Three great things happened in local government in the West Midlands last week and it’s been a while since that happened.
Firstly, new Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers posted his first blog in his first week in charge there… and it was human. It didn’t fall into the trap of councilspeak. Or jargon. It felt like it was written by a real person. Online, the mood of staff and those who care about the city rose by several degrees. You can read the blog here and see some of the reaction here.
Okay, so this is a small step and ranged against the good times is the small matter of the £822 million that needs to be saved from Birmingham’s budget, the need to sell-off the flagship NEC, the 1,000 jobs that will go this year and the need to turn around the giant super-tanker pretty darn quick.
The task facing Birmingham City Council is immense. It’s going to hurt. But the knowledge that there is a human being in charge gives an injection of hope and the knowledge that the city stands a chance. You could argue that from this point on Mark will never be as popular. You could also say that times must be bad for public sector when a demonstration of being obviously human behaviour from someone at the top gets such a warm welcome.
And engaging on Twitter
Secondly, Mark started to engage with people online and Twitter saw a few human interactions between the bloke in charge and the bloke who does things for him as a far smaller part of the wheel. He even quoted Joe Strummer.
— Kevin Johnson (@urbancomms) March 5, 2014
Lessons from a dancing nut
Thirdly, and rather wonderfully someone in Mark’s network Liz Newton shared a link that Mark suggested people go watch. It’s leadership lessons drawn in under three minutes by a dancing guy in a field at a festival. At first, it’s just one dancing guy but in under three minutes the field is transformed.
(QUICK NOTE: THE YOUTUBE CLIP REALLY IS A KEEPER SO DON’T SKIP IT.)
To quote the narrative spoken by Derek Sivers who posted the video:
First of course, a leader needs the guts to stand alone and look ridiculous. But what he is doing is so simple it’s almost instructional. This is key. It must be easy to follow. Now here comes the first follower with a really crucial role. He shows everyone else how to follow. Notice how the leader embraces him as an equal so it’s not about the leader anymore it’s about THEM the plural. It takes guts to be the first follower. You stand out and you brave ridicule yourself. The first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint the first follower is the spark.
Now here’s the second follower… this is the turning point. It’s proof the first has done well. Now, it’s not a lone nut and it’s not two nuts. Three is a crowd and a crowd is news. A movement must be public. Make sure outsiders see more than just the leader. Everyone needs to see followers because new followers emulate followers.
Now we’ve got momentum. This is the tipping point. Now we have a movement.
Leadership is really over-glorified… there is no movement without the first follower. When you see a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.’
So, that’s three lessons for leaders delivered by social media by one lone bloke in a suit in less than a week.
There was an event the other day in Whitehall which looked at this very topic which I would have loved to have got to. But I work in the West Midlands so that wasn’t going to happen.
It’s a good question and one that I’d given a lot of thought to just recently. Not just because the LGComms Future Leaders course I’d been involved with was asked just this question and asked to come up with a presentation.
One of the good things about being in the public sector is the ability to share ideas and approaches. This doesn’t happen in the private sector. As one person recently put it, they’ll tell you what they did but they’ll just leave out a vital piece of information so you can’t follow. It’s like handing over a car without the spark plugs.
So here are some things that should happen.
6 things to bring local and central government comms people together
1. Realise that each side isn’t the enemy. You’d be forgiven for thinking sometimes reading the Daily Mail that local government was to blame for the banking crisis, Northern Rock and the nationalisation of the banks. Just think what would have happened had local government mis-sold products. Step aside from the headlines and realise that there is more to bring civil Service and local government comms people together. We both face the question ‘what does communications mean in 2014?’ for example.
2. Paid secondments both ways. A few years ago a secondment from local government into the civil service could have been do-able. Not now. There isn’t the spare capacity anymore in local government. But funded posts could help backfill and share the knowledge. Even better if they are French-exchange-style two way affairs. Better still if they involve co-operation on the same project.
3. Open up central government training to local government. The Goverment Communications Service (formerly the Government Communications Network) stages a range of good training opportunities. It would be great if this was open to local government too.
4. Open up local government seminars to central government. Places like LGComms put on some excellent sessions. The different perspective of a Whitehall comms person would be useful. Just as the comms person more used to dealing with the community would be a benefit to a central government person.
5. Encourage events like commscamp. In February last year more than 130 comms people from Whitehall and local government came together in a joint event for what must have been the first time. There were more than 400 on the waitlist when it was turned off. The agenda was decided on the day by those who went. Anarchy? Not really. It worked beautifully. It was organised by people in central and local government in their own time. (Disclaimer: I’m biased as I helped co-organise commscamp.)
6. Realise that neither side is better. They’re just different. As government departments put more focus on stakeholder groups local government listens to residents more. At a time when the Foreign Office is putting more effort – rightly – into answering queries on Twitter there’s pr people in Staffordshire or Norfolk who could tell them a few things. They are two different skills. It made me realise that neither side is better. We’re just different.
7. We both work in the public sector and should be proud of that. Sure, the private sector does some good things. But we delivered the Olympics, we save lives, we keep the roads running, our children educated and a whole load of other things too. How much better is that than flogging toothpaste?
EDIT: GCS courses are also now available to local government people. That’s welcome.
Creative commons credit.
Hello Reader… I’d like you do me a quick favour.
Normally, I try and post some ideas, case studies or things that have impressed me about digital communications. If you’ve got something out of them then great. If that’s the case they I’ve a favour to ask.
I’d like you in the words of Deelite to vote, baby, vote. For a local government digital comms manager Carl Haggerty. Would you do that for me? And spread the word with your friends and colleagues?
Who is Carl Haggerty? He’s been nominated for the Guardian Public Services Awards and the Leadership Excellence shortlist. You can see the shortlist here – and vote Carl while you are at it.
Sure, there’s some great people that shortlist. There’s a local authority chief executive, a chief constable, a chief prosecutor and a bloke who is doing great things at the heart of government with digital. Each of these no doubt deserves the accolade of being shortlisted. There should be more good people in the public services.
But I’d still really like you to Vote Carl.
But I’d also like to tell you some reasons why I’d like you to do me that great favour.
Because he’s at the sharp end. Carl is digital communications manager at Devon County Council. It’s probably an unfashionable place to some. But it’s got a great recond in the field. They were the first council in the country to use Twitter. They have a good grasp about what digital skills are and people who are involved with digital are encouraged to blog as part of their learning.
Because they’ve encouraged innovation and learning. They encourage people to learn and share skills through innovative ways. They stage internal events that take a different slant at what they are learning about. Like this event that encouraged people to learn through playing a board game.
Because Carl likes dogs. Look at this picture. What a lovely dog. Another reason to Vote Carl.
— Carl Haggerty (@carlhaggerty) September 28, 2013
Because of localgovdigital. A peer led group set-up with the help of the LGA this is bringing together and sharing good work from across the country. Carl is chair. He’s really good at it and has got a good sense of direction about what needs doing. It’s starting to get stuck into some good work. Our blog is here. (Disclaimer: I’m also a member.)
Because like me Carl has been shaped by the unconference movement. In local government training budgets are largely a thing of the past. As the challenge of digital looms we’ve never been in a worse state financially as we are now. People like Carl are staging events to encourage learning for free. Because they want to. And because in an era of no experts we’re all learning and all contributing.
Because this will make a difference to all the above. It will. Honest. It will bring recognition and allow Carl and people like him to do more of the things that local government needs to do.
Because just imagine what kind of statement we can make. A bloke in Devon who is a leading light in making digital work better in local government who connects people using social media and who builds on them and gives back a heap of things can take down a load of very respected people to win an award.
How cool would that be?
Please do your bit and Vote Carl.
Refreshingly, the UK government has stood up and on The Guardian website admitted it had a good idea. But not a definitive one.
The newspaper asks readers what it would tell Alex Aiken the government’s executive director of government communications. Which is either a blast of refreshing openness or a bit of window dressing. Actually, let’s take them at face value. Because no-one really has the last word. And Alex used to be localgov as I am now.
A changing landscape
If you are interested in communications, have a look at the new draft communications plan here.
Not only that but whole swathes of the government-wide communications plan should be printed out and shared vigorously. Not least the paragraph:
“We are operating against a fast changing backdrop.
“Digital TV and broadband access at home are now the norm.
“45 per cent of viewing is now of non-terrestrial channels, three times more than ITV1.
“Half of homes now have some form of personal video recorder such as Sky Plus.
“Newspaper sales continue to decline but the growth of online versions means that some content – often entertainment related-news stories – can reach more people than ever before.
“Social media channels are playing an ever greater role in spreading news and opinion.”
That they see that the landscape is changing is a profound relief to me. The facts loom so large as to be undeliable and people are starting slowly to grasp this. Whether we are all moving as fast as we could to embrace change is something else.
“In simple terms government should continue to shift from a static or traditional view of channels and audiences to one that reflects people’s lives, preferences and influences.”
It also talks about the three things that government comms needs to do. The legal obligation to tell people about big planning matters, for example. Or the explaining Minister’s priorities. And the attempt to change behaviours.
For local government too…
It’s tempting to think that local government can do this too. At a stroke. As a sector. But that would be silly. And it also forgets that people in Devon know more about what channels Devon people use than people who live in Dudley. But it’s absolutely the path that local government comms needs to go down.
It also means that comms people need to acknowledge they may not have all the answers to comms any more. Will that undermine the profession? Not, really. A bit of refreshing honesty is vital. Besides, I’ve learned so much about digital comms from bloggers, engineers and environmental health officers.
The 37 skills a comms person will need
Last summer I wrote a post that talks about the 37 skills we’ll need. I was a bit wrong. We won’t all need those. But you can bet your bottom dollar that teams will and the more you’ll have the better it’ll be for you.
The list includes traditional, digital, community building, mapping, infographics, social media, story telling, political nous and lots more beside.
We’ll need better training. We’ll need better ways to share good ideas. We’ll need more things like commscamp where local and central government people came together to do just that (disclaimer: I helped organise that.)
But more important than that, much more we’ll need the space to experiment and try new things. That’ll come from the top. It’ll come from Ministers themselves and senior officers. Or rather, it’ll come from our ability to re-train the Minister that something on Twitter is more important than the Today programme’s running order. Or in local government terms, that’s the local newspaper.
When I was a journalist we had an amazing media law refresher. We returned to the chalk face keen to push the boundaries. We were slapped down by our news editors. Training is wasted unless the people at the top get it too.
Salvation will come from an ongoing bombardment of stats, facts, figures, reporting back and internal communications. We think training is the answer. It’s not. It’s the start. Space to fail and learn from failing is.
But we also need to think about trust. More specifically, the Edelman Trust Barmeter that talks of how trust in institutions is up. But trust in those at the top is low but trust in those at the bottom is high. In other words, we don’t believe the chief executive of Royal Mail. But we trust our postman.
We need to be able to deliver comms outside of comms and give the people on the frontline the tools to communicate like West Midlands Police do and like we do in growing parts of local government too. At this point I link to Morgan Bowers a countryside ranger at Walsall Council with 1,100 followers on Twitter who are receptive to explanations about why saplings have to be cut down.
It’ll also mean hiring bloggers for their skills. Not just journalists.
So much is made in the Government document about savings. I’d like to hear more about results and what exciting possibilities we have stretching out in front of us too, please.