Summary: Some thoughts from Cambridge’s Wilberforce Society on building a city-wide public policy blogosphere
The original post by Jonathon Hazell is here. In one sense it’s surprising that Cambridge doesn’t have a vibrant, diverse blogosphere given the talent in and around the city. For Cambridge students reading this blog for the first time, I never studied at Cambridge University. Cambridge is my home town. I spent two interesting years part-time at Anglia Ruskin studying post-war European history for a post-graduate diploma – a course that I got much out of but has since been discontinued. I also spent over seven years in the civil service, just under five of which were in various Whitehall policy teams. During those years, one of the things I found in policy-making was how few people and organisations were involved in the policy-making processes. In particular academics. People in academia all too often would do splendid research only for the findings to gather dust in a university library, rather than forming part of policy debates.
Building a Cambridge blogosphere – but for what purpose?
For learning as a starting point. One of the things I’ve picked myself up on having attended a number of Cambridge student-organised events is that I have the benefit of those years in the civil service. First years in the autumn term on the other hand were still at school only a few months earlier. Hence from my perspective, a public policy (as opposed to a party-political) blogosphere with lots of undergraduates in Cambridge needs to acknowledge that both the talent and potential exists in bucketloads, but that both need to be nurtured. Have your passionate and fiery party political debates by all means, but remember that the nature of public policy is about examining the finer details of how things are intended to work, rather than say whether it is right to increase or decrease the tax rates for the rich.
Expressing your ideas, and scrutinising others’ ideas. Anyone doing a humanities course will be familiar with the activity of referencing everything under the sun. In my later undergraduate days, there were times where it felt like I couldn’t write a sentence without having to reference someone else’s previous writings. I don’t have a problem where people state their ideas based on things like personal disposition or life experience – so long as they are reasonably clear in policy debates that this is what their ideas are based on. There’s also nothing wrong in saying: ‘I came across idea X based on evidence bases Y & Z – and I agree.’
I also think it’s a positive thing when people can take someone else’s ideas and improve on them. I’ve listed a whole series of ideas for Cambridge in the slides here, and ***would love*** people inside Cambridge University to take some of them and run with them – particularly the idea for setting up an Adults’ ‘late starters’ orchestra like they have in East London here.
Scrutinising on behalf of others
Local MP Julian Huppert is able to crowdsource and outsource part of the scrutinising process to his constituents and people outside of his political party. He also gets detailed updates on events that he’s otherwise been unable to make – this blog being one of a number of local sources. This for me is an example that more MPs need to be following when scrutinising the executive.
This means thinking about who your intended audiences are going to be when writing blogposts – which then feeds into the sort of blogosphere that you – we, want to build. Do we want an exclusive blogosphere or an inclusive one? What do the two look like? What do they have in common and what separates them?
Diversity – not just of views but of backgrounds, talents and experiences
Please let’s not have a ‘tick box’ approach to diversity but rather let’s make it meaningful. For a start, the blogosphere needs to be a ‘safe’ space – ie one where people are not posting hate/threats/shouting others down. One of the things I learnt about ‘outreach’ to under-represented groups of people during my Whitehall days was to avoid the tick-box approach but to go where the people we wanted to attract happened to be. This means taking an open invitation to get involved in policy-blogging to where people are, rather than setting up a scheme and hoping that people will turn up. (It’s one of the reasons why the Fast Stream in recent years has been targeting universities with a more diverse undergraduate and postgraduate intake). In the case of Cambridge as a city, have Cambridge University students thought about reaching out to their Anglia Ruskin counterparts?
For a blogosphere in Cambridge, questions to ask re: encouraging new bloggers into a public policy sphere include how to encourage more women to blog – in particular on the issues ***they*** think are important rather than what Westminster says is important, and how to encourage those not from an affluent/priveliged background (ie without the wealth and/or social/educational connections) to blog. Because if you are going into public policy as a future career, you’ll be asked to come up with ideas on how to solve the problems of society. If you’ve very limited experience of living those problems, what impact will that have on the policy advice you come up with? (Locally, some of you may want to go along to either the East or the North area committees in Cambridge where residents question councillors about local issues – see here for details).
Combining online with offline
We’re in a world where current and next generations of young people see online and offline as one and the same thing. And why not? Many have not lived in a world where online did not exist. My generation (early-mid 30s) is fortunate to have experienced formal education both with and without the internet being there. All the way up to my A-levels there was no internet. A gap year then on arriving at university, online was the default. With a new institution and a new life to lead in a new city, for me this was all part of a big life-package.
The question then is how a city blogosphere can combine online exchanges with offline events. Most of the events I go to I follow up with a blogpost almost as a matter of habit. But blogging – and good blogging – takes time. For a start you’ve got to enjoy it. The moment it becomes a chore is the moment it starts to read like one. With group blogposts, should people blog as and when, or should you have a timetable? Should you blog whenever something comes up, or keep some subjects back for when you have a quiet time or when your mind is otherwise blank in terms of other subjects to write about?
Finally…bringing it all together
Curation and collation. Again, keep in mind the inclusive vs exclusive issues. Who are going to be your (online) gatekeepers? Think too about succession – especially with group social media accounts. For those of you at Cambridge University or Anglia Ruskin, your time in the city may be very limited and will fly by faster than you think. Who will fill your shoes when you’re gone?