What should the relationship be between local community reporters & trained journalists?

Summary

Some thoughts following some bedtime reading and a radio interview with Cambridge 105 – in the context of a new law passed on reporting on council meetings

The announcement of the new regulations is here – Parliament having approved these. Earlier this week, Julian Clover of community radio station Cambridge 105FM invited me into the studios primarily to talk about Be The Change – Cambridge. That was prior to the announcement being made about the change in the law. Given that I’m one of the people directly affected by the law due to live-tweeting and now filming meetings, we had a discussion about the new regulations as well. Still being a novice with digital video, I chose to film the discussion on my phone – mainly for my own learning but also to raise awareness that people can film council meetings if there was any doubt before.

The Twitter exchanges in this link show there was some uncertainty about live tweeting from meetings. Either way, this has now been cleared up by the new regulations, and situations such as the one Richard Taylor found himself in in the clip below, will become things of the past.

The rise of the community reporter

One of the things Julian Clover and I discussed off-air was the link between the media and community reporters. In the case of Cambridge 105FM, they are a not-for-profit organisation relying heavily on volunteers, membership fees and donations. (See here). As a station that serves Cambridge and not much further on the FM frequency (due to the conditions of their radio licence), having close community links is essential – as is their subscription to IRN’s national news feed.

In Cambridge 105FM’s case, Julian said having residents/community reporters summarising what happened at council meetings through podcasts or voice memos, or even interviewing individual councillors for short 30 second soundbites would be a great help to the station and the wider community. In principle I agree. After all, I’m experimenting with this very thing myself as this audioclip shows.

Community reporting and local democracy

As far as local democracy goes, there are a handful of us that attend Cambridge council meetings fairly regularly who also have enough technical and/or specialist knowledge, the confidence and time to carry out this role. I dare say that many people with smartphones have the technical knowledge to record, edit, publish and publicise what happens in council meetings. Whether they have the desire to attend such meetings or the specialist knowledge of some of the more arcane procedures or difficult areas of local government (such as planning law) is up for debate. Despite having worked a short while in planning casework in my early civil service days (Yeah! – we ***owned*** those tree preservation order appeal files!)

I tended not to stick around for the bits of meetings that involved planning applications – even though the decisions were essential. One which I stuck around for last year involved a local council committee ordering a local resident to demolish an extension he had built in breach of planning laws. But someone building in a conservation area without permission, or cutting down trees protected by law can raise local tensions. A committee of councillors, a couple of committee staff, a planning officer, the resident concerned and their representative and an audience of…six locals and a dragon fairy…it’s not the most glamorous night out. But these are the grass roots of democracy, and they happen all too often under-reported in communities across the country.

Community reporting and impartiality

The broadcast media has to report politics impartially – not showing any favour to any political party. Going by this judgement, it also extends to adverts. Both Cambridge 105FM and Shape Your Place – Cambridge are currently appealing for more people to become community reporters. In principle I don’t have a problem with this. The bit that concerns me is the availability of accessible training for those that want to take on this role. The last thing a community radio station wants is to lose its licence because clips submitted by community reporters were unwittingly breaching regulations on impartiality. Being a community reporter is not the same as being a journalist. I also don’t see them as necessarily being in competition with each other.

Community reporting and local news journalists

In the case of the latter – in my case lets take Elodie Harper of ITV Anglia and Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News because I know them both, they need to know that their news sources are credible, trustworthy and authoritative. A couple of months ago, I was walking past Cambridge railway station and spotted a recently-skewered car – the driver of which having ignored the rising bollard signs. A couple of Twitter exchanges between me and Chris, and a short news story was on the Cambridge News website soon after – with Puffles getting a photo credit. That for me is an example of how some of the more routine news stories can be sourced. As the trained journalist, Chris asked a series of specific questions that I, as an untrained community reporter wouldn’t have thought of.

That’s what good training does – you instinctively click into work mode when something comes up. In this case, Chris’s training taught him to ask a series of basic but essential questions of me – the source, in response to what I had posted. It’s similar when I end up having political discussions with local political activists & their ideas. My old civil service training kicks in and I throw basic, essential and sometimes tricky public policy-related questions at them. (How are you funding it? What are the top three risks? How are you managing those risks? What are the alternatives to your policy and why have you discounted them – and on what evidence base?)

In the case of Elodie being on TV, she’s faced with a greater geographical area so inevitably covers fewer but ‘bigger’ news items. While Chris can be out and about alone, Elodie often has to work with at least one other person – eg camera operator. Also, Elodie has the additional role of being a news anchor as she has been on Anglia News this week. The challenge for both Elodie and Chris in this new digital media era is working out who their eyes and ears on the ground are in places where they cannot be. In Chris’s case when two council meetings are scheduled at the same time in different venues, having a familiar face live-tweeting from the meeting he otherwise misses can be a great help.

A challenge for Cambridge?

I think it’s worth exploring this further with local print and broadcast media collectively: what should the relationship between them and community reporters be? What basic training opportunities should be made available to the latter – and at whose cost? What opportunities are there for more formal arrangements with colleges, universities and with adult & continuing education providers? After all, students at Cambridge Regional College have already demonstrated they can produce a broadcast-quality local version of Question Time.

(See my comments on the above programme in this blogpost)

Playing with digital audio

Summary

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.

Purpose?

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?

Summary

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.

https://twitter.com/MapProjectCamb/status/489900759673483264

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.

Improving local government in the context of Trojan Horse story

Summary

Looking at some bigger picture issues on a news item that has engulfed Westminster – and examining the principles of some local government roots

Part 1 – Education

Both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary made statements to Parliament (here in response to an urgent Q by the former, and here in a separate statement by the latter). Birmingham Council have made statements published here. Rather than focusing on the story, I want to look at some wider principles around local government and accountability.

Health and education – political hot potatoes

Understandably so – one is dealing your day-to-day existence while the other is about the future life chances of those that are dependent on you. Directly outside of local government, it’s health and education that people tend to be most passionate about at a local level when it comes to public services. Being a school governor over the past few years has given me an insight into what this passion looks like on the ground from parents, teachers and volunteers on the ground – the sort of passion you don’t get to see inside public policy world.

The incentive to centralise

It takes a brave and competent politician to resist the urge to micromanage when they are being blamed for things that go wrong. If you find yourself in an organisation being blamed in such a way, there is an incentive for you to take direct control of things and manage them yourself. Yet the sheer size of our education system – think of the number of schools, colleges and universities that we have in total – means that the sort of micro-management we’ve had in recent times has been a source of the problem. This is one of the reasons why I regularly advise younger political activists and politicians seeking higher public office to get an understanding of how large organisations function.

The faith vs secularisation debate

I’ve gone on record saying I prefer a secular education system – for which I give my reasons here while acknowledging the problems of delivering it. The complexity of our education system means even with the greatest political will in the world, you could not secularise it overnight. As far as the cases in Birmingham are concerned, the schools at the centre of the political firestorm are not faith-based ones. Some of the concerns raised (and the principles linked to them, such as segregation on gender) are ones that go beyond that one geographical area.

Holding up the political mirror to politicians

This pic from Private Eye (various people on Twitter) speaks volumes

EtonPic

This was something that came up on Question Time earlier on as well. Should private schools be allowed to opt out of some of the basics safeguards that politicians are now talking about? (for example the Deputy Prime Minister here. This was also an issue Ed Miliband raised at Prime Minister’s Questions – see here & Cameron’s response).

Education policy

On the private vs state-funded schools, there are those that want to see the former abolished. Nationalise the lot. This was sort of touched upon by playwright Alan Bennett (summarised in the Independent here, and in full at the LRB here –  in the latter effectively calling for the nationalisation/merging of private providers with state providers to reduce the class divides). On the other hand, private institutions are becoming a big export earner as the global elite send their children to England for education – Cambridge being one of the prime destinations. Competing priorities: A growing UK export earner (& the jobs they provide) is solidifying the class divisions not just within UK societies but across the world too. There are other policy examples too Arms sales boosting export earnings but enflaming conflicts abroad (creating refugees)? Some global financial services that support speculation on food commodities that hit farmers in poorer countries?

On the faith vs non-faith schools, as far as ministers past and present are concerned, their figures show faith schools produce students achieving better exam results. (They also ignore concerns about ‘selection by the back door’ when data on free school meals shows differences between high performing faith schools and national averages – i.e. is it a ‘faith ethos’ that drives the results or selecting children of parents from more affluent backgrounds?).

There are also numerous problems with exams – not least the media regularly reporting concerns from employers about falling standards and/or not understanding the complexity of what qualifications actually mean. This is where the almost infinite choice of courses available is a market failure because employers (who are one of the main targets for the system) don’t have the time to find out what each qualification means. If employers either don’t understand or trust the qualifications, what’s the point of having them?

Issues with the regulators

OfSted hasn’t come out well either – why are were we outsourcing inspections in the first place? It simply creates another institutional barrier between the main inspector and sub-contractors. Those barriers create communications barriers – hence issues with consistency of inspections – see here.

Gove vs Miliband/Hunt

The Shadow Education Secretary’s response to the Secretary of State is here. While watching this on TV, I tweeted that Labour might be quickly re-writing their education policies on the back of this. Gove seems happy with the current structure, Hunt and Miliband are not, but as the latter indicated in Prime Minister’s Questions said Labour see local ‘directors of education’ accountable to the Department for Education (and not to local councils) as the policy response. The more difficult policy option is to strengthen local government and local councils to deal with these issues. But given that more schools are being taken out of local council control (under both Labour and the Coalition), what role is there for local accountability?

 

Part 2 – Local Government

Do the roots of these issues lie within local government (and local housing policies?)

This was something picked up in the aftermath of the riots in 2001 – see here. Given the nature of primary schools which (certainly with state ones in Cambridge) tend to serve small local communities, it’s easy to see how the data on the backgrounds of those attending don’t show an even consistent picture. With Birmingham, various news outlets showed charts cross-referencing the location of schools with geographical data on ethnicity and religion. This was also an issue I found out about when speakers talked about it at various conferences I went to during my civil service days. One councillor said that while in London she mixed with lots of people from a variety of backgrounds, where most of her family lived in one of the northern cities were able to live their lives without engaging with people from different backgrounds.

How do you undo decades of flawed local government housing policies?

It’s not just that, it’s also a wider issue of local government and its place within our political system. Compared to other countries, the UK one of the most centralised – especially when you look at the powers UK cities have compared to other countries. Ditto when you compare their powers during the 1800s vs what they had during the 1990s/2000s. The problem over the past few decades is that Whitehall has seen local government as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

It’s not helped by a civil service culture that has not understood local government. In the training and development for civil servants, certainly until very recently local government experience was undervalued. There was a lack of people with experience in local government working in the civil service. The Fast Stream in particular was one where the ‘glitz and glamour’ of working with ministers and Parliament was promoted, but where looking into the whites of the eyes of people in most need of support on a day-to-day basis was not.  (Note that the Fast Stream system has since been overhauled & is a different beast to what it was when I was on it in the mid-late 2000s. The questions of how diverse the intake is vs the wider population (and the culture of the network) remain outstanding.

Local government improvement put in the ‘too complicated to do’ pile

That’s what’s happened over the past few decades. I don’t like using the term ‘reform’ because all too often it means privatise, outsource, reduce terms and conditions, and cut jobs & services. In the case of local government, whether Thatcher’s decision to abolish the Greater London Council & cap local authority taxes or the centralisation under Blair in the late 1990s (again, irrespective of the political/policy merits),  both weakened the powers and the role of local government to that of administrators. For ministers who are very ‘hands on’, this is very appealing. Take policy control outside of your political opponents at a local level and hand it to a government agency whose boss you get to appoint. If you’re a Conservative minister, why would you want to let a Labour council have unrestricted local tax raising powers? If you’re a Labour minister who prides him/herself as being strong on law and order, why would you want to allow a Liberal Democrat council have a ‘hands off’ approach to problems at a community level?

 

How do you make local accountability work?

How do you make local government strong enough to resist policies that fragment and polarise communities? Those at the top of their own communities & who like exercising their power/influence without being accountable for their actions. TV over the years has spoofed this brilliantly, whether Hyacinth from ‘Keeping up appearances’ or Mr Khan from ‘Citizen Khan’.

I’m looking at this through the microcosm of Cambridge reflecting a wider picture. We have a fragmented public sector. We know this. Trying to get some level of co-ordination and co-operation was something I campaigned on during the election and have been following through since. The problem is that we are starting from a very low base. For example we have local institutions that don’t even talk to each other. Few people follow what happens in local democracy here, let alone actively and regularly engage with it – particular if they are outside party political networks. Too many of us are ‘free-riding’ on the back of the efforts of too few people to make local democracy work and local government function efficiently.  Cambridge residents hold a wealth of skills, yet so few people and residents for whatever reason apply them to local democracy. We the people are part of the problem. We are also part of the solution.

When you have such a small group of people taking on such big burdens of local democracy, it’s easy to see how small but well-organised groups of people can be seen to have a disproportionate influence by others. In Cambridge, some motorists complain about the influence of the cycling lobby for example. Even though my personal view is that many of the proposals from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign would significantly improve transport in Cambridge, the impression some get is this group is more likely to get its way than the others.

This in part is where I’m sympathetic to the general Liberal Democrats view of bringing local public services under wider local council control. So rather than having healthcare, job centres, the police and education bypassing local councils, bring them under the control of local councils. For somewhere like Cambridge, having a unitary authority rather than a separate city/county divide would go a long way. Making as many of our local public services directly accountable to a local council and people will have a greater incentive to engage. Why shouldn’t my doctor, dentist, hospitals, schools and police officers be directly accountable to my local council? Why is the combination of:

  • the mess that is Lansley’s model for healthcare
  • the farce that is the system of police commissioners (look at the turnout and look at how easy it is for commissioners to give ‘jobs for the boys’ without proper scrutiny)
  • the system of free schools outside local council control

…better than having everything under the scrutiny of one local democratic institution?

If you’re a secretary of state, or an MP looking for a ministerial red box, why would you want to give away so much power and control to a local level? In the case of the above-three-mentioned policy areas, ministers have given away just enough power to distance themselves from bad things that might happen while at the same time ensuring that no other party-political institution can take control. Healthcare messes up? Blame the faceless clinical commissioning group. Police mess up? Blame the commissioner that hardly anyone voted for. Schools mess up? Blame…exactly.

“Why did the Lib Dems sign up to this mess when their original policy of local accountability seems to make more sense?”

Exactly. I guess there are a couple of things. One is the compromises they made inside the Coalition. Another is that they’ve taken such a hammering over being in the Coalition that a lot of talent inside the party has either left or is lying low. Another is that they simply have not made the case for what they want in a strong, clear and persuasive manner.

Ministers and politicians have got to stop bashing local councillors over expenses

It’s an easy target. For the workload that local councillors and executive councillors have to undertake (& the abuse that all too often goes with it), you don’t do it for the expenses. But given the costs of living, who could afford to set aside 20 hours per week for local council business? Again, this links back to the mess that is UK housing policy. The huge pressure of high rents & mortgages mean that families have to work full-time just to keep their heads above water. Few have time to invest in their local communities in the way they would like to. If costs of living were lower, if people didn’t have to work full time to make ends meet, would people invest more time in their communities? What would the impact of a citizens income be? (Frances Coppola discusses this here).

My view is that councillors should be paid – and as a starting point on what that level should be, for simplicities sake I’d go with the median wage. Given the complexity and demands of what they have to do combined with the costs of living,  I don’t think the current system is sustainable. Yes, it’s a noble principle to say that councillors should not need to be paid, but then that means fewer people in lower paid jobs can afford to consider standing for election, let alone be a councillor given the time it requires to be good at it. Given the age we live in – with the rise of ‘portfolio careers’, 20 hours a week on council duties plus 20 hours a week working part-time in an unrelated job elsewhere seems like a reasonable compromise.

Food for thought?

‘Reclaim the game – Funk FIFA’

Summary

An old band makes a new return – and has the corrupt monster that is FIFA in its sights

This new number’s more than quite good

By ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’

About time we had some protest in music. And as targets, they don’t come much bigger. Rather than have me explaining in detail what it’s all about, have a look at this item from John Oliver:

If FIFA cannot be reformed, throw them out of the game – says this opinion piece in the New York Times.

A childhood based around football

I blogged about it here in 2012. I still remember a priest at my old church complaining that the youth football season meant that families would take their children to football matches rather than church. I ended up stuck in the latter because there were no volunteers at my first youth football club (“Cambridge Crusaders” – we trained on Coleridge Rec, little did I know that a quarter of a century later I’d be standing for election there) to continue coaching us. So yes, football mattered. The distractions of a couple of international tournaments around exam time probably cost me a couple of grades for GCSE and A-Levels too.

Keeping politics out of football

One of the early principles of FIFA was to keep politics out of football. Part of the aim was to keep vicious despotic dictatorships that had a habit of torturing players that performed badly in tournaments out of the game. If only the public had known about this at the time. Yet despite its negative connotations, international organisations need transparency and accountability to stop them going out of control. FIFA is out of control. But how to you ensure the best features of politics get applied to FIFA without the worst bits joining for the ride? At the moment, we only have the worst bits.

In the UK, we have a tradition of self-governing bodies. Courts don’t like to get involved in dispute resolution of things that have happened on the pitch or as part of disciplinary proceedings. When it comes to having poor systems of governance and administration, the English FA has got form – The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee giving them a kicking in 2013. That’s why complaints from the FA about FIFA’s poor governance…exactly. Note too that some of the FA’s official sponsors (see here) are also listed as some of FIFA’s official sponsors.

Buying independence from democratic oversight through the slush funds of sponsors

Now, we’ve been here before – see my blogpost on sponsors and London 2012. Part of the deal for London getting the games was that we’d change our laws and give multinationals and the organisers lots of tax breaks. The amount of money multinational brands have thrown at FIFA and the International Olympic Committee has allowed them to have independence from governments and parliaments. How are FIFA held accountable for the for the financial reserves that are now measured in billions? I’ve always liked the principle of ‘If your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be – and that regulator needs to be accountable to the people of the world’. Of course how you do that is a damn sight more complicated. But it matters.

Feeding the behemoth which is coming back to bite them

This is what has happened to the sponsors – they’re all listed here. When Bloomberg is reporting that your sponsors are unhappy, you’ve got a problem. A big problem. But the sponsors are part of the problem. They’ve failed to insist on proper corporate governance. But then one or two of those sponsors have got ‘issues’ themselves when it comes to human rights. Sponsors have fed this unaccountable monster of an organisation for years without insisting on improvements to corporate governance until it has been too late.

Replacing Brazilian culture with bland featureless globalised culture of the 1%

FIFA has banned samba drums from World Cup matches. Yeah. My thoughts exactly. (I love samba so much I even wrote a blogpost about it!) Not only that, the ‘anthem’ FIFA have come up with has not gone down too well in Brazil either – see here. For me, part of the fun of the World Cup is that you have the crowds bringing in their instruments. The Scots (during the years when they’d regularly qualify) bringing bagpipes with the Brazilian drums was something that Dario G picked up on in their epic Carneval de Paris in 1998. Today, in the era of tickets going to the disinterested guests of official sponsors and delegations, expect to have the sort of atmosphere slammed by Roy Keane. But it’s not the prawn sandwich brigade. It’s the champers and exotic endangered fish eggs brigade. Football’s the bit-part. FIFA and international tournament organisers cannot have their cake and eat it. They cannot expect to have an exciting and vibrant atmosphere while handing over large allocations of tickets to people not passionate about the event or the activity. Remember the early days of London 2012 and all those empty seats?

How do you make football – or any international sport accountable to ‘the people’?

The solution – and the principles around it are straight forward: Make FIFA and national associations directly accountable to supporters’ federations – such as the FSF in England. One other alternative – for the EU in particular is for the European Parliament to declare competency over UEFA as part of strengthening democratic oversight over Europe-wide institutions. Yes, that goes against the political tide in the recent European elections, but think what a positive impact it could have if talented MEPs (and there are talented ones out there, despite what the media might imply) cross-examining UEFA and FIFA executives on an annual basis.

One of the big underlying problems with FIFA at the moment is they are not seen to be accountable to anyone. No institution can haul Sepp Blatter and his executives in front of a committee and subject him to detailed and critical cross-examination. In the UK I’d go further and have the executive directors and chairpersons of the Football Association, the FA Premier League and the Football League appearing annually before the Committee on Culture, Media and Sport upon publication of their annual reports – taking evidence from sports journalists and supporters’ associations on what issues the Committee should raise. You never know, it might get people interested in other political issues and the functioning of politics in general.

“Do you want the tournament to fail?”

For the fans, no. Of course I want everyone passionate about the game and excited about the World Cup to feel the sort of excitement I had when my class at primary school prepared for Italia ’90 – and to have lots of fun! Like the participants in this unofficial video seem to be having!

For some in Brazil – the ones who’ve lost their homes in the clearances, or those that lost their lives building the stadia and infrastructure and who won’t get justice…exactly. That’s to say nothing of FIFA running off with all the money – tax free. How a clique of men (and it is mainly men) that live a jet-set lifestyle in five-star hotels can have connections with the grass roots of football is beyond me. Blatter’s not doing himself any favours with statements like this. Astonishing.

I hope Brazil 2014 marks the start of where the fans across the world started the fight back against the parasites sucking the lifeblood out of the beautiful game. Let’s have the game run by and for the people who care about football, not the institutions that imprison it. The tragedy for Brazil is that the person who had a plan, the calibre of person, the intellect and an awesome footballing and democratic pedigree for overhauling things over there back in 2002 (see here) is no longer with us. Dr Socrates died in 2011. But at least Brazil had an inspiration for both change in football as well as for democracy and social justice. If England has an equivalent, I’ve not found him.

 

The Scottish independence referendum debate comes to Cambridge

Summary

From one political gathering to another in the same evening – what I learnt from four male Scots sparring on independence

The first thing I was asked as I wandered towards the doors of the Cambridge Union building was:

“Are you Dick?”

To which I responded

“Nope – just me and the dragon”

…thinking nothing of it until Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan wandered into the room. Clearly someone had not done an image search before the event had started!

An all-male speakers panel

The event was organised by Cambridge University’s Scottish Society. With what seemed to be all the speakers there, I asked one of the organisers why there were no women on the speakers list. They told me they had invited women to speak, but none of them had accepted the invitation.

An aside – how do we encourage more women to speak on panels, attend and ask questions at politics and policy events?

The reason I ask is because I’ve been going to quite a few of these events locally (to me in Cambridge), in London and elsewhere. All too often, the speakers are majority (White middle-aged or young professional) male. When it comes to the audience, even if it’s a diverse one it’s nearly always the men that volunteer to ask questions first. Having been one of the worst offenders in past times at wanting to ask lots of questions, I’ve now trained myself into the habit of pointing microphone people towards women in the audience indicating when they want to ask questions (or simply passing it on directly if it’s handed to me first) at Q&A sessions. At the event I was at previously with Maria Eagle MP, when she urged women to ask questions, one of the women in the audience responded saying that it wasn’t because she was a woman she wasn’t asking questions, but it was because she genuinely did not have a question to ask. I also noticed at the end of the formalities at the #indyref event (the subject of this post), the conversations in the bar were buzzing. So…any thoughts?

“So, who won what then?”

The speakers were Lib Dem Lord Nicol Stephen – former Deputy First Minister until 2007, David Greig the Scottish playwright, Thomas Docherty MP (Lab) for Dunfermline and West Fife, & Dick Gaughan the folk singer. David & Dick argued for independence, Nicol and Thomas against. There was a sort-of informal vote which was 14-yes, 28-no, but I abstained thinking it was only eligible Scottish voters that were being asked to indicate. But that didn’t matter. What mattered for me was what we all learnt about the nature of the debate taking place in Scotland – one that is not being properly reported at all in the London-based media.

“How so?”

It’s difficult to know where to start. I think it can generally be described as a ‘London bubble’ thing. The institutions in London are living their own lives in a city so very different to every other city in the UK that what goes on beyond the M25 or outside the south-east hardly registers. Think of the recent floods. Somerset had been struggling to deal with the floods for a few weeks and the media didn’t pick up on it in any big way. But as soon as the Thames Valley and Berkshire got hit, suddenly it was all over the media and Greater London had suddenly expanded one county westward. Council estate flooded and no one cares. A couple of mansions flooded and suddenly there’s a souvenir edition print special along with an online slide show to match.

“So…what did you learn?”

That recent political history matters. Big time. 

Prior to Thatcher, Scotland returned Conservative MPs in numbers hovering around the 20s & 30s. That number slumped to zero in 1997 and has been at one ever since (see here). At the same time, there has been a significant decline in both Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats since the inauguration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. From 53% of the popular vote & 56% of MSP seats in 1999 that formed the first Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive, that combination in 2011 39% of the popular vote and 32% of the seats. The details of how and why this happened I’ll leave to far more informed people to explain.

That values matter. Big time.

Whenever I’ve gone out and about in the ‘not London and the South East’ bits of the UK, I’ve always been struck at how different the atmosphere is. It’s almost as if we take ourselves ***way too seriously*** in the south east. Dick Gaughan expressed this in words that had some of the pro-free-market-types in the room really scratching at their heads because someone was strongly challenging their perspective and assumptions they had – until the debate – perhaps taken for granted.

A battle of hearts vs minds?

That is how some are portraying the debate. ‘In their hearts, the Scots want independence but in their minds, they cannot see it working properly so best stick to what they’ve got.’ was how one put it. In the debate itself, those arguing for independence were from an arts background, and those arguing against independence were/are politicians. It fitted within that frame. The artists appealing towards emotional heart strings while the toxic politicians sowed seeds of doubt and uncertainty without offering a positive and inspiring alternative.

But you can’t have one without the other – otherwise you’d be dead

That’s what makes – or rather should make politics fascinating. The better politicians are the ones that can inspire others around them to achieve great things while at the same time demonstrating competence in public office. In the grand scheme of things a body with a mind/brain but no heart is pretty much a dead one, as is a body with a heart but no mind.

All of the speakers had interesting points to make, but the policy-wonk and politics-watcher in me was able to pick holes in all of them. (It’s what happens when you work in policy in the civil service: Your job is to pick lots of holes in everyone else’s arguments and policies – including those you are working for – then try to think how to deal with them).

Falling down on the risks

This was probably my second evil question of the evening – to David Greig. He finished his talk acknowledging risks voting for independence, but urged people to run with it because the opportunities with independence outweigh the risks. Regular readers of this blog will know what’s coming.

“What are the top two key risks you see associated with a ‘Yes’ vote for independence, and how would you mitigate those risks?”

David didn’t respond directly, but sort of indicated that the changes the institutions would have to make, along with the Westminster parties behaving in bad faith during the inevitable negotiations would be big challenges.

Docherty’s doubts

Labour MP Thomas Docherty went in for a standard public policy approach rather than a campaigning politics approach. By that I mean he looked at the proposals from his political opponents and tried to make the case why they would not work. An understandable approach but didn’t really set the room alight. Dick Gaughan did that.

Folk fights back

For those of you not familiar with folk music, there’s a strong vein of protest songs throughout it. The Levellers (Sell out and Another Man’s cause) featured regularly in my teens, just as Oysterband (Jam tomorrow and Bells of Rhymney) featured regularly in my 20s. Having grown up with the Cambridge Folk Festival on my doorstep (Puffles went in 2012), the music has kind of always been there for me.

What Dick Gaughan was able to do powerfully was to tell the very dark story about the devastating impact of Thatcher’s government on Scotland – explaining to a mainly undergraduate audience why there are more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs. He explained graphically about the impact this had on communities that he lived in, and that how the values of the majority of the people of Scotland were at odds with neo-liberalism adopted by the political establishment. His final main point was that the referendum was a historical opportunity to throw off the unpopular policies imposed from Westminster by governments aiming to please swing seats of London & the south east.

But his points were not met without challenge. Some were from an internationalist perspective of the world ‘as is’ – such as EU laws and regulations. Others were from a numbers perspective – one student comparing London’s population to that of Scotland. (I wanted to respond by saying ‘Look at the institutions and the power structures’ – but refrained).

Nicol Stephen takes on the nastiness in the campaigns

Turns out it wasn’t the former Liverpool player speaking. Lord Stephen started off with a long historical narrative – in particular about the centuries-long links with London, then focused his arguments around the political parties, the flaws in Salmond’s argument and a swipe at nationalism and its dark sides. On the final point, one woman pulled him up for not acknowledging the difference between a nationalism of national liberation, versus that of imperial conquest.

My question to him was that in the case of a ‘no’ vote, then what? Scotland is still left with the institutions that failed it most recently in the past few decades. His response then formed a discussion I had with a very bright Scottish undergraduate called Rebecca, about differentiating politics from public policy – and how to make sense of it in the context of the referendum.

‘Scotland is in the process of renegotiating its relationship with the rest of the UK – and in particular the political establishment based in London. The independence referendum will decide whether it will be a negotiation between two equal parties, or between one senior and one junior party.’

The above in a nutshell is what I’ve learnt from the debate. Before this evening, I was under the impression that a ‘yes’ vote meant Scotland would go off and do it’s own thing separate to the rest of the UK, and that a ‘no’ vote would mean Westminster might give one or two extra powers to Holyrood, but that would be about it. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, this won’t be the end – but only the beginning of a process that will take years before formalities come to a close. And even then, the relationship will continue to evolve as it has done for centuries.

Rebecca and I tried to unpick what we had heard in the debate – and finished our conversation off by asking whether I would vote yes or no in a referendum. That was when the ‘heart yes/head no’ issue came up. How do you unpick that?

For me, Independence for Scotland will not mean building a big iron curtain along the border. We live in an interdependent world as Lord Stephen said. Climate Change and globalisation tell us this. The question for me that the referendum will first answer is ‘where does sovereignty rest in the minds of the people of Scotland?’ Does it reside in the Westminster Parliament as part of the people of the United Kingdom, or does it reside in the Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh? Then the negotiations for which powers and functions can be pooled can begin. Which ones would they want to pool with the rest of the United Kingdom? (This is the storm around the currency issue). Which ones would they want to pool with the EU? (What choice/flexibility would there be? Is the ‘Norway’ model an alternative?) Which ones would they want to pool internationally? (Not just things such as international human rights treaties, but things like the IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation).

And finally…

My friends in Scotland said similar things to what Dick Gaughan said about the whole referendum. It’s got people interested in politics again. People of all political parties and none are taking part in debates all over the country – and it has gone far beyond the control of the established political parties.

This perhaps was the point I was making about the poor media coverage of the debates in Scotland by the London-based media. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all Salmond vs Cameron backed by some elder statesmen of Labour and the Liberal Democrats (thinking Alistair Darling and Sir Menzies Campbell in particular). It’s not. I’ve learnt that the independence referendum and all that is going on around it in Scotland, has got a far broader breadth of coverage and far deeper historical roots in Scotland than the London-based institutions assume.

Vice-president of the European Commission visits Puffles (or rather Cambridge University)

Summary

A speech clearly targeted at an audience outside the room, but what was it like inside?

It’s not every day that the Vice-president of the European Commission rocks up to your home town, so me and Puffles popped round to see what it was all about. Commissioner Viviane Reding’s speech was about Great Britain and the EU – are both drifting apart? (See the transcript here).

The first thing that struck me was that the Master of Selwyn College, Roger Mosey who used to be the Editorial Director of the BBC said that often on The Today Programme on Radio 4, they would often put a pro-EU type on to debate with an anti-EU type and light the touch-paper. This for me helps explain why all is not well with the programme. The ‘tradition’ of debate in the UK – repeatedly referred to by Commissioner Reding, and the structure of it, is becoming conspicuous by its shortcomings in an increasingly complex world.

“Drifting apart – who’s driving these flying umbrellas?”

Because for me, drifting implies movement in a direction without any sense of control. UK foreign policy on the EU has drifted because Cameron has allowed himself to be influenced by his right wing more than his Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. This explains the number of post-2015 commitments made by the Conservative Party, in particular on an EU referendum.  A failed tactical move – it didn’t silence his critics within his party, it was also a strategic error in that it has destabilised the economic outlook. Why would a firm want to decide whether to invest in the UK until it knows the outcome of both the Scottish referendum and also whether the UK is going to have an EU in/out one?

There’s also a big problem on the EU side too. The institutional structures have demonstrated themselves incapable of responding to the economic crises faced by Eurozone members. Not only that, the calibre of politicians within the EU Commission – not helped by how they get appointed – is so limited in the face of the problems they have to face. One of the few in recent times who has exceeded all expectations – including mine, is that of Baroness Ashton. At the time I saw her as a political appointee of Gordon Brown, appointed to do his bidding. The response from Europe was lukewarm to say the least – but she proved all her doubters (including myself) wrong with her success on the Iran negotiations – see here. My point on how EU Commissioners are appointed remains: Patronage is in the hands of national governments, not in the hands of parliaments or the people of Europe.

Delivering an academic speech in a second or third language

That was the task facing Commissioner Reding. When she mentioned she was Europe’s Justice Minister but did not have any formal legal background (she’s a journalist by profession – but with a doctorate too!), I raised eyebrows because of the UK’s experience with Chris Grayling. But I think that’s where the comparisons end because Reding hasn’t gone out of her way (as far as I know) to alienate an entire section of the legal profession she in part oversees. (Grayling achieved this).

In terms of delivery, I can’t pretend the speech electrified the room – it didn’t. At the same time, I felt the title a little vague. Although one of the headlines is about Reding’s call for a ‘United States of Europe’ (one that she said the UK would be a close ally to, but being outside the Eurozone would be outside a USE but still within the EU as-is), she could have focussed more on what her vision for that USE would be. For example:

  • What would the institutions look like?
  • How would they be different to what they are now?
  • What shortcomings would the institutions of the future overcome?
  • What problems would these institutions solve?
  • How would they solve these problems?
  • How would these institutions relate to national and local institutions?
  • How would these institutions of the future become more transparent and accountable to the people in this digital age?

Also, for me it was a big shame that more local people were not aware of the event and/or chose not to come along. Again, it’s not every day you get an EU Commissioner on your doorstep.

Turning her political guns on Conservative politicians

The only UK politicians to be mentioned by name or job title were Cameron and Osborne. The big issue here being the City of London. Reding did not touch on the much-reported dependence of the Conservative Party on donations from those in the finance industry – for example here recently. I didn’t get a sense of what a solution to the impasse between UK vs EU regulation of international finance would look like. My principle is that if your firms are multinational, their regulator needs to be. How you turn that principle into policy is incredibly complicated. But I take the view (especially on the back of the banking crisis) that UK institutions do not have the capacity to face down the strength of the finance world. Remember it was that world that corrupted an entire academic field – economics. That’s why sound morals, ethics and values (subjective as they are) of and in institutions matter.

“So…where are we drifting to?”

Depends which way the wind is blowing – and who is creating that wind. In the UK, much wind is being made by Euro-sceptic politicians and in the print media. Because this has happened over years – decades even, it’s had an impact on political discourse. It’s not been helped by the pro-Europeans. For me, there are two big reasons (amongst others) for this.

Being seen to defend the status quo

The actions of the European Commission of the late 1990s – the one forced to resign en masse in 1999 (see here) is still in the political memory of many current politicians. In the years since then, has there been sufficient improvement in the functioning, transparency and accountability of EU institutions? How do you communicate a vision for Europe that is not one all too easily portrayed as a gravy-train for loaded Eurocrats? The privileged audience – and I count myself in that group – were not representative of the population in general. Educated, knowledgeable and interested in the subject area we were, but this reflected in who showed up. Cambridge University is an institution with an international reputation. Accordingly, you get a very international cosmopolitan audience – especially at post-graduate level. Many of these people I guess will end up working in international institutions later on in their career. But how does that compare to the lives that, say, people working at the local supermarket at the end of my road live?

This feeds into Reding’s point about the EU being relevant to ‘the people’ rather than just the small group of interested parties. The same goes for politics generally – local and national. Just as a select few go to local council meetings or follow Parliament in detail, how do we make politics at all levels interesting and accessible to a much wider audience? Cllr Alice Perry makes this point within a Labour Party context here.

Not having a positive exciting vision for a future Europe – & failing to solve contemporary problems

You can’t inspire people with a positive vision of a future Europe with the current institutions when the current institutions are seen as part of the problem for too many people across the continent. Think of the Euro-zone countries that have struggled under EU bailout conditions such as Greece and Ireland. If EU institutions impose such conditions on ordinary people not at fault for the finance crisis (& failing to bring to justice those that are), why would anyone want to like the EU? That’s not to absolve the national politicians or financial institutions from their culpability there. But it comes back to the point about what the relationships should be between which institutions. Again, easier to say this should be sorted out than actually doing the sorting out.

That’s one of the reasons why the looming European elections in May 2014 matter. I was fortunate to meet the lead candidate for the European Greens, Ska Keller in London recently. (See here). She was one of the few people I’ve met who seemed to have not only a positive vision of what she wanted the EU to become – in particular in relation to climate change and social justice, but also the energy and dynamism to help make it happen. But it needs lots more people like her in politics in general for us to move away from the traditional pro-anti EU spats towards something much more constructive. One that deals with the problems that people are actually facing, rather than getting distracted by straight bananas and the Eurosausage.

“Anything on the UK-EU debate?”

It’s part of a wider malaise in politics in the UK. Reding was right to complain about the distortions from both politicians and the media. But then to what extent have EU institutions made it easy for their detractors to run rings around them? Large traditionally-structured institutions are vulnerable in this digital world.

How do you get that informed electorate at a really really basic level? By that I mean where voters can read & understand the basics of what each party in their region is standing for, being able to put questions to them and then casting their vote accordingly. (Ie an informed vote). Remember that not everyone is educated to university level and not everyone has the time to scrutinise in detail what each party’s policies are. How do you then do all of this in an environment where party politics and their brands are absolutely toxic?

On those, I genuinely don’t know the answers.

 

By failing to deal with the housing crisis…

…are politicians undermining the ‘hard working families’ and ‘big society’ that they claim to be acting in the interests of?

Yes.

Next.

This applies nationwide – not just to Cambridge, although I’m writing this in the context of a Cambridge City Council meeting on our local plan – filmed by Richard Taylor here. Cambridge local plan documents are here.

Important as the local plans are, too many of the levers are held in The Treasury. Ministers over the past 15 years have chosen not to relinquish the powers they have to local councils to enable them to cope with the housing bubble. They also did not take action to nip the housing bubble in the bud – and for that the buck rests at the doors of both Gordon Brown and George Osborne.

“Who are the ultimate beneficiaries of high and rising house prices in the South East, and who are the losers both there and beyond?”

This is what I’ve been trying to get my head around. When you need two incomes to sustain a mortgage plus a lump-sum from family for the deposit, something’s wrong. When you have mortgages so out of sync with incomes, something is wrong. When there is a far greater demand for social housing, something is wrong. When so many people are living in sub-standard housing, something is wrong. When rents are so high that they take up a disproportionate chunk of people’s income, something is wrong.

So where does all this ‘surplus’ go? Who are the property owners and where does it all end up? In tax havens? (For those of you interested in economics, this paper makes for interesting reading). And what happens to it if it does end up in a tax haven?

Interesting given the various accusations (such as this) that have been thrown at him and his companies regarding ‘tax efficiencies’. We tried Victorian-style philanthropy in Victorian times to deal with poverty and inequalities, and it failed. Hence the welfare state and social security.

“But isn’t all investment good?”

For me, investment and speculation are not the same thing. Buying a UK property & waiting for the prices to rise is not investment. It’s speculation. Investment in my book (in a property sense) involves not just buying the property, but actually improving it – whether self-DIY or paying for someone else to do up the property in order for someone else to buy it and have people live in it later on.

The problem is that policy-makers – in particular politicians and those close to them – seem unable to come up with something that differentiates long term investment from shorter term speculation. The other thing is that by throwing money at a property bubble, it takes away investment that might be more productive elsewhere – where people, villages, towns and cities really need it. Hence this article in The Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty about London being this vacuum cleaner sucking up all the money & investment.

“The wrong sort of housing? That’s a bit like the wrong sort of snow falling on the line! Doesn’t it provide construction jobs?”

Actually, it isn’t. With London and now surrounding areas of the UK now being a sort of ‘reserve currency’ for international finance types, too many properties are being built for the whims of that market rather than for the people that actually live here. You can actually buy your way to citizenship through the investor route these days – see here. I can’t help feel that this seems a little counter-productive. The amounts of money are tiny compared to the wealth that some in tinpot dictatorships have been able to squirrel away. And it’s not as if the super-rich are the sort of people that spend time in local communities face-to-face, working and building up strong relationships in our towns and cities – unless you call getting room service in a five-star hotel ‘community engagement’. Don’t the migrant workers on poverty pay contribute far more to local communities as human beings than ‘investors’ who buy properties waiting for prices to go up, spending maybe a few weeks a year in the UK staying either in an expensive hotel (owned by a multinational headquartered in a tax-haven) or an under-used luxury penthouse?

“So…what are you going to do about it then?”

This for me is why structures and connections between political institutions at a local-to-global level matter. One of my local councillors, Cllr George Owers (Labour) said the following at the Cambridge City Council local plan debate:

Instinctively, I’m in support. But the public policy type in me starts asking whether councils have legal powers to implement this. (As far as I’m aware, I don’t think they do – not to the extent it would burst an international speculative property bubble of the like that’s killing Cambridge).

I then look at the front bench teams in Parliament – the ones responsible for The Treasury. On both sides I don’t see the calibre of politicians able to deal policy-wise, lobbyist-wise or mainstream-media-firestorm-wise with the housing crisis. The super-wealthy have too much to lose. We’ve seen this with the recent flooding. Only when expensive homes by the Thames started flooding did the media and politicians start visiting everywhere in their droves. Hence it being sort of therapeutic to see mainstream politicians – in particular ministers – getting an absolute kicking from residents that have suffered in part because of the failures and decisions I referred to in my previous blogpost. For all the talk of ‘localism’, when it comes to civil contingencies it seems that there is a significant role for national public bodies.

The other thing not covered – not least because of the media’s fetish with UKIP personalities rather than policies – is the role of international co-operation in dealing with challenges that are clearly international in scale. International speculation is clearly one of them. Again, my principle is that if firm firms are multinational, the regulators need to be. And those regulators one way or another need to be democratically accountable. ***How*** you actually deliver that is a damn sight more complicated than what is otherwise for me quite a nice soundbite of a principle but a policy-wonk’s dream/nightmare [delete as appropriate].

“Killing Cambridge” – that’s a bit extreme isn’t it?

Probably. But my point is high housing costs and high costs of living mean that for too many people, Cambridge is now unaffordable – as the councillors said at the meeting. I gave up on the idea of having my own place ages ago – see here. I live with my family because as a freelancer (still trying to recover from my mental health crisis a couple of years ago – hence not able to work full time), my income is so low and volatile to the extent that I can’t afford to rent my own place. And I’m not the only one. From a personal perspective – especially compared to where I was say five-seven years ago, this has a ****huge**** impact on my self-esteem. This article about the ‘used to haves’ is one that resonated strongly with me – minus the ‘materialism’ aspect. I used to have a full time job that paid into a pension. I used to have my own place where I wasn’t living with family. I used to have a vibrant social life. I used to have better physical and mental health. I used to have a positive but realistic vision of where I wanted to get to in the future. I used to have hope.

But I don’t have that now.

Even worse, I can’t see how to get out of this situation beyond either a lottery win or a revolution in society. One of the reasons I do what I do locally is that it’s the only way I can make some sort of a positive difference in the hope that it will benefit those around me & also that it keeps me active on the assumption that my health will one day get better so that I can start applying for full-time work again. Because there are some really interesting posts that I would love to go for – especially in London (part of the problem I know) – but for which I simply do not have a good enough mental health to cope with – whether the commute or living & working down there.

As far as Cambridge goes, I remember a friend from school coining the phrase: “Why would you want to live in a town full of executives where you can’t find a plumber?” – and this was in the 1990s. Is that what Cambridge risks becoming? Will it become a place where around the railway station you’ll have a London commuter overspill bubble, surrounded by lots of buy-to-let accommodation for university and language-school students interspersed with residents who bought their homes decades ago along with pockets of ‘token’ social housing at a level that central government feels it’s compelled to have – but just enough to prevent serious unrest? Is it going to become somewhere where if you are a teacher, nurse or a bus driver you have to commute into the city from outside? Because the roads round here are ***really*** designed for mass local travel. Yeah, as if.

“Don’t the politicians care?”

It depends what level they are at. If you are a local councillor, chances are that you do – simply because of the workload you have combined with the abuse that seems to come with the territory in political debate all too often. Why would anyone put themselves through that?

At yah-boo-public-school-ninety-nine-a-hundred land that is Prime Minister’s Questions, the public don’t like the behaviour of the politicians they see on the telly – see here. It’s not helped by the fact that the mainstream news reports PMQs as real news. I wouldn’t go far as to say that all of the frontbench politicians don’t care. It’s more a case that too many of those with wealth, power and influence don’t live within the communities that most of the rest of the country live in. Hence they are blinkered from the day-to-day struggles that many people have to face. If your day-to-day rent and travel arrangements are all paid for, you don’t have to worry about whether you can go to an event that evening or not. Public transport considerations are less of an issue when your taxi fare is paid for and where you have a grace-and-favour-apartment nearby to crash at. When you get a ‘meals allowance’ you don’t have to worry about whether you can afford certain ingredients or not when you are at the food shop. Finally – as I have to pull myself up on sometimes, they take for-granted the knowledge and access they have when trying to solve problems.

“So…you got any housing policy solutions?”

While I’ve heard some interesting individual suggestions, Natalie Bennett got it spot on when she said the current housing market is out of control. It cannot be reined in by a single policy lever – whether legislative (passing laws) or fiscal (tax/spend). For a start, not enough of us know what all the inputs and factors that impact the housing market currently are, let alone have any idea of quantifying them. It’s like I have more questions than answers:

  • Who owns which bits of land?
  • What are the land values of the various bits of land?
  • What are the current uses for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current demands for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current protections for the various bits of land?
  • Which bits of land need more protection?
  • Which bits of land are suitable for development?
  • What is the spread of housing demand across the country?
  • Who needs what types of housing in which parts of the country?
  • What are the financial gaps between the types of housing people need and the types of housing they can afford, and how does this vary across the country?
  • Who doesn’t have decent access to housing?
  • Who has too much housing and is under-using it?
  • What are the policies that can tackle under-use of housing and relieve excess pressure?
  • How would those with the housing assets try to ‘game’ the system to ensure they kept all of their properties at the expense of everyone else?
  • How does transport fit into all of this?
  • How does resilience to/adaptation to climate change fit into all of this?
  • What are the costs associated with improving the above-two points?
  • What are the likely future trends with housing demand and supply?
  • Which components cost what when building a house?
  • Which specialist labour types cost what?
  • Who do we need to be training in and in what levels in the future?
  • Where is the investment going to come from?
  • What are the international factors that impact the housing market?
  • Is what people need and what people want the same thing? (How do you manage expectations?)

The above are just a handful of questions. See what I mean by housing policy being complicated? Yet it gives you an idea of the sorts of information you need in order to start creating some detailed, radical policies to deal with something that is screwing up the lives of too many people.

 

 

So you’ve registered with @BiteTheBallot … then what?

Summary

Voter registration campaigns have got to do more than just encourage people to register and vote. Here’s some things that they might want to do.

[Updated 3 Feb 2014 to add]

Bite The Ballot got in touch with Puffles to state the following:

Looks like they are going beyond registration – which is ***splendid!***

——

It’s National Voter Registration Day on 5th February which is being pushed by the Bite The Ballot campaign. Have a look:

Now, I’m not sure about the message of dividing the young vs the old. Also, having a look at their statement “Who do I vote for” and responding that it doesn’t matter, well…I think it does. There’s a difference between casting a vote and casting an informed vote. Now, it’s not an all-or-nothing difference between the two. You’ll never know absolutely everything about every single candidate, the party they stand for (if not independent) and the party leader they may have. This is why for me, such campaigns need to explain how citizens can get in touch with politicians and candidates, and encourage them to ask questions about issues that the former feel are important. More on this later.

“Hang on – voter registration campaigns are not exactly new, are they?”

Exactly. Let’s have a quick scan of what’s already out there:

“What’s wrong with all of the above?”

It’s not so much that something’s wrong. If you run a voter registration campaign and you get more people to register, that hardly counts as a failure. But can such campaigns go further? I believe they can.

“Isn’t that sailing too close to the ‘You should vote for…’ winds?”

There’s always a risk of that – and it’s that risk that is possibly stopping some campaigns from going further than registration. This is especially the case once you start encouraging people to ask specific questions that you’ve come up with yourself. This is especially the case with any pressure groups that have a specific cause. One example is Friends of the Earth – see here. It doesn’t explicitly say who to vote for in its 2010 analysis, but you can get a feel for the sorts of parties that it would favour vs those that it would not. You could say the same about industry groups such as the CBI too (see here).

“How do you go beyond campaigning for increasing voter registration?”

This is where campaign groups need to start educating their own activists and the public about how Parliament, central and local government functions. How many of you know who your local councillors are? For those of you that do not, do you know how to go about finding out? Do you know what your councillors do and are responsible for? How many of you know who your MP is? How many of you know what your MP is responsible for? How many of you know about the constituent-elected representative relationship and the responsibilities the latter has to the former? How many of you know who your MEPs are, what they do and what they are responsible for?

“Okay, let’s have a website and publish this stuff!”

#Facepalm #HeadDesk

HeadDesk exactly – it implies that a web-based approach is a desk-based approach. It shouldn’t be. Hiding in an office typing away is the easy bit. Getting out and about is the hard bit – as I’ve found out myself. After all, how many other people in your neighbourhood turn up to local council meetings on cold rainy weekday nights? One of my local councillors referred to me as a ‘Guildhall Groupie’ (in jest I might add!) for turning up to such meetings.

You can’t rely on local politicians alone to drive that change

Not least because the system as is takes up so much of their time. As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, our political systems are still stuck in the 19th Century and are struggling to cope with a more highly educated population living in a digital age.

“So, what is the role of outside people and groups then?”

Coming back to educating people about how the institutions are supposed to function, one challenge is doing this in an active rather than a passive manner. What will bring people with difference opinions, talents, experiences and backgrounds together to learn how the system functions? Where are the ideal times, spaces and places to have those discussions?

For those that work with young people, there are various opportunities to bring in these sorts of conversations into all things ‘citizenship’. In particular, the National Citizen Service program (see here) is something that could quite easily build in a short, sharp local government component. A visit to the local town hall and a visit to the local recycling processing plant, with talks and discussions around this could help make the link between bin collections, recycling, town hall budget setting and voting for councillors that agree the budget. Because as the Greens in Brighton and Hove have found out the hard way, one of the things residents expect their local councillors to be competent at is refuse collection.

“But what about cross-examining campaigners and politicians?”

I look back to what I did in the 2010 general election where I emailed all the candidates with a list of 10 questions on issues that were important to me at the time. Come the 2015 election, those issues will be different – some very. For example while the issue of civil service job cuts was at the top of my list in 2010, it won’t be in 2015 because I’m no longer in the civil service. Day-to-day life has different personal priorities. That’s not to say I don’t care about public service job cuts – I do. But on a personal priority level, my issues with mental health, housing and lack of a stable income are more urgent.

Finding out who the candidates are and how to contact them

My post-workshop thoughts on VoteCamp (see here) cover much of this, so I won’t repeat myself on the detail. It means that campaign groups at a local level need to do some research in their own back yard to find out who is standing/active and where.

What to ask the candidates

For me, it’s better to ask open-ended rather than closed questions. The reason being that many issues are much more complex/nuanced than the newspaper headlines state. Also, it reduces the risk of being given a line-to-take reply or the answer to a question that you did not ask. On top of that, it’ll allow the candidates greater scope to reveal their personal views, opinions and values rather than the party HQ’s line.

Question themes

Again, this will depend on the priorities of the person asking the question. Essentially it can fall into questions for the individual politician/candidate, and questions for the political party they are representing. The first is on their past record and the second is on what they want to do & why.

Question themes – past record

The candidate: This could be as simple as finding out what the candidate knows about your local area. It does not automatically mean that the candidate needs to have lived in the area for a long time. But are they demonstrating an awareness of the needs and talents of the local community? How active have they been and what has been the nature of that activity?

– The local and national party: This again depends on what your individual priorities are. Have they consistently campaigned on a given issue over time? What did the local party do on those issues when in government or when in control of the council? Is what they are calling for now different to what they delivered when in government and/or when in control of the council? How do they account for that? (There may be a very good reason – but it’s for the candidates to explain what those reasons are).

Question themes – future policies

– The candidate: Different politicians and candidates will have different priorities, often shaped by their background, life and professional experiences. For example on the Living Wage debate, Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner knows this policy area inside-out (see here). Local MP Julian Huppert on the other hand knows about science policy inside-out. Candidates, if elected, will never be able to prioritise everything. So which ones would your candidates, if elected prioritise and why? Do they show an understanding of the office that they are standing for election for? ie Do they know what powers and responsibilities they would have as an office-holder, and of the institution that they are seeking to scrutinise/be a part of? (Think of the paper-selling candidates of student unions promising to overthrow imperialist capitalist dictatorships if elected and…exactly).

– The party: Simple questions to start off with are ‘What are your party’s top three values and what are your top three policies?’

This applies to both local and national, because quite often the culture of a local political party is not the same as what goes on in the Westminster bubble. Cambridge Labour Party for example has historically (as Richard and Ashley told me at their book launch – see here) been far more left-wing than what we see in Westminster. In other parts of the country you might find local Conservative parties more socially conservative and more Euro-sceptic than the line coming from inside the government – as indicated in this report.

“Isn’t this all a bit simplistic/patronising?”

It runs that risk – yes. But then you’ve got to tailor your approach to the audience that you’ve got and the existing knowledge they have. This is very different from intellectual capabilities. Over the years I’ve met some stupendously bright people who’ve not known the first thing about politics and public policy – mainly because it’s never crossed their mind or few people have asked/encouraged them to think about it.

Others (and perhaps with good reason) have taken the view that they don’t do [party] politics.

What can you do with politicians’ answers to your questions?

Other than bin them? For me, the great thing about all things online is that it makes contacting politicians potentially much easier and faster. With social media it also means that their responses can be made public. Think of Cllr Carina O’Reilly‘s detailed response to me that I featured in this blogpost. Other people get to see – and comment on the thoughts of politicians. In terms of what to do with the responses though:

  1. Write back – if only to say ‘thank you for the response.’ Good manners and all that. For me this is especially the case if it is clear that the candidate has taken time and thought to compose a response. Beyond this, you may want to ask more questions where there’s not enough detail. Alternatively you may want to state where you disagree with them – stating why.
  2. Publish the response on a social media page – blog, Facebook etc, or write into your local newspaper: This can be especially useful if the issue is something that you don’t have expertise on, but know other people that do. It may also be useful if you receive a very aggressive/partisan response. That way, other people may want to support you and take issue with the candidate concerned. It may also may make candidates think twice about publishing aggressive responses if they know it’s going to lead either to more aggravation or negative personal coverage. To note, for courtesy you may want to let the candidate know if you are intending to publish.
  3. Talk about it with other people face-to-face – especially if you know people locally who have also contacted candidates with their own questions. Were the responses consistent? Do the responses together give a more informed picture about the candidates? Do you all favour the same candidate or did you come to different conclusions about who to support/vote for? What do you think were the reasons for any different conclusions?

Summary

The above are simply some of the basics. What I hope some of the above things will help people do is to take some action and give a little bit of thought when reading any responses or publicity they get from local candidates. At the same time, it might also encourage people to keep watch on the candidates that get elected. Even if it’s a case of sending an email/letter once every six months saying “Please can you give me an update on what you’ve done on X, Y & Z since I last contacted you.”

After all, there’s far more to politics than voting.

#VoteCamp at UKGovCamp 2014

Summary

Picking up who said what at Sharon and James’ workshop number 1 at City Hall

Sharon blogged about this here. There’s also a new campaign called Bite the ballot – see here. Also Anthony from DemSoc talked about ‘voting plus’ – which is something I touched on in my blogpost here. Also mentioned by him was Rock the Vote.

I mentioned my previous blogposts where Puffles and I have taken a bit of a kicking over youth engagement and social media. I had an interesting 1-2-1 with one of my local councillors, Cllr Sue Birtles where I was able to work with her to deconstruct politicians’ existing approach in South Cambridge – which looked at Cllr George Owers’ comments here. My point to Sue was that having segmented the local community, were there some groups that pointed towards being more suitable for digital engagement – eg commuters that lived near the station, vs those where face-to-face was more suitable, eg where the elderly live and congregate?

Community segmentation.

I’m posting these again because they are relevant here:

What does your community look like?
What does your community look like?
Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use
Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use

With all things vote camp, how will your approach be different for different audiences?

“Young people are used to an environment where they can complain and have it resolved immediately. The concept of voting& the systems don’t sit easily side-by-side. eg where there is a four year gap.” By Eddie Coates-Madden.

A number of people have talked about hyperlocal issues – and how local citizens can influence those decisions.

One of the things I’m interested in is people’s understanding about how key institutions work. Are some systems and processes needlessly cumbersome and complex? Given the current and new technology, is there a better way of doing local consultation?

“How do you make politics relevant to people’s everyday lives?”

A quotation from Rhammel Afflick. It’s understandable that people will not engage if they can’t see how politics has an impact on their lives, and even more so if they feel powerless to influence things. I look at some of the horrific architecture going up in South Cambridge. This is where the impact on the local community is very visible.

Engaging and inspiring materials, media and people.

Can we create/are there existing materials that introduce the citizen’s relationship with ‘the state’ – such as public services. School, hospitals, roads and bins/recycling. Are we making the links between these, the management/delivery of these and how voting is part of that oversight?

Different Qs:

“How can we encourage people to vote?

“How can we make voting make a difference?

Difference between voting being a civic duty (which is dying out, according to Tim Hughes from Involve), vs people seeing their votes making a difference.

Post-workshop thoughts

I caught up with Tim at the post-drinks gathering – the UKGovCamp tweeple are known for being able to hold their booze, unlike me.

Actually, Tim’s points above got me thinking: How do you encourage people to cast an informed vote? This picks up on one of my earliest blogposts trying to identify some of the key considerations of a public that tends not to follow party politics to the level of detail that I do – see here. To be honest, most people have better things to do than watch politics 24/7.

That being the case, how can you get the essential pieces of information to the general public to help them decide? What are the barriers that are in the way and how can they be removed? Now, I’m not talking about detailed party policy here, I’m talking the very very basics – such as who is standing and for what party? Where is their party website? How can people contact them?

“I’ve registered them! Done it! Can we go home now?”

No.

This research by Ipsos Mori is striking – note the percentages of people that were still undecided who to vote for days before polling. Thus explaining why campaigners campaign so hard right up until the day of the election – then it’s a case of ‘getting your voters out’.

The problem I have with existing voter registration drives is that there’s little follow-through unless you are a political party activist. (In that case you want to convert registrations into votes). For non-party-political organisations, what do you do once registration is done? Unlike telly talent shows where the whole nation votes on a few candidates, in elections everything is at ward, constituency or in the European Parliament, regional level. We don’t get to pick the prime minister by phoning a premium rate number from a choice of three oxbridge males. So…what do you do, especially if you are a national non-partisan campaign? Not a lot, because few if any have the infrastructure to operate at such a local level.

How do we change this, and is there a technological solution?

Assume you’ve just convinced someone (who knows next to nothing about politics or the political system) to register to vote, and they come back and say:

“Done it! Now what?”

Serious question. A brief riposte might be along the lines of telling them they now need to decide who to vote for. But for a time-poor and awareness-limited individual, where do you start? Think of it from a very very basic perspective:

  • “You need to decide who to vote for?”
  • ‘Who is standing?’
  • “Well…you’ve got to find that out.”
  • ‘Where do I find that out?’
  • “On the different party websites.”
  • ‘Where do I find the party websites?’

…and so on, and so on. This is not to say individuals are not bright or intelligent. Part of my thinking involves unpicking the assumptions around the concept of ‘Choice’ – somethings that politicians love but don’t think through. Making an informed choice on anything involves some incredibly strong assumptions:

  1. You’ve got to have the means to exercise that choice – the franchise
  2. You’ve got to have all of the information (or know where to find it) available to exercise that choice
  3. You’ve got to have the intellectual capacity to interpret and critically analyse all of that information in front of you
  4. You’ve got to have the time to analyse all of that information in front of you.

If you are not registered or legally barred (eg for being under 18), the only formal means of influencing the system is either writing to an elected representative hoping they’ll take you seriously, or a petition.

On information, how many people know what information to look for and gather before exercising a choice? With the information in front of them, how many people have the intellectual capacity to analyse that information in front of them? Finally, how many people have the time to analyse all of the information that’s available to them that they have the capacity to analyse?

My point being that no matter how much time you have or however intellectually bright you are, you will never have all of the information available to you that could influence your decision. You will never know every single detail about the backgrounds of all of the candidates standing. You will always be making a judgement based on imperfect information. Furthermore, time constraints will always mean that you’ll never be able to process all of that information, even though you might have the intellectual capacity to do that.

So…who needs to know what?

Let’s take what I did in 2010. I found the email addresses of every single candidate standing in Cambridge. I emailed them a series of questions based on my life experiences and situation at the time. I said that my decision on who I would vote for would be based primarily on their responses. By far the two strongest responses were Julian Huppert’s and Tony Juniper‘s – of the Lib Dems and Greens respectively. The final result in Cambridge is here. Note The Greens came within a couple of hundred votes short of 4,000 across Cambridge. Unfortunately for the Greens, for a variety of reasons they have been unable to solidify that presence from a party-political perspective, even though across the city they regularly poll in total over 1,000 votes in local elections.

Why don’t people do the same as what I did?

Turn the question on its head. How can we make it very simple for people to do the same thing? This is where technology comes in.

Local councils managing the electoral process – led by returning officers

What does an ideal solution look like from a social and digital media perspective? (Casting aside for the moment all issues around digital exclusion). For me, I would like to see a tool that allows me to type in the postcode of wherever I am registered to vote that will then pull up the key details of who is standing in my area. It’s almost identical to WriteToThem.Com.

You then have a single short paragraph stating clearly the role of elected public office that the candidates are standing for. What powers are candidates seeking from you as a voter to grant them? As an MP? As a councillor? As an MEP? This bit is ***not*** about what candidates intend to do if elected. So for example, an MP is seeking the voters consent to represent them in Parliament, to scrutinise the executive and to pass new laws. This bit shouldn’t be stating what sort of laws MPs would like to pass – only that they want the power to join a body that has competency to pass them.

I’d then want a very simple template that allows people to write questions to candidates either all at once, or individually. Could there be a pop-up box with some prompts to get people thinking? Really basic ‘neutral’ ones such as ‘What do you think are the most important issues in your local area? What would you like to ask your candidates about these issues? Where can I find more information about you, your policies, your opinions and perhaps past speeches?’ Leave it to individuals to decide what those issues are.

I’d also want links to websites and social media pages – really getting candidates to think about multimedia. This is because hearing your local candidates voice and seeing them on screen could have a far greater impact than them being pictured on a badly-photocopied party faux-newspapers pointing at potholes. (We have this tool to report such things – something that can then be used to follow-up where reported items have not been resolved, with a crystal clear audit trail that public authorities cannot avoid!)

The advantage of this?

It can be done on a computer or on the move on a smartphone or a tablet. It’s simple – you just need to know your postcode? You’re prompted to use your brain but not in a particularly complex way – a very serious point given the level of adult illiteracy in the UK. Hence having links to multimedia – audio and visual – is essential as far as accessibility is concerned.

So…who needs to do what?

This is the local government open data challenge. Now, let’s get this straight:

PDF documents are data-killers.

Cambridge City Council, I’m looking at you – see here from 2013. Have a look at the statements of nominated persons. You can’t do a thing with that document other than read or print it. You cannot scrape the data to extract names or parties. There are no email addresses, no websites, no links to social or digital media pages. Therefore the likes of MySociety and friends cannot build tools that can turn all of that data into user-friendly websites and apps.

So…who needs to do what if we are going to have an impact on a national level?

I’m assuming we will need a new Act of Parliament – something that will amend the various Representation of the Peoples Acts to ensure that information on websites, electronic contacts and social/digital media sites are submitted to returning officers within nomination papers, and a requirement on returning officers to publish that information in a manner that can be processed digitally.

“So…not in time for 2015 then?”

Not unless someone in Central Government or Parliament gets their skates on to persuade ministers to table a piece of legislation to make the above changes – or changes that have that effect. You’ve also got the fun and games of trying to agree what categories of additional information you’d require. For me at this stage email and websites are sufficient. They are the essential classes of information. Social and digital media are ‘nice to haves’ but I wouldn’t want them to hold things up.

Food for thought?