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!