2012: Making the best of an awful year

Summary

How was 2012?

For me, in the grand scheme of things a disaster. If someone said to me at the start of the year that I’d have a mental health crisis resulting in me not being able to work full-time hours, I’d mark 2012 as a disaster – irrespective of anything else. When you lose a key aspect of your health to the extent it has a significant impact on your life, it changes everything. No. Really. It does. For a start it limits your ability to apply for full-time courses or jobs. Given the state of housing, you suddenly become dependent on others for the short to medium term. A culture shock when used to a life of independence.

It hasn’t been pleasant living through these tough economic times – seeing too many of you struggling even harder than I am – through no fault of your own. At least I have family to fall back on – for which I am grateful. For those dependent on an ever shrinking state, I cannot even begin to comprehend what it must be like to be told your benefits will be cut because of a flawed assessment from a foreign outsourcing company. Democratic vs contractual accountability anyone?

I observed close at hand the big TUC march on 20 October 2012 and was left deeply worried about ‘the big picture’. It didn’t look good then and doesn’t look good now. None of the mainstream big name politicians (if I can call them that) inspire me – and I’ve seen a number of them close up in the flesh. Ed Miliband even refused to have his photograph taken with Puffles! (All the more hilarious when Cambridge’s Lib Dem Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Sheila Stuart asked if she could have a photo with Puffles! Not to worry, Labour MP, former Cambridge Mayor and my old near neighbour Barry Gardiner took Ed to task over this gratuitous snub!)

“So…Puffles had fun then?”

Oh yes – lots!

It started with South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council inviting Puffles to do some talks on social media to local councillors in Cambourne and Cambridge respectively. That was the beginning of a new line of work as a social media trainer – for which I am grateful for both councils for taking that risk on someone new to this line of work.

I’m a celebrity! Get me out of here!

Puffles even managed a newspaper appearance in the since-closed Cambridge First. Thus began Puffles’ appearances at public conferences – such as UKGovCamp 2012 and at the Institute for Government. This led to a series of ‘celebrity appearances’ with the likes of authors Mark Henderson, Ben Goldacre, ex-Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell and Stella Creasy MP, as well as meeting with Shadow Local Transport Minister Lilian Greenwood MP and cross-examining Cllr Nick Clarke, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council.

After Puffles caused panic in Whitehall (“Magic dragon spotted in Whitehall!!!!“), it took the calm actions of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to bring Puffles down from the rafters with the offer of tea and cake while the rest of Westminster’s knights put on their suits of armour. Puffles had that much fun that we decided to go to the Paralympics. The Army and RAF took such a shine to Puffles that they ran off with Puffles – until I showed them that Doug Beattie would get upset. At which point they promptly returned Puffles – pleasantly surprised to find that the recipient of this citation (for a Military Cross – awarded for gallantry in the face of an enemy – and is really worth reading in full) is one of Puffles’ long-time followers. Puffles managed to get busted by City of London Mounted Police but was released in time to watch the wheelchair tennis and David Weir’s exploits on the track.

Pub lunches make the world go round

I organised and went to a number of gatherings – mainly in London and Cambridge where I met up with a number of Puffles’ followers. I got the feeling that Puffles had become more well-known than me when at one such gathering, someone asked loudly:

Yeah – who’s that bloke with Puffles?

…as I entered the room, dragon fairy in arms.

As far as meetups go, it’s far easier for people to find you if you have Puffles with you than without. “Look for the bloke in the black coat” vs “Look for the table with a big cuddly dragon fairy sitting on it”. It’s a no-brainer. As with 2011 it’s been lovely to see people within my social media circle of friends meeting up for the first time and starting conversations as if they had known each other for ages. No need for the “I like peas, I don’t like cabbage” awkward introductions you get with normal ‘networking’ meetups. I’m looking to continue with these in 2013 – basically because my philosophy is that social media should complement, not replace ‘offline’ friendships. In anycase, I’m of a mindset where I don’t differentiate between ‘offline’ friends and ‘social media friends’. Truth be told, I don’t have any of the latter. Nearly all of my current friendships have been formed &/or maintained through social media.

On several occasions I’ve been explaining what Puffles is all about to those unfamiliar with social media, only to find a follower wandering up at the same time saying something along the lines of:

“I just wanted to say ‘hello’ to Puffles”

…which has more than convinced a number of otherwise sceptics as to the potential power of social media. Thus there is a community of followers growing in both depth and breadth that follow (and engage with) Puffles via Twitter. So much so that Puffles at the last count had 15 MPs as followers across 3 political parties. Even more interestingly, Puffles was mentioned THREE TIMES in a session of the Public Administration Select Committee – see Qs 231, 235 and 242. Not only that, the BBC decided to publish a report mentioning Puffles on Christmas Eve! As my old workmate Nader Khalifa said, it must have been a slow news day.

“So…Puffles had ALL of the fun?”

“Yeah…”

Well…not quite. For wherever Puffles went I nearly always followed. It was the year I started toying with my own ‘work’ website (as opposed to this blog), unleashed Teacambs with Liz Stevenson and fed into the new social media guidance for civil servants – allowing Puffles to take the credit. I was also pleased to get this blog cited on a national newspaper website for the first time too – on the issue of outsourcing of policy.

All of these things ultimately led to new commissions, delivering training, awareness-raising seminars and workshops for a variety of audiences. These have ranged from private sector freight firms working on the Low Carbon Freight Dividend in East Anglia, through to the University of Bristol  (I love this picture of myself and Puffles at the University of Bristol’s event) all the way back into Whitehall.

Finally, to top it all off just before Christmas my first niece joined us on planet earth.

‘And…I’ve got a DRAGON’

You could say it’s the whole ‘image’ thing, but I’ve reached the stage where I feel that I’ve got nothing to prove to the career ladder (and those that judge by it) any more. How do you respond to someone who can respond back to you with the line: “Yeah…but I’ve got a dragon!”? One that’s been into Parliament, quoted in Hansard and mentioned on a Cabinet Office website? The only other dragon likely to have been mentioned in all three at any point is the poor creature killed by a certain mythical knight of the realm. Puffles’ take is that the dragon was denied a right to lawful arrest, legal representation and a fair trial – and was thus unlawfully killed. Yeah – how do you respond to someone who can reel that off in a complete deadpan manner? Thus I’ve found with Puffles I get to have more fun in these dark and depressing times.

And they have been dark and depressing – Olympics and Paralympics aside.

“What about the Olympics and Paralympics?”

We didn’t have a summer this year. 2012 was one of the wettest years on record. The Olympics and Paralympics provided an insight into just how great our communities could be if we all supported each other and worked together for the greater common good. What a sharp contrast the Queen’s Jubilee was compared to the opening ceremony. Okay, the weather played a huge part. But in my view, Danny Boyle got it spot on. The military pageantry was left to the former. Bearing in mind in British military uniforms the country has invaded about 90% of the PLANET, making a big thing of all things military at The Olympics was probably inappropriate. Going for the UK social history, a wonderful blend of music, the NHS which employs people from all over the world, and the cultural exports of TV and film worked wonders for me. Oh, and if you want to experience it all again without the commentary, it’s here. The soundtrack for me was the best album of the year by a country mile. I still listen to it now. Little can get near it.

The Paralympics opening ceremony was also wonderful too. Did you see Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson flying? Yeah – Puffles made that happen! (Sort of!) This was the first international tournament I have ever experienced where we the people were able to interact and send messages of support to competitors from all over the world. Given all of the bad news coming from the men’s professional game, the Great Britain women’s football team showed the men how to do it. Against Brazil. In front of 70,000 people.

“Umm…that sounds like a fairly awesome year”

But all in the context of not being able to function properly full-time. And that change of mindset has been excruciatingly painful emotionally. In part because I guess I had this idea of where I was supposed to ‘be’ when I hit my early 30s. Being at home, living with parents and not being able to work full time was not what I had pictured. Rather, own house, own career, own car, life partner – ‘Middle class is magical’ if you like – only it’s no longer magical. But I knew that in October 2011. What I didn’t know was that this mindset was worth abandoning. What’s the point of aspiring to things that are now blatantly beyond my reach? I’m just not going to play ‘their’ game of aspiring to the property ladder. I’m going to aspire to other things instead.

Medication and working out what ‘recovery’ is

Despite all the good stuff, it was all happening through sleepless nights, anti-anxiety medication and short-term tranquillisers that knocked me out for the best part of 36 hours at a time. Hence all of the #sleepfail tweets. It’s been a year of insomnia. I guess what I’m learning is that good things can still happen despite the condition I find myself in. When something like this is constantly in your face (or in your mind) it makes enjoying the good times that little bit harder.

It’s also taken its toll on some friendships too – falling out with people who really deserved better than to deal with my angst. It may be a common occurrence of mental health crises but it doesn’t make it any easier when you experience it. But you have to move on and not dwell.

I’m still trying to work out in my mind what I am capable of in 2013. I could make a huge list of activities, but the truth is I’d be exhausted by the end of the first week if I took the approach of previous years. People who have been through similar crises have indicated it will take years to make a full recovery – ie to the extent I can work full time again. What’s hard to cope with at the moment is that I don’t have a ‘vision’ of what that looks like: Of where I will be, what I will be like and who I will be with. I can’t be at ‘home’ forever though. It’s both frightening and exciting. Frightening because I don’t know if I’ll be able to cope on my own, exciting because I’m not bound to institutions in the way I was in years gone by.

I have no grand plans for this time next year. Better physical, mental and financial health along with closer friendship and family ties are all that I’m looking for, for now. And a better outlook for all of you. Anything else would be a bonus for me.

All the best for 2013 and many thanks for your support over the past 12 months on what has been a difficult year for all of us.

Happy New Year!

 

So this is Christmas…

…and what have you done?

It’s sad to see the footage from John Lennon’s music video where the title and the above-line is taken from. It was in the mid-late 1980s that my parents bought what I remember to be my immediate family’s first Christmas compilation – that song being the first one going. As I mentioned in my previous post, given that the problems of war and global poverty have not been anywhere near dealt with, it’s sad to see the church I was once part of really going vociferously against equal marriage – and on today of all days. Given the consistency of message (if not the frightening rhetoric) with other dioceses in other parts of the world, this has clearly been co-ordinated centrally.  The Anglican Bishop of Cork at the same time cautioned that the behaviour of religious institutions were pushing away people from it and its beliefs. I’m not going to pretend the issue of equal marriage isn’t divisive – it clearly is. But then so were other civil rights struggles too.

What messes things up for me personally is that, having had a childhood brought up under the cloud of such an institution, the religious festivities associated with it are very difficult to disentangle from the institution. Thus all things Christmas and Easter are associated with the baggage of the institution. Thus I find myself alienated from two of the biggest religious and cultural festivals in the country. Christmas carols have baggage – as do the various festivities. I can’t get away from it. It’s like this permanent dark cloud that I cannot shift. Why would I want to celebrate the birth of a figure that founded an institution that did so much harm to me? That’s what makes carols and other Christmas songs from those days so hard to cope with.

So…that’s why over the past 48 hours I’ve been Twitter-ranting through Puffles.

As you probably found from my previous post, Christmas was not a big deal this year – nor was it last year. Or in the years before that if the truth be told. The big difference this year was the presence of baby Lozzles – my less-than-week-old niece who I spent what felt like an eternity cradling as she slept in my arms as her older brother ran riot in the house. Other than her, it was a broadly unremarkable Christmas – though in part it’s sort of out of choice at the moment. As you can gather from above I’m not in the right ‘place’  geographically, life/work situation and in terms of state of mind for anything other than something small and family-based.

The sales frenzy

Well it kicks off now and all the people will be swarming like crazed livestock dashing for the bargains to be had – the ones they were previously buying at marked-up prices for Christmas. In recent years, shoppers have been waiting till later and later to do their shopping in the hope that retailers will cut prices to entice them. And who can blame them? What surprises me is that more families have not ‘postponed’ Christmas present-giving time till the New Year so that people can save a fortune by buying up things in the sales.

I spent part of last night looking online to see if there was anything of interest. There were a few stupendously expensive ones way outside my affordability. In anycase, the items were ones for a different world – the one of formal balls and receptions. I don’t really go to such things any more. I used to go to several during my civil service days – at least four balls per year. Yet the clubs and organisations that put them on are on a smaller scale than before, and are also difficult to get to if coming in from Cambridge. Also, organisations that would have previously put on formal receptions – especially ones where public servants would sometimes find themselves – are (understandably) no longer put on or are on a smaller scale. As more grey hairs appear, it seems I’m more likely to be found in pubs than grand buildings.

Actually, it’s quite a relief not to feel the pressure of having to spend money in the sales. In Richard Layard’s book on Happiness, one of his observations is that our happiness (as far as consumer goods is concerned) is based on what others around you do and do not have. Think back to the playground and the kids that had the best trainers, bikes and computer games for us boys. All the way through to the sixth form where it seemed that the ‘best’ designer clothes and expensive cars bequeathed by affluent parents were what some people judged each other by. I say ‘best’ because in later years I began to learn what really does and does not count as far as purchasing a quality product that meets whatever requirement the purchaser requires. Hence why whenever buying clothes, I always look at the label…on the inside (as opposed to the brand on the outside). As a personal rule, I try to avoid formal clothes that contain polyester or variants of. There are others I have too.

So…what is going to make me happy?

I could tick the boxes of ‘girl of dreams,’ (still single), ‘own place’, ‘own motor’, ‘own office with telephone and fax machine’ – a sort of Keeping Up Appearances view of life. But I’m a complicated creature. Given the deep-thinking disposition and the wider worldview that I have, I can’t see myself reaching such levels of fulfilment in the short-medium term. Health is the big barrier, and sorting those issues out will take time. My challenge is what to do in the meantime that will improve health and contentment – because I’m clearly not content with things.

At the same time, I’m also in a situation where I don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. I’ve also learnt to cut losses far earlier than in the past. If I cut losses between ages of 16-21 the way I do now, my chosen A-levels and friendship groups at sixth form would have been different and, assuming I ended up at the same university on the same course, would have pulled out not long after the first term.

Funnily enough, the world that revolves around Puffles makes me happier. The people, the activities, the meetups – the work even. Puffles is a very useful filter. The people I meet that don’t ‘get’ Puffles tend to be hostile towards social media. Fortunately, most of those types are the ones that, at public events at least are the ones least likely to approach a bloke carrying a dragon. Thus the people that tend to approach me at such gatherings seem to be the nicer ones. This pleases me immensely!

Looking back on the past two years, what I’ve unwittingly achieved through Puffles is building a supportive community. I never had the intention of this when first launching Puffles onto Twitter. It’s just something that evolved – as did the persona of Puffles. It allows not just myself but other people to have the sorts of friendly social gatherings that we might not otherwise have, and meet people who we would not normally meet and converse with in normal life.

For 2013? I’ll save that for the New Year.

Who’s Christmas is it anyway?

Summary

Another Crimbo blogpost

I’ve said to myself I’m still due a fantastic Christmas, where somethings really nice happen to the extent that they transform my immediate and medium term future while being damn good fun at the time. So yes, I’m still waiting.

The problem I face is that as a festival, it is always something that will come with loaded connotations. The joys of a childhood at church you see – the same church that bundles of fun like this chap belong to. Such people are always on dangerous territory when making references to totalitarian and oppressive regimes of the 20th century given the history of concordats with Italy, Germany and Spain in particular. Perhaps they’ve given up on world peace as an achievable objective. As a child, clerical Christmas messages were all about world peace and poverty alleviation. What’s changed?

So…what do you do with someone who has decided over a decade ago that he:

I’ve got a whole TWO DAYS where there are no coffee shops open and I’m stuck indoors! Well…OK, not quite. Apparently we’re OK to do online shopping if we like

So…what happened – or is happening – this time around?

I’ve got a baby niece around this time. For the purposes of all things online I refer to her as “Lozzles”. (Nothing to do with her real name). Part of today’s challenge was finding a suitable present for a newborn baby. Yeah – exactly.

I didn’t really do that much that was Christmassy this month that involved anything more than a passive wallflower really. Remember that between 2002-09 I was going to Christmas balls and other events annually – in some years to more than one ball in one season. This year, going along to my primary school’s infants’ Christmas play and Christmas fair was about as festive as it got. The script was superb – as were the children. The performance asked the question: What is the meaning of Christmas. “Why did Mary and Joseph end up in a stable?” “It was all that was available on Lastminute.com!” It’s funnier when said by six year olds. They dressed up just as well as my generation did a quarter of a century before. (How’s that to make you feel old?!?) but they had lots of hand and body movements the like that would have got my generation a stern telling off from the old school head teacher – who was so old school there were photographs of her teaching at the same school while the Second World War was going on. Yeah – I began my education with that generation and less than a quarter of a century later was using social and digital media in my own teacher training.

What happened last year and what’s different this time around?

I’m not in cold, rainy Bristol for a start. It was excruciating at times so I tried to spend as much as possible on Twitter huddled by a radiator. This year I can hide away in my room. Last year was also my first Christmas on social media. My guess is that more and more of you will be using social media as a refuge from the conversations that you don’t want to have with relatives that sometimes you wish you weren’t related to.

Things are slightly different this year, not just with little Lozzles. I’m on slightly more secure ground work-and-finance-wise. The opposite is true health-wise. A strange paradox of not being able to work full-time because of the long term impact of my mental health crisis of April 2012. I need a lot more sleep and ‘recovery time’ than before, and it is likely to be like this for a few more years to come going by what others have been through similar have said.

As with last year, I’ve not done nor am planning anything huge event-wise. I went to a couple of nice gatherings in London – I love being in places where I’m familiar with lots of people. It puts me at ease far more than being in a trendy nightclub with loud music and expensive drinks prices.

There’s still a sense that what I’m doing is the start of a very long journey – one where I’m not really sure what or where the ending will be. If I compare this year to last year, I’ve got more responsibilities to more people and institutions because of the work I now do – paid and voluntary. Subconsciously that was part of the ‘plan’ given the final paragraph of The Ghosts of Christmas Future.

New music – or different arrangements of old numbers?

I’m often on the lookout for such things. As far as Christmas songs are concerned, I’ve moaned about same stuff different year. Looking at the charts, I wonder which is the most repeatedly purchased song of them all? You know, the compilations that have all the songs on that you listened to ten years ago and beyond? Can’t someone write some new ones please? I quite like this one as a relative newbie – not just because it makes a nice jive. (At the other end you get awful arrangements such as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer as a cha-cha – hopefully not coming to a lite-entertainment show near you). 

Message for Christmas?

“Let’s achieve world peace and vanquish global poverty” for a start. Well, if the institutions are going to miss out on this one somebody’s got to fill the void!

Actually, there’s something about ‘consent’ and ‘tradition’ in a much wider sense around Christmas. Lots of people have already tweeted about things they don’t want to do, people they don’t want to spend time with and the like. So why do it? ‘It’s tradition, that’s why!’ is often a response. But why keep a tradition going if you really do not like it? Especially one where it gets to the stage where it violates some of your core values? (For example having to put up with the bigoted relative). Why not invent your own new traditions instead? One thing we do is to have a Chinese meal or takeaway on Christmas Eve. I don’t really know at what point it became a family ‘tradition’ but it was one that was established after I was born.

So for this one…dare to be different.

Merry Christmas!

The new Whitehall digital strategies

Summary

The new departmental digital strategies were published today, but have ministers spotted the elephant in the room?

You can see the new digital strategies here in all their glory. For those of you short on time, you can have a look at the summaries here. One of the things that stands out is the level of co-ordination from Cabinet Office – and the GDS on this. For me, this compares favourably with the previous administration where much of what I thought could and perhaps should have been done by Cabinet Office was done by Number 10. Despite my criticisms of some of the things Francis Maude has led, he seems to be getting this one right. Thus far. The proof will be A) in the improved delivery of public services and B) improvements in policy making of both process and outcomes.

Why didn’t Labour deliver on something like this?

From a party political perspective, could Blair and Brown have driven through something like this? Unlikely. (Well, they didn’t but here’s why). You get a sense for how important Cabinet Office was as a department of state by the number of reshuffles Labour had during its time in office. Have a look at the list. None of Maude’s Labour predecessors spent more than about 2 years in post. How can you have any sort of policy consistency and continuity when you have almost as many different leading ministers as they had years in office? By the time officials got a minister up-to-speed, it was reshuffle time again. Looking at the names, it is very clear that Minister for the Cabinet Office was a stepping stone to bigger departments of state.

“So Pooffles, let’s have an in-depth analysis of each strategy!”

Umm…no. For something like this, it takes someone with a detailed knowledge of both the department’s functions and of digital media to look at how each strategy will be implemented. It definitely is not ‘one size fits all’ because each department is responsible for different policies and services. How the DWP deals with the challenges of implementing its policies will not be the same as how DfT deals with motorists. The Department of Health is not going to be working the same way as it deals with, for example, providing sound advice to the public compared with say the Foreign Office on digital diplomacy. There will be some consistencies and similarities, true, but for example your Foreign Office audience is likely to be different to your DWP audience. For starters, a DWP audience is more likely to be financially dependent on the services it provides than the Foreign Office. However, the latter may have particular niche pressures – particularly in times of crisis abroad. How they handle such things won’t necessarily be the same.

So…what’s this elephant in the room?

It’s Action 14 – Policy teams will use digital tools and techniques to engage with and consult the public.

This was something David Willetts touched upon in a recent speech at the Institute of Government that I was at. The context of his remarks were around evidence-based policy-making. However, he said that the elected government of the day provided a philosophical framework from which policy makers working with evidence bases had to work within. The traditional (pre-1997) Labour vs Tory divide for example has been big state vs small state, greater state intervention vs less state intervention, nationalisation vs privatisation.

Things have become a little more complex since then. The old left-right spectrum for me is now obsolete – I prefer the Political Compass’ matrix. Across Puffles’ Twitter feed I see various examples of left wing liberal & libertarian comments as well as right wing liberal and libertarian comments. Things like this for me are about individuals’ disposition and general world view.

But what about the evidence?

Politicians of all parties need to ask themselves this question: To what extent are they prepared to be influenced in the decisions they take? I mentioned this in a previous article but in a party political context. This is in a governmental context. Ministers inevitably can choose who they want to meet with and who they want to ignore. A recent example was this one cited by one of my former trade unions, the PCS. I’m sure there were pressure groups under the previous administration that were sidelined by ministers at the time. Ultimately it is for ministers to decide who they and their officials meet with, and on the decisions they take.

At a digital level, the process of ‘opening up’ policy making is one I support. It allows for greater levels of scrutiny by a broader number of people. This was something I touched on in my analysis over a year ago on the impact of social media on Whitehall (the big analytical slide pack is at the end of that blogpost). For convenience, I’ve extracted two of the key slides covering Policy pre-Social Media and with social media which illustrate where Whitehall has come from and where it is moving towards.

Now, the policy buzz that hums around the various hives in social media world range from smoothing out the edges to outright hostility. The credibility of what is put out there also has a wide range, from extremely well-informed and thought through analysis, to knee-jerk reactions, to very deliberate misinformation. On the latter, I have seen examples from the left and the right on this. As Piotr Czerski wrote in We the web kidstoday’s workforce when using social media need to learn where to find credible information and feedback, how to identify and verify that it is credible and useable, and then know how to use it to feed into decision-making processes.

“What if my minister has pinned his or her political reputation to a flagship policy that either everyone hates or has a completely flawed base from the start – or both?”

Then…you’re in trouble. Actually, that is a very serious point. Ministers will have put a lot of effort and taken huge reputational risks with some flagship policies. What happens if the feedback says that the policy is flawed and the delivery of the policy is not working at all? (Think for example the Poll Tax – or even the Iraq war). What do you do then as a policy adviser or someone caught in the machine that is collecting, analysing and feeding in this otherwise very important information that is not being acted upon?

The reason why this is important – in particular for civil servants is outlined in the second half of my previous blogpost. See the section under “What’s Francis Maude up to?”

Francis Maude is looking to increase the visibility and accountability of senior civil servants. As I’ve said, not a bad thing, in particular those on six figure salaries. For me, a public profile is commensurate with such a high salary in the public sector. What makes me nervous is the temptation for ministers to blame civil servants for delivery failures when actually it was the policy that was flawed. Given the nature of party and Westminster politics, and the intense personal working relationships, who is more dispensable? Someone who you spent years with being politically active having finally made it to the pinnacle of politics with, or a “faceless bureaucrat” who is easily replaced by another? When was the last time we saw a major ministerial resignation where the individual minister concerned said they were resigning because of a specific failure of policy?

You’re not asking Mike Bracken and friends to deal with that, are you?

Of course not! (Mike‘s the head of the Government Digital Service). The points I’m making in this blogpost are aimed at politicians. The next question that follows for all political parties is when they will put together digital strategies for party policy making. ie will they give their own members a greater say in the development and scrutiny of party policy in the run up to the 2015 general elections? Twitter contacts in both Conservative and Labour parties often complain about the centralised and heavily controlled processes of party policy making – controlled by whichever clique is in the ascendency at the time. It goes against the grain of those at the top of political parties in recent years to relinquish such hard-won control. But do they have any alternative in an age where people expect to be able to talk back – and in a manner that can potentially go viral very quickly?

You’ve wandered away from the digital strategies – will they improve public services?

Well, that’s what I want to ask readers of this blog. I’m inviting you to pick a department that you are particularly interested in, have a read and let everyone know what you think of that department’s strategy. What do you like? What do you not like? Where do you see problems arising? What difference do you think the strategy will make? I will try to cascade the substantive responses that come back.

 

“Eric Pickles can save you money!”

Summary

How a recent document from the Department for Communities and Local Government has ruffled more than a few feathers. Plus a few other Christmas pressies from Whitehall

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, announced the new financial settlement for local councils in an oral statement to the House of Commons on 19 December 2012. Not surprisingly, there are further cuts in the grant towards local councils of between 1.7-8.8%. At the same time as that announcement was being made, there was this intriguing little document full of ideas on how local authorities can save money. It’s where the headline for this blogpost screamed at me.

I guess I can only describe the document as an eclectic mix of nuggets, nonsense, & the bleedin’ obvious that I’d like to think should not need to be stated in a government document. Having been through each of the 50 recommendations, I came away feeling that such a document would have been more suitable being published by a partisan think-tank with a ministerial foreword at the start. [Updated to add: Toby Blume has gone through each one of them here.]

There were a couple of points of principle that I can’t help but think someone would have raised objections to – both on tone and content. In terms of tone, it feels like it reflects Eric Pickles’ style of public speaking – it reads as it would sound as the Secretary of State reading aloud.

More detailed criticisms of the document have been made by Demos , as well as the the Directory of Social Change and the NCVO in an article in Third Sector magazine.

While the document itself is not a sizeable one, it has the feel of it having been written entirely by the Secretary of State, rather than one by officials which a minister puts a foreword onto, checks and signs off. Isn’t that the way it should be done? I winced at the terms “Town hall pravda”, “Sock puppets” (Puffles’ relatives have form in treating such things with violence) and “Fake charities”. Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned and times have changed – I did notice more than a few grey hairs in my stubble this morning.

Actually, the NCVO’s Charlotte Stuffins took apart the terms ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’ in an article on Page 7 of June/July ’12’s Charity Times. I can see why. In particular I have an issue with the term ‘fake charities’ because in England and Wales, a charity is something that is defined in law. As far as Part 1 Chapter 1 of the Charities Act 2011, the law is very clear on what constitutes a charity. If it does not meet those criteria, it’s not a charity. If it purports to be a charity in breach of the law, it should be shut down by the Charity Commission. So to see the term ‘fake charities’ used in a government document (that is not in the context of regulating charities) is actually quite depressing.

Singling out an organisation’s products and services for criticism

The other issue I have is one of principle – the identification of a particular product of a particular organisation for criticism. Recommendation 28 singles out leadership training provided by Common Purpose. Now, I’m not here to defend the organisation which has been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories – to the extent they have formally responded. The issue of principle is whether official government publications should criticise particular products or services from specific organisations, and then to apply whatever decision is taken, consistently.

The wider public procurement picture

One of the things a number of people with business expertise have asked me over the years is whether there were examples of firms not only losing contracts but being barred from bidding for future contracts as a result of poor performance in an existing one. I’ve never been able to think of one off the top of my head – do you know of any? With the large outsourcing firms going for large government contracts, it’s as if it’s almost impossible to impose such a penalty. Even now, G4S are on the shortlist for future contracts despite the very high profile failure at the Olympics.

You could say that public sector organisations are well within their rights to provide negative feedback where things go wrong – and tell their public sector partners. You could argue that there is a public interest for them to do so where things have gone catastrophically wrong where the delivery organisation was to blame. The thing is, in order to let others know, you pretty much have to go public. Internal communications and feedback loops in my experience are not nearly developed enough to feedback into decision-making processes as far as commissioners are concerned. At the other end as far as contractors (of which I am one myself) are concerned, we very much look at feedback forms and comments – even when we are torn to pieces. At the sharp end on small scale things, we very much encourage honest and constructive feedback so as to improve things next time around.

I guess my main point is that if you think leadership courses are over-priced, that’s fine. (Especially if you have negative experiences of being on one). From an organisational perspective, is there any evidence to demonstrate that they are poor value for money? (And in particular those of the organisation mentioned?) There may well be evidence if organisations commissioning such training make it mandatory for their employees to fill in feedback forms for the courses they go on. If that feedback shows delegates rating such courses negatively and as being poor value for money, then perhaps there is a public interest in publishing summary results. Not least because it will send a signal for those delivering such services to improve their offer both in terms of increased quality and lower prices.

“Talking of training and objectives, what’s Francis Maude been up to?”

As part of the ongoing reforms to the civil service, Maude has ordered the publication of the objectives of all permanent secretaries. This was accompanied by this seemingly alarming headline in The Independent about naming and shaming the worst civil servants. You can see the headlines now. “Exposed! Worst senior civil servant in country!” Actually, some of this isn’t really news – news of identifying the bottom 10% of senior civil servants was announced in the summer as part of plans to improve performance. The recent news is the publication of the agreed objectives. What do you think of both the principle of publishing them, and of their content? Not everyone is content with the proposals, as Jane Dudman of the Guardian’s Public Leaders’ Network explains.

I guess the main issue I have is what defence those identified at the bottom 10% will have – especially where it’s not clear whose fault the failure to meet certain objectives was. Also, the risk with some of the more high profile failures going public means that there needs to be some protocol as to what senior civil servants can and cannot say in their defence if they find themselves in the middle of a firestorm – political, legal and HR-wise as illustrated by the ongoing case involving Kate Mingay of the Department for Transport.

As I’ve mentioned previously, senior civil servants – in particularly those on six figure salaries should quite rightly expect a greater degree of public scrutiny. But that scrutiny should not come at the expense of fairness. It’s very easy to foresee a scenario where ministers of any political party could use this greater transparency to dump the blame of policy failures onto senior civil servants, even though the policy itself as decided upon by ministers, was flawed in the first place. This is one of the things the likes of Sir Bob Kerslake, the Civil Service Commissioners and Parliament through the Public Administration Select Committee will need to be very vigilant about.

“Anything else?”

The ongoing battle about power over permanent secretary appointments. I kind of agree with David Walker, formerly of the Audit Commission, in that it might not be as big a deal as is being made out. If a cabinet minister doesn’t like a permanent secretary, can’t he have a quiet word with the Prime Minister, who has a quiet word with the Cabinet Secretary and/or Head of Home Civil Service to ensure a nice quiet sideways move out of the spotlight? As Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government points out, the public confirmation by the Prime Minister that he vetoed the appointment of David Kennedy seems to indicate a different modus operandi. (Way of working…I think).

If you’re interested in the accountability of the civil service, keep tabs on the work Akash Paun is doing here for the Institute for Government.

Puffles’ Twitter Lists – The Civil Service

Summary

Not so much a ‘who’s who’ of the civil service on Twitter, but a list of those who are in, used to be or work around the civil service – and who get Puffles too. It’s not a definitive list by any means. Most of the people in this list have met Puffles.

To note: I’m refraining from listing those people who are civil servants but who have not explicitly listed themselves as civil servants. 

I’d like to put Andrew Campbell of Cabinet Office at the top of this list because when I was in the civil service, he was the most senior civil servant (acting DG at the time) who knew of Puffles’ existence and encouraged me to keep going with all things social media. An honourable mention to his PA at the time Vilma Miller who also looked after me during the early days of my time on the Fast Stream. Unfortunately Andrew is not on Twitter (Emer Coleman‘s not got to him yet) – that said, if he was on Twitter, he would never sleep. And he would drink all the coffee leaving none left for Puffles. So as Andrew’s not on there, you’ll have to make do with his boss Stephen Kelly, (who doesn’t follow Puffles [He does now!]), his boss’s boss Richard Heaton, Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary and First Parliamentary Counsel (who does!), and the Head of the Civil Service Sir Bob Kerslake – where the buck stops.

I’ve mentioned Emer Coleman – Head of Digital Engagement at the Government Digital Service who joined from the GLA. Dragon fairies are normally notoriously hard to train and make sense of, but with Emer this seemed to happen instantaneously. Not only that, she completely re-wrote the rule book on how to engage with the wider public on social and digital media – i.e. go where the conversation happens to be. The first substantial example of this I saw from Whitehall was when she started crowd-sourcing for ideas of what should and should not be in new social media guidance for the civil service. Being the first person to write a blogpost about it following the announcement (via Twitter), she started the discussion process in the comments section of that post, with the final result being the guidance and a (*wingtip*) for Puffles in the Cabinet Office blogpost that accompanied the press release.

Digital engagement

The genius that is Mike Bracken brought Emer – and a whole host of other talent into the Government Digital Service. He’s managed to bring together a team of extraordinarily talented individuals and fuse them together as a team that is functioning light years ahead of the rest of the public sector – and dare I say it the private sector too. Within this team are a whole hose of people who have experience and the talent that the private sector pays a lot of money for, only this lot (perhaps most importantly) are also driven by the values of public service. Three lovely people who work with Emer in this regard are Nettie Williams, Abi and Wendy CoelhoLouise Kidney and convenor of Teacamp in London, Jane O’Loughlin. Louise has brought the wisdom of time in local government to the heart of Whitehall, and Jane helped bring the heart of Whitehall to Cambridge – to Teacambs in June 2012. It was at a meeting of senior local government officials prior to that where Jane, walking into the meeting room carrying Puffles did Teacambs start getting some real momentum.

Mike and friends have also got back following the first draft of this post to recommend Tom Loosemore, also at the GDS. Again, if there are others you think should be on here or those that I have inadvertently missed out (it is a big list!), please let me know. [Updated 19 Dec 2012]

More digital and data wizardry

Dafydd Vaughan and Jordan Hatch are two of the brightest and most energetic of young sparkles flying around GovUK towers. (There are more of them – apologies for those I’ve omitted in this draft!) The difference being GovUK towers seem to know how to make use of all that energy. (It wasn’t always the case with me). How they do the stuff they do I am not entirely sure – but the results that come back are like “Wow! Actually that info is really useful!” The bit I’m interested in is getting this otherwise essential information and getting large organisations to feed it into their decision-making processes. That’s in our ‘to do’ pile. Leading the cutting edge of all things innovation (yes, the public sector can do innovation!) is Mark O’Neill. They also do creativity too! Just ask Paul Annett. The person who’s responsible for the ‘web’ end of GDS that most interests me is Neil Williams – who is leading on the Inside Government pages of GovUK.

In terms of the high-achieving multi-talented, few that I’ve met in the civil service have matched Alice Newton. But I would say that as she spent three years at and in Cambridge. Speaking of Cambridge and GDS talent, there’s also Nick Stenning and (outside the GDS but still a wizard on all things open data and data journalism) Lucy Chambers.

It’s our data! We paid for it!

To those public sector bodies that hold onto data and refuse to release it, that’s my line. There are a host of people working on open data. If you don’t know what open data means, it means THIS. (Not to be confused with open source – which is about software intellectual property (or the opposite of), crowd sourcing (finding stuff through your social media networks) or open policy (which is developing policy in a transparent manner rather than a few chaps around a sofa – like these ones. #DiversityFail? Us?)

Actually, open data and open policy making are linked. The data is useful to open policy because it means that the information a policy is based on can be interrogated, processed and analysed – and scrutinised by those outside of government. This is good. Better scrutiny leads to better policy. Hence why there are people inside the system working on both open data and open policy-making. They even have their own corporate Twitter account! The brains behind all of this include Olivia Burman, Paul Maltby, Ilaria Miller, Charlotte Alldritt and Liane Farrer. Close to the pinnacle of this is Sophia Oliver.

I mentioned Lucy Chambers being outside of Whitehall structures – she’s with the Open Knowledge Foundation. There are others too – such as Glyn Wintle, Hadley Beeman and Sam Smith.

The wise owls flying around the civil service, spreading wisdom as they go

If you’ve not heard of the following and you are in all things Whitehall social media, shame on you! Actually no – rather these people go out of their way to stop Whitehall doing silly things, helping the public access better services and hold those in power to account while assisting those inside the system on the front line to do so. They also do a lot of stuff for free and in their spare time too. Clock-watching bean-counting consultants these are definitely not.

First on the list is Steph Gray – ex BIS Head of Digital Engagement, he’s one of the brains behind Helpful Technologies. And they are helpful. Really. If there is once piece of information people new to public sector social media should take away, it’s this poster. Then there is the social media crisis simulator – which I’d love to see in action in my neck of the woods. I just need to help join up a few more dots before we’re ready for something county-wide. Others I highly recommend are:

Honourable mentions also go to Justin Kerr Stevens, Stefan CzerniawskiCarrie Bishop and Dominic Campbell. And no, none of them have paid me to be listed.

One thing that all of these people understand (that many ‘social media marketing’ types do not) is the importance of the word ‘social’ in the phrase social media. “Media” implies trying to communicate something from A to B. “Social” implies a conversation – something going back the other way and in other directions (and back) along with listening – and acting upon what is being heard. (Or at least analysing it and making a judgement on what to do next). So if Puffles and I can’t help with something public sector social media, chances are at least one of this lot can. Puffles and I tend to operate in the shallow waters – mainly around social media awareness and how to get the best out of the basics.

So…who else is on Puffles’ radar?

There are a number of people in the civil service who are in the Twitter waters to various depths. In at the deep end is Sarah Baskerville, who started doing public sector social media long before everyone else did. She was the one who took the newspaper firestorm over retweets all those years ago so that you didn’t have to. You know the ‘OMGz – civil servant retweeted something – that MUST be her opinion!’ sort of thing. The irony of that firestorm was that it led to the opposite of what was intended: Sarah’s friendships grew in numbers, breadth and depth as a result of that firestorm as lots of people – myself included – rallied round. Sarah was there in Puffles’ very very early days – as was David Pearson at Defra, Neil Franklin at DWP and Sebastian Crump.

Nick Halliday – the brains behind the National Audit Office’s Twitter account, Ann Kempster of the GCN and Rachel Christopher of DCLG are also working on a couple of very interesting pieces of work in Whitehall on communications and analysis – in particular getting co-ordination across departments, but through grass roots rather than a group of manderins issuing directives as in days gone by.

Departmental leads 

There are a number of talented people based in Whitehall departments who are regularly bouncing off the GDS – in fact with many of them they were doing things long before GDS was even a twinkle in the eye of Martha Lane Fox. Oh, if you’re interested in Martha’s work, follow Marketa Mach, her more-than-able ‘chief of staff.’

Tim Lloyd at the the Department of Business (BIS) and Stephen Hale at DH both pre-date Puffles. Both are ably assisted (and/or assist) Marilyn Booth and Susy Wootton respectively. Jenny Poole pre-dates Puffles too, and is now at Number 10, as is Nick Jones.

Alison DanielsRoss Ferguson and Eleanor Stewart are at the helm of the Foreign Office, once held by Jimmy Leach (the latter being very much worth listening to, given the push for all things digital he made while at the Foreign Office).

Pippa Norris has the challenge of heading online engagement at the Ministry of Defence. Social media is inevitably becoming politically controversial and challenging area for the Ministry of Defence as existing conflicts around the world spill over online.

Robin Riley is one of the most powerful public speakers I’ve heard in a long time. Not only that, his grasp of social media analytics is one of the strongest that I have seen. If you are a Whitehall department and want to know about what another part of Whitehall is doing on this, get this chap in for a lunchtime or after-work seminar. He’s that good.

Pootling back to Cabinet Office we find Liz McKeown as Head of Analysis. Leading on cross-Whitehall social media engagement and digital policy is Kathy Settle. Handling the area of civil service reform is Nicola Bolton.

Who are the exes? Those once in the civil service but who have moved to pastures new?

Those of you familiar with the Department for Communities may remember Grant Fitzner and Henry Tam – the latter now back in academia at the University of Cambridge.   Some of you will also be familiar with Jill Rutter – now at the Institute for Government.

Some of you may be familiar with Liam Donaldson, former Chief Medical Officer. If science is your thing, have a look at the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser.

At the top of the all things digital in days gone by were Alex Butler and Andrew Stott.

Updates following 1st draft:

I invited people to submit further recommendations following my first draft.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, Ben Plouvier has recommended longtime Puffles’ follower Lesley Thompson, who looks after Teacamp Scotland.

Alice Pilia recommended both John Sheridan – who will be of interest to any legal types out there with a fascinating ‘legislation as data’ project that I first stumbled across earlier this year, and Ade Adewunmi who is opening up policy-making, but from the inside. If open policy is your thing, she’s one of the people to follow.

One VERY honourable mention should go to the Australian Civil Service’s Pia Waugh – who is doing similar great things on the other side of the world. Because of her, I was able to contribute to an event that was happening in Australia…from the comfort of my bedroom. The idea that ordinary people can contribute to events going on across the world “in real time” is…quite something.

The 2011 Census – data and the Church

Summary

Some thoughts on the significant fall on the number of people identifying themselves as Christian

The decline over a decade is stark:

“Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent)”

The key statistics are here, with some more details here. The final paragraph in the latter hyperlink is striking too:

“All in all, these data point to a society in which religion is increasingly in retreat and nominal. With the principal exception of the older age groups, many of those who claim some religious allegiance fail to underpin it by a belief in God or to translate it into regular prayer or attendance at a place of worship. People in general are more inclined to see the negative than the positive aspects of religion, and they certainly want to keep it well out of the political arena.”

Looking at that analysis, it makes me ponder over a number of things. The first is the existing influence both the established church and institutionalised religions have over politics and some public services. In particular on the numbers attending church services, shouldn’t the Church of England be disestablished so as to take up no more parliamentary time? Every month, an MP appointed to represent the Church of England answers questions in the Commons – currently Sir Tony Baldry as Second Church Commissioner.

On political apathy

Does our society’s party-political apathy give those active organisations a greater influence than their numbers justify? If it’s a case of “go where the people are”, then in one sense it’s a no-brainer. A number of politicians active on social media regularly tweet from community events held at places of worship. In an era where perhaps we live more separate, fragmented lives, I guess it’s hard to blame what few party political activists there are for wanting to concentrate their efforts in those areas that are most likely to bear fruit. If turnout is so very low, then the impact persuading a groups of people at a handful of places of worship could be the difference between getting elected and not getting elected. This is even more so if policy-wise there’s little to differentiate between the parties (and if power-wise, it’s all held in Whitehall anyway).

Faith schools

I’ve made my position on this clear in a previous blogpost. Going by an FoI release from the Department for Education, around a third of all schools in England are Church of England or Roman Catholic. Which then makes you wonder about the ‘conversion rate’ – how many people who have gone through such schools go onto becoming regular attendees of church? Because the 2011 Census seems to indicate that from an institutional faith perspective, such faith schools are failing badly. The sheep are leaving the flock. If the difference in between the 2001 & 2011 censuses were for any other institution – fall in profits/sales, fall in membership or fall in attendance, wouldn’t interested parties be calling for some really radical surgery?

How accurate is the data on faith?

How many were having a laugh, and how many were serious? Putting fake names and responses to petitions and censuses is not new – in 1848 the Chartists were recorded as having a few. The full detailed breakdown of the 2011 census is fascinating – not least because of the huge fall in people listing themselves as “Jedi Knights”. Yeah – and you thought the Church of England had problems! One thing the British Humanist Association did was to launch a campaign in the run up to the 2011 Census encouraging people with no religion to list themselves as such, rather than going for a default ‘Well, I’m C of E aren’t I?’

In any case, this could be the last census we have. The Government is looking to scrap the next one due in 2021 – though not without opposition. It remains to be seen as to whether it will go through with such plans.

The changing architecture of churches as buildings in response to changing communities

Locally and anecdotally, some churches are doing that. They have to in order to survive as voluntary contributions at masses inevitably dry up, along with previous sources of income such as rites-of-passage ceremonies. Despite some of the positive ‘spin’ some interviewees from various religious institutions tried to put on the census figures, the bottom line has not been lying. If not enough people are attending worship and donating money for things like the basic upkeep of premises, alternative sources of income need to be found to keep them open.

Two places local to me – St Philips and St Pauls have re-invented themselves as community centres, with new purpose-built interiors now available for use throughout the day. This has had the effect of halving the previous space that would otherwise have been used for religious services in the days when congregations were larger. Another example I saw during my civil service days was St James’ in Great Yarmouth.

Personally I don’t see the renovations as a bad thing. It opens up otherwise under-used community buildings to the community for wider uses – and not just to people of one faith group. What I’ve not seen an example of is the conversion of part of an existing church for cheap ‘footloose’ office space for freelancers like myself – somewhere comfortable, based within the community but a little quieter/with fewer disturbances than in a coffee bar – similar to that in Great Yarmouth.

On a personal level, I prefer the architecture of older buildings to mainstream modern buildings – especially the monstrosities going up in my neighbourhood. Little more than glorified featureless boxes. I like it when nice buildings are brought back to life – especially if that life involves making them accessible to the wider public.

 

Should government departments post ‘confrontational’ tweets targeting other organisations?

Summary

Why a couple of tweets from the Department for Education over a strike threat from teaching unions leave me wondering whether there was a better way for ministers to make their point

Declaration: I am a community governor of a local primary school

The Department for Education’s Twitter account sent out four tweets on the evening of 12 December 2012 in quick succession – a screenshot of which is below:

121212 DfE Strikes Screenshot Tweets

I’m not going to comment on Gove’s relationship with the trade unions or on his education policies. Others far more experienced in these things are better placed. I’m interested in whether Twitter – or other forms of social media – are suitable outlets for this sort of message.

If this was an individual tweeting, it wouldn’t be so much of a big deal. I put out tweet after tweet all the time. The thing is, this is a huge organisation – a government department. Secondly, the issue that it is tweeting about is politically contentious – possibly even party-politically so.

Separating opinion from fact from policy

The DfE has a given policy that it wants to drive through with schools – in particular in relation to academies. The role of civil servants is to help ministers develop and implement those policies – and defend the policies if necessary. What gets civil servants into muddy waters is when they go after individuals or organisations that oppose said policies. Defending a policy is one thing, attacking an opponent is quite another.

Listing each of the tweets 1-4 from top to bottom, three of the four tweets contains an opinion – something that can be contested. Describing industrial action as ‘irresponsible’ is an opinion. It is not a statement of fact. Criticising the tactics of those opposing the policy – again, muddy waters. Civil servants should refrain from commenting on the merits or otherwise of what opponents are planning to do. It’s fine to say “These are the contingencies we have in place to handle any potential disruption to public services”, but anything more than that raises questions about impartiality.

The third tweet doesn’t do anyone any favours – saying that teachers might be in breach of their contracts. The DfE could have linked to the advice that they published here (*Wingtip* @ItsMothersWork for spotting) in that tweet, but for whatever reason, they chose not to. As a result, the tweet rather than the detailed advice is now becomes a focus of the conversation – the opposite of what you want to achieve when cascading such things.

Given that more and more lawyers and barristers are using social media, it just takes a politically-minded one with expertise in employment law in particular unpick such a statement.  (I don’t think they’d be in the business of formal opinions because of liabilities if people acted on it). That said, even non-legal people have questioned that statement given that one of the actions is a ‘work to rule’ – ie sticking rigorously to the terms of an employees contract and not doing any of the many unpaid things teachers do for their schools. I was struck by just how much free time teachers give to my local school at a recent governors meeting. For those who say full-time teachers come in late and go home early and have long holidays may not have seen just how much extra work outside of the classroom teachers both have to, and volunteer to do. Things like after school sports clubs, parents surgeries (particularly important at primary school) along with continued training, development, lesson planning and evaluation.

The fourth tweet sort of names but does not name the people it sees as responsible for blocking the policy and inciting opposition. Again, that is a political point, not one civil servants should be engaging in.

What should have happened instead? 

Either ministers should have gone onto the mainstream media and made their points that way – where they can be as party political as they like, or issue a simple press statement tweeting a link to it. What they now have is the worst of both worlds. With those four tweets they put out, they run the risk of only part of their message being cascaded. (I only retweeted two of the four tweets for example).

The conversational nature of Twitter versus a corporate account means that given where Whitehall is with Twitter, the civil servants behind such accounts are unwilling to engage in a detailed dialogue with Twitter users? Why? Because those running the corporate accounts are more often than not in communications directorates. They are not in policy teams. Therefore their knowledge of the detailed policy will inevitably be limited. Given the raised political interest in this policy area, chances are someone – or some people hostile to the policy but with greater knowledge and awareness of data and evidence will engage. Thus you have a comms outlet having policy rings run round it. Because of the way the DfE has used Twitter to send out these messages, it has started a conversation that is now cannot finish on Twitter. As a result, they have lost control and influence of the Twitter conversation. Not only that, the nature of social and digital media means that others – such as myself – have picked up on it and have blogged accordingly.

“Yo Pooffles, this has happened before, hasn’t it?”

It has – I blogged about it here. You can see where the similarities are. Now, some poor sausage in the policy team responsible is possibly going to wonder what happened when they get into the office in the morning. Who composed the tweets? Who signed them off? Who pressed the ‘send’ button? Were these tweets part of a wider series of media actions? (There’s nothing currently in their press notices as of 00:10 on 13 Dec 2012). Ministers may want to put pressure on trade unions to pull back from potential industrial action, but is using social media in this manner an appropriate way for them to do so? To what extent have civil servants (again) had their impartiality compromised?

[UPDATE 14 December 2012]

The General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka has written to the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, highlighting what the Union believes to be a potential breach of the Civil Service Code.

Come to UKGovCamp 2013!

Summary

It’ll be fun! (But don’t expect it to be the same as years gone by – the world has changed). 

(Updated to add, the tickets are being released in batches. If it says ‘sold out’ you can add yourself to the waiting list here. You’ll receive an email when future batches are released). 

UKGovCamps? Like Glasto for geeks as Dan Slee says. My first UKGovCamp was in 2011 – while I was still in the civil service. My reaction was:

“Why isn’t my department like this?!? A huge group of people who seem to be on a similar wavelength to me!”

The following year, having left the civil service, I hosted a workshop on the impact of social media on Whitehall, along with bringing Puffles with me (pictured here with Nick Halliday and Anke Holst).

This January sees UKGovCamp 2013. I’m not entirely sure what I’d like to do workshop-wise, but the borrowing the Gamesmaker idea from the Olympics and applying it to GovCamp is splendid! So Puffles and I have offered to be volunteers for this coming event. So if you can be a steward, fixer, receptionist, guide, reporter, photographer, interviewer, please get in touch with Steph and the team!

Much has happened over the past two years

During my first GovCamp, the Government Digital Service was still an idea, DirectGov still existed, mainstream media still assumed that retweets meant that the retweeter fully agreed with what was being retweeted on Twitter, Puffles was little more than a pixelated picture and I still had a full time job. Since then, The Government Digital Service has emerged, trailblazing a path through Whitehall. DirectGov has been replaced by GovUK, seriously big money has been thrown at various social media platforms and firms (e.g. Facebook’s floatation), the mainstream media are now sourcing stories through social media – in particular quotations, I’ve swapped my job for a very real dragon fairy and said dragon fairy has now been quoted in a parliamentary debate. (See Q231, Q235 and Q242 of this evidence session of the Public Administration Select Committee discussing public engagement in policy making & note each mention was from a different MP from a different party too!)

For those of you more familiar with GovCamps, Sam Smith’s excellent blogpost goes into more detail – with some challenges for you. The big one being that the people who were the outsiders looking in, are now the insiders with far greater access to the levers of influence and power than before. As Sam says, the challenges are just as great – possibly greater – but not the same.

“So Pooddles, what are the challenges?”

Not becoming a clique

I’d say the first one to be aware of is the risk of being seen as a ‘clique’. I don’t believe we are – all things GDS has been the most open and welcoming programme in any sphere of work I have ever seen. People don’t give up their Saturdays or weekends unpaid to improve public services while choosing to shut people out. Yet at the same time, there are a lot of us who have become very familiar with each other because for quite some time, we’ve been communicating through social and digital media. How then, do we ensure that we are welcoming to those who are possibly both first timers and are much more nervous about using social media in a manner that identifies them and their employer? What I’m going to look to do is to make the introductions – introducing the newcomers and first-timers to those who are already more established in common fields.

Diversifying with our growing numbers

This is already being pushed by a number of people which is good to see, but it is worth restating. Having people from more diverse backgrounds brings different perspectives. These perspectives allow people, ideas and approaches to be challenged over things that might have been overlooked. The nature of the workshops allow people to raise both the problems but also possible solutions too. e.g. “In our area, X won’t work because of Y – but we’re working on Z to try and overcome this”. Hence why I’ve been encouraging people from beyond normal policy and social media circles to come along. It would be lovely to see (as mentioned last year) some local councillors coming along, as well as people who have experience delivering frontline services (whether public, private or voluntary) to those who are service users that take part in forums that help improve services.

Beyond GovCamp – reaching beyond London and connecting us up

This is very much a ‘How can we help those areas that might be being left behind?’ sort of challenge. The West Midlands and London are two powerhouses in public sector social media. But my stomping ground – Cambridge/Cambridgeshire/East Anglia – is not. I imagine that there are other people from other parts of the UK who might be feeling similar – that they feel a little isolated or that there is not a critical mass locally to start driving things forward in the way that other areas have done. There are a number of excellent people to learn from in this field – the likes of Will Perrin and Catherine Howe being particular wizards on all things community digital/social media.

Livestreaming, livetweeting and live-blogging

I’m sure this is in hand, so this point is probably more applicable to future events as well as those that cannot make it. Earlier this year after a bout of #Sleepfail I switched on my laptop and noticed a few tweets coming in from what turned out to be our sister gathering in Australia. They were livestreaming a whole host of talks, debates and discussions at their event, as well has having a system for people outside the main halls to feed questions via Twitter. Hence them picking up on this strange dragon fairy creature asking  what sounded like very well informed questions given what you’d expect from a dragon fairy. (What would you expect from a dragon fairy if you’d never seen one before?!?) It was mindblowing for me because it reminded me of just how far we had come in such a short space of time. Here was an event being broadcast live on the other side of the world, I was able to watch it from my bedroom and was able to submit questions, watching them being asked on my behalf and answered in real time.

A dashboard for outside followers?

Having seen some of the ideas shared at Nick Halliday’s gathering of analysts at National Audit Office not so long ago, I wonder if we can borrow an idea from National Archives and have a ‘dashboard’ for UKGovCamp 2013 for people who cannot attend but want to follow and take part. Wouldn’t it be lovely if on that dashboard we could have a choice of workshops to livestream from, a Twitter stream flowing down the side and some live blogs and live photofeeds too. Perhaps a specific facebook fanpage too where people can post up all of the various links.

Could we develop some very basic posting conventions in advance of the gathering so that people are aware of how to ensure those outside the building have access to the content? I’m thinking that for all of the content that lots of people have posted at and after previous Govcamps, is there something we can do that can collate all of it in a manner that makes it user-friendly? (Especially for those not familiar with the people or subject areas). I don’t have anywhere near the level of technical skills to put something like this together, but am happy to help co-ordinate something if such a dashboard is technically feasible and is not too much effort for those with the technical knowhow and the time to help put one together.

East Anglians – one for you

It would be LOVELY to have some people based in East Anglia coming along. If you know someone who works for a public sector (or even voluntary or private sector) organisation who is interested in digital and social media for the public sector, please let them know about this event.

Am I living in a box…without a compass?

Summary

Picking up points raised in Jon Worth’s Bored blogpost

I read Jon’s blogpost, Bored, with interest. A strange-sounding sentence but it picked up on a number of things that I mentioned just over a year ago on the curses of loneliness and isolation.

The three big issues Jon identified were: His work no longer being enjoyable as it once was, lack of a greater (political) purpose and moving to a new country with an unfamiliar language. There is also one other thing that he could also have added too. The world around has changed – significantly.

I guess relate to Jon in that back in early 2007 I had that strong sense of purpose and direction – and that my potential was being fulfilled. I was now working in London, in a relationship and on one of the most sought-after graduate programmes in the country. I also had the sense that what I was doing was going to make a positive impact on local communities. I was one of the high fliers so to speak. What made it all the more stark for me was the difference between Cambridge and London – both as cities and in terms of workplaces in the same sector.

Fast forward to late 2010 and the impact of the cuts and the recession hit home – along with my non-existent social life and failing health. Back in 2007 I had some sort of vision of where I was going to go and what I was going to achieve. It didn’t last that long, but at least it was there at the time. In late 2010 I could not see myself with a future in the civil service – yet I also did not have ‘a vision’ of what I wanted to become, let alone having any  idea of how to achieve it. Reach for the stars and you might just reach the tops of the trees…but what if you cannot see the stars in the first place?

The positive vision isn’t going to come from politicians

You just have to look at the bleak outlook from the autumn statement. That we don’t have senior politicians who have the presence, persona, calibre and credibility to inspire large numbers of people, set out a positive vision for the future and provide a realistic plan on how to get there is depressing but perhaps not surprising. I would love to be part of a wider movement to make the world a better place, but at the same time I don’t want to be dictated to by it. This is perhaps the problem Jon faced with Labour – the selection processes are as such that anyone with independent streaks in them is seen as a possible trouble-maker. Far better to have either those who are part of a faction within the party who will tow the line as lobby fodder or who have connections to those at the top as being groomed for top office/senior policy making roles later on. Jon would have made an excellent Euro candidate for Labour. It’s the latter’s loss. A number of Puffles’ Tory followers have said similar things about independently-minded activists in the Conservative Party too. Wanting creatures that have the independence of a cat but the obedience of a dog. You can’t have both. Or am I being too harsh?

The wider world has changed 

This was one of the points I made at the Cambridge and South Cambs VCS AGM – where I made the point that some of the conversations people were having were the same as those I observed back in 2004 during my early civil service days. Perhaps it’s an understandable reaction to that cloud of uncertainty outside: stick to what’s safe and what you know. Similar to political parties sticking with the same organisational structures, soundbites and lines to take now obsolete in social media world?

Yet I, like many others are trying to find our place in this new world – a world where new pressures are sweeping away a whole host of institutional certainties that we used to take for granted. The pressure for the fight for equal marriage for me is a positive pressure, while the decimation of public services while the international super-rich and multinational corporations get to pick and choose which taxes they do and don’t pay is a negative pressure. As Josie Long said at her gig in Cambridge,

“Free education, free healthcare, good pensions – you can’t get more ‘Big Society’ than that!”

Future workplaces of the world – and working patterns

…for those fortunate enough to find work that is. One of the things the head teacher of the school I’m now a governor at said that fixed term contracts have an impact on our school. (I say ‘our’ both because of my role as a governor and also because it was my old primary school. This week on a guided tour, I got to see what had and had not changed over the 20 years or so since I left). If the main earner of a young family is on say, a four year contract with the university or with a research institute and it is not renewed, the family has to move – uprooting the children. Aside from the impact on the children, this has an impact on the funding schools get, as well as on their ability to forward plan. Once you start factoring in those sorts of costs into your ‘flexible labour markets’ models, then the zero-cost-to-economy-and-society-of-mobile-labour assumptions start to look more than just a little unrealistic.

The decline of large employers – and the social lives that revolve around them

With the move away from larger employers with stable workforces to this freelancing/self-employed model of working, it’s not surprising that people report feelings of loneliness and isolation. Yes, it’s great not to be crushed by micro-managing line managers and pointless processes. But at the same time I miss not having a group of people that I see during the day every day, or being able to go out for drinks after work – or even organising work socials. The biggest one I organised in my civil service days was a bowling event – where nearly 100 people came along. It had 2 parts to it: An ‘all against all’ and a ‘team challenge’ where each lane competed against each other. Today? I don’t think I even know 100 people in the city to be able to organise something like that. Human connections at a local level matter. Social media friendships can complement, but not replace them. It’s one of the reasons why I encourage my social media friends to meet up with each other in real life. They re-enforce the friendships built up online and help create a stronger feeling of community.

Purpose and direction

Both are still elusive for me. Jon seems to be feeling the same at present. As others have commented on Jon’s blogpost, finding something hyperlocal to where he is now is one way forward – it’s what I’m doing here. That’s not to say hunting at a hyperlocal level will come up with the goods quickly. When you’re used to the hive of activity that is central London, everything is likely to feel smaller, slower and less vibrant in comparison. Half the challenge is ‘listening’ and getting a feel for a new place too. It’s slightly different for me in that I’ve returned ‘home’ – but to one where most of the people I grew up with have moved on, and those that remain know me through/by family only.

House, car, 2.4 children and an office job where you have to wear a suit

I can’t afford the first two – and am working on the assumption that I may never will. Mental-health-wise I don’t think I’d ever be able to be the sort of parent I’d want to be – that and I’m single anyway. Given the impact of my breakdown in terms of not being able to work full time and having had to move back in with my parents, I’ve not really gone out looking either. Even in these more enlightened times as far as mental health is concerned, this quotation puts it perfectly:

“I suffer from mental illnesses it’s hardly a chat up line or something you can slip into conversation yet it is something that affects my everyday life.” 

There’s further reading on the Time to change blog here. On the final point about working in an office, the bit I enjoy about not being tied to the desk is having the freedom to go out and about. The problem is that few other people around me are in a similar situation. I guess I want the sociability of being in a workplace with other people but without the negativity of being tied to the desk. For example poottling in with Puffles every so often, helping out where I can but otherwise getting on with my own thing. At the same time, I’m still digging away slowly but surely on my Cambridge L!VE project – the one where we use social media to help bring people and the community together. We had a useful small gathering at the final Teacambs of the year with one of the County Council officers behind Cambridgeshire.net – an essential part of achieving that vision.  Because if there is one vision I do have, it’s that Cambridge can be far greater than the sum of its parts. We’re nowhere near achieving that.

The problems?

Or barriers – of which there are many – include not having strong enough local working relationships in place to make the whole thing work. I also don’t have the institutional backing to make this work – something I hope to change in 2013. But hey, if it was that easy, wouldn’t someone have done this before?