Social and digital media strategies for public sector


Some ponderings and questions on what should – and should not be in these documents which will soon be mandatory for all Whitehall departments.

I should declare an interest first in that I’m working on a commission for one department that links to digital media strategies. Cabinet Office recently launched its own digital strategy, which I commented on here. Also, Sir Bob Kerslake confirmed that all Whitehall departments will have to have their own digital strategies.

Sell sell sell!!!!

“No! No! No!” is my response. Some of you may be familiar with my thoughts on social media in a political/policy sphere following the digital wave event I was at. Many of the digital natives I interact with both online and off have come to a similar conclusion about social media:

“Don’t let your marketing people near it”

To which I concur. All too often, they view social media as an additional channel to deliver given messages. Earlier this year I went to one such event where everything seemed to be about getting messages and a presence out there, with very little thought on listening and feedback. (How do you measure the good listeners and effectiveness of feedback loops?) Worse still is the presence of ‘authenticity hijackers’.

What does a good digital media strategy look like?

The problem here is the rise of social media has been so rapid that no public sector organisation of any scale has had the chance to develop, deliver and evaluate a digital or social media strategy. There are also a couple of issues with trying to define something ‘public sector’. The first is widespread outsourcing. Many public services are now delivered by private companies – companies that have issues with the levels of public scrutiny that they are now getting. Just look at Emma Harrison vs Krishnan Guru-Murthy debating A4E’s failings. Puffles’ (majority female) Twitter followers had little sympathy for Harrison.

The second is that the public sector is incredibly diverse in what it does. While there are a number of consistent processes to go through when developing a digital strategy, what you cannot do is take the digital strategy of one organisation, change the branding and say “Done it!”. The importance of taking people through a journey versus the importance of the final document was a lesson Maxine Moar taught me when the introduced me to Neighbourhood Agreements in Oldham many moons ago. The reason being that the answers to the various questions posed in the development process will give different answers depending on the nature of the organisation.

Digital is big. BIG

As this blogpost by the brilliant Steph Gray shows, digital is potentially all-encompassing. It’s not something where you can set up a digital unit or give someone a jazzy job title within an organisation and assume that this is you doing digital. The fragmentation of the public sector makes this even more of a challenge. Looking at the papers I’ve just got for my first full school governors meeting am I beginning to get a feel for the impact this fragmentation has at a hyper-local level.

“No, really Puffles, what should be in a good digital strategy?”

This list isn’t exhaustive, but a few things come to mind.

Evidence of planning and finding your baseline

Given the nature of how social media has evolved – and how many of the large organisations have been somewhat caught out on it, the first thing to ask is: “Where are we now?” Do you know what your organisation is currently doing on digital media? Do you know who is doing what and who is responsible for what? If not, you have an unmitigated corporate risk. (You cannot effectively mitigate for something whose likelihood and impact are unknown).


What do you want it to achieve? Part of me recalls the saying that “those people who read social media strategies often don’t do social media, and vice versa.” But as the link from Steph Gray showed, digital strategies go beyond social media, covering things like open data and digital archiving. Some digital strategies will have a very strong service delivery emphasis. Others may have a strong partnership working and co-ordination emphasis. Think those departments that have to work with lots of other organisations such as local authorities. In an ideal world, the purpose should make sense to the people who are going to deliver it, if not the general public themselves.


Most importantly what is outside the scope of your strategy? The reason being that digital  can be a bit like the term ‘sustainable development’ – a term so generalised as to be completely meaningless. (I wrote an essay that posed the question and the conclusion I came to was ‘yes’ – it has stuck ever since). Scope creep is the nightmare of many a project manager. Again, going back to Steph’s diagram, the number of overlaps indicates that there is a risk of this. Where will your boundaries be?

Actions and deliverables

These need to be “SMART” – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.  Ideally they need to be evidenced (not easy given how few there currently are as comparisons in this sector) but certainly thought-through. Outside challenge from people who understand both all things digital and your organisation’s work area is useful here too.

Targets…I’m open-minded about the use of these. The public servant in me tells me ministers like reporting numbers to Parliament. It shows that they are doing something. (Sir Humphrey says activity is a substitute for achievement – or something like that. I couldn’t possibly comment). Yet the digital native in me says that such metrics can be misleading. What percentage of your Twitter followers are spam accounts? How can you measure meaningful interaction? On the last point, meaningful interaction for an organisation in my opinion means where that interaction is fed back via a systematic feedback loop so as to improve the performance of the organisation, or helping solve the problem/query raised by the citizen concerned, or both. (Happy to be challenged on that point).

Resources and responsibilities

What are you going to put into both putting together the strategy, delivering it and (continuously) evaluating it? People, time, money and skills. Who is going to be responsible for what? Do the people taking on the responsibilities have the right skills and competencies? (If not, how will you adapt your training and job descriptions?) In your baselining it is likely you’ll want to have done some sort of skills audit – if anything to find out who are the people in your organisation are already digital natives and are potential ‘advocates’ for all things digital.

“Stakeholders” in the digital world

I hate the term but I’ll go with it for now. Here we are talking interest and impact. But digitally. I use the term ‘stakeholder’ in a value neutral sense – not accounting for whether they are friendly or hostile. As far as Whitehall is concerned, there will be a number of very hostile stakeholders in the digital world. Hostile because they may not like a given policy at all, but will have a strong interest if directly affected by said policy and may well have a growing impact. Why? Because more and more MPs are beginning to use social media to crowd source questions for ministers – the latest examples being the Public Administration Select Committee and Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Continual monitoring and refreshing

In particular a demonstration of progress. One of the big opportunities here is for organisations to clearly demonstrate a willingness to share and learn.  Stephen Hale of the Department of Health has done exactly this. Through links via social media, he became aware of an open policy feed on He then posted his own examples on the DH website.

The most important elements for me here are that the digital strategy is a ‘live’ document rather than one that gathers dust on the shelves. You may want to consider highlighting the elements that are likely to change over time. (If you do, please use a robust method of version control so we don’t get confuddled!) The reason for this is because there is so much that is unknown as well as continually changing out there. Who is responsible for what monitoring and refreshing? Who is collecting what data and information? (Especially if you have a correspondence unit).

Risk and incident management

I’ve put ‘incident’ in there because your organisation will get stung. No. Really. It will. Especially if it is a big one. The problem is how to handle incidents. During my time in the civil service we did lots of risk management but perilously little simulation. As it turned out, the only time when I took part in a crisis management simulation was a couple of weeks before I had to do the real thing: Buncefield blew up. All of the systems and processes I was unfamiliar with a month before were now fresh in my memory so it was a case of applying recent learning. This is where Steph Gray’s social simulator can be handy. (N0, he hasn’t paid me to say any of this). How would you handle a social media firestorm? How are you handling them now? How do you want to handle them differently?

“That’s a lot of questions Pooffles!”

That’s the idea: The process of putting the strategy together is just as, if not more important than the strategy itself. It’s one of the reasons why it should also not be put together by a small unit alone, but one that allows people to feed into the process, providing ideas and challenge. This is important because most organisations are unlikely to have a clear picture of who has the right skills and competencies on digital and social media, let alone deploying them in the right place.

There’s also nothing more empowering or exciting (or possibly frightening!) for staff than saying: “We have this big challenge, we as senior management don’t really know how to deal with it alone, we need your ideas and input.” The traditional idea is that with age and experience comes competency and expertise in a given field. Those that are the most competent and expert (in principle) become senior managers. But because social and digital media has emerged over such a short period of time, unless they had their hands on the pulses of what was emerging, the challenge of having responsibility but neither the skills, experience nor competencies to deal with it is a shock. On the other hand, you may well have junior staff (often younger and less experienced, but not always) who are digital natives but are less aware of the corporate risks. How can you empower those junior staff to help deal with the big challenges of all things digital?

So…those are a few thoughts for now. I’m REALLY interested in your thoughts a comments. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with and why? What would you replace it with? What’s missing and what would you add? What’s in there that should not be and why?


I’d like to teach the world to sing


A random list of stuff I’d like to do, see or experience – because it’s not as if I’m going to be able to afford a house or car in the near future

I’ve been pondering a moany post about how the system has conspired to make it harder for many of us to afford the lifestyles that middle class upbringings sort of assume as ‘the norm’ – own house, own car, 2.4 children, a job in an office where you have to wear a suit and the sort of mind-numblingly dull existence that I feared I’d end up in when making those career choices in my teens. I promised myself that I wanted to avoid a job where I’d strole into the office and say “Our sales have gone up by 0.0001% above target in the past quarter – aren’t we fantastic!?!?” Yet I lacked the courage and open mind to break free from sleep-walking into such an existence. (I also lacked the mentors to show me that another way was possible).

Given where I am health-wise, I can’t see myself taking on a full time job – the long term impact of my mental health crisis earlier this year means I’d be too exhausted to manage such hours. It’ll be quite some time before I’ve recovered. With that in mind, there’s no way on this planet I’d be able to think about affording running a car or having my own place. The nature of freelancing is that your income is too unpredictable to sustain such a thing. Well…it is for me given the hours I can put into it. Hence I’m very lucky to have a supportive family – one of those ‘hidden subsidies’ often forgotten about in the rough and tumble of political debate. Just ask anyone with caring responsibilities. In particular carers under 18.

Up until recently, I assumed that by the time I hit my early 30s, I’d have my own place, own car and be married with children and in a full time job while being in reasonably good health. Living the ‘life on a piece of paper’ lifestyle. Ooops.

What do you do when you don’t get to where you expected to be?

Or rather, where you were brought up to expect to be somewhere, only to find that you’re not? I guess it depends on whether you completely bought into that message or not. By the time I got to university I was already having my doubts about the stuff only a few years prior I was dead certain about. Hence getting to my early 30s being nowhere near those goals didn’t really come as a surprise. For a start, someone moved the goalposts. When house prices & rental prices go skywards, the distance between each rung on the ladder gets greater. There comes a point where fewer and fewer people can make the jump between each rung. It’s sort of where I see myself now. Why bother aspiring for something that seems completely out of my reach? It’s not a lack of ambition, it’s developing a sense of realism and saying that I don’t want to play the property game at all. Ditto with motors.

“Well Pooffles, if you don’t have your own house and own car, how are you going to be an upstanding respectable member of the community??!?!”

‘Keeping up appearances is soooo 1990s’

Having spent seven years in the civil service, I feel that I’ve climbed up as far as I want to go on any career ladder. I’ve moved into a world where we don’t ‘do’ traditional office hierarchies. In those areas that do, that’s fine. People like me are more than happy to bypass them and find alternative routes. The internet and social media make this task far easier than in times gone by.

Doesn’t it mean that what you want to do is all ‘Me, myself and I’???

No – quite the opposite.

Anyway, isn’t aiming for own house and own car all a bit ‘me, myself and I’? While I don’t judge others for aiming for such things, it’s just not me. I’ve learnt to work around not having my own car, so the idea of a car being a necessity is one I don’t buy for myself – though that may be different for others. Looking at how much housing, food and fuel/transport cost, I’m surprised that most people have anything left.

It won’t be like this in the long term. I’m not living with my parents through ‘laziness’. I’m not well enough to support myself, let alone in a financial position to support myself. But then supportive families support each other: it’s what we do. That and I get to see my lovely nephew three times a week. Possibly the only person on this planet who has grown up with Puffles as a permanent presence in life. Can you imagine a life where Puffles has always been ‘there’?

“So Pooffles, what’s on the list?”

I’d like to make a positive difference. I don’t know why. It’s just something inside me that tells me it’s what I’ve got to do.

I’d like to help form a community orchestra in Cambridge similar to the Duxford Workshop – if only because the latter is very difficult to get to via public transport.

I’d like to learn how to ice skate and roller-blade properly. So please can we have that long-muted permanent ice rink in Cambridge please, given that lots of building is happening anyway?

I’d like to meet up with many of the lovely people I’ve got to know via social media on a more regular basis and in larger groups. On the occasions when I have done this, they have been great fun for all involved.

I’d like to overcome my mental blocks on all things creative – especially with art, music and creative media. I have a number of tools but struggle to pick them up, let alone use them in the way I’d like to.

I’d love to see Puffles’ younger politically aware female followers come together and unleash their power in a manner that would have far greater impact than the sum of their parts – smashing the glass ceilings and institutional barriers that are in their way

…ditto any of Puffles’ followers that feel disenfranchised by the current system

I’d like to make a positive difference to my home town – making it realise (and ultimately deal with) its own flaws so that it can meet the expectations that come with a growing ‘brand’. (Yes, I hate the term too).

I want to help create a more open, informal culture and movement locally around learning – breaking the silos that exist within Cambridge and beyond.

I want to go dancing again – regularly – with someone who will become the love of my life.  I’ve not met her yet.

I’d like to sing or perform as part of a large group of people to a big audience in splendid surroundings.

I want to experience the sound of the silence of nature – away from the noise and the bright lights: To experience the seemingly unlimited expanses of land of the great continents, to experience the sight of the stars and galaxies in the night sky

I want to recover from my mental health problems – yet at the same time I know I’ll only be able to minimise them. My mental health struggles have helped make me what I am today.

I want to have more of of the great people I’m meeting and corresponding with on social media living within easy reach of me.

I want to host one of those dinner parties – the ones where you get to put the world to rights.

I want to take a big group of people to a grand ball somewhere, like I did several years ago during my dancing days.

I want to be able to get the contents of what’s on my bookshelf and DVD collection into my head (in a manner that I can understand and use), but I know that this is not going to happen.

I want to find a shoe maker that makes nice smart shoes that are also comfortable to wear. I don’t do leather soles :-/

I’d like to be part of a small music group where I can play both my viola and/or bass ukulele to music that moves me.

I’d like to smash the examination stranglehold that crushes young people’s musical hopes at too young an age.

I’d like to help make and take part in a digital video with friends that’s something like this. Why? Because it’s looks like FUN.

I feel I should learn a woodwind instrument

I want to play football again, but fear I’m past my physical peak on anything sports-related

I want to go skiing and trampolining … and on a cycle tour too.

Funnily enough, I do want my own place that I can make my own, but I just cannot visualise it happening in the near future

I want to go on a summer school where I can update myself on everything that’s happened in the various subjects since I left school. In particular on science.

I want to learn to code – or rather I want to know how to code without having to go through the intensive process of learning how to. Let’s be honest here.

I’d like to hold to account those institutions that I feel did so much damage to me during my childhood. It won’t happen though.

I’d like to ride a unicorn, fly on the back of a dragon, learn how to competently shoot an arrow from a bow, learn a martial art competently and how to sword fight. All about as likely as each other.


Chances are I’ll want to add to this later. But thus far for now.



Chasing the digital wave, or chasing structural feedback loops?


A few observations following an event I went to at Parliament Week  

I pootled along to Parliament this week for the “Chasing the digital wave” debate – looking at some lessons learned from recent general elections. Mark Pack, the Lib Dem Blogger who knows far more about digital media & Westminster politics than most, managed to storify some of the key tweets from the event. Actually, I could have spent more than the lunch hour listening to Mark and Jon Worth (who’s very similar to Mark but Labour and more EU facing) discussing the merits or otherwise of the morning session.

Social media and general elections – the international experience

The thing that struck me about the case studies displayed (USA, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Italy with a little bit of France) was how much of the ‘engagement’ wasn’t really engagement at all. It was hyper-personalised direct marketing using data on a scale undreamt of until very recently. As I said to someone recently:

“I don’t want to know what my spending habits are so I’ll be damned if you’re going to have access to such information by getting me to sign up to a store card!”

With the US example, the 2008 election was presented as the ‘social media election’ and the 2012 example was presented as the ‘big data’ election. Yet much of the focus – certainly on the US side – could not get away from a problem that plagues the UK general elections: It’s the swing seats that matter. The analysis showed the democrats poured social media and big data resources into those swing states, trying to use new tactics to do an old thing: persuade people to vote. For example using social media to show activists and supporters which of their friends live in ‘swing states’ and perhaps they wanted to send a message to vote for a certain candidate, because friends can be trusted. If you want Puffles to vote for you, you’d better come armed with some jellybellies or pistachio nuts or it’s not happenin’! (I’m far harder to persuade).

The message from Denmark and Germany was full of complicated numbers and tables – the sort you’d need at least undergraduate level social science understanding to make sense of. It was that long ago I did my economics degree that half the time I was thinking “I recognise that but I can’t recall exactly what it means and why it should be significant”. Give me graphs and pictures dammit!

Don’t forget email

Actually, it was the Italian example that caught my eye – not just because the Italian guest speaker was one of the stronger speakers on the panel, but because he looked at an ‘old’ technology – emails. We take emails for granted these days, but in my first office job we didn’t have emails. Crikey…how did we message each other in those days? Actually, it was phone, fax and official documents filled in by hand. That was as recent as 1999. Less than 15 years ago. In a multinational corporation. Yes, that is how far we have come in such a short space of time.

In the Italian case study – or rather, done by an Italian university that covered a number of countries, they looked at what political parties did with people’s responses. The figures were astonishing – two thirds of emails sent to political parties got no response. The emails were very basic too. One was an offer of help, and another was a very basic question: “What is your position on taxes?”

This re-enforced my issues around feedback loops in political parties

A number of us wanted to know what impact such feedback had on individual candidates and political parties. Does such feedback have an impact on the political stances taken by politicians, and to what extent does such feedback impact on party policies? Because if such feedback isn’t having any impact (especially regarding political policy), what’s the point? You’re just shouting at a/an (electronic) brick wall.

Much as it’s nice for me to be proud of Puffles for having such a wide and influential Twitter following as dragon fairies go, does Puffles – or anyone who uses social media to engage with politicians – really have that much influence? Or is it really the case that you need to buy a seat next to a senior politician at a wealthy donors’ party dinner?

Dealing with the structures

I imagine this is just as much of an issue for political party activists as it is for political watchers and individual campaigners. How can you get your voice heard in a structure that seems to do everything to silence you? For example, are the grassroots of the Conservative Party more Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin than Cameron and Osborne? Are the grassroots of the Labour Party more John McDonnell and Diane Abbott than Balls and Miliband? Are the Lib Dems more Bob Russell than David Laws?

My point is that – even for a seasoned policy type like me – it’s not clear how political parties go about deciding what their policies are going to be. (Other than assuming the worst – for example this on media policy). Is it a case that the membership of a political party set the policies of a party or is it that the membership set a given set of (loose) parameters and boundaries from which the senior politicians work within?

What I’d particularly like to know for each of the main parties are where the start points and the ‘pinch points’ are that block an idea from moving further up the chain before becoming party policy? For example, is one start point ‘Dinner with the party leader at a small private event for mega-wealthy industrialists’? Is another start point turning up to a local party meeting? Or perhaps submitting/presenting a paper to a think tank event? What are the routes between the start point and getting a policy adopted – then implemented (if in government)? Who are the people/committees who get to say “No!”?

Interaction of policy units and organisations

The one thing I never really got a feel for in the civil service was the interaction between political party policy units, (partizan) think tanks and civil service policy units – the last of which I spent several years bouncing around in. During an era of regular ministerial (and special adviser) turnover, the stability of any given policy was undermined because civil servants and beyond would have no idea how long the policy would hold for given the short lifespan of ministers and special advisers. The strength or otherwise of a policy rested pretty much on the strength and political life-expectancy of the minister. What I mean by this is that the policy relationship between political party in government and the civil service was a personal one, not an institutional one.

Is replacing the head of policy on a regular basis a good idea?

Obviously not. From a policy perspective I cannot think of a single good reason why this would be a good idea. From an insecure “I want to hold onto leadership” perspective a la Blair vs Brown, I can understand why either of them would want to have regular turnover – it stops an alternative centre of expertise and knowledge – and thus influence & power from taking hold.

What this means is that you have this tension between the civil service and political parties over what a given policy should actually be – with the person responsible for deciding having not nearly enough expertise and knowledge of the policy concerned being asked to make what are quite often very difficult decisions. How can you ensure knowledgeable policy consistency in an environment where ministerial turnover is an occupational hazard?

Politicising the civil service is not the answer

Not least because of the temptation to use the state’s resources for party political purposes. All that would happen there is that a greater number of special advisers appointed to senior grades would turnover whenever a minister/ministerial team came in – exacerbating the problem. (Not that senior civil servants are imune from regular turnover as Katie Dash’s analysis at the Institute for Government shows).

Is calling for transparent institutional links like calling for a contradiction in terms?

Possibly, but I’m going to throw it out there and watch people tear it apart in the hope that something better will emerge.

This is where social and digital media come back into play. Political parties, ministers and the civil service need to explain clearly to the rest of us how policy is made – and how best to engage so as to refine and improve the policies that are being made. It shouldn’t need people to spend years inside the Whitehall or Westminster jungles to get even a basic understanding of how it works. It should be much more understandable and accessible – at least that way you increase the chances of democratic legitimacy. For example, the Whitehall message on police and crime commissioners is that the latter have democratic legitimacy because they topped the polls in the election – turnout being viewed almost as a minor sideshow. As far as the policy team in Whitehall is concerned, job done. Elections over, programme completed. Yet as Catherine Howe said in her blog, PCCs have to acknowledge the low turnout when they start work if they are to have any chance of succeeding.

Would transparent policy making have made it clear how such proposals got into manifestos in the first place? PCCs are mentioned on p57 of the Conservatives’ one. How many Conservatives are familiar with how this or any other policy can be adopted as party policy? The same goes for the other parties. Are the wider general public – the other 99% of people who are not members of political parties – familiar with how ideas become party policies? It’s not a ‘party political point’ picking on the Tories in this example. My point is that political parties need to be much more transparent about the structures of their policy making processes just as the civil service does. Otherwise you really do run the risk of policy being made by groups that might otherwise be funded by a very small number of (wealthy) people who are able to generate a lot of policy noise.

Policy units formally outside of political parties – transparency there too?

For me, the same goes with policy making inside think tanks, trade unions, professional trade bodies, industry groups and – as is becoming increasingly the case – academic public policy units. In conversation with Dr Tony Wright at the 100 years of Cambridge Labour Party event, he predicted that competition between the growing number and size of academic public policy units will become fierce. That’s one possibility. Another one is that they could become collaborative instead – in particular on specific issues.

One of the areas where I think there will be fierce debate – and possible mud-slinging too – is how the think tanks respond. I’m thinking some of the very partizan ones. There will quite rightly be pressure on universities to be transparent both in their content and functioning. Will that same pressure be brought to bear on think tanks?

Just a final thought on ‘transparency’ and my understanding of it in a political context. It’s not just about putting your information ‘out there’ – whether on funding, policies, processes or whatever. It is just as important that people can understand and use that information when engaging in the political process.

Apologies for the rambling nature of this post. I had an idea what I wanted it to be about but got distracted by another train of thought!

Parliamentary reports on select committees and the civil service


Who said what

There have been a couple of interesting (if you’re a parliament and civil service watcher) reports published of late. One on the resources, powers and effectiveness of select committees, [Not enough, not enough and not nearly as they could otherwise be] and another on the accountability of the civil service. [Could be improved but don’t politicise it].

Select Committees

They are slowly but surely beginning to get into their stride, though a number of select committee chairs rile a number of Puffles’ followers. Their profile as select committee chairs is also slowly beginning to rise, though some seem to be more media savvy or publicity hungry (depending on your viewpoint) than others. I’ve commented previously on all things select committees, and feel that the work done in this report pretty much covers my concerns in their recommendations.

Which recommendations stand out?

The list of recommendations is here. I’ll try and list the ones that stand out in bullets with one line explanations:

  • No.2: Extending scrutiny beyond Government departments & agencies – will we see more appearances say by multinational corporations and big business as ‘hostile witnesses’?
  • No.13: New guidance on how select committees should work is due to be published. Will this be crowd-sourced or done ‘in house’? Outside input would be welcome
  • No.16 & no.17: On who gets summoned to committees & who gets the blame. This looks like it’ll tease out accountabilities between ministers & officials
  • No.19 & no.32: Increased resources. I back this strongly. Select committees are starved of support. In my view, each select committee should have access to leading counsel (something the Liaison Committee voted against) and have beefed up analytical functions. This would be commensurate to increased powers too.
  • No.24: Indicates a more longer term ‘strategic’ approach by select committees. Perhaps it feels a bit too ‘ad hoc’ and reactive at present.
  • No.31: Broadening the range of witnesses – will it go beyond the usual suspects?
  • No.34: Post-report scrutiny – formalising the system of coming back to previous reports to see what progress has been made.
  • No.35: Cross-departmental joint select committees where an issue crosses departmental boundaries – something that will happen more often
  • No.37: A mention of formal training and development for select committee members. Recent high profile select committee hearings have demonstrated this need.
  • No.40 & No.41: Long term clerks and additional media officers. Adding to corporate memory and dealing with the increased demands from corporate and social media.
  • No.44: One for the mainstream media to recognise the higher profiles of select committees.

My big disappointment as mentioned above was the decision of the Liaison Committee to vote against recommending the appointment of leading counsel to be attached to select committees. I’m tempted to ask MP/Lords’ followers to get the Liaison Committee to justify that decision. I also think as time goes by, there will be something – perhaps in future guidance – on how to select committees can use social media too.

Any thoughts on the report and the recommendations?

Accountability of the Civil Service

This report comes from the Lords’ Constitution Committee. In my experience, cross examination from the House of Lords is far more detailed and forensic than from the House of Commons – much as it pains me to say so on pro-democracy grounds. Some of you may recall me making the case for an appointed upper chamber to replace the House of Lords. Looking at the shallowness of the political gene puddle that the Police and Crime Commissioners were drawn from, I don’t hold out much hope for an elected second chamber. There’s got to be room in our political system for non-party-political types and the expertise they can bring to bear.

“What stands out here?”

Again, I’ll try and do what I did for the above with the recommendations listed. I’ll do these by paragraph given the difference of listing style.

  • Para.115: “We maintain our view that there is no constitutional difference between the terms responsibility and accountability”. But do ministers agree?
  • Para.117: Temporary appointments – special advisers – does this indicate a greater role for the civil service commissioners?
  • Para.118: On ministerial input to performance management, this is conceded but not on anything disciplinary.
  • Para.119: Convention of a single senior civil servant being responsible for major projects from start to finish. I can see how in principle this is good but the devil is in the detail. What about the case of major leadership failure where the SRO is clearly at fault? Criteria for when they should be replaced? Does this also mean some older senior civil servants will be overlooked due to retirement or will retirement have to be postponed? What about maternity leave? What about illness? It’s not as straight forward as it sounds.
  • Para.122: Responsibility and accountability of special advisers rests clearly with ministers as far as the committee is concerned. But not in the minds of successive administrations unfortunately.
  • Paras 123-5: On select committee appearances by civil servants – rules that bind civil servants do not bind Parliament.
  • Para. 126: Former permanent secretaries CAN be called to appear before select committees to account for things that happened under their watch. Retirement isn’t a ‘get out’ it would seem.
  • Para 128: Civil servants are not required – and should not be invited to state what advice they gave ministers. It is for ministers to waive that right as ministers are the decision makers. In principle this should make it harder for ministers to pin blame for policy failings on civil servants. Civil servants advise, ministers decide.
  • Paras 129-30: In extreme cases, select committees can recommend disciplinary action be taken. I expect the trade unions may want to comment on that.

Those are the things that stand out for me. Any thoughts?

100 years of Cambridge Labour Party


Puffles’ first book launch – where I learnt lots of things about the history of my childhood neighbourhood too!

First of all a big ****Thank you**** to Richard Johnson – one of the co-authors (the other being Ashley Walsh), for the invitation. It was a superb event and credit to the organisers too. If you are interested in Cambridge local history and are interested in the book, contact Cambridge Labour Party or send a tweet to Richard for details.


It goes beyond local Labour types

Although I haven’t read the book, the talks, discussions and the displays at the event show that this was far more than a history of a constituency Labour party. It covers the history of a local area – going beyond party politics. The history of the local Labour party – in particular the first 50 years – is focused around the wards of Romsey and Coleridge. Why is it interesting to me? Because these are the wards that I was born in and spent much of my childhood in. (The others being Queen Ediths and Cherry Hinton). Thus this was very much a history of my local area – reflected in the contributions by a number of former party activists, councillors and former MP Anne Campbell.

Accordingly, I urge both Richard and Ashley to put on further events – including one in collaborations with their Conservative and Liberal Democrat adversaries – to discuss this book. There are several reasons for this. The first is that this event really brought to life the human side of local politics in a way that I had never seen before. It was politics told through stories and anecdotes of some of the great barriers local activists faced. For example I knew nothing about Leah Manning until today – astonished to find huge levels of sexism she faced from within the Labour Party leadership at the time. Yet she overcame that to become an MP and receive a knighthood. She was educated and taught in my neighbourhood. I now know a little more about Dr Alex Wood – who the local party HQ is named after.

A packed hall

When I turned up there were over 100 people in the hall. Even more joined soon after. That a local constituency party can almost fill the large hall at the Guildhall in Cambridge shows there is a significant activist base in and around the city that can also pull in some fairly big names too. (Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP was the keynote speaker – of him later).

This was the first time I got a sense that there is a significant chance for Labour to take the seat of Cambridge in 2015. Julian Huppert will have his work cut out in the campaign. At the same time, it’s not a given that Labour will take it – something I’ll blog about closer to the time. For now, I’ll comment that Cambridge has strong local Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat political parties – each able to count on 10,000 or so votes at general elections. The seat has been held by each of these parties in my lifetime, and within the last 21 years. It’s all to play for with the swing voters.

Frank and Tony turn up

Some of you may recall Puffles bumped into Frank Dobson MP and Dr Tony Wright in London last weekend. So you can imagine how delighted Puffles was when the two of them came up to Cambridge today. Local Labour Councillor Gail Marchant-Daisley, taking hold of Puffles asked Frank if he remembered Puffles – to which he burst out laughing saying he did!

“What’s the significance of the cuddle toy?”

A couple of people asked, though luckily a number of local Labour councillors and activists turned up at the same time saying “Oh! Good to see Puffles here!” as I was trying to explain Puffles as a social media persona. In doing so, they were also demonstrating the influence of social and digital media to their own members and activists – but perhaps without knowing it. With one person who I was in conversation with, the third person who greeted Puffles won her round to the impact social media use can have. That said, not everyone got or even liked Puffles. That’s fine – the same happened on Thursday and last weekend – not everyone will get social media.  (Only given the importance I attach to digital and social media, such people (irrespective of political party) will have their work cut out persuading me to vote for them or their party! I am the informed floating voter!)

Douglas arrives

…and delivered what I thought was the most poignant speech I’ve heard him deliver. On TV and even in The Commons I can’t help but feel he lacks a presence that I’d expect from a senior front-bench politician. But Douglas Alexander (currently Shadow Foreign Secretary) had more of a presence on that stage than I had expected – granted it was a friendly audience.

Yet I’ve seen a number of politicians speaking to friendly and/or receptive audiences on complex issues – which is what he did here. In that regard, he came across as being far more ‘human’ than he appears on TV. The anecdote about his parents being spat at in 1960 by a group of Americans, stood out. All they were doing was going to see a preacher speak. That preacher happened to be Dr Martin Luther King. Being on history’s side before history has been made? That speaks volumes and to be influenced by parents who went through that – its anecdotes like this that animate politics. That anecdote alone was far more powerful than any ‘line to take’ written by party HQ. So why do HQs insist on being so risk averse and not allow politicians to…well…be themselves? This is exactly how I felt listening to the interviews around the PCC elections and the Corby by-election.

Douglas picked up on four ‘long term themes’ that he believes will impact UK politics over the next decade or so. The rise of India and China vis-a-vis USA & Europe, Climate Change, all things local in a globalised world and finally the impact of technological changes.

I was particularly interested in his comments on social media in relation to the Arab Spring. In a nutshell he said that the effective use of social media allowed people strengthen what might otherwise be weak relationships as far as social issues are concerned. Had I turned up without the benefit of digital and social media, I’d have been in a room full of strangers. Social media use meant that this was not the case – there were a number of people I was familiar with, and as a result felt more comfortable than I otherwise might have done as a local resident.

Social media complementing offline activism

This for me is one of the challenges and opportunities for political parties. Can activists use digital and social media to make local residents feel comfortable attending events such as this? It takes a lot of courage to turn up to any event where you don’t know anyone. If you know there will be people there that you know or at least interactive, chances are you’ll be more likely to go.

The selectorate

I was reading an article at stupid o’clock last night where this term was used to describe the 15% of people that chose to vote in the PCC elections this week. 1% of the voting population are members of political party, which makes anywhere between 1-14% of people the type that care enough about politics to learn about who the candidates are and vote accordingly.

For me, I’d like to think the PCC elections were a particular low point as far as UK democracy is concerned. In my view Cambridgeshire’s new Police and Crime Commissioner Sir Graham Bright has very little legitimacy. The same for me holds for all of the other commissioners – irrespective of party. Not nearly enough people were able to make an informed decision, let alone consenting to the policy of having PCCs in the first place.

“Yeah, so Pooffles, how are we going to turn things around?”

I can’t speak for other areas, but there was something strangely compelling about the local political and social history that stood out this afternoon. The way the speakers were able to weave tales and stories of people from years gone by into a continuous narrative of the story of my home town was something that resonated in a way that I’ve never felt before was quite compelling.

In terms of getting people interested in politics at a local level, I think there’s something to be said for local history types from each of the main parties to come together and host a crowd-sourced local history project that reaches out to schools and community groups to tell that story to the city. That way, people can gain a much deeper understanding and connection towards the place I call home. As Douglas Alexander said today, we live in a world where paradoxically the forces of globalisation grow stronger just as our desires for greater local connections grow stronger too.

My question/challenge?

How can we use the global force that is social and digital media to strengthen our connections to our local areas?

Home Secretary, on these ballot papers they are really spoiling us!


On the shambles that was the Police and Crime Commissioner elections

I can’t say the earth moved for me in this election campaign. Looking at the horrifically low voter turnout and the number of deliberately spoilt ballot papers – or rather the social media chatter from people who said that they were going to deliberately spoil their ballot papers, the PCC elections were a sign all is not well with our democracy. The challenge for politicians is how to interpret those signs.

I’m not going to go into the full details of what was wrong about the PCC elections in general – simply because Milena Popova has pretty much covered most of it in her blogpost Let’s go spoil some ballots! – Thus I recommend reading that post.

What I want to look at here is how politicians and beyond are taking from these election results, and what happened locally in my neck of the woods in Cambridgeshire.

“Deposit for #pcc elections: £5k. Cost of#pcc elections: £100m. The look in Theresa May’s face re turnout: priceless”

Or words to that effect for everyone that spoilt their ballot paper? Are we on track for the lowest turnout for an election in UK history? Depressing if we are, but given that elections that involve anything to do with politics – for example local government to trade union roles – are low, what does this say about the whole process of voting? While the beauty of casting a vote in a secret ballot is in its simplicity – especially in a first past the post model, is there a better method of seeking the consent of the people?

In my short time on Twitter (coming up to 2 years), this is the first time where I have seen people encouraging others to go out and spoil their ballot papers. My sense is that it won’t be the last either. What will politicians take from the significant and very public rise in the number of spoilt ballot papers? While the percentages may not sound high, the numbers – even on a very low turnout – do. When you hear that the number of spoilt ballot papers is measured in the thousands rather than the tens or hundreds, you know there’s something amiss.

I don’t blame the grassroots activists in political parties

They have to react to the draw that they are given. Being in a political party inevitably means having to make compromises and doing things you don’t necessarily like or agree with. I’m sure there were those in political parties that did not agree with a whole host of aspects of the PCC elections. Campaigning in darkest November for a start. Why would anyone want to have a conversation about politics, holding open their front door to canvassers and door knockers when it is freezing and dark outside? Why would anyone but the hardiest of political activist want to go out in the cold rain in the traffic-clogged streets to persuade people to vote in elections that no one has heard of? So fair play to those that did.

The blame for getting the timing basics all wrong lies in Westminster and Whitehall. Coalition ministers should never have given the green light for a November election – and as professional politicians they all should have known better. Parliament should never have given its consent either – whether by not debating with a following vote, or meekly passing through the legislation that allowed it. Given the amount of money spent versus the turnout, I would like to think that the Home Affairs Select Committee will want to call ministers to explain what happened – and in particular what they would have done differently knowing what they know now.

The infantilisation of politics in the general public’s world

Some of the attributed comments to politicians from all of the three main parties have been utterly depressing. What I’d like to see from senior politicians is an acknowledgement that the low turnout shoots to pieces the legitimacy any victor may claim – irrespective of party. I don’t want to hear politicians blaming the media as if the institution is some insurmountable barrier. I want them to see the bigger picture. Gloria De Piero – former TV presenter and now Labour MP started doing an interesting piece of work, very publicly asking why politicians are hated. In that interview, she separated out the difference between a free-thinking backbench MP and senior politicians bound by conventions of collective responsibility. Not wanting to be seen to be split, this leads to MPs talking in soundbites and lines to take – especially in the broadcast media.

“Well it’s not exactly advertised at the job centre”

That quotation was taken from De Piero’s report linked above. Locally in Cambridgeshire I kept tabs on who was being selected by the main three parties. But that’s what happens when you choose to keep tabs on your local political activists (of whom I’m incredibly grateful that there are enough of them on Twitter).

Having just picked up the results for Cambridgeshire, the (expected) winning candidate Sir Graham Bright for the Conservatives won with only 4.1% of first preference votes (out of all those eligible) and 5.5% of votes (first & second preferences) overall. That’s not a mandate by any means. Turnout was 15.75%. That means over 84% were completely unmoved by what was going on – or that not nearly enough effort was made to inform people that there was an election was going on.

I’ve not met Sir Graham, but the interaction between him and Richard Taylor, one of the very few people in Cambridgeshire to scrutinise in detail what was going on during campaigning, doesn’t fill me with confidence. In fact, none of the candidates filled me with enough confidence to overcome my huge doubts about the principle of having directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners – hence spoiling my ballot paper too. I did not want to legitimise what I felt was a flawed policy. Yet at the same time I wanted to make an active statement (beyond blogging or tweeting) about my viewpoint.

Party Politics is failing

…and the PCC elections provided evidence of more symptoms of this failure. In order to turn things around, senior politicians in my view need to acknowledge that it is failing and recognise that turning it around requires relinquishing power and control that, institutionally they’ve got used to having.

Interacting as I do with people who are members of several political parties – not just the big three, one of the biggest barriers anecdotally is selection processes. There’s something about selection processes that seems to squeeze out the independent free thinkers in favour of parachuted candidates and clones manufactured by party machines. Mark Ferguson’s post about the Labour selection process in Rotherham spoke volumes.

Imagine being a member in a safe Labour constituency, with a retiring MP. Your best opportunity to influence Parliament comes a round only every 20/30 years by selecting the next Labour MP in an open ballot.

Now imagine having that choice taken from you, either by having the party impose a candidate against your wishes, or by giving you a shortlist that doesn’t really give you a choice at all.

I see why people would be angry.

I’d be angry.

Recall that Dr Tony Wright said at the conference I was at a week ago that 1% of the population are members of a political party, but that 1% effectively decide who can and cannot get the chance to stand for election with a reasonable chance of getting elected. (See here under the sub-heading What of political parties?)

So…now what?

One line of questioning I’d be interested in political parties to look at is:

– Are you interested in party politics? (If so, why, if not why not?)

– What would politicians need to do differently to get you more interested in politics?

– What would political parties need to do differently as organisations in order for you to either become engaged and/or to join?

I don’t think any of the parties or organisations that are interested in politics are in any situation to say “This is what they need to do differently”. This is because as a body politic, a comprehensive co-ordinated and in-depth listening exercise has not yet been done. The results of that listening exercise would then inform who needs to make what changes. Is it a grassroots campaigning issue? Is it how politicians behave? Is it a problem with structures of political parties? Is it something about Westminster and Whitehall structures? Is it something exogenous to political institutions – i.e. the lobbying power of vested interests that skew politics away from the needs of ordinary people? Will there be differences due to things like geography (e.g. rural/urban, north/south), income, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, health etc?

Food for thought.


Three lords and a dragon fairy


Puffles meets “God” – and makes him smile!

No, not that one, the civil service one – Gus O’Donnell (who as you can imagine when he was Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service we called “GOD”). He now sits in the House of Lords as a cross-bencher. There were two other peers of the realm there too.

University policy institutes expand

Some of you may have noticed the link from Four professors and a dragon fairy – where I spoke at the University of Bristol’s Policy and Politics Conference. One of the key points from that conference was the predicted rise of academic public policy units based within universities. This lecture, hosted by Cambridge Public Policy had a number of themes that followed on quite nicely from it. While Cambridge has a big science and technology brand attached to it, it’s less well known in the world of public policy and politics. Oxford tends to be more well known in this field. I’m particularly interested in how the world of public policy develops in Cambridge because A) Cambridge is my home town (even though the university is anything but), and B) because public policy is one half of what I ‘do’ – though very much in a social media context that looks outwards to the general public rather than inwards within Whitehall.

Having successfully applied for a ticket, I was subsequently invited by Dr Miranda Gomperts to join a gathering over dinner and a discussion under Chatham House Rules – with Puffles restricted to three tweets max! So a ****Big Thank You***** to Miranda for the invitation. The conversation at the latter shone a light into some of the challenges and opportunities on evidence-based policy-making, my thoughts of which (but not other people’s comments due to the Rules) I’ll expand on later on.

Gathered around the table were some of the great and the good of Cambridge University’s academic community looking at a number of the issues raised in O’Donnell’s lecture – which was one of the best economics’ lectures I’ve been to. (Given that I’ve been to almost 5 years worth during my time in academia, that’s quite a compliment!) The headline points that O’Donnell made were live-tweeted by myself and others.

So, what did G’OD say?

I went along with Sam Smith to this lecture at a crowded stage in Peterhouse. The first thing that struck me was that the material seemed to be the things that O’Donnell the academic had wanted to really throw himself into but for the past 20 years had been prevented from doing so. It reminded me a little of Dr Tony Wright at the weekend at the University of London – just on a slightly different subject. Much of the talk was on behavioural economics. The difference someone like O’Donnell makes is A) he’s a damn good public speaker and B) he can put what can seem like dry academic theory and apply it to real world examples – whether backing up or shredding arguments for given policies.

There were a whole host of case studies that he referred to that had the audience – myself included – spellbound. In one sense it felt like ‘nudge theory’ yet on the other hand, it felt like something more. This is where at the dinner the issue of ethics came up – that issue also coming up on Puffles’ Twitter feed at the same time. One of the things noted about nudge theory is that in a number of cases it only works when people do not know they are being nudged. This is where things like ethics and philosophy come into contact with public policy. Is it ethical to carry out policies based on the principles of nudge theory without being open and honest with the general public about what is happening and why? Personally in this day and age, I have issues with the principle, even though there might be considerable financial savings as a result.

Any examples?

Tax and benefits. Do you send out forms simply requiring people to fill them in, or do you get people to sign the form at the top saying “What I am about to fill in here is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”  rather than having them sign it at the end? The studies O’Donnell pointed to in his lecture showed having people sign up front rather than at the end led to more accurate & more honest tax returns that also generated a greater level of revenue. People didn’t know they were having this done to them, but on a macro scale, the potential revenue difference can be hundreds of millions of pounds. But is it ethical?

There’s the issue with health. During my civil service days I’d send stuff in a brown envelope. OK , it would seldom be to a member of the public, but brown envelopes with plastic windows – or any envelope with a window – normally has bad news. (Or junk). Yet if it’s something that has say a personal appointment at a clinic that’ll improve their health, where does it end? Rather have a normal envelope, hand written with a stamp leads to a more positive effect in the cases O’Donnell presented – increasing the likelihood the envelope would be opened and the individual would act on it. But if the public are not aware of this switch, is it ethical?

There’s no right or wrong answer. Cases can be made for both sides. This is what makes policy-making so interesting. It’s what should also make politics interesting – which is why it’s so sad to see ‘politics’ being dragged through the mud in recent years. The police and crime commissioner elections today are symptomatic of that. Catastrophically low turnouts along with a number of people (myself included) spoiling their ballot papers is not good for democracy, but the responsibility in this case lies with the politicians that gave us such a flawed system for these elections. I refuse to legitimise such a flawed policy with a vote for any of the candidates. But I had to make my point in an active manner. Hence voting for Puffles instead.

How did you manage to get Gus to have a photo with Puffles?

Puffles with Dr Miranda Gomperts, Lord O’Donnell and Dr David Cleevely at Peterhouse College, Cambridge

Well…Miranda asked him.

Did everyone ‘get’ Puffles and social media?

Of course not! Not everyone does – nor should they! But the point I left the audience with stemmed from one of O’Donnell’s key points about breaking out of policy and academic silos. Issues are now cutting across professions, government departments and subject areas. Things are getting far more complicated.

My point was that social and digital media allows people to scrutinise and be scrutinised far beyond their academic or policy silos. One of the things O’Donnell touched on as far as scientists were concerned was the need for them to understand political demands and policy cycles. But this isn’t the only occasion where I’ve heard a speaker say that people from one profession need to understand another – and/or others. The brilliant Lucy Chambers at a talk Puffles was at earlier this year spoke of the need for journalists to understand data – and big data. There has been a push for civil servants to understand basic economics. Following recent events, I dare say that there is a need for social media users to understand that abstract theoretical concept called ‘the law’.

That was my challenge in conversation with a number of people that evening: How do you feel about being scrutinised by people far beyond your immediate academic community? I used a hypothetical Frances Coppola as an example. Frances qualified with an MBA before going onto work in banking in years gone by. Today, she’s a teacher, but still blogs on all things economics and banking. She’s not part of any organisation or academic institution. To all intents and purposes, Frances is a bit like me: A free spirit but with an understanding of how institutions within a given sector function. If you are in academia – or in a public policy role, how do you deal with people like Frances or myself? How in the world do you deal with someone who tweets through a creature such as Puffles? Do you dismiss us because we are not part of an institution or do you judge us by both our content and the people we engage with?

“Yeah…can’t remember the name of the guy, but he’s with Magic Dragon Puffles – told me to get in touch with you regarding complicated stuff!”

“They turn up with business cards, you turn up with a dragon. Who are they going to remember?” Said one delegate at an event I attended about six months ago. Now, dismiss the likes of Frances and myself by all means, but don’t be surprised if those people that choose to embrace social and digital media start gaining benefits from it that you do not. Puffles is a great connector – connecting both people and institutions in a manner unheard of a few years ago. I like putting people who have similar professional interests in touch with each other and letting them get on with stuff.

From both academic and policy perspectives, using digital and social media has the potential to increase the level of input and scrutiny. It also poses significant challenges for partisan think tanks too. It’s one thing to be criticised by what may feel like faceless academics. It’s quite another to be criticised by a former Cabinet Secretary – As O’Donnell did with the Tax Payers’ Alliance over its failure to make a big issue of tax avoidance. (Remember O’Donnell has a PhD in economics and is a former Treasury Permanent Secretary too). How will think tanks respond to the growing number of university-backed public policy units that will inevitably become more social-media-savvy and want to scrutinise their publications in detail?

And finally?

My challenge to such public policy institutes is to live-stream speeches over the internet. The remote audience for this talk was potentially huge, so it was a shame it wasn’t filmed or recorded. I made that point to O’Donnell and others, saying that there are huge potential audiences for such talks far beyond the normal policy and academic silos. We’ve just got to make things available to them.

Cambridge & South Cambs voluntary sector come under Puffles’ microscope


Some thoughts following the Cambridge CVS Annual General Meeting for 2012

I took Puffles along to the AGM of the local council for voluntary service – so for my neck of the woods, that’s Cambridge and the surrounding region of South Cambridgeshire. For Parliamentary watchers, this is broadly Julian Huppert and Andrew Lansley territory. The event was set out here, and interestingly there was an all-female panel. It followed a standard conference agenda. Introductions, guest speakers, coffee break, breakout sessions and round up before lunch.

As I tweeted via Puffles, to summarise I felt that while the top level challenge was set out in stark terms (ie. ever-increasing cuts along side ever increasing demands on services), everything felt ‘too safe’ for me in how to respond. Much of what was said felt similar to what was said at events I attended as far back as 2004. But the world has changed significantly and continues to do so. I didn’t get the sense that as a sector (as opposed to individually) they acknowledged and accepted this.

The good news

The good news is that there is a lot of great work being done by lots of wonderful and fantastic people – people that seem to be having sand kicked in their faces as a result of the cuts in public spending. Okay, so the latter isn’t good news, but rather a reflection of central government’s lack of understanding of the relationships between local government and local community groups. If Whitehall had properly understood these relationships, we may not be in quite the same situation as we are in today. (Hence my comments on Big Society).

Actually, it was South Cambridgeshire District Council that seem to be onto something as far as managing their far-flung parishes are concerned. A predominantly rural district, they have parish councils dotted about all over the place. How do you even begin to co-ordinate all of these councils and councillors on a shoestring budget? Because there are thriving communities in my neck of the woods. That said, South Cambridgeshire is one of the more affluent parts of the country that is not as dependent economically on central government as other parts of the country might be. However, that does not mean there are no problems – as a number of older wiser owls informed me during the coffee break. “Micro-pockets” of depravation, disadvantage and poverty do not show up on the macro-charts, thus they have a habit of falling through the net on big government schemes. Rural transport, access to the internet and skills to use all things online were three specific problems people addressed to me.

What are South Cambridgeshire doing?

Social media mapping their community, picking up on and trying to work with community groups and social media savvy individuals to get a picture of what’s going on across the southern part of the county. One of the next steps is to start geotagging the various groups onto GoogleMaps so that people can get an instant snapshot of what’s on and where in their neighbourhood.

But the barriers are as big as they are numerous

I can’t say I got much out of the breakout session that I was in. Institutionally it felt that the suggestions being made were from within the same mindset of years ago, but without anything concrete coming out from it. For me this was a shame – and a missed opportunity. I’d like to see future gatherings where attendees commit to doing/delivering a specific standalone action, as well as committing to a ‘behavioural change’ – what are you going to do differently in your day-to-day work that you don’t currently do? (Something that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely – SMART). That way at least stuff happens. I’m not entirely convinced asking groups to feed back their top two priorities (given the broad brush nature of such things) will achieve much. Certainly in our group I dissented strongly from the “improve working relationships” priority precisely because it felt like something straight out of 2004.

Organisations in the same silo facing inwards

This is the impression that I got from listening and looking around the room. The first audience question I threw out to everyone was asking everyone who was comfortable with using social media on a day-to-day basis. About a third of the people in the room (of I’d say about 50-70 people) put up their hands. Given that the Cambridge CVS has a number of local organisations on their books that do not use email or the internet, this shows we have a challenge around the digital divide.

While each organisation has a specific client or community group, one of the habits of a lifetime to break is the institutional behaviour stemming from dependency nature of grants from central and local government. I saw this in my civil service days where outside organisations would wait for a signal from someone in the public sector before going ahead and doing something. It was an extreme (but understandable) level of risk averseness, reflecting a lack of confidence on one side, and perhaps a tendency to micro-manage on the other side.

So…what’s needed then?

  • A digital strategy for the county – with specific actions and commitments
  • Grassroots movements on digital and social media, forcing the hand of institutions to go where the people are

As far as the institutions within the county is concerned, a digital strategy that encompasses a number of key actions and commitments that signatories will sign up to. The big one for me is around training and job specifications. Given the nature of social and digital media world, one of the things I’d be tempted to do is to ratchet up job specifications for new vacancies – in particular at senior level – to require at least a basic knowledge of digital and social media, in particular how it applies to organisations within the sector it happens to be in. It’s just as when Cabinet Office made clear to would-be senior civil servants that they would need ‘delivery experience’ before they would be considered for the senior civil service. Recent senior appointments to the senior civil service from outside have demonstrated that Cabinet Office are deadly serious about this. It’s only a matter of time before digital and social media skills become core competencies in my opinion.

Secondly, something to happen at a grassroots level to get a critical mass of local people leaning on institutions in the public sector and VCS. This is the hard bit because it is incredibly labour-intensive – but it can be done. Anything that is done on social and digital media in this sector has to complement what is done offline. It’s not a standalone thing. What I mean by that is you’ve got to give people a reason to get engaged with you online. It’s one of the reasons why I take Puffles to such gatherings – the not-so-little dragon is a fantastic conversation starter. It causes even more astonishment to those unfamiliar with Puffles when someone (in particular one of the speakers at an event) comes over to say hello & is clearly more than familiar with Puffles (as happened today). Or as has happened on more than one occasion, you’ll get someone saying:

“Yeah…who’s that bloke with Puffles?”

Raising awareness of social media isn’t my primary driver for getting involved in things locally. My primary driver is I want life to be generally more interesting than it otherwise might be given that my work does not involve going into a busy office surrounded by people all the time. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not too hot on lone working: I’m a people person. Social media somewhat diminishes the isolation, but can never compensate for being around with a group of people working together for the greater good.

By getting a critical mass of people using social media well at a local level, you then create an incentive for the institutions to follow – they will have to go where the people are.

Who needs to do what?

The nature of public sector organisations in particular is that they are very hierarchical by nature. That means stuff tends not to get done if it is someone relatively junior trying to drive it. Which is a shame. That said, with something like this, local councils could turn that way of working on its head. The convening power of the councils alone could be enough to influence a critical mass of outside organisations and institutions.

What I’d like to see is the chief executives and council leaders to back the drawing up of a digital strategy for the county, and invite interested parties who are passionate about social media (irrespective of age, expertise, job title, grade or employer) to help contribute, using their good offices. From that point, we can do a mapping exercise to find out where we are social media wise so as to get an idea of what the need is across the county as far as the VCS is concerned.

Why a digital strategy? Isn’t that a bit top down?

It doesn’t need to be. It would be if it were one person at the top of a silo in a large organisation writing it and telling everyone that this is what they have to work with. I’ve seen too many public sector documents written like that. This one is about interested people coming together to co-ordinate activities as well as finding and sharing information. Once we have a clear picture of who is doing what, then we can look at what needs doing by whom without duplicating processes and actions.

What sort of actions would flow from a digital strategy?

Things like:

  • A commitment to train staff and volunteers on digital and social media – including (but not restricted to) staying safe online
  • A commitment to incorporate digital and social media skills into job descriptions – in particular for senior managers. (My view is that they are paid more than enough for this to be a requirement)
  • A willingness to pool resources – from sharing training facilities, expert staff to pooling budgets to commission the necessary training.
  • Using local government’s procurement power to put together a procurement framework that organisations part of it can access low cost digital and social media training, to a syllabus that has been mutually agreed.
  • Mapping which organisations are using social media, where they are, what they do and how many active members they have
  • Mapping what facilities there are in which areas that are available for training and awareness to be delivered
  • Mapping who has what skills to deliver that training

Intelligent commissioners

Of course I have a vested financial interest in the delivery of any training workshops. At the same time, I don’t want my local councils or local charities to be ripped off – especially when such scarce funds could be put to more direct beneficial use. Far better therefore on the training side for one of the local councils to put together a training framework that will allow local organisations and community groups to access low cost training and awareness. With an agreed syllabus, social media training could be delivered in a manner that connects people and community groups together at the same time. Thus people have a greater incentive to use what they have learnt.

Free workshops

Some of us do free workshops too – such as the Net-Squared ones. (I’m one of the volunteers for this one). There’s opportunities for Cambridgeshire Libraries Service to make good use of their facilities – as well as local schools and the village colleges – to host similar workshops too. There are also gatherings such as Teacambs to take advantage of too.

Why the obsession with social media?

The power of information and communication. It’s almost the default that we now go to the internet as our first port of call when we want to find something out. I believe we can use social media to make our voluntary and community organisations much more sustainable and vibrant – even in these uncertain economic times. I want to see if we can achieve this.

At the same time, not everyone will be able to access the internet. I also want this point to be acknowledged and accepted so that organisations in their rush towards all things digital do not leave behind some of our most vulnerable citizens and fellow neighbours. Social media should complement our day-to-day lives and bring us together as communities, not replace it and leave us more isolated.

So…yeah…that’s my vision…sort of.

My earlier ideas around this can be found here.

Multinationals, franchises, the superwealthy and tax avoidance


Should we be surprised about attitudes towards global tax avoidance when those at the top of firms do not live in communities their frontline outlets are in?

Three multinationals found themselves hauled in front of the Public Accounts Committee regarding tax avoidance. On Puffles’ feed there has been a polarisation of views between those that take the view of the system as is – firms maximising profits by whatever legal means is fine, and those that take issue with largescale tax avoidance. Before I start, I want to be clear on definitions which I blogged about here. They are what I’m going to be working from for the purposes of this post. For those of you interested in reviews of the hearing, see the BBC here and ITV’s Laura Kuenssberg here.

Evidence from the Starbucks representative showed that the multinational has a special but (so far) confidential tax deal that it has negotiated with the Dutch tax authorities – something that seems to have caught out the Public Accounts Committee. (MPs on the committee noting that this was negotiated for the benefit of the company – ie the firm wouldn’t have arranged such a deal if it led to the company paying more in tax). This feels at odds with principles of a fair tax system and an equal playing field – small independent coffee shops don’t have the option of negotiating bespoke tax arrangements with tax authorities.

To the non-specialist watcher, there is a murky feel about some of the things going on about the financial relationships between subsidiaries of parent companies and relationships with agents and franchisees. To the specialist watcher, it may make perfect sense – a large corporation making use of specialist knowledge and sheer corporate power to reduce its costs – one of those being taxation. The greater the level of total costs that are taxes due, the greater the incentive to structure a multinational business that takes advantage of the various tax rates worldwide to minimise such costs. Countries have been competing on such terms for years – to the extent that it makes it into the text books of GCSE geography courses. Bells still chime with case studies of export development zones where new firms moving there don’t pay any taxes or tariffs – in the hope that people will then get jobs.

Breaking the supply chain

I upgraded my phone recently. I can’t say it was a pleasant experience – it never is. But what struck me was how disjointed multinational supply chains have become as a result of outsourcing and franchising. Which bit of the manufacturing, sales and after-sales does the company really control? One lady seemed to be fobbed off by a manager saying “We only do the sales here, you have to call this number and speak to them” :-/

The companies that make the branded high street goods are seldom the branded firm these days. I first picked up on this with a personal stereo many moons ago. Looking at the smallprint, it said that it was made by some company in China, the name of which I could not pronounce. I thought that if I wanted a product made by that company, I would have done so – but having selected the more well-known brand, I expected the product to be made by that well-known brand. What I didn’t expect was some astro-turfing operation.

There’s a further break in the chain with franchising – one not without risks to the brand either. For an established brand, you could say that someone else does the hard work of selling, while you just sit back and watch the cash roll in. But at the same time you diminish the link between customer and parent company – something that is a big issue where your product potentially requires a major post-sales support operation. Mobile phones are a classic case. Fast food? Not so much. On the former, I saw it today – a customer being fobbed off by a manager trying to cite ‘data protection’ as a reason why he could not call his customer service team on behalf of the customer.

With your top decision-makers being so far removed from the customers that they are facing, is it any wonder that customer service is so poor? What’s even worse is that the poor service is causing many people to lose out – in particular with large firms. Combining this with the allegations of tax avoidance that seem to be coming out every other day of late, is the public being screwed over twice over? First on poor service, second on taxation.

Executive pay

This has also been in the news too. One of the points made on the select committee today was that transferring lots of funds to offshore tax havens created nice slush funds for executives, but shareholders could not get to them because repatriating them to (in this case) the USA would incur a tax hit from the US tax authorities. Hence concerns about shareholders being ripped off by such practices too. It makes you wonder what the non-executive directors are doing – who should be acting in the interests of the shareholders.

When you have such large firms able to manipulate tax rates across international borders, an executive class on telephone number salaries so out of sync with the rest of society, jetting from one mansion to another five star hotel room to another executive apartment, is it any wonder that a culture and a mindset grows up that leads to such a group behaving as if they do not have a stake in wider society? It may come as little surprise that one group of people have survived the financial crisis almost unscathed.

“If your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be”

This for me is the big issue that the world is going to have to wrestle with sooner or later. Individual nation states are no longer big enough to face down multinational corporation interests. If multinational firms are able to play off nation states that are part of the same economic bloc against each other, will there be growing pressure for tax harmonisation? Such a suggestion is unlikely to find favour in the UK – the very notion of tax rates being set in Brussels would be seen as an outrage. We saw this earlier this year when Cameron defended the City of London over regulatory control so the idea that a UK government would hand over tax-raising powers to the EU as things currently stand, is a fantasy.

But then what levels of transparency should we expect from large firms? Should they have the same levels of privacy as ordinary citizens and small businesses, or does their impact and influence on society mean they have greater responsibilities?

Simplifying the system

This is one of the areas where I agree with a number of Puffles’ Tory followers. The current system is ever so complex that it enables large firms to employ tax specialists and lobbyists to bamboozle politicians and regulators. When you look for example at the Financial Services Authority, you have approximately 4,000 members of staff regulating 29,000 firms and 165,000 individuals. That works out at one member of staff per 7.25 firms and one member of staff per 41.25 individuals. On the tax side, the FDA/ARC union representing senior tax inspectors claim there are not nearly enough of them to enforce the system – despite recent investment. Simplifying the system would certainly help regulators, but when you have corporate interests donating to political parties, you can see how there is a financial incentive for political parties (in order to keep donations coming in) to refrain from tackling this problem.

Ultimately the problem is a political one

Margaret Hodge, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said the issue of tax avoidance was a moral one. Yet unless firms are that concerned with a potential consumer boycott, there is no incentive for them to change what are otherwise perfectly legal activities. It’s up to Parliament to lean on The Treasury to come up with decent plans to simplify the tax system – and simplify it in favour of the ordinary citizen, not the jet set chief executive. As things stand, I can’t see this happening in the current Parliamentary political climate.

“You there! Terrorist! Remove that webpage of mass destruction!”


Why there’s more to the arrest of the person who uploaded that snap of a burning poppy than ‘poppy fascism’

A number of Puffles’ followers have been up in arms over the arrest of a person who uploaded a photo of someone setting a poppy alight. Many will – quite understandably – go after the issue of free speech. While it may be in incredibly bad taste to do such a thing, is it something that the law should be getting involved in? Is it something that we are all equal before the law – for example if people doing the same thing are from different religious backgrounds? What’s the difference between one person committing such an act and uploading it after a night out with too much alcohol vs another person doing so while demonstrating in a public place? I’ll leave that for others to argue. I’m interested in the even wider issue of how people and institutions influence the behaviour of individuals.

“Cease terrorising my community you terrorist – get down on the ground, you is under arrest!”

Since the atrocities of 11 September 2001, the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ seem to have taken on completely different meanings. Let’s not forget that this was one of the biggest peacetime attacks on UK citizens since the Second World War – with 67 British Citizens losing their lives in the attacks – more than the 52 who lost their lives in London on 7/7/2005. The reason why I believe we need to be careful with language we attach to offences is that in my view it diminishes the meaning of when real bad stuff happens. In the tabloid decades of recent times, the blurring of language has become all the more common – which at the same time makes it easier for satirists to lampoon. For the latter, it feels like it’s one of the few ways of some of us saying “We don’t like the way our language is being abused by headline writers and editors, so we’ll lampoon you instead.”

But back to poppies…

There is a very good reason why we should commemorate the outbreak of the First World War

…it’s just not the reason the Prime Minister – or the establishment for that matter – are probably thinking. Hence why I find this offensive.

There were only 50 parishes across the UK that did not suffer any losses during that conflict. This meant that almost every community in the UK – not to mention from the then colonies – suffered losses. Loved ones that did not come back. It’s strange to think what the impact must have been on communities to have suffered not just the absence of men, but also those that came back broken from the battlefields…

…which is why it’s all the more astonishing that the decision to go to war has rested in the hands of so few people

I was one of the hundreds of thousands of people that marched against the war in 2003 – the biggest single peacetime demonstration in UK history. As far as the centre-left is concerned, the failure of the protests, campaigns and lobbying had a huge impact on depoliticising an entire generation of people – just as Nick Clegg’s actions & comments on tuition fees has done today. Why should young people bother to get engaged in politics when events have shown that even if they do so in huge numbers (and in absence of a huge social movement arguing the opposite with similar effort and passion) next to no impact will be made?

But this wasn’t what I wanted to cover in this blogpost

It was about how societies are controlled – or control themselves

“Isn’t that what we have laws and the police for?”

I like to look back to my childhood days of playing Civilization for this one – before I even comprehended what the internet was, let alone what its potential was. In that game, your challenge was to build an empire to stand the test of time. If people started getting angry, you either built buildings to placate them, sent in soldiers to enforce martial law or pull citizens from production to be entertainers – from jesters to being Elvis impersonators. The point being that societies and rulers over time evolved systems of control to keep their populations in check. Sometimes it was religion, sometimes it was entertainment, other times it was brute force – or perhaps a combination of all three.

One of the things that (anecdotally – I’m thinking aloud after half a bottle of rioja here) feels like a common strand is systems of communication. Alberto Nardelli at the EU event I was at a few days ago used the anecdote of a cleric lambasting about how horrible the printing press was – before using the printing press to distribute his argument about how horrible the printing press was. The emergence of communications’ technologies over the centuries allowed societies to evolve and adapt to them. Those that failed to accommodate them – and in particular sought to repress them – found themselves in trouble. (Not because of communications, but rather communications amplified what were already wider issues – whether lack of food to go around, to warfare or oppressive regimes that went one step too far). But my point here is that the changes took place over long periods of time. With the internet and now social media, it has happened over a very short space of time.

Who’s in control of how people behave?

As far as social media use is concerned, this is what institutions are really struggling with. And no one really knows what the answer is. I was part of a Westminster Skeptics gathering not so long ago where we discussed this in the context of internet trolling. Despite having an audience of some of the brightest minds on Twitter there, we could not come to a conclusion on how to deal with internet hate. People wanted something done about it, but didn’t trust ‘the state’ as an institution to be the organisation to do something about it.

There is the ‘yeah, but would you say/do that in public’ test – but social media allows people to be anonymous. Sometimes for very good reason and sometimes for anything but. How do you draw the distinction between the two and who makes the judgement call as to what is right and what is not? One person’s freedom fighter may be another person’s terrorist. One person’s abusive poster may be another person’s campaigner holding someone else to account. It’s all so subjective.

As for the person who posted the picture of him setting a poppy alight with a cigarette lighter, how many other young people have set alight poppies with cigarette lighters over the decades? Where people saw and objected to it, how did they deal with it? If you saw someone doing that, how would you respond? Would you call the police, intervene directly or walk on by?

The same could be said for internet p0rn. How many of you that have looked online have been into one of those ‘private shops’ and bought something from them. I used to have to walk past one such emporium during my final year at university. Sometimes it’d have metal shutters down, while other times it would not, but would have blinds fully down so no one would have any idea what they were selling. At the time, I genuinely didn’t. (I was brought up in Cambridge in a Catholic community – what we didn’t know about the world wasn’t going to hurt us!) I thought that a ‘private shop’ was a contradiction in terms. When I wandered in, there was this sign that said “Don’t go in if easily offended or under 18”. I thought. “This is Brighton. What could offend me?” Then it made sense as to why it was labelled as such. Several years later, on a journey to Hamburg some German acquaintances took me to some similar shops there to see what my reaction would be. I was like “Yeah – I had to walk past one of these things every day at university”, completely deadpan and unfazed at being in the middle of what was a very crowded establishment!

But it’s not a free-for-all

The one thing that (rightly) gets people angry is the abuse of the vulnerable – in particular children. Hence the reactions in recent times around not just all things Savile but beyond. As we have seen. some of our biggest institutions are rocking – not just the BBC.

As far as institutions are concerned, those at the top of them won’t have grown up with the internet, let alone social media. With the latter, some may only have seen it as an item on a risk register or ‘something they need to become familiar with, but not yet.’ Hence a tension where you have lots of social media-savvy younger staff whose potential is unfulfilled. This is a challenge I’ve put to some very influential organisations.

As a society, the question is: “How do we hold each other accountable for what we post?” At what point should online communities self-police, and at what point should parliaments legislate for the law to become involved?

I genuinely do not know the answer