Greater Cambridge Assembly meets for the first time…


…but do the people of Cambridge know it even exists, let alone know how to influence it?

Here’s a pano-pic I took at the start of the meeting


…having made my way via bus from Cambridge to Cambourne, a very new ‘newtown’ built in the last few years to help accommodate a growing county population. Here’s the WikiP entry, & here’s their parish council’s website.

Cambourne’s been much-maligned as an example of how not to build a newtown – a few of which this Guardian article touches on. In the grand scheme of things, the faults are with the planners and politicians, not the people that have chosen to move there to make the best of it. The big problem for me as a sometime visitor to the local council is poor public transport. Given the planned expansion and the scale of the place, for me there should have been some planning for rail – ideally as part of the East-West Rail plans.

“So…who’s on the Assembly?”

Here’s the list. I also picked up that people could ask public questions – but didn’t spot the bit about giving notice. That said, having seen the first couple of hours of the inaugural assembly, I’ve now got ***lots*** of follow-up questions for the assembly (as well as to the executive that the assembly scrutinises). Anyway, here’s what asking a question to the assembly looks like, courtesy of Jim Chisholm of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, & Dr Julian Huppert MP.

“How did you find the meeting?”

Not exactly earth-shaking. To be fair, the setup we have is the result of successive failure by Whitehall to give Cambridge the local government structure it needs to deal with the problems it has. This assembly is the next best thing to a much needed unitary authority (in my opinion). Instead, we have three different councils with three different sets of political control (Cambridge (@CamCitCo) = Labour, South Cambridgeshire (@SouthCambs) = Conservative, Cambridgeshire County (@CambsCC) = No overall control) combined with representation from what Whitehall would call ‘key stakeholders’. Now that the assembly is up and running, @SouthCambs need to update the assembly web pages (see here) so everyone knows who is on the assembly, who they represent & why.

The thing is, it could have – and perhaps should have been something much more substantive and, dare I say it ‘exciting’. Part of the problem I think is with communications – something I touched on when I scrutinised the shadow city deal board in November 2014. (See my write-up here). In a nutshell, the papers for the 12 January meeting (see here) should have been the basis for some really exciting community activities to get people’s input into the proposed transport schemes.

“How many schemes were there?”

There were lots on the list and at various stages of planning. Yet all too often I find myself wondering where the ideas for transport schemes – especially the more expensive ones – come from. Given how transport infrastructure affects our daily lives, shouldn’t people have more of a chance to find out about how the system works & how to influence it? (Or at least be encouraged to?)

Sparking people’s imagination

I think there’s a huge opportunity with the general election coming up to get people involved. Lots of parties, activists & organisations are working to get people interested in the election, so why not do something that keeps people in touch once the votes have been counted? We found out today in Cambridge that one of the political parties is going to accuse the others of not being nearly radical enough on transport issues in Cambridge.

Given the number of local public debates there will be in Cambridge, it’ll be interesting to see what the exchanges are like – and what specifics the candidates are prepared to commit to in their local party manifestos.

The wider question on ‘how we communicate with each other as a city’ still needs addressing

The set up of the assembly in part acknowledges that we don’t communicate, let alone work together as a city. For a start the lack of diversity in the room was in striking contrast to the diversity of people that make up Cambridge. For example, the experiences of young people in local further or higher education (ie those that live at home & commute daily rather than those that leave home to go to university) is likely to be very different to those representing the business interests when it comes to cars vs cycles & busses. But they still face the same problem of congestion in Cambridge. But how are the views of young people being collected and systematically fed into the decision-making processes?

As far as media was concerned, Jon Vale of the Cambridge News was there for the meeting as well as myself filming various bits of it. I also counted just over a dozen people in the public seats at various points – though it wasn’t clear who was representing/reporting for someone else and who was there as an interested citizen. Given the amount of money being spent as part of the deal, my take is there needs to be more publicity and civic education about not just the city deal, but about our civic and democratic institutions generally. But that can’t be addressed without looking at how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. Because let’s face it, everyone’s got something to sell or a message to share. But does everyone want to listen? How do you make it easier for people to filter the things they don’t want to hear but be kept informed about the things they want to know about?

It’s not all doom & gloom though!

This is a 15 year process. There is still scope for people to influence the decisions the assembly takes. The most interesting bit for me is that we now have a very public forum to scrutinise Cambridge University – as they have a seat on the assembly.

Friday 16 Jan – debate on Cambridge Railsee here for details  – four of the five prospective parliamentary candidates will be taking part.


Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues


Some thoughts following a year of going to lots of venues in and around Cambridge

Being a self-styled ‘community cameraman’ means I get to go out and about filming in lots of community venues. This year I’ve been to places in my home town that I had never been to before – such as the Corpus Playroom. These have often been venues that I have heard of but never got round to going to. This week it was the CB2 Basement – which is exactly as described. You can get about 30 people inside theatre style. Suitable for short performances and sketch shows, or for singer-songwriters starting out. Here’s a sketch from Paul & Izzy’s funky panto on 18 December 2014

“Is there lots of bad news for Cambridge on this front?”

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

But…the problem isn’t one that can be solved by the venue owners or operators themselves. It’s something that goes far beyond a level that institutions currently consider. It also requires a level of co-ordination & co-operation at undreamt of levels.

“OK – list the problems”

  • Transport accessibility to venues
  • Knowledge of existence of venues & their availability
  • Affordability of venues to people & groups that want to use them
  • An anecdotal but as yet unquantified excess demand over supply

…to name but a few.


Let’s take two very separate case studies: Cambridge United Football Club and the West Road Concert Hall.

Cambridge United

Car traffic on match day is always huge, making it difficult to run a decent Citi-3 bus service because Newmarket Road gets clogged up very quickly. Just as we did during my season-ticket-holding days, the roads of the local industrial estate and residential roads become places where fans try to find any space reasonably close to the stadium to park. During the 1991-92 season, there were games I attended where Cambridge would get double the attendances they get today – in the days when United had Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge up front. Had United got promoted that season, they’d have been in the Premier League for 1992-93. As it was, they lost to Leicester City, who subsequently lost to Blackburn Rovers & the rest is history. My point is that even with a high-flying team, Cambridge United will struggle to get more than 7,000 into the stadium for a match simply because the local transport infrastructure is not up to scratch. Why the local councils have not been able to agree transport improvements or an alternative venue is beyond me.

West Road Concert Hall

With Cambridge University’s main concert hall, as a child we used to go to the classical music concerts here. I remember them being excruciatingly ‘Keeping up appearances’-style events – ones where I felt embarrassed to be there. They didn’t have popcorn during the intervals – they had apples instead! Big shiny red ones! These were the days when my understanding of ‘cool’ was all things Stevenage – where they had a multilplex cinema, a bowling alley, an ice rink and most importantly, a McDonalds. Cambridgeshire remained stubbornly free of the last until 1992/93!

Just as it was then, it’s notoriously difficult to find a parking space nearby. The only bus route that serves the hall is the Uni4 bus service – aimed at students rather than residents. For those students living/studying close by, rocking up to a concert is relatively easy. If you are a resident in Cambridge suburbs, going to a concert requires military precision planning. Again, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the musicians or composers are, you’ll struggle to get people from outside classical music circles going along.

Where are our venues?

I discussed this here – part of the problem is we don’t have all of the information we need in an easy-to-access-and-analyse format. There are many hidden venues in Cambridge’s community silos – such as Save our Space through to under-used school and church halls. My existing challenge to the city is: How can we make the process of searching for suitable venues much less frustrating and time-consuming?

‘We can’t find suitable venues – they are all booked up/they are too expensive!’

I’ve heard these points made too many times for us not to do something about it. What we don’t have is hard data on the number of enquiries made that do not lead to confirmed bookings – and the reasons why. From anecdotes from people across the city I believe there is huge untapped demand for community venues. See the second half of the video below.

But without a more solid evidence base it’s difficult to make the case for greater investment in new or expanded existing ones.


The above was my view from the stage of the Cambridge Corn Exchange – before people filled it for the Dowsing Sound Collective Christmas Cocktail that sold out. What you’re looking at in this picture is 1,000 soon-to-be-filled seats. This was the first time I had seen the Corn Exchange from the stage. My first impression was that it was smaller than I had anticipated. The transport infrastructure around the trio of Cambridge venues – The Guildhall halls, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Corn Exchange isn’t great for pedestrians. The reason being they are strangled by the car routes into and out of the main city centre car park. (Will we get a metro?)

Even students are finding it hard to find venues – their colleges putting corporate interests first

This was one of the complaints by the recently-founded Whose University? campaign. With continued funding pressures, and with the international brand Cambridge has, you can see why conferencing is big business. But how do you balance the demands of conferencing with the needs of students?

If we want to find out what sort of venues Cambridge needs, and then go about building them, where do we start?

My first reaction to looking at the Corn Exchange was that Cambridge needed a venue with double the capacity. The Corn Exchange itself needs a big refurb backstage too – as do many of the other venues I have been to. If anything, the architecture backstage in the older venues feels a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ – splendid at the front where the customers are, but a maze of warrens at the back. Not good if you’ve got over 100 singers or large props on stage! Hopefully with the new Cambridge Live Trust they’ll be able to get some investment into the building.

‘Get me the data, get me the proposals from the community groups’

This for me is where we’re at now. Hopefully the coming together of the Cambridge arts’ communities can be the catalyst that drives the change. Gathering the evidence base is an essential part of that process.

A united arts and culture offer for the people of Cambridge


In the face of austerity, the Cambridge Arts Network is bringing together the diverse & somewhat fragmented arts and culture scenes in Cambridge to try and unite us all in the face of a very uncertain future

The Cambridge Arts Network (convened by Cambridge City Council) had their annual conference at Cambridge University’s ‘CRASSH’ building today. I went along with a series of indirect multiple interests & connections, even though I don’t consider myself an ‘arty-painty’ sort of person that my Mum knows. But then perhaps it’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily have to be good at making something to appreciate it, or to communicate it. A useful comparison can be made between people who are great football players but who never succeed as managers – and vice-versa.

One of the strands that emerged from the Be the change – Cambridge Conversation Cafe was the vision for a single arts and culture offer for Cambridge. Driven by Jane Wilson of Cambridge City Council, she and her team have brought along a large number of people (there were nearly 100 of us today) and organisations to a point where we’re in striking distance of something quite significant.

Bringing the schools on board

Rachel Snape, the headteacher of the Spinney Primary School led a workshop on getting young people engaged – in particular through schools. At the same time, she also highlighted again and again (with good reason) the power of local networking. Good reason because Cambridge is full of stubborn silos that for whatever reason are difficult to break. Longer term readers of this blog will be aware of some of the battles I’ve fought on this over the years. One of the ideas that has evolved in our discussion spaces (whether through BTCC or other forums) is that of bringing the schools together with arts and culture providers in Cambridge in the post-exams summers of each year to ensure teachers and heads are aware of what is on offer ***prior to planning their annual schemes of work*** for the following academic year. It was at this workshop that we got the go-ahead to make the first event of this type happen.

We’re still struggling with this digital thing

The Sidgwick site seems to have been designed as a mobile ‘not spot’ – and I have no clue why. All it does is inconvenience those of us that are not members of Cambridge University. The only person consistently live-tweeting through the event was me through Puffles. The other couple or so that posted were there as co-organisers (mainly Anne Bailey and Alessandra Caggiano, both of whom are part of the core BTCC group too – small world). Yet out of the dozens of people that were there it was left to Puffles to keep open a link to the outside world – thus enabling a few people unable to attend to submit questions to the room. We’re still yet to get to the stage of UKGovCamp’s buzzing social media presence. Cambridge tweeple – next ticket releases are on 11 & 18 December at 1pm ***sharp*** – & they will go like hotcakes on a cold day. Come along & experience it!

We need to talk about community reporting

A few people have raised the issue of me filming putting them & others of from asking questions at events or even from turning up at all. At the same time, I filmed various parts of today’s event because several people unable to attend had asked me to. How do you balance the two? Responding with “The world is going digital: deal with it!” aggressive response isn’t really my style anymore. It may have its time and place in a limited situations, but not this one.

The reason is that the conversations are becoming much more nuanced – and more interesting. It’s also one that brings out the skill of editing digital video footage. Filming in the grand scheme of things is relatively straight forward. Selecting the best five minutes of footage from five hours of film is a hard-earned skill. Selecting a decent sound track and then getting the footage – visuals & audio to synchronise with the music is another skill. Creating a product that is both informative, inspiring and purposeful is another. But that level of editing & production is incredibly time-consuming. Most of what I do – film, download, adjust volume, upload & publicise…well that’s relatively straight forward. Producing a five-minute medley with a separate sound-track takes a great deal longer. But people don’t see that editing process or the thought that goes into it.

“I thought you said you weren’t an artist!”

This sort of links to breaking the cultural inertia in Cambridge. There are generations of parents & grandparents in Cambridge brought up to believe that Cambridge University & its events are not for people like them. That’s because until the 2000s, that was the message that came from the institution & its member colleges & institutes. (During my teens, Cambridge admin staff and academics said it to my face or down the phone on more than one occasion, so you can understand why Cambridge University needs to take ownership of bad decisions & bad behaviour of its members in the past, & make that extra effort today).

That’s not to say there aren’t people inside Cambridge University already working their socks off. There are – I’ve met & worked with lots of them. The problem is changing the culture of an institution – and at the same time changing how that institution’s culture is perceived by the communities around it. If you do one without the other, it’ll fail. This is why for me at a personal level, influencing the institutions were the more interesting discussion points during the day. What is it about their cultures, systems & processes that isn’t currently working for the people of our city? What needs to change? Who can make that change, and how?

“Take me to your leader!”

I don’t know how many people are aware of the Cambridge Art and Culture Leaders Group – I’ve heard positive things, (eg ‘good to see them finally coming together with a united purpose’) to areas of concern (eg ‘how are you accountable to the people of the city for the decisions you take?’). With broad partnerships (count the member institutions here) you inevitably have the problem of co-ordination. Combine that with the fragmented state of local government still reeling from austerity (and there’s even more to come – £20billion by 2020 according to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP) and you begin to realise that the context of this single art & culture offer is not one where there are lots of grants to be had. Not from local government anyway.

This explains why I believe the single art and culture offer for Cambridge cannot be seen as a standalone project or objective. Its success depends on things like a sound restructure of local government. (You can’t have huge cuts to an institutions budget and hit it with a communications revolution & then expect it to have the same structures, systems & processes).

One of the challenges that people expressed frustration over was institutional leadership. With the current structure of institutions in Cambridge, no one institution has the competency to provide that leadership. By that I mean legal, financial and influencing. Cambridge City Council has planning & development control, with some community & leisure funding. Cambridgeshire County Council has control of transport & education. Cambridge University & its member colleges have lots of money, own lots of land and has a significant influence over what happens in our city. What would it look like if Cambridge University behaved in a manner where it believed itself to be responsible for and accountable to all of the people that make up the city of Cambridge rather than just its members?

So…what’s stopping all of this then?

Again, one of my big bugbears is the culture within administrative departments of institutions. Having worked in or for a few of them over the years – even outside the civil service, sentiments from the Whose University? campaign set up recently by Cambridge students is one I empathise with. In whose interests are our institutions acting in? Because if students are feeling that Cambridge University is not acting in their interests, combine that with the town-gown divide, we have a real challenge. It might be that the solution involves a level of transparency and accountability that makes Cambridge University and its colleges feel, in the short term at least, very uncomfortable.

One of my basic campaigning points for Cambridge – one that was a major part of my election manifesto in May 2014’s Cambridge City Council elections – was making basic digital skills and data analysis skills mandatory competencies for all newly advertised management posts in the public sector in Cambridge. (See here). You can imagine how that went down in some quarters. You never know – I could bring the dragon back for the 2015 Cambridge City Council elections and try it again.

It’s not just digital though, is it?

Not at all – and a number of other solutions were raised. Some very familiar ones. A single city-wide events portal that is user-friendly and is acknowledged as the single port of call – such as on the Isle of Wight, came up. Another one was information overload – particularly with schools. How does the Cambridge arts & culture community ensure schools are not bombarded with marketing materials to the extent that the latter simply shut up shop?

The same is true but from a different perspective for potential donors and sponsors. How do we make it dead easy for people & organisations that have very limited time to make quick decisions on who to support? The same goes for employers wanting to engage with schools and provide things like workshops & work experience. At workshops with the Cambridgeshire/Peterborough Local Economic Partnership employers have regularly spoken of their frustration at not being able to get past the school receptionists at state schools, while private schools have trained outreach officers that make the job of organising work experience from the employers’ perspective a doddle.

“This all looks incredibly complicated – I just came along because I agreed with the aims & wanted to help out!”

Let me introduce you to the delights of local government finance policy! Then again. Actually, one of the biggest barriers I noticed was on information (in terms of data sets & evidence bases), and communications.

Information – qualitative & quantitative

Again, I put this in Puffles’ manifesto back in May, calling for us to do a mapping exercise for the city to give us a baseline from which to work with. On community venues for example, I wanted to know the following:

  • How many venues there are
  • The distribution of those venues across the city
  • Accessibility – especially by public transport to the venue but also wheelchair access inside the venue
  • Who owns/runs those venues
  • The capacity & facilities available at those venues
  • When they are available
  • Cost of hiring
  • % of the total available days they are booked
  • Quick-wins investment-wise – what new facilities would venue owners like to add, at what cost and what additional income would they bring in?
  • Audience segmentation – who are the users? Who is conspicuous by their presence/absence?

On the numbers side, it might be things like:

  • How many community engagement officers (FTE and number) have we got in Cambridge irrespective of the institution that they work for?
  • Total spending on community outreach across the city, irrespective of institutions (note we’d need to be careful on definitions)
  • Distances travelled by users to get to venues
  • Can we get some data on our audiences – generic data that can influence & inform decision-making?


Me and Richard Taylor gatecrashed the November meeting of the Cambridge City Deal Shadow Board at The Guildhall. Hashtag #GuildhallGroupies. Hence being able to influence their discussions on communications just by being there. With camcorders. And smartphones. All the more surprising that their official record of that meeting doesn’t include a record of the public questions I put to them.

…even though we have it on video! #Facepalm

Actually, the wider issue is with their communications strategy (which is here). As a city, we need to come to a collective agreement about how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. What’s the point in saying you’ll use social media if people cannot access it? What’s the point of using print publications if they are struggling to shift copies? The word ‘feedback’ is only mentioned once in the entire document. Mother Nature gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth in those proportions for a reason. How does that feedback get analysed & influence decision-making?

So…lots of food for thought at an event where…I got a sense that we’re really getting somewhere with a very important part of city life. So ***well done*** everyone who organised & participated.

Now…after all that, have a panto song!!!


“The minister will see you now, Puffles”


Equalities minister Jo Swinson MP comes to Cambridge – waking up the city’s resident dragon fairy in the process. This plus some thoughts on how to make community reporting help pay my bills!

Jo Swinson MP with Puffles at Kings College, Cambridge
Jo Swinson MP with Puffles at Kings College, Cambridge

Told you!

She also had this message for young women interested in politics:

Additional videos

  • You can see my interview with Jo in this clip
  • You can see the full Q & A session she had with Cambridge students in this clip.

Some of the footage I recorded was also featured on Cambridge 105

“This interviewing of politicians – it’s becoming a regular thing for you now, isn’t it?”

Yes – but…


I’m not doing Paxman-style interviews. Given the projects I am supporting or working on, what I produce on film has to be in some way supporting their objectives. Getting more people involved in local democracy is one of my big objectives. Therefore getting politicians to talk passionately about what motivates them and what got them interested/involved is going to be far more beneficial than an adversarial one.

“Isn’t that you not doing your job?”

I’m not paid for it, so in part that doesn’t apply. Furthermore, most of the people I interview are not the people responsible for the policies I am interested in picking apart. What’s the point on having an argument in front of camera with someone who is not responsible for making the decision? Again, that’s something that comes from my experience in public policy inside the civil service. When you are unpicking a policy and want to throw questions at a policy area, have a laser-like focus on the decision makers. They are the ones you want to hold accountable.

“Don’t you want to ask lots of awkward questions and leave the politicians skewered?”

There’s a time and a place – such as here. But at a local level, what happens after you’ve left a politician skewered? They are the ones still in power. You might have got a good headline or a splendid Twitter reaction, but then what? You still have to live with each other. That’s not to say ‘Don’t ask awkward questions’ – quite the opposite. It means in my case to have an approach that influences their decisions.

“Such as?”

For quite a few years I have been calling on local parties to improve how they use social and digital media to communicate with people. Starting at the top time-wise in 2011, my actions were as follows:

  1. Start encouraging local politicians through social media
  2. Start encouraging through informal face-to-face meetups
  3. Start attending public meetings to get the issue on public record
  4. Start being more ‘assertive’ on the back of little progress
  5. Start being angry/frustrated at lack of progress – realising that I’d gone and locked myself into a commitment that would be hard to withdraw from – such as here.
  6. Find yourself called out on that issue (here) and realise you have to follow through with it (here)
  7. Beat UKIP at the ballot box as a result (here)
  8. Realise that none of the above has worked so start setting the example by demonstrating what can be done -> as summarised in this video for an ultimately unsuccessful job interview for Parliament. (I wanted to demonstrate what could be produced in a couple of hours on digital video – with warts & all!)

Being a ‘community cameraman’ does not pay the bills – yet I’m fulfilling a ‘socially useful function’.

I dare say the same goes for Richard Taylor with his archive of videos here. Our approaches may be slightly different, but we’re both producing film footage and a visual public record. It’s also one we’re told anecdotally helps improve the behaviour of some members at such meetings. Basically you don’t want to be caught on camera behaving like a jumped-up buffoon.

I’m in the situation now where some of the interviews I am recording are now being broadcast on established media – e.g. radio. I’m also learning more about producing digital film clips – beyond the ‘shoot, download and upload’ model. Here’s the result of my second paid micro-commission for the Campaign for Better Transport’s (CBT) ‘Roads to Nowhere’ campaign.

The above is timely for environmentalists given the recent announcements on road building – see the Department for Transport’s announcement here, and  see here for CBT’s response.

“How should I fund my community reporting and filming?”

Because at the moment, trying to do everything ‘for free’ is unsustainable. I can’t afford to do it all for nothing. How do I maintain independence and transparency? This is something the pioneering vlogger Rosianna Halse in the text below this clip mentions. Essentially there are three specific areas of funding that I want to explore for 2015:

  • Funding day-to-day meetings, events and workshops for which there is or cannot be any budget for – e.g. council meetings
  • Funding new equipment – for example I’d like to get a standalone backlight, a wheeled platform for my tripod to film a moving object & moving the camera to keep up with it – similar to this clip I made
  • Funding for learning new skills – there are a number of short courses and workshops I’d love to go on, but simply cannot afford
  • Funding to pay for under/unemployed and/or young people to work with me on some future projects – as with my original digital video guides.

Do I go down the route of crowd funding? Do I look for a kind benevolent and affluent benefactor? Do I need to sharpen my ‘offer’ to established broadcasters/publishers so that I’m able to charge a commission on what they use?

“I’m passionate about this, I like doing this, there’s a clear public interest in this activity being done, and a clear ‘social-good gap in the market’…but I cannot make a living from it”

Although the above may be my situation, there is a public policy issue here. How can we hold taxpayer funded organisations to account if there is no one independent of them to report what is going on? I’ve seen this issue first hand, being the only independent reporter at the count for the recent Queen Edith’s ward by-election in Cambridge. (See here). I also produced a series of digital videos from the only hustings of that campaign (see here) which accompanied Chris Rand’s excellent guide to the by-election – something he didn’t get paid for either. There was no mainstream media presence there – as it is, local journalists have their work cut out in the face of never-ending cuts.

“But the market for local print journalism is collapsing anyway – especially if you can get it online for free!”

At a city-wide level, this is the debate I’d like to start: How should we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions? Where do you draw the line between interested activists reporting in their own time, vs where it is in the public interest that a knowledgeable independent reporter is attending and reporting on a specific institution or event? For example court cases and council meetings? Are there things that institutions can do to make it easier for journalists (ie the trained ones schooled in things like libel law!) to carry out their work? For example co-ordinating future meetings/events so there are as few clashes as possible?

“If you’re good enough, people will pay you. If you’re not getting paid, it’s because your work isn’t good enough!”

To a point, true. Personally I’d like to see a thriving local media scene – one where paid journalists can make a living and where things are not needlessly sensationalised. I’ve lost count of the number of minor disagreements at meetings have resulted in “Row over [insert issue] headlines.

Most, if not all of the professional journalists I’ve met are thoroughly decent people. [Declaration of interest: Puffles is followed by lots of journos – a few who appear regularly on TV & radio at a local and national level!] Yes, I have issues with the editors, producers and the commissioners, but that’s because they are the ones that decide what gets broadcast/printed. The journalists on the whole do not. I found this out the hard way back in May when 20 minutes of interviews with Chris Havergal, then of the Cambridge News & now of the Times Higher Education Supplement (a well-earned step up) resulted in a single sentence in the paper the following day. No one ran the with the headline: “Magic dragon Puffles thumps Nigel at the ballot box”. 

The problem I face is that I am covering issues that have a public interest in terms of maintaining transparency & accountability of institutions (as part of a thriving local democracy) but one where ‘the interest of the general public’ is not strong enough to charge for that output to make ends meet? Note the wider public policy discussion in this piece from Parliament following the Culture Committee’s report into the future of local and regional media.

And so for 2015…?

For a start there are the general and local elections. A couple of candidates & parties have already approached me about this. The principle I’m pondering over is filming set piece things for free – such as the speech of a visiting high profile politician, but charging a small fee for medley pieces similar to this, or for specific party election broadcast pitches.

Elections aside, I believe there is a bigger conversation to be had about how we the people of Cambridge communicate with each other & institutions. Part of that discussion is the interaction between the established media and community reporters/bloggers in niche areas. For example Phil Rodgers deserves a much higher profile for his data analysis on elections. Every ward needs the equivalent of what Chris Rand produces here. The same goes for the wealth of historical knowledge that Mike Petty MBE has amassed – see his talks on South Cambridge’s experience of the First World War in these videos I filmed. There are many more I could mention.

Scrutinising the Greater Cambridge City Deal


Making sure the people of Cambridgeshire get the chance to scrutinise the looming changes to local government in our county

It was almost by accident I found out about the meeting – via Twitter

Despite another bad night’s sleep the night before, I dragged myself into town for another piece of community activism to scrutinise the early plans for delivering the Cambridge City Deal signed off in a wave of local publicity by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in June 2014 – see here.

A handful of us turned up – including local council meeting regulars Richard Taylor and Martin from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. The sight of two of us filming the meeting took one or two in the room by surprise. At the same time, the lack of a mainstream media correspondent took me by surprise, so I occupied the ‘Press Desk’ being the first person in the room. (Hey, my vimeo account has been described by one politician as ‘local TV!’)

Get in there early to maximise your influence

Which is what Richard, Martin and I basically did. In one sense we’ve put the future board ‘on notice’ that there will be a handful of us scrutinising in detail what they are coming up with – and not from a corporate/big business perspective. Not only that, the nature of that scrutiny is likely to be very different to the static responses you get from traditional consultations. Ie meetings will be filmed and comments discussed online for all to see in a continuous process, rather than the ‘discrete’ traditional consultation periods that limit when people outside policy circles can influence things. Improving public consultations has been bouncing around as an issue in public policy circles for quite some time – here’s Saul Cozens from UK GovCamp 2012. Keep an eye out for the next batches of ticket releases for UKGovCamp 2015 – see here to join many of the brightest minds in digital public services in January 2015.

Trying to synchronise ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ with the City Deal processes

That’s the challenge that the Be the change – Cambridge community faces. One of the big issues that emerged from our Conversation Cafe event was on improving local government – see here. With the local councils now actively exploring alternative governance arrangements (in particular following the debate and vote from Cambridgeshire County Council in October 2014 – see here), and the City Deal processes now being made public, now is the time for as many interested local people to have their say. Part of that involves helping people find the parts of these massive changes that they want to spend most of their time scrutinising.

This is important because hardly anyone who is not involved in the process as part of their day job will have the time, knowledge of issues, knowledge of processes and the passion to commit to scrutinising the whole lot. Therefore – and as we discussed later that evening – it makes more sense to allow people to focus on their areas of interest – ideally through existing local groups such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign on transport, or perhaps the Cambridge Area Partnership on schools. The point here being that we’re not re-inventing the wheel or trying to create a new organisation. Rather, we’re saying to community groups that we can work with them by bringing various parts of the processes to the attention of their members & supporters.

The papers – these need publicising far and wide

They are embedded in the individual meetings listed here. The ones that matter I’ve pulled out for your attention, in particular:

Now, in the grand scheme of things I don’t see the lack of publicity of the above as some sort of secret conspiracy to hide things. Papers for meetings are hardly the sort of things people get excited about – unless you are a policy wonk like me.

The thing is, there are some ***really significant*** items in the papers that are easily missed to the untrained eye. In particular the shared service around strategic planning, the last item in the status updates table. That’s why seemingly innocuous papers need scrutinising by people external to delivery. It’s good program management to have that level of challenge built into your structures.

My chance to ask some questions

Richard Taylor filmed these – it’s always awkward trying to ask questions and film at the same time. See his footage here.

Transport and rail

We know significantly improved rail infrastructure can take some of the housing pressure off Cambridge, while at the same time providing a boost to surrounding towns that are currently disconnected – such as Wisbech and Haverhill. I also mentioned the East Anglian Rail Prospectus – see here.

Education – supporting governors

I’m a school governor at a local primary school in South Cambridge. Two of our secondary schools on this side of town were rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement. Governing bodies across the city are facing greater pressure as the Dept for Education increases the responsibilities of governing boards, requiring them to have professional skills that in years gone by they were not required to have. Hence asking what the City Deal would do on the skills agenda to deal with this – something that would have an indirect positive impact of making schools more aware of what the wider community (in particular the business community) can offer in terms of in-kind support. The point here is that employers need to be aware of the school planning cycles, and of the pressures they face. Better to support schools that way at a local level than remain as passive recipients of school leavers, only to complain that they don’t have the right skills sets.

Project management

This is a big one for me – not least because although it’s not nearly my strongest still, I’ve seen good project and programme management in action. The documents I’d like to see published include:

  • Project initiation document for the City Deal
  • Risk assessment – what are the things that might lead to the City Deal’s failure and how are those things being managed?
  • Stakeholder analysis – who has what interest and what influence, and how are these people & organisations being involved? How are disinterested people who might be affected significantly being invited to take part?
  • Timelines – what’s expected to happen and when?
  • Budget – who has got what resources?

Some of the discussions from our Be the change – Cambridge event at the Cambridge Brewhouse on 18 November 2014

Things are moving at quite a pace on our side as a result. We had 20 people joining us for this event, which meant we could explore a number of things in detail in small groups while later on were able to have a round-up conversation at the end that involved everyone together. I filmed the feedback sessions. For the purposes of this blog (because at the time of typing it’s 1:30am and I want to go to bed!) here’s the first two groups feeding back.

There’s still a long way to go. If ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ interests you, and you want to make a positive difference to our city (defined by the people who make it, rather than administrative or geographical boundaries), you can get involved via:

Listeners to Cambridge 105 Radio may also catch some of the interviews I recorded following the City Deal meeting.

My first digital video commission – and employers overlooking digital skills young people have


It may only be a ‘micro-commission’, but for me it’s a giant leap on all things digital media. But are employers missing out on the skills that today’s school leavers have developed growing up in this internet age?

If someone had said to me in January 2014 that I’d be taking on my first digital video commission in about six months time…exactly. But then I’d have said the same thing about Puffles standing for election (& getting 89 votes – described by polling guru Phil Rodgers as ‘respectable‘) and Puffles appearing in a Basement Jaxx video with some of the nicest musicians in Cambridge. Then there’s all things Be the change – Cambridge where the pace organisationally is picking up, even though ticket sales thus far have been much lower than I had hoped for in the first week since going public with the ticket sales site. But we’ve got a solid plan to turn this around that doesn’t involve me sending out lots of repeated social media posts.

Getting into digital video

Some of you will be aware of the greater number of videos embedded into recent posts – in particular ones that I’ve filmed. Apart from curiosity, watching other parts of England taking to community reporting using digital video while Cambridge remained stuck in the dark ages started to annoy me in early 2014. Cambridgeshire’s community website Shape Your Place has the capabilities to embed Youtube videos but hardly anyone was making any. Finding out the only local evening class on introducing people to digital video got cancelled due to lack of interest didn’t make me any happier. Had it gone ahead, chances are me and Puffles would have got up to far more mischief in the election campaign than we actually did!

"***Hai!*** I iz meejah!" Puffles with Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett in Cambridge for the launch of the Green Party's East of England manifesto for the Euro 2014 elections
“***Hai!*** I iz meejah!” Puffles with Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett in Cambridge for the launch of the Green Party’s East of England manifesto for the Euro 2014 elections


Instead you got me and Puffles learning the hard way just how limited our little camcorder was compared to the stuff the broadcast journalists had. It’s still the case now – the footage on my phone more than matches what the camcorder picks up. This video I filmed for the Cambridge Buskers Festival (who have kindly awarded me the commission) gives an idea of the quality you can achieve with a smartphone.

Actually, this is quite fun!

For a start, it gets you out of the house. It gets you meeting people. It gets you learning by doing. And thus far, people presenting, speaking at community meetings or doing artistic or musical public performance have appreciated what I’m doing for them. After all, it’s not me in front of the camera. It’s someone far more talented! It’s only recently that I’ve started noticing the social side of things.

But how do you move up to the next level without spending a fortune?

The man at one of the larger electrical outlets in Cambridge insisted that to do what I wanted to do involved spending a couple of grand (that I’ll never have this side of 2020) on a stupendously expensive camera not much smaller than Puffles. Without repeating my blogpost on choice and camerasthere is a ****massive**** market failure for consumers. That market failure is the almost infinite amount of choice out there for buyers with a limited understanding of what they are buying and a limited amount of time to read up about their purchases. The market is failing to ensure buyers are making informed choices and know what they are buying.

The one that made me go ***Wow!*** was this one. The pocket battleship of digital video cameras. It was Carl Winberg who pointed me in that direction – someone with far more expertise in this field than me! Now, although I can’t see myself accessorising something like that to the max, the design that merely enables this is phenomenal. Something to aspire to several years down the line perhaps? But not now.

“No – really. How do you move up to the next level?”

I’m still trying to work that one out. Although learning all the time, everything has become very complex very quickly. It’s one thing filming, working out where the best angle is accounting for light, wind and background noise. It’s quite another thing editing – whether the video or (from my point of view more importantly) the audio. The perfectionist in me wants to get this to standards far higher than my skills and equipment are capable of.

Is mobile video the future?

I did a quick straw poll at Model Westminster which I was a volunteer facilitator at recently. (See here). This was an event aimed at students from their final year of secondary school to recent graduates. The way many of them are using social media is much more ‘in your face’ – literally – Snapchat being conspicuous by the number of people mentioning and using it. Most importantly, they are more than comfortable creating their own video content. Shy in front of the camera this lot were not.

The skills mismatch again

This was in the news again. Yet what I’ve noticed – and I’ve spoken to a number of business owners about this – is that too much of the business world is not set up to harness the digital skills that many young people now see as the norm. The tragedy is that the potential of both is being lost. Firms don’t see young people for the skills they do have, but the skills they do not. Despite studying for what the system points them towards, too many young people find themselves turned down for too many jobs.

To help resolve this, there needs to be a significant cultural and attitude change from the generations that are in positions of power and influence. In November 2013 I had a number of exchanges with local councillors about social media skills in local government. You can read some of the councillors’ responses here. That’s not to say these are their views now. People and priorities change with time and new experiences. From a political perspective, the 2015 general election may well see a spike in the number of older people using social media to engage with candidates. As any trainee teacher will tell you, one of the most important part of the learning process is reflection on the journey you’ve travelled down.

As for my path ahead?

If it’s there, I can’t see it. It’s very different to say 2006 when it was crystal clear: An internal civil service transfer to London come hell or high water – a path trodden by a number of my contemporaries before me. But then perhaps that’s the point. This time around with the technology being so new and progressing at a very fast rate, perhaps the path hasn’t been beaten out from the undergrowth.

It reminds me of the cub scout camps we went to when we were little, just outside Cambridge. Upon arrival in part of the woodlands we’d face a wall of stinging nettles taller than us. By the time the camp was over, many a path had been beaten through them. Maybe that’s what I’m doing now metaphorically: beating a path through those stinging nettles – and getting stung or pricked by the thistles and brambles along the way. But it’s only when you stop, look round and reflect that you see the path you’ve created.

An unscheduled tour of The Fens


After getting up at 5:45am & only realising I had got the CommsCamp14 conference day a week early when the train left Ely (north of Cambridge), I decided to go on a mini tour…starting with Peterborough

Exactly – after spending too much on the train ticket. But rather than going home, & with a school governors meeting scheduled for the evening, I asked myself what the least stressful and most productive way of spending the day could be. Having been meaning to visit Peterborough Cathedral for many years, I thought no time like the present.

Peterborough deserves a better railway station

It’s not a ‘St Pancras International’, & never has been. But for a city that is effectively ‘the gateway to the Fens from the north’, Peterborough really could do with a railway station that tells the passing traveller that ‘this is a place to do business’. It doesn’t do that at all. Mind you, neither does Cambridge. A couple of glass and corrugated metal tubes over the fairly large number of tracks is all it is. A sort of upside-down Clapham Junction if you will.

It was still very early (by my standards) by the time I wandered round to the cathedral grounds. The first thing I noticed was how fresh the air was – a damn sight more fresh than the air in Cambridge. My A-level geography recalls that as my bit of Cambridge sort of sits in the middle of a gentle trough, we don’t get much fresh air round here.

Cathedrals as statements to the people

Historically in these parts, the Cathedrals of Peterborough and Ely (along with Kings College Chapel) were the buildings that dominated the local area. Religion aside, they are repositories of our region’s local history. (That region being East Anglia – A list of cathedrals is here). That’s what fascinates me as a historian-at-heart.

Film skool homework

Last week, we played around with big studio lights to get a better idea of how lighting has an impact on filming. One of the things we were told was that early morning light is the best for filming and photography. It was only when I walked through the doors of Peterborough Cathedral did this make sense.

Early morning sunlight...or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? ;-)
Early morning sunlight…or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? 😉




The above photograph was taken with a mobile phone. It was as I was photographing the interior that I also understood the difference that a top-of-the-range camera can have. I tried a series of different shots – most of which were unsuccessful quality-wise. For a building as grand as this, you need the kit and the skills to match. And I have neither.


The above is an attempted panorama from one side to the other, using a mobile phone. The strange thing for me here is that pre film skool, I don’t think I’d have even attempted a shot like this.


The striking thing about this one (above) for me was the colourful light from the stained glass – again it was more powerful visually in person. We sometimes get the sense of cathedrals being dark, vast and gloomy places without artificial light. In popular film, I always get the sense (perhaps linked to manipulative clerical figures in dramas) that this imagery of the buildings are portrayed in that sense to reflect the clerical characters.

Katharine of Aragon's tomb - the fruits there are pomegranates
Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – the fruits there are pomegranates



Finally, there was Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – something I wanted to see if anything just to get a: “It really happened” sense of tudor history.

The photos above don’t do what I saw ‘justice’ visually

But the difference between this visit and my previous attempts to capture images of interesting buildings is that I have a better understanding of process and what to look out for. In particular the need to take lots of photos in order to find ‘the one’.

Then the organist started playing

In most places, playing anything that loud would have got you arrested – but not here. Again, recorded on a mobile phone, have a listen.

Now, I’m not the greatest organ music fan, but even this made me stop in my steps.

Next stop, Wisbech

It’s taken a kicking in the press of late (eg here in The Guardian). I’d been meaning to go there for quite some time anyway because of an interest in what linking Wisbech up with Cambridge by rail could do for both places. This was something I mentioned in my manifesto in the local elections of May 2014.

One thing that was noticeable was the number of national flags flying compared to the south of the county. North Cambridgeshire is a Tory vs UKIP battleground (the latter with councillors representing the town) – a battle that helped squeeze out the Greens and Lib Dems from taking the final Euro Parliament seat. I noted the flood risk posters (along with appeals for volunteers to help teach basic IT skills) in the local library and council buildings. Put this together with UKIP’s electoral success in this part of the county alongside the lack of a party manifesto for the Euro elections along with a record of climate change scepticism and you get the sense that what’s going on here politically does not match the assumptions of the London politics and policy bubble.

Decades of political failure the cause of Wisbech’s decline?

I’m thinking in the wider historical sense. It’s actually quite a picturesque town that had clearly seen some better days economically. Given some of the plans they had (again, on display in the library), there are people that genuinely care about the town. So why has politics been failing Wisbech?

Certainly the loss of the rail line in the 1960s did not help. How can you have the capital of the Fens not connected to the rail network? Furthermore, as the town’s master plan for transport states, it only has two bridges across a wide river. It doesn’t take much to cause gridlock in the town. Finally, on the bus route into the town, I saw some developments on the edge of town that can only further suck the life out of the market town. A cinema and a large supermarket, followed up with further developments of more ‘out of town’ shops are not going to do any favours to the Georgian town centre. If anything, Wisbech has the potential to match, if not exceed what Bury St Edmunds has to offer – especially with local independent shops.

Instead, charity shops and discount shops, along with the traditional array of clone-town brands are all too prominent. Again, that’s not the fault of the local people (or the recent arrivals) – that’s the result of central government policies over the years. The sort of infrastructure needed to connect Wisbech is financially beyond the reach of the town and district councils.

Wisbech to Kings Lynn

Road-wise, this bit was particularly grim. Although the main roads had been resurfaced, they had not been flattened. Hence the suspension of what was a brand new bus was tested to its limits and made me feel so sick for the rest of the day that I ended up missing a school governors meeting, being bed-bound not eating much at all. This made me think what it must be like for those that have to use such routes regularly – in particular students & those on low incomes.

What struck be about two of the central squares of Wisbech and Kings Lynn (as with Bury St Edmunds and with St Ives just outside Cambridge) is how cars dominate them. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better, more imaginative way to use the central civic squares of our towns than as car parks. But again, this isn’t going to happen without sorting out the public and alternative transport issues. Our local government set up in East Anglia is simply not organised in a manner to have the resources or legal powers to solve these problems locally. All too often they’ve ended up in some quango or in the hands of some all-too-frequently-reshuffled minister in Whitehall.

…and back to Cambridge

It would have been so easy to have gone back to Cambridge, sulked and slept. In times gone by I probably would have done. But there was something in me that said: “You’ve got to do this – and do this carefully too”. Recall things such as this. Hence looking for potential rather than saying ‘Why aren’t you the same as Cambridge?’ (Did I get close with the Bury St Edmunds comparison?) Ditto with the problems & challenges. It’s pointless pretending they are not there, or diminishing their significance. At the same time, writing places off in their entirety means condemning the good as well as the bad.

Wisbech, as well as the villages and towns that surround Cambridge are part of the solutions to Cambridge’s problems of transport congestion and high housing costs. At the same time, the areas surrounding Cambridge could be benefiting more from Cambridge. For example I don’t see many posters at the guided bus stops showcasing some of the local towns and villages along the routes.

At the end of the day, I came away with a feeling of:

“Working together, we can be better than this”

An evening with Cambridge social media enthusiasts


Learning from a less-familiar gathering of social media enthusiasts in Cambridge, with #SookioSocial.

Puffles at #SookioSocial - Photo Laura Brown of @KISSTalk Comms
Puffles at #SookioSocial listening to @MissSueFlay – Photo Laura Brown of @KISSTalk Comms

I’m writing this having just returned from a buzzing event hosted by Sookio Ltd – a local social media marketing firm who got together over 50 people at the Cambridge Brewhouse for a talk about ‘how to talk on social media‘.

Getting that many people for a local Meetup event is impressive – getting that many that signed up to actually turn up, even more so. Sue Keogh, the CEO had got together an impressive cast list of speakers from a range of backgrounds. The panel included:

Getting the ‘expert panel’ format to work

In principle, I’m not a fan of this format. I don’t like long periods of audience silence where there’s only one person asking the questions. That said, Sue made it work by asking a series of short sharp and informed questions and the panel giving short sharp answers. As a result, we got through what felt like a significant amount of content that would have informed even the most widely-informed social media user. In my book, all things digital is a world that is evolving at such a fast rate that we are all learners. Hence the ‘top-down’ speaker-to-passive-audience model in this field at least, is unsuitable. But that’s not so easy to explain to people who might be used to and comfortable with this format.

“What did you learn?”

The insights I got from each of them were fascinating.

Cambridge University

Cambridge University’s administration clearly have come a long way on all things digital, but still have a long way to go. There are lots of opportunities that the institution is missing out on because of the mindset of its senior management that doesn’t understand the cultures building up around digital. On the other hand, Fred and Barney in the Comms team really impressed me with what they have achieved in very constrained circumstances – and I pay tribute to them.

Age UK

My jaw hit the floor (figuratively, not literally!) when Athar said that half of their Facebook followers were over 55 years old. What really impressed me with him was the level of audience analysis and segmentation he and his team had done. They know what sort of demographic is using which platform in what manner. That means they are very good at knowing what sort of content is going to work with which platform and with which audience. This is the standard that every policy team in every local authority and government department needs to be aiming for.

Grazia magazine

I had to pull myself up when Jess Vince (who I had a fascinating conversation with after the Q&A session) started off her remarks talking about a Pinterest post about Kate Middleton’s shoes. There was a bit of me that was thinking:

“Yeah – this is precisely the sort of content that distracts people from engaging in politics and serious stuff!…moan…grumble….whinge!”

The other bit of me – the bigger bit of me was thinking:

“Oi! Dragon dude! Listen up! It’s Jess’s readers that are the ones you are trying to get to engage in all things politics and local democracy – and she knows them far better than you ever will. So shut up and listen to her!”

I chose the latter.

Miss Sue Flay

What struck me about Miss Sue Flay was how similar our experiences were. We both use Twitter as our main day-to-day platform and both started out as a bit of fun more than anything else. We didn’t have a plan, we just…tweeted. At the same time, the pressures of what we both do have meant that things that we should or would like to have done have fallen by the wayside. In her case, she said that she wanted to organise some events again around what she does. The same is true with me, for example with the pub lunches.

Hardly anyone had heard of Puffles!

Before I put my question to the panel – and to the audience, I asked for a show of hands of who had not seen or heard about Puffles. The clear majority of people in the room had no idea what Puffles was. (It was nice to meet small business mentor Ann Hawkins for the first time!) Looking around the room, this didn’t surprise me – I hardly knew anyone there. I saw this as a positive thing from the perspective of the digital democracy challenge (see here – I encourage anyone who lives, works and studies in Cambridge to take it on!). It was then that I mentioned Puffles standing for election on a ‘don’t vote for us’ digital democracy platform and told them about the digital democracy challenge. I then put the question to them about how we as an audience interested and/or enthusiastic about social media could persuade councillors and candidates to use social media.

“What was the response?”

Jess Vince said keep going – it’s a long haul. A couple of people in the audience said that the problem was more that people did not believe politicians interested in listening to the people. Steve O’Connor said that some senior politicians didn’t like the direct link to the voters – with Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner Sir Graham Bright came in for particular criticism – his Twitter account showing little engagement at all. (He doesn’t have a Facebook page – not one that I’ve found anyway).

This got me thinking:

How can you persuade an audience full of people who are really good at social media beyond the ‘personal’ context to use it in a manner that influences local democracy? This matters to me because I’m experimenting with a number of things – including a ‘living manifesto’ (see here) for which people can suggest improvements to over time.

Learning from the celeb magazines

I made a bee-line for Jess at the end of the event and threw a torrent of friendly questions about her experience inside one of the country’s biggest selling magazines. While I have issues with the celebrity and ‘beauty’ industries, it doesn’t mean we have to be rude to the people who happen to work in those industries, who like the most of the rest of us are part of the 99% and have bills to pay on limited incomes.

“What did you learn from Jess?”

That modern digitally-enabled publications that have a significant social media content now have direct lines to their editors. Not only that, but turnaround times are incredibly tight. You’ve got to react to things in a matter of minutes – because that is the industry they are in. It’s a very visual and emotive one for those that are in it and follow it. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why politics turns people off. Scripted lines-to-take lack emotion and credibility. Policy papers are exactly that – papers written in a manner with lots of words and complex concepts poorly explained that are not easy to visualise or grasp.

This got me thinking about the sorts of papers written by political and policy institutions. Think about the publications that come out. You have the substantive papers and the summary papers – perhaps with a few annexes at the back. And all are written for the same audience: A politics and policy audience. You don’t get publications on the same issues by the same departments written for different audiences.

“Actually, this matters – keep running with this thread/line of thought…”

Think about Parliament’s website. They’ve already differentiated between two audiences:

1) The ‘mainstream’ audience – their home page

2) Schools and colleges – their education pages

But in the grand scheme of things, there are far more audiences they have. At present they are probably in the early stages of understanding who those audiences are and what their wants/needs are. Think for example:

  • The constituent that wants to check if their MP asked a question in Parliament
  • The policy expert that wants to examine a research paper published by Parliament
  • The ‘amateur expert’ (amateur in that they are not paid professionally for it) that wants to scrutinise ministers and go through petitions, written statements and written questions to see what things were or were not followed up
  • The student that wants to find out the historical background to a major piece of recent political history
  • The artist that wants to find nice pictures of the glorious interiors of the Palace of Westminster

All of these are different audiences. Some overlap more than others, but how you approach them are all very different. How, as an institution do you manage this?

Barriers to women in local democracy

The two points I took away from Jess’s comments were that both institutional sexism and the format of political meetings are things that put women off. The format of council meetings has hardly changed for the past 150 years. The chamber in Cambridge Guildhall for example has the councillors facing the mayor’s throne. It should be the mayor and councillors facing the people. Instead, the public seats mean that they cannot see most of the councillors that are speaking. That’s wrong.

Also, the aggression and the personalising of attacks are very off-putting. And not just for women. I mentioned to Jess that anecdotally the women I engage with on Twitter have a very different view of what they see as ‘the news’ in a political and policy world compared with the mainstream media. The mainstream media reports (all too often without critical analysis) press releases and spats between testosterone-fuelled men. The women that I follow through Puffles are much more interested in the issues, getting into the things underneath the problems and exploring ideas on what decent solutions might be. But then as I tweet every so often, you cannot have evidence-based policies with prejudice-based politics. We have too much of the latter. No wonder people are turned off.

“So…anything new for the campaign?”

Yeah – a new call for Cambridge University to properly resource a social media communications function within its corporate communications team and to ensure it is properly linked up with the organisations and institutions that make up the university – in particular the feedback loops.

Food for thought?

Puffles breathes fire into the Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign


Crossing the county boundary to sprinkle some dragon-fairy dust to help transport campaigners in Suffolk reconnect with Cambridge – and raising the political temperature too

Puffles at Haverhill Arts Centre with a banner for the Haverhill-Cambridge Rail Campaign
Puffles at Haverhill Arts Centre with a banner for the Haverhill-Cambridge Rail Campaign

Actually, it was just as much learning as commenting in Haverhill earlier. It was through Facebook that I found out about the Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign – see here. I learnt that the campaign has been running for quite some time and a huge amount of work has already been done. In particular the technical work alongside offline campaigning has raised the issue locally to astonishingly high levels – a petition signed by 12,000 people.

Taking the X13 bus journey from Cambridge to Haverhill

It was a lovely sunny evening – nice to see the horse chestnut trees in a state where they are not visibly affected by that horrible moth that turns the leaves prematurely brown. I’m also at the stage where I feel I need a bit of a break from Cambridge – but somewhere that’s not London. If anything just to get away from the noise.

Although not the most picturesque of countrysides – large intensively farmed fields of monoculture crops here – it was nice to get out of the city and see some green and fresh air – even if we were on a bus. We’re at that time of year when, if the sun shines it’s at just the right temperature and intensity, along with a gentle breeze. Anything more and it’s too hot for me. At the same time, I reflected on the loneliness of my escapade. Other than Puffles, there is no ‘partner in crime’ in all of this activism I’ve been doing over the years. Hence feeling even more vulnerable and exposed at doing this – which doesn’t help my anxiety and mental health issues at all.

A high accident route

The road link between Cambridge and Haverhill is full of road signs telling drivers that the route has a history of road accidents. Big red signs that you cannot miss. I spotted a couple of memorials put up by friends and relatives of those that had died in accidents. All the more important I thought that they re-open the rail link between Cambridge and Haverhill.

Rural bus routes don’t make for the easiest of journeys either. Not for the queasy. A reminder of pot-hole-Britain. But again, all the more reason to invest in transport that reduces car journeys and road freight.

Discovering good stuff that Cambridge doesn’t have

It was just as much re-treading a path not trodden since childhood in my case. For some reason I find rail travel much more suitable for ‘turn up and travel’ than buses. There’s something about the weaving and winding routes, along with the irregularity of services due to traffic that creates too much uncertainty for my liking.

The route out of Cambridge going towards Haverhill is south-easterly. Past Wandlebury (where the witches gather for hallowe’en – the first nightmare I can remember having as a child), past Abington where we went for camps (and is now the subject of a campaign to keep it open), past Linton with the zoo, past Chilford Hall where I once helped steward an Oxfam walk, and onto Haverhill. Plus there’s a fair share of inns and farm shops.

Arriving at Haverhill

It’s certainly picturesque in the evening spring sunshine. At the same time, there were tell-tale signs that not all was entirely well with the town. The alcohol prohibition zones indicated that street drinking is a problem. Getting off the bus and heading towards the Haverhill Arts Centre – the old town hall – I got the sense that the economic downturn had hit the town centre too. This despite a growing population and new homes going up. Something tells me there’s some sort of unofficial ‘Cambridge-Haverhill corridor’ that developers and firms have picked up on. Yet at the same time the public institutions haven’t yet been able to put in place the transport and civic infrastructure needed to support it.

Walking into the town hall

When I saw the building, I thought: “Oooh! This is pretty!”

The hall had a proper ‘old school’ feel to it, combined with modern audio-visual support at the back of the room. I noted that the event was being filmed – all the more important from a social and digital media perspective in getting the many important points made at the meeting out to a much wider audience.

Fifty people turned up to an event where we talked about trains

As I tweeted through Puffles, the organisers had clearly done their homework and had put a lot of effort into their campaign over the years. People in Haverhill care. The reason why I turned up with Puffles is that I got this feeling that the campaign probably wasn’t on the radar of Cambridge residents interested in transport. So we went along with the idea of changing all that and connecting their campaign up with transport policy-watchers in Cambridge.

Not the only person from Cambridge in the room

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Peter Wakefield of the Rail Future East Anglia Branch, who was one of the three guest speakers, who is based in Cambridge. As it turned out, he also caught the bus from Cambridge and had similar observations about the route between Cambridge and Haverhill. The third of three speakers, he gave us all a regional picture of where we are. The other two speakers from the Haverhill-Cambridge campaign, Chair Malcolm Hill and Secretary David Edwards gave the audience a history of how we got to where we are. (My thanks to Debra Fox from Cambridge Newspapers (in a Haverhill Echo capacity) for paying closer attention – she was also live tweeting).

“Sounds like #diversityfail on the panel”

This is an industry-wide problem. As an on-off reader of Modern Railways magazine (due to spending lots on train tickets – I want to know where the money goes), adverts for rail events show photographs reflecting a lack of diversity in the industry – particularly at management level.

At the same time, I had a strange admiration for the panel, all of whom are at least a generation older than me. The reason is simple. It will take at least a decade before the rail connection is restored. They’ve all spent decades already campaigning on this issue. Chances are if it is completed, they will be much older than they currently are – and possibly less mobile. I don’t mean that pejoratively – rather they have been and are still campaigning on something, but something that future generations will benefit from. From their knowledge, you could see that all three were passionate about restoring the link and putting right a historical wrong. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something ‘noble’ about that.

As someone who is a historian by heart, I was also interested to hear the personal anecdotes they retold – ones that stemmed back to a political era that, in our age of social and digital media feels like it is far more distant than perhaps it actually is. To hear about the raw emotion of how people felt when the Beeching axe took away their railways was quite sobering. (See my thoughts here).

Unleashing the power of young people

Well…given that secondary school students in Cambridge can do it (see here)…

When it was my turn to speak at the Q&A session, I told the audience that it was the existence of their Facebook page (see here) that informed me about what they were doing. Peter Wakefield also mentioned the impact of the Wisbech rail campaign’s Facebook page (see here) in opening up not just rail engineering but campaigning and local democracy up to new, younger audiences.

I then said that many of the students from Haverhill that go to Long Road and Hills Road Sixth Form Colleges – both in my neighbourhood – use the No.13 buses to get there. Had they thought about reaching out to these people in their campaigns? Or perhaps secondary school students that may be thinking of applying to those institutions? To my delight, the campaign said:

“Yes – we’ll do that!”

The way I framed the point was about inspiring people to learn both about big engineering in a hyper-local context, and about campaigning and local democracy too. I got the sense that this point clearly resonated around the room. So here’s hoping that West Suffolk College, Linton Village College (which was on the bus route and used to have a station too), Long Road Sixth Form College (whose students have been campaigning for ages for a railway station serving them and Addenbrookes) and Hills Road Sixth Form College will be hearing from the campaign, along with the secondary schools in Haverhill.

Puffles also helped things along a little in Whitehall. One of Puffles’ long time followers on Twitter is Clare Moriarty, Director General of the Rail Executive of the Department for Transport in London.

The Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign is now on her radar. Can a new generation of campaigners go after their elected politicians (via WriteToThem) to lobby ministers about the case for this link? After all, Cambridgeshire County Council is already on the case. (See here).

“What’s the next step?”

As Debra Fox tweeted quoting the campaign, a business case and feasibility study

“That’s not cheap”

Hence the need to persuade politicians that such things will be value for money. But it needs local people that will benefit from a rebuilt rail link to make the case.

“Aren’t there elections on soon?”

That was my final point – as Debra Fox tweeted.

I invited the room to use the internet and social media to find out the politicians’ views on this.

“A message to people in Haverhill?”

Haverhill has councillors from Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives, and can all be found here. Alternatively, go to WriteToThem.Com where if you type in your postcode, it will give you details of your MP, MEPs and councillors. It also has a template for you to fire off ***lots of questions*** about what they are going to do to help things along.

Even if you don’t have the vote (for example you’re under 18), you can still ask questions, make suggestions and demand answers from politicians. If a group of year 9 students in Cambridge can succeed in changing the culture of an institution by lunchtime – something I failed to do in 2 years of campaigning, who knows what you can achieve?

It’s your future. Be the change.

(And do let me know how you get on!)



Teaching a young dragon fairy new social media tricks


Local social media marketing expert (no, really) Mili Ponce shows this social media enthusiast a thing or two, at an evening with JCI Cambridge

I’ve seldom had good experiences with people that have branded themselves social media marketing people. All too often, they’ve taken social media tools as channels to broadcast stuff without any consideration for feedback loops – over which they trip up in any Q&A session. Then there was this horror show in 2012 that had me, Puffles and Sue Llewellyn (who also knows her stuff, coming from a journalism direction) spitting with fire.

“So, what did Mili know that you didn’t?”

By its huge scope, there will always be something on social media that any self-proclaimed social media expert will never know. I said this in a social media workshop at the weekend when someone in the audience pointed out a feature on Facebook I was unfamiliar with. But teaching me things that I didn’t know was just part of it. Values and manner of communication matter too.

“What does that mean?”

Speaking truth to power for a start. She’s spent many years learning and building up expertise in the fields of IT, social media and digital marketing. In a nutshell, clients don’t pay her to tell them things that make them feel comfortable. Quite the opposite – even if it’s at the risk of not getting a further commission. Why compromise your values, your expertise, your experience and potentially your reputation for short-term gain? I noted with interest the number of occasions where she said ‘I can do this for you, but you’re wasting your money if you do.’ (How many times have external consultants said this to senior civil servants over the past couple of decades?)

A kick up the backside that I needed

Self-aware to a fault, but needing someone else to put things starkly to my face perhaps? I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts that 2014 is going to be a year of transition work-wise. Website, branding, how I use social media, and an increased sense of purpose locally are all things that I’ve given much thought to, but undertaken little action on. Those of us at the workshop judging by the Q&As seemed to come away with a much greater sense of focus on what we needed to do in our respective fields.

A different route, but similar experiences along the way

Although we come from very different backgrounds – Mili is from Peru – throughout her presentation I was nodding throughout. Her background is a private sector IT background. My background is a public policy civil service background. Yet many of the lessons on how to use social and digital media in the corporate world were pretty much identical. She also talked about the importance of learning to code, how other countries’ experiences of social media use were not necessarily the same as the UK’s, and how when engaging with professional specialists such as lawyers and accountants, it’s important to get someone who understands and is comfortable with all things digital. The example she gave was with competition giveaways, and how from a marketing and social media perspective they are a waste of time and money – as well as being a legal minefield. With the latter, there’s no point having the most expensive legal advice on competition terms and conditions if it has been drafted by a lawyer who hates & is ignorant of social media.

“What do you know that she does not?”

Again, it’s not a case of who knows what, but more trying to apply social media to whichever area you happen to be working in, while approaching other uses of it with an open but critical mind. In Mili’s case, there is the obvious focus on the drive for sales – and how social media can be best used to support the bottom line. In public policy, it’s much more complicated in terms of what you are trying to deliver. But that complexity doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons and insights to be learnt from the private sector. In particular the relentless focus on purpose and impact really stood out for me. At the same time, Mili also got me thinking about how some of her approaches are also applicable to the voluntary and community sector locally in Cambridge. Even more so given Puffles’ quick response to a tweet put out by our local volunteer centre

…swiftly followed by

…but which then got me thinking about doing something positive rather than ranting. I was in the centre of Cambridge at the time to catch up with the Teachers’ rally on strike day – see Elodie Harper of ITV Anglia here – as well as getting an outfit for this:

Yep – no rest for the wicked!

Anyway, I popped into the volunteer centre and had a quick chat with them about all things social media – and Net-squared’s free monthly social media surgeries in Cambridge (see here). We had an open, friendly, frank but supportive conversation about social media and the local voluntary sector. It was also a learning process for me too as I continue to fill in the jigsaw of where South Cambridge is with social and digital media. As it turned out, in Mili’s presentation there are a whole host of other ‘analytics’ that can easily be manipulated and/or otherwise should be downplayed.

What reassured me was that what I discussed with the CVS was consistent with what Mili was saying – and she has a far higher profile than me and Puffles. At the same time, it’s also nice to know that there are others out there that ‘get’ all things social and digital media locally. Furthermore, some are probably more knowledgeable about the tools, albeit in a different market than me, and are thus potential allies in trying to get institutions in Cambridge as a city to take digital and social media than they currently are. And going by my current experiences, I feel that this requires co-operation and supporting each other, rather than seeing each other as the competition.

Next steps?

Mili re-enforced messages about diversity of content. Some of you may be familiar with my social media digital video guides – see here. I want to move onto making short digital videos on community issues. Hence my interest in Hills Road SFC’s evening class on digital film making (somewhere in here). Lack of takeup last term meant it got cancelled and I got a refund. 10 x 2hr weekly evening classes are ideal for me as a learning style, so if anyone in/around Cambridge is interested in learning how to make short digital videos on community issues, sign up for that course. (Please).