Posted: September 8, 2015 Filed under: local government | Tags: birmingham, Dave Briggs, local government, localgovcamp, nick booth
So much of what I do comes indirectly from one small event in Birmingham eight years ago.
The event was the first localgovcamp in 2009. More than 100 people turned-up on a Saturday to a converted Mission church which had just been converted into a tech start-up hub. There was no agenda for the day and I only went because a few people I rated from Twitter were going.
The aim of the event was to work out how the web could be used by local government to make the world a better place. Social media was new and we were all busy experimenting with it. IT and most comms teams hadn’t even woken up to it all.
Looking back, much of what is common digital comms currency was worked out at some stage by people who were at the event. People like Nick Booth and Dave Briggs were early innovators and others followed. Election results on Facebook, frontline staff on Twitter, answering questions on social media? They were first pioneered by people who went. Small steps? Tiny now but huge Neil Armstrong leaps into the unknown back then. What has been built since came because of those experiments.
An accidental by-product of what really happened that day is that a network was built on Twitter of people who have gone onto do great things. A couple of years ago, sad man I am, I sat down with the attendee list and linkedin and created a google doc. Of the 118 attendees 28 were from local government itself and almost a third went onto start their own businesses. That’s an incredible stat. Digital Matchbox, Digital Nomads, Pigsonthewing and Data Unlocked all came from localgovcamp attendees. Comms2point0 too. Why so many? For my part, because by coming together and bouncing ideas I started thinking differently. From those still inside local government the localgovdigital network emerged too.
Stuart Harrison from Lichfield Council brought his decks with ‘Chuck D for President’ and played the tunes. He’s doing cool things with data with Tim Berners-Lee’s organisation now.
But, what is localgovcamp?
It’s an unconference which means the agenda is drawn-up on the day. Tickets are free. It’s for people who work in and around local government. That can mean engineers, policy people, web developers, librarians and comms people. From the first event in 2009 it’s happened most years. This year it is in Leeds.
Here are 10 things anyone can learn from localgovcamp
- You can learn an amazing amount about digital comms from non-PR people. Back in the early days it was bloggers, web developers and policy people who blazed the trail. They still do. They don’t care about tradition. They just build things and see if they work.
- The unconference is still a brilliant model for learning and sharing. I’ve been to many events since the first localgovcamp. I’ve never felt inspired by a PowerPoint presentation. I have by an unconference session where a room full of people have challenged, debated and worked out some answers although not every unconference session works.
- There was an era when local government raced ahead with digital.I look back really fondly on the two or three years at the start of the decade when it felt the rule book for digital comms was being written by junior people who ‘got it’ and were bouncing bigger and better ideas off each other.
- Learning about what other people do is important… even if its nothing to do with your job.Comms people need to get out more. They really do. Hearing what other people do is valuable. If you feel as though you’re in a bubble you probably are. Get out more. Listen to other people. See what they are doing.
- Local government is brilliant, but…. There can be more than 700 services delivered by your council. It’s strength is also it’s weakness. Try and name more than a dozen and you are struggling. It’s strength is it does so much. It’s weakness is it does so much. Very few of those services are used by everyone which means that people can think that helping older people is a waste of money. As a comms challenge that’s really tricky.
- Running an unconference is pretty straightforward. Find a room. Persuade some sponsors to pay for it and some rooms and away you go. Put up an Eventbrite to issue tickets. It’s the idea that led to commscamp. Easy.
- The best idea can come from the most unexpected place. The number of pips on the shoulder is no guarantee of great ideas. The best ideas I’ve heard at localgovcamps have been from people I may not have ever met doing a job I never would have thought much about.
- Giving stuff away is good. I first started blogging in 2009 to try and contribute to the debate and think things through. I share links because I think they have some value. Doors that have opened-up in my career have opened because of the stuff I’ve given away.
- It’s important for people from a sector to come together to be reminded ‘it’s not us, it’s them.’ There’s a value of being able to connect and let off steam a bit. That’s really important to local government – and any sector – at a time like this.
Stuart Harrison Arun Marsh / Flickr
Posted: July 11, 2015 Filed under: communications | Tags: #commscamp, events, PR, public sector
A couple of days after a good event is often the time to reflect and make sense of things. So with a cup of coffee that’s what I’m doing.
Commscamp was that good event and one that drew 154 comms, PR and digital people from across the public sector in the UK.
As an unconference, the day has no agenda, with the sessions getting decided on the day by people who came along. There were NHS, local government, Welsh Government, UK government and one or two third sector.
Was it a good event? It seems slightly self-regarding to call something you helped organise ‘good.’ But I’m sure my fellow co-organisers Emma Rodgers and Darren Caveney would agree that it really, really is the attendees who make it. We just provide the space.
Here are 20 things that struck me.
- I love the look in the eyes of some people who came for the first time who revelled in the permission to talk, think and do with freedom. It’s important that everyone is on the same level. Organisers included. I’m quite nostalgic for that.
- A pre-event curry and drinks are a good thing.
- Cake really does bring people together and Kate Bentham is brilliant at building that spirit. So is Andy Mabbett.
- Music playlists also bring people together. Big up Sarah Lay and everyone who contributed.
- The spirit of the event can be summed up by a first time attendee called Chloe ending up helping out on the check-in desk minutes after she arrived.
- Twitter running commentaries by John Fox are a good thing.
- There is a need for people who are trying out new things in their organisation to come together face-to-face to remind themselves that it is not ‘you’ but ‘them’ who are the problem.
- Birmingham in the sunshine looks great.
- Next year we are hiring a canal barge and running a session in it.
- David Banks is on the money with media law in a changing landscape. You really should make friends with him. Or sign-up for his regular emails.
- It would be great to get a handful of private sector people along who came in the spiurit of sharing not selling.
- It would be great to get some third sector and not for profit people along. Catching-up with Laila Takeh at the post-event pint made me even more convinced of that.
- A junior media officer can have better ideas than a self-appointed thought leader or head of a big department. No-one has the monopoly.
- Media teams should stop doing things that aren’t their job at all. First, do so by being polite. Then by banging the table a bit. This doesn’t happen in planning or legal. Stop under valuing your job.
- Sitting round for a good whinge is quite theraputic.
- Sitting round to be deliberately optimistic is also theraputic.
- Bad intranets are a symptom of an organisation that doesn’t care about or trust staff.
- There’s no point replacing the intranet and building something better until you tackle the culture. Sorry.
- Musterpoint is a hootsuite for the public sector built by someone from the public sector.
- There are still some people who think that giving staff social media should be controlled and treated as an extension of core trad comms. I fundamentally disagree.
- Maybe we don’t need intranets.
- No matter how many unconferences you go to you end up wanting to be in two places at once.
- A first ticket release that went in less than three minutes is quite something.
- Nigel Bishop takes good video and pictures.
- Big up Sasha Taylor, Sian Fording, Rob McCleary, Nicky Speed, Kelly Quigley-Hicks and Amanda Nash and James Cattell for their volunteering.
- I’d like to be part of the team of volunteers who does another one of these next year. It was good to see old faces and new. I hope co-founder Ann Kempster can come next year.
- There’s still so much to do.
- Having good sponsors helps. Thank you Christine at MusterPoint, David and Paul at Govdelivery, Liz and Jason at Knowledge Hub, Kirstie and Scott at Touch Design, Steph at Helpful Technology, Pete at IEWM, Nick at PSCSF and supporters Alex and David at GCS, Hannah at LGA, Rachel at All Things IC and Phil at the NUJ.
- Thank you if you came because you helped make it a success.
Posted: June 14, 2015 Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: 1984, 1985, battle of orgreave, comms, history, jeremy dellar, miners strike, orgreave, PR
As a historian and someone fascinated by the changing face of communications I’ve spent a bit of time on a chapter of history that’s still being fought.
It’s not Waterloo, Ypres or Gallipoli. It’s the Miners’ Strike. Or the Great Strike of 1984 to 1985 depending on your perspective.
It’s battle in British history so awkward like a parked car loaded with explosives we don’t like to go near it. Cinema? That’s fine. ‘Billy Elliott’ and ‘Brassed Off’ tell versions of the story.
Topically, it was in the news again when the police watchdog ruled out prosecutions. So expolosive it is the BBC were attacked for giving undue prominence that ‘re-heated tensions’. It’s so dangerous, it’s almost impossible to write with a neutral voice on it but heck, as a comms historian I’m going to try.
Historians in a hundred years will point to this as one of the most significant episodes in the story of modern Britain. As former Sunday Times journalists Francis Beckett and David Hencke wrote in their book ‘Marching Towards the Faultline’ there was Britain before the Miners Strike and Britain after. The two are entirely different.
Fact v Legend
Only a handful of facts are undisputed. In 1948, Britain was described as a land built on coal with 700,000 men – and they were largely men – working down them. In 1984 there were less than 200 collieries with 200,000 workers left. On the one hand, as heavy industry declined so did the demand for coal but in 2013 still coal accounts for 40 per cent of electricity. Almost all is imported. In 2015, there is one pit.
There are two versions of what happened in the Miners’ Strike.
In the first version, the Miners went on strike in 1984 because they feared secret plans were in place to close 70 pits. For many miners, closing a pit meant the death of their community as it was the only employment in their town or village. They would have won, the argument goes, but for strike breaking miners and the Trades Union movement’s betrayal of them. The result, according to the narrative? Weaker trades unions, lower pay for working people nationally, decimated communities and just one pit left.
In the second version, the Miners were wrong not to ask for a national ballot of their members and to go out on strike in the summer when no-one needed as much coal. Their industry was dying, their coal too expensive and miners leader militant Arthur Scargill was intent on bringing down an elected government. The result? Weaker trades unions led to flexibility in the labour market which led to growth and greater national prosperity.
Art, history and a battle
That’s the row in a nutshell. What led me to it? Music. A few years ago I saw a colliery brass band playing Acid House music. This was an art project by artist Jeremy Deller. I laughed at the wackiness of it. I was intrigued as a history geek at the idea of staging a re-enactment of a defining moment in the strike which became known as The Battle of Orgreave. I was struck by how little I knew of the subject. As a kid, I remember it on the TV news. Of Dellar’s re-enactment? There is a fascinating documentary on the project.
A thousand gathered to re-enact. Included were former striking miners and police officers as well as people more used to dressing up as Romans or Civil War Roundheads as part of historical re-enactments. The Mike Figgis documentary on it is here:
At the Battle of Orgreave pickets and police clashed. In the violence pickets and police were injured. Almost a hundred miners were arrested and charged with riot. All were later cleared when the South Yorkshire Police case them unravelled. South Yorkshire Police, miners will tell you knowingly, were the force responsible for policing Hillsborough a few years later. Those on the other side will tell you that they were two unrelated incidents.
For years I had had this idea to re-enact this confrontation that I had witnessed as a young person on TV, of striking miners being chased up a hill and pursued through a village. It has since become an iconic image of the 1984 strike – having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. I received the commission, which I couldn’t believe, because I actually didn’t think it was possible to do this. After two years’ research, the re-enactment finally happened, with about eight-hundred historical re-enactors and two-hundred former miners who had been part of the original conflict. Basically, I was asking the re-enactors to participate in the staging of a battle that occurred within living memory, alongside veterans of the campaign. I’ve always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem, or as a thousand-person crime re-enactment.
It was a different comms landscape
The book ‘Marching to the Faultline’ gives a fascinating and unpartisan account of the strike. For balance, it has been criticised by both sides. But it is the communications landscape it recalls that fascinated me.
The landscape of the 1980s was pre-internet. National newspapers and TV news were unchallenged. Each newspaper had a ‘labour correspondent’ whose job was to cover strikes. But this pool of gatekeepers were shunned by the miners. The National Union of Mineworkers had one press officer who openly didn’t like Press. Allegations of bias had foundation but as New Labour would show a decade later, they needed to be engaged with. Announcements still came from press conferences. But NUM Press conferences were often filled with supporters which Arthur Scargill played to. Besides, this the miners’ leader only really trusted one hard left newspaper. Journalists who did turn up on picket lines were often threatened and had to stand for safety behind the police lines driving them in effect towards the police narrative. As a media strategy, it seems as flawed in the 1980s as it seems today.
Internal comms for the miners came in print and face-to-face. The Miner was the union newspaper. Face-to-face networks dominated. Women’s support groups kept families fed and community networks built on the mutual trust of working underground were vital.
For the government of the day, ministers were slow to grasp that industrial correspondents were important. But on their side there was the unanimous support of national newspaper barons fed-up with their own union problem. Public opinion was vital and the newspapers were key.
And the cost? There’s no agreement on that, either. The government of the day said this was around £6 billion and there’s a ‘good day to bury bad news’ briefing that emerged to go with it. Further research by Brussels-based TUC have put the overall cost at £28.5 billion at 2003 prices for the cost of police, closing mines, unpaid income tax, social security, the cost of alternative energy production during the strike, coal imports and a whole raft of other factors.
Would social media have made a difference?
Of course, the historian in me recognises the folly of ‘what if?’ history which is only ever speculation.
But the comms person in me is intrigued.
Social media is excellent at putting a human face on an issue. Literature and cinema and has been kind to the miners. If happiness writes white then the Miners Strike is filled with colour. The films Brassed Off and Billy Elliott showed human stories. It showed violence too. Would smartphones on picket lines shown the uglier side of police tactics? Or the uglier side of the miners?
Social media can give real-time updates. A powerful image can go viral. The Occupy protests knew this. So do anti-austerity pressure groups like 38 Degrees. But there are still bankers’ bonuses.
So, would social media have made a difference? It’s impossible to know.
Today, the miners strike for many isn’t over. The watchdog IPCC has ruled out charging police officers for their role at Orgreave and allegations of perjury. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign are on Facebook and are pressing for a Hillsborough-style inquiry. And yet the miners leader Arthur Scargill now refuses all interviews and has done for years.
For anyone working in the field of communications, it’s fascinating to look back at what is a different country. It’s also living history and it will be fascinating to see how this continues to play out in art, literature and digital communications.
Posted: June 10, 2015 Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: bluelightcamp, digital, hack day, open data, rewired state
There is a movement that many people haven’t heard of that in theory has the power to re-shape the world you live in.
It can expose fraud, save lives and give new insight into the London blitz.
The movement is for open data. That’s the publishing of all public information.
So, that’s everything from the location of public toilets or grit bins to what suppliers a council buys toilet roll from.
Once the data is published in a format that computers can read – csv files on a spreadsheet should do it – the information can start to throw-up trends and spikes unseen by the human eye. Tim Berners-Lee gave an excellent TED talk on the subject which you can see here.
There’s a significant role it can play in creating insight that can shape communications decisions.
But the single biggest obstacle to all this is that open data people are bad – no, stratospherically bad – at communicating with non-geeks.
I’ll give you an example.
In Birmingham, there’s an informal event called Brewcamp which sees people come together at a café after hours to hear three speakers. There’s room for discussion afterwards.
A year or so back, with the coffee bought we sat down for the first speaker. This was on an aspect of open data which more than half the audience had come for. It was a pretty technical discussion of SPARQL queries and universal formats that left the converted animated and unconverted in the dark.
“Could I just say,” one baffled audience member said to the geeks at the end, “that you lot are really, really scary and I diidn’t understand a word that anyone said.”
And then hack days. That’s the process where mainly coders gather round to put their heads together to try and solve a problem by building a website or an app. Largely as a prototype. At best, this creates new ideas and approaches. At worst, it’s geeks showboating to other geeks.
I’m not remotely open data expert. I get the broad principles. I even helped the council who I was working for pioneer publishing every line of spend over £500. And no, bloggers did not act as an army armchair of auditors. I also co-founded a long defunct blog to try and share examples of where open data made a difference to tell the story. I gave up.
But the excellent BlueLightCamp event in Birmingham reminded me of the problem that the open data community have of speaking outside the coding ghetto. The people I met were all fine, passionate people. But they voiced day-to-day frustration in dealing with non-coders. Rewired State and Young Rewired State do good work in the field. And I like the look of Mark Braggins’ Open Data Aha! blog.
Nothing changes overnight.
But until enough open data geeks speak human then open data will not realise its potential.
Here’s how: tell them what the problem you faced was. Not the code problem but the actual real world problem. Then tell them what the thing was that cracked it. Then mention there’s a bit of open data under the bonnet that helped that.
The story needs to be told again and again. Not as a csv file. But in plain English.
Creative commons credit
Posted: June 8, 2015 Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: advice, comms, digital, lightbulbs, PR, teams, types
Twice in the past couple of weeks I’ve been reminded about about the great universal sticky problem and what to do about it.
The problem that almost dare not speak it’s name is how much your team are keen to change, innovate, be creative and explore new ways of communicating. Do they see an infographic or Snapchat and want to know more? Or do they roll their eyes and look at the clock?
In short, do they ‘get it’?
The subject came up at BlueLightCamp in Birmingham which was an excellent event for people in organisations who may deal with emergencies.
You may be a great person in a senior position. You may want your team to change and adapt. But the hard fact is that they all may not. I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. And it’s not your fault. So stop blaming yourself.
When I was in local government I was fortunate enough to have a boss who did ‘get it’ and was keen for me to experiment and try things out. I was lucky. Early on I helped organise an unconference in the town where I worked to talk through some of the bright ideas on how to communicate better using the web. I invited the rest of the team along expecting them to come and ‘get it’ straight away. I was expecting a Simpsons moment where everyone comes, the penny drops and everyone cheers wildly. Of 16, just four came. Two were unimpressed and two ‘got it.’
It took me a while to work this out. My team, your team, their team, everyone’s team is generally made up of three types of people.
Section One: People with light bulbs over their head
They are the ones who need to be celebrated. They have ideas, energy and enthusiasm. They can see that the world has changed and they want to try and create the new rules. They want things to work and they’ll leave at 7pm at night if they have to and carry on at home.
Section Two: People who need a piece of paper
They are the ones who don’t have a lightbulb above their head. But they may have a bit of a glimmer. But the glimmer is obscured by worrying about permission and bandwidth and what the director might say. But if they have a piece of paper in their hand to say that ‘it’s alright, I have permission and I’ve been on a training session’ then that glimmer may spark. And some of them may well turn into people with lightbulbs over their head. They’ll leave the office at about a quarter past five.
Section Three: People who are unengaged
They don’t have a lightbulb over their head. Someone tried to do something differently in 2003 and it didn’t work. This won’t work either. They’ll fold their arms. They’ll mutter. They may even be actively unengaged and want the thing to fall over. They’ll leave the office at five o’clock on the dot and hate staying any later.
A simple plan for what to do
Give everyone the same opportunity. But concentre on the folk from section one. Their bright ideas, creativity and innovation will drive you forward. They’ll may even bright some of the section two people along when they realise that this is do-able.
And the section three people? If they don’t want to play you can’t make them. Make it clear that this is the path you’ll be going down. They can come with you or be left behind.
But don’t beat yourself up. Not everyone agreed with Winston Churchill, Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Jobs.
Creative commons picture credit: NASA.