“The thing is, Dan,” someone very senior once told me, “if we asked people what they want, they’d just say chocolate cake.”
So, the senior person described what he thought they’d like instead rather than asking people.
In many ups and downs it was the most depressing moment I had in eight years of local government.
I’ve always felt uneasy with this ‘we know best’ concept of public service for people.
Earlier this month I saw something different that has hardwired putting people at the heart of things.
I was in London and could make a meet-up – or teacamp – for local government people. The meet-up was tremendous. A room in a pub. Some tea and coffee and some shared learning. It reminded me of brewcamp meet-ups in the West Midlands. Hats off to the excellent Natalie Taylor of the GLA for organising.
What was hugely good was a quick exercise that spelt out what ‘agile’ looked like. It’s a process I’ve leard lots about but never really come into close contact with. In short, this is looking at a service you want to change in the organisation and going through step-by-step.
But at each step, looking at what will benefit the service user… the real person public sector people are trying to help.
It was hugely refreshing to focus on the user not the organisation. Not to say a little difficult.
There is nothing new about this process. It has been used for years and has been a mantra for places like GDS. But seeing it at close hand it’s clear there is a lesson there for communications people.
The question for communicators is not about chocolate cake…. it’s ‘does what you are communicating help real people?’
800? Really? Absolutely.
Chances are if you leave your house you’ll have come across something that the sector has done or helped with.
Trouble with such a vast thing that most people struggle to name more than half a dozen things that local government does.
“The council? They empty my bin and gave my next door neighbour planning permission for their horrible extension,” may be a common answer.
The struggle of how to tell people what local government what they get for their council tax is a timeless one and never been more important.
One way to tackle it is the Local Government Association’s Our Day which aims to put Twitter in the hands of some of the unsung heroes who do some of the unseen jobs.
Back in 2011 at Walsall Council I was part of a team which was the first in the country to use Twitter in real time to tell people what a council did across 24-hours. It won the inaugural LGComms social media gold award. It’s a model of communicating with people that quiet fascinates me. It breaks down barriers. It shines a light. It informs and educates.
Some tips on live tweeting a Twitter event
There’s lots of different ways but here’s some things to bear in mind.
Everyone thinks their day job is boring. But everyone else finds it interesting. That may be your 12th pothole of the day. But you use what to fill it? And it’s outside the school my children go to, you say? And the council has done 4,000 so far this year?
Routine tasks build a broader picture. You’ve got a team that cuts overgrown hedges. They do it every day. I didn’t know that. They’ve done 11 streets today. That’s important to the people who live in that street that is now safer to walk in at night. Tell them where and when.
Pictures work better than text. People are four times more likely to open a link to a pic than a link to text.
Yes, you can talk about programmed work. If you are collecting bins in those three estates then tell people. (See: routime tasks build a broader picture.)
Sharing the sweets is a good idea. Get the librarian to talk about her day on a library account. Get the museum to do something on theirs. All of a sudden it makes sense to have different voices.
Use the main account for sharing the other accounts. You won’t want to run everything through one account. Use several. Create some if you have to.
Get people to channel shift. If you’ve got a web form to report potholes promote it.
News is people. My old editor’s maxim rings true. Talk about the people who do the service. Bob the lifeguard or Keith the caretaker who has been doing this job for 12-years.
Capture it and share. Create a storify to allow you to capture what was said at 2.37pm that Monday afternoon. Tell people and embed the library’s story on the library pages. It’s more interesting.
Schedule some content. If you are sure it’s going to happen and to save you some time you can schedule content via something like hootsuite.com. It’ll lay down some background noise for you.
Avoid Twitter gaol. This is where Twitter doesn’t like you posting more than a certain threshold and thinks you are a spammer. Avoid going over 20 tweets an hour from one account and you should be okay.
Capture it and share it internally. More than anything an event on Twitter will be an internal comms thing. You’ll be telling staff about the organisation they work in. You’ll also be telling people about social media who just think it’s Stephen Fry eating breakfast.
Have fun. Be creative. Tell your story.
Creative commons credits
Confucius said that. Only, thing was he never worked in local government.
Speed of change in open data is blisteringly fast and getting faster.
In the Spring I thought all this would be important in 12 months time. Wrong. It was important TWO months later.
Local government in the UK has been asked to publish spending over £500 line by line.
A few months back Maidenhead and Windsor Council were hailed as a shining example of how to do this.
A few months on and the shine is wearing. Yes, they deserve praise for innovation but bright people have pointed out that you can do so much more if you publish a little bit more than a handful of categories.
Change was one of the themes of a session in Birmingham by Vicky Sergeant of SOCITM and hosted by Birmingham Council on the subject of publishing spending transparency open data.
It was a chance for people to bounce ideas and was an alphabetti spaghetti of a gathering with SOCITM, LGA and LeGSB.
Will Perrin from the Local Data Panel that helps shape data.gov.uk policy delivered a clear message:
There will be no spoon feeding from on high.
Eighty per cent of problems have been solved with blog posts such as this, he says.
It’s now down to councils to be brave and stand on their own two feet.
The combined efforts of the groups at the meeting are likely to publish at some stage some valuable advice on how best publishing spend can be put on line. These are things that struck me in the meantime.
Here are 12 key pieces of advice I took from the day
1) Publish open data-related FOI requests. Great idea. Further research shows you’ll have to be careful about publishing personal data not just in the name and address field but also in the text of the response.
2) The size of the dataset would double if it included ALL spend.
3) You can run a programme if you are clever to remove – or redact – at source personal data from social care and children’s services data.
4) You may need to make it clear to suppliers that this change is taking place. Not all are following this whole debate. In fact, I’d be amazed if any of them are.
5) Commercial confidentiality is a grey area. As Will said, the Information Commissioner’s presumption is to publish in the public interest but there is worryingly no case law to show where this has been tested.
6) Publish a unique identifier for your authority when you are publishing open data. Finance people will know what this is. It identoifies the line of data as being from a specific council.
7) Put an email address as a first point of contact for residents queries. Maybe people don’t have to go down a 20-day Freedom of Information response route first to get an answer.
9) Use the licence that can be found at data.gov.uk. It’s been looked at by government lawyers. Creative Commons while great hasn’t really been tested in law in the UK.
10) There are a lot of codes in local government finance. If you don’t know what a CIPFA BVACOP code is make friends with someone who does.
11) Don’t plough a lone furrow. As a council or an officer don’t be alone. The Communities of Practice website is an excellent place to learn and discuss.
12) Guidance maybe getting drawn-up but don’t let this stop you. The LGA, SOCITM and others are looking what would work best. Don’t wait for them, however.
13) Communications is important. You need to explain it internally as well as to elected members, residents and suppliers.
15) Publish monthly. Some in the web community are baffled as to why publication can’t be done at the end of every working day. As a compromise the Local Data Panel are saying publish monthly but within a month of month end.
Ian Carbutt from the LGA made some excellent points at the meeting. He points out there are three main areas that have several sections to them.
- What and who its for: Local authority ID code, directorate, goods and services, service department.
- Payment details: invoices, invoice number, net amount, VAT, gross amount, date of payment.
- Supplier: name, contract title, supplier company number or VAT reference.
Pick from those three paints a better, more complete picture and may lead to fewer FOI requests.
Pezholio blog on the SOCITM Birmingham local data event. A useful summary and some very useful comments.