Cambridge’s street communities on complex local public services


Spending an evening listening & learning with homeless & vulnerably housed people in at Wintercomfort in Cambridge

I was commissioned to do a short workshop on democracy and registering to vote for the local charity for homeless people Winter Comfort. It was one of the toughest but at the same time one of the most worthwhile workshops I have run. I stuck around for an extra hour to listen to what people had to say about their experiences of local public services.

“Where do you start with something like this?”

Neither I nor Wintercomfort had run one of these. The aim was to get homeless & vulnerably housed people engaged in democratic processes as part of getting their voices heard. The challenge for me was figuring out how to persuade people to go to the laptop with Emily from Cambridge City Council ready to register them to vote.

“This sounds familiar”

A couple of years ago, I wrote how lots of things needed to be done before organisations and campaign groups went out to encourage people to vote – see The challenge for me was to put some of this into action. What did I need to do in order to persuade people to get to the stage where they might be vaguely interested in registering to vote? The first thing I realised was that I knew absolutely nothing about the experiences of Cambridge’s street communities. So I asked them to ‘map’ their communities – in particular the people, organisations and activities they had day-to-day interactions with.

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The above-two photographs show just how complex and diverse their day-to-day lives are. This made me realise that if someone like me was unfamiliar with this, what was it like for the rest of the general public? It was also a wake-up call for things I took for granted when one of the participants asked me:

“How do you spell comfort?”

Yep – check my privilege.

Starting like this prevented me from walking straight into the elephant trap of coming across as over-patronising – even though a couple of the men there said that this exercise was a complete waste of time. It was only when I said this was just as much for my benefit and those of my social media followers in local politics as it was theirs. It also nipped in the bud any risk of ‘sugar-coating’ all things democracy.

A sceptical and unpredictable group of participants – with good reason

With some groups I’ve run workshops for, I’ve come across people whose view is very much the less ‘state interference’ they get, the better. The participants in this workshop are in a position where the state has a large impact on their lives – but is not delivering (for whatever reason) in terms of solving their problems of homelessness and the other problems often found linked to it. Everyone I listened to that evening had been failed by public services one way or another. The experience of that – which left them without a roof over their heads – understandably is going to influence how they viewed public services.

The personalities of people who were there were incredibly diverse. You had people who were very confident speakers with very strong opinions, and you had those who quietly huddled in the corner – unbeknown to me but who were taking in absolutely everything. There were also some people who were drinking too – though this did not disrupt the event.

Differing views about the role of central and local government

Interestingly, participants saw it as the role of central government to intervene and deliver services directly when local government failed. This is what happened in the early days of Tony Blair’s government, where new agencies were set up reporting directly to Whitehall and ministers because the view then was that local councils could not deliver the public services needed. It was only about a decade later that decentralisation became a theme, picking up speed under Hazel Blears when she was Communities & Local Government Secretary.

Strong views about governance and transparency

Participants were absolutely red-hot on failures of governance and transparency both in local government and on non-state providers such as charities. They questioned whether the staff at some state-funded providers were qualified to do the jobs they were commissioned to do, and asked why the costs of procuring some goods and services cost so much – asking where the money was really going. Given the information, I could imagine a few of them giving some senior managers at both a local and national level a really good grilling!

Services not joined up at a local level

The strongest message coming back was for Cambridge City Council to have a much more regular presence at Winter Comfort – in particular housing officers. The same goes for organisations that deliver health services. The most popular idea was having a ‘super social worker’ who would be part-employed by the police, health and local council so they could ‘sort things out’ as they said. What struck me was how similar this was to an idea I blogged about several years ago, but how they had come up with the suggestion independently. It’s more compelling coming from them because they are the ones that use the services more regularly than me. From my blogging perspective, it’s a piece of applied public administration. It’s one thing saying ‘Yes nice blogpost but…’. It’s quite another having to respond to a vulnerable member of the public who is dependent on those services and who is being failed by those services.

Their ideas for Cambridge’s politicians to consider

Emily from the council and I wrote down their questions, concerns and complaints on a big sheet of paper.


One of the things that chimed with me was when people said public services should go to where homeless people are, rather than expecting homeless people to have to shuttle from office to office. In public service social media circles we often talk about going to the social media platforms that people are using, rather than creating new ones and expecting people to come to us.

I asked Wintercomfort staff to invite local MP Daniel Zeichner to spend an afternoon/evening listening to the community, and asked them to invite a panel of councillors and political party representatives to allow people to put their party political questions to those at a local council level. Interestingly, the councillor who got the most praise from participants was Cllr Gerri Bird, Mayor of Cambridge for 2014/15. When I asked why, they said it was because she listened, visited regularly and spent time with them rather than rushing off after 15 minutes. This was my experience of Cllr Bird during her mayoralty. (We have ceremonial mayors in Cambridge rather than executive mayors – the Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Lewis Herbert, is primarily responsible for policy & strategy).

Assuming all goes well, I’ll be feeding all of this back in person to Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on 22 October. (See for details).

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Greater Cambridge Assembly meets for the first time…


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

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


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

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

“So…who’s on the Assembly?”

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

“How did you find the meeting?”

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

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

“How many schemes were there?”

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

Sparking people’s imagination

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not all doom & gloom though!

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

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

Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues


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

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

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

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

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

“OK – list the problems”

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

…to name but a few.


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

Cambridge United

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

West Road Concert Hall

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

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

Where are our venues?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A united arts and culture offer for the people of Cambridge


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

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

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

Bringing the schools on board

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

We’re still struggling with this digital thing

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

We need to talk about community reporting

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

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

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

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

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

“Take me to your leader!”

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

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

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

So…what’s stopping all of this then?

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

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

It’s not just digital though, is it?

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

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

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

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

Information – qualitative & quantitative

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

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

On the numbers side, it might be things like:

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


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

…even though we have it on video! #Facepalm

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

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

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


Guest Blogpost – Young people grill Cambridge Councillors at South Area Committee

Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee meeting tonight (8th December) was encouraging in terms of community involvement, writes Chris Rand of Queen Edith’s Online.

Having 20-30 members of the public in attendance was good, but the fact that half of them were under voting age made it even better. Maybe it was just be a one-off, but we should credit those who have been spreading the word – to parents as much as young people – that we can all have a say in how our community is run.

The young people at the South Area Committee meeting were in two groups. The first was a group from the 27th Cambridge Scouts, in uniform, who had come along to ask if councillors would introduce safer road crossing near their headquarters in Cherry Hinton. One of the Scouts stood up and explained how they’d assessed different possibilities, and concluded that a zebra crossing would be the best approach. It was a lesson to some of the adults who present to council in how to say:

“We’ve looked at the options, found the solution, and now all you have to do is to make it happen”.

The second group of young people included under-10s, who’d come with their parents, to appeal for a scooter park to be built on the Accordia development. The money and plans for this have been knocking around for several years, and a whole generation of children have probably missed out while council officers and local government procrastinated in the way which those not driven by the urgency of youth tend to do.

At this point, huge credit should be given to the new South Area Committee chair, Cllr Andy Blackhurst, for doing an exemplary job. Cllr Blackhurst superbly juggled around the agenda to balance the need to hear late arrivals with the desire to ensure that younger children weren’t kept waiting until past the time they had to leave. This was an identical problem to one which this committee had handled badly in the past, and it was great to see a lesson having been learned. Cllr Blackhurst was also wonderfully patient with a couple of the very youngest members of the public, who were understandably shy to speak, but eventually did so (and how well!).

What could have be done better?

Well, the last thing we need is for events like this to seem boring to young people, so perhaps the Scouts (who were heard early on) could have been told that they could leave if they wished. Instead, they had to sit through another hour of unrelated discussion (which they did with impeccable behaviour). More important, however, was the age-old problem with these committees, that they can’t always make decisions, and that they don’t explain that to the public. The Scouts, for example, asked if the council could consider a zebra crossing. They were given the brief – and quite correct – answer by the County Councillors that it might be possible, and that it would be raised in next year’s plans. That was all they got.

The Scouts would have gone home and been asked: “How did it go? Are we going to get a crossing?”, to which they could only have replied: “I think so. Maybe. Eventually. To be honest, we’re not quite sure”. Similarly, the children who’d appealed so eloquently for their scooter park would have asked their parents afterwards:

“So are we going to get it?”

To which the reply would have been:

“Well, the councillors all voted for it – again – but the officer from the council mumbled something about another planning meeting next year, and wouldn’t give any commitments or timescales, so we’ve no idea really”.

Members of the Area Committees, and veteran watchers, all know that these discussions and votes are normally just a tiny part of the epic process involved in getting something done in local government. There are too many people involved whose very jobs seem to require things to move as slowly as possible. When members of the public – especially young people – take the trouble to turn up and make their views heard, they don’t realise this. They deserve to have the real situation explained to them very clearly, while at the same time getting an acknowledgement that their representation really has made a significant contribution.

“The minister will see you now, Puffles”


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

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

Told you!

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

Additional videos

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

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

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

Yes – but…


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

“Isn’t that you not doing your job?”

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

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

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

“Such as?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so for 2015…?

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

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

Scrutinising the Greater Cambridge City Deal


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

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

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

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

Get in there early to maximise your influence

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

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

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

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

The papers – these need publicising far and wide

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

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

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

My chance to ask some questions

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

Transport and rail

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

Education – supporting governors

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

Project management

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cambridge: Full of smart people stuck in stupid traffic!”


The above-quotation is from Andy Clark. Having spotted Cambridge’s ‘wicked problems’, how do we go about solving them? An inspiring evening expertly facilitated by Bill Thompson gave us many insights.

The agency Collusion hosted this event for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – see here for the outline. Also, have a look at the pages by Cambridgeshire Insight as this data will inform future discussions and actions.

Technical Technocrats vs Democratic Democrats

For me, this was probably the biggest ‘policy tension’ that came out of the event. The four speakers all had inspiring examples of problems being solved elsewhere. But what do you do with people who cannot or will not participate? I found it reassuring that Bill Thompson, one of the most highly-regarded people in Cambridge’s tech community, repeatedly brought up the issue of democratic legitimacy. For me, it’s just as important that our highly-skilled tech community learns about (& participates actively in) our democratic processes just as much as it is for holders of public office & public sector managers to be digitally literate.

For me, it doesn’t need to be framed as the heading above states. When I was a policy adviser inside the civil service, I made it my business to learn the basics of what everyone I interacted with was doing. This meant I learnt when to ask for advice and how to put it in terms that would give me the information I needed to make an informed decision. I was dealing with accountants, lawyers, communications and HR professionals, statisticians, economists, engineers, and town planners to name but a few. Part of my job involved interpreting their specialist knowledge and turn it into minister-friendly language. No, that doesn’t mean colourful pictures or sock puppets. Some ministers preferred tables of data, others graphs, others diagrams, others extended flowing prose. This mattered because it was the ministers that took the final decisions. There were times where I got advice pulled because I was not content with the evidence we had collected – i.e. there were too many gaps in it from which to make a firm decision.

“What has the second paragraph got to do with the event?”

A few people spoke to me at the end, mentioning they had read my pre-event blogpost. (See here). Those that didn’t have a background in politics and public policy said it made them realise just how big a challenge making Cambridge a smarter city was. Some of the people seated near me commented on a number of occasions that they didn’t know what some of the terms being used actually meant – such as ‘gaming’. (If anyone’s got a good definition of ‘gaming in a digital public policy context’ please let me know!) Technical experts need to be able to communicate to non-technical types. Doing this not only improves levels of legitimacy and informed consent, but also increases the likelihood that people can then become your advocates in fields far beyond your own.

“So…who said what at the event?”

Best to look at the hashtag #SmartCamb [<<– Click here] for that. The best bit was listening to everyone’s various ideas in the feedback sessions. The top two involved ‘virtual railings’ for events, and alternative governance structures. On the virtual railings idea, something I come back time-and-again to is what Events.OnTheWight have done. Can we have a single city-wide (or even county-wide) portal that does this? Perhaps an upgrade/overhaul to Cambridgeshire.Net where the talented but overstretched team are supplemented with additional resources brought in from interested people & organisations?

The other one was the inevitable restructuring of local government – described as being very 19th Century by people in the room. Cambridgeshire County Council have started that process of exploring alternatives. [<<–Click here]. I’m due to meet with council officials following my public question to their full council recently to find out how it will do this. Watch this space.

I also found it interesting that the final discussion was about the role of local area committees – something that many people in the room were unaware of. (See here to find your committee, and see here to find your elected councillors…& then email them to let them know you exist!). At the same time as the #Smartcamb event, the North Area Committee was having a meeting – with Richard Taylor doing a very good job as always of tweeting proceedings.

Bringing together a number of separate strands and bringing them together in time for the Cambridge Science Festival

It’s on 9-22 March 2015 and it looks like a number of things that started at the Cambridge festival of ideas will be reporting back. This is also the fortnight we’re looking to have the Be the change – Cambridge spring event. Prior to that will be the brilliant Cambridge Community Fair on Saturday 28 February 2015. I set up a landing page on the Be the change – Cambridge Meetup Group until we get a page for the Community Fair. (I’m one of the little helpers for that event – something that I first blogged in detail about in May 2012!).

One of the conversations I was part of at the post-event drinks at Cambridge MakeSpace (where I took Puffles to see a 3D printer and a laser-cutter a couple of years ago) was on co-ordinating future events. Marcus Romer suggested having an city-wide events planner linked to but separate to the virtual railings mentioned above, that would allow planners to avoid unnecessary event clashes. It was here that Cambridge MakeSpace had a number of funky displays – such as these little racing cars made by Cannybots that I filmed!

It’s the multiple conversations where the interesting things happen. Hence why at events time where one person is presenting or where there is only one person speaking at a time needs to be limited if it’s post-event action you want.

“Can we solve Cambridge’s wicked problems of transport, housing and wealth inequalities?”

We can certainly reduce the scale and intensity of the problems. I also think the problems won’t be solved by simply throwing money at them, or through single-action policies such as ‘building more houses’. Having worked in housing policy in Whitehall, it’s one of the most complex and heavily-lobbied of policy areas, with huge and powerful players who can bring to bear the sort of resources that dwarf what Whitehall can muster. Think what it’s like for planning officers in over-stretched council departments.

There’s enough expertise & goodwill in Cambridge to support councillors and council officers. Can we put together a structure/system/process that make it easy for people to get involved and improve the quality of housing that is built? Can we also work with other towns to improve our transport infrastructure that also alleviates the housing pressure? Campaigns to link Oxford-Bedford-Cambridge (which I believe should extend to Norwich & Ipswich), Wisbech-Cambridge and Haverhill-Cambridge could, if successful have a huge positive effect in spreading the wealth that’s currently being thrown at Cambridge’s overheating housing market.

There’s also the work of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, who do an excellent job scrutinising planning applications. Their AGM is on 04 November – see here.

“Could this get scientists, technologists, engineers and programmers into public policy and even politics?”

It’s a huge opportunity. For quite some time I’ve been saying Cambridge’s science and tech communities need to take a more active role in public policy and local democracy. Too many of us are relying on the efforts of too few people running our democratic institutions. The burden – especially on the back of austerity – is too great. Given the huge turnout at #SmartCamb – there must have been over 100 people in the hall, the goodwill was there to see. How can we make it easy for people less familiar with public policy and local democracy to get involved and make an impact?

Widening and yet consolidating the debate on the future of Cambridge


There’s lots of stuff going on about the future of Cambridge, but how do we connect them all together, avoid duplication and ensure we get as many people involved as possible?

Lots of us took part in the event: ‘Could Cambridge become a smart city?’ in the 2013 Cambridge Festival of Ideas. My thoughts following the event are here. How far have we come since then? The preamble for this year’s event is as follows:

So, for 2014, we’re back for round 2 and this time, Collusion’s live experiment challenges artists, technologists, academics and citizens to work together to find creative solutions to some of Cambridge’s ‘wicked’ problems, aka, problems that are difficult or impossible to solve, e.g. transport, environmental issues, community cohesion.

The first thing that struck me was: “****Eeek!**** They’ve missed out the politicians!”

Fortunately, local government happen to be on board as two of the colluders. Politicians matter, because if we take this model of a smart city, we find one of the key components of a smart city is smart governance. You can aim for smart people, smart environment, smart mobility, smart living and a smart economy, but if you don’t have your governance structures sorted then the rest come crashing down.

“Why so?”

Rule of law. You can’t have a smart economy unless you have the essentials of contract law to underpin it. You can’t have sound laws unless you have sound law-making processes that carry the confidence of the people. With that you need some sort of political framework. Politics might be as welcome to most communities as the bubonic plague given recent headlines, but you need to have some process to define the rules or conventions that shape how people interact with each other. Why is it that cars stop at traffic lights?

‘Let’s get creative and transform how we engage with the city. ‘

This is the title of a new project that Rachel Drury and friends are running as part of the Maker Challenge – see here. This is at the same time as my project Be the change – Cambridge, along with Cambridgeshire County Council’s exploration of alternative governance models announced in mid-October. Then you have Cambridge Ahead who have done some in-depth research, identifying housing, transport and education as the three big issues for businesses in Cambridge. Then there is Cambridge Past, Present and Future’s 2030 vision report. On top of that, we have the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s 2016 vision for Cambridge. I’ve not even mentioned Cambridge City Council’s budget consultation – see here – it closes on 31 October. Given that the consultation is the first of the new Labour administration that took office last May, they have every right to turn around and say they are the ones with the political mandate for the city.

My take? We have to bring these currently disparate projects and processes together. In the grand scheme of things, I quite like the idea of the Maker Challenge. The bit that is missing is the public administration/political interface. Will the results feed into local government decision-making, or even the general election campaigns?

“Isn’t bringing all of this together what ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ is all about?”

It is – and we are having our first wider post-conversation cafe gathering in Mid-November – details in the next day or so.

We’ve also got to remember the general election of 2015 as well. Political parties have already started campaigning for it. Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna for Labour have all been in Cambridge in the past couple of weeks. The Lib Dems have been leafletting in Coleridge ward, introducing their new active candidate for the ward (Simon Cooper), and the Conservatives have been hitting Queen Edith’s ward en masse for the first time in years. (There were eight of them a few days ago – numbers unheard of by all but the longest-resident of citizens). My take is that we cannot have a city-wide conversation separate to the electoral and political processes.

The above reflects the initial success of the conversation cafe event from September – see videos and the write-up here. We’ve been slightly slow off the mark in the response and follow-up because, if I’m honest I’ve become a little overwhelmed by the scale of the growing challenge. It’s one thing to organise an event, but quite another when it starts evolving into a series of actions and activities that involve co-ordinating some very large local institutions! Managing this will be one of the issues we discuss at the November gathering.

‘How could art and technology help to tackle some of Cambridge’s difficult to resolve problems?’

I can hear the cynics already, sarcastically coming out with things like:

“I am a conceptual artist who specialises in contemporary pottery made out of environmentally friendly renewable and recyclable sources…and I am going to solve Cambridge’s traffic problems…by making a jam jar!”


“I am a mobile phone programmer and I am going to make an app that is going to deal with long term political apathy and low voter turnout just by pressing a button!”

No – it’s not like the above-two at all. I had a chat with local musician Melody Causton about sourcing material from archives. This stemmed from her recent song ‘The Devil Fears Him’ about Jack the Ripper.

Our discussion covered her going to some of the recently-released archives from Bow Street Magistrates Court, to her heading to the county archives as a source of lyrical inspiration. This has been done before – for the Tour de France in Cambridge.

The above was sung by the Dowsing Sound Collective (with me in the backing vocals somewhere!) This was a case of using music to engage people in a city event. The piano and bass arrangement by Andrea Cockerton in my view are awesome. I remember when we sang the chorus for the first time. Something chimed. It really was quite moving. Art and music can be used to get people involved. The challenge is how.

Now, while I’m not inviting anyone to write a song about the technicalities of local government finance in Cambridge, the concept of ‘sketchnoting’ brings art to writing up meetings. One of Cambridge’s finest, Michele Ide-Smith demonstrated this earlier this year at UKGovCamp 2014. See her slides here.

“It’s all very well saying ‘art and tech can solve our problems’ but who is going to pay for it?”


And we know the financial situation is absolutely dire for local government – see here. If your art or tech solution is based around getting a grant from local government, it’s already dead in the water -> unless it involves a greater saving elsewhere in the organisation and/or leveraging in greater amounts through sponsorship or benefactors’ donations. (There is the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation that has a list of local grant funding organisations).

On the art side, things worth exploring are those that inspire, mobilise and influence behaviour. On the tech side, using technology to provide information under tight time constraints to help people come to decisions (as opposed to making the decision for them) is another. Think live bus times (“What time should I leave to go to the bus stop?”) vs the sat nav (“I drove onto the guided busway/cycle bridge because the sat nav told me to!”). There’s also the cyclescape tool.

Another thing worth looking at is using art and tech in the planning system. How can we use both to get developers to engage with local residents at design stage so that people are not needlessly irritated by needless oversights? Here’s a high-profile example of when things go wrong. The view of the building from Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road are depressing to say the least – hence the party-political controversy.


Breaking the silos


Some thoughts on breaking public sector silos 

This blogpost bounces off one speech and one article. The first speech is by the highly-regarded (by me at least!) executive director of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken. (See a transcript of his speech here). The second is by former government auditor David Walker in The Guardian Public Leaders here. (Declaration of interest, I’m an unpaid contributor to the Guardian’s Public Leaders’ Network).

Central government-readers may not be aware of recent developments in Cambridgeshire, where Cambridgeshire County Council’s councillors have directed the chief executive to investigate alternative delivery structures for the public sector across the county. (See my blogpost here).

My first experience of public sector silos

This was in the old Government Office for the East of England. This was in the days of what some might call ‘high bureaucracy’. Even those of us working in the office in lower grades at the time knew we could have run a much tighter ship. Amongst the many various things regional offices were charged with doing, bringing together often competing interests was one of them. Some were better than others at this. One of the best I worked for was Isobel Mills – who chaired a cross-departmental project board that I was assigned to support shortly after transferring from Cambridge to Whitehall almost a decade ago. Isobel was able to do what our office in Cambridge struggled with during my time in the middle part of the last decade: bringing together often competing interests and to give them a joint sense of purpose.

What made the East of England that bit more complex was the party politics: A Labour central government dealing with predominantly Conservative local councils. Combined with a rapid turnover of ministers during the Blair/Brown eras, this did little to aid policy stability. Some regional offices were better at managing the Whitehall-local relationships. Others less so. This was reflected in a 2005 peer review (long since archived by the National Archives) that stated the East of England Regional Office did not have strong enough relationships with Whitehall and did not behave as a single entity – rather it tried to represent sometimes competing departmental interests. This was why in 2006 the entire network had a major restructure (reducing lower grade numbers and employing more senior managers) and rebranding to demonstrate a single corporate identity.

Back to Isobel Mills again

When I moved to Whitehall, I described life to friends in Cambridge as ‘hitting the ground running and running very fast!’ I joined a very high-performing division under the watchful eye of the highly respected Andrew Campbell – now on the board of the Department for Communities and Local Government. We were dealing with local government reform, and I was attached to Isobel’s project board that ultimately reported to Andrew’s programme board. Both those boards had a number of influential civil servants representing over ten different Whitehall departments. Yet neither Isobel nor Andrew had to resort to threats or brute force to get to a collective decision. From my perspective I sort of knew I could never aspire to be like they are, but also learnt the easy way of what effective chairing of such groups looked like. It’s something I’m seeing with Dr David Cleevely on the Be the change – Cambridge project.

Being the disruptor

As Simon Parker of the NLGN think tank tweeted:

So who are these radical disruptors? Is Mike Bracken one of them? I’d go as far to say the entire UKGovCamp community are a community of positive disruptors. I remember my first UKGovcamp in early 2011 being surrounded by people who I felt at the time were people who I really connected with. But by that time I had already signed my leaving papers from the civil service. This was also before the GDS (which Mike was to take the lead of) had been formed.

When you’re taking on not just an institution but a culture, getting that transformation will mean fighting battles and taking hits. The nature of the GDS is one where people move into and out of it because the money that the private sector can afford to pay is significantly more. Yet the great thing about the many people I’ve met in the GDS is they have understood and embraced the concept of ‘public service’. Combine that with both technical nous and an understanding of how the private sector works, and you’re less likely to get ripped off. To name but a few, Alice Newton, Emer Coleman, Alex Blandford, Louise Kidney, all awesomely talented people who were able to achieve things that many of us could not – and all now in new pastures and all who I’d have no hesitation in recommending.

Taking the hits as a disruptor – and evolving accordingly

That’s what I’ve gone and done locally in Cambridge. It’s far too early to say whether it’s made any impact or not. But being a disruptor means turning cliche into action. It also means a continually evolving approach – one that responds to feedback and reactions from others. In my case it was starting off blogging on local issues. I started turning up to council meetings soon after, with comment and posts moving in peaks and troughs from supportive to hostile and in-between. It culminated in standing for election but in a manner that broke many of the existing conventions – such as ‘not advertising your opponents or their materials in a positive light’. (It also meant having the first dragon fairy to beat UKIP at the ballot box in Cambridge!) Since then, my approach has evolved further – reaching out to communities outside of Cambridge City, and moving into digital video to record footage of events, presentations and interviews.

In the case above, I made a short video to explain the basics of a local government function

Will John Mazoni, the new chief executive of the civil service be willing to take those hits?

Over two years ago, I wrote a blogpost calling for The Cabinet to be reduced to about ten portfolios – see here. I stand by that principle. A large Cabinet makes it difficult for the Prime Minister to be challenged. A smaller Cabinet in principle is much more effective at holding the Prime Minister of the day accountable. Think of how long meetings are. Then compare how long it takes for 10 people to have their say versus over 20.

The challenge for Mazoni is as David Walker states at the end of his article: Will Mazoni be able to bring a level of co-ordination across Whitehall policy teams that is currently lacking? I don’t mean a ‘top down’ approach, but one similar to how I described Isobel Mills and Andrew Campbell at the top of this blogpost. This also means ministers behaving collegiately as well. Given that we are close to a general election in a coalition government, don’t expect much from them this side of May 2015.

“And all this talk of devolving powers to cities?”

If we go to the screenshot below:


What Mark Lloyd, the Chief Executive of Cambridgeshire County Council is charged with investigating is something that goes far beyond restructuring local government. The problem we have had in Cambridge mirrors that in Whitehall: Where is the strong centre with the legal and financial competency to take the important decisions?

Of the top four most important issues to the people of Cambridge, three are set by Cambridgeshire County Council, the majority of whose councillors represent wards outside the city. (Source ICM via @PhilRodgers)

If you took transport, traffic, roads and cycling, that makes 37 percentage points. Housing, planning and the environment fall within Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council at a district/borough level. That’s 27 percentage points. On ‘the built environment’ that makes 64 percentage points. Having ‘the build environment’ split between three different organisations with three different shades of party political control (City = Labour, County = no overall control, South Cambs = Conservative), is it any wonder that Cambridge struggles with a unified approach?

“Won’t a unitary with an executive ‘Boris style mayor’ solve it?”

Not necessarily. Assuming this at the start would be a case of trying to find a problem to apply a pre-identified solution. It also runs the risk of locking out the wider county & beyond that could provide solutions to some of Cambridge’s housing and traffic problems. This was why I mentioned the rail campaigns for Haverhill (see here) and Wisbech (see here) by name in my speech to Cambridgeshire County Council. This reflects the main area of political disagreement I have with the current Labour-led Cambridge City Council. The latter are (understandably) focussing on the services they deliver directly rather than committing anything to my as yet unproven ideas and schemes. If I were in their position, I’d probably be doing the same thing as them. The onus is on me to show that Be the change – Cambridge can succeed.

“So…back to breaking the silos…?”

For a start it takes a huge personal commitment on someone’s part. Within institutions, it means having a board level champion, someone in middle management passionate about & competent in managing the change, and bringing together anyone who ‘wants to make a positive difference’ in the organisation.

“Isn’t that simply doing things more efficiently within the existing system rather than changing the entire system to reflect a digital age?”

You’ve got to know where you are starting from as well as knowing where you want to get to. Looking at Mike Bracken’s recent remarks, there is one phrase that stands out like a sore thumb:

For me, this demonstrates two new things that aspiring policy advisers need to learn – and quickly:

  1. Learning to code and/or the basics of IT systems
  2. Having a grounding in communities that are the service users

Now, we know diversity remains an issue in the senior civil service. One little nudge I made to the system when I was on the Fast Stream was to persuade Cabinet Office to target the ex-polytechnics as hosts for their outreach events, and have students at established universities step outside to attend them, rather than vice-versa. This reflected my experience as a former Anglia Ruskin post-grad student where, at freshers fairs and social events undergraduates said they felt they weren’t allowed to go to events held in Cambridge’s colleges. This is despite every single Cambridge society I approached during those days saying that Anglia students were more than welcome and treated as equals – similar to being another college of Cambridge University.

In the case of 2), if you’ve not experienced society’s problems, to what extent will it cloud your judgement when advising ministers? (Ministers who are charging you with advising them on solving society’s problems). In the case of 1) coding wasn’t even on the agenda when I joined the civil service a decade ago. It wasn’t even on the agenda when I left in 2011. That’s how quickly things have evolved. But how do you go about retraining such a workforce en masse?

Knowing what are the right questions to ask, and knowing who to ask

In order to meet Mike’s call earlier, policy advisers (and even ministers) will need to know the basics of both in order to ask informed questions of developers and users to inform their decisions. When you are working in a white-hot policy team in Whitehall, you are surrounded by lots of incredibly bright and competent people. In such an environment of work hard, play hard, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world isn’t like that. It’s very easy to assume everyone else shares your own knowledge or outlook. It’s ironic that having teams of such great knowledge and talent can have policy blind spots that are a result of having that knowledge and talent!

That’s one of the reasons why some of the Whitehall apprenticeship schemes I saw seemed to work so well. Attached to a number of middle-to-senior managers were people who were the very service-users Mike spoke about – including people failed by the education system to single parents struggling to gain a foothold in the workplace following years outside the workforce. They were also people who had not been ‘conditioned’ by the system. Accordingly they spoke as they saw. But because they had insights that others from more affluent or academic background did not have, they provided a challenge that policy advisers didn’t see coming. During my final year in the civil service, I’d often run things by the apprentices in our team. Whether it was basic errors to a ‘common sense check’, the apprentices were more than value for money.

It just goes to show that your positive disruptors and radical thinkers don’t need to be expensive consultants. Some of them are probably sitting inside the job centre or housing office of your local council – as service users. What would happen if you employed some of them in teams responsible for redesigning services?