Scrutinising the Greater Cambridge City Deal

Summary

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

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

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

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

Get in there early to maximise your influence

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

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

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

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

The papers – these need publicising far and wide

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

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

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

My chance to ask some questions

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

Transport and rail

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

Education – supporting governors

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

Project management

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming depression and trying to just ‘get on with it’

Summary

Because in my case, depression (& my long term recovery from my 2012 mental health breakdown) means I need to use up reserves of emotional energy to do even some of the most basic tasks – such as sending an email.

I struggled to begin this blogpost for a variety of reasons. This paragraph being about the fourth attempt.

On Tues 18 Nov we’ll be having another Be the change – Cambridge gathering of interested people – see details here if you’re free. Arranging this took far more emotional energy than it should have done. From going into the venue to make enquiries, to getting everything announced, then having to rearrange. Hence one of the things I’m going to be looking out for at this gathering is for interested people to be able to step in and support me/compensate for my shortcomings.

Perhaps being a co-ordinator is exhausting in itself?

‘When you become an adult you realise that the main thing you had in common with your school friends was that you went to the same place every day.’ I can’t remember where I read it, but I remember feeling this as soon as I left college. I didn’t expect to experience the same at university – assuming that people choosing the same course as me would have similar dispositions and passions. With hindsight, I picked the wrong course for the wrong university, but didn’t have the courage at the time to fight any of it.

The difference between such an institutionalised life vs co-ordinating projects remotely is that the institutionalised life has everything timetabled for you. You know at what point of the week you are going to meet who, and where. When you’re running your own project, you don’t have that. The bit that I’m finding a very big challenge at the moment is trying to do the micro work of co-ordinating while at the same time trying to work through the substance of this idea of making Cambridge greater than the sum of our parts. And the substance is ***huge*** – and following a couple of meetings last week just got even bigger, more complex but at the same time, more clear.

‘Oh I’d love to do that!….but it’s in London’

I saw a vacancy in Parliament that normally I’d jump at – the digital engagement manager (see via external candidates). Although it’s below the salary I was on when I was in the civil service, it’s the sort of role that would be right up my street. But health-wise, I couldn’t manage a full time job, let alone one that required a commute to London. And if you look at what has happened with London house prices and rents since I last lived in London in the late 2000s…I don’t know how some of you do it. I really don’t. Combine this with the various conferences, concerts, events, workshops and the like, the cost of train fares (little change from £40) …and you wonder why so few people can access not just the big policy gatherings that happen in London, but also the ‘soft networking’ that happens.

“There’s more to life than London though!”

The Scottish independence referendum catalysed and brought together social forces from the rest of the country – in particular in England – to make this point. One of my ‘selfish’ drivers for Be the change – Cambridge is that the city could be far more interesting than it currently is. Community groups could be larger, more diverse and more exciting than they currently are – if only the public institutions could give them that safe space, support and robust challenge with which to grow.

Dealing with one disappointment after another

Over the past five years, I’ve been out and about to lots of places. Unlike what I call ‘my roaring twenties’, I’ve not come across nearly as many awe-inspiring jaw-dropping events that make you stand back and go: ***Wow!***

The reason why I think it has an impact on my mental health is I sense I am/we’re going backwards. Whether it’s things like turning up to a music or a dance event that has hardly anyone turning up to it, to a community group covering an important part of our city’s life but – despite their hard work keeping the group running, not reflecting the diversity of our city…yes, that gets me down. Perhaps with the political and media rhetoric, I am now much more conscious of ‘being the only brown face in the room’ whereas fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed. The thing is – and as I found out the hard way – I’m often not the best person to be making the challenge. Mental health means I have limited time and energy to devote to any one thing. Hence going for something that might energise more people to be that challenge inside that safe space. This is despite a number of offers/requests I’ve received for me to join various different groups, organisations and even political parties.

Back to the top – ‘just doing it’?

I discussed this with some friends in my school community. The difference between me and perhaps most of the rest of the governing body is that they are in and around school pretty much every day. They are either teaching, picking up children or helping with their homework. Being a single bloke, I have no reason to go into school unless I have a meeting there. I’ve also found I’m at my most productive for the school when I’m working on something for it with a handful of fellow governors. I’ve also found the same has been true with past projects – such as my first digital video training guides.

This is the recurring theme: I’m struggling emotionally with what is a solitary existence – one without structure

Interestingly, the part of life where I’m most content is with the Dowsing Sound Collective. I know that once a week I have to turn up to rehearsals, not think too much about what I have to do, and contribute towards something greater than the sum of our parts with dozens of friendly people – with a very clear goal in sight. This term it’s a sold-out concert at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge in a room with about a thousand people in it.

With my past in the public sector, in my early days I found the opposite with its structure – it was too rigid and inflexible. The organisation’s rigid structure & grade hierarchies meant people only did what they were allowed by their grades or job descriptions. This was amplified by being in an office with too many people charged with doing too little. Hence people in middle and senior management who found themselves with something reasonable interesting or useful all too often jealously guarded such functions from others who might otherwise have helped them. Too much structure can be just as damaging as too much. What made too much structure bearable was the regular salary.

How do you build something that you’re comfortable working with?

This is what I’m trying to figure out. I’ve picked out things that make effective director-PA partnerships work well. For a start, the two have very different talents and dispositions. The other thing is that both should trust and respect, but not fear each other. In terms of structure and processes, both are important for me because the various things I am working on right now are all interlinked with each other. By this I mean that if I were to disappear overnight, all of those things would still be interlinked. It’s not just me that is the common factor that joins them all. It’s more.

Why this matters beyond the world of work for me

It’s a vicious circle. I don’t know when/if I’ll be able to work full-time again, which makes me more anxious about the future, which makes my anxiety and depression worse, and so on. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64? (As Paul McCartney once asked). The prospect of being in a relationship and settling down seems light years away from my current position, so in my case it’s more thinking about familial relationships with extended family. But this is also where decades of housing policy failure is having a very real impact on the life decisions I am taking. Nationally, Shiv Malik and Ed Howker quoted soul-destroying statistics on the percentage of young adults choosing not to settle down or have children because housing costs are too high and because the jobs market is so unstable.

21% of 18- to 44-year-olds without children (2.8 million) admit they are delaying starting a family because of a lack of affordable housing. (Shelter – The Human Cost 2010, p10)

Why would you want to commit to such huge life investments if you don’t know if you’ll have a job next week?

“So…what’ll be different for 2015?”

Creating that structure to work within – & make sure that those who I am working with know about it. This means people will be able to find out very quickly & easily what I am working on, how I am working on it, why I am working on it, with whom I am working with, what the resource/support gaps are and who I need what sort of support from – and what they will get out of it in return.

On mental health – again

Summary

On finding out that you’re not alone, and a big moan about politics too

We’re losing too many good people because of our society’s failure to help people facing mental health challenges. There seems to be a pattern here – of firms and employers losing some of their best employees, as well as the longer term impact on the health of current and former employees. Think James here, and Louise here. These are two that spring to mind – not least because they are two of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with.

‘Great minds don’t think alike’

I can’t remember which newspaper coined that as an advertising slogan, but the one thing that has struck me about a number of people I’ve met and worked with who have struggled with mental health issues is how they’ve not ‘thought like the mainstream’. Others posts in an academic field I’ve stumbled across – in part related to other barriers – that are worth reading are here and here. I’ve lost count of the number of extraordinarily talented people who are facing their own mental health issues. On some days, I describe mine as ‘the black velvet’ [of depression] to my demons of anxiety.

Being ‘burnt out’ for a long time

I almost took it for granted the rumour in economics circles that graduates who went into The City burnt out after a decade because of the workload. When you think about the amount of investment that has gone into a person’s education alone, what a terrible waste of talent. In my case, I still feel burnt out. I spent much of today in bed with a frazzled head. It’s a horrible feeling – one where I still look around and wonder when it’ll come to an end – if it’ll come to an end.

Why would employers care in what’s becoming a ‘tempocracy’?

This is what worries me about the direction of travel we seem to be going in – whether the rise of the zero hour contract to the continual cutting of terms and conditions to people in the public sector. And what for? Do we have to wait for the economic upturn to allow ‘the [very imperfect] market [not least because it’s riddled with information failures and assumptions too strong to be applicable in real life]’ to drive up terms and conditions? There’s also the false economy of those ‘self-employed’ but who would rather be in permanent work. I wonder if senior politicians and policy advisers ****really**** know how people make ends meet. Because if they did, surely we’d be hearing about some very different policies. Or is it a failure of imagination from the Whitehall policy bubble?

So much talent with so much to give – and the desire to give it too…but going to waste

That’s one of the most frustrating things. The people I follow who are struggling are just a raindrop in the ocean of what’s out there. Yet they’re not getting the support that they need. In 2012 the figure of people getting mental health treatment that needed it was as low as 25%. Which made it all the more interesting to read the headlines about the Conservatives realising what a mess the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was.

A former number 10 advisor briefed the Times that “No one apart from Lansley had a clue what he was really embarking on, certainly not the prime minister. He kept saying his grand plans had the backing of the medical establishment and we trusted him. In retrospect it was a mistake.”

You think Lansley had a clue what he was embarking on??? After all he was the one that tabled and drove through the legislation that the Electoral Commission now says charities have to record every time they use social media in a political context – see here.

But getting angry at a failed politician (he’s gone in 2015 – but coming to a corporate boardroom near you) isn’t going to change much. The more I look into these things, the more it comes back to the structure of our economy and society. I wonder whether policy-makers in Whitehall that come up with a loan/debt-related policy for people to pay for things that were previously taxpayer funded considered the mental health impact of debt. That’s before I’ve even mentioned house prices or commuting prices – the latter now so high that some employers actually offer season ticket loans to their employees.

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

This was splashed across the headline of the Cambridge News recently. It just doesn’t feel sustainable anymore. It also makes me question what the senior politicians (in a nutshell, the party leaders and the chancellor/shadow chancellors of this world) have in terms of a vision for local services – and even local government. Will there be a local council left worth standing for outside of any statutory services that the law requires local authorities to provide? Will anyone want to work to deliver such services on an underfunded shoestring budget? The mantra ‘work harder for less with less’ while costs of living remain high and get higher…exactly.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

At a recent visit to Cambridge, Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett started her speech with an apology on behalf of her generation for screwing up the planet and society. I’m halfway between her generation and the one that’s just started university. (I feel so old!) It seems strange that it’s my generation that’s moving into the frame where we have to pick up the baton – where it’ll be people and politicians my age making the decisions.

I look at the problems and the institutions that underpin them. The task ahead of turning things around is more than daunting. It frightens me.

 

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

Summary

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.

2014, but who will have a place in the sun(shine)?

Summary

Where will the inspiration come from? And a challenge for all of you at the end

I’m starting this blogpost with a saccharine advert from the late 1980s – a time when society, like today was also very divided between the haves and have-nots.

A strange time those days from what I remember of childhood. It never occurred to me that there weren’t more people in the media/on telly that looked like me. I was more worried about not looking like them. Why did they have white skin and me not? Growing up in south Cambridge, which was far less diverse than it is today, such things were never discussed. Yet there was never a day in my childhood for example where I remembered ever feeling “young and beautiful” (as sung in the lyrics of that song).

Fast forward to the year 2000 and we have this bouncy number

On the ballroom side, it’s been a popular jive track for years. But at the same time I don’t recall ever feeling as upbeat as the song for any extended period of time. Short, sharp, unsustainable highs followed by long depressions were more the order of those years.

“Young people say they have nothing to live for”

So says a recent study by the Prince’s Trust. In the same article, the Government’s response?

“The government commented that it was doing “everything possible” to help young people find work.”

My one-word response to that breaks Puffles’ house rules so I won’t quote it here. I’d like to see what the full response to the study is, because for a start that response doesn’t actually answer the question. Having a job alone does not automatically equate to having something to live for. The debate on reducing unemployment is far more complex and poisonous as it is – see my thoughts here. All too often, the mindset of politicians and policy-makers is to see the statistics, not the people. Unemployment rates, claimant counts – not whether people are content in their jobs or whether the skills that they have match the jobs or careers that they are in. And nothing about involuntary instability in their workplaces – short, fixed-term contracts or zero hours. You cannot plan ahead in the face of such involuntary instability.

Is the Government doing everything possible?

What the bailout of the banks showed us all is that anything less that what the banks got is not ‘everything possible’. You can see what the banks got via the National Audit Office – see here. And what were the banks compelled to do in return for the benefit of society and the greater good? I’ll leave you to answer that one.

The politics of happiness

It almost seems laughable given what’s happened to so many people that this announcement was made back in 2010. (See here). Interesting from a public-policy-wonk perspective. Yet the entire policy area feels like it’s an interesting topic of conversation for those that go to dinner parties in affluent parts of London but of little connection to the day-to-day existence for the rest of us.

This brings me onto Frances Coppola’s latest blogpost about happiness (see here). One of her points is that happiness is a subjective state of mind – therefore in itself cannot be a policy objective. I also agree with her points comparing material affluence vs strength of relationships. During my year out between college and university, I remember at the time being materially better off, but being very unhappy about both my work and the lack of a decent social life – very different to the early part of my time in upper sixth/year 13. I had far less money but I had the social life built around college friends. Yet during year 13 I had a strong feeling that I wasn’t ready to leave home in the way others were. By the summer of my year out, I definitely was ready. With hindsight I should have quit my job in banking earlier and gone travelling before university. But lack of courage stopped me.

Community stability versus flexible labour markets

This is something I touched in in the latter part of this blogpost. One of the reasons I never settled in London was the transient nature of the population. I later worked out that London has a population turnover of about 10% per year – which is massive. (See here). How can you possibly build strong relationships in a new place when people move on so regularly?

Little co-ordination at a policy level, little inspiration at a personality level, no positive vision for the future

The above has been my take on the political class ever since the banking crash. I can’t think of a single senior politician (by that I’m looking at front-benchers & heads of policy) who I find compellingly inspiring. None of the party leaders are offering anything like a credible, inspirational vision of the future, let alone any idea on how to get there. Nick Clegg’s former adviser Richard Reeves predicts a very ‘lacklustre’ election battle in 2015 – see here. My view is that we cannot and should not let the political parties and the mainstream media give us this. I still remember the phrase:

“Today, the election campaign will be fought over the economy as David Cameron visits…while Gordon Brown is in…”

…ringing in my years from 2010. My reaction at the times was:

“Says who?”

That was probably the first time I really started thinking about who was controlling the media debate during the election, and what people could do to get around this control. At the time, I couldn’t do a thing because I was in the civil service. My only contribution locally was firing off a series of questions to each of the candidates, giving them all a blank slate and saying that my decision would be based entirely on their local manifestos and their answers.

Some of us lead lives of quiet desperation. Sometimes that desperation can no longer stay quiet

To mis-quote a line from the Japanese version of the ballroom dancing film ‘Shall we dance?’ In one sense, this is the stage that I’m at – and have been for some time. Perhaps there’s a strange honour in going down fighting rather than imploding hidden away out of sight. Hence wanting to make 2014 different locally.

Doing things that have not been done before

I’ve stated both in my previous blogpost here and also in the one before that here that me and several others are going to be trying some new things in 2014. We’re still at the scoping and planning phase at the moment. What actions we’ll end up doing remains to be seen. But my take is that at some stage, some of us have to take risks – risks that will involve stuff not working or ridicule more than anything else, rather than violent stuff like death, injury or arrest. It’s seldom a good idea to put people with anxiety disorders in the face of violent confrontation. The fallout can emotionally paralyse us for months afterwards.

Being active and creating that sense of purpose

For me, it’s being active – and active with a plan and a purpose – that will make or break my 2014. What’s been really nice of late is that people locally are expressing appreciation for the time, effort and thought I’ve put into this. More importantly for me, it’s kicking off things that they are doing. The atmosphere for the people I’ve been talking & listening to is genuinely ‘How can we help?’ – which has also been my response when they’ve shown me their ideas too. As I’ve stated previously, making a real difference is not something I can hope to do alone.

Linking up with those outside your geographical area

One of the great things I’ve seen with social media is when people who have been corresponding for quite some time meet up face-to-face for the first time. It’s fascinating to see conversations take place between people who have met for the first time but talk as if they’ve known each other for years.

And that’s my hope for 2014 for all of you: That you’ll all try and meet for the first time some of the people that you’ve been corresponding with on social media. It doesn’t have to be a 1-2-1 – it can be a self-organised gathering such as a pub lunch, a protest march or even a summer picnic. I’d love to see those of you outside of London and the South East putting on such gatherings and inviting those of us in London and the South East outside of the bubble that we live in. Introduce us to your communities too. Chances are we’ll learn something new, become more aware of something previously we’d heard little of.

 

Puffles looks at trains again

Summary

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.

 

 

What would a ‘digital skills in the community’ program look like?

Summary

Persuading communities and institutions to think much more creatively about all things digital

It’s got to the stage where I feel I need to significantly broaden my skills sets – in particular some of the broader basics. It’s one of those things where I feel I sort of vaguely know what something is about, but have never really put it into practice. This is why the process of making my beginners’ userguides for social media (see here) were an incredible learning experience for me. I brought together a number of very talented but under-employed young people, gave them a framework and an outcome to work with, and let them unleash their talents at the challenge I gave them.

What are the digital skills that people want and need?

This in part follows on blogposts here and here – the latter being my demand for a coding school. We’re sort of getting one in Cambridge next summer, but it’s aimed at 16-19 year olds and costs far too much for me. (See here). Also, with coding there feels like there is so much information that I struggle to get my head around that I can’t make an informed choice. Think of it as someone illiterate saying: “I want to learn how to write”. Which language do you want to write in? With what tool do you want to write, and on which medium/material do you want to write on? Now imagine that the illiterate person knows nothing about the variety of written languages across the globe, the tools you can write with or the materials you can write on – from paper to computer screen to a brick wall.

So the challenge here is informed choice: People are not able to make sense of the information that is in front of them. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve recommended different programming/coding languages. Yet this matters. The same principles apply with the basic IT courses that teach the Microsoft Office suite of programmes: You end up locking people into a commercial and very expensive suite of software. In one sense I was lucky during the mid-1990s when I did a GCSE in information systems – we were taught concepts as the school was still using the old Acorn computers. Thus word processing, spreadsheets and databases were the terms we used rather than the trademarked brand names – which came later.

Method of delivery

I’m thinking here about the people (like me) who cannot sit down and do ‘distance learning’ or learning at home in isolation. It’s simply not my preferred method of learning for something practical. I personally need people to converse with, and to bounce ideas off. I also struggle with the single ‘one day’ courses – a couple which I tried in London not long after leaving the civil service. They just didn’t work for me, even though they were reasonably affordable.

That said, education in the community needs to account for different learning styles. How do you ensure you are covering as many of them as possible? Furthermore, where do you try to get funding in these constrained times. Commercially available training such as this one are prohibitively expensive for most people.

Learning creatively and imaginatively

In one sense the ECDL framework (see here) has started to expand beyond the Office suite of products. (I completed the standard version over a decade ago). I can’t say I learnt anything particularly new back then. If anything, my big complaint about those sorts of courses is how utterly unimaginative they were when I did them. Ditto when I went on a course to learn about basic CSS/HTML. The printed book we had to learn from was written by an American which meant that culturally it did not sit well with a UK audience. The case study we were given to work with was to design a webpage for a dog. For a dog. Weird Al Yankovic & Donny Osmond spoofed the entire concept (see here) in a satirical take of this original number. (The spoof is the first one, the original the second one).

“I gotta biz-ness doin’ websites – when my friends need code who do they call?

I do H-T-M-L for them all – even got a web page for my dog”

My point here being: “What are the really bad cliches that we want to avoid?” What are the learning-killers? Bland, poor communicators are one. Inappropriate materials are another. No real context is a third. There are many more.

A sense of structure

One of the things I’m trying to do for myself for 2014 is come up with a list of ‘digital stuff’ that I feel I need to know about ***and*** be able to demonstrate (if only to myself) that I can use them. Ditto with making use of the software and hardware that I spent a fair amount of money on after leaving the civil service. It was only making the digital videos that I got a sense of both being tested to their limits.

The important thing about structure is the sequencing. In what order do you recommend people learn the different components? Does the package of components connect to something that is far greater than the sum of their parts? What are the basic things that people need to know before they go onto the more advanced things? For example how much about spreadsheets do people need to know before going into something around big data? How much around basic journalism to people need to know before doing something around data journalism – a growing area?

Delivery ideas

I’m bouncing off a blogpost by the brilliant Jennifer ‘Jay Jay’ Jones on community media cafes and other things. (See here). In a nutshell, JJ is an inspiration – I had the pleasure of meeting her over a year ago when she came to visit Cambridge. The work that she’s doing in Scotland to me looks like many of the things I would like to do in Cambridge – but as part of a team and a wider group of people.

In Cambridge we’ve got the very good Cambridge Online which hosts the free Net-Squared social media surgeries. I’m a volunteer at the latter and demand for social media surgeries has shot up since I started volunteering, moving from once every three months to once every month. The problem is that Cambridge Online is forever struggling for sustainable sources of funding – even though there is clearly demand for these sorts of basic services that they provide. There are also specialist groups, such as the Cambridge Bloggers’ group (see here). But how do you get the sense of having a comprehensive suite of skills that covers the basics and beyond? This is part of the thinking behind the ‘Open Badges’ scheme by Mozilla – the Firefox people. (See here).

The poisoned narrative around adult education

This is what senior politicians from all parties simply do not understand: Lifelong learning is not just about basic skills for employment, nor is it simply about flower-arranging workshops for middle class mummies. Both Labour and the Coalition have a lot to answer for in terms of the cuts that have happened to adult and community education in recent years. (See this blogpost for more on this). Too much of our political class still digitally illiterate – I’ve had my run-ins at a local level with several councillors kicking sand in my face as a direct result. As the following article states:

By investing in adult education, we can create stronger communities

But where is that investment going to come from, and will it be sustained?

So…what should be in a ‘digital learning in the community’ program?

Let’s assume we’re starting from year zero here – and I’m ****really interested**** in your thoughts on this.

Basics

We could take the ECDL framework and have things like

  • Word processing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Databases
  • Slides/presentations
  • Email and the internet

But there are also other important basic concepts such as:

  • File management
  • Computer security
  • Staying safe online
  • Data protection

What else to people use at a basic level?

  • Basic social media – Twitter, Facebook, Blogging, RSS
  • Basic image manipulation/digital photography

But then there are things that people are now using more of as a result of wider smartphone uptake

  • Basic short mobile digital video clips (without editing)

Then you’re also onto things like:

  • Creating basic webpages
  • Basic coding
  • Search engine optimisation – SEO
  • Basic data analysis
  • Mobile and apps
  • Basic gaming

That’s a hell of a lot of basics for a basic program!

That’s my point. Now, for those of you over the age of…30, go back to 1990. Where were we with all things computing? Yes, we had basic console games for some of us who were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, but how much of it was incorporated into our learning? How far have curriculums and learning programs evolved to account for the rapid growth of new skills that are now being demanded by employers?

Now, how do you put all of the above into a context that is meaningful and won’t bore the tears of the people learning? How do you also ensure that the content is continually refreshed to account for rapid changes in technology and how people use it?

This is something I would love to spend some time exploring with you and others – bringing together a group of interested parties to play with these ideas to see what we can come up with.

Any takers?

Cambridge Area Partnership joins up the dots

Summary

Taking the first steps to overcoming some massive cultural, historical, public policy and institutional barriers to make a difference for young people

I was on a panel for an event that brought together schools, employers and local council officers to tackle the local challenges facing Cambridgeshire’s 14-19 year olds. Of the various institutions represented, it was strange to note that I was a former student of…five of them within the past two decades.

‘How can you play a part in shaping the workforce of the future?’

…was the question – or rather the theme of the late afternoon gathering at Coleridge Community College.

Cambridge Area Partnership is one of those partnerships that, for me has stepped into fill the gap in co-ordination caused by the fragmentation of the public sector. Irrespective of their supporters or detractors, the impact of academies has made it much harder for local government in principle to co-ordinate activities across state schools in their area. It is more than just a schools’ co-ordinating network though – as shown by today’s event that had head teachers, employers and their representatives, local council officials, elected politicians…and Puffles.

The hyperlocal context

This was probably only the second event I’ve been to where I’ve been able to merge my experience in Whitehall with what has happened on the ground over the past couple of decades. Being able to switch instantaneously from a high-level big picture view of things to a detailed view of things on the ground in my neighbourhood was quite a strange experience.

On the panel we had two head teachers – the principals of Swavesey Village College and Cambridge Regional College. We also had Catherine Condie of TWI and Heidi Mulvey, the Community Engagement Manager of Cambridge University Press. Finally there was Grace Bilney, a student at Parkside Sixth Form, along with myself. Part of my remit that I discussed sometime prior with Anne Bailey, the organiser, was to challenge both panellists and delegates in the context of being local, from my experience in the civil service and from my existing community activism work. (Readers new to this blog see my various blogposts on Cambridge here).

The recent local history is important

The reason being is that it helps explain how we got to where we are today. There are two things that strike me about the local history of schools in South Cambridge. The first is that the schools themselves have changed – and on the whole improved immensely. The quality of the teaching and teacher training from my experience is a significant step on from what it was in the mid-1990s. All of the institutions that I attended represented at the event have also undergone significant building programmes, making some of them unrecognisable in a very short space of time. And rightly so given the shambolic state of some of the buildings and facilities.

At the same time, the reputation and cultures of some of the institutions has remained almost stuck in time in some respects. During the early 1990s, I got the impression from local parents that it was not the done thing for adults from polite society to send their children to Coleridge – regarded as a failing school. I had a number of friends from primary school that went there, so was quite pleased to see them contributing to one of the most successful exam results the school had achieved for many years – resulting in me meeting up with many of them at Hills Road Sixth Form College later on.

Speaking to a number of people at the gathering, the culture within affluent middle class communities in Cambridge still seems to be that Hills Road Sixth Form College is the academic gold standard to aim for, and that if you miss that it’s either staying on at school or going onto Long Road Sixth Form College if you were an ‘arty’ type, with Cambridge Regional College being seen as the place where schools sent their no-hopers. Having completed courses at all three institutions I have no idea what that makes me! Yet having attended each of those institutions and also having recently met and listened to staff and students at all three of those institutions, the aged stereotypes no longer hold water.

Challenging those negative stereotypes in local communities

What I thought was great to see was a diverse audience of people with the capacity to make a positive impact standing up to be counted. As far as I’m aware, the three main political parties were represented. We had a couple of Conservative councillors from East Cambridgeshire District Council. From the city, we had Cllr Paul Saunders, the Mayor of Cambridge who was there for the main presentations and the panel, and Julian Huppert who hot-footed it from Parliament to deliver a very powerful keynote speech. One of our local Labour councillors, Cllr Noel Kavanagh was also there too – so many thanks to all of them for coming along. I think it’s important for things like this for the local political parties to come together and visibly show their support – especially to the schools and employers, so I’m glad they did.

Furthermore, we had representatives from both Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities, as well as employers large and small. We also had JCI Cambridge there too – who I can best describe as ‘business people in the community for the community’. (I’m a member too). Would Coleridge have been able to have convened a similar gathering say 20 years ago? Even today, I think there are some parts of Cambridge’s residential community that would be surprised Coleridge could pull something like this off – so credit to Beverly Jones and team for doing so. You proved the doubters wrong!

Onto the very difficult challenge of planning and co-ordination

This was the issue that came up time and again from all of the sectors represented. In and around Cambridge we’re doing some really interesting and innovative things to support young people, but it’s all too ad-hoc and unplanned. I also think we’re reaching the limits of what that approach can achieve. Andrew Daly, the Principal of Swavesey pulled me up on my complaint about the lack of planning, saying that schools are now much better at the longer term planning – which is splendid to hear. I pay tribute to anyone being a head teacher in this political environment, and I say that as someone charged with overseeing the actions of a primary school head teacher in my capacity as a local school governor.

The bit that I was thinking of was both the horizontal and vertical planning and co-ordination. Let me explain.

Schools

With schools, there needs to be some input from what local employers – and organisations generally – can offer for free at the planning phase of the academic year. For example when is the best time of year for a given school to be sending its children over to visit an employer? Or when is the best time to offer work experience? This allows for the planning and preparation to be done.

Secondly, there is the perspective of the child’s journey through school. At which point in the child’s journey is it best to have the site visits? To have the speakers coming into schools? Is it early in year 7? Is it just before they select their options for GCSEs? Is it at the end of year 10? What is the best sequencing structure so that the students are exposed to as many positive experiences outside of the school curriculum as possible?

Employers

As Michelle Lamprecht from MathWorks explained, you can’t do everything all at once. Better to have a high quality in-depth relationship with an institution and a small number of students at a time than trying to spread your resources too lightly and having limited impact. (Even though Michelle then gave a very comprehensive list of ‘social action’ activities that they do in and around Cambridge).

Planning is also an essential element. Talking to several employers that take on young people with few qualifications, one of the things they said they had problems with was the lack of essential basic skills – in particular team working and communication skills. This is where I pointed them to both the Prince’s Trust Team Program and to the National Citizen Service Programme.

My point being that both those courses do some of that essential groundwork and preparation that school leavers heading straight for the jobs market may not get in school. For the record, I did the Prince’s Trust Team Program a year after graduating. I had been temping on and off but felt I needed a challenge that was not an academic one. Those three months made three years at university look like a walk in the park in comparison. Within a few months of completing that course I joined the civil service, and a couple of years later was on the Civil Service Fast Stream.

Local councillors

This is where you can play a part both as local champions for schools in your ward, and in your role influencing the council corporately to do that essential convening and co-ordinating role. As I mentioned earlier, a number of you are doing some very good outreach work with schools and colleges (as some of you have mentioned here) but it’s all too ad-hoc and uncoordinated.

A long term strategy?

As one of the employers asked me,

“What does success look like?”

Good question. It will be different for different people. For example:

  • Schools: Success might be having that outside engagement having a positive impact on attainment/pupil progress while at the same time providing a more suitable challenge for students for whom higher education is not their desired goal.
  • Employers: Success might be talent development – bringing through young people in partnership with schools who later go onto become employees. It might also be positive publicity/reputation you get within your local community as a result of the engagement.
  • Councils/councillors: Success might simply be making a difference to young people. It might also raise awareness of your role within the community and of people’s knowledge of what councils and councillors can do. And let’s face it, political institutions and politicians could do with a bit of positive coverage.
  • Communities in general: Greater interaction between the generations, dispelling some of the negative myths, learning across the piece and a more exciting and vibrant community all round.

Success…how do you get there?

This comes back to the long term strategy. What are the things that need to be done or put in place for the successes to be realised? The event this evening was one of them. 70-80 of us from diverse sectors coming together to discover what we can do to make a difference. Actually for me, it was just as much about identifying the problems and barriers. The next step for me is hosting a series of problem-solving gatherings. A bit like hack days but not so tech-focussed. This is where, through a series of guided workshops, people come together to try and solve the problems. Problems such as:

  • What does success look like and how will we know if we’ve succeeded?
  • How do we overcome the problem of poor co-ordination?
  • How do we do the planning with schools?
  • What information do we need? What information don’t we have and where will we get it?
  • How do we change the culture on skills within local communities and institutions?
  • How do we solve the awareness-raising challenge?
  • How do we engage with ‘hard to reach’ groups and to those at risk of falling through the social security net?

Workshops on the challenges above need the input not just from the adults, but from the young people themselves. What does all of this look like through the eyes of a 15 year old?

Leadership and risk taking

You’re dealing with tight financial margins in a tough economic climate, young people, a society hostile to anything that looks like politics, schools and colleges under the Ofsted microscope, and a media that loves a bad news story. What could possibly go wrong?

***Everything***

But then doing nothing also won’t achieve much either. We can do ‘business as usual’ – but then business as usual will be the result. From the energy in the breakout sessions – it’s always the breakout sessions where the interesting conversations happen – I felt a desire from the people there that they wanted to try something radically different. That requires taking some risks, trying to mitigate for them and accepting that some things won’t work. Hence your feedback loops and evaluation on your activities are essential.

What sort of things do I mean by leadership? It means trying to do or change something that might make a positive difference, knowing that it won’t be easy and that there’s a risk that some things might not work out. In terms of specifics, it might be:

  • The director/chief executive of an employer committing their firm to the partnership, and making some specific commitments to a school or young people as a result
  • A local councillor lobbying their council to help with the co-ordination role
  • The local council that creates some simple templates that help those taking part manage the risks which don’t create bureaucratic overload
  • The head-teacher who brings in new systems and processes to make it easier for staff – teachers and admin staff to be open to outside offers of help
  • The local voluntary organisation that reaches out to schools to invite young people to take part in activities that improve their team building and communication skills – while having fun at the same time
  • The high profile politician/MP/minister that can provide the necessary impetus to overcome any major barriers that arise

So…next steps?

From the gathering that we had, I felt it was clear that the commitment is there. Now we need to get into some of the specifics around planning and problem-solving. The next gathering – hopefully early in the new year to maintain momentum – I believe needs to clarify what the vision we want to achieve for the different people and organisations taking part. Then it needs to start some scoping work on how we’re going to achieve this.

The autumn statement

Summary

More political tactics than radical strategy and long-term vision as Osborne and Balls crossed swords

I never find these parliamentary statements particularly pleasant viewing. Too much testosterone-fuelled willy-waving and point-scoring for my liking.

Statistical spin on the National Infrastructure Plan

Frances Coppola complained to Puffles late last night that the National Infrastructure Plan (see here) was a very politicised document. In a quick scan at stupid-o-clock in the morning, I could see what she meant. The ‘mood music’ of the document was very much comparing the current administration with the previous one. The graph on page 6 was particularly striking, with no clear reason as to why you’d compare 2005-10 with 2011-13. For me it would have been better to have broken down the figures on a year-by-year basis – if anything to get a sense of changes over time. This and other data/statistics’ issues in the document may be something that some of you may wish to refer to/consult with the UK Statistics Authority, should you feel it merits such action.

Frances also noted that cuts to capital spending announced in the 2010 spending review (note the cuts to capital spending department-by-department here) were hardly mentioned. Compare that to the case made for infrastructure investment on pages 15-21.

The lack of infrastructure spending over the past couple of decades

The document concedes that there has been a lack of infrastructure spending across administrations. One of the things Labour I feel still needs to work out is why, over 13 years it failed to deliver on infrastructure investment over a number of key areas – in particular energy security, renewables, and the integrated public transport system that John Prescott lauded in the hot summer of 1997. My own take is that the continual ministerial reshuffles and reorganisation of government departments made it very difficult to get the long term stability needed to deliver on those commitments, even though arguably the money was there at the time.

Do you quench or choke off the demand?

On page 16 there are some striking forecasts on rising demand for road usage through the tables on rising congestion. It reminds me a programme I watched about The Joy of Logic. Basically there were lots of little political mind games you could play with it – until it got into the heavier maths. One of the arguments went: “Bad stuff is happening, and in order to stop bad stuff from happening, something must be done. Action X is a something, therefore action X will stop bad stuff from happening”.

One of the options civil servants have to give to ministers when presenting them with a series of options along with their recommendation, is the ‘do nothing’ option. With good reason too. Foreign policy is a useful context to look at in this. Why does the UK intervene in some countries and not others, even though what’s happening may be very similar?

In the context of road congestion, what are the other policy options that can deal with congestion directly, and what are the options that can deal with congestion indirectly? What will be the health and social impacts of say, building more roads? What sort of public infrastructure is likely to have the greatest impact on alleviating congestion and where?

Looking at policy issues beyond a departmental silo

Congestion

The direct policy levers that the Department for Transport has on congestion are primarily financial or legislative. You can spend money on X, Y or Z, or you can legislate to restrict the driving of certain types of vehicles on certain roads. Think bus lanes or changing the maximum weight of freight lorries.

Indirect policy levers are the ones the DfT has limited influence over. One of the things many towns and cities have to cope with is ‘the school run’. When you give parents much greater ‘choice’ about which state schools to send their children to, as opposed to limiting their choice to very local schools, one of the consequences of that policy is increased traffic congestion. In Cambridge we have three of the biggest further education colleges in the county – Cambridge Regional College along with Long Road and Hills Road Sixth Form Colleges. I went to the open days of the latter two recently, and met students there who were from outside the county. This mirrors my experience at both institutions well over a decade ago. Now, there are very good reasons for having large catchments for further education colleges – not least because the smaller towns and villages may not have the course options or the facilities that the young people need.

Housing too is another indirect influence on transport congestion. Wouldn’t it be good if low-paid workers could live close to their places of work rather than having to commute long distances into city centres? When I was at school in the early 1990s in Cambridge, one of my teachers commuted in from Downham Market every day – a concept I found to be crazy at the time. (Actually, I still do). But then the Chancellor announced today that councils will be required to sell ‘expensive’ social housing to help fund the building of new social housing. What impact will that have in Central London? Will it turn it into an enclave for the stateless super-rich?

Under-16 pregnancies

This is something that confuddles politicians for a number of reasons. Policy-wise, the main levers have been held by the Department of Health. But again, this is an issue that you cannot simply throw money at, nor pass increasingly restrictive legislation on, in order to reduce the number of pregnancies experienced by girls under the legal age of consent.

As far as institutions go, children and young people fall primarily under the responsibility for the Department for Education. Thus if you want early intervention on the issue to reduce the risk of conception under 16, in principle one of the best places to start is in the schools. Yet sex and relationship education is an extremely controversial area where religious organisations lobby strongly. Not only that, religious organisations control the delivery of education – and SRE at a number of schools. If you are a minister in a constituency with a number of religious schools in, and you are in a volatile swing seat, are you going to be minded to bring in a policy that has sound evidence backing it but one that will upset the religious hierarchy?

You’ve then got the issues around women’s rights (which falls under the Government Equalities Office), and the issues around women in the media, which falls under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Finally, you’ve got issues around encouraging young women into further and higher education (Department for Business) and into employment where they won’t be discriminated against or harassed. (Department for Work and Pensions). And suddenly the policy waters look much less clear.

Back to Osborne’s plans

I’ve muted the sound on the tellybox because I can’t be doing with the ***Yah-Boo-Sucks*** coming from the green benches!

There are a number of things that some of Puffles’ followers have welcomed – such as the capital gains tax on foreign-owned homes. (Why it won’t come in until April 2015 I have no idea). Julian Huppert’s just mentioned the Cambridge City Deal and Osborne’s said that the deal is likely to be signed off in the very near future – which for me is splendid stuff as I know a number of friends in local councils in and around Cambridge have been working their socks off on that deal. Also too, the plans to toll the A14 have been dropped – something that many of Puffles’ Cambridgeshire followers have been campaigning long and hard over. There was also an announcement on advanced apprenticeships – something that I’d have expected Labour to have championed in a very big way in office but for whatever reason did not. To be fair to the Labour front benchers that came to visit Puffles not so long ago, they said that not prioritising young people that did not go to university was a mistake. (As if they come to visit Puffles rather than the local residents of Cambridge!)

Infrastructure funding in principle

Again, this is something I’m surprised previous administrations didn’t move on earlier on – perhaps stung by the huge losses investors took with the Channel Tunnel. Again, I don’t have a huge problem with the principle of having UK pension funds and insurers investing in infrastructure given that such funds from abroad are able to do the same. You only have to look at some of the signs on big construction sites or on the plaques following completion as to which funds stumped up the cash.

More cuts

This is the bit that worries me because of the impact on the front line. One of the criticisms made of the National Citizen Service program by some of you here was that it was too expensive and diverted much needed cash from existing local, successful and cheaper youth programs. Personally I don’t see it as a straight-forward either/or swap. I certainly don’t think central government should view it or ‘spin’ it that way either.

For me, local government has been caught between two negative but very different Whitehall/ministerial cultures over the past 15 years. The first under New Labour was one that had a very low regard for local government – reflected by the huge increase in targets and top-down management from Whitehall via regional government offices. (I started my civil service career in the latter in Cambridge – since closed). The other is the current regime under Eric Pickles, who made it his clear priority to roll back the activities (and funding) of local government – or ‘municipal socialism’ as he was once quoted.

Reducing statutory duties?

Because there are still lots of them – 1,335 according to the NAO in 2011. (See p4 here) Furthermore, according to the same document over 50% of local government funding is spent on social care – adult and children’s services. (P11).

One of the things that has been noticeable about not just this but previous administrations is how the division between old and young have been made more apparent by public policy choices. Free bus travel for pensioners vs more debt and few jobs for young people. Furthermore, the mood music from the media and some parts of society around young people has become absolutely toxic. Hence why more of us are speaking out in support of young people – such as Ben Goldacre here. I recently did similar at a council meeting, pulling up an elderly resident who I felt unfairly stereotyped young people as yobs.

Where is the positive long term vision from mainstream politics?

Especially for our young people? I’ve been going through some really intensive depressive mood swings of late because I’m struggling to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Not least because of my own frustrations at overcoming what feels like institutionalised apathy or resignation at a local level here. Perhaps that is why I find the gatherings of people at more ‘unstructured’ events so much more energising than death-by-expert-panellist conferences – as exemplified by this passionate take on the #ChangeHow event I was at.

This is what I want to see from politicians of all sides: A positive vision of the society you think we can become, and a coherent plan on how we’re going to get there. Irrespective of what’s contained in this document, I simply don’t think the current political systems, institutional structures and mindsets of mainstream politicians allow for them to articulate that vision, let alone set out how we might get there. Hence wanting to do something about it. Part of that challenge is working out what that something is.

Is the Prince of Wales onto something with his new initiative?

Summary

Amid the wave of publicity, could the impact of a number of initiatives (this being the latest) to re-engage young people in politics and civic society have far more radical impacts than establishment figures realise? (If so, good).

The challenge is this:

And this is what young people in East Anglia are doing with National Citizens’ Service:

Then at a local-to-me level, there’s been Puffles running riot all over the place spreading a message across Cambridge of social media for social action (see here followed up by this).

“Ah – grockles & peasants! Step up to serve me, then step back and grovel!”

There are two themes that seem to be running through the launch of the Prince of Wales’ Step up to serve initiative – one that brought David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg together. The first is the positive one of re-engaging young people, working with them to make a positive difference in their communities. The second is the more sceptical – even cynical, which is that royalty, the financial and the political establishment are the causes of the problems that young people face, so it’s a bit rich for them to be getting young people to volunteer.

Understanding the thinking of both points, and spotting the flaws in both too

An ‘Establishment’ view

In the grand scheme of things, those at the top of powerful and influential organisations and institutions will be happy – even encouraged that people are re-engaging in politics. On one side, having more people engaged and feeding into the decision-making processes could improve policy-making and also help improve public services. Having a more interactive relationship between citizen and state, or rather citizen and public service is better for everyone…isn’t it?

For a more sceptical take, such programmes give those in the offices of state and those that socialise with them a greater degree of political legitimacy over what they are doing, while at the same time mitigating for the worst impacts of the policies of the government of the day. Think of all of those under-employed who are being supported by their families because of the state of the economy and housing means they cannot afford to earn a living that allows them to afford their own place.

An anti-establishment view

Getting people to do things for free that they should otherwise be paid for means someone else bears the cost/burden of supporting those that work for free. One of the political left-right debates is over the roles of charities in public services. Some on the political left feel that some services provided for by charities (and funded by donations & fund-raising) should be provided for by the state. That such services are still needed are symptoms of failings to properly fund public services by politicians.

What some critics of the principle of such projects such as National Citizens’ Service miss is the perspective of the young people that take part. As far as many of them are concerned, it’s actually good fun.

Some of them have unleashed their creativity by making digital videos of their experiences – the above being just one of many I’ve spotted. Earlier this year, I joined around a hundred 16-17 year olds from across Cambridgeshire for their graduation event – speaking to several of those that took part, as well as the course leaders. (See my blogpost here). Some in activist groups I’m glad to say have understood the importance of both the fun element and also the ‘out and about’ element too. For me, the student-based People and Planet are exemplars in the events they organise. In the next few years, I’d love to see them hold their annual ‘shared planet’ event in Cambridge – mixing young people from the schools, colleges and universities in Cambridge with young activists from all over the country and beyond. The impact that this explosion of energy and ideas could have could be massive.

The impact of these programmes – young people are not static. Once you get a critical mass of them together, they are dynamic

That is what I don’t think the politicians or those in the institutions that hold power understand. The potential impact of all of this is definitely not business as usual. This for me helps explain why people have been shunning political parties – business as usual is not working for too many of us.

Parliament week opening the eyes of a dusty and stale political establishment

I followed several Parliament Week events on Twitter, and took Puffles along to one in Westminster too. (See here). The number of people who were ‘not the usual suspects’ taking part was brilliant to see. Even more so when Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary of Cabinet Office threw open his institution’s doors to let a group of young coders try out some splendid ideas with government data. (See here).

There was one thing that disappointed me greatly though. That was the complete lack of publicised and linked events in Cambridge. My message to schools, colleges, universities and other public institutions in Cambridge: Let’s make Cambridge a hive of activities and events for Parliament Week 2014. I’m not just thinking about talks and debates. I’m thinking theatre and musical performances, problem-solving workshops and outreach to people and communities where both politics and civic society all too often passes people by.

Why is all of this important?

It’s important because politics is not working – whether at a local, national or a global level. Nothing could be more striking about the importance of making politics work for the people than the collapse of the International Climate Change talks in Warsaw this week (See here). I’ve been following the tweets on Puffles’ feed from several environmentalists at the talks, and they were describing how the talks got hijacked by big businesses and fossil fuel interests. See this statement from Friends of the Earth, who were there with Oxfam, Greenpeace and Action Aid.

‘We’re living in an increasingly networked and connected world, yet we’re increasingly disconnected from the politics that shapes it’

Paraphrasing one of the quotations from the first digital video above. I’ve seen what that disconnection looks like – the closed working groups where only vested interests get to have the contact with policy officials – of which I was one. Social media has given us the technology to dynamite these doors. Why should the lobbyists and vested interests only have to speak to the civil servants, politicians and ministers? Why not put those interests in front of public audiences and get them to account for themselves directly? What impact would that have if we could get Parliament to pass the necessary legislation to make that happen? (By that I’m thinking in particular of compelling private firms that deliver public services to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act for starters, so as to inform debates).

That means people and institutions that don’t normally get that much detailed public scrutiny (such as the finances of the Royal Family, or the decisions made by powerful privately owned institutions such as newspaper proprietors & editors) should be compelled to face a great deal more.

To conclude:

There are lots of us that are more than willing to step up to serve. But those with power, wealth, secrecy and influence have to do the same – and that means doing things that they may not want to. (Such as relinquishing large chunks of that power, wealth, secrecy and influence to free up the rest of us).

At the same time, those at the top of large institutions backing this scheme will need to learn quickly that for young activists stepping up will involve some radical changes to their institutions and how they are held accountable. Don’t think that the potential impact of these programmes will be political business as usual. It won’t.