The chemists follow the historians meeting Puffles


A talk about sustainability by Cambridge Chemist Dr John Emsley – with some challenges for scientists on how to engage with local democracy & the need to learn about politics if they want to make a bigger impact

I stumbled across this talk about 36 hours before it started (see here for the details). With my former climate change policy adviser hat on, I thought this was well worth going to because I’d not seen sustainability approached from a purely chemistry perspective. I wanted to get a feel for what the mindset might be. Hence going to a talk organised by the Cambridge/Mid Anglia branches of the Royal Society of Chemistry that was on my doorstep seemed like a reasonable starting point.

I found the talk very interesting & learnt lots, but in an audience of about 30 of us I get the feeling that the ‘chemistry’ bit wasn’t too taxing for the rest of the audience. There were a number of concepts that I was vaguely familiar with – such as converting food waste into methane to burn & generate electricity, to others such as fertilisers. There were others which had me scratching my head – the concept of deep-mining for fertilisers to spread on fields (See here). How many people know of the mine’s existence, let alone our dependence on its output for fertilising fields of intensive farming? And an industrial operation like that must have more than a few greenhouse gas emissions.

Lots of the ‘how’ but little of the ‘why’

What I found interesting about Dr Emsley’s talk wasn’t just the content he included, but also by what he didn’t cover. We had an interesting exchange in the Q&A about this, because I wanted to tease out some of the public policy issues from him and the audience. He also kindly gave me a copy of one of his books. (Thank you!) The one he referred to in his talk was A healthy, wealthy, sustainable world. Recognising the need to reach out to a wider audience, he also turned that book into a novel – Islington Green – about the challenges a couple faced trying to turn towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Something for people in other subject areas to try as well?

The classic example of the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’ was his case study of biofuels. He spoke well about what the demands would be on agriculture of quenching the thirst of the best part of 30 million vehicles, talking about the evolution of biofuels from a chemistry perspective and their chemical elements. As I mentioned to Marie, someone who I met through Transition Cambridge, the problem isn’t how you fuel 30 million cars, it’s how you deal with the problem of congestion. Hence the wider cultural issue for me was how chemists define the problems that they are trying to solve.

I’m trying to avoid the word ‘chemicals’ deliberately on the grounds that the word has negative connotations outside a science field. It’s one that bad marketing people try to use to spin ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘natural’ products as being good for you as opposed to stuff with ‘chemicals’ in them. ****EVERYTHING IS MADE UP OF CHEMICALS OF ONE SORT OR ANOTHER****

Well…almost – unless you are heading into the world of what my science teacher from school said was beyond chemistry and into the world of physics. I have no idea why I remember it but he said that the smallest component as far as the field of chemistry is concerned is the atom. Once you start looking at the makeup of the atom, you’re into physics. Now, this was in the mid-1990s. But then Pluto was still a planet in the mid 1990s. So…scientists reading this. Have I still got things right or have we discovered new stuff since then?

My challenge to the scientists in the room.

I told them I was a non-scientist – with my education extending little further than GCSE level. I then put the words of this blogpost into a challenge for them: Which of them is going to put together the series of sequenced evening classes that will teach adults about science and new scientific discoveries that have occurred since they/we left school? It’s also something I have included in my living manifesto. (Theme 4 – learning for living).

Chemistry captured by the corporations

I was halfway back walking home when it suddenly occurred to me that so much of what was covered by Dr Emsley’s talk was ‘macro-chemistry’ – really really big industrial operations featured in his case study that inevitably needed some sort of state involvement, even if only as a regulator. A quick search for who does the sponsoring for an innocuous event to the outsider – such as this one – shows just how closely linked corporations are to chemistry research. This isn’t a benign disinterested ‘follow the science’ link either. This was shown by the case study Dr Emsley showed with Shell and the polymer ‘Carilon’ – see here. What struck me was how Shell started something, then discontinued its production and work on it not for ‘chemistry’ reasons but because as Dr Emsley said, the corporation they decided to move out of that field of work. This was despite the polymer showing huge potential in various applications.

In example after example, I made the link between the size of some of the interests concerned, and how those interests may not necessarily be the same as those of chemistry research. As Dr Emsley said towards the end, there were a whole host of factors he had not considered (deliberately) in his talk – such as political, economic and sociological for example. His remit was to examine an issue which he cares about – sustainability – through the prism of his experience as a chemist.

The gap between science and politics

This was where I made my plea to the audience to get involved in politics and public policy. It reflected the point made by Dr Emsley about the population explosion in recent decades – exploring the consequences of the likely population in 2050. (See here). One of the points he made was that chemistry had given humanity the tools to control population growth (through various forms of contraception) in the 1960s – but that ‘something had gone wrong’ in the implementation. He declined to explore what the reasons of this were.

The big barrier Dr Emsley said he has in engaging with politics is that his local MP is not someone like Dr Julian Huppert (pictured here with Puffles). It’s someone diametrically opposed to much of what Dr Huppert stands for – though I’ll refrain from naming the individual. My point in general to the audience (I had Puffles sitting next to me for impact) was that at some point, they were going to have to engage in the democratic/political process if they wanted their ideas to be heard in the corridors of power. That involves familiarisation with something that either a subject area they may not like – politics, and/or trying to understand a way of working that may not sit easily with how they work. For example in science you follow the evidence and base your conclusions on the results of lots of experiments. In politics, it feels all too often that you decide what your conclusions are going to be before you start off, then you look for the evidence to back them up. Policy-based evidence-making. You can get away with it in an undergraduate essay, but you can’t get away from it if you are trying to launch a war on the basis of it. Not if you want your political legacy left intact.

“So…did you convince them to vote for Puffles then?”

For those of you that don’t know, Puffles is a candidate for the Coleridge ward in the Cambridge City Council 2014 elections. (See here). Yeah – I’m standing under my social media persona ‘Puffles the dragon fairy‘ because in politics and public policy circles, Puffles is more well known than me.

What I learnt was that the science community in East Anglia vastly underestimates their potential influence in local democracy. The mid-Anglia section of the Royal Society of Chemistry has the best part of 3,000 members alone. (See here – how old-skool is that map?!?) That could be the difference between Dr Rupert Read getting elected ahead of say Labour’s Alex Mayer in the European Elections on the 22 May. I’ve deliberately mentioned those two for a future blogpost. Why don’t we see more scientists engaging in local democracy?

Actually, the dated appearance of the mid-Anglia branch web page matters. This is something that is symptomatic of various pockets of Cambridge. The RSC Mid-Anglia branch is a busy, vibrant one. But for the talk I was at, and as I discussed with Marie, it could have had far more people from much more diverse backgrounds had they properly advertised it through social media. This isn’t just an RSC problem in and around Cambridge. This is a problem that the whole of Cambridge faces. This is why the digital, dynamic and passionate driver/common links are ever so important. Yet at the same time, it’s not the stuff that sets local government alight. It’s simply not a ‘bread and butter’ constituency issue. When the likes of local street-pounding councillors and activists tell me that the issues around social media for local democracy I discuss are not raised on the doorstep, I believe them.

At the same time, if we want Cambridge to be greater than the sum of our parts, we as a city need to put the digital infrastructure to allow ‘civic society’ to flourish. At the moment, we’re a long way off from that.



Thinking about science at #ThinkCon Cambridge


When Suzi Gage came to town – and Dr Rupert Read of The Green Party coming back again

The MusicNet East conference left me emotionally exhausted but with a buzzing head – meaning that without medication I’d have not got any sleep. It’s one of the ways I have to manage my internal demons because lack of sleep makes me mentally unstable – as does too much caffeine, processed sugar and alcohol.

Lou Woodley tipped me off about ThinkCon, and finding out that epidemiologist and long-time dragon-fairy-watcher Suzi Gage was coming to Cambridge for this, I signed up. I’d not met Suzi before but we’ve been following each other for over a year on Twitter, so it’s always nice to meet people face-to-face at these things.

Puffles with Suzi in 'the green room' at #ThinkCon
Puffles with Suzi in ‘the green room’ at #ThinkCon

Suzi’s presentation reminded me of was that of Professor David Nutt when the latter came to speak about drugs policy to the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange. (I touched on it in this blogpost). She’s working in and on one of those areas that is ever so politically sensitive. It’s one of the reasons why Professor Nutt got sacked by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson because the scientific advice on drugs was not politically palatable. i.e. just before a general election you couldn’t run with the policies scientific advice indicated lest the tabloids have a field day with headlines such as:

“Minister: I back drugs!”

To which Suzi and the scientists (and anyone with more than a very basic level of scientific awareness) would respond that caffeine and alcohol are drugs. Brian (now Lord) Paddick when he was a senior police officer in Brixton was one of the first users of social media, using it to engage with his local community on the Urban 75 message boards (see here for the history). That was in 2001. Both Paddick – and Mike who created and has run the boards for the past decade and a half were ***years*** ahead of their time. But the tabloids didn’t like it, and he was hounded out of his job in an horrifically homophobic campaign.

Challenging those in power

This was the awkward question I put to Suzi in the Q&A session. Just as Penny Homer told me at the music conference the day before that music and musicians have historically challenged the powerful, so too must science and scientists. Part of the problem is that scientists are (understandably) reluctant to engage in politics – in particular party politics – in the current climate. If Professor Nutt can be treated the way he was by a Home Secretary, why would anyone else want to put themselves in the firing line? I’ll repeat the line again:

“How can you have evidence-based policy with prejudice-based politics?”

How do you combine a dispassionate analysis of the evidence with passion for a cause or policy?

This was an open question Suzi put to all of us. Her point was that – as with the civil service, you’ve got to be objective about the research, evidence and analysis that you do. To become too much of an advocate of that in a political arena could put at risk your impartiality. Hence her observation that there needs to be a ‘something’ that can be an intermediary.

Helping society becoming more scientifically literate

This for me is a big theme. The problem I find is that the scientific and educational communities have not come up with a suitable approach for adults. As I said to Kat Arney in the pub later on, how do you bridge the gap between scientific experts and policy advisers that might have last formally studied science at GCSE? It’s great having things like the Cambridge Science Festival (on now (March-April 2014)), but where are the opportunities for enjoyable, inspiring and structured learning for adults where you are building on previous learning?

Cambridge: When are we going to get those weekly evening classes on science for adults that don’t involve exams at the end?

Because we have come a hell of a long way since I last studied science in anywhere near a lab setting – and that was in the mid-1990s in a mobile classroom. The institutions are here, the people are here, the wealth and resources are here, and the buildings are here. Let’s use them.


And…what about Rupert?

Two of the Green Party’s East Anglia European Parliament candidates were in Cambridge earlier on – Rupert Read and Fiona Radic. They hosted a talk on how to make the ‘great transition’ from where we are now to where we want to be as a sustainable economy & society in a Cambridge & East Anglia context. (See here). Former Friends of the Earth chief Tony Juniper was also there – he stood for the Greens in 2010 for Parliament, pulling in an unprecedented 3,804 votes. There were about 40 people there on what was otherwise a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the city.

Kings College Chapel - the view greeting me as I headed from the Greens' gathering to #ThinkCon
Kings College Chapel – the view greeting me as I headed from the Greens’ gathering to #ThinkCon



There was a strong scientific focus on what they all said too – even though according to some of their critics, science is an achilles heel for the movement. For me, part of the reason is that for some in the environmental movement, ‘big’ science (of the large organisations) doesn’t always sit easily with the small-scale living that some promote and live by. Whether it’s GM crops to planning squabbles with wind turbines, even to homeopathy and ‘alternative healing’ (a few examples here), it’s not an easy balance to strike. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett at her recent talk in Cambridge (see here) described her party as being the political wing of a much wider diverse environmental movement. With diversity inevitably brings disagreements.

Giving people hope

This was something I pressed the three speakers on – using an example from the days when I was a climate change policy adviser in central government. For the first half of my time, people in and lobbyists for industry were constantly questioning the ‘why?’ – remember this was just after Lord Stern had published his epic report The Economics of Climate ChangeAs an economics graduate that focused on environmental economics, I was particularly interested in this report – and was delighted to find that one of my fellow students who by a country mile was the outstanding scholar in our cohort, was part of the team that wrote it. (Step forward Hannah Ryder). I knew Hannah quite well at university and had a huge regard for her knowledge and penetrating analysis of the subject. She doesn’t know this but it was knowing that she was on the report’s team that made me trust it a damn sight more in the context of public platforms when sparring with people critical of the policy responses. I also never forgot in the run up to our finals when we were discussing a paper on the economics of development when she paid me a huge compliment on my own intellect, saying that I should be getting a first for my degree. That was when I told her the impact of my mental health problems and how I was never able to really sink my teeth into the growing field of ecological and environmental economics, as well as that of the interface between economics and human psychology. But my point is that somehow, Hannah gave me hope.

And that’s what Tony said the Greens needed to do. Because in the second half of my time as a climate change policy adviser, a building firm went and built some new commercially viable highly sustainable homes. And got ***lots*** of positive publicity with it. Almost overnight, the conversation in the policy area switched away from ‘why’ to ‘how?’

‘Our message must be more “I have a dream” rather than “We have a nightmare”‘

Not just on climate change issues, but on much more besides – paraphrasing Tony’s words. Because if politicians focus on the negative as all too often in recent times they have done, it’s not surprising that people risk becoming paralysed by fear rather than inspired to take action. With that in mind, in the run up to the 2014 local government and European elections, and for the 2015 elections, I would like to see politicians showing us some positive case studies of what works, why it works and how they plan to expand this to benefit more people. In this digital and social media age, will we be seeing more short digital video clips of good things rather than doom-laden sound-bite-bitten party election broadcasts? Hopefully

Teaching science to communities


A specific challenge to Cambridge’s science communities 

This blogpost stems from the tweet below:

I’ve sort of touched on this in the following blogposts

  1. Public understanding of science
  2. How can ‘geeks’ reach out to ‘non-geeks’?
  3. Puffles’ Twitter Lists – Communicating Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM)
  4. Evening classes in a Big Society context – why have politicians undermined it?

I get this feeling that ‘science’ is seen as ‘complicated’ by more than a few non-scientists in the same way that politicians are seen as worse than the worst insult you can think of by more than a few people in society. Or rather, politics requires reasonably high levels of general knowledge that not everyone has.

A second chance

I remember in the mid-1990s, just after starting A-levels of doing a short course in bio-technology on the grounds that I wanted to keep something science-wise ticking over. I wanted to do the same with languages too. But the three-A-level framework back then didn’t allow for it. It didn’t allow for lots of things. Teaching to the test seldom does.

There wasn’t an option back then for me to continue both those strands combined with humanities-based A-levels. The mindset of careers advisers back then was that you only did languages if you wanted to be a teacher or a translator, and you only did sciences if you wanted to become a scientist. And history if you wanted to become a history teacher. The cluelessness about careers generally was unreal back then. Going by conversations I’ve been party to locally, it doesn’t sound like things have improved – despite the wealth of the internet.

The thing is, I’m still interested in science. The problem I have is that there is no suitable learning environment for me to bridge the gap between when I last studied science, and today. Formal courses are too intense, too time-consuming and prohibitively expensive – and they have exams at the end of them. While informal workshops that happen around Cambridge – along with the Cambridge Science Festival – are interesting, there’s nothing reasonably structured, delivered over a period of time that allows you to build on or apply that learning. Bear in mind many people’s apprehensiveness about signing up to anything new that’s outside of their comfort zone. How do you reach out to interested but shy people?

Cambridge has the facilities and it has the experts. So…why is little happening?

Not everyone interested in science wants to become a scientist in exactly the same way not everyone interested in politics wants to become a politician. So how can scientists in whichever village, town or city reach out to non-scientists who are curious about what they do? In particular, how are you going to reach out to those who’s interest and potential lies dormant for whatever reason? Perhaps they had a bad time at school – a barrier we often forget about. Perhaps they were brought up in an environment where science was seldom discussed by their elders or peers. Think Lisa Simpson.

Cambridge is about to get a University Technical College. I’ve also enquired there and elsewhere about structured science teaching & workshops over time aimed at the curious & those seeking inspiration, rather than those seeking qualifications. But nothing doing. And that’s ***really*** disappointing.

“Why is it really disappointing?”

Because for me it betrays a lack of imagination from the science communities in Cambridge about outreach. And yet scientists need the support of wider society because without it, crazy stuff like this happens. Or even crazier stuff – at the same place.

Science also matters in public policy and political discourse. Few more so than with climate change. For me, one of the biggest misunderstandings is with the word ‘theory’. Scientific theory is ***very different*** to how we often hear the word in day-to-day light conversation. For example:

“Well in theory what you’re saying seems to make sense, but in practice…”

Chances are you wouldn’t hear a scientist repeating the above in a scientific context.

“Well…your Theory of Gravity seems to make sense when I drop this cannon ball on your foot, but when I try to do the same with a balloon full of helium…there! So much for your theory!!!”

Yeah…exactly. Scientific theory on the other hand…

“…refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence”

That explains one of the reasons why I’ve become interested in the cross-over between science, big business, ‘intellectual property’ and politics. Not making the vast bodies of evidence held by multinational corporations freely available – let alone the evidence held by publicly-funded bodies – brings science into disrepute and can also have public health implications. Ben Goldacre has done a splendid job bringing this to the public.

“Yeah, in theory I understand the public interest, but firms need to make profits – so science is wrong again!”

Can you see why scientists get frustrated when politicians – some of which sit in the House of Commons – respond with point-scoring type arguments that only make them look like idiots to the science community and make them look like blustering bullies to everyone else not sharing their political viewpoints?


“So…who’s going to do what? Who needs to do what?”

I want to go beyond the “Somebodee needs to do sumthing!!!” sort of response. It reminds me of the phrase: “Well why doesn’t the council do something?” in a local government context. How many of us have a regular interaction (other than us Guildhall Groupies) with elected councillors and council staff?  Not many people I’d guess. I’m slightly different in that I have a working background in local government policy, and also I have a dragon.

But in terms of who needs to do what, the first thing to do is define the problem – or problems. Personally I’d take the economics arguments out of this context. The reason being that the economists (and politicians linked) will be looking at science from a perspective of getting trained scientists & engineers into the workplace or starting their own businesses for the benefit of the economy first, and society second. I want to look at science benefiting people and communities first. If people choose to get trained and qualified afterwards, that’s their call.

“What is the problem?”

Different people will have different takes on this. The two I’ve been pondering have been around access to learning about things that are genuinely interesting, and then being able to apply some of that learning to the things that we do in our local communities – including scrutinising politicians. That way it won’t be just GCSE students tearing government education policies to pieces on social media – such as Vida Adamczewski here. You know that bit about policy-wonks saying we should involve service users in the design and delivery of public services? There are more than a few bright young people that could help – as this shows – as well as this by me last year.

“Are evening classes the solution?”

Because the problem is likely to be complex, inevitably there won’t be a single solution. Evening classes along the lines that I have sketched out will have their own risks in a time-poor income-tight society we’re in. That’s why venue, teachers and content are vital. Are the venues of the sort that will have that ‘wow!’ factor compared to people’s experience of school science labs? Are the teachers some of the best science communicators in the city? Is the content the sort that people will be able to relate to in some of their day-to-day lives as well as having the ‘out of this world’ stuff? Is it the sort of content that will inspire people to find out more in their own time?

There will be other solutions too. Some might involve outreach to specific individuals (such as politicians) or groups (such as people from economically deprived wards or communities where school attainment is historically low).

“So…who is going to take the lead on this?”

I’m throwing this out towards the science communities and networks in Cambridge. What do you think?

[Updated to add]:

The syllabus for the international summer school here might given an idea of what a term-long course might cover. But again, how do you make it affordable and accessible? (This one being aimed at the wealthy international market).

Puffles looks at trains again


Musings on maps – of the railway kind. And following the wanderings of my mind.

This blogpost started off from reading an article about Blackpool – see it here. There’s one thing that troubles me not just about Blackpool but northern England in general from a political perspective. Despite having lots of MPs in the north – and especially while in office, Labour failed to deliver the integrated public transport system that John Prescott signed his name to in the mid-1990s. Essentially, Labour today needs to show it has taken on board the ‘public administration lessons’ from its time in office. Part of the problem in my view is that in the world of politics, the political actors like the policy but they don’t like or pay enough attention to the public administration. My advice for anyone going into the world of politics with the aim for executive public office (whether at local or national level) is to learn how large organisations function, and learn about how partnerships between organisations function. And malfunction – for both cases.

“What about Blackpool?”

I tend to hear about it in a ballroom dancing context. Blackpool is seen as the capital of competitive ballroom dancing. (Vienna being the capital of social ballroom dancing in my view – hence having been there a couple of times for some very grand balls during my dancing days). I can’t recall ever having been to Blackpool. In East Anglia we’ve got our own seaside resorts – ones which suffer similar challenges (though perhaps not on the same scale) as Blackpool. It’s one of the things that got me thinking during my civil service days about the role of transport.

Blackpool and Great Yarmouth – similarities

Early in my civil service career I was taken on a tour of the latter to see for myself the challenges faced by local councils there. Ditto with Harlow – Conservative MP Robert Halfon’s neck of the woods. (He’s been following Puffles for quite some time). In all cases, I kept on coming back to the issue of public transport – railways in particular. It was nearly a decade ago that I was in Great Yarmouth, but I remember traffic-clogged single lanes into and out of the town. I also remember a dilapidated railway station too – similar to the scene that I stumbled across when I was recently in Felixstowe town. Just by looking at the station architecture you could see that these buildings had seen better days.

If you look at both towns, you’ll notice that the transport system isn’t one that can benefit from passing traffic easily. If you’re going to go to either, you have to make a conscious decision to go there. What I mean by that is that neither appear to be convenient ‘stop off’ points en route to somewhere else. Thus it’s easy to see how such places can become forgotten about in the national political mindset. Out of sight, out of mind. Whether we’ll see the resurgence of some seaside resorts on the back of offshore windfarm maintenance needs (such as the one mentioned here) remains to be seen. Transport infrastructure is just one of the basic requirements. Decent homes and training facilities for the local population are also needed. Because as Frances Coppola states in her blogpost here, firms given the choice would rather take on someone already skilled up rather than investing in the training themselves. (For me, this is a market failure where through taxation of firms, the state needs to provide at least some of the training needs for businesses).

Looking at the transport maps

  • The first one I had a look at was the National Rail Infrastructure Map for 2010 – see here.
  • The second one I looked at was this one – the map of electrified rail lines – see here.
  • Then I looked at a paper by Louise Butcher for the House of Commons – see here (scroll to pages 10 & 11).

Have a look at all of them. What do you see? What stands out?

For me, the following stand out:

  1. There’s no outer London rail orbital enabling services to easily bypass London
  2. There’s no East-West rail link in the middle of the country (though there is announced work on this), meaning lots of needless journeys into London
  3. There is a huge lack of electrification in the north of England.
  4. There are no direct East-West rail links linking up the great northern towns (though one has been announced as per Louise’s paper.

Looking at the main national map (this one) I like playing ‘dot-to-dot’, pondering which bits would be good to join up and why. Not just in terms of improved services but also in terms of improved resilience when there’s a disruption on a busy route. The much-talked of Lewes-Uckfield railway in Sussex is one that has been regularly talked of by Labour’s Lord Bassam (their chief whip in the Lords, & former Brighton Council Leader when I was living there) as a line that could take the strain off the existing & overcrowded Brighton-London line. Closer to me, a London-Harlow-Stansted-Braintree-Ipswich-Great Yarmouth-Norwich line could take some of the strain off the London-Chelmsford-Ipswich line, while an electrified Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough-Birmingham line would make the route a damn sight more faster and more reliable than the 3 hour diesel chugmobile service that makes the journey into and out of London to get to Birmingham a safer bet.

Looking at the maps, I’m sure you can come up with your own – feel free to add them in the comments, especially if you’re in Scotland or Wales. What about a tunnel linking Scotland and Northern/Republic of Ireland?

“Yeah, but where’s this money going to come from?”

Prior to the banking crisis, I’d have said that was a good question. But for me the banking crisis threw out all of the old assumptions given the amount of cash outlay £133billion according to the National Audit Office and the guarantees of over £1trillion – see here for the source. If you can afford to bail out the banks to the tune of £133billion and not have anyone taking the hit for it – rather giving one of them a seat in the House of Lords (read this and get f—ing angry) you can sort of understand why voters are not apathetic, they are angry and pissed off. This I feel sums up the mood of more than a few people. I know it doesn’t really answer the question though.

But it’s not all bad news for the trains – if only they could publicise the good bits

Every so often I buy Modern Railways Magazine. My view is that if I’m paying lots for train fares, I want to keep tabs on what the money is being spent on. Actually, as magazines go for non-scientists and non-engineers like me, it’s actually quite interesting – not least the recent edition where they showed lots of pictures of the construction of Crossrail. If you want to inspire people about big engineering, show them pictures of, and take them here – similar to what they did with the Olympics’ site which at one stage was the biggest construction site in Europe. The overhaul of that site cost less than a tenth of what it cost cash outlay-wise to bail out the misbehaving investment bankers.

What we’re capable of

I think this is one of the things that divides the traditional political left and right. The well-rehearsed slogan of the latter is that the problem with socialists is that they always run out of other people’s money. The mindset of the former is that with all of that money being splashed out on whatever celebrity, offspring of billionaire or city boy that hits the papers, couldn’t it be better spent on something for the improvement of society rather than a bottle of champers with too many 000s at the end of the price tag?

A wandering mind

To finish off with, what this blogpost I hope has given you an idea of is how my mind wanders from place to place. We started off in Blackpool, moved to Great Yarmouth, then looked at some railway maps, then moaned about politicians, then looked at railway magazines, then moaned at bankers then finished off with wondering what humanity could be capable of in a positive way.



Young coders teach Cabinet Office a thing or two


In praise of Cabinet Office’s Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton and his team for breaking down the doors of the civil service – but will the big policy departments learn from their example?

No, he’s not paid me to write this and no, I’m not looking for a state contract either. The thing is, it’s not really the done thing for anyone to praise the civil service unless it’s at an awards ceremony. And such things rarely get outside the trade press anyway.

Good Law and Open Data

I was one of a fairly large group of people that contributed towards scoping the ‘Good Law’ programme – see here. Now for me, this programme is going to be historically significant. Or at least, it could be if everyone involved in it chooses to be radical enough about it – which was a challenge Richard threw at all of us. From a longterm historical perspective, the language and style of our laws have not really changed since Victorian times – when we moved away from manuscript laws to typescript laws. Yet the legislation we see online at in a nutshell is that Victorian style with a few hyperlinks thrown in here and there. Yet Richard’s view is that the law belongs to all of us – mirroring Professor Mary Beard’s view that politics belongs to all of us too. (I agree with both. The challenge is delivering on those principles).

With open data, part of the challenge here was having technically literate people able to understand the basics of data, as well as the potential associated with it. For me, the whole concept of ‘open data’ is a relatively new thing as far as the civil service is concerned. The first time I came across it as a concept was when Tom Watson was a minister. As I had a technically-competent and brilliant line manager at the time, she and Tom Watson had a significant impact my view of social and digital media in a public policy context. (Thank you Jaime Rose). The tragedy for the Labour Party of which Tom was a minister for, is that the regular reshuffles and the internal party warfare at the top of the party meant that some really sound ideas never really came to fruition. To be fair to the Coalition, it was only when it came into office in 2010 that all things open data got the sufficient high-level ministerial backing to make some real progress.

Bringing in young coders to mash up some data sets

There were two very interesting gatherings of late. The UK Parliament Hack 2013 (see here for some ***awesome*** ideas) was one. ‘Open Data Storm’ where students and young people – in particular from the University of Greenwich came along, was the second. Two ideas from the latter which stood out were ideas made by young people for an audience of young people familiar with the social issues they face as a generation. The first was a tool that dealt with the problem of too much choice in higher education courses. Using a series of very smart filters – far better than anything I had in my day – you can get much more personalised recommendations on courses and institutions. I commented that had I had such a tool in the late 1990s, my choice of universities and courses would have been very different.

The second tool was about matching people to careers based in part on regional economic data. Again, a significant leap forward from anything I have seen before, and one that helps people (not just young people) decide what skills they need to brush up on, or what training they need to undertake for specific careers.

The policy gap

This is Richard’s big challenge.

In one sense, being Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office he has huge influence to convene decision-makers in a manner that other senior civil servants may not have. But at the same time, not all of the people that he can bring around the table may have the same levels of social media and data literacy to understand the potential of what Richard is in the process of unleashing. The same also goes with ministers. There will be some ministers that ‘get’ what Richard is driving at, while there may be others that might be utterly clueless. The same goes for opposition shadow ministers, and backbenchers from all parties too. Some will realise the potential, while others may take the view that ‘they don’t do social media’.

The above paragraph is deliberately provocative and vague at the same time. Vague so as not to be libellous but provocative enough to motivate current & future holders of high public and shadow public office to get trained and familiarised with social media and all things open data.

Allowing your staff to engage widely

This is what Richard seems to have done – far more so compared to other senior civil servants I’ve seen. It’s as if he’s said to his staff: “Follow the talent and follow the potential”.

That’s what they have gone and done. The early results from what I have seen are more than impressive. Not only that, it actually looks like the civil servants concerned are also enjoying their work despite the overall gloom in the sector. Part of that enjoyment comes from being knowledgeable and passionate about the work area – and seeing the difference you are making. It was those sorts of days where I loved being in the civil service. But things like that don’t happen by accident. They require a huge amount of planning and also more than a fair degree of risk-taking. After all, allowing a group of people in their teens and early 20s to run riot with your data sets is something that would have scared the living daylights out of the last generation of senior civil servants. (Or as some cynics might say, these splendid chaps – any women in that list?)

Bringing your critical friends with you

This is the other challenge which Cabinet Office – and in particular the Government Digital Service are particularly good at in a number of fields. They have a number of people who are interested in (and were possibly once in) the civil service who they keep informed and involved. (Honourable mentions go to the DemSoc team, Steph Gray’s Helpful Technology, and Public-i – #localgov people I strongly recommend all three as critical friends). At the same time, they don’t try to micro-manage that relationship. We’re also realistic about what is a suitable level of involvement for us too – ie one that does not compromise our independence. Cabinet Office also knows that we also have links into diverse communities – geographical and online – that may be far beyond their normal reach. Two examples are the growing digital community in Brighton (Where I spent three years during my university days) to the growing public policy community in Cambridge – where I grew up and where I am now.

There are some gaps that I think the civil service needs to look at filling, or rather communities of interest that need to have their profiles raised a little more. I’m thinking in particular Wales, the South West of England and the North East of England. Ditto east of Cambridge with East Anglia.

How do we get the policy cross-over?

You have significant institutional barriers here. In terms of face-to-face events, I’ve found that you need to have a significant number of civil service policy staff at all levels -> especially those with an interest or a passion irrespective of grade. You then need to combine those with people from outside who are ***not the usual suspects*** to come along – especially if they have lots of energy, passion and ideas. (The challenge for organisers is how to channel and manage all of that). Regarding ‘not the usual suspects’, this is where as organisers you can challenge institutions to recommend someone who perhaps is not from a traditional background of that field. Embed diversity too. Ask them to come up with shortlists of people of all genders/ethnicities and so on, so that as the organiser you have the choice of who to select. (It forces other institutions to think harder about diversity automatically).

Talk about it, tweet about it, blog about it!

All too often in the civil service, policy conversations have been held behind closed doors. Hence making it easier for myths to arise. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve watched the news about some policy issue in Westminster being reported while shaking my head. Not because of my opinions about the policy, but because the journalist concerned displays far too much ignorance of how Whitehall functions. That’s the fault of both – the journalist not researching enough about how policy is made, and Whitehall not being transparent enough to make it easy to find out & learn.

The social media commentary makes it all the more likely that others will pick up on it, some of whom might be very interested. This may lead to much-needed scrutiny and/or positive contributions in improving the policy concerned. While the mainstream media likes to lead with disaster-p0rn, social media users tend to take a different view. We like to share good news and nice things – predominantly more than bad news anecdotally. If you’re doing something positive, exciting and new work-wise, chances are someone’s going to pick up on it and share it. With all things open policy, that’s not a bad thing. Quite the opposite.

Honourable mentions inside Cabinet Office go to…

So if you’re in the civil service. local government and/or are just interested in what’s in this blogpost, invite one of the above to your department or take your team down to the next Whitehall Teacamp gathering via Jane O’Loughlin.


The Government Digital Service’s “Digital Inclusion Team”


Steering a thus far successful Government Digital Service away from the elephant traps in all things digital inclusion

Puffles at GovUK Towers - visiting the Government Digital Service in Holborn, London
Puffles at GovUK Towers – visiting the Government Digital Service in Holborn, London

Apologies for two blogposts in quick succession. I was tipped off on this one by Charlotte Jee on something that had sort of slipped below my radar. Basically there are a number of things that are making me go ***eeek!*** with this, and I want to help GDS not fall into the traps that have befallen other similar attempts to deal with the digital divide. I’ve helped out Cabinet Office/GDS before – including on the social media guidance for civil servants. See if you can spot Puffles getting a mention in this post.

Digital inclusion – what is it?

Charlotte quoted Cabinet Office as follows:

“Assisted digital for those who can’t get online, while digital inclusion is about encouraging people to go online, getting them online and ensuring they have the skills to make the most of being online. It is aimed at individuals but also businesses and charities.”

It’s a useful definition to have. ‘Assisted digital’ schemes for example are likely to target those people that, for whatever reason:

  • Cannot afford the hardware required to access the internet
  • Cannot afford the payments required to access the internet service providers
  • Cannot use the internet with standard equipment because, say of a disability

Digital inclusion is about those that don’t have the barriers above, but (and again for whatever reason) are ***choosing*** to stay away from the internet and social media.

What are the risks?

Anna Maren of GDS has stated its three aims here. I’ll list them:

  • review the evidence that’s out there and carry out some new research, to help us better understand what works and how to measure it
  • coordinate efforts in government departments and work closely with the devolved administrations, so they add up to more than the sum of their parts
  • partner with Go ON UK and local, public, private and voluntary organisations to improve and scale up existing efforts

The first question you ask of any policy is: What are the risks? Now, when it comes to policy risks, Cabinet Office has form for getting stung by Puffles the Dragon Fairy. (See here). When Whitehall does good stuff, we praise them – as we did here. When it messes up, Puffles gives them a kicking. (It reflects Puffles’ ‘Chaotic good‘ traits). Being outside Whitehall but having spent years inside it before means that I have far more licence to criticise policies in public than the civil servants inside the system can. So please, do that risk assessment that Francis Maude didn’t do for the outsourcing of policy!

Have some government departments given the GDS a broken cricket bat with which to take to the crease?

…trying to paraphrase Geoffrey Howe’s words, have some of the actions already taken in previous years made the job of the GDS much harder? Put simply: Yes.

Why so?

Libraries and community groups that might otherwise deliver the sort of training needed to get the ‘hard to reach’ parts of society using the internet confidently have been severely affected by the cuts to public services. The impact on local government means that the traditional routes the civil service may have used in previous years simply do not exists, as such services fight for their lives. In particular with ‘Big Society’ policy, ministers did not appreciate the close links between local government and community groups. Hitting local government hard fatally undermined big society policy. When I put this point to one of the Prime Minister’s former advisers, Philip Blond, at a talk at Anglia Ruskin University earlier this year, he “didn’t disagree”.

Given the policies of, in particular the Department for Communities and Local Government, along with the Localism Act, Whitehall is no longer in a position to compel local government to do the things it did under the previous administration. Assuming there is a project/programme board for this policy, who are the external partners on it? Is there someone from local government? (In particular, is there someone from local government who is familiar with two/three tier working – ie not just someone from a London borough?)

Persuading people fearful/hostile towards the internet/social media, to use it takes a lot of hard work and face-to-face engagement.

I’m finding this out the hard way at a local level. At the moment it feels like I’m making very slow progress, wading through treacle. Each person that sees the benefits of what they can achieve is a victory, even if it is one person at a time. But the GDS simply does not have the time and resources to do this themselves. Hence having to do things through organisations such as GO-ON UK.

What is the context?

The hardest part of persuading people to take to social media or the internet is trying to find both what ‘makes people tick’ as well as finding out what makes them freeze with fear, regarding all things online. If what’s available online does not relate to the individual, there’s no incentive. If you cannot help them overcome their fears with all things online, frozen in fear is where they will remain. Different things will appeal to different people. For example with one audience recently it was the mainstream media coverage I got through my social media platform that changed their mindset. With another group, it was the holders of elected public office following Puffles that changed their mindset. For a further group it was finding out about what was happening in their local community, and being able to filter according to their interests, that changed their mind. But that process is very emotionally and time intensive. It doesn’t just require knowing your audience, but knowing your and their community too.

One-off workshops alone are limited

Again, I’ve found out the hard way. The key word in the phrase ‘social media’ is the word ‘social’ – it implies a conversation. How are people going to be able to continue the conversation both with like-minded people and have access to experts as and when they come across problems?

So…what are the solutions?

That in part depends on the outcomes of the review of evidence and on the research they commission and the data sets they can get hold of. It also depends on the strategy they publish in the new year. It’s no good me suggesting solutions now if the strategy the GDS comes up with is one that takes it in a completely different direction, or if it’s one that’s vetoed by a secretary of state in another department. These things do happen.

There are a whole host of other questions that stem from the points I’ve made in this blogpost, but it looks like me and Puffles will be watching the development of this policy area with interest.

The ethics of genes, and all that data too


Some thoughts from a couple of talks I’ve been at over the past few days. The first on genomics, and the second on using data in local government.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Puffles and I like to get out and about in the community. In jest I often say that we’ll turn up to the opening of an envelope or a front door, so long as it looks reasonably interesting.

How do you find out when and where these talks and events are on?

Ever since Will Perrin introduced me to On The Wight back in 2011, my view has been that every town needs an equivalent of such a portal. Click on the link and have a look at it. Clear, user-friendly, interactive and allows people and community groups to post their own events. It’s also the go-to place for the Isle of Wight. The problem other places face is that there are several competing versions that are not all-encompassing. Bringing them all together is not nearly straight forward either – whether getting the individuals behind them into the same room to delivering something that does the job.

In Cambridge, there are a number of different listings – too numerous to mention all of them here. Furthermore, the tools that people can use on social media – Facebook, Eventbrite and Meetup return a whole host of community groups and organisations. It’s not just the likes of the councils or Cambridge University Events that self-publish their own on their corporate websites. Trying to keep track on all of them becomes quite exhausting.

Cambridge Humanists hold a talk – on Genome Ethics

Some of you may be aware that I often go along to talks hosted by Cambridge Skeptics. It was where I met comedian, commentator and campaigner Kate Smurthwaite – see here. Having discovered that Cambridge Humanists have a group, I assumed that cross-posting the two would work wonders in bringing similar audiences together. Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that as when I turned up, I didn’t seem to know anyone, panicked (anxiety disorder kicking in), hid behind sunglasses for much of the talk and, after the Q&A session made a quick exit…followed by a tranquilliser pill when I got back. I get agitated like this once every few months. It’s not fun. Anyway, more on audience dynamics later.

Dr Anna Middleton asks about principles and details

You know when you stumble across a speaker who, for whatever reason comes across as likeable? Dr Middleton’s like that. Over the past few years I’ve been quite lucky with speakers. Catherine Howe is another – a passionate expert on public sector social media. Stella Creasy and Melissa Terras are two more. What these four all have in bundles is:

  • Knowledge and expertise in their given fields
  • The ability to communicate clearly to different audiences
  • Passion about their subject areas
  • The desire to further their knowledge

Now, at least half of the examples I cited have PhDs. One of the things I want to see in the media is a greater variety of people with expertise being invited on – rather than think-tank sock puppets. Hence liking what The Women’s Room are doing to change this. (Know an expert? Get them listed here!)

The big question Dr Middleton asked was this:

“Should patients be told about the risk of future illnesses they might develop as a result of analysing their genome?” (i.e. all of the genes in their body).

Actually – there’s a significant amount of context to all of this. The context is here – and was also very clearly set out in her talk.

What became clear from her talk is that there is a society-wide conversation that needs to happen on treatments involving our genes – whether the analysis of, or interventions to. The problem is that society isn’t educated enough (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) to make that judgement call. I certainly don’t. It’s like with the police and crime commissioners election. Few people voted because (amongst other things) the electorate had not been taken through the process of becoming informed voters on what is a very specific role.

The other thing to note about Dr Middleton’s talk is the speed at which technological advances are bringing down the costs of analysing the genome of a single human being. She cited that a few years ago it was £1million. Today it’s about £1,000. In the not-so-distant future, £1? In no uncertain terms, she said the technology will transform healthcare delivery. Hence why it’s important to have the discussion about ethics far beyond a specialist audience.

Talk 2 – are you young and in local government?

I took Puffles along to this one because there was a lot about ‘big data’ that I didn’t quite get, along with wanting to see what ideas I could glean from people there to take back to Cambridge. YoungAndInGov is a forum for people under…40…?…in and around local government. I think this was their first gathering, picking a very futuristic topic to unpick. I say futuristic because at present we are nowhere near achieving the full potential of all things big data. (Or as those Puffles hangs around with: ‘data’).

The workshop speakers are listed here – it’s worth looking through what they are doing. I followed Jacqui Taylor for what turned out to be a very powerful workshop. She unpicked a whole host of issues relating to large organisations and data that they use. In particular, she spoke at length of the problems that arise when organisations merge – in particular banks. Think of the size of the IT systems, think of the complexity of their systems, think of the regulatory requirements…and then try and get multiple different systems to work together – while unpicking very expensive IT contracts with big IT firms.

Her talk finished with this digital video, which I found compelling:

Given that we will be talking about open data’s sister, open policy at September’s Teacamp in London (do join us – see here), Jacqui’s talk was quite timely.

Audience dynamics

I’m always interested to see who comes to which events, as well as who speaks at them. If I were to compare the audiences at the two events, age-wise they were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Most of the audience at the first talk were over 50. At the second talk, there was a good showing from local government and consultancies, but central government and community activists were conspicuous by their absence…perhaps with the exception of Puffles.

What’s important though, is that both events were put on in the first place. Organising and hosting events – especially if they are regular ones, is both time-consuming and very draining. I’ve been co-hosting the Cambridge offshoot of Tecamp, Teacambs for the best part of 18 months. Sorting out venues, speakers, timings, publicising etc isn’t easy – especially when you do it in your own time & even expense. In getting things started, sometimes you have to just do it & see what happens. Only then can you make decisions on how to improve things.

In the case of the second talk, there are a number of civil service and voluntary sector networks they can tap into in order to get a greater breadth of coverage. Back home in Cambridge, what I saw with the Humanists actually mirrored what I have seen in a number of other community groups and gatherings. The organisational brains behind the ‘offline’ events tend to be older members of the community. Quite often there will be a sister ‘student’ society within the universities and further education colleges in Cambridge, but weak links between them. Thus we have a vibrant student movement, a gap when people get to their late 20s to early 40s, then things picking up within the longer term community.

My personal challenge for the next academic year?

Simple: Make those connections.

But it’s not easy by any means. Back in 2011 I had this idea that social media could be this big driver in Cambridge. But the past two years of being reasonably active (while recovering from a mental health crisis a third of the way through – which sort of put me back a bit) made me aware not just of existing barriers, but about what makes people ‘tick’. In particular, you can’t just set up a social media site and expect people to take part. You can’t do broadcast-style advertising and expect people to turn up. You can’t just stick to where you are most comfortable and expect people to come to you. We’ve got to go where they are, ask, listen and respond accordingly.



‘A person is intelligent, but people are stupid’


Why a misinformed public is a risk to democracy, and a public policy issue

Some of you may have seen the report by Ipsos Mori and Kings College London. (Click here if you haven’t – their top ten is eye-watering).

The first thing I want to start with is a word of caution. Just because the headlines show the things tabloids scream about are over-exaggerated does not automatically mean liberal-lefties have got everything right – if only the masses would listen. That would over-emphasise the impact that official statistics have on the decisions people make when it comes to voting (if at all) or if and how they choose to engage in politics and/or civic society.

What patterns emerge from those headlines?

Actually, it’s worth looking through the tables. Some of the outliers seem comical – for example the individuals who thought that over 90 in every 100 people in the UK were Black/Asian, or over 65 years old. Troll responses or living in such a small bubble for so long that they have little idea of what is beyond it?

From the headlines, you could say that the public believes that more bad stuff is happening than actual bad stuff happens. But you only need to scan through your average news website to find the tone of stories is bad news-related. Sporting achievements aside, how often do you find good news sensationalised? “Good stuff is happening, someone else is paying for it, you benefit!!!”

Manufacturing consent

I stumbled across this snippet from a very long digital video from ages ago – which refers to a book from the 1920s. What’s interesting about this point from my perspective is how the points made resonate now just as they did back then. In one sense, some of the issues I blogged about on too much choice also resonate here. This is especially the case with knowing what to believe and what not to believe. In particular:

  • Availability & accessibility of information – & knowing where that info is
  • Knowing how to use/interpret said information
  • Having the time to interpret said information

A tabloid newspaper or a TV news report is far more accessible to more people than a website. It may well be that more affluent, educated and mobile types access a greater variety of media to source their news compared to those at the opposite end of the scale. You then have the issue of knowing how to use that information – and having time to interpret and scrutinise that information. Take a very recent Parliamentary debate where in the grand scheme of things I didn’t have a clue. It was former Prime Minister Gordon Brown talking about radioactive contamination of a beach in his constituency. I was lost on the detail – the last time I did physics was in 1996 at GCSE level. All I could do was go ***Eeeek!*** – because I didn’t know anything about Radium 226 – even though I knew people that did. But even crowd-sourcing didn’t really give me the answers because none of us had the details. And that was me having time to scrutinise this.

Now, switch my ***Eeeek!*** response to a headline along the lines of “Bad stuff is happening and you’re paying for it!” being read by someone who left school at 16 with few qualifications and poor literacy/numeracy skills. It’s a bit like that.

Why it is a public policy issue

Given that we are moving towards a world of open policy, there is a greater need to educate the public. Not because they might put pressure on Whitehall for one policy or another, but because of the nature of some of the correspondence that will inevitably come through resulting in it being ignored. When I was in the civil service I spent a little bit of time in my department’s correspondence unit despairing at the nature of the letters that had been sent. Remember that departments receive several hundred pieces of correspondence a day that need to be given consideration on how to respond. That someone has felt angry enough to write to the department – we’re talking snail mail here, told me that there is a wider ‘political literacy’ issue. Yes, you’ll get your conspiracy theorists and ‘Mr Angrys’ writing in, but many people writing in have genuine concerns that deserve a considered response.

The other thing is that once you put ‘the public’ in a context of ‘individuals’ then how they respond is different. Go to community consultation events – as I did with Puffles in 2012 where people are invited to interact with each other, and things change. How people respond instinctively versus how they respond when considering the information in front of them. Do MPs get paid too much? Knee-jerk reaction is that they do. When you look the duties, responsibilities and the hours an MP generally puts in – especially if they are not in ‘safe’ seats, and compared with other jobs with comparative responsibilities, then people often change their opinions. (Not all though). If the response was “Yeah – they get paid too much! Look at all their expenses!” then you have the issue of people not being aware of the difference between the take-home pay vs which are the things that are needed to do their jobs. The separate question arises on what should and what should not be included in expenses. I don’t have a problem with MPs renting in London, but do take issue with their food bills being paid on expenses. That was political cowardice by successive parliaments hiding pay rises through an expenses regime rather than making the case for rises in salaries in the first place.

Why it is a democracy issue

Part of it is an amplification issue – making problems seem greater than they actually are. At the same time this can hide what the real problems might actually be. I’m thinking in a more local context rather than a geo-political one. We had a recent example of this in the local government elections. In the case of Cambridgeshire – my home county, we one councillor who was elected despite doing next to no campaigning. That’s not to say that people did not have any issues with the previous incumbent or the council in general. Clearly they did. But when looking at some of the things that can impact how people vote – as I did in this blogpost – what was it that made people vote for an individual that they had zero knowledge of, in an area that previously had very little history of activism by the party concerned? It was a picture replicated across Cambridgeshire to the extent that the incumbent Conservatives lost their majority for the first time in almost a generation.

“Yeah Pooffles, why don’t you just say educated lefties are better than everyone else?”

Because I’m not in the business of “I am better than yew!” playground spats. ***Takes moral high ground***

The issue for me is how something is over-amplified (a very subjective point admittedly) in the mindset of people. Why was it that prior to autumn 2010 the only organisation that seemed to be making noises about tax avoidance and tax evasion was the PCS trade union? (To the extent they were campaigning at conferences and on the streets). What was the game-changer that put tax avoidance on the agenda at international conferences of government ministers?

One of the things over-amplification can do is drown out some potential solutions. Take for example the issue of unwanted teenage pregnancies – and I’m thinking here in the context of women asserting their individual rights here. Traditionally it has been portrayed as those on the (religious) right saying sex within marriage only & restricting sex education, while those on the left saying hand out lots of free contraceptives in the hope that it will reduce conception rates. It was only in recent years in high-level public administration circles that an acknowledgement was made about the role of educating and empowering women, encouraging them to stay in full-time education as being a means to help reduce unwanted pregnancies. This was one of the examples given as why removing ‘ring fences’ in public spending was/is a good thing. Rather than saying “We need to tackle problem A so we will allocate funds to tackle A” it was a case of “We need to tackle problem A, but allocating funds to tackle problem B seems to have a knock-on benefit in tackling problem A”.

The thing is, how do you communicate to the general public that an indirect method of dealing with an issue is more effective? Is there an instinctive aggressive streak within our nature that says problems should be smashed? Do you burst the balloon violently or do you let it down gently?

Time lags and unpredictability

These are two other issues that often come up on Puffles’ Twitterfeed. There can be massive time lags between when a minister decides on a policy, when there’s movement in local communities and when the results of the policy start to bear fruit – ripe or rotten as they may be. But with such short ministerial life-spans, ministers understandably want results yesterday. Which minister would bring in a policy knowing that they were going to get shredded for it at the time, not be around for it to bear fruit and run the risk of a successor – possibly from a different party – taking the credit for it? Hence politically and tactically, the longer term decisions can be the more difficult ones.

Combine that with unpredictability. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard about ministers, politicians and thinktank types talking about innovation in the public sector. At one event several years ago, asked one minister what his/her tolerance of failure was, because innovation requires more than a fair bit of risk-taking. Bearing in mind the media likes reporting bad news, the failure of an expensive innovative project is a nice front page news story. This is not to say innovation is bad. Rather, if ministers and senior public sector managers want to go down this route, they need to be ready to deal with the inevitable criticism that comes their way. This is exactly the case with public sector social media – where there is lots of innovation going on all over the place. People are having to find out for themselves what works and what does not.

But at the same time, and to conclude on a social media note…

Social media can be a very powerful tool to unpick and tone down the noise. How many times have you thought: “Actually, I know someone who knows stuff about this – I’ll ask them” on a given issue? The more social-media-savvy politicians are also able to use social media to build up some resilience to their public persona simply because newspaper headlines do not reflect the interaction over social media that citizens have directly.

The challenge?

Encouraging people to be curious and to develop critical thinking almost as a habit (rather than as a qualification!)

Social Media Knowledge Exchange at Cambridge University


Some thoughts from a gathering of academics familiar with the tools of social media

I applied for, and was granted a place for what was a very intense 2-day long event hosted by the Centre for Research in Arts Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University.  The Social Media Knowledge Exchange (SMKE) project is an interesting attempt at bringing together post-graduate researchers with people who are already using social and digital media in public-facing capacities. Apart from having Puffles with me, one thing that differentiated me from many of the people there was that I was not part of an institution – something that I cover later on.

The changing nature of academic research in the arts and humanities

I guess the stereotype of the ‘non-science’ researcher is someone who goes into an academic library or a series of archives for a few years and comes out with a thesis. That’s what I used to think anyway. All of these intellectual political thinkers forever cross-referencing to each others’ work & telling everyone they must be right because it was referenced in what someone else wrote ages ago. It was when I went to the National Archives in Kew over a decade ago that one of the archivists told me that they had a huge amount of documents that had been archived but not read by anyone with informed and specialist knowledge in the area. The anecdote they gave was that many golden nuggets of information were found in files a civil servant had labelled as ‘miscellaneous’. It makes me worry about the poor souls who will have to unpick the mess that are electronic filing systems in most organisations when it comes to historical research for events post-1990. At least the paper filing systems had something of a structure!

The impact of progress in computing and communications technology

Compared to where we were a generation ago, two big changes that have impacted academic research in these fields are the massive growth in data collection and processing power, and the ability to communicate with much wider audiences beyond established academic and subject communities. One of the things the historian in me ponders is how the former Soviet bloc would have managed its economies had it had the data collection, processing realtime feedback systems that we have today.

Pressures from funding organisations

The acronym ‘REF’ kept on coming up – one that seems to be mentioned more frequently these days. I assumed it meant something important – to do with money – given the hushed terms within which it was mentioned. REF relates to the Research Excellence Framework. The reason why it is important – and controversial in some areas – is that it provides a framework of accountability to the taxpayer. There are positives and negatives with it. In one sense, it risks putting constraints on research as researchers and institutions follow the grant funding rather than where the research and knowledge takes them. On the other hand, it creates a much more open and transparent culture for knowledge exchange and communication with the wider public. One of the points I have repeatedly made is that researchers in receipt of taxpayer support have a public duty to communicate the results of their research.

Who needs what skills?

During my time in the civil service, I often said my style of writing changed with the audience. With my own personal creative writing, the style would be different to that of an academic essay I had written, which would be further different to a ministerial submission paper I had drafted. With social and digital media, there are also different styles of writing. How you would write for a standard web page (for example for your faculty or research project) is likely to be different to how you write for a blog. Ditto for how you write using a microblog such as Twitter, or in a post for something such as Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn or even on message boards.

Furthermore – and this is something I’m procrastinating over at the moment – there are huge opportunities with digital audio and digital video too. I just hate the sound of my voice and despise how I come across on digital video. I prefer other people to be the face and sound of things. (It’s one of the reasons why there are far more photographs of Puffles on the internet than there are of me!)

The reason why digital audio and video are important is because people have different accessibility requirements and lifestyle preferences. I found on my later commuting years that Twitter was brilliant because it killed time while allowing me to engage in conversations with people that had similar interests. Rather than being ‘dead’ time it was something that I found to be reasonably productive while not disturbing anyone. On accessibility too, not everyone may be able to read standard text. I worked with a number of talented civil servants over the years who were partially sighted but whose insights and judgement were phenomenal. Also, having a guide/assistance dog having free rein of our office (having got everyone’s consent first) did wonders for stress reduction. The point is: How you communicate your work matters. You could unwittingly be cutting off some of the very people you need to engage in your work.

How do academics learn these skills?

You could hire a consultant like me at one end of the scale, through to using free learning materials that are out there. (I commissioned these step-by-step video guides that I made with some of my younger talented Twitter followers). You might even go to a free social media surgery, or through your university organise some yourself for your academic community. My general point on social media consultants is that you should not be spending money paying people to teach you how to tweet. You can get that for free if you ask someone nicely enough. You get best value for money with consultants if they can help change behaviours, systems and processes to the extent that they become self-sustaining. This means planning is important – which I cover in the next section.

The current generation of students in their early 20s graduating from university are already entering the post-graduate world with social media use being the ‘default’ position. The bigger challenge tends to be from people and institutions with insular mindsets. With many of the younger people I interact with online, they don’t separate between offline and online. It’s all one and the same thing. This became abundantly clear to the audience during a talk by Claire Ross. Quite understandably, she was referring to communications as incorporating social media. In the mindsets of some of the people asking questions, they viewed social media as being this ‘add-on’ rather than being integral to the research.

The importance of planning in learning these skills

Looking at it from an an institutional perspective, having some sort of a vision of what you want to become say in five years time helps focus your actions. For example, if you want to become an institution that is having an impact on government policy, you need to be aware of the move towards open policy making. What skills and competencies will your academics and researchers need in order to engage with what are very public policy debates? To what extent will your research be influenced by the feedback it gets from social media engagement? How compatible are your existing systems and processes – and even the behaviour of individuals – with this new world?

There’s also the planning stage of research proposals – this was where I felt Claire Ross was particularly strong with her messages. How you communicate matters greatly. What’s the point in doing all of that research if all that happens is the knowledge is left gathering dust on a library shelf or locked behind a paywall that no one can access? How much research has to be repeated because a researcher has not had access to someone’s past research, whether due to a paywall or whether due to having a very small network to source from? In this regard, using social media in a reading and listening matters.

Intellectual property – who owns the research?

Actually, this is a very important point. I stated above that researchers have a public duty to communicate their research where they are in receipt of a taxpayer-funded grant. But when it comes to blogs and Twitter accounts, where does the intellectual property reside? This comes back to planning at an institutional level – ensuring that you have sound social media policies and strategies to deal with this. (Advising on things like this is how I help pay my bills!)

There is also the issue of copyright – something that Eleonora Rosati gave a very challenging and thought-provoking presentation on. She’s part of the IPKat team that blogs here. As I tweeted via Puffles at the time, intellectual property in an academic/research context is something that would be good for the Government’s Good Law Project to look at.

Giant Haystacks

I was introduced to the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaborative – HASTACs. I pronounced the acronym “Hast-aks” so didn’t make the connection when several people started talking about something they called “Haystacks”. I thought it was something to do with this chap. It is a mindset change and one that represents a move towards a multidisciplinary world in academia. Although primarily US-based, a number of UK academics, in particular those whose research doesn’t sit easily within existing institutional silos. One of the things it highlights is its focus on rethinking how we learn given the technology that we now have available to us.

The reason why the re-thinking of how we learn is of interest to me is because much of my formal education was at the tail end of what I can only describe as pre-internet models of learning and research. Textbooks, handouts, lectures and homework were the order of the day. And for what purpose other than to pass exams? During my undergraduate years I experimented with emailing a couple of high profile economists – and to my surprise I got responses back from both of them. But the mindset within academia and within my university at the time for undergraduates wasn’t one where you were encouraged to go far beyond the borders of the textbooks in the library. I went beyond the borders anyway – coming to the conclusion that economics as a subject field was corrupted and riddled with conflicts of interest long before the banking crisis. Hence this very angry blogpost.

The future academic world?

For researchers, I conclude with this:

  • Expect to have to learn the basics of subject areas far beyond your area of expertise: law, politics, sociology, economics, history, statistics, scientific method, communications technology and so on
  • Expect to be challenged more frequently by people far beyond your academic specialism – but welcome this challenge & engage with it positively
  • If you and your colleagues can use social media in a manner where your impact is greater than the sum of their parts, who knows what you’ll discover next?

Food for thought.

Are there some moral lines that outsourcing of public services should not cross?


Should all public services and state functions be open for outsourcing or are there some lines that should not be crossed?

The difference with this blogpost compared to others I’ve covered in public policy is that it looks at an issue through the prism of principle and disposition, rather than through a pure technocratic ‘lets look at the numbers’ perspective. This is where Politics comes into play. Having a belief that the state should have minimal intervention in people’s lives other than in maintaining defence and legal functions generally is one generally of political disposition. Ditto with one of its alternatives – that the state should be the provider of all-encompassing public services from cradle to grave, and that the providers of those public services should be democratically accountable.

“Hang on Pooffles, are you saying private sector providers that can run services more efficiently, thus saving the taxpayer money, should be barred?”

There are two very separate issues here – the question above is one that can be unpicked on its own without having to fall back on arguments of principle and disposition. I’ll come back to this later in this post.

“OK Pooffles, where are your lines in the sand?”

Not so much lines in the sand as in big heavy fortification ringed with radar-guided anti-tank, anti-missile and surface-to-air missile batteries with a nuke-proof command and control centre. (Actually, militarily some may argue that such fortifications are obsolete, but you get my point).

My lines in the sand? These include (but are not strictly limited to)

  • The final provision of policy advice to ministers of the crown. I don’t like outsourcing of policy functions – as my first ‘appearance’ in The Guardian shows
  • The restriction of a person’s liberty due to the arrest, charging, remanding, conviction and sentencing of an individual as a result of the functioning of a lawful criminal justice system
  • The use of lethal force
  • The provision of services where the service users are extremely vulnerable

On the final point, I reacted in horror to the idea that G4S should be running rape-crisis centres. Zoe Stavri put things more graphically – trigger warning but do read.

For me, there’s something that makes me feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea that  someone should make a profit out of delivering such sensitive services. I also have big issues around democratic vs contractual accountability. Having worked with numerous corporate service providers, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the phrase: “We responded within our service level agreement to your organisation”. I don’t care. I still think your service was poor. But because so many organisations are signed into these corporate services agreements, there’s nothing that can be done with them. Such complaints go unheard generally in the renegotiations because the size of the contracts and their all-encompassing nature makes them mere pinpricks.

What about charitable providers?

This is an ongoing debate for a number of us. For me, the likes of Centre33 were excellent for me. It’s just a shame for me that I’m too old to make use of their counselling facilities because they were far better than anything the NHS has in my area. Hence the incentive for politicians to want to outsource to charities and not for profit organisations that can deliver better services than a monolithic state. The problem then becomes the operational independence of those organisations – especially when their campaigning arms start giving politicians a kick. Remember that oft-quoted line from Helder?

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

Where and how do you draw that line?

Are all public service providers subject to the same rules – especially on transparency?

The other issue I have is that non-state public service providers is that they are not subject to things like the Freedom of Information Act. Personally I’d like to see – and take part in a wider debate on what the definition of “public services” should be, then have Parliament set it on the basis of that wide discussion, & say that anyone delivering services that falls within the definition of ‘public services’ is subject to transparency legislation.

“Yeah, but so what? They provide better value for money for the tax-payer so who cares that they make a profit?”

Well…do they? It depends on how big an overview you take. Let’s look at the outsourcing of cleaning services in the civil service that happened many years ago. The principle was that rather than having in-house cleaners, you would outsource to private companies and the cost would be lower to your organisation. Which if you are a public sector organisation is a massive false economy in the big picture.

“Why is it a false economy?”

The Living Wage campaign explains it better than I can from the perspective of the services provided. If you are a big public sector organisation, your corporate services bill might be lower, but it comes back to bite the state in terms of having to subsidise those on very low wages. Teresa Pearce MP makes the point that some tax credits subsidise bad employers. Those people on low wages – particularly in London – tend to be migrant workers. Life on the front line is not pleasant having to work extremely unsociable hours for very low pay.

Institutionalised racism too?

I remember back in 2007 being at a number of training courses at what was the National School for Government, whose catering and accommodation facilities were run by De Vere Hotels. I couldn’t help but notice how most of the catering and cleaning staff seemed to be migrant workers, and most of the delegates seemed to be White, affluent types. It was something that I noticed too at the M&S queue at lunchtime at work: The people behind the tills were nearly always from BME backgrounds (but seldom the managers in the suits), while the people who were being served where predominantly White.

Diversity of boards?


Look at the chief executives and the directors of these outsourcing companies too. Are they reflective of, and are they from the grassroots of the workforces that make their profits? Or are they from a class apart? I guess you must be if you can be rewarded with a £16m package following screwing up the Olympics or if you can be rewarded for bringing down one of the UK’s biggest banks costing the taxpayer half a billion pounds with a seat in the House of Lords.

This comes back to the point John Bird made in his speech in Cambridge. Are the people that are at the top of these organisations drawn from either the service-using community or from the frontline? How many of G4S’s board were brought up in or have worked in children’s homes? They run some of them after all. Let’s look at their board & their executive team. Do they look like a reflection of the people drawn from those that either use their services or have long experience of frontline delivery at the sharp end? But then the same criticism can be thrown at the senior civil service too.

Big data, feedback loops and decision-making processes

One of the things the state is beginning to realise is how it can improve procurement processes to persuade firms to improve things for those from less-well-off backgrounds. One area has been that of environmental sustainability. Another has been the growing requirements that contractors provide apprenticeships for young people. Both are welcome.

Yet I’m still not convinced that outsourcing is the silver-bullet it seems to be given the actions of current and previous administrations. Large outsourcing companies suffer from the same sorts of diseconomies of scale as any large organisation. The lack of democratic accountability can lead to arguments about a ‘shadow state’ – a nice earner for former politicians but lacking in openness and transparency for the rest of us. Given the problems of polarising incomes, the disparity between the highly paid executives and the minimum-wage staff on the ground makes me uneasy. If the public sector adopts proposals for salary ratios, should the same not apply to non-state providers of public services, including the public utility companies? After all, it’s not as if shareholders have been any good at holding down rampant rises in executive pay.

So…in the grand scheme of things?

My personal disposition issues remain. I don’t like the idea of G4S or profit-making firms running children’s homes or rape crisis centres. I don’t like the idea of privatised prisons where a private firm incarcerates people, let alone that someone can profit from it. I also think that far more research needs to be done – using big data and unpicking feedback loops to see just where outsourcing either works or is actually a false economy.