Community reporting in 2015 – could you give it a go?


…including new apps, new tools, and encouraging more people to try it out themselves

2014 was an eventful year for me as far as learning new things and doing things for the first time was concerned.

  • Standing for election
  • Singing on stage in a public performance
  • Submitting my first media reports
  • Carrying out my first media interviews
  • Taking part in my first studio interview
  • Creating my first digital videos and podcasts

For 2015, I’m thinking: “Can you do the above again, but better?”

Vimeo stats 22dec2014 copy

The above-stats are for video plays on my vimeo account – I also have a Youtube account here, where I’ll be putting some of the longer digital videos & final versions up at in future. Essentially my video stats are rising compared with blogpost reads, which are falling. Interestingly, despite continually rising Twitter follower numbers (hovering around 6,500), interaction has fallen. I have far fewer conversations on it these days. Hence it’s much harder to get a feel for what other people get out of the content I post.

Out, about and visible to the public

It’s been fun and eventful. It’s got me out of the house & doing something positive. I’ve also become more comfortable with a new way of learning – one that involves not getting things right first time every time. I look back at some of my early digital videos & cringe at some basic errors – whether it’s holding a smartphone portrait rather than landscape style, to really poor audio.

I took the above footage during Puffles’ election campaign – I’d just finished a stall outside The Guildhall and recorded Jack Man Friday – now Mr Shepherd. Basic error here is holding the camera portrait style. Fortunately I’m now at the stage where filming out and about feels ‘normal’, making fewer simple errors and having basic safeguards such as asking for consent to film as habitual.

Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014
Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014

“How can we get other people into community reporting like this?”

Because I can’t cover the city alone! Also, far better to have a number of people covering things and bringing their different perspectives.

For people in Cambridgeshire, the offer of support & training is with Shape Your Place. Also, this website iphonereporting came recommended by Cambridge 105.

In spring 2014, Cambridge Regional College produced a BBC Question-Time-style programme where students cross-examined a panel of Cambridgeshire County Council councillors – see here for the 1 hour episode. For me, the next step is to make this programme an annual event (if not more frequent), and so something around building community reporting into either extra-curricular programs or the curricula of media studies and politics courses for post-16 students.

The ‘soft’ learning in what can be a solitary activity

Being a lone ranger means having to cover everything yourself. You’re not this outside broadcast machine that BBC Question Time is, where you have multiple people on cameras and microphones alone. Far more thought goes into creating solid digital content than the detractors of media studies might care to acknowledge. At the same time, operating some of the kit requires an incredibly sensitive touch – something that takes a huge amount of time to perfect. Think of operating your piece of kit to that of playing a musical instrument. It’s a little bit like that. You can’t give someone a text book & expect them to take to it. It takes time to get used to the piece of equipment and become ‘as one’ with it.

For me, some of the soft learning has included:

  • Getting used to the zoom controls on a camcorder
  • Getting used to the controls on a tripod
  • Becoming sensitive to the natural light and sounds around me – in particular prior to and during filming
  • Becoming aware of what might make good pieces of digital video – and setting up quickly my kit to record.

Making it easy to record with smartphones

For videos, I often carry a small smartphone clip and a mini tripod with me just in case I happen to be somewhere where there’s something that’s worth filming. The advantage of these two attachments is you can have the phone standing on something solid, avoiding the dreaded camera-shake! The clip also works for normal tripods too – which I used when filming for the Cambridge Buskers Festival.

Most recently-made smartphones do a reasonable job recording face-to-face spoken-word video and audio. My own footage has been used by local radio this year. Audio for music is much harder – especially trying to get a decent bassline and/or if the music and vocals are not amplified.

Creating that safe space for people to learn together

This is what I want to explore in 2015 – perhaps in the form of a few evening workshops in a community venue somewhere. In two sessions you could take people through the basics, put in people’s diaries who would be filming what events, and have a second session reviewing what people had filmed. Ideally I’d like to get something like this done before the election campaigns really kick off – that way there might be a few more people around to cover what happens.


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!!!


Cambridge Hub turning ideas into actions


Taking a ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ problem to Cambridge student activists…and watching them run with it

Some of you may be aware of the Volunteer Cambridge event that the Cambridge Hub is organising for Cambridge City Council on 28 February 2015 at The Guildhall. In previous blogposts I cited this as an example of an idea I had which is now coming to fruition. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that the Hub was organising an open space gathering for Cambridge’s many environmental groups and campaigns. Almost a year ago to the day, I posted this blogpost. Despite a persistent cold, I went along.

I’d say there was a 60-40 split of students-town activists, starting off with a couple of ice-breakers before going into open-space pitching.


The above is a pano-photo I took during one of the ice-breakers.

The sessions pitched ranged from hyper-local (encouraging students to get involved in growing on community allotments) to the mega-global (campaign preparations for the Paris 2015 Climate Talks). The session I pitched was on mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism. One of the challenges we face for Be the change – Cambridge is getting young people involved in a way that interests them and also has them influencing the decisions made by the city’s institutions. One of the pieces of advice I’ve had from community youth workers was to work with people closer to their age range to to bridge the age and credibility gaps. I’m in my 30s now – when I was in my mid-teens the current generation of mid-teens were not even born. Mine was the large generation of ‘the ignorant’ – ie one where we didn’t have the internet and thus all this information at our fingertips. Thus I will have my blind spots – or my ‘unknown unknowns’.

Mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism

My approach as a facilitator was one where I asked questions about the problem – focusing on specifics and how participants might go about dealing with them. Quite rightly, we had a steer of not making the sessions about pet projects or existing schemes – hence not mentioning BTCC until invited to by the organisers. My premise being that this was their space, not mine, and that those interested in taking forward the ideas we came up with also needed to take ownership of it – with me and others in support.

‘What does success look like to you?’

This was one of the first things I put to our breakout group. While I have a vision for what success looks like, I wanted to find out based on their experiences what it would look like. Hence these notes.


The most interesting part of the discussion for me was about the safe space to make mistakes and to learn by doing. It’s easy for someone like me to say: “Oh well we tried that a few years ago and it didn’t work” in response to someone’s idea. Such a comment reduces the influence and control that young people have on their projects. Hence far better to either let them get on with it or say: “Have you thought about the risks with your approach? What could go wrong and how could you prevent this?” Rather than defining the solution for them, allow them to figure it out themselves – because that way they might come up with something you’re completely unaware of.

Strong support and confidence in young activists

Within that same context came the above – the back up young activists want or need from older people. In particular making clear that things might not go to plan, things might fail and that this is OK. This is especially the case when time and money is involved. In terms of learning basic transferrable skills, the top three I came up with included:

  • Working as a team to achieve a greater goal
  • Communicating in different contexts
  • Managing a budget

In terms of visible changes, diversity within existing city campaign groups is one of the most important ones for me. I’ve been to gatherings of too many community groups that are not fully reflective of the communities that they are within. In many of the cases that I have seen, young people are conspicuous by their absence. From the Cambridge Cycling Campaign to the Cambridgeshire Local History Group, I have often been one of the youngest people there, and often the only non-White person there. When you consider the number of young cyclists, or the number of young people doing local history projects, you can see the opportunities our city is missing out on.

“So…who’s going to do what then?”


Apologies for the stupendously blurred picture above. The Cambridge Hub have the originals.

In terms of actions, the two most important were:

  • Mapping the community – finding out what is already happening
  • Planning your approach for each institution or group – in particular being crystal clear about what you want from them and what your offer to them is

The two big risks the students identified were:

  • Sustainability and continuity with the annual turnover of students & young people on both sides
  • Groups and institutions being deluged with lots of ideas, and being overwhelmed to the extent that nothing happens because they don’t know how to respond

On the first one, the students came up with suggestions on having permanent teacher contacts with each school, and ‘desk instructions’ for newly-elected reps – such as school council reps on what they need to do as soon as they take on their responsibilities

On the second one, they suggested the Cambridge Hub could come up with criteria that projects/proposals could be assessed against, ensuring that a limited number of developed proposals can be put to outside organisations rather than an uncoordinated wave of requests/invitations to get involved.

Everyone’s camera shy!

I wanted to film some short interview clips about the event, but everyone was camera-shy, despite encouragement from organisers. This is coming up as an issue time and again. People seem to be very nervous about being filmed in an interview. It’s got me thinking about whether as a city we need to do something about very basic interview training, to whether I need to overhaul both my own image and how I go about my work. For example setting up myself as my own media network to make it sound more professional? I’m thinking along the lines of Novara Media.

Next steps?

It sounds like this is something that students are interested in running with, so I’ll be keeping in touch to see what comes out of this after the Winterval break. 😛 #PCCorrectMassiv

It also sounds like Cambridge Hub will be running a similar open space gathering in early 2015. If interested, they are on Facebook here, and on Twitter at @CambridgeHub.

Using video to make local politics and democracy more accessible


Some thoughts on using digital video/filming events to bring politicians closer to the people

Over the past few weeks I’ve filmed a number of talks, speeches presentations and events. This is all part of what I can only describe as a ‘personal calling’ to revitalise local democracy and community action in my home town. Be the change – Cambridge is part of that, as was standing for election under Puffles’ name/brand in May 2014 in Cambridge.

Recording a press conference

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales has been in Cambridge on a number of occasions recently. On 7 October the Green Party unveiled Dr Rupert Read as their prospective parliamentary candidate for Cambridge at a press conference at Kings College. You can see Dr Read’s speech below.

Cambridge 105FM also interviewed Dr Read and Natalie Bennett – listen to the podcast here. Julian Clover who did the radio interview was one of the journalists at the press conference – as was Jon Vale, the new local government correspondent of the Cambridge News. We were also joined by a BBC Cambridgeshire camera crew. There were also a number of students and academics, along with local party activists – about 25 of us in total. As with the mainstream media, it’s not the reporters that decide what gets published, but the editors. Yet without recorded media coverage, you don’t get to hear the speaker in their own words.

Given the nature of the event, and given my community reporting role, I felt a sort of obligation to ask questions when the floor was opened up. The sort of questions I go for are ones that are specific to Cambridge – in particular my neighbourhoods, and ones that can apply to all political parties. Unless I want to nail down a specific commitment, I tend to go for softer, more open questions that allow the respondent to ‘think aloud’. This avoids ‘loaded question vs line-to-take-tennis’.

Number of plays online vs number of people attending

For the two videos that I uploaded from that press conference, there were over 80 ‘plays’ (and even more uploads) within the first 48 hours of the videos being uploaded. In the grand scheme of things, 80 isn’t that many. But if it’s depth rather than breadth you’re looking for, that can be the difference between a couple of individuals becoming active as a result of becoming informed/inspired as a result of viewing the footage. Given how closely contested Cambridge will be in 2015…exactly.

Actually, having local digital video content for student political societies matters – especially at the start of a new academic year

Earlier on I was at two events – one with Cambridge Young Greens, followed by another with Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats. In August I did some filming for the latter, and popped into their event at Kings (ironically in the same room that The Greens had had their press conference in some 56 hours earlier) to give them the video files.

Earlier this week was the big annual freshers’ fair. That’s thousands of students signing up to every other society under the sun, people signing up for email lists, liking Facebook pages and following Twitter accounts. With digital video footage, you get human voices & faces of those that run the societies diversifying content. With the Lib Dem video, I filmed a series of interviews with local and visiting student activists, asking them what got them interested in politics. Despite the over-sensitive internal microphone, I managed to get it into a state where the interviewees could be heard. As it was their event, it’s their call as to whether it gets published or not. But to give you a feel of the concept, it was very similar to this series of clips I filmed at a recent climate vigil in Cambridge.

In the above video, there are people from across Cambridge’s communities. One of the people featured in that video has known me since I was a child. Others featured in that video were not even born at that time. You also had locals as well as people from other parts of the world. In the case of local student parties, would you want some of your members to feature in short digital video clips like that? In particular ones where perhaps you can break some negative stereotypes about either what Cambridge is like, what your party is like or even what politics is like?

“What about Labour and the Tories?”

Having met members of Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats, Cambridge Young Greens and Cambridge Universities Labour Club, they’ve all been interesting, bright and personable. I’ve not been to any of the Cambridge University Conservative Association events as they only set up their Facebook page in June 2014 so haven’t been in touch yet – though they have a number of very interesting speakers in Cambridge this autumn. (See their term card here). Both former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP and Universities Minister Dr Greg Clark MP are worth going along to hear, for anyone interested in public administration & policy-making – not just party politics.  CUSU’s UKIP student society at the time of posting seems dormant.

“Will digital video have an impact?”

That depends on what the parties choose to do with the footage. For example Cambridge Young Greens have 179 likes on Facebook (as of 9 Oct 2014) while Cambridge Liberal Democrats (whose page has been around for longer) has 606 likes. Cambridge Universities Labour Club has 608 likes, the Cambridge University Conservative Association has 153 likes. For future digital videos it’ll be interesting to track how many plays came through from these pages – assuming admins choose to post links themselves. Ditto with individual Twitter accounts – which are slightly different in that I find it’s the personal rather than the group party accounts that are more active & have higher followings.

In terms of emotional impact and mobilising people for action, digital video for me does three things.

Familiarisation with other people

The first is that it can help familiarise viewers with people who run the societies and who are active in it. This can help answer the question of: “Are these the sort of people who not only share my values but are the sort of people I want to spend time with?”

Not being left out if you miss an event

The second one is on keeping people informed – especially where they have to miss an event they would otherwise have gone to. This is critical for those people with accessibility issues. I’m not just thinking about people who use wheelchairs or mobility scooters. I’m also thinking about people who, like myself are dependent on public transport, or perhaps those who have childcare/caring responsibilities.

A resource you can come back to

If you’re out and about campaigning, or if someone asks detailed questions on a party policy online, it might be that a digital video of an event has a speaker that comprehensively answers the question for you. One of the advantages of being in a political party is that you can rely on someone else’s expertise to deal with those detailed policy questions you don’t know the answer to.

“How do you persuade people from different parties to let you film or live-tweet from their events?”

Part of it is an issue of trust. Am I a secret renegade spying on one party for another? No. If I was, I’d have been found out by now. Given that I’ve worked in policy teams in the civil service for ministers of all of the three main parties in my time inside the system, that inevitably comes with its own responsibilities on what information you handled in your day-to-day duties. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve stood as an independent candidate in a public election – under my Twitter avatar Puffles.

Puffles prepares to cross-examine candidates for the European Parliament Elections for the East of England region.
Puffles prepares to cross-examine candidates for the European Parliament Elections for the East of England region.

It’s one thing to say you’re not a member of any political party, but quite another to stand as an independent candidate against all of the other parties. (Basically you get kicked out of political parties if you stand against them in elections – e.g. if you don’t get selected as a candidate in your desired seat and decide to stand anyway independently).

Think also about both the free publicity & free service, and the ability to keep control of it. With the events that I’ve filmed at, I’ve said to the organiser/host that they are in control. If they want me to stop filming at any point, that’s their right. Ditto with making footage public. It’s their call. Some people are happy for it to be public, others prefer to have footage password-protected so only friends can see. Others prefer not to be filmed at all. That’s fine with me.

A snipped on quality of footage

It was the experience of filming the Liberal Youth event in August that persuaded me to get a professional external microphone for my new camcorder – which itself is at what they call the ‘prosumer end’ of the market. This is all part of me learning about how use digital video in a manner beyond the ‘home video style’ content. A standard camcorder or smartphone would have really struggled with the climate vigil – both lighting and audio.

It isn’t a case of ‘shut up and film’ – as I’m finding out. A couple of the regular venues that host meetings or events are not the easiest to film in when it comes to lighting or acoustics. Unfortunately given the perilous state of funding of community venues in particular, I can’t see many of them being in a position where they can pay for a refurbishment that would make them ideal for filming in. With public events you’ve also got to consider the audience in the room. It might be nice to have a camera close and at eye-level with the speaker, but that often blocks the view of the audience in the room. You’re then left with a choice of a worm’s eye view (which is seldom flattering) and a reasonably clear voice, or reasonably good visuals but a less clear voice.

Hence why functioning microphones and speakers in AV-equipped rooms are your friends!

Coleridge shines on its open day – breaking a generation of negative stereotypes


On how one of our local secondary schools is demonstrating what investment and leadership can achieve – for this was an open evening that busted a number of negative local stereotypes

The signs across a number of houses in my neighbourhood stated clearly:

“Coleridge Open Day – all invited”

So I went along – in part because of my role as a governor at one of its feeder primary schools, but also to see the place for myself. With a public administration hat on, I also wanted to talk to the teachers to hear their perspectives on the challenges they face.

You’ve come a long way in a short space of time

The interesting thing compared to when I made the transition from primary to secondary was the lack of open evenings in the autumn with the local secondary schools – something that was to change shortly after. I remember spending a half-day at the school in the early 1990s and not getting the sense that the school completely dispelled the negative things the community of parents in our part of town were saying about the school. As recently as 2003, the school was in special measures – see here.

One former student of that time – UKIP activist Michael Heaver wrote of his time there in this comment piece. I completely understand his anger and frustration – if anything they are some of the same emotions that I felt with the institutional shortcomings I faced at school, college and university. I also completely understand him blaming the political party in power at the time – just as I did with the Thatcher and Major administrations that starved our schools of much-needed investment in infrastructure. The bit where I screwed up was lack of courage – not speaking up when I knew in my heart of hearts I was not comfortable with the situation or original choices I had made.

“So…what’s changed?”

Although the front of the building remains unchanged, the new structures behind it are unrecognisable from the 1990s. The music and drama facilities in particular were quite breathtaking compared to what I was expecting. Big, spacious, modern, new and well-equipped. The next challenge is matching those facilities with competent and inspirational teaching.

Musical theatre – the first thing you see and hear

The design of the new building helped immensely, as one of the new halls is what you walk straight forwards into. They put it to good use for the open evening, with a series of musical numbers from a joint production of ‘The Wiz’ that will be on at the Mumford Theatre at Anglia Ruskin University. (22-24 Oct – tickets here). Put yourself in the situation of a year six child going into the school possibly for the first time. You walk into the hall and you see several dozen students from years 7-13 dancing and singing a quite-complex choreographed number. Co-ordinating that many people is not easy – let alone performing it. (As someone who has danced, choreographed and sung for public performance in very recent years, I can testify to this!)

The impact? A huge embrace for the year six students. A sense of ‘I want to be doing what they are doing!’. Rather than just having year seven & year eight students, it was across the age range. The impact there? You’ll be able to make friends with people who are older and bigger than you. For anyone worried about bullying – the fear of which cast a dark shadow over my time at school – knowing that you’ll have the support of older and wiser peers can be massively reassuring.

“You don’t have to worry about the bigger students – they are just like you, except taller”

Just after her speech, the principal Bev Jones threw some questions to a handful of year seven students who had come from the main feeder schools plus a few others. In that act alone, seeing students who the year six visitors were familiar with talking about the school must have been reassuring. Bear in mind that twelve months ago, some of the year six students would have been in the same class at primary school as the year seven students on the panel.

Again, the testimony from the year seven students matched that of a couple of year eight students I spoke to with their drama teacher a few minutes earlier. Both the year eight students were part of the production mentioned above, and I asked a series of open-ended questions about the impact being part of such a large musical theatre production had on them. The rehearsal commitment – several evenings per week, was huge. They said this made them much more disciplined with homework. When I asked them what they would say to a small group of shy year six children from my school, they talked passionately about how being part of a large musical chorus brought shy students out of their shells, and increased their confidence. Their drama teacher was delighted – not least as she said she didn’t have to answer any of the questions. The students answered them comprehensively.

It was at the principal’s speech that I found former Labour MP for Cambridge and now chair of governors, Anne Campbell sat next to me. Mrs Jones was appointed fairly recently – in 2012, having worked in schools across the city as well as having been an adviser in regional government across East Anglia. In that regard, she has experience of breadth as well as depth.

In her speech, Mrs Jones didn’t shy away from the school’s historical problems. Instead, she dealt with them head on in particular the Ofsted reports. (See here). If anything, it was a textbook response of how to account for shortcomings raised in an inspection. Accept the report and give a point-by-point response on how you are dealing with each of the main issues, why you’re taking each action, and what impact you expect each action to have. What would have been reassuring to parents is both the focus on progress for all students, along with clear procedures on how to deal with disruptive students in a manner that does not disrupt the education of the rest of the class.

From a public administration perspective, with a respected former MP as your chair of governors and a head who’s prepared to deal with issues head on very publicly, you’re in reasonably safe hands. That’s not to say ‘job done’ – there’s still a huge amount of work to do. But today I got a real sense of momentum that I wasn’t fully aware of until this visit.

Community input

In the entrance to the main hall were two stalls. One was from Cambridge University Press – the school’s business and mentoring partner. They provide mentoring and work experience to students at the school. Put yourself in the shoes of the parent of a prospective student. Would one of the biggest publishing brands in the world want to put its brand at risk by associating itself with a failing school that had no hope of turning around?

On the other side was the Mill Road History Project – and one of the most well-known and respected tour guides in the city, Allan Brigham manning it. This says: “Our links with our local community are so strong that we have the local community represented here on our open day”. Now, when you have a community as diverse as Mill Road on your doorstep, a wealth of teaching and community resources are on your doorstep.

Year six prospective Coleridge students indicating their favourite historical period - taken with the kind permission of the school's history department
Year six prospective Coleridge students indicating their favourite historical period – taken with the kind permission of the school’s history department. Note ‘The future’. There was also ’20th C social policy’ too!

The view of the staff?

When you come into an institution with the job of turning it around, there’ll inevitably be some staff turnover. I’ve seen it in the civil service and in other institutions. Mrs Jones mentioned this in her speech, and I spoke to a number of staff who said they had only been in the school for a short amount of time when I started asking more detailed questions. The reason why this was reassuring was this reflected consistency of action. The new senior management ‘manages out’ the staff that don’t share the vision and sense of purpose, and you bring in new staff that do.

With a number of staff, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of mutual friends and acquaintances from times gone by. This was along with a familiarity of the school I am a governor at and the children that come from it to Coleridge. What was really interesting for me was the insights they were able to give about the students that come from my school to theirs, and thoughts on how we can improve further the transition process.

Time for South Cambridge to open its mind?

Yes – and more. It’s time for the whole community to start throwing its support behind the momentum that the school and its supporters have now generated. Because it’s going to need that support as it deals with the challenges of serving some of the more economically deprived wards in Cambridge.

A city-wide approach to supporting our schools?

I delivered a couple of large careers workshops for Soham Village College for the Cambridge Area Partnership last week. Rather than running a ‘what job do you want to do?’ workshop, I got their year nine students (13-14 year olds) exploring the sort of life challenges they want to take on, and the life experiences they want to have when they are older. I then got them thinking about how they might go about achieving this and what skills they’d need to learn/knowledge they’d need to acquire as a result. So when one of them said:

“I wanna be a space pirate!”

…I said:

“OK – let’s run with that. What are the skills you are going to need to be a space pirate? How are you going to get from being down here on earth to up there being a space pirate? What are the issues and problems you’re likely to face? Remember there is no repair van in space!”

This was part of a wider ‘careers day’ where the school also invited in the further education colleges and some of their recent past students to talk to college students about what they had gone onto immediately after their GCSEs. Feedback from the teachers was that testimony from recent former students and from people who were practitioners in the fields that students wanted to go into had a big influence.

The big problem? How to co-ordinate all of this.

The goodwill is there from across the city and beyond. What we don’t have – and this was something I discussed with former MP Anne Campbell, was having an overarching structure to oversee and manage that co-ordination – but without it being ‘top down’. This is something the Be the change – Cambridge project is bringing the city together to solve. Have a look at the videos from our first event here. Drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com if you’re interested in taking part.

GCSE Results Day


Comparing then with now.

I stumbled across this blogpost which nails it. Same stuff, different year. Commentators moaning about exam standards not being as tough as they were in the good ol’ days.

Back in the mid-1990s I was ambushed by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire about 5 seconds after opening my results envelope. I was trembling, clutching a slip that told me I’d scored all As or Bs. In the grand scheme of things, this was the biggest deal in my life up until then. I can’t recall having worked for anything as hard as those exams. With hindsight, the only thing I ever really threw the kitchen sink plus more at was my civil service fast stream application – which like my GCSEs I was successful in, in that it got me to the next stage of life as hoped.

‘Aww! My followers just got their results!!!’

A number of long-time Twitter followers received their A-level and GCSE results recently. As you can imagine, many of them are absolutely buzzing – and quite possibly as drunk as I was this time all those years ago. Funnily enough I’m going to be filming three of them as they perform more musical masterpieces in and around Cambridge in the next few days.

Now is not the time to talk about falling exam standards

It really isn’t. It’s not censorship. It’s self-discipline and tact. I remember during my university days a Guardian journalist trying to work out how easy A-level sociology was by enrolling himself to take the exam on deadline day and revising for six weeks before doing the exam and getting an A in it. He was subsequently ripped to pieces for not checking his privilege – in particular:

  • Being older & more educated than nearly all of the other people taking the exam – he had a university degree which most 18 year olds don’t have
  • Only taking one exam, not the three or four that other candidates took
  • Not having the pressure of taking an exam as if your future depended on it

I found out the difference during my year out between college and university, when I did A-level history in an evening class. With my university place secured, I positively enjoyed the exam – something that could not be said for my compatriots in the hall. But because I had been where they were the previous year, it wasn’t something to be all cocky about. Rather it was a case of ‘I know how you feel’.

Collective success vs individual success

Perhaps the difference between GCSE result and the Fast Stream was the latter was a collective celebration, whereas the latter was an individual one. In the grand scheme of things, the talents and successes of young people are criticised more than celebrated. If it were the latter, the political establishment wouldn’t be putting so many barriers in the way of that talent and potential being realised. It’s not just tuition fees but the burden of training and education generally being shifted from employer and state to individuals – at a time where there are fewer ‘jobs for life’ and re-training is now par for the course.

Adults in the wider community have a responsibility to help young people reach their potential

Looking back, one of the things that was never really apparent during my college – or even university years was the desire of the older adults in the wider community around me to take an active interest in my progress (or otherwise) in those years. Certainly not more than any box-ticking system required. The impact probably changed not only the results I got at A-level, but my choice of university and subject too. And inevitably career path. That said, given my health disposition there is every chance I’d have ended up back where I currently am even if I had followed the ‘life on a piece of paper’ path.

This is where organisations such as the Cambridge Area Partnership come in. I’m particularly interested in the way institutions function. The problem I’ve found over the past couple of years is that when it’s one person jumping up and down, institutions don’t listen. It’s only when you get other people involved and put pressure from multiple directions that they start shifting. The other thing I’ve found is continually evaluating and adjusting your approach also keeps institutions on their toes. 2014 has been a case in point as far as my actions are concerned. Almost outspokenly assertive early on in the year, I made my point by unexpectedly standing for election as Puffles. The result of that was repeatedly raising issues that helped influence local democracy and local policies.

Having ‘banked’ that, I’ve switched approach again. Once you’ve stood for election, you know what it involves. Standing for election again is less of a big issue second time around. Although I don’t want to do it in 2015, it’s not something I’ve entirely ruled out. It depends on progress on the issues I care about. My current approach is about setting an example by doing. This ranges from being a community reporter for Shape Your Place (see an example here) to organising events such as the repeatedly-mentioned Be the Change – Cambridge. To see how far we’ve progressed, have a look at the sponsors we’ve signed up here.

Significant progress? I’d like to think so

What’s really good to hear from the sponsors I have spoken to is the importance of young people to the city. That’s one of the big reasons why they are getting involved. A generation ago, such an event like this would not have happened. It really wouldn’t have. The problem then was the mindset of the institutions. This is something that is slowly beginning to change, but only because a critical mass of people challenging that culture is now forming. Not only that, we have the tools, technology and networks to bypass hierarchical and archaic structures that otherwise get in the way. That combined with enough people from diverse backgrounds who are persisting with the pressure.

A very long way to go

I spent much of 2013/14 being rebuffed and ignored by a number of local further education establishments on community outreach. Emails ignored, follow-ups not taken forward – that sort of thing. Hence switching approach and going through local council committees, repeatedly following up actions. For example in Cambridge in the ‘open forum’ items:

Although the minutes have not been published, the new Chair of the Committee Cllr Sue Birtles has said with one of the institutions, she’s going to make a spot visit because 9 months of being ignored is now in my book a contempt for democracy. I put this point to the full council in June 2014 in ‘Public Question Time’.

Furthermore in Cambridge in the open forum items…

The great thing about East Area is that we’ve had significant progress with Parkside Coleridge School. Cambridge City Council and ward councillors are now much more engaged with the school, and are visiting more frequently and doing a greater variety of citizenship-related activities than before. I spoke with the head of Coleridge, Bev Jones not long after the GCSE result were released. She was glowing with pride – and with good reason given the challenges Coleridge has faced over the years.

We’ve shown a glimpse of what we can achieve if we take responsibility for each other

This is the ‘be the change’ approach. We’re asking people ‘what can you do to make the change?’ rather than ‘Can you give a list of reasons why you can’t do anything?’ Hence the challenge at the end of our event (“Buy tickets here!!!”) is for people to make a small behaviour change or commit to one small one-off action. Because if over 200 people do that all around the same, the impact could be just enough to create a momentum that’s unstoppable.

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.

Playing with digital audio


Digital video is only as good as your sound. So getting to grips with what you film means ensuring you have a good sound too

I’ve been playing with digital audio ever since I got my last laptop – mainly trying to get various songs to play at a tempo that you could dance ballroom or latin american dances to – with mixed success. Even though I don’t really do much dancing these days, my mindset towards music is one forever affected by dancing. I’m always asking what steps go with any piece of music that has a reasonably regular percussion beat to it. It seems strange to think my first blogpost on ballroom dancing was nearly three years ago, and my first lesson in Cambridge nearly 12 years ago. Must be getting old!

Learning the basics of what makes good sound in the face of complicated software

I’m talking about the editing process here – something that brings the talents of a skilled sound engineer into their own. It’s not just a case of turning up the volume by any means. Being part of the Dowsing Sound Collective these past four months has given me insights into what ‘good sound’ is – and how you go about achieving it. Take ‘Reality Checkpoint’ composed by Andrea Cockerton about Parker’s Piece in Cambridge here:

I was one of the many voices in the background singing on this recording. The ‘recording’ in my memory is different to the one on this recording for a variety of reasons – not least my position in the collective when we were singing it. Editing inevitably takes something out of the performances we hear. Audio professionals will be able to explain why this is better than me. In non-technical terms, the bass and piano had a vibrancy that moved my ribcage – you could feel the rumble of the low frequencies as well as the energy of being in a room with over 100 other people singing co-ordinated parts from the same song sheet. (The HistoryWorks team took some photos of us – see here).

Transferring vinyl to digital

I had my first go at this with a record I bought for my very young relatives. We had this many moons ago in my childhood but it disappeared in a clear-out. Hence getting hold of an even older copy that’s now about 40 years old & is so hard to find that there are also no digital copies of the album – this being Tom Paxton’s Children’s Songbook. Paxton’s a Vietnam-era folk singer, and critic of war. When I posted a link to the lyrics to a track called The Thought, a number of you were struck by its power.

DJ Puffles on the wheels of steel
DJ Puffles on the wheels of steel

Spending a humid Saturday afternoon experimenting with electrics, I managed to hook up some of my brother’s very old decks to my laptop and play about until something seemed to be transferring. Here’s the result.

I’ve not worked out how to get rid of that low level hum/buzzing noise that you can hear – even though the software I have seems to have an option that allows you to do this. The problem is when I activate it, it zaps the rest of the track with it.

Filming on Friday at The Junction

I’ve been granted permission to film the brilliant Grace Sarah at The Junction in Cambridge later this month. (8pm this Friday 25 July, free tickets – details here). I’m tempted to simply place my existing camcorder on a tripod & press ‘record’, leaving it at that. I have neither the knowledge nor the kit to try anything that’s synced up with the lighting and sound at the venue. I also don’t want to be one of those camera-people who wanders in front of the audience trying to get the right shot.

Preparing to film but then not filming at all

I was going to put up another vlogpost last week. The problem was the noise from the neighbours playing loud music next door to the cafe I was at. Incredibly frustrating when you’ve carried your kit there, but that’s part of the deal with photography & filming. You don’t get everything working out spot on first time and every time. Despite everything that I had there, there was no point in filming because a messed up audio would have ruined it.


Apart from an ‘Oooh! This is actually more than quite interesting’ perspective, the footage I’m filming seems to fall into four themes:

  • Vlogposts – me talking to the camera about things on my mind
  • Interviews or filming others speaking to the camera
  • Musical performances
  • Documenting who has said what and when at given events

Now, in one sense all of the above could be done without the visuals: It’s the sound that really matters content-wise.

Being multi-skilled

With professional productions, you have different people doing different things, specialising in them and being good at them. When you do what I do, you’ve got to do all of what they do and try and get it to a standard that makes it watchable/listenable. It’ll never be professional broadcast standard, but that’s not my aim. It just needs to be of a standard that allows whoever is in front of the camera to get their message across to a wider audience. That’s why I find the collection of videos on my vimeo page as a personally interesting ‘documentary’ of my own journey playing with digital video.

Having the patience to research and read

If the content of all the books I’ve bought over the past 15 years were in my mind I’d be a very well-read chap indeed. But I’m not. I need people around me in order to get me started on things. Hence why the digital film school was just what I needed for the summer term. That’s just my personal learning style. Others are independent starters. On my side, I look out for the people & organisations who I can work with and provide that impetus to do things.

The changing world of digital audio – away from copyright and towards collaboration?

Basement Jaxx’s Power to the People Project is but one example of a high profile group releasing the master copies of a track and inviting people to do things with it. Pop Will Eat Itself did the same with Reclaim the Game (Funk FIFA) – see here and note both the instrumental version and acapella/vocals only versions. I blogged about the track here. We still want our game back.

Talking of world cups, despite the best attempts of various institutions to restrict online footage of past tournaments, some of the compilations of commentary and football. My favourite one is this one featuring Brazil’s 1982 team & commentator Luciano Do Valle.

Then there’s this one featuring Mexico in 2006. Mexico were my work sweepstake team that year. Football-culture-wise, they’re a bit like England. Passionate fans, demanding media, One or two superstars, qualify well then crash out to the first half-decent team they encounter, normally at second round or quarter finals stage.

“Your point?”

As in this NESTA infographic, we’re going beyond being passive recipients. I like the idea of being a co-creator and co-operator with others when it comes to making things. It’s the opposite of the mass-produced blandification of the high street that we see these days. Coming back to the point about editing songs to make them play at a tempo that you can dance ballroom to, the challenge there is having the major creators making things in a format that the rest of us can do things with, and having a legal framework that facilitates rather than impedes this.



A public accounts committee for every town hall?


Could Ed Miliband’s new policy for local government energise local democracy?

The reports are at the end of this page -> summary and full. It was featured in The Guardian here. The report covers a number of things, but the bit I’m interested in is establishing local systems of scrutiny and accountability across what is a fragmented public sector.

‘That’s not a city council issue, that’s a county council issue’

This was a phrase I heard incumbent councillors explaining to members of the public while on the campaign train with Puffles. In the grand scheme of things most members of the public couldn’t care less which public body is responsible, so long as it is done well. One of the most frustrating things for the public and councillors alike is the structures and systems don’t work for them. The structures are complex and take time to understand and navigate – time that most of the public don’t have. At the same time, they prevent local councillors from taking action on issues the public would like them to take action on because it’s outside the scope of the organisation they are elected to. The comments posted here by Cambridge City Council Leader Cllr Lewis Herbert, and the Communities portfolio holder Cllr Richard Johnson explain this in more detail.

Local institutions ignoring councillors – will this become a thing of the past?

Because when it comes to ignoring council committees, some of Cambridge’s taxpayer-funded institutions have got form – as the minutes and matters arising item here show in one case. There are several others that have been ignoring correspondence from councillors and council committees. I’ve gone on public record calling such behaviour ‘a contempt for the council’ at the first full council meeting of the current administration. (See item 14/36/CNL here).

Some of the significant policy questions will be answered should Miliband’s Labour Party win the 2015 election. Page 32 of the full report (titled ‘Stronger accountability for public services’) does not state for example which institutions will be subject to local public accounts committees.  This is where civil service teams take the main principles of a policy and start working through the detail. For me, any institution receiving taxpayer funding beyond a minimum level in return for delivering a public service should be subject to such committees.

What powers should committees have? For me, I’d like to see something along the lines of public duties to co-operate in the now defunct local area agreements. The text in Part 5 Chapter 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 indicates how such duties could be drafted into law, rather than having the need to give committees powers of summons. That said, giving committees powers of summons could be a last resort if such duties were ignored.

What would the impact be?

For a start it would force local public bodies to start working together more co-operatively. Councillors could look at a particular problem and call the responsible organisations to appear before them. The sights and sounds of the heads of organisations squabbling in front of councillors and the public is something the former have an incentive of trying to avoid. The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 (very recently approved by Parliament so the website needs updating!) – in particular Regulation 3 gives the general public the right to film and report such meetings using social media. (See the explanatory notes at the end of the regulations in the link above).

A combination of proposed and recent changes in the law, with digital media

The way local media and independent community reporters are using digital media to open things up is helping people find out about things happening in their area. That’s been my experience anyway.

For me, it only needs one person viewing my digital film footage who was otherwise unable to attend a meeting to make turning up and filming worthwhile. The data on downloads and views is showing an even more interesting picture. Since I started uploading lots more digital videos, more people are viewing my vimeo page. It’s not been anything spectacular on my part. In the grand scheme of things I’ve sat there holding a camera and filming. The talent is with the people in front of the camera & the makers of the tech.

Take the Cambridge Lakes meeting in my previous blogpost as an example, the data shows over 50 views in 24 hours. (The ‘downloads’ are showing ten times that figure, but I’m treating that variable with a pinch of salt). Note the context of the two clips I uploaded is ‘hyperlocal’ – they apply only to a minority of wards on one side of Cambridge. They are not ‘big news stories’ that would have people flocking to them going viral. But that’s not the intention. If the impact can get a handful of interested and motivated people involved in a local project, then that’s good enough for me.

Thinking digital

This is where Cllr Dave Briggs‘ short document Thinking Digital (which is a superb read for local democracy types) indicates how this could be done in terms of changing systems and structures. My favourite parts:

“Hire for attitude, not skills or experience. Both skills
and experience can be learned. Not so with attitude.

What are the attitudes [local government should be] looking for [in potential new staff]? Curiosity, willingness to learn, cooperation, openness.

No organisation can do everything on its own. It needs  to work with others, in a grown up way.

Many partnerships involve organisations doing what they were doing anyway, separately, then meeting up to talk about it every so often. That’s not collaborating.”

The last quotation from Cllr Briggs’ slides speak volumes to me. How often are public sector staff barred from attending cross-body meetings because they are the wrong grade? It was only the senior staff during my civil service career that had the regular cross-organisational meetings. The more frontline and junior staff (who were a hive of ideas & awareness more often than not) were stuck in the silos. Social and digital media users are breaking down those silos. Good.

But…Ed Miliband, Tristram Hunt and Education Policy

They both talk about local directors of schools’ standards – see the press release here and a BBC comment piece here. It’s always difficult for politicians to let go! I understand why Hunt’s gone for this: schools and hospitals are two of the most politicised issues in public service delivery. Therefore if as a future education secretary he’s going to get blamed for any bad stuff happening, he’ll want to have the levers of control to do something about it. Hence having local directors outside local council control and directly accountable to Whitehall. Again, the devil will be in the public policy detail. Think of the number of local council areas affected. (Over 100 with an education/schools remit). Then think of the support staff needed. Then think of the relationship with OfSted. This could get messy.

As I’ve stated before, the centralisation of education policy in recent times reflects successive administrations’ failures to deal with failings in local government. My take is central government simply does not have the organisational capacity to manage schools from the centre. Far better to strengthen local councils as institutions & give them a greater encompassing role in the delivery of public services generally rather than artificially breaking them up into little bits.

A day digital filming in Cambridge


Living and learning with my introduction to digital filming class

For Cambridgeshire-based people, Hills Road are running an Introduction to Digital Film Making on Weds evenings from September – see here. It also sits nicely with An introduction to social media for social action that Ceri Jones and I will be running in the same term but on a different dayAs far as the local community website Shape Your Place is concerned, I hope both courses will increase the number of people contributing to the site and experimenting more imaginatively with social media.

Jumping on the tour bus

Due to the bumpy drive – a combination of roads and old vehicle, the footage I was hoping to film never materialised. That combined with a cloudy start meant that the ‘filming while in motion footage that I got with the wind turbines from the train was simply not going to happen. I had similar problems with placing my camcorder on mini-tripod in basket effect. A journey that felt smooth on two wheels came out on film much more bumpy and nauseating to watch.

We’re all at very basic stages of filming, so much of what we have been filming has been experimental, artistic, transition or filler material rather than things for a specific purpose. (Eg an interview for a news report). Hence part of what we were doing involved taking day-to-day views and trying to approach them from different angles – eg filming footage with the camera close to the ground, or from angles other than straight on.

Multiple protests at the Guildhall

I planned on heading over to the Guildhall to cover the demo about the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership that the World Development Movement amongst others were organising nationwide protests against. At the same time Amnesty International had a stall, as did demonstrators against the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East – the latter marching around the centre of Cambridge passing even more demonstrations on King’s Parade nearby.

Campaigners from the local GMB trade union branch, Cambridge People's Assembly and the WDM Cambridge protesting against #TTIP
Campaigners from the local GMB trade union branch, Cambridge People’s Assembly and the WDM Cambridge protesting against #TTIP

Things got fiery (verbally) on one or two occasions (I don’t like that sort of confrontation – hence shying away) but the thing that struck me with the TTIP demo was how there was such a huge awareness/political literacy gap between the general public and the nature of the partnership being negotiated at international levels.

Given that I’ve moved my focus towards many things local, I thought that now was the time to record two short clips of people representing organisations that were there. My remit/premise was simple: Explain who you are, who you represent, why you are important (to the community) and how people can get involved. Steve Sweeney of the GMB Union went first:

Steve’s also involved in the Cambridge branch of the People’s Assembly. In his case, my take was that many people (in particular young people) don’t know what a trade union is, let alone why they are important (esp to low paid people in industries with a track record of exploitation of workers). Given Steve’s been a union rep for a long time, he kindly agreed to be on film. Any questions or comments about trade unions in Cambridge should be put to Cambridge Trades Council who are the local umbrella group for trades unions. As with the local election campaign, my viewpoint has been to be a signpost – like with the posters.

I also filmed a piece for Cambridge Rebel Arts – with Jill Eastland

Again, similar purpose but for a group of community activists (mainly women in this case – they have a radio show on Cambridge 105FM). The way I’m doing community reporting at the moment is trying to stick to some basics: Being non-confrontational and allowing people who are trying to do positive things in the community to have a chance to use digital media to show what they are doing.

Buskers between the throngs of tourists and day trippers

And they were there in their thousands – to the extent that even the tour guides got confused as to who was with their group and who wasn’t. It’s at this time of year more and more local residents avoid the historic city centre like the plague – not least because of things like this. But as things stand, Cambridge has neither the resources or the civic infrastructure to manage the millions of tourists that visit the city – the powers & finances are locked up in Westminster and Whitehall. (The responsibility in my view lies with the political institutions, not the tourists).

But it’s not all bad news. More tourists amongst other things has meant a significant improvement in the standard of buskers in town. Old hands will be able to tell you what some of the bad old days were like. These days, the quality of some of the buskers is very high. Part of it has been technological. For example Jack Man Friday beatboxing here:

At our rehearsal for the Bury St Edmunds gig with the Dowsing Sound Collective (this blogpost being written before the two performances on Sunday 13th July – yes, the first World Cup Final I won’t be watching live on telly since Italia ’90) we had Skilly Skillz beatboxing for us. This is him doing ‘vocal percussion’ on our collaboration with Basement Jaxx. Watching/listening to him warm up was quite something.

I then spotted Warren Daniel performing one of the tracks that with Dowsing Sound Collective we had sung on Parker’s Piece the previous weekend (see my blogpost here). Here’s the former’s version.

What strikes me is how different the various interpretations of the same song are. This was the thinking behind Basement Jaxx’s Power to the People project. I’m still waiting for permission to share the video with you – Puffles features in it. Yeah – you know you’ve made it when your dragon fairy has featured in a Basement Jaxx video AND got nearly 100 votes in a local council election! In the same year.

I then heard 16 year old Tom Korni singing a superb version of ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles. He’d gathered a huge crowd – one of the biggest I’d seen for a busker outside The Guildhall. A massive step-on from the one-man-band that used to play his stuff on in Petty Cury, Cambridge during the 1980s. Not Tom’s leg movements in this superb medley – they’re hitting various electronic and acoustic percussion instruments while he’s playing. Far easier said than done.

International sixth-formers give their take on Cambridge

On my way back, at the bus stop I overheard three international sixth-formers studying in Cambridge complaining about the city. Being in ‘community reporter mode’ I politely asked if they wanted to do a piece to camera for Shape Your Place – Cambridge. At first they declined – understandably. Bloke in his mid 30s comes up to you and asks for you to put your opinions to camera, most people would say ‘no’. I assumed that this was par for the course of being a normal journalist & left it at that. 10 minutes later they came back and asked if they could change their mind. I was also mindful in another conversation I had with a couple of other students recently that young people were sometimes frightened to speak up on political issues because they don’t want to be criticised or ridiculed in public/online.

What they said was eye-opening because they were all from different countries with very different backgrounds yet had similar perspectives on Cambridge as a city and their experiences at one of our state sixth form colleges. Having had conversations with students and parents from schools and colleges across the city, the picture is becoming even more clear about the challenges faced by institutions in Cambridge. What’s worse is the institutional structures and cultures across the city are too close-minded to deal with what are common challenges. Other students in further education that I’ve met recently have also said things along similar themes – which makes me think the problem is at least city-wide (if not nationwide). The bit that I’m working on is what our city’s response is.

Hence this

It’s work in progress, but progress has been significant over the past couple of weeks. Watch this space.