How should Cambridge communicate with its residents?


Collating thoughts following a short twitter exchange recently

This was a theme throughout the Be the change – Cambridge events of 2014/15 but didn’t end up taking off in the way I anticipated. Hence bringing my thoughts together here following the recent progress both on the Greater Cambridge City Deal, and my own improving skills using digital video. Furthermore, this post follows up an offer from the Master of Selwyn College, Roger Mosey who was the director of the BBC’s operation for the London 2012 Olympics.

Scoping the problem

There is a small community of us journalists, commentators and community reporters that cover local democracy in Cambridge. At a time when local newspapers and broadcast media are struggling, it’s all the more important that local public organisations are subjected to proper scrutiny. Even more so for Cambridge and surrounding villages as this is a time of huge change and rapid growth for the city. Having grown up in the city and returned twice (after university and post-civil-service), I have a unique perspective of knowing my childhood neighbourhood inside out while at the same time being familiar with a fair bit of the public policy detail given my past as a policy adviser in Whitehall on local government reform.

The problem from a communications perspective is that too many people and organisations are chasing too few reporters and publications that have that large generalist reach. Having seen the hours that Jon Vale of the Cambridge News puts in – and his predecessor Chris Havergal, I don’t know how they manage to cover all of the meetings that take place. Actually, in recent times – and with good reason, they have sourced articles based on the video footage that the likes of myself and Richard Taylor have filmed. (Naturally they sought our consent before publishing).

As well as meetings of Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council, single local government reporters also have to cover the Greater Cambridge City Deal and any community actions that are vaguely political. That is a massive remit even with the support of a friendly team of community activists/reporters to source news stories from.

Too many people relying on too few people?

This was a point former Mayor of Cambridge Paul Saunders mentioned to be about the problem with contemporary local democracy. I’ve found similar with the reporting of it too. We don’t have a resident community activist/reporter based in Cambourne, where South Cambridgeshire District Council is, and I don’t have a car. So getting to meetings there using public transport is a hassle.

At the same time, more and more people are becoming interested in local democracy and in what is happening. My Youtube channel stats since January 2015 are around 35,000 hits and 135,000 minutes of video footage viewed – which for a channel covering mainly local democracy is huge.

Yet when we look at existing output generally, there are only so many print pages that the local media can print, and only so many web pages that journalists will be able to update at the same time. Hence the growing importance now of professional journalists working with community reporters and having the two feeding off the work of each other.

How do we co-ordinate the institutions that cover local democracy?

Not being part of an institution means I do not have the gravitas to convene a gathering of participants and decision makers in organisations. Someone like Roger Mosey as the Master of one of Cambridge’s colleges and a former BBC executive however, does.

What might such a gathering look like? 

In terms of participants, the easy part is picking the local government and/or political correspondents from the local media. However, we need to go beyond just the mainstream reporters.

An executive from each of the local media institutions – ones that ‘can commit the institution’ to borrow a Whitehall phrase, in my view are also essential. The reason being that nominally some of these organisations (such as the BBC and ITV Anglia) are in competition with each other across a wider area. I don’t know nearly enough about broadcast media organisational structures to know how to navigate around that problem.

I would also want to have the communications managers from a cross-section of organisations across the city and beyond. I want to challenge them to go far beyond their standard communications strategies and press releases.

With non-mainstream media, having a mix of community reporters, bloggers, short video makers, photographers and also the student press is essential. One outcome I’d particularly like to cover is how our institutions interact with students who are either studying related subjects such as media or politics, through to those who work with media as a passion or hobby.

Easily overlooked are the politicians – representatives from political parties that regularly stand in elections and who have holders of elected public office that cover the city and surrounding villages.

Finally, I would also want there anyone who is passionate about the future of our city and could provide some constructive external scrutiny to discussions – otherwise it risks being a media echo-chamber cut off from our target audiences.

How might it proceed and what could it achieve?

I’d prefer to have such a gathering run broadly on open space principles. Although I’ve in part scoped the problem, I’ve merely touched the surface. First and foremost though, I want participants to think collectively ‘as the city’ rather than being a representative of their employer or organisation. If everyone approaches the challenge with the mindset of what can they or their organisation alone get out of this, the whole thing is dead in the water. In my view, we’ve got to demonstrate that as a diverse collective, we can think collectively about the problems we have identified.

I’d then invite people to pitch (30 seconds per pitch max) workshop sessions based on the problem-scoping session. We piloted this at Be the Change in late 2014 and the concept of moving from problem scoping to problem solving seemed to work. Following summary feedback, I would then invite/challenge all participants to commit to one small one-off action along with one small behaviour change they will make as a result of participating. For example it could be as simple as all press releases in an organisation going on an easy-to-find corporate web page at the same time as they get emailed to media contacts. (Actually, they should be sending hyperlinks rather than attachments…)

What difference might participants and the public notice as a result? 

We’d all have a much clearer picture of what is being scrutinised by whom. For example I’d like to see a clear picture or diagram of all of the public services delivered in and around Cambridge, along with who the service providers are accountable to – and how to contact the latter as well. That alone might persuade more collaborative working between our fragmented public sector – a challenge raised in the last Parliament by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge MP.

Having knowledge of which journalists or reporters were covering what meetings might also save time and effort for many – especially where there are conflicting meetings on the same day. On a couple of occasions at the last minute some of us have managed to ensure clashing meetings had at least one reporter or videographer at them to ensure that what was said/decided could be reported accurately.

The public as a result would find an improvement in the quality, quantity and curation of local politics as well. One example of this could be the timely announcement/publicity of important local meetings that arise – or even the routine publicity of regular local meetings such as area committees. Personally I think area committees need an overhaul – in particular the East and South ones. I’d love to see at some point at the start the chance for multiple conversations between councillors and residents rather than having sometimes a room with dozens of people in with only one speaker at a time. Because it’s through those multiple conversations that good things start to happen – like Volunteer for Cambridge – which has now become an annual event!



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