Puffles spends the afternoon with some of our top historians

Summary

What we learnt at the launch of the new History and Policy website event at Kings College London

…other than I had forgotten how frustrating the Cambridge-London commute can be!

We spotted this steam train by the event room. Chances are we'd have had a smoother journey back on it!
We spotted this steam train by the event room. Chances are we’d have had a smoother journey back on it!

Some of you may recall me describing history as the subject of my heart and economics the subject of my head. In the grand scheme of things that still remains true. The one thing I took away from my economics degree was to question assumptions whenever someone puts a political or public policy argument to you. Unfortunately, too much of the subject area of economics when I was taught it was driven by academics who, let’s put it this way ‘were reluctant to declare any conflicts of interest’. (See me being very angry here). If I was still in the economics field, chances are I’d have ended up in/around the New Economics Foundation.

History and Policy’s website is here. Feel free to browse if interested. If you are a historian, do have a look. If you are a civil servant in a policy role, please do have a look. If you are a politician, Puffles considers looking at the site a mandatory requirement – especially if you are in or seeking high public office.

“Why mandatory for politicians?”

This actually touches on one of the gaps in what was otherwise an excellent afternoon for me. The yawning gap for me is between public policy and party politics. Because the decision-making units of ‘high policy’ in party politics is so closed (irrespective of the reason), you can come up with superb and comprehensive public policy reasons against given party policies that will have almost zero impact on the views of the minister. This in part is because of what I feel is an obsolete mindset – such as ‘U-turns are for weak politicians’, and ‘admitting mistakes is a sign of weak leadership’.

Having spent several years in civil service policy environments, I’ve seen first hand how ministerial decisions are made with imperfect information. I remember talking to one of my directors at the time telling him that I was being asked to come up with recommendations for ministers without all of the information I felt I needed. That was when he said this is what policy making is like. In my experience, all too often ministers are in too much haste – such haste leading to bigger problems down the line.

“How did Puffles get on?”

Splendidly

“What were you doing there?”

We were commissioned to deliver a short presentation about social media in a policy environment and how this could be relevant to historians. Although I don’t have a research background (personally I don’t think I have the disposition for it), my post-graduate diploma in historical studies has given me enough of an insight to empathise with the demands researchers face. Furthermore, I sort of see myself as bridging the gap between what people in the humanities and social sciences do in academia, and what people in policy do. With Puffles’ election hat on (Puffles is standing for election in Cambridge in the local council elections) I’m also learning the lessons of party politics.

Puffles’ adventures in Whitehall and Westminster

The slides I used are here. Originally I wasn’t going to use any, but then I came up with the idea the night before of telling a story about using social media to influence public policy…through the perspective of a tweeting dragon fairy. If you’re looking for a twitter-stream for the day, have a look on the hashtag #HistoryMedia. Historian Naomi Lloyd-Jones (@Beingahistorian) live-tweeted my remarks at the event.

My thinking was to canter through Puffles’ life, demonstrating at the various points where through Puffles I was able one way or another to have a small influence on public policy. I mentioned my 2012 blogpost Social media guidance for public servants (which kicked off the conversations on what should be in the 2012 social media guidance – see if you can spot Puffles’ mention here). I also mentioned how Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude got stung by Puffles (or rather, criticised by the Public Administration Select Committee) because the Minister failed to give MPs decent answers on Puffles’ questions on risk assessments. (See the case study here).

“That’s great, but this was an audience of people who have PhD’s or who are in the final stages of”

Exactly

Which was why the session before the panel I was part of was so fascinating. Participants were encouraged to write press releases. It was fascinating to watch academics deal with the challenge of explaining complex research in…a couple of tweets or equivalent. With one group, I pointed out Puffles ***loves*** history, but if you can’t summarise your point in a ‘hook and link’ (ie headline that baits you to click on the link enclosed), it makes it harder for someone like Puffles to promote.

My aim was to make the presentation both light-hearted while at the same time demonstrating high impact – all other things considered. So while there were lots of pics of Puffles in the presentation, I hope that the context I put them in got delegates thinking about why so many well-known and/or influential people in policy and politics were either engaging with Puffles as a persona, and choosing to be photographed with Puffles. (Which reminds me, it’s Puffles’ turn to buy the tea and cake for Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson).

“You did get into the serious stuff though, didn’t you?”

We did.

My theme was open policy making – see the civil service pages here. Also see the LinkedIn open policy group here. In one sense it seems strange to talk about fast-paced contemporary changes in policy making systems, processes and structures with an audience full of historians. But it matters greatly. I explained the policy-making system that I had worked in – the structures, the ‘discrete’ (as opposed to ‘continuous’) nature of consultation and the closed networks of key stakeholders. Who gets to decide who is a key stakeholder and on what criteria? I know how it’s supposed to work in principle – measuring interest & influence, but to what extent is it applied in practice?

My point was that with open policy making, there are huge opportunities not just for historians, but people who are interested, knowledgable and passionate about an issue to engage in policy-making. But this brings its own challenges. For my audience, this was the increased likelihood that their own views and research will be challenged publicly, and by people who will be from outside their academic fields. Furthermore, there is a growing expectation that academics will need to be multi-disciplinary – ie they will need to know a little bit more than the basics of other subject areas.

“Who else was there?”

The panel I was on had diversity as its strength. Journalist Chris Jameson gave a masterclass of being inside the BBC and how it functions. The lesson from his presentation? Get to know the producers using social media, and find out at what times of the day media outlets are doing their planning. Ie don’t send a press release just before a programme is about to go on air/newspaper is about to go to print.

Caroline Dodds Pennock gave a masterclass too – hers being on how to manage a social media function that belongs to an academic department. She runs the History Matters blog at the University of Sheffield. Main learning point there for academics is to take ownership/responsibility of departmental social media functions. Don’t just leave it to admin staff or the passionate few. Or worse, the unpaid interns. Caroline & the team don’t use unpaid interns. The challenge for university management is ensuring social media functions are properly resourced & have knowledgeable. & passionate champions at board level. How many are currently at that stage?

TV producer Helen Weinstein‘s rounding off presentation was for me probably the most exciting of the three presentations because it gave an insight into a future where TV is genuinely interactive with viewers – so much so that you can’t really call the public ‘viewers’ anymore. The context she used was that of the coming anniversary of the First World War – and work by our mutual friend Pat Lockley – see his work on WWI here.

“What were the audience like?”

Friendly and thought-provoking.

Given my depressing experiences as an undergraduate, I couldn’t help but think: ‘Why wasn’t I at university with you?’ to almost every other person I met. I really wanted to stay on and talk for more – though did get to have a very interesting conversation with Cath Haddon about all things democratic engagement. I also had a number of conversations with people about the decline of party politics/fall in trust, as well as the challenges of sorting through the huge amount of data and electronic files on civil service electronic drives. My time in planning casework in my early civil service days taught me the importance of decent file management. The paper system was well run. The electronic system…have a look at your own hard drives or email inboxes an for most of us they tell their own story.

The reason for the sharp exit from the event was me and Puffles had to go to digital film-making school. This was the course I wanted to do in January but was cancelled due to lack of interest. Even for the first lesson we learnt ****lots**** – to the extent I’m glad I’ve not made anything for the election campaign prior to it. What differentiates a ‘record and upload’ digital video from a well-made one is attention to detail – both in planning and filming. Fortunately for me there are another nine sessions to go to allow me to really hone my skills. Being a small, friendly group, I get the sense I’m going to get lots out of this.

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