-washers hijacking social media?

Summary

How one workshop during London Social Media Week left half the room disgusted.

I learnt a harsh lesson when I spent a year in banking between my A-levels and university in the late 1990s: money could not buy me happiness. For other people, it does. But for me, the lesson was that beyond the basic essentials, there was only so far that the extra pound in my pocket could go towards a lifelong struggle for something that, because of my personal disposition in life, I’ll never achieve or realise. I had a full-time job but few activities outside of it – and in particular no one to share what felt like new-gotten riches. My first salary resulted in the mother of all spending sprees – piles of new clothes and CDs in particular. But what was the point of it all? The day before I left, the announcement was made that the office I worked at was going to be closed – everyone bar the top three senior managers were to lose their jobs, even though a new director had just come round the week before saying what a splendid job we were all doing & how we were all making a net profit-per-person for the corporation. Multinational corporations…too big to worry about the little people who are merely statistics in the grand scheme of things.

This was one of the reasons why I chose to go into the public sector. My values simply did not align with the values of mainstream profit-making businesses.

Your local friendly cuddly multinational corporation

My three years at university – or rather my three years in Brighton conditioned me to be disposed against multinational corporations. Given how I had seen at first hand how people had sand kicked in their faces – i.e. loss of job and livelihood – just before my move, what I found out about such organisations (one particular example being around the McLibel Trial) while volunteering in the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre only re-enforced what I already felt anyway. There were a number of groups, collectives and organisations I stumbled across – such as Corporate Watch, IndyMedia or Schnews that covered many of the stories that the mainstream media were missing – or choosing not to cover. It was also the time when Naomi Klein’s No Logo was a best seller too. Remember that this was all in the days before social media so you were still reliant on someone else to do the aggregating and filtering for you.

Greenwashing

The BP sunflower? A classic case of a firm trying to show that it’s more environmentally friendly than it actually is. $1.6billion invested in alternative energy in 2011 vs $13billion in 2007, $18.6billion in 2008 and $14billion in 2009, $17billion in 2010 and $22billion in 2011 on oil & natural gas exploration and development costs? (It’s all here – though someone more familiar with these tables may want to check I’ve got the interpretation of the numbers right – from p36 ono).

Authenticity-washing

It was in that workshop that the phrase ‘authenticity washing’ started screaming loudly. I’m not the first one to pick up on this either – as The age of authenticity washing shows. Whether it’s being trendy, cool and hip to being nice to the environment, treating your workforce with respect and trying to do good things ‘within the community’, authenticity-washing is all the rage. In an age where people are striking out to be different in an age of political and corporate blandness (ranging from our senior politicians to our buildings – the number of faceless featureless buildings going up in Cambridge is depressing), the last thing a big firm wants to be is identified with any of that. They would rather be seen to be at the ‘cutting edge’ (without realising that as soon as they get there, their sheer size blunts that very edge).

So how do you get that sought-after ‘authenticity’ for your brand and try and ensure that you’re not associated with all of the bad things that big brands have tarred on them? (But without changing the fundamental nature of being a multinational corporation trying to stomp out the competition). In your advertising for a start. That is one of the public faces of the brand. It’s not in the manufacturing – which has been outsourced to developing countries. It’s not in the selling – which is done either by franchise holders or large electronics or department stores (or online). It strikes me that the writers of this spoof article from The Onion back in the mid 1990s had no idea how close to the future they were getting to when writing it.

Yeah Poofles, but I want my brand to be “urban cool”, but I’m a grey suited man on a zillion bucks a week. I need to cut my costs too – these creatives aren’t cheap! Help me out here!

The depressing thing is that there is something out there that seems to do just that: I found it at this workshop. I’ll refrain from naming it [the whole thing made me that angry!] but it was at this workshop. Multinationals sign up, say “here’s a competition for you to design a new advert for us. The winner gets a cash prize and we get to keep all of the intellectual property from all of the entries that you have created!”

Anyone who knows anything about the creatives industry knows how competitive it is – it’s one of those industries where people trying to get into it have to do unpaid internship after unpaid internship in order to secure a post that pays the minimum wage. I know – my sister was one of them, spending nearly 2 years on them while being supported by my parents before finally securing a post. She’s not the only one. The situation is as such in part because firms are allowed to get away with this through lack of enforcement of minimum wage laws, and multinationals are allowed to get away with externalising the costs of hiring creatives onto…well…in many cases the parents of young people working in the industry. But fashion, journalism and even politics are not immune to this.

This is not fair

The worst aspect of this is that it hijacks social media language. This is not crowd-sourcing by any sense of the term. (In my book anyway). It is a standard procurement exercise but on a ‘prize-giving’ model rather than through commercial procurement. Procurement is not cheap for those that respond to tenders. At the expensive end of big industry, Richard Branson’s bid for the West Coast Main Line cost £14million to put together alone – money that he’s not going to get back. Perhaps he can afford it, but many out there cannot. They need to make a living. Responding to these ‘competitions’ is no way to make a living – especially as in the example I cited all of the intellectual property – i.e. work – is handed over to the corporation hosting the competition. They are using social and digital-media friendly language to hide what is really going on – externalising even more of the costs of coming up with new creative material onto the creatives who can ill-afford that burden.

But the creatives are responding, so what’s the problem?

Terms of trade. This entire day was about ‘business to business’ – which gives a feel of some sort of equality. Given the brands used as case studies, this was anything but. The big firms hold all of the cards. They just need enough people to respond (and by dangling what feels like a large carrot of a prize pot) and they are onto a winner. And they get to keep all of the intellectual property. Two of the key selling points in the seminar was that this was a significantly cheaper way for firms to get far more diverse content from more people, while the winner walks off with the prize.

While this may work for the big brands in the short term, it kills off the creative industries. Someone else has to pay them to make a living – whether it’s being supported by friends, family or whoever else. The costs of production – both of the advert and ultimately the overall costs of the firm – are externalised. This can either lead to nominally lower prices or greater profits – or both. Yet it is not good for markets in general because the costs of production are not being reflected in the prices. Hence you have an inefficiency.

But it’s perfectly legal, so what’s the problem?

It is, unless or until someone changes the law. One simple law change for ‘competitions’ such as this would be to tighten up on intellectual property laws saying that the creative content stays with the originator and that firms cannot make the free or transfer for a nominal price of the intellectual property rights a condition of entry. You pick your winner & buy the rights. You like what other entries have done? You buy the rights. Otherwise you are externalising the costs of your advertising out onto people and society. And for what? To make already stupendously wealthy multinational corporations even more richer than they already are?

At least I pay those talented people that produce my output.

This model disgusts me, it disgusted those around me and I hope it disgusts you too. There. Rant over.

Total Politics Magazine – an interesting spotlight on lobbying

Summary

What Total Politics’ advertisers tell us about political lobbying.

I remember being delighted when Iain Dale launched Total Politics Magazine a few years ago. A politics magazine that covered Whitehall and Westminster from a non-partisan perspective, that could bring in the detailed interviews that went beyond the ‘lines to take’. I normally buy a copy when on a train journey longer than Cambridge-London, or when I am having a day when I just want to spend most of it inside a coffee shop reading stuff. One where I’ll spend £20 on magazines and chomp my way through text. It’s not the perfect magazine by any means – there’s no such thing. Personally I’d like to see the print being bigger for a start – it’s painful for my eyes to read at times.

This month’s edition is a bumper conference edition – one I imagine that will lead to a boost in sales and possibly some new long term readers. They’ve done a number of interesting things – not least the policy head-to-heads on a number of different issues interviewing the party policy leads. There have also been a number of things where I’ve thought. “Hmm…that doesn’t work for me (i.e. the fashion shoot of clothes with political faces on them)” to some hilarious lines which I’m trying to work out were deadpan spoof or for real – e.g. one by Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Norwich (And dragon-fairy-watcher) Jess Asato.

Total Politics: “Are you just another professional politician?”

Jess Asato: “Absolutely not. I’ve spent most of my working life coming up with new ideas for policy that will make our country a better place.”

:-/

There’s the bit where I agree with her:

“Politics is not a career, it is a calling, and we need to regain the public’s trust in what we’re doing”

The question is how. Then there are the classic political put-downs, such as:

“Chloe Smith is perfectly able to demonstrate her own incompetence without me having to point it out”

Perhaps that was in response to the Newsnight Interview that I profiled (and sort of defended Chloe over – but only because George Osborne had dropped her in it big time). Jess and Chloe will be going head-to-head in Norwich – but expect a notable Green presence given the number of councillors they have in the city.

Yeah Poofles, enough of the sales pitch, what about the lobbying?

Look at the advertisers and ‘advertorials’.

What sparked this blogpost was this article re-tweeted by dragon-fairy-watching MP Robert Halfon of Harlow. It reminded me of the advertorial by the National Casino Industry Forum. Have you heard of them? Probably not. They have the nice glitzy glamourous photos of casinos, along with the profile photo of one of their directors. What you don’t see on the before or after sides is the counter-point, or a view from an organisation that might take a different view – such as a gambling charity.

That’s not to say charities cannot afford to advertise or choose not to – they do. Several of the big names are there, not only making their case but stating where they will be and what events they will be hosting at the various conferences. Total Politics isn’t the only politics-related magazine that this sort of advertising happens in. The Spectator on the right and New Statesman on the left have similar – the advertising pounds weighing in greater on whichever party is in power I would assume. (I wonder what the data says about advertising revenue over the past say 5-10 years for each publication.)

I’m also not criticising Total Politics magazine – or any other politics-related magazine for having advertisers in. The current state of party politics and the print media means that current affairs magazines have very low circulation compared to the importance of the issues that they cover. Lobbyists and big business recognise this and advertise in the circles that are likely to ‘raise awareness’ of their issues in a manner that will have the most influence. This is the softer side if you like. There are advertisers that make me wonder why they are advertising in there, but I’m sure they have their reasons. It would be nice to know what they are – what does a previously unheard of energy firm, or Britain’s biggest arms traders get out of advertising in politics’ magazines? It’s not as if I’m going to buy a tank! Or is this the softer side at work?

So if you’re wandering past the news stands, have a flick through the current affairs magazines and ask yourself what the advertisers tell you about lobbying, and the influencing of Whitehall and Westminster by big powerful interests.

“Oi Dave! I’ve found Big Society – it’s over here!”

Summary

Why David Cameron’s idea of “Big Society” never took off…and why we need to look much deeper – all the way down to basic political literacy

It took me a year to get round to joining, but better late than never. I had my baptism of fire at the Duxford Orchestra today. E-major on the viola is never a pleasant experience at the best of times. Interestingly enough, I’ve got my old orchestra conductor from primary school in charge of our string orchestra, so there was one vaguely familiar face from 1989-91.

Duxford’s not the easiest place to get to by public transport. Buses only run once every hour and it’s a 20 minute walk from the nearest railway station crossing a stupendously busy road with traffic whizzing by at up to 60mph. But I went anyway with the mindset that if I didn’t do it now, I never would. What was striking was both the sheer number of people turning up – many of the 300 or so people registered packed into every room available, along with the variety. Children from primary school to sixth form, post-graduate students, adults and the elderly all there learning and making music. It felt like the area’s best kept secret. (They on the other hand were delighted to have an additional viola player – we’re rare!)

A trip through Lansley Country

The bus journey to register last week took me on a tour of a number of villages in Andrew Lansley country just as the bus trip to Cambourn did when I took Puffles to deliver a social media presentation at South Cambridgeshire District Council. The constituency that surrounds Cambridge – South Cambridgeshire – is that of the controversial former Health Secretary.

Looking at the posters and the noticeboards you get a feel of what a settled relatively affluent rural community is like. It has a number of similarities to the one my late aunt and uncle lived in during my childhood – one that until my mid-teens my siblings and I would go and stay at during the summer holidays. It was great for all concerned – the country house they lived in would turn into a hive of activity for the entire village, we’d get a ‘summer holiday’ that we otherwise could not afford – in those days visits abroad were beyond the reach of many of us, my family included, and everyone had a good time. We never realised it at the time but there was some ‘kudos’ about both living in Cambridge and being from a city.  Children living in a village really are dependent on their parents to get them from A to B. You tend not to notice when very young but in my late teens, a number of drinking friends would have to leave early to catch last trains back to their villages.

What’s this got to do with David Cameron and Big Society?

His constituency is similar to that of the areas I have just described – only it’s on the outside of the other place – Oxford. Day-to-day constituency life in rural areas is very different to that of say inner city London – where I lived for a while when I was in the civil service. (One flat share being in an ex-council block that had been heavily refurbished). The ebb and flow of what happens in inner cities is very different to that of rural areas. (No —- Sherlock!) – but from a “Big Society Policy” perspective, this matters – greatly. But Cameron didn’t show he recognised this.

As far as the adults and young children are concerned, settled, relatively vibrant for a rural area, and affluent are words that could be used to describe both areas that Lansley and Cameron’s constituencies are in. That’s not to say they are not without their problems. Eavesdropping on the conversations some of the elderly have on the buses tell you this. (Interestingly, the bus drivers and the elderly seem to be on first name terms in those parts – unlike in my neck of the woods!) Would Cameron’s understanding of Big Society have been different if he had spent time living and working in an inner city area?

What do I think he meant by Big Society?

Because before the election everyone was trying to work it out, just as after it everyone was too. The civil service struggled with the concept because as far as Cameron was concerned, it was everything that previous civil-service-run programmes were not. No ‘top down’ initiatives from ministers with a budget from the Treasury and a series of performance indicators and bureaucratic reports, but rather letting the community get on and do things for themselves was the message.

But what did this look like? What did this feel like? What examples of this did he have? PR man to the core, both campaigning and as Prime Minister he visited a number of projects that were delivering to his mind what Big Society was all about. The problem was that these visits became hostages to fortune as a number were forced to close due to the huge cuts to the grant given to local councils from central government. Some even started listing them. The decentralisation agenda pushed by the Coalition meant that where once central government could have leant on local councils to keep such projects open – or even give them a grant from somewhere, decentralisation meant letting local councils make decisions on cuts.

I find it surprising that Cameron didn’t seem to recognise the importance that local councils play in supporting community activities – especially as he held the shadow local government spokesman post for the Conservatives in 2004. District, town and parish councils had – and have a huge role to play in the general functioning of civic society. It’s depressing that engagement at a local level is so dire given how important these roles are.  The one thing that Eric Pickles (Cameron’s Communities and Local Government Secretary – who is the face of local government cuts) got is the importance of bin collections: This is the one very visible service that local councils provide to everyone.

Scrutiny scrutiny scrutiny

I jump on about this because I’m trained to – the joys of being institutionalised. Actually, Richard Taylor is the expert in scrutinising local government in and around Cambridge. There’s also the issue of people only really missing something when it’s threatened or when it’s gone. The “Why didn’t anyone tell us it was in trouble!?!” sort of thing. One of the issues I have with decentralising things beyond local government is accountability for public money – especially with the “disposal” of publicly-owned assets (such as community halls) to ‘community groups and charities’. How do you ensure accountability for the management of those assets?

There are a couple of tensions here. One is the principle that local government should be a key institution within the community, and the other that local government is part of the state, so should be separate from the community. How do you resolve that tension?

PFI pricing people out

In years to come I think this will be seen as one of the biggest scandals in government for decades. The idea was to use PFI to spend more money up front than the state could afford, in order to make up for the run-down schools and hospitals of decades gone by, but also to transfer the risk to the private sector. As it turned out, the risk stayed with the state, the private sector got a licence to print money and community groups got priced out of facilities that were previously open to them.

Where do we go from here?

Jon Worth was on the right lines with his criticism of Labour – stating that it has no overarching vision of where it wants to get to. The same could be said for all three of the political parties. None of them appear to have a clear and coherent vision of where they want the country and society to get to, let alone how to get there. If they do, they’ve not communicated it very well. This was the overall problem of big society: Cameron could not communicate what his vision of it was, nor was it clear how such a vision would look in what are very different and diverse communities across the country. It’s one thing going to visit lots of projects and saying “Well done chaps!” but quite another to demonstrate an understanding of what are the common strands ensuring that such projects are successful and taking steps to support them in the longer term. Ripping the financial heart out of local government budgets had the opposite effect. Let’s also be clear that all three main political parties made clear that some sort of spending cuts were going to have to be made.

No – really, where DO we go from here?

This is what I’m trying to find out. Politics fascinates me and it has been a privilege to have seen it so close up during my time in the civil service. Yet as I stated in my blogpost about Obama’s speech, the state of UK politics is heart-breaking. Just have a listen to this lost in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

This is one of the reasons why I regard the spats between mainstream politicians as being little more than that. Given the scale of the problems we face locally to globally, the stuff that gets commented on and covered is all-too-often pathetic. Mountains are made out of molehills to try and show there is clear water between the parties. All too often people tell me that all politicians are the same. They are not, but I can understand how they’ve come to that conclusion. As I mentioned in Engaging with politics, but on whose terms? how can you even begin to start when ‘brand politics’ is so toxic?

Actually, it’s not all bad news

As I’ve said to various people – in particular politicians, effective use of social media allows politicians to be seen as human beings. Believe it or not, most of them are – and in my opinion many of them go into politics for the right reasons. Not for money, power or fame but because they want to do something to make the world and society a better place. I may disagree with them in how they intend to do it, but enough of them at least have their hearts in the right place. Fortunately social media allows politicians to show they have a human side. The politicians that get the best out of social media from my perspective are the ones who actually use it to converse with people. i.e. they listen to the posts that come back and respond having engaged with their brains.

Right! My politicians need an in-depth social media strategy to show their human side. Puffles, can you help?

No and no. All too often politicians – and organisations too – use social media as a channel for press release style or political point-scoring style posts. For example I can believe Stella Creasy in her dislike of Coldplay and love of mid-90s indy/britpop because it’s something that regularly comes up in her tweets, that people tease her about (because she teases young campaigners in her office about it too). Thus the conversation is natural. When a politician posts something along the lines of “Outrageous bigotry from Tory Cllr – Cameron should be ashamed for personally endorsing him & agreeing with every word” or “We are in this situation because of the actions of the last government that she endorses”. Oh please.

Is Fraser Nelson right?

Well he’s onto something in this article that tore into political party conferences – noting that while party numbers are plummeting, those of campaign groups are going in the opposite direction. What this the latter shows is that people are still passionate about stuff. Where it gets complicated is making the step over from single issue campaigning (which is relatively straight forward) to multi-issue campaigning and organising, which is a damn sight harder.

This in part is what the Democracy 2015 people are trying to do – though as I stated earlier, if a new political party is the answer, what is the question? It’s wider than party politics. It’s wider than voter registration & turnout. It’s wider even than political engagement. There are two very basic issues of political literacy and citizenship. To be a citizen implies some sort of rights and responsibilities. Political literacy implies knowing something about the origins of those rights and responsibilities. Those rights and responsibilities were not things that were given to us or our ancestors lightly. They had to fight for them. For too many, it cost them their lives. Freedom isn’t free. If we want to keep hold of those freedoms, then surely one of the first problems we need to deal with is the lack of political literacy.

Four professors and a dragon fairy

Summary

Why academics need to engage with policy-making, and how using social and digital media can help them.

I was invited to host a social media workshop and contribute to a panel at the University of Bristol’s Policy and Politics 40th Anniversary Conference. Naturally Puffles joined me. I should say a big **Thank you** to Professor Alex Marsh for the invitation, and to everyone attending who put up with the strange bloke carrying around a dragon fairy for most of the time.

I’m glad that I went – not least because of what I learnt from the other speakers and in the conversations that I had, but because as somewhat of a digital native it’s always useful to be challenged by people who are much more sceptical, unfamiliar with or even hostile to all things social media. It was also a reminder that not everyone is going to ‘get’ Puffles or the ideas and the history behind my favourite dragon fairy.

In one sense, the presence of Puffles sort of keeps away those who may not appreciate the fun I and close followers have with Puffles. I’ve only had one unfortunate tirade at one gathering as a result of having Puffles with me and the less said about that the better. On the other hand, people not interested in either Puffles or social media tend to keep away from the both of us – or so it seems. Yet the same point comes up time and again for organisations and those at the top of them: How do you handle social media and its users?

A conference of experts

In one sense this was a traditional conference. A series of seminars in nice surroundings (the part of Bristol around the Cathedral and City Hall is lovely) where experts give presentations followed by Q&A sessions. Little difference between this and conferences I attended and/or spoke at during my civil service days. The only difference being that I was not there as an academic expert. If anything, I was the academic lightweight in a room full of professors and PhDs in their field. My expertise came from having spent time inside the system, inside the policy-making machines that many of the academics spend their time studying and scrutinising. What struck me was the number of topics discussed that had previously been policy areas I had worked in.

The difference between academia looking outside in and being inside the machine

During the latter part of my civil service career it struck me at how little cross-over there was between the civil service and academia. It was only just before the 2010 general election that I noticed a real push to bring in academics to work with policy makers below the senior civil service level. I found it interesting how some of the frustrations I had with the way the civil service was managed – along with the political system – were similar to those felt by academics. One particular gripe was the impact of ministerial reshuffles – one that had huge impact on policy research because of changing ministerial priorities. It wasn’t just the huge amount of money that reshuffles cost inside the system, but the huge amount of goodwill and work that was lost outside of it. What’s the point in getting behind the new minister’s priorities only to find them moving onto a new job in a year’s time?

There were also a whole host of insights they gave that I thought would have been really useful to have had inside policy-making world. By that I mean at policy-delivery level, or below Grade 5 level in the civil service for those of you that use old money. In particular, I feel there is a role for masters to junior post-doctorate researchers to team up with/interchange with civil servants – if anything for the researchers to get a feel for the Whitehall timetable and circle, and for the latter to get a feel for what real detailed scrutiny feels like. Given the points made at the conference, I couldn’t help but feel that many senior officials or ministers would have their work cut out facing an audience like the one I was in. Yet too much from both Parliament and Whitehall that is published is not properly examined and scrutinised – even though there is a huge wealth of untapped expertise out there.

Think tanks get taken out

Think tanks came in for one hell of a kicking at this gathering – and for good reason. The weaker ones were put down as ‘apologetics’ – making lots of noise in favour of a political agenda they had already adopted irrespective of any evidence that was out there or could have been researched. Yet at the same time, I said that think tanks tended to be far better at getting their messages out to the media than university-linked institutes. In a couple of discussions I had with some think-tank types earlier this year, they told me it was because people within the think tanks had far stronger connections and friendships within the media than their critics did. They also know how to work with politicians and the media far better than academics do – for example providing the short, sharp news-friendly summaries at convenient times in the news cycle. In academia too much is contained in journals that is written in a more complicated language that is often locked up behind paywalls. Which one’s going to get the media coverage?

The think tank meets the tank-buster?

Interestingly with the Coalition’s priorities, a number of universities are looking to, or are already establishing public policy institutes similar to those seen in other countries. This is where things could get very ‘tasty’ as far as improving the quality of debate is concerned. When I look at the websites of some think tanks, I am struck by how small their numbers of staff are. Previously I had the impression that think tanks were these huge institutions that were a hive of brilliantly-researched radical ideas. Well…not all of them. With some of the larger universities looking to set up or beef up their public policy units, this creates new challenges for think tanks – and opportunities too.

For the ones that are explicitly biased or have a political line to take, there will now be institutes that will be more than happy to pull them up on it – not least because they will have the resources and staff available to do so. For those that pride themselves on the robustness, quality, depth and independence of their research there are opportunities to link up with such institutes – possibly even merging. This then begs the question: Will there be a greater expectation of think-tank types to have done more advanced studying before moving into think tanks? Will we also see some of the smaller think tanks merging? On top of this, there is also the move away from the traditional ‘think tank in a building’ to a more remote ‘networked’ one as demonstrated by Guerilla Policy.

Communications skills

This was something that came up time and again in my mind. There were a number of brilliantly devastating critiques of all things government and the civil service at the conference that covered decades worth of policies and initiatives. Yet few of them had gone beyond the world of academia, and those that had seemed to have gained little traction within Westminster, Whitehall and the media. Why?

This was one of the tensions that was exposed at the conference – between those that wanted to increase ‘impact’ versus those that were concerned about the ‘purity’ of their academic area, not wanting it to be tainted by party politics. Personally I came down on the side of the ‘impact’ people – not least on the grounds that as tax payers fund the work of many academics, the tax payer has the right to see the fruits of the work of academics. That for me implies a duty upon academics to engage with the wider public in their work. How to do so effectively is another question.

What has social media got to do with all of this?

Communication. I mentioned the problem of too much being tucked away in journals that only academics and specialists can afford to access. It’s all very well doing splendid research but if it’s all hidden away behind a pay wall, who’s going to read it? How is the otherwise excellent research that may be hidden behind the paywalls going to get out into a more mainstream audience? This is where I’m with the likes of Hadley Beeman and friends. The tax payer has already funded most of the researchers to do the work – release your findings! The other risk is that in social media world, people will simply bypass what they cannot access. How often have you bypassed a website that otherwise might have contained an interesting article because you could not access it?

So…how should academics use social media to get their message out there?

I tend not to like the word ‘should’ – it’s up to individuals whether they choose to use social media or not. Academics however need to understand the impact that social media is having on their specialist area and make a judgement call accordingly. Those at the top of institutes need to consider whether their staff and units need to be trained and skilled in how to harness the power of social media, as well as making them aware of the risks associated with it.

Starting off with the ‘passive’ use of social media – one where you are reading rather than contributing, there are often things coming out of Whitehall & Parliament and think tanks that could do with the scrutiny academics can bring to bear. Simple things such as automated alerts when a certain select committee, think tank or department publishes something can go a very long way indeed – because it increases the chance that people will talk about it.

In terms of more active use, this was something the panel I was on – along with Professors Alex Marsh, Colin Talbot, Matthew Flinders and Peter John all discussed. (Hence “4 professors and a dragon fairy” ). All of them tweet or blog to a greater or lesser extent. What this means is that they can all challenge and be challenged about what they write about. This has the benefit of both raising their profile and spreading their expert knowledge to audiences far beyond academia, but also means that they have to face the challenge of being scrutinised by audiences that may feel far less ‘safe’ than the ones they are familiar with in academia.

My own view is that the wealth of knowledge contained just within this academic field is too rich to remain locked up in an academic bubble. It needs to be freed. Ditto with other academic fields too. You never know – it might inspire others to move towards this field, enriching and diversifying what can sometimes feel like a male-dominated field. (Note all the people on my panel – including myself – were men, even though I was the baby of the bunch.) Talking of scrutiny of what we said, my commentary and the slides I used for the panel are on my website here, should any of you be interested.

In terms of future conferences, I think there is a role for a greater social media presence – not least in terms of getting people to contribute from outside. A number of social media users could not make the event. Yet it is becoming more the norm that conferences use social and digital media to source questions and contributions from outside. For an area as important as public policy, this for me is one of the next big steps. That along with making a big push to train and support academics in using social and digital media.

 

Has Nick Clegg’s apology made things harder for Lib Dem activists?

Summary

What now is the Liberal Democrats policy on university tuition fees?

Puffles put this question to Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron on Twitter.

So the abolition of university tuition fees is still party policy, even though in Nick Clegg’s apology, he said this:

“We made a promise before the election that we would vote against any rise in fees under any circumstances. But that was a mistake. It was a pledge made with the best of intentions – but we shouldn’t have made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver.

I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around.”

This leaves Lib Dem activists in a situation of huge uncertainty that was not necessarily of their own making. I can see why Nick Clegg felt the need to apologise from a tactical point of view. Take the humble pie now so that in two years time (general election time) the issue can be said to have long gone.

The impact of the apology?

The only people who seem to have reacted positively to it on Puffles’ timeline are Liberal Democrat activists. Party-loyalty-wise I can see why, but I think it’s made their position even harder than before – which I’ll cover later in this post.

Labour pains

Labour are understandably making hay over the statement – one of their key opponents is on the back foot. Yet Labour need to be careful on all things tuition fees because even though they made a pledge not to rise tuition fees, they broke that one in the minds of the voters. (This was fact-checked by Channel 4 in 2005) Even worse – though not realised until 2010, they passed the primary legislation that allowed ministers to bring in the substantially higher fees through secondary legislation – requiring only a couple of debates in Parliament rather than the passing of a new piece of primary legislation.

Not only that, in my mind Labour ministers ensured that the Browne Review on higher education would report back just after a general election, so that were Labour to get re-elected, they could deal with the ‘difficult choice’ early on in a new government. The Browne review itself was a farce – and in my mind ministers already knew the outcome they wanted. If it were a genuine in depth review – which it should have been – possibly even a royal commission, they would have allocated far greater resources for research than £120,000 – of which just over half was spent. Can those who were ministers at the time honestly say that they allocated levels of time, people, resources and money proportional to handle an issue that will affect generations of, and millions of people over many years? Can those people honestly say that the research budget alone was proportionate to the changes in funding, budgets and financial sources for higher education institutions?

Ed Miliband made a pledge last year to reduce higher fees to £6,000 – lower than the £9,000 but still a doubling. A strange decision in my mind, one that felt like he panicked and was pushed into making without thinking through fully what his overall higher education policy should be. Jon Worth nails the point here, saying that Labour still has no overall vision of the sort of society it wants to achieve – the thread that links the policies together. (What policies you may ask?)

As far as young people are concerned, if Nick Clegg has some apologising to do, so does the last cohort of Labour ministers. Labour may struggle to gain traction on this issue if they don’t come up with a sound, coherent and consistent set of policies as an alternative to what the Coalition currently has on higher education.

So…Labour are policy-lite on this and the Liberal Democrats…?

Well…their position seems to be: ‘Our policy is still to get rid of the tuition fees – unless our conference decides otherwise – but our leader said that our policy pledge was a mistake because we weren’t 100% sure we could have delivered on it.’

Rather than clarifying the party’s policy, it has generated more confusion – and quite possibly has weakened Nick Clegg further. Half the Parliamentary party did not back the rise – of those most voting against, in line with their pledge. Of those that did vote in favour, most of them were bound by the convention of collective responsibility that goes with being a government minister. i.e. they would have had to have resigned their ministerial posts to vote against. Given that the vote was taken a few months after the formation of the Coalition, no senior Lib Dem ministers resigned – preferring to remain as ministers.

So what we have is a very mixed set of messages coming from the Liberal Democrats. The ministerial leadership (Clegg, Alexander and co) have one line, the backbench leadership in the form of Farron and co have quite another. Which one do you go with?

The bigger picture – coalitions and voting reforms.

This is the biggest millstone around the necks of the Liberal Democrats. Their entire raison d’etre – or rather their main policy pillar as a party is that of voting reform. It is the one key policy that differentiates them from Labour and the Conservatives. Irrespective of the merits, their call for proportional representation makes coalition governments far more likely than under a first-past-the-post system. Therefore the Liberal Democrats HAVE to demonstrate in the current coalition that ‘coalition governments work’. If they cannot demonstrate that coalition governments work, it undermines the key pillar of the party’s existence. Hence they have to be seen by the political, media and financial establishment as being ‘mature enough to make the difficult political decisions.’

While the Liberal Democrats punched above their weight in terms of the content of the Coalition Agreement, the functioning of ministerial office has been one where Conservative ministers have been able to push through a number of policies that in the minds of some go against what the Liberal Democrats should be standing for. Coalition has been a significant learning curve for the party – one that in the future will impact on the future policies of the party.

Is all of what’s going on pointing to a much less radical politics in Westminster?

This is where we seem to be heading. Miliband’s not really giving anything away policy-wise – which The Greens are now taking full advantage of. (In my view, Labour are still struggling to respond to the Green challenge in the same way the Conservatives are struggling with the UKIP challenge). Clegg has said that his party will be far more careful about pledges and promises. But coalition governments – the like of which are much more likely under proportional representation – don’t sit easily with pledges and promises. The UK has a different political culture to those countries under PR – there’s an expectation that when a party enters office it will implement manifesto pledges. (Hence in part the disengagement in party politics because some key pledges either weren’t implemented or the parties in government went in entirely the opposite direction).

For me, more of the really exciting stuff on politics is happening outside the Westminster bubble – and also outside of the far left intellectual bastions around Bloomsbury. Hence my questions around the terms of engagement in politics. There are some fascinating conversations, debates and ideas that fly around social media, but for whatever reason are unable to penetrate the Westminster bubble. There are also debates in academia that at the moment seem to be happening in a separate bubble that both Westminster and ‘the outside world’ seem to be unaware of. I found this out at the Politics and Policy 40th Anniversary Conference in Bristol. Lots of very sharp and sound analysis by lots of stupendously bright people…that all too often remains inside the academic bubble. In a separate blogpost I’ll look at how academics can use social media to break outside of this and the impact that it could have.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a remix of Nick Clegg’s apology.

Engaging in politics – but on whose terms?

Summary

While political parties and groups try to impose the terms on which people will engage, they will struggle to keep people involved.

Party conference season has already begun – it began with the Greens over the weekend just past. For the mainstream parties they have another couple of weeks. A big challenge for them is how to handle the post-Olympics buzz. Moving from wall-to-wall Olympics coverage to wall-to-wall party conference coverage – in a world where the media now covers three rather than two party conferences in detail. The question I think everyone should ask senior politicians is:

“How are you going to inspire us like our Olympians and Paralympians did?”

They’ll probably have their work cut out. At the same time as all of this, the US election will be hotting up, with speech after speech from President Obama. As far as public speaking, presence and persona are concerned, he’s on a completely different level to politicians over here.

Labour go stateside

Bethany Gardiner-Smith hit the nail on the head in her post for Labour Lords.

Perhaps most striking of all is that most of the volunteers here are not Party members; in fact many do not even describe themselves as Democrats. They are here because they like the President and they have been inspired by the sense of being part of something growing and people-led, without feeling like being tied into a formal party structure.

This made me think about how parties and pressure groups organise themselves. Why are people volunteering yet not joining the political party?

Campaigning against the cuts 2010 stylee

In the autumn of 2010 I wandered along to a couple of gatherings of the local trade-union-backed anti-cuts group, as well as popping my head into the occupation of Senate House. I also made my way down to the inaugural gathering of the Coalition of Resistance, not knowing who they were or what they were about at the time. Like many in the public sector, I was fearful of my job, career and livelihood. I wanted to do something about it but didn’t really know where to start. I also didn’t want to get sacked, so I kept all activities trade-union-related.

The difference between what was going on with the occupation and what was going on with the local anti-cuts group was fascinating to observe – both in person and online. The occupation was a hive of people, energy and activity, run on autonomous collective lines. Whenever there was a task that needed doing, volunteers would be asked for and things would get done. This allowed them to react very swiftly to a very fluid situation – one where they were on a 24 hour watch due to the threat of eviction. The anti-cuts group on the other hand was set up on traditional trade union committee lines.

In the end I didn’t get involved much in either. With one the risk of arrest in taking direct action (even non-violent) is hugely off-putting when in employment. I can’t remember which politician said it, but it was something like ‘People who own their own houses don’t riot’ – as part of the justification of selling off council houses. It was a little bit like that for me, only rather ‘people who work for (and are thus dependent wage/salary-wise on) the state don’t riot’.

Terms and conditions

The problem I faced at the time was that my circumstances effectively prevented any involvement in one movement, while the terms and conditions of the other strangled anything creative that I wanted to do – hence going off and doing my own thing. As it turned out, doing my own thing has ended up being far more fun and enjoyable. It’s all been on my own terms. I’ve not had to worry about being told what to do by people or what is and isn’t acceptable.

It’s happened over the years where I’ve popped my head round the door of some local group or gathering and everyone’s like “Oooh! New volunteer! Here’s what we want you to do!” In my experience it rarely works getting people involved that way. You’ve got to invest in them before they invest in you with their time – and possibly money. The scenario reminds me of this guide to the introverted. Understandably the people who have spent and spend a lot of time running such groups, organisations and political parties can be very enthusiastic, passionate and intense about them. Sometimes that can be off-putting to some people – especially if it’s thrown right in their faces before they’ve even found out what the group is all about.

What do you get in return for being a member?

This applies to any group or organisation – not just political parties. Two things that jump off of the top of my head are the buzz of the activities concerned, and the sense of making a difference. There are many others. Unfortunately it’s got to the stage where the marketing people have got to it. How many people trying to sell you stuff no longer say “Buy our stuff” but rather “Be part of it!”

Perhaps it’s more complicated with a political party than it is with a single-issue cause. With a single issue cause it doesn’t really matter what you or others think about non-related issues. A political party however, has to ensure that whatever it campaigns on has to be consistent with everything else it does, lest they get shredded. No point in calling on increased spending in lots of areas if your overall policy is to reduce aggregate spending without showing where the cuts would come from or the tax rises to fund it would be made.

Why would you want to be a member of organisations whose brands and leaders are toxic to many people?

It’s a fair question. With leadership approval ratings of the three main parties in negative numbers, these are not approval ratings, but disapproval ratings: A race to avoid being the worst.

Values and principles

As with leadership, the more people talk and write about them, the harder they are to spot – or so it seems to me. The three parties are in a bit of a muddle on this one. The nature of coalition and the convention of collective government has muddied the waters for the Liberal Democrats in particular, while the Labour leadership seems to have got tangled up in the debate around Thatcher and capitalism. This is one of the front-lines that the Greens parked its tanks (or wheelbarrows if you like) on. While such talk from Miliband might appeal to affluent non-Tory parts of Islington or Camden, I can’t think the same would be true in parts of inner city Manchester or the former mining towns.

Is the corporate media still driving the political train?

I found this article by Fraser Nelson particularly funny – it sounded like he was saying that Ed Balls needed to be booed by the Trades Union Congress in order to increase is credibility! You can hear “The Thick of it” characters already.

“Yeah, we’ve gotta tell Ed that his speech must have something unpopular in – we need the boos and heckles to increase our credibility with the broadsheet press. Goes down well with the floating voter y’see!”

With the rapid expansion of social media usage, for me it’s too early to say what the impact will be on politics in general – and in particular on the impact of the corporate and print media. I’d like to think that 2010 election gave us glimpses of what it might be like in the future as far as predictability goes: more seats becoming much harder to predict as campaigns focus on hyper-local issues rather than bland ones set by the corporate or political classes – the latter of which whether I like it or not I’m sort of part of.

What happened to political clubs?

In one sense, a strong, vibrant local political party can overcome some of the worst aspects of toxic brands and leaders. In my neighbourhood there are a couple of local Conservative and Labour club houses – social clubs. I don’t know whether the Liberal Democrats have one locally – if they do I’ve not seen it. Such clubs form a potentially important link between politics and civic society, but to what extent do toxic political brands impede this?

I quite like the idea of such clubs. Some of my relatives in London have helped run one for decades. Rather than coming back home at the end of a working day and vegetating in front of the telly alone or with a partner, you head out to your club instead. The historian in me sort likes the idea that in pre-telly days you could head out to any number of such clubs – unfortunately it was men only in those days. Even the civil service has one!

People matter – listening matters

Prior to the advent of social media, what I call the Mandelson-Campbell style of political communication was about getting a positive message out there, ensuring everyone was consistent with that message and that any dissent or criticism was clamped down on. Understandable given what happened to Labour during the 1980s with the very public fallouts at party conferences and the years out of power. But one of the side-effects of this increased centralisation was the selection of uber-loyal lobby-fodder, along with the much-criticised career politicians whose main aim is to get into power without having much idea of what to do with it once gained. The same accusation is thrown at David Cameron too. The impression that I got following politics in those years was that few had independent minds and thus few spoke publicly other than to repeat the lines fed to them by party HQ. People have since cottoned onto this and can spot an unanswered question from a mile away.

C’mon Poofles, when are you gonna talk about social media?

In social media world, dissent is even more difficult to stifle. This is what mainstream political parties – as well as traditional committee-based groups tend to struggle with. In pre-social media world, it was easier to hide dissent and disagreement behind closed doors. Social media flings those doors wide open. Social media chatter within any political movement demonstrates this. You can’t keep a lid on it.

It’s also frightening for command and control types. One bad tweet or social media posting by a campaigner or minor councillor in some sleepy village could end up on the front page, smashing to smithereens the carefully crafted positive media image. Makes a change from 20 years ago when it was philandering politicians that did that.

How do you engage with social media users?

Many politicians are still trying to work that one out. Too many still see social media as another channel to get a message out. The more confident, open and dare I say it ‘principled’ politicians are happy to engage, debate and listen. As Julian Huppert said to an audience in Cambridge in 2011, by making clear what his overall worldview and principles are, he can respond to most policy-related questions through the prism of that worldview and those principles. The same is the case for other MPs that I follow from both left and right on the political spectrum. If your worldview is “get into power by any (legal) means possible” then you run a far greater risk of giving inconsistent answers over time or being ridiculed for parroting lines to take that don’t answer the question.

Shining a light on internal party political processes

Social media is something that could benefit grassroots party members significantly by opening up internal debates that otherwise happen behind closed doors. It’s just as much about keeping people informed as it is about allowing people to have their say – and have that say scrutinised too. In this regard, freedom of speech isn’t just about having the right to have your say, it’s also accepting the responsibility that people can hold you to account for what you say too.

It also shines a light into the world of think tanks and pressure groups too. People live-tweeting events (which in Whitehall and Westminster is now the norm) provide far more detail to far more people than in times gone by. Even now, hosts are inviting people from outside to send in their questions that are then put to the panel.

As well as blurring the line between professional and personal, social media users are also blurring the line between member and non-member. My take is that people are willing to engage if parties and organisations are more flexible on the terms of engagement. Do you have examples where parties and organisations have done this well? (Or badly even?) Feel free to tweet to @Puffles2010 or add comments below.

Future digital video projects

Summary

Some ideas that we have had for future projects

Alice, Dave, Nyika, Kate and I threw some ideas against a blank canvas following our work on the first three digital video projects on introducing Facebook, introducing Twitter and introducing blogging via WordPress.

My call for your responses, and criteria within which to frame them, are on my website (Click!)

As mentioned in previous blogposts, it’s been an incredibly enjoyable learning experience for all of us, and it has stimulated a whole series of ideas for future digital videos that I feel I need from a ‘training people’ perspective, and for an information and campaigning perspective. All of us agreed that what we’ve learnt over the past few days will stand us in good stead, providing us with skills and experience that we can apply in both future employment and for campaigning and activism.

This blogpost lists a series of possible short digital video clips that we think it would be good to make. It is also an invitation for young students and graduates with limited work experience that follow & engage with Puffles & myself to put their names forward.

  • Cultural impact, how organisations can enhance their use of Facebook fan pages
  • How to run an online campaign in support of offline activity
  • Twitter hashtags and how they’re used
  • Where do ‘politics’ belong, Facebook or Twitter?
  • Matching text to audience; avoiding preaching to the converted or going over people’s heads; getting pieces published on blogs which have an audience that you wouldn’t normally reach
  • Instagram
  • Tumblr
  • Linkdin
  • Flickr
  • Skype
  • SEO
  • Cloud computing
  • Dropbox/Slideshare/Prezi
  • Portable Devices
  • RSS
  • Working from ‘We, The Web Kids’; digital nativity; the urgency of operating online

In defence of media studies

One of the big learning points is the benefit of having someone who is familiar with making digital film clips. The impact that Kate McAlpine – who has just completed her A-levels (including one in media) – has had has been significant. From what I have learnt observing the team is that digital media skills are becoming more and more important. The stereotype of ‘media’ courses being an easy or useless option is now becoming obsolete. The  problem is with firms and employers: the opportunities provided by social and digital media are out there, and there is a huge resource in our digitally literate and digitally native young (and not-so-young) people. Too many firms and employers are simply too ignorant to bring in and bring on our young people. How many job opportunities are out there where the employer is not demanding ‘the finished product’ – i.e. someone with extensive qualifications and working experience? Where are the adverts saying “I want someone who is passionate about X and is willing to learn and apply these new skills to our working environment”?

Timing

Much as I would love to commission teams to make digital videos for all of the above, the truth is that I cannot afford to do them all at once. Hence I will be looking to spread the production of all of these over a year or so. This will also allow me to build in some formal project management techniques that I can share as part of the activities.

What and who I am looking for

Young people that follow and engage with Puffles and Puffles’ followers. The reason for inviting young people is because of the high youth unemployment rate. I’m not automatically excluding older followers of Puffles – not least because you too will have something to bring to the table. But the primary purpose of these paid commissions (beyond the specific outputs) is to give young people that do not have the experience or the opportunities provided in the world of unpaid internships that opportunity.

The reason for making following and engaging with Puffles & other followers a criterion is because the most important phrase in the term ‘social media’ is the word ‘social’. Engaging regularly gives me a feel for who and what sort of a person you are, and which people you are most likely to work best with far better than any application form or job interview can. There’s also an issue of trust. All of the four people here can be vouched for by many other people within my social network. That trust has been built up over time. That is a significant investment. The fact that they have invested in me and my social media profile makes me all the more willing to invest in them.

With each of the platforms/social media tools listed, I’m also looking for individuals to take the lead on the one that they are most passionate about, use effectively and regularly. So if you are particularly familiar with one tool, have a think about what you would include in a 5 minute long digital video clip introducing the basics of that tool to someone who has never seen it before. At the end of the clip, the watcher should be able to set themselves up with that tool and use the basic processes.

What you can get from this:

  • Payment for the commission that works out at quite a bit more than the minimum wage
  • Learning new skills (in particular using new social media platforms) and improving existing ones (such as using a familiar social media platform in a different environment
  • Having the fruits of your work published on the internet and used at conferences, events and training sessions where you’ll be credited – thus raising your profile
  • A reference
  • New friendships and/or closer friendships with those who perhaps you have only engaged with online

If you are interested, please tweet to Puffles, post a comment at the end of this blogpost or contact me via here.

Employers or organisations looking to do something similar to what I have done with this project

If this is you and you are interested in having a digital video made about your organisation or firm, or a project that you are working on, and are interested in how I went about this, I am happy to talk to you. Please contact me via my website.