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.


3 thoughts on “Cambridge & South Cambs voluntary sector come under Puffles’ microscope

  1. As you say, South Cambridgeshire is made up of a large number of Parishes (100+) with more than 90 Parish Councils – so it’s not just the VCS that need to be on board with social media – it’s those Parish Councils …..

  2. Very interesting piece but the increasingly large procurement exercises local authorities are working against your best intentions re digital strategy and engagement.
    Be a bit careful to avoid over emphasising dependency nature of grants. Many small voluntary and community organisations will rarely be eligible to make bids for contracts. Progressive reductions of grants to local voluntary sectors are a real problem. NAVCA (the umbrealla body for CVSs) has produced some interesting material around the value of grants.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s