“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.

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Events I have been to, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Employment and job hunting, Housing and transport, Public administration & policy, Social media | 3 Comments

There’s more to unlocking democracy than campaigning alone


Sometimes it takes someone to turn up to events and report from and/or film them.

Here are the results:

Or you can listen to them below

Congratulations to Cllr Viki Sanders (@Taw_66) and commiserations to Rahima Ahammed, Andy Bower and Joel Chalfen. You can view my interviews with each of the candidates at https://vimeo.com/album/3127762.

Citizen journalism matters

I made it matter in this by-election campaign. Not because I wanted to influence the election in any way. If I did, I’d have started much much earlier. No. My role in this was to report without prejudice. That is what I did. It’s for others to make their judgements on the content.

The only reporter at the count

With local media being starved of funds (irrespective of the reasons), democracy and democratic institutions are put at risk by the lack of external scrutiny of what happens. I was surprised to be told I was the only reporter at the election count. I also wasn’t aware of the need to give a week’s notice of a media presence at such counts. But…Puffles being Puffles…

***Thank you*** to Vicky at Cambridge City Council for ensuring there was someone from outside the political parties & the council to report from inside the Guildhall.

Puffles the dragon fairy with Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Gerri Bird.

Puffles the dragon fairy with Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Gerri Bird at Cambridge Guildhall

Being described as ‘local TV’

I’m quite proud of the dragon fairy for this one – the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate Cllr Heidi Allen at http://www.heidisouthcambs.co.uk/news/heidi-local-tv describing my digital video account as local television. But if you think about it, that’s sort of what I’ve been doing over the past 24 hours – if not more. Me and Puffles (who was with me for both the hustings and the count) were this ‘one man and his dragon multi-media-machine’. We were micro-blogging (Twitter), macro-blogging (this), sending radio reports for Cambridge 105 and filming, editing and publishing video content – and conducting our own interviews with candidates. Think about it from another perspective. As the results were about to be announced I realised no one was there to capture it on film. Hence pulling out phone and filming it. The quality isn’t great, but it proved the event happened.

Goodwill from political parties

I can’t recall hearing a single bad word from any of the political party activists and elected representatives to my filming. Quite the opposite. Why? From their feedback the following:

  • Trust: When I tell them what I want to film for, what I intend to ask, and describe how the footage will be used, I follow through on it – repeatedly.
  • Transparency: They get to see the full footage that I publish, rather than the ‘edited soundbites’ that you often see in the mainstream media. In the May election campaign I noted how I’d do extensive interviews with the media and only a snippet gets used. Why bother?
  • ‘Shareability': The format I publish them on means it’s simple and straight-forward for people to share the footage with others. Rather than having to mess about with large media files, all they have to do is copy and paste a hyperlink
  • Control: I’ve made the videos available for the parties to download free of charge and use in their own materials – my only condition is that they attribute it to me. This means they can use footage I’ve filmed for their own campaigns – but also are all in the knowledge that the full footage is available online. Hence an onus to use responsibly & not take a selective quotation to use out of context.

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, the Cambridge Young Greens have been the most proactive in inviting me to events to film. Following interest from some of the local Conservative Party activists who were pleasantly surprised to hear how successful things have been, it’s likely I’ll be filming for them in the near future. [Transparency: Andy Bower is my webmaster for my work things].

At an individual level, a number of Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats activists are now warming to the concept of digital video. This is even more so for those that saw the footage that I uploaded from the hustings. At the election count I spoke to members of all parties on the ballot paper and mentioned how they could use the hustings videos for training purposes. What worked and what didn’t? Could the candidates have spoken more clearly, more concisely, more passionately? At what points could they have intervened on other speakers? At what point could they have stopped talking earlier? What points needed extending or following-up? Did they get tone and body-language right for the audience? The same goes for the interviews I did. Tone, posture, clarity, content. What worked and what didn’t?

“What about at a ‘group’ level for Labour vs the Liberal Democrats?”

I understand why they are more cautious than the Greens or the Conservatives. Cambridge is already a strongly-contested seat – one which I maintain is too close to call between Julian Huppert and Daniel Zeichner for the 2015 General Election. This means they’ll be running an incredibly disciplined operation. You only have to see what happens at election counts to watch the parties in operation. It is like clockwork, with activists assigned to tally all the votes counted to get an idea of who is most likely to win. The precious extra minutes/hours give the candidates time to prepare for any responses to the results before they are formally announced.

Me turning up with camcorder is a new unknown that existing campaigning processes haven’t yet accounted for in terms of opportunities and risks. What do you do if I record a major ‘gaffe’, or someone says something highly inappropriate/offensive that on second thoughts they want to withdraw? If they are not ‘in control’ of the person filming or editing, then what? On the other hand, this is all free publicity – which if used well could be incredibly positive. But how best to use it? With such a tightly contested election looming, is it worth taking risks with new things or is it better to focus on the tried & tested?


The stats above for me speak for themselves. With the exception of the digital inclusion video, all of the above-mentioned videos were uploaded within 24 hours prior to the election result being announced. Over 100 plays in 24 hours? I’m more than happy with that. Chances are most of those views will also have been from people who were not at the event itself. Therefore it’s making something available to a much wider audience. Remember that, subject-wise we are talking about a council by-election in November on the edge of Cambridge. I.e. don’t expect the squillions of hits beloved of marketing men.

What the videos do for even a small number of people is allow them to see and hear the candidates in their own words with their own voices. They don’t need me to ‘tweet-quote’ for them. People can view what they want and come to their own conclusions. At last night’s hustings, I heard a variety of opinions of who did well and who did not. Some I agreed with, others I didn’t. What inspires one may alienate another. That’s a risk you take when you stand for election and submit to cross-examination by the public.

“What does video community reporting mean for future campaigns?”

The challenge is with candidates. The pendulum may well swing back towards strength of individual candidates and away from ‘party brand’. There is a risk that this level of community reporting puts off some people from standing. On the other hand there may be people out there who see a panel of candidates and think: “I can do better than this lot!” and either stand as an independent or join a party and put themselves forward for selection by party members.

The team matters

For all the things social and digital media has going for it, it won’t replace door-to-door canvassing or campaigning with a rock-solid team behind them. Labour, The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had teams of campaigners out and about regularly in Queen Edith’s. If anything, this is the difference being in a party makes. They can bring in significant backing. In Rahima Ahammed’s case, Labour were able to arrange meetings with both Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman in Cambridge. If you are a first time candidate and your party arranges photo opportunities with the leader and deputy leader of your party, you’re set up for [political] life. In Rahima’s case, I also recorded footage of Ms Harman endorsing her. It also matters in the face of hostile residents – and unfortunately we’ve got a few of those in Cambridge.

Utterly depressing and completely unacceptable. There’s no place for this in Cambridge. Don’t think that the risk of such abuse was not a consideration when I considered standing earlier this year. The despicable inflammatory headlines in the print media have created an atmosphere where people are afraid to get involved in community action and local democracy. Why would anyone put themselves forward in the face of such hostility? Hence having that rock-solid support network is essential to survive in politics. It also gives an insight into why I wouldn’t be good at party politics: I’m too sensitive (and that’s not considering my anxiety/mental health issues – I have always had a sensitive disposition) and don’t have a strong enough support network to deal with the s**te that you get in politics.

Hence looking for alternative ways to ‘unlock democracy’

In my case it was doing something that no one was doing on my side of town. (Richard Taylor mainly covers North Cambridge and focuses on policing and civil liberties issues). It looks like being a ‘community cameraman’ is an interesting niche to explore in the near future. The only problem I have now is I’ve run out of digital storage space! New hard drive needed!

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Party politics, Puffles, Social media | 3 Comments

How might local political parties work with the new generation of community reporters?


Reporting back on the Queen Edith ward hustings at Homerton College, Cambridge.

I’ve uploaded an album of videos from the Queen Edith’s ward by-election hustings held at Homerton College on 12 November 2014.


That’s quite a lot of videos for a relatively small event. But given the rare occurrence of hustings in Cambridge, this was a very useful experience for all concerned. Although I have a direct interest in the outcome of this by-election (my school is in the ward), I don’t have a vote as I live in the neighbouring ward of Coleridge. (This is where Puffles stood in May 2014). Hence I’m not going to pass comment on the performance of the candidates, let alone who I would vote for if given the choice. I’ll leave it to fellow independent blogger Chris Rand to do so here.

Me interviewing Joel Chalfen of Cambridge Green Party. Pic, Chris Rand.

Me interviewing Joel Chalfen of Cambridge Green Party. Pic, Chris Rand.

Positive feedback from local party activists

The tweets below are two examples

Content-wise, the videos are unedited. I’ve not clipped speeches or pulled out soundbites – which can all-too-easily be taken out of context. It allows representatives from all parties to invite people to view the speeches in full before responding in detail.

Within the first 12 hours of the videos going up, the opening speeches alone had nearly 70 views between them. Given the audience, it’s likely that most of those people viewing the videos would not have been at the hustings. For me, it doesn’t matter too much at this stage on whether the viewers are voters. It may well be that most of the viewers are party activists and their supporters. What matters to me is I’m demonstrating to audiences what can be achieved with digital video.

Reviewing their own performances

It’s one of the most excruciating experiences to go through – reviewing your own performance on film. But if you’re making public speeches or going to be appearing in future public debates, reviewing your performance is essential. For Joel and Rahima, this was their first public debate.

****Being cross-examined on your beliefs and political views is a very difficult experience****

Before you start judging the four candidates, ask yourself how you would fare faced with an audience and a bloke with a camera. It takes a huge amount of courage to face your neighbourhood to stand up and be counted. Even more so if you have lived in that neighbourhood for years. In the current climate you inevitably run the risk of criticism, ridicule and even hatred. I got all three standing as Puffles in May 2014. It explains why I finally snapped at a hustings in May 2014 for the European elections – telling one candidate to

“Take your billboards of hate and get out of my beautiful city!”

It’s not pleasant. Also, there will be some things that will attract a disproportionate amount of all three – think of all the ‘isms. Again, in the current climate, consider what someone like Rahima, the Labour candidate would have to overcome in terms of fears. Gender, ethnicity and faith. On Tuesday I commented to people that the news agenda on violence against women seemed to be absolutely unrelenting – even I as a man felt absolutely bludgeoned by the end of the evening.

This perhaps gives an insight into my style of interviewing and filming of local political events. I’m not in the business of stirring up hate and controversy. There’s too much of it already. If you go in on the attack, your interview subjects close in and become defensive. You then end up with the ‘lines to take’ and the whole thing is a waste of space. Ask loaded questions on ‘tell us how wonderful your policy is on XYZ’ at the same time lacks the credibility to get under the skin of the issues.

Bear in mind most viewers will know very little about the people I’m interviewing – and may well not have met them

This matters because at a local level, not many of us get the chance to meet the people we vote for. Therefore having *something* on video that allows politicians and political activists to introduce themselves on a relatively neutral playing field can help. Hence in my early interviews I’ve not gone for the policy questions, but the human experiences – as this interview with Cllrs Heidi Allen and Seb Kindersley show.

Heidi and Seb are the prospective parliamentary candidates in South Cambridgeshire for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats respectively. It’s a near certainty that one of these two will replace Andrew Lansley MP after the general election. (Lansley got about 27,000 votes and Kindersley 20,000 in the 2010 General Election). Normally you’d expect two opposing candidates to be tearing strips out of each other, but not at this one.

“Why so?”

I told them in advance the sort of interview it would be, and I briefed them on the questions I would be asking.

“Why did you do that? Doesn’t that defeat the point of interviewing?”

If you’re interviewing to catch people out, perhaps. But that’s not my aim. My aim is for them to give open and informed answers, and to be relaxed in front of camera. You don’t get that with mainstream soundbite-TV-news. Therefore the public ends up with a very partial view of politicians. Having worked with ministers of all three parties, I found out that the image many have in the public eye is very different to what they are really like off camera. Generally the ones who are not the top media performers are the ones that are easier to work with and/or more personable face-to-face. Hence I try to go for a more conversational approach than one where I have a list of hostile questions.

Trust across the parties

Across the parties, there is a broad level of trust between me and their politicians & activists. That doesn’t mean I’ll be uncritical of their actions and policies, nor does it mean I’m an unpaid propaganda arm for each of them. They all know my main agenda is getting more people interested and involved in local democracy. There happens to be a digital media gap in Cambridge which I’m filling.

Out of all the parties, The Green Party in Cambridge is the one most proactive in inviting me to film speeches and events. That said, I’ve filmed for both Cambridge Labour Party and Cambridge Liberal Democrats. I’m yet to film for the Conservatives, but the offer is there. The next step for all of them – in particular after the Queen Edith’s hustings is to think about what they would like to do with all of this footage. None of the parties have yet downloaded or embedded any of the videos onto their local websites – which is a shame. Personally I believe having footage of local party figures speaking on camera in different settings brings out the ‘human beings’ in politicians – and helps nail some of the negative stereotypes. Also, the diversity of footage makes it more difficult to stage manage – something that the public can see through very quickly.

“One area for improvement for all of the candidates from last night?”

It was their response to this question on their future vision for Queen Edith’s ward:

What I’d have liked to have seen were very clear statements that cover this:

“How will our ward be different as a result of ***you*** (rather than anyone else) being a councillor by the time you are next up for election?”

For example in my case in May 2014, my vision was – and still is – one where young people not only have their say on the future of the city, but are able to influence it. How? Not just by doing social media, but changing our systems so that we have planned regular outreach events and activities that get their input, and to have a city-wide citizenship program as children and young people progress through school. The intended result? More people informed about local democracy and more people taking a detailed interest in the parts of local democracy that they feel most passionately about – leading to greater voter turnout too.

“Anything on improving communications and speeches?”

Shorter, sharper responses. It’s not the long, rambling responses that will capture people’s imagination. A clear, concise, informed and passionate answer to the question/problem posed is what I think they need to focus on. On top of that, as we didn’t have microphones in the room, stand up when speaking. It allows you to project your voice – and makes it easier for anyone recording to pick up the audio.

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics | 1 Comment

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


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

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

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

Perhaps being a co-ordinator is exhausting in itself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with one disappointment after another

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

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

Back to the top – ‘just doing it’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why this matters beyond the world of work for me

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

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

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

“So…what’ll be different for 2015?”

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

Posted in Employment and job hunting, Mental health | 6 Comments

Could Labour’s Daniel Zeichner be more radical about transport for Cambridge?


Some thoughts on the transport announcement from Cambridge Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, Daniel Zeichner

His announcement: “Stagecoach Bus Monopoly in Cambridge will be challenged says Labour” is here. Daniel’s quoted as saying the following:

“The last Labour Government gave county councils like Cambridgeshire the chance to set fares and frequency of local bus services, but Conservative-controlled authorities refused to take up the offer.

With a Labour government, a Labour City Council in Cambridge and a Labour MP in Cambridge after the next election, we will be in a strong position to insist that the interests of passengers come first. In particular, a London oyster-style payment system is long-overdue on Cambridge buses to end the long delays getting on buses that so slows down so many services.”

Given Cambridge Labour’s existing policy of a unitary council for Cambridge, I think Daniel could have been both more clear and more radical with his announcement. The headline of the press release doesn’t seem to match the quotation. The first paragraph of the quotation needed to be specific to Cambridgeshire County Council under its previous political control. The second paragraph then slightly muddies the water between Tory-dominated Cambridgeshire County Council and the current Labour-controlled Cambridge City Council. In the minds of most residents, they don’t differentiate between city and county councils. It’s ‘the council’.

A much stronger line would have been along the lines of:

  • “The current setup of having Cambridge transport and schools being overseen by [insert name of opposition party] councillors as far away as [insert name of county town far away from Cambridge] is stifling Cambridge. We need a single council responsible for all local public services in Cambridge. A Labour government will deliver this.”
  • “Under a single council for Cambridge, Labour will deliver X, Y & Z for buses in Cambridge.”
  • “We will also campaign for improved [rail] transport links to Haverhill/Wisbech/Ipswich/Norwich to help reduce pressure on housing and ensure the economic success of Cambridge is shared with other parts of East Anglia.” 

On the last point, having the above would help his fellow candidates standing in those towns as it would demonstrate joined-up thinking across the party, and that those areas are not being forgotten about in the push for a single council for Cambridge.

As a member of Labour’s transport commission, it would have been interesting to see more of how he is influencing the decisions taken by that commission. Otherwise he runs the risk of being seen to be reacting to national policy announcements rather than being a key influencer of them.

“The challenge for all of the parliamentary candidates in Cambridge?”

Other than ‘getting elected’?

For me it’s having answers to the following questions:

  1. What is your future vision for Cambridge?
  2. What primary legislation in Parliament is needed to help us achieve that vision?
  3. How can you demonstrate that, if elected you will secure that necessary legislation in 2) to achieve 1)?

Given the nature of Daniel’s campaign, this might be demonstrated by a visiting shadow cabinet minister committing to tabling the necessary legislation for a given policy in a future Labour government – and that shadow minister crediting Daniel with having achieved that policy change.

With Julian, now’s the time for him to start talking about what a second 5 year term as our MP would be like. He’s also got his own record to defend. What does he think are his biggest achievements as an MP? What are his biggest disappointments? What difference will we notice after another 5 years of him as our MP?

For Chamali Fernando, who is standing for the Conservatives, she got the backing for former Prime Minister Sir John Major earlier – see here. (Though I’m sure Phil Rodgers will want to take issue with Major’s assessment – see Phil’s prediction here for the local elections in 2015). At the moment, her priorities are too nationally-oriented – see here. Are there any specifics – in particular on the back of recent campaigning in Queen Edith’s for the 13 November by-election?

Beyond the big three Westminster parties, in Cambridge both The Green Party and UKIP are standing experienced candidates in Dr Rupert Read and Patrick O’Flynn MEP. There is now a very active Cambridge Young Greens movement in the city as the party nationally explicitly targets the student and young people vote – see here. Being a short train ride away from where she lives in London, expect even more frequent visits from Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. While it might be the Liberal Democrats who might be seen to be the target, policy-wise The Green Party are pitching themselves to the left of Labour – deliberately so. They are also encouraging their younger members to join trade unions – see here. UKIP too are targeting otherwise safe Labour wards – see here. They were in Coleridge recently and stated that they want to target Cherry Hinton next.

The challenge for Cambridge Labour is how to hold off political opponents from completely different parts of the political matrix.


Posted in Cambridge, Party politics | Leave a comment

“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?

Posted in Cambridge, Public administration & policy, Social media | 2 Comments

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.


Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Housing and transport, Music, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

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?

Posted in Cambridge, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

By-election in Queen Ediths ward, Cambridge – reporting but not standing


Why I’m hoping to play a somewhat different role in this local political contest

A number of people from across my neighbourhood invited me to stand as an independent in the looming by-election. Other than not being in the greatest of health, there has been a fair amount of (unexpected) progress on the issues I would have campaigned about had I stood. This, combined with the likelihood the seat will be genuinely contested means that there is a better way of securing my main priorities – increasing voter turnout and political engagement with local residents.

A genuine contest?

Unlike when I stood in Coleridge as Puffles earlier this year, Queen Edith’s is traditionally a Lib Dem seat that Labour made big inroads into – ultimately taking one of the seats in the 2012 local council elections. As it is the Labour seat that is up for election, this by-election could be an interesting weather vane for the 2015 campaign – despite being the only ward in the city boundary outside the constituency (it’s in South Cambridgeshire).

Labour need to have a strong showing if they are to demonstrate they are on track to take Cambridge City in the 2015 general election. In a place like Cambridge, all parties need to demonstrate they can reach out beyond their solid and sizeable core votes. If Labour can hold Queen Edith’s, it’ll be a positive sign for them for 2015.

The Liberal Democrats will want to retake this seat to show they are resilient to Labour’s campaigning in Cambridge, and also to show they have a chance in the otherwise safe Conservative constituency of South Cambridgeshire.

The Conservatives will want to demonstrate they can break out of their Trumpington ward heartland and expand back into a city where they once had a sizeable presence on the council. Queen Edith’s, which neighbours Trumpington (where the peer Jean Baker – Baroness Trumpington gets her title from) is in principle a seat where the Conservatives should have a strong presence. It has a number of neighbourhoods with large, expensive homes and is on the edge of town. These parts of the ward have a very different feel to say Mill Road in Romsey and Petersfield wards.

The Greens while not having traditionally targeted this ward in the past, may want to use it as an opportunity to encourage new or dormant supporters to get involved with a growing city branch.

UKIP have traditionally not stood candidates in this ward, so if they do it will be interesting to see what impact the national media amplification has had on their prospects here – as well as who they might take votes off of.

The candidates so far:

  • Viki Sanders for the Liberal Democrats
  • Rahima Ahammed for Labour
  • Andy Bower for the Conservatives

All of the above make for interesting reading – and for a properly contested by-election. (Hence why I feel less bad about not standing). One of the things I pestered Labour over was getting more women to stand as candidates in local council elections. Now that they have found a new face to stand in the ward, and who has lived locally, it feels like bad form to stand against that candidate.

Labour candidate Rahima Ahammed with Ed Miliband outside the Cancer Research labs by Addenbrookes. Pic Cllr Dave Baigent via Twitter

Labour candidate Rahima Ahammed with Ed Miliband outside the Cancer Research labs by Addenbrookes. Pic Cllr Dave Baigent via Twitter

Viki Sanders – a nurse at Addenbrookes and a former ward councillor is returning after a break from local politics to stand again for the Liberal Democrats. Having two women contesting this ward for Labour and the Liberal Democrats is positive in that it increases the chances of helping the gender balance on the council. When I was at the Cambridgeshire County Council full council earlier, the lack of diversity in the cohort of councillors was noticeable.

Andy Bower is running for the Conservatives – and is first out of the blocks with a social media presence. Me and Andy are from completely different parts of the political matrix – he’s in the libertarian conservative bit of it. Some of you may have seen our Twitter exchanges! As Conservatives go, he’s a very serious candidate and if elected would be a very good and hard-working ward councillor.

My role?

The two things I want to do for this by-election are:

  • Organise a couple of local hustings – one on each side of the ward
  • Make some short digital videos of the candidates

It’s going to be mid-November when the voting takes place. What can we do between now and then to persuade local people to find out about who is standing, try a few new things out and perhaps lay some of the institutional groundwork around hustings for the 2015 elections?



Posted in Cambridge, Party politics | 2 Comments