“It’s about living standards, stupid!”

Summary

Why it’s not just about the economy – some thoughts on the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards report

The Resolution Foundation’s report has got the bubbles of Whitehall and Westminster incredibly excited. It was embargoed until stupid-o’clock last night so that Newsnight could have a highbrow conversation on what was in it before we could get our pesky little eyes on it – which I thought was unfair. Far better to let us all see a copy and then do the Newsnight feature so that we can make informed judgements on what the panel – in particular the Universities’ Minister David Willets, were saying. But hey, that’s a presentational issue.

“So Pooffles, what did it say?”

The first thing to note is this isn’t your typical under-resourced-but-politically-connected think-force/focus-team report that decides the conclusion or political line it wants to follow before looking for evidence to back up said claims. This was one that had some Establishment big cheeses that are seen (by senior party political types) to be reasonably moderate but independent from both centre-left and centre-right of politics. This means that politicians can turn around and say stuff that sounds like:

“I know the general public think I’m a two-faced lying toe-rag and wouldn’t trust me me for their lives, so don’t take my word for it, take the word of the highly-regarded independent commission on [insert name] who have reported [selected quotation] that clearly backs up why we’re right and that ‘orrible lot over there are wrong – vote for us!”

I’ve heard it said in some quarters that independent reports and reviews further undermine the trust in politicians as a cohort because it automatically implies that politicians cannot be trusted.

Actually, there are a number of very highly regarded people on that panel who walk that tightrope of having to remain credible to all political parties in the work that they do. Ben Page of Ipsos Mori is one of them. It’s not easy trying to maintain a distance from party politics when party politics is trying to drag you into them to give them that extra ounce of credibility.

Length, volume and bibliography – Beecroft vs The Commission on Living Standards

Just so as to illustrate the point, let’s compare the Beecroft report (16 pages, no bibliography and hardly any references) sitting on the Department for Business’ website versus the Commission on Living Standards report (139 pages cover-to-cover, a page (p3) full of preceding publications, footnotes and references aplenty and seven pages of bibliographical references. In my book, if you are going to be making significant policy recommendations, the latter is the sort of thing I’d expect to see, not the former. If only the Labour-commissioned Browne Review into the funding of Higher Education was done with the level of resources, engagement and quality of write-up and referencing as the Commission on Living Standards – especially given the amounts of money at stake and the generations of young people that will be affected. Remember that the Browne Review only spent £68,000 on research on what was a seismic change of government policy, and was deliberately scheduled to report just after a general election (in which the two main parties had no policy other than to study the review’s recommendations carefully – which is not a policy) so that whoever was elected could implement the publicly unpopular but political-establishment-desirable objectives early on in the new Parliament.

OK, so the Resolution Foundation did good, but what did they say?

It makes uncomfortable reading for all political parties – both in terms of Labour’s record from 2003 and the Coalition’s current policies. It’s much harder to get away from a detailed analysis of comprehensive data sets as far as politicians are concerned. What it also means is that debates that follow need to be of a different format to man-bags across the chambers of Parliament.

“[F]rom 2003 to 2008 disposable incomes fell in every English region outside of London”

Now if the above quotation from the start of the executive summary doesn’t raise concerns within political – and Labour ranks in particular…exactly. This was despite strong economic growth and rising employment during those times. Why were we all blind to what was going on outside of London? This raises all sorts of issues for all sorts of institutions. Did and does all things London drown out news of what’s going on elsewhere? Were there limitations and shortcomings on the indicators being measured by statisticians?

“The changing nature of inflation accentuated the problem for lower income households as prices for staple foods and fuel soared, meaning that official measures of inflation understated the pressures they experienced.”

What they mean here is that the basket of goods used to measure inflation changed – for example as reported here. Yet in a society where in 2012  just over 15% of the population had never used the internet, how can a ‘basket of goods’ that contains things like online dating website fees or smartphone apps (I appreciate it’s all averaged out statistically) be of any relevance to people who are otherwise struggling to heat their poorly insulated rented accommodation or who are struggling to put decent food on the table?

“By the time the crisis struck, these shifts in the nature of inflation meant that low to middle income households were typically paying a £400 premium on their annual shopping bills compared with those on higher incomes.”

That premium works out at just under £40 per month, which for a family on a low income is enough to provide basic foodstuffs for a week. That is a significant amount of money for someone on a low income or on benefits.

The drawbacks of public sector outsourcing

This was touched on in the executive summary and on p54 of the main report, but is worth exploring further. Prior to the outsourcing boom of recent decades, staff responsible for front-of-house services in public sector buildings – reception, security, catering and cleaning – would be ‘in house.’ In Whitehall this meant that they were permanent civil servants – or so the old hands I used to work with told me. Then came the rise of the outsourcing firm and pressure to transfer out such functions to the private sector on grounds of cost saving.

But while this might save spending on an organisational budget, as the report states it enables outsourcing firms to squeeze the wages of low-paid workers with the predictable consequences of low pay & poor conditions of jobs (often taken on by migrant workers with little protection) and rising salaries of the executives of such firms that ‘provide the services’. Hence you end up in a situation where the state has to subsidise the low-paid through tax credits, as well as having to deal with the symptoms of people working long hours on low pay, such as poor health to having no one to look after family (whether children or the elderly) – having an impact on them too.

At the other end of the scale, you end up with executive directors on telephone number salaries – let’s look at Olympics’ shambles Buckles of G4S – along with nice cushy non-executive directorships for former MPs and former ministers – such as former Home Secretary John Reid who works for the same company responsible for the Olympics’ security debacle. It’s a false economy that screws the front-line employees, screws the tax payer in general but benefits excessively paid executives and politicians looking for a nice earner once their career is over.

Interestingly, Will Hutton’s interim review for the Government on fair pay in the public sector in 2010 hinted in favour of a 20:1 ratio of salaries between the lowest paid and highest paid employees in any public sector organisation. I’d go further and impose that as a condition of tender for any organisation looking to secure a public contract. I’d also be tempted to compel PLCs to put to shareholders’ votes the setting of a ratio of executive pay to the lowest earner, but initially leave it up to shareholders to decide what that level should be. That at least would force boards automatically to consider how much they are paying their lowest paid staff. Boards would have to consider what they could afford to pay executives within the context of their low paid, knowing that a ridiculous ratio would, in this social media age, lead to lots of negative publicity.

Enforcement of minimum wages

I remember on some regional visits outside of London during my civil service days talking to some people who were saying how badly paid some of their relatives were being paid. When I enquired as to how much, it was abundantly clear that the employers were breaking the law. I gave them details of who to contact regarding the alleged breaches. If you or someone you know might be being paid less than the minimum wage, contact this lot for advice. It’s not easy to push for your rights when someone else has all of the power over you & when there’s no one to fight for you. In these tough economic times, people will genuinely fear for their jobs.

Women’s rights (p61 ono)

One of the things that struck me during my Fast Stream days was the number of women who spoke in open forums that their decision to apply for the civil service was a positive choice – i.e. they chose the civil service ahead of the private sector that could pay significantly more. Now that some of those are at risk, this could have a knock on impact on women’s ability to work for the civil service. Flexitime can be invaluable for people with young families – but it’s a benefit that’s difficult to quantify. Being able to arrange to come in late/go home early and make up hours later on can take a lot of worry off of people, whether it’s emergencies to things like taking children to the dentist.

There is then the cost of childcare – a huge barrier – and not just to women. One of the things I feel we don’t have is a comprehensive picture of how people deal with the issue of childcare. How many children are being looked after in paid care? How many in workplace schemes? How many are being looked after by grandparents/relatives/friends? How many women are willing but unable to access the workplace due to lack of childcare availability? What is distribution of childcare facilities like locally, regionally and nationally? How should childcare be funded – by the state? By employers? By the parents? What should the split be? I’d like to think that as more women stand for and enter Parliament, the further up the political agenda this will rise.

Income v expenditure

There’s a very interesting pie chart on page 68 comparing sources of household income in low to middle income families between 1968 to 2008. Tax credits and benefits made up 9% of household incomes for those income brackets in 1968. That figure was 18% for 2008. What the actual inflation-weighted figures & differences are I don’t know.

It’d be interesting to see what the expenditure breakdowns were in comparison, both absolute and percentages. Are people spending more in essentials – housing, food, fuel as a percentage today compared to 1968? If so, why?

A pessimistic future ahead?

The summary on page 76 is jaw-dropping. Even assuming an economic recovery, by 2020 low income families will see their income levels similar to those they had at 1993, and for middle income families, levels similar to 2001. The summary on page 92 – including the recommendation on tackling low pay is one that will be too politically unpalatable to New Labour types, Orange Book Lib Dems & Conservatives in general because it implies direct intervention in labour markets.

Forward to the 2015 General Election

This for me is one of the big ‘unknowns’ – mainly because I don’t know where we will be as far as social media & political engagement will be. It’s a bit like comparing social media world in 2009 with what it is today. So much has changed. What message will the electorate send to politicians both face-to-face and over social media assuming more years of economic gloom in the meantime. Will this, as some have said be a general election about living standards? How will politicians respond given that it is likely to be much harder for them to hide behind party slogans and big names of the 1997 era?

To sum up…

The picture isn’t good. There’s far more to the report, but those are the things that jump out from a scan through. What are your thoughts? What stood out for you?

Ministries of Transport and Justice face Parliament

Summary

What happens when Parliament spots things going wrong

This is what happened earlier with the announcement of the interim report into the Westcoast shambles and the new interpreters contract shambles.

OK Pooffles, who’s to blame for #trainfail?

“Firm judgments should not be made based upon what are provisional findings or wider conclusions drawn at this stage.”

A quotation from the press release.

That said, the points raised in the interim report (see here for the pdf) make for interesting reading for those interested in the finer details of public administration.  In particular paragraphs 3.2.3 and 3.2.4 on matrix management structures and the impact of the large scale cuts.

Maria Eagle MP, the Shadow Transport Secretary was on top form in Parliament responding to the Transport Secretary’s statement – if anything reflected by the lack of responses to her very targeted questions to ministers. See the transcript here, note the questions Ms Eagle asked then note the number of questions that the Transport Secretary chose to respond to. If any MP is reading this, the best thing you can do is to submit each question Ms Eagle put to ministers in the Commons as individual written PQs – and force the answers out that way. Otherwise ministers will simply be able to ignore them.

The above is not a party-political point, it’s about the scrutiny of an executive by a legislature point. The same would apply if the party roles were reversed with a different party in power. There is an incentive for ministers to blame civil servants in such situations – the latter cannot speak out publicly. (Hence noting trouble at the top when in this case one of the suspended civil servants did exactly the opposite).

As far as the cuts and reshuffles go, the whole thing bodes ill for the Department for Transport, with significant personnel changes both at senior civil service and ministerial level. But how can you hold anyone to account for the cuts in a scenario like this? Ultimately the decision on the speed and scale of the cuts were taken by The Treasury and Downing Street. The impact of the cuts led to “significant resourcing challenges” – which is civil service speak for:

If you want commercial commissioning to work, you must resource your commissioning bodies.Otherwise you’ll get screwed. We got screwed”

The nature of the cuts meant that there was no salami-slicing of directorates and teams in Whitehall. It really was back to the drawing board stuff, asking the basics such as asking what functions should each department be doing, what functions are they legally bound to carry out and which ones can be dropped, devolved or outsourced. As a result, lots of people will have had to apply for posts in the new structures or did what I did and take the redundancy/voluntary exit packages. Trying to run a franchising process while all of this is happening is…challenging. You’ve got people worried about their futures, you’ve got new teams trying to form and work out possibly new jobs, roles, functions, policy areas and relationships. You’ve got the churn at the top of the senior civil service – and at ministerial level too, recalling that all of the Tory transport ministers were reshuffled away weeks before this whole thing blew up.

On the public administration side, you’ve got criticism of the matrix management set up. The problem of accountability here is the regular churn of senior civil servants and permanent secretaries. The current incumbent can reasonably argue that he’s not been in post nearly long enough to be responsible for the set up in place upon taking post. The Permanent Secretary and the Transport Secretary may be directly accountable but given the two have only been in post for a very short period of time, can they be held responsible for a set up that, in the grand scheme of things takes ages to turn around? It’s a bit like dropping a new captain on an oil tanker as it’s heading towards the rocks – then telling that captain he/she is responsible for any of the environmental damage done.

In terms of future parliamentary inquiries, the Public Accounts Committee will be very interested because of the sums of money involved. Beyond that, the Public Administration Select Committee may be interested in the lessons learned over complex matrix management and the resourcing of commissioning units in the public sector: are they properly resourced to face private sector contractors? Finally, the Transport Select Committee I hope will want to look at what alternative options there are to franchising, given that the very narrow scope of the internal review makes clear that franchising is the option they are going with, only they want to make it work properly. My major fear about all parliamentary inquiries is whether they are properly resourced. Parliamentary select committees all too often are not. That needs to change. Urgently.

What about interpreters? Isn’t this all parlez-vous-Inglese?

Absolutely not – this is about ensuring the course of justice – which is in the public interest. This is what is at risk. Just because someone does not speak English does not mean they do not have the right to justice. You hear stories of people from the UK getting into trouble abroad saying they did not understand proceedings because they were in a foreign language, well similar applies here, just the other way around.

Now, if you thought Nick Buckles of G4S (on Olympics’ security shambles) was painful viewing, have a look at Capita’s Andy Parker in front of the Public Accounts Committee. Margaret Hodge, the Chair of the Committee was on top form, absolutely shredding Parker and Sunna Van Loo – who was also summoned. Neither of the two seemed to be in command of the key facts that should have been absolutely basic top line material for a hearing such as this. This made me wonder whether they were incredibly badly briefed or incredibly clueless as to the operations that they were/are running.

The other thing I noticed in the footage was the audience sitting just behind the two witnesses being grilled. Their facial expressions spoke volumes. At various points, every answer the witnesses gave were greeted with expressions of outrage and/or shakes of the head – to the extent that the committee picked up on it. Whether they should have referred to this – or even cleared the room – is another matter. (As far as the Commons Chamber is concerned, MPs are not allowed to refer to people sitting in the public or press galleries).

Given the evidence given to the Committee, both in public, written evidence and the online forum here, I’m expecting the Public Accounts Committee to fire one hell of a broadside at the Ministry of Justice. I’m also expecting the Ministry of Justice and Whitehall as a whole to completely ignore most of the lessons learnt and carry on as normal. At the moment Parliament’s powers are very limited in terms of being able to compel the government of the day to do anything – in particular where there might be a public interest on issues of public administration. Until that changes, I fear we’ll see repeats of the shambles that seem to be popping up all over the place of late.

***Thank you***

Summary

A big ***Thank you*** to everyone who recommended me as a potential trainer for civil servants

No – really.

Some of you may be aware from Puffles’ tweets that I spent part of last week in London delivering training for civil servants with Westminster-Explained. This post – while obviously not going into the details of the training itself, contains a few personal reflections on…well…how I got to ‘here’.

The world of work up until summer 2012

In one sense I had become conditioned to a particular model of job hunting and job searching. I looked either in the papers or online for vacancies, applied and if shortlisted, attended an interview which would be competency-based. More often than not, I would fail that interview – they would pick someone else. “Oh well, their loss” was my response in most cases – despite the repeated rejections.

The culture I was used to was one of paper-based application forms followed by competency-based interviews: ie “These are the competencies required for the job, can you demonstrate at interview that you meet the requirements?” This is standard for the public sector. Since 2002 these were the sorts of jobs I had chosen to apply for – for I knew no different.

Even after leaving the civil service, my instinct all the way through was to apply for a permanent post in the public sector. Having worked both in retail and in banking prior to my days in the civil service, the idea of working for myself rather than for an employer was something that was completely alien to me. Working for an employer in some sort of managerial or professional role was what was ‘expected’ of me – wasn’t it? So I thought. Remember that when I joined the civil service back in 2004, my mindset was that this was my career – more than a ‘job for life’ – rather a lifestyle choice. Perhaps many middle class people feel that too – they join a profession and stick with that profession for life. It’s what they identify themselves as and with. Hence the concern about the economic crisis and upheaval. Has the middle class lost its way?

“Yo Pooffles, our councillors need training!”

It’s Councillor George Owers‘ fault really. When he was on Twitter, he asked Puffles if Twitter’s favourite magic dragon knew of anyone who could run a social media workshop for councillors in Cambridge. That sounded like fun on my side – as well as a chance to both give something back to my home town and to meet some of my local councillors – hence offering to run that workshop for free. Cambridge City Council took me up on it, calling me in for a meeting with one of their senior managers, Jonathan James where we discussed some ideas I had on what we could cover. At this meeting, I brought Puffles with me.

At that meeting – which was in an open plan area, a number of Council staff raised eyebrows at this dragon fairy joining this random bloke having a conversation with one of their senior managers. It was off of the back of that meeting – and the staff’s curiosity that I was commissioned to deliver my first social media awareness sessions. I deliberately quoted significantly below a consultancy market rate given that  a) The City Council is in my home town and that b) these were my first commissions. In that sense, I owe this new ‘career path’ to the fact that Cambridge City Council chose to take a risk on a local lad to help deliver on a business need. For that, I will be forever grateful. How often do you hear someone from the private sector saying that they are grateful for the support their local council gave them? Exactly. (As this photograph demonstrates, Puffles is popular with both local Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors!)

Social media for rail freight?

Well, the more freight we can get on the rails, the better. Living close to the now-at-risk Royal Mail depot that switched from rail to road, I can appreciate the impact freight has on roads. It’s not fun having lorries of any sort driving in your neighbourhood in the small hours. (I don’t blame the posties – this was a decision taken at a very high level). My point though is that environmentally, I’d prefer more freight on rails than roads. Which is why when former civil servant and long-time EU-blogger and trainer Jon Worth invited me to join him in submitting a joint tender for social media training as part of the Low Carbon Freight Dividend in East Anglia, I jumped at it. Again, a risk for Jon and for Lisa and friends at the Haven Gateway, for which I’m grateful they took.

What is really useful about this commission is that I am learning just as much as I am teaching. This isn’t just in the ‘self-reflection’ that teachers by habit do at the end of each lesson, term or year, but in terms of research in advance of and learning from delegates. Unlike teaching children, with adults you have people who have decades of working and life experience in their fields. In the field of rail freight, I couldn’t help but feel that if more people knew about the problems the industry faced (as well as the positive impacts of potential solutions), much more would be done. One of my big learning points here is trying to find those people in the private sector who want to engage on issues that go beyond their firm – and even the market they work in. One key argument being harnessing the power activists can bring to bear on issues affecting the industry by arming them with facts, knowledge and information through social media. What I learnt here was that those in the private sector who see far beyond their firm’s immediate bottom line and who are reasonably open to the opportunities and challenges of social media are the ones most likely to take it on.

Four professors and a dragon fairy

Some of you may have seen the blogpost under that name – with Professor Alex Marsh of the University of Bristol. This too was a different audience to the standard public sector admin audience that I had become used to. One of the lessons here was not to take my knowledge for granted. One of the most challenging things when running workshops on social media is trying to get a feel for the level of people’s familiarity with the subject. It’s not one that follows a traditional academic path. Unfamiliarity does not equal a lack of brightness.

I also had a sense that I was somewhat ‘unworthy’ of being on a platform with university professors. In part it’s the ‘life on a piece of paper’ mindset – the feeling that I need a qualification to verify that I am competent in what I do. I’ve joked in the past that I wanted to get to a stage where I had more letters after my name than in it – but never really asked myself why. Status anxiety?

Again, a huge risk taken by Professor Marsh because this was the first time I had taken part in an event like this for an academic audience where pretty much everyone was a specialist in their field.

Teacamp, Teacambs, and social media guidance

It was Sarah Baskerville who brought me along to my first Teacamp – without her I may well have stayed on in the civil service to have fought my corner in a situation that was becoming increasingly unsustainable. Ditto with my first UKGovCamp in 2011. On both occasions I remember feeling surrounded by people who seemed to be on a similar wavelength to me (but far brighter in terms of technological knowledge) on a scale I had never seen or felt before. It was different to both the Fast Stream and Whitehall policy teams in that for most of us at the time, all things public sector social media was a hobby that we did in our spare time rather than as something integral to our jobs. That was certainly the message I got just before I left the civil service. Social media wasn’t part of my objectives so there was no real need for me to spend so much time on it.

Yet it wasn’t just a ‘professional’ network that I was developing via Twitter, but some real friends – meaningful friendships that I had not experienced for years. LinkedIn this was not. In the main too, many of the people that I was meeting and engaging with understood ‘the concept’ that is – or has become – Puffles the dragon fairy. Not least the Government Digital Service. The inclusion of Puffles in the media release of Cabinet Office’s Social Media Guidance for Civil Servants is still something I have to pinch myself over. I wasn’t paid for my contributions – nor did any of us contributing externally from government ask to be. On my part I contributed because it was something I was passionate about and felt that I could make a positive difference with. Sharing knowledge and thoughts on public fora seemed like the normal and natural thing to do. Wrapping it up behind a paywall & charging people for it…it’s just not me.

“You’ve come highly recommended by several people”

…were the words that rang in my ears from the initial phone call I had with the company behind Westminster Explained. I felt it was rude to ask who those people were, so never did. But to whoever you are, ****Thank you****

The importance of trust

One of the things that struck me about being taken on as a trainer in this manner is the importance of trust – one of the things that underpins social media communities too. Things moved very quickly from the initial phone call to my first workshops in late October 2012 – both going far better than I had anticipated. This for me represented a transition to a new phase of life – one based on professional individual relationships of trust. (Prior to that, it was nearly always based on trust with an organisation/employer). Looking back, I was already trusting people with my recommendations to others. I have always been very clear on what my interests are regarding social media awareness training, and on what I can and cannot do. I hate finding myself out of my depth. Hence why on a number of occasions I have said to others that I’m not the person they are looking for, but someone else is. As with such things, the first thing the person I’ve recommended hears is the phone call or email from the organisation I’ve recommended them to.

Repaying that trust to those that got Puffles and me here

It’s one of the many reasons why I run the digital media commissions for my website. A number of people who have been long-term social media friends and correspondents have been struggling to find work in these gloomy economic times. Being taken on to deliver more training courses means that I can reinvest some of that income into producing new digital video content – which is my plan for the next 18 months. For those taking part, it shows that the work they have done is not like ‘one off work experience’ but something where someone has potentially come back to them over a period of time for paid commissions. How I’ve learnt to use social and digital media has been dependent on them engaging in the way they have. I wouldn’t have got to ‘here’ without them. So a big ****Thank you**** to them and to you too!

A ministerial reply – Are there limits to localism?

Summary

The minister replies – but does his answer match his department’s actions?

Some of you may recall a blogpost warning what happens when ministers don’t answer questions at conferences. The nature of Q&A sessions at conferences is very similar to that in Parliament – you don’t get to follow up, which means that ministers can give absolutely ridiculous responses (or simply say “I won’t answer his question“) and move on – unless someone else chooses to drop their long-awaited question & follow it up for you. How often does that happen?

The minister at this conference concerned – Andrew Stunell – was dropped from the Government in place of Don Foster (both Lib Dem MPs) by the time the Department for Communities and Local Government got round to passing a submission up to private office. Interestingly, it wasn’t my question that seems to have got ministers caught up – rather it was one from one of their own, former Lib Dem councillor Mike Galloway. Mike asked Mr Stunell if there were any limits to localism. Mr Stunell successfully dodged that question which is why I chose to follow it up on this blog. Mr Foster’s response is below.

“I do not believe there are limits to localism”

…writes the Minister. Really? This sounded like a nice sound-bite that hadn’t been thought through. Being at an academic conference when I received that letter, I had a word with a couple of the professors of politics there to see what they thought – and they too were surprised. I asked my local MP Dr Julian Huppert to get Mr Foster to clarify his remarks – the response being that he stood by them. (Declaration of interest, Dr Huppert bought Puffles a beer last night at Michelle Brook’s birthday drinks).

Are there limits to localism?

How about the first clause of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill that Ministers have just introduced to Parliament?

“Option to make planning application directly to Secretary of State”

It’s due to receive its second reading in the Commons in a few days time. (Will any Labour MPs pick up on this point?)

For those of you not familiar with the planning system in England, when you want to make a planning application you normally go to your local council that has the competency for planning and building control. Very rarely will another institution be empowered with planning powers – normally in the case of very large infrastructure projects, such as the redevelopment of the Olympics Park. Or, if you wanted to be cynical about it, where central government does not trust local government to deliver the necessary planning consents to allow redevelopment, so the former uses an Act of Parliament to override local councils to set up a quango with planning powers. Historians of the redevelopment of the London Docklands may see this as one such example.

Is having limits to localism a bad thing?

Not necessarily. It might be bad for some people – especially if it’s your house that’s being knocked down to make way for a new piece of infrastructure. This is one of the reasons why the High-Speed-2 (HS2) line is so controversial. People understandably don’t want to be forced out of their homes. But sometimes the state may choose to take a decision to override local concerns for the greater national good. This might be where it is building new transport routes, power stations (renewable or otherwise), housing developments etc. Proponents for HS2 would argue that this piece of infrastructure falls within that definition of sacrificing local concerns for the national good. Another example could be the linking up of Oxford to Cambridge by road or rail. I can’t imagine that people living next to any proposed routes would be too happy having a new motorway next door – not least because of the noise. But for those that might benefit – myself included, the idea of linking the two academic power-houses is a compelling one.

What should the Minister have written?

Personally I think he should have acknowledged some of the limitations of localism – especially within the context of regionally or nationally important infrastructure. Simply because the line on all things pro-localism starts unravelling when decisions such as this one in Shakespeare country (or anything planning-related where developers continue to appeal to planning inspectors) are inevitably made.

Thus we have the tension between two policy areas. One is about trying to devolve as much power as possible to as local a level as possible, and another is about trying to get the construction industry & the economy going again. What do you do when the two collide? One thing politicians of all parties need to be honest about is that the tension exists and there will be times when the two policies collide. Whatever decision is taken, someone is going to be unhappy with it.

As it is, opponents (political or otherwise) to any schemes that are seen to be steam-rollered through by central government can claim that such a scheme shows the limits of localism – especially where such a scheme throws up significant local opposition.

 

Parliamentary inquiry into private rented housing

Summary

About time too – and you can submit evidence to it!

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee is to hold an inquiry into the private rented housing sector. And not before time. All too often it’s felt like the problems with this sector have been passed over into the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile.

Having spent my second year at university in a dump that was eventually condemned by the local council as unfit for human habitation, I know what it feels like to live in a hell-hole (which was also around the time my mental health was imploding) and can testify to the impact of not having decent cooking facilities, decent sound insulation or anything decent to keep the room warm in the midst of a cold winter.

In some senses it was the both the breaking and the making of me – breaking in the realisation that institutions that should have been standing up for me were not, but also the making because when you’ve had sand kicked in your face like that, it makes you angry; an anger that stays with you for the rest of your life.

So if you’ve lived in – or are living in private rented housing, and have strong views on it, please submit your evidence to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee – their webpage also contains a guide on how to structure and submit your evidence. Remember that your evidence will be made public.

For me there are four issues:

1) Speed with which problems of homes unfit for human habitation can be dealt with.

  • Do local authorities have sufficient powers to clamp down on rogue landlords that let out such properties?
  • Do local authorities have the resources to enforce either existing or proposed new laws to deal with such homes?
  • How can the enforcement processes be sped up so things do not drag on through the courts or other processes, at which time people’s health is suffering?

2) Improving homes to deal with demands of new climate-change-related legislation – and of a changing climate

  • How many people ask landlords to see the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) that landlords are required by law to provide to prospective tenants?
  • How many tenants understand what information is contained in EPCs? How many prospective tenants do property searches by EPC ratings? What impact are EPCs having on the rental market? Are they driving up property standards?
  • What is the current timetable of the Department for Communities and Local Government to require a given minimum rating on an EPC as being the legal minimum a property needs to achieve before being rented out?
  • What are the improvements that are most essential to make homes comfortable and healthier to live in – in particular sound insulation, heating, security features etc.

3) Universities, colleges and language schools

  • The nature of this market in particular is that landlords have a lower incentive to invest in their properties – especially in areas of high demand – because of regular turnover. What responsibilities should such establishments have regarding the housing of their students? Personally I think it should be a contractual responsibility for establishments to ensure that students have access and support to find decent accommodation of more than a minimum legal requirement, & not just leave it to the students to work it out for themselves – many of whom may have left home for the first time.
  • The establishment of some sort of co-ordination between educational establishments and local councils regarding housing so as to help reduce some of the tensions that can otherwise build up between students and local long-term residents.

4) Private rented market for low income groups

  • What examples of ‘best practice’ is there for landlords providing decent low cost housing to people on low incomes? Ditto for tenants in looking after their properties and in their contractual relationships with landlords.
  • Should there be tougher laws on who can own and rent out properties – especially where there has been clear abuse by landlords?
  • What minimum standards should there be on rents covered by state benefits and how well are such standards being enforced?
  • How can people on low incomes have their voices heard so that action is taken quickly when they find themselves in difficulty on housing?
  • What needs to happen with private sector housing to help get people out of long term B&B accommodation?

There is also the issue of nationalising the worst parts of private sector rental housing. Should local councils have funds and powers to compulsorily purchase – or seize – rental properties that are demonstrably unfit for human habitation where the landlord shows no desire to make the required improvements? Over the past 30 years we have moved from a situation where your local council could be a landlord of choice, to one where you could only get a council house or housing association property if you were in need. For too long, those in need have outstripped available properties, contributing to the crises that we have today and have had in recent decades. As far as party politics is concerned, some might say Thatcher’s great sell-off caused the shortage and that Labour did very little about it in its 13 years in power. That debate aside, what we currently have is a massive imbalance between prices in the private rented sector and the social rented sector – and this is splitting society. Understandably people in the more expensive private rented sector ask why they can’t live in state-backed housing that has a significantly lower rent.

You’ve then got the growing army of people like me who live with their parents because they have nowhere else to go. In one sense, my circumstances are slightly different with my mental health problems and the nature of my work: I don’t have a steady job or a steady income. Therefore at present, renting in the private sector (prices aside) isn’t really an option for me at the moment. Also, not being in a relationship means I don’t have the option to move into a partner’s house where responsibility for rent would be shared and where health-wise I’d be supported. Having lived in shared houses for several years prior to moving back in with my parents, the one thing I never really got was support for my mental health problems. Ironically the only time I ever did was when I was living in the place that was the worst for them. It was a hell-hole but we really were all in it together and made the best of it.

I can see why politicians do stunts like this one by Grant Shapps, but that one left me feeling really angry at the time. Ditto with Prince William. Why? I think it’s a combination of empathy, mindsets and institutions. It’s very difficult to empathise with people in that situation when you’ve not really had to face it yourself. This was the shock to the system for me over a decade ago – the idea of being in this situation that I did not know how to get out of. I spent six weeks in and out of a travellers hostel before finding the place that I did – by which point my weight had crashed down to 7 stone. (Not good for a twenty year old male). Mindset? This wasn’t a “Let’s bash the Tories” because remember that both in the very early 2000s Labour had been in power for a few years – and even more by 2009. Yet still the problems of housing and homelessness persist. That’s why this inquiry is being launched! Policy-wise there has been an epic failure to deal with rental housing in the private sector – and I expect the report to pick this up in its conclusions. Institutions? I can’t help getting away from royals in palaces or politicians in big state-subsidised houses too – remember that we were to find out the greatest of abuses in the expenses scandal.

Finally…who ultimately profits from the private rented sector?

If there is such a big disparity between social rents and private rents, who pockets the difference? The landlords? The banks that lend? The financial institutions that provide banks with the capital?

Because it definitely is not the tenants, that’s for sure.

 

 

[Updated to add]

@Rattlecans reminded me that housing policy is a devolved issue in Scotland – and they’ve been able to do things differently to England and Wales. So if anyone can summarise what happens in Scotland and can provide that summary to the Commons inquiry, that would be splendid!

I’ve seen the big picture – and it doesn’t look good

Summary

Some thoughts on the 20th October “A future that works” march

I’m throwing this up having just got back from London with an over-excited dragon fairy who to all intents and purposes had a great time on the march. Puffles had many a photograph taken, and got to meet up with past friends and some long time Twitter correspondents for the first time, including Dr Stella Creasy MP – currently Shadow Crime Prevention Minister but a top tip from me for a future Cabinet post should Labour get re-elected.

Yet despite this, I’ve come away from the march feeling utterly deflated and pessimistic about the general future – of politics in particular.

I wanted the march to be a little bit like the last one – where we all met up for breakfast before heading down together. Unfortunately that didn’t happen this time around – mainly because I didn’t get my act together in time. So I headed down with placard (from the last march over a year ago) and with Puffles (who was new to all of this). Not really knowing who was driving the flying umbrella, I headed towards Russell Square assuming I’d find a feeder march heading in that direction. I followed what I thought was the tail end of it – a group of NUT marchers from Sheffield.

I had a hunch we were going in the wrong direction – heading towards Trafalgar Square rather than the muster point at the Embankment. Having got to the Square, I pondered whether to go to head to Embankment or head to the Mall where I knew the route was going to pass. Just as I got there, the very front of the march approached. The best thing I thought was to perch myself halfway up the rise (as Whitehall feeds into Trafalgar Square) so that anyone who recognised either myself or Puffles would be able to grab us.

What do activists left of the political centre look like?

As it turned out, I got a close-up view of the tens of thousands of marchers that streamed past – with me partially hidden both by my placard and by Puffles who was perched on top, grabbing all of the attention. (It’s what dragon fairies do when they are attention-seeking).

While Puffles was busy posing for photographs, I spent the next couple of hours people-watching. It struck me that very few people in mainstream politics have ever done anything like this: People-watching a demo almost for the sake of it. That’s pretty much what I did for the first half of the afternoon: getting a close-up view of what tens of thousands of left-of-centre and far-left demonstrators look like – warts and all. And it was fascinating to see.

Do leaders of political organisations have an understanding of just how diverse the trade union movement is?

I don’t know whether they do. This is not about standing on a stage looking over a big crowd, or even working a room at a conference. This was standing at a specific pinch point where most of the marchers walked past, getting a close up view of ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, political views (judging by banners and slogans) and affluence. As an experience alone, it taught me a great deal. For any politics’ watcher out there, for the next large demonstration (there will be another one I’m sure), I recommend doing the same thing: Finding a narrow point along the march route and watch the procession from front to back – and draw your own conclusions.

I’d actually say the same for any Liberal Democrats and Conservatives too in terms of people-watching – to get a feel for both the diversity of the people taking part, the strength of feeling and also the thrusts of argument. Chances are with the latter two you won’t like or agree with them at all, but it might increase your understanding about what others are going through with austerity. I’d also say the same for Labour and left-of types should a Countryside Alliance-style large demonstration takes place in the future – for the same reasons.

Politicians – and policy civil servants too – live in bubbles. I used to live in one such bubble once. It was one of the reasons why I was so desperate to get out and about to meet people on the front line in the policy areas I worked in. You could say I would turn up to the opening of an envelop or a front door, but doing so taught me a great deal. Yet it was always one of the things where everyone agreed we should do more of it but where everyone never really got round to it – certainly not on a systematic basis anyway.

Yet what was significant about my perch point on this march for me was being able to see so many people from all over the country up close over such a short period of time. When else do people get the opportunity to do the same thing? When you are on a march you miss most of it because you are moving with the tide. When you spend the whole of it standing in one place as most of it goes past you, you get to see far more of it.

But numbers were significantly down on last year. Why?

I can only speculate. Around a quarter of a million people were there in 2011, but just over half of that were there today. (The official website claims that half a million people were there in 2011). I was expecting the stream of marchers to continue until way past 4pm, so was quite surprised to see the back of the march and the police escort arriving in Trafalgar Square around 3pm. That was when I knew that turnout was going to be significantly lower than the previous year.

Reasons? The weather, the fact that the job cuts have bitten hard in the public sector especially, breaking the trade union organisational links that could otherwise have mobilised more people. Cost of transport too – a day out to London is not cheap. If you’re unemployed, getting to London is out of the question without support. An air of resignation perhaps? Or is it that the political opposition to the Coalition has simply not inspired the people?

The 0.001%

At the end of the march, Puffles got spotted by a number of followers from the Young Green Party – with whom we went off to a pub just round the corner from Selfridges. Many other marchers had done the same and it was standing room only in most places. Yet as the sun began to set, so the spawn of the super-rich in their sports cars came out to play. And that was when it struck me.

Although this march was primarily an anti-cuts one (certainly as far as the non-branded  protest banners and placards were concerned), the ultimate powers that todays politicians and institutions are up against are the ones that have spawned levels of ostentatious consumption and wealth that even the hoarders of such riches cannot consume it all. This was a point Josie Long made at her show in Cambridge a few days previously. How is it that we have got to a situation where we have such extremities of wealth and income inequalities? How have we got to a situation where this is tolerable – even acceptable? (To the extent that next-to-nothing is done about it).

Given the scale of everything that is going wrong – Tar sands in Canada and the predicted collapse of the Arctic ice caps in the very near future due to climate change as far as the environment goes, to the continual malaise that is the Eurozone (along with the frightening rise of extremism in some parts) to…well…I don’t even want to go further. But having seen a number of our senior politicians up close, I can’t think of any of them – whether as individuals or as a team – who could get to grips with the scale of the challenges we face locally, nationally and globally. Recall back in June 2012 I slammed top politicians over their woeful lack of leadership in these crises.

A crisis of politics?

This is where we seem to have got to. It’s not just mainstream politics either. It’s interesting to see both Labour and the Conservatives struggling to deal with challenges from the more extreme wings of their movements – whether the Greens as far as Labour is concerned, or UKIP as far as the Tories are concerned. The far left were there with mass-produced placards and papers. They sensibly kept away from Puffles – going near fire-breathing dragons with large amounts of combustible materials is never a good idea. Yet slogans, methods – and even clothes and hair styles of the people trying to sell or give out their materials seemed ever so similar to demonstrations of over a decade ago. It was as if nothing had changed – despite the fact that digital and social media are revolutionising communications.

The negative connotations of political language

This made me think about the loaded nature of many of the key words and labels we use in politics. In the minds of the wider public, are they loaded with negative connotations? Does the language make you want to get involved?

This is perhaps why Cameron with his PR background came up with the concept of “Big Society”. The problem was that the idea was so devoid of structure and content that it never caught on. Given that mainstream politicians seem to have accepted the straightjacket they are in, everyone is fighting to find something that differentiates them policy-wise inside this tiny little box. One Nation Tory, New Labour, Orange Book Lib Dems – a different colour from the same little box? In the current media climate, all things environmental can be spun as high tax, anti-business and anti-jobs. Feminism can be spun as something anti-male, and as for the “S” word (socialism) – well…as far as the media is concerned it’s no longer mentioned in polite society. Also, a couple of activists who had lived in other countries mentioned that as past or current repressive regimes had labelled themselves as socialist, such language inevitably had negative connotations for them too. Just think back to pre-1989 and the USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. You get my point.

How did the institutions of nation states become so small in comparison to large corporations?

When we then look at the size and scale of political institutions vis-a-vis the multinational corporations and the wealth of the super-rich, there is a massive imbalance. I covered this during the DfT West Coast Mainline debacle. Public institutions responsible for regulating business have been hollowed out to such an extent that we ended up with things like the banking crisis. Such were the sizes and scales of the banks that no regulator on the planet could get anywhere near soundly regulating them. Not only that, there was a financial incentive for ‘light touch regulation’ given the financial donations to political parties made by people and institutions from that sector. And if the going gets tough, such firms can bring in heavy artillery in the form of lobbyists, PR firms and expensive lawyers and barristers that the state today simply does not have the resources to compete against.

“So, what’s the solution Pooffles?”

I don’t know. I genuinely do not know – and that frightens me. So much of what comes out of policy-wonkville-and-thinktank world feels like tinkering with the edges. Yet as Josie Long said earlier in the week, violent revolution doesn’t feel like a nice alternative either. She also alluded to the idea that we had regressed as a society – where once things like health, education and public utilities belonged to all of us; that free education, free healthcare, good pensions were things to be proud of. “You can’t get more bigger society than that” – was her point.

This made me think about the relationship between five institutions: “The People”, “The Crown”, “The Government”, “Parliament” and “Public Services”. I remember reading a US prosecution document citing a number of banks & bankers over LIBOR fixing. The preamble was along the lines of:

“Under powers vested in me by The People of the State of New York under the … Act…” before going onto detail the charges and the laws allegedly contravened.

Mindset-wise, this made me ponder about the both the powers and the wording around the terms & institutions “The Crown” and “Parliament” we could insert words along the lines of “The People of the United Kingdom of…etc” to acknowledge that ultimately it is the people that should be sovereign, and that the wearer of the Crown (and the institution) only wear that Crown (and hold the powers vested within that institution) because they have the consent of the people; consent that can be withdrawn at any time.

It may only be symbolic. It may only be a first step. But at the moment it feels like our systems of party politics, of government, of law making, of law enforcement and of accountability are so dysfunctional that they’ll need one hell of an overhaul to sort them all out. And with that I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The Great Train Snobbery

Summary

How George Osborne’s train ticketing tomfoolery became first of all a social media firestorm, and then a media scrum before he had even stepped off of the train

So soon after plebgate (which, not long after the firestorm took hold finally claimed the Chief Whip) and hot on the heels of Cameron’s yah-boo-sucks to Chris Bryant, George Osborne’s alleged attempt to blag a first class seat with a standard class ticket hit the headlines. (I took this one from Twitter – Becca’s being the earliest tweet I can find)

And Twitter had a field day. It was Rachel Townsend of ITV who happened to be on the same train, live-tweeting the whole thing. What helped amplify the whole thing as far as ‘popular culture’ was concerned was a recent episode of “The Thick of it” where a politician jumped off from a train to escape from waiting journalists. Unfortunately for Osborne, the train he was on had no stops between the midlands and London Euston by the time Twitter picked up on the story. It did though, have enough time to allow journalists and protesters to turn up at Euston with something of a welcoming committee.

Cue Benny Hill style scenes of an embarrassed Chancellor allegedly being bundled out of a goods entrance to a waiting car – scenes that inevitably got picked up in an era where lots of people have smartphones.

In the grand scheme of things, stuff like this isn’t seismic stuff. But the cumulative impact of drip-drip-style tales such as these only go on to re-enforce a certain view of not just Tory ministers, but politicians in general. Remember this is at the same time as the ‘dual income MPs’ story gathers legs.

Impact of social and digital media

Twitter had a field day – if you want to find out more, have a look for the hashtag #GetGeorgeInStandard. I’m interested in both the speed of how this kicked off, and how people reacted in ‘offline’ world. All of this happened at such speed – both the reaction of journalists and protesters, and the reactions of Euston Station staff.

For anyone with a reasonable public profile, the moral of the story is that everyone is potentially a reporter and a photographer. While the quality of the reporting and the photographs may not be splendid, there are enough bloggers, tweeters and media organisations who are prepared to run with it – irrespective of quality, or dare I say it, factual correctness.

What helped in this case was that the source was a reasonably credible one – a journalist attached to a major news broadcaster. By that I mean that she is bound by rules and contractual requirements regarding her news reporting in a way others are not. Not only that, there are those that are familiar with her work and can vouch for her. If it were a random person not in any network where large numbers of people can vouch for them, people will inevitably look for a corroborating source.

Given the geographical nature of where the train was due to arrive – Central London, the race was on to get to the station. Journalists and students alike made their way – remembering that Euston is not far away from that hotbed of academic lefty activists the University of London Union. Hence within less than an hour, people were already gathering at Euston Station, tweeting their presence – and even pictures of all of them waiting for Osborne.

The staff at Euston too were not slow. As soon as it became clear that there was a welcoming party gathering to ambush the Chancellor, steps were taken to whisk Osborne through a back route into waiting transport. Those responsible for this will have had even less time to have set this up than those making their arrangements to get to Osborne. But despite the best efforts of station staff, pictures of Osborne both on the train and being smuggled out of Euston were taken and flew around the internet.

All-in-all, an amusing social media firestorm for a Friday afternoon in the rain, showing just how quickly people using social media can mobilise to target a politician (or anyone) when something happens. In this case, it was the alleged behaviour of a politician. It could easily be something a politician said in a keynote speech at a conference not pre-circulated, or something in a Q&A session.

Mini firestorms maketh a climate

The challenge all of this poses for politicians of all sides is that the ‘drip drip’ feed of all of these mini-firestorms will knit together to give a picture of the climate of your party – or those at the top of it. Senior politicians in general haven’t yet started engaging directly with social media users on a continuous basis. At the moment most are in broadcast mode. In my book, the best form of ‘insulation’ from these sorts of firestorms is – counterintuitively to embrace social media, warts and all. This is because people are more likely to get an understanding of what you are like as a human being. You also get direct responses for transgressions – whether by the party or by you individually. With such continual feedback, you are more likely to ‘amend’ your behaviour (to put it nicely). For example I’m not the same person as I was when I started using social and digital media. I have learnt so much – not just about other people but about myself too. Those systems of feedback for me are essential even if it’s for something as self-centred as self-improvement.

Whitehall and Westminster can be a bubble. Cameron and Osborne in their latest reshuffle have started iron-plating that bubble, surrounding themselves with trusted aides to shield them. Understandable why they would do this, as in the short term it gives a sense of re-enforcing your position. But in the long term, you lose the people who would otherwise be willing to give you the bad news and tell things as they are, rather than as you want them to be. This for me is one of the reasons why it’s important to engage with people who don’t agree with you. (You can still be polite about it though!) I trust people within my social media network to tell me when I’ve got things wrong or made the wrong call – as they do do. The onus is then on me to learn from it. (When it comes to criticism I am my own worst enemy).

How Osborne ended up in a first class carriage with only a standard class ticket I don’t know – and frankly don’t care. The social media lesson here though is that he or one of his aides been on social media and spotted this, they could have nipped it in the bud. One account set up as a fake which attempted to try and do just that might have succeeded. This was one set up a month or so ago in the name of one of the Chancellor’s advisers – only to be fisked soon after people picked up the tweets. But before the tweets were deleted, they basically said the whole thing was a non-story and that the aide concerned pressed the wrong button on the ticket machine for rail tickets. Actually, in the grand scheme of things it’s a plausible explanation. People in senior roles for large organisations rely on other people to do ticket bookings. That’s what a PA, secretary or private office is there for. Had a real aide on social media done exactly as the fake account above, the ensuing firestorm might have been a bit more muted. I say “might” because when it comes to passing blame to those below them, ministers have form. Or in Dennis Skinner’s words:

When posh boys are in trouble, they sack the servants

Not that anyone will get sacked for this one. As an incident it’s a storm in a teacup. But it certainly isn’t helping the Tories in their current political climate.

Conduct unbecoming of a Prime Minister

Summary

Why the convention of ministerial accountability to Parliament overrides any ill-feeling between two politicians

Chris Bryant MP has been a persistent thorn in the side of both David Cameron and News International over the years. Recall that it was Bryant that asked the question around payments to police back in 2003. There clearly is a huge amount of bad blood between Cameron and Bryant, and it boiled over at Prime Minister’s Questions. In response to a question about undisclosed emails, the Prime Minister responded:

Mr Speaker, before answering this question, I would like hon. Members to recall that the hon. Gentleman stood up in the House and read out a whole lot of Leveson information that was under embargo and that he was not meant to read out, much of which about me turned out to be untrue, and he has never apologised. Do you know what? Until he apologises, I am not going to answer his questions.

This raised a number of eyebrows, and led to a sharp follow-up from Jim McGovern MP

Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister comes to the Chamber at 12 noon each Wednesday to answer Prime Minister’s questions. Is it in order to for him to say that he refuses to answer a question?

Mr Speaker: It is entirely up to Ministers how they respond to the questions posed. I understand the concern and frustration that underlies the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but the responsibilities and powers of the Chair are not engaged on the matter. The House can make its own assessment, and everyone else can do so as well.

McGovern’s point would apply to any prime minister of any political party. While it may be entirely up to ministers how they respond to questions, to blatantly refuse to answer a question from an elected MP not only shows contempt for the MP but for every single person in that MP’s constituency. Our convention is that when a constituency returns an MP to represent them in Parliament, the MP represents everyone in that constituency, not just the people that voted for the winning candidate.

What precedent does this set for every other minister in Cameron’s Government? Do they now have carte blanche to say: “I don’t like that MP so I won’t answer his/her questions”? Some might say obviously not, but Cameron is in a position of leadership – not just of his own party but also of the country and the political establishment. He is in a place where he can set the tones and conventions of behaviour as to what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. The same was true with Gordon Brown – such awful behaviour is not restricted to one political party.

If Parliament cannot hold the Government to account, what is the point of Parliament? If ministers can get away with dismissing what might otherwise be awkward and difficult questions that go to the heart of how Whitehall functions and how ministers conduct themselves, doesn’t it show a contempt for Parliament – and the people?

Bad manners

I’d like to think one of the reasons societies establish conventions of manners is that it helps people get on. Good manners and politeness cost nothing. Yet time and again we see examples from the political class that set an extremely bad example to the rest of us. Does such behaviour reflect badly on the educational establishments that such individuals went through? You hear about poor teachers and bad schools being blamed for various problems in inner city UK, but can the same be said for expensive public schools and oxbridge when it comes to the behaviour of bankers, corporate bosses and politicians?

In a hierarchical organisation, there is an onus on those at the top to set good examples to everyone else. Respect has got to be more than just a slogan. In the workplace, I found that the managers and ministers that had the most respect for their staff were the ones that got the most out of them. Individuals were more likely to go that extra mile for those that treated them with dignity and respect than those that did not. Perhaps that doesn’t go down well with the macho mindset of those testosterone-fuelled silos within Westminster and Whitehall (or big business and The City), but then I can’t say I’ve ever been comfortable in aggressive workplaces.

Yah-boo-sucks

As far as accountability to Parliament is concerned, what else can MPs do? So intertwined are the relationships between Parliament and Government – remember about a sixth of MPs are part of the Government that Parliament is supposed to scrutinise, that no motion of censure would ever get passed. It’s not like in a court where in certain cases someone can be compelled to disclose information. If a minister refuses to disclose information, they refuse to disclose information. End of. It’s a bit like the ministerial vetoes under Freedom of Information – which depressingly the Government are using more and more often, the latest example around the Prince of Wales. Prophetically, we have already seen what could happen if a royal becomes political:

In a nutshell, if politicians want to win back the respect of the people, they could start with treating each other with respect. That example starts from the top. Unfortunately the recent behaviour of both the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip does not fill me with confidence.

Has the Government Digital Service shown the rest of Whitehall how to develop & launch something successfully?

Summary

Yes

I was with Puffles & friends at UKGovCamp 2012 when Mike Bracken, Executive Director of the Government Digital Service gave us a sneak preview of what he and his team had lined up for the new web estate across Whitehall. Today saw the first set of results of that overhaul with the replacement of DirectGov & BusinessLink with Gov.UK. A much leaner portal put together from a citizen’s or user’s perspective rather than an institutional one.

Wasn’t this all about cost savings?

Money was certainly a driver, but given the amount of money wasted in the past on all things IT, it doesn’t surprise me. Many criticisms have been thrown at DirectGov, but for me it was inevitably hamstrung by the lack of control and consistency it had over the rest of Whitehall. Just as with the Fast Stream, this was one area where Cabinet Office really needed to get a grip and take ownership – rather than letting everyone go off and do their own thing. The reason being that where you have a single brand, people expect some sort of consistency. If different parts of the brand behave in different ways, people understandably start getting confused and things start to go wrong.

Future-proofing the web estate from restructures

This is something that has not been in the headlines, but has been an essential pillar that has driven this project. In my eyes anyway. Back in 2006 I witnessed the farcical scenes outside what was the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) when John Prescott was stripped of his departmental duties following tabloid scandal. The branding was peeled off the sign outside Eland House without anyone having any idea what the department was called. Officially it was still ODPM – just without a DPM at the top. It wasn’t until a few days later that it was rebranded the Department for Communities and Local Government. That in itself meant lots of rebranding and digital legwork to get the various domains changed, hyperlinks updated and staff & stakeholders used to what the organisation now was.

The new setup potentially does away with most of that. The most important things for citizens will still remain where they are, irrespective of future back-of-the-envelope reshuffles – who remembers the Department for Productivity and Enterprise?

There’s also the significant reduction of the amount of otherwise useless or meaningless information up on central government’s website. Mike showed us some of the worst examples – such as: ‘If it’s cold, put on some warm clothes’ and the like. Nanny state types would have had a field day. Yet in a sense it comes back to the debate about what the state should and should not do, and on the former, which bits of the state should be doing what things. Culturally we still have a centralised state. In other parts of Europe things that are the responsibility of local government often fall under the remit of central government. Local hospitals are a classic example. One of the questions that was asked around content was: “Do we really need to be doing/publishing this?” Do you need a central government website to tell you to put on warm clothes if you’re feeling cold?

Why all the good publicity?

For me, a culture of openness played a huge role – this and other things I go into detail on in a previous blogpost in praise of the GDS. By involving lots of interested people with knowledge and expertise in the field over an extended period of time, and by not locking people out of the process, a significant well of goodwill was built up. As a result, I cannot recall a single negative article that’s passed across Puffles’ Twitter feed. This is the complete opposite of taking a few key stakeholders into a room, thrashing out what was going to be done, doing it, launching it and getting a few of those key stakeholders (more often than not the usual suspects depending on the policy area) to provide a few positive quotations.

With the launch of Gov.UK the GDS didn’t need to go down this road at all. Expectations had been managed all the way throughout. People had an idea of what was coming and why. There were no nasty surprises. Not only that, with so many people involved along with sound project and programme management (from people who knew how to do it), and the political backing alongside it, the GDS team were able to get the best out of their very wide digital network while at the same time minimising the otherwise very substantial risks associated with this programme.

The risks were huge

Had the whole transition gone badly wrong, the passports fiasco of 1999 would have looked like a walk in the park. This was a major IT and systems failure that resulted in hundreds of people not being able to go on holiday. The roasting that the officials and contractors got in front of the Public Accounts Committee is legendary in civil service circles – the questioning from Charles Wardle in particular to Sir David Omand, then of the Home Office is painful – the like of which I’ve only seen matched by the utter shambles that was Nick Buckles’ performance in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee in the run up to the Olympics. Disgracefully, Buckles kept his job.

Sometimes we forget just how risky some projects are, or how ambitious they are when everything seems to go to plan. This is one thing the GDS may want to go public with in future – what were the risks, how did they manage them and how were incidents prevented, or handled when they did arise? There are a significant number of positive lessons to be learnt here – not just from Whitehall but from the rest of the public sector, and the private sector too. Imagine the boost that the UK IT sector could get if the private sector adopted a similar method of working – i.e. in partnership with the best talent small but incredibly talented firms could provide.

Consistency across local government

By this I don’t mean centralisation. Centralisation and consistency are not the same thing. Ben Proctor discussed what all things GDS meant for local government. One of the things I’d be interested in exploring sometime in 2013 is what the lessons of Gov.UK are for local public services – in particular in a Cambridgeshire/East Anglia context. Something for a future Teacambs perhaps?

Culture, leisure and sport in Cambridge

Summary

An evening with Cambridge Past, Present and Future  (CambridgePPF)- and friends, trying to answer the question: “How can we encourage as many people as possible to be actively engaged?”

I took Puffles along to a gathering of the great and the good – despite fatigue from a busy week last week. Yet something inside me said I had to go and live tweet because no one else was going to. As it turned out, I couldn’t live-tweet because the venue where this was hosted – Cambridge University’s Centre for Mathematical Science had zero mobile reception and no accessible wifi. One of the top mathematical science institutes in the world failing on something like this…astonishing.

The other thing that made things awkward was having the gathering in somewhere that felt like it was in the middle of nowhere – in particular somewhere not easy to get to by public transport.

Accessibility was a core theme throughout

How do you encourage people to be actively engaged when so many of them are locked out or priced out of the facilities? It was an issue I raised at a previous meeting I went to not so long ago about community facilities in Cambridge. Being locked out is a huge issues – especially in a city so dominated by the University, and where a number of the sports fields in the city are owned by private schools, thus limiting the public’s access to them. It’s not just the private schools. On grounds of security, schools too have tightened up on access, thus locking out children from the very playgrounds that in my view are theirs in the first place.

#Diversityfail again?

As with the last gathering I attended, the lack of young people – teenagers & young adults – was noticeable. To be fair, CambridgePPF have run similar sessions in schools, but it’s a shame that we as a city are not engaging with young people in a comprehensive, systematic and continuous manner. Are young people as apathetic as this example makes out? I’m not so sure. While that example is disappointing, is it more a reflection of engagement processes than a single project? I’m tempted to think the former.

I’m not going to pretend to know what the answer is – other than not another committee. If you want to kill passion and energy in an idea, set up a committee. I’m more interested in existing networks – especially digital and virtual ones – or ones that are supported by a strong social media presence.

This is one thing I’m particularly interested in around the student societies in the city – of both the further and higher education institutes. But not only that, things like large employers that employ lots of young people (such as supermarkets and department stores), and the nurseries, to engage young parents too. It’s all too easy to slip into the mindset that young people = schools and colleges only. Part of shaping the future of the city – which is what the Cambridge 2030 Vision is all about, has to involve those young people that may not be in formal education. After all, aren’t they the ones that are least likely to be able to move out in the near future?

The scale of the challenge seems to be getting bigger

Some of you will have seen my ideas for a Cambridge L!VE project. My suggested sequencing of getting community groups and voluntary organisations trained up and using social media, followed by a societies fair followed by a hack camp to make a single community portal resonated with some but not others. (I’ve set these out here). In particular, the concept of a hack camp – let alone the one that took place in June 2012 for the arts sector in Cambridge. Again, this further underlines the issue of lots of good stuff being in the city, but it’s sitting in little bubbles.

Part of my response is to find the social media advocates across the city – for example through Teacambs, as well as reaching out directly to the people through free social media workshops and surgeries through Net-squared in Cambridge. But in the grand scheme of things, my efforts are a drop in the ocean. The challenge is getting the local institutions on board. Hence the direct but very labour-intensive activities of turning up to gatherings, arranging 1-2-1 meetings and generally trying to raise awareness. Easier said than done.

Not being part of an institution myself

While spending my days with Puffles has its advantages, I can no longer call on the firepower of being part of a large institution. During my civil service days, a phone call to a local authority more often than not would result in people at the other end dropping everything to respond to my beck & call. These days I’m more likely to be thought of as a direct-marketing sort of person: best avoided. A gov.uk account gets you noticed in hierarchical public sector land. I’m no longer that. Just a bloke with a dragon.

At the same time though, it also means I’ve got to be that little bit more creative. Bringing Puffles to such gatherings is part of that. People may not remember who I am or even remember my presence, but chances are they will remember that a dragon turned up. Puffles is a very useful little filter too. As I’ve mentioned earlier, those people not put off by the presence of Puffles tend to be the people that ‘get’ social and digital media. Given that one of my top priorities is to build a network of social and digital media activists in and around Cambridge, this is no bad thing.

Maybe make a short digital video to capture people’s imagination?

Now there’s a thought…