“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?’
We saw the brewcamp idea exported first to Dudley and then to Stafford.
It worked beautifully in both places too.
What’s a brewcamp? It’s an idea that has its roots in unconferences. It’s shared learning through conversation, coffee and cake. Like a coffee morning for militant optimists.
How does it work?
Find a cafe willing to open up after work. Find three topics and people happy to lead a discussion on them. Set up an eventbrite. Tell people about it.
It’s that simple.
But the value is less what the speakers tell you, but the connections you make and the realisation that even after a difficult day you are not alone. Other people still care about the public sector. What’s the value of knowing that it is not you, it’s them?
In truth, both were quite individual. In Dudley, it was called Bostincamp. Bostin being a Black Country word for ‘great.’ In Stafford it was Oatcakecamp. Oatcakes being a North Staffs delicacy that doubles as an expression of regional pride.
ELEVEN things that struck me at Bostincamp…
In Dudley CCG’smedia officer Laura Broster they have someone busy re-writing what a comms person should look like in 2013.
There are people at Dudley Council who are starting to wake up to social. What they’ll do with it will be amazing.
Barriers are being eroded all the time. Often by the people who used to build and maintain them.
You can’t argue against case studies that West Midlands Police have. They are a tweeting trojan horse for doing good digital things.
Academic red tape is gummier than local government.
Lorna Prescott is amazing.
The Secret Coffee Club in Pearson Street, Brierley Hill has free WiFi and would be a good place for co-working.
If you can’t trust your frontline staff with digital how the hell do you trust them to do the rest of their job?
Comms people still need to convince their managers that digital conversations on the frontline are a good idea. Jim Garrow has written well about the Edelman Trust Barometer here. It basically gives a pile of research to back up the idea that people trust the postman more than the chief executive of Royal Mail.
There are issues for doctors to use social media. But they are not insurmountable.
ELEVEN things I learned at oatcakecamp…
As training budgets vanish we face a critical challenge of where our learning comes from.
At some point there will be a price to be paid for training ending. It may take years but it will come.
Bright people do their own learning.
If something is free, does that make it have less worth than something that costs £500 to attend?
Some people won’t look out of their sector for learning. Some won’t look out of their town.
Wolverhampton Council have a cracking Facebook page. But they need to tell people about what they do.
Comms people can learn more about good comms from people who in the past we wouldn’t let near comms.
The MOD still invest in people. Local government has stopped doing this in many areas.
Emma Rodgers is amazing.
An oatcakecamp in a fire station sounds cool.
Hyperlocal blogs can be patchy in quality but there are some gems like WV11 and A Bit of Stone. If we add some content they may be interested in to general releases we can amplify our message.
I absolutely urge you to go along to one of these when they are staged next.
More and more of us are becoming a part of this journey, for pleasure, for work, both; intertwined. We are going at full speed, while each of us at our own pace. We are being swept along in progressing our knowledge, often without knowing where we began or where we’re going. There are no landmarks, only the wake of others froth and bother as they speed along. All our paths cross constantly, a mass of tracks. Sometimes we collide beautifully, creating fleeting moments of shared vision, before speeding off again.
“We are making progress and yet nothing is changing”, and right there is the ultimate pondering moment, of social media, open data, new web technologies in local government. Progress is being made. I read it. I’ve seen it. I’m forever being amazed by the new ways people speak about what they’ve done and what they’re doing.
Change will come, when its ready, subtly slinking its way into everybodies conciousness. It will begin to apply itself in new ways of thinking, about how services are delivered. We will keep on going at full speed, lost in the fog, and it will be brilliant. Paths of navigation will be left in the wake for others to follow (I’ll be following), by the dreamers who dare to hurtle along, unbound by beginnings or ends or safety of landmarks.
If links are the web’s currency of inspiration then some shine as bright as a gold coin on a summer’s day.
Vivid and memorable as wild flowers they can sow seeds that bloom into bright ideas.
Some challenge while some crysyallise half thoughts.
They can be blog writing, tweets, news stories or images.
Over the past 12-months I’ve read thousands. Mainly in spare moments. As December trudged towards Christmas in downtime I’ve reflected on those that have shaped my outlook.
I’ve not gone online to remind myself but instead racked my brains for writing that has stayed with me.
There are scores of good writing. Many of them can be found on the pages of the blogroll on the right of this webpage.
A couple of them are mine. Mitigation for this is that they capture collaborative working.
Using Twitter to Stop Riots. As rioting spread and London police hip shootingly spoke of switching off the internet Wolverhampton shone. Superintendent Mark Payne used Twitter to shoot down rumours circulating online and off. Blogs such as WV11.co.uk and Tettenhall.co.uk plugged into this to retweet and shout via Facebook. Public I did a useful study.
The Icelandic Facebook page. With the country in financial tatters the Icelandic government started a root and branch review. The constitution which dates from 1944 was being re-drafted. Rather than whack up a 500 page pdf they broke down proposals into bite sized chunks and crowdsourced it. More than 2,500 Icelanders took part. In a country of 250,000 that’s astounding. You can read how here.
Changing how council news is done. In a second post Adrian points out the folly of presenting press releases verbatim on a different medium. It needs reading if you care about local government and what it does. Read it here.
Birmingham City Council Civic dashboard. Critics say open data stands more effective in theory than in practice. This website starts to answer that and stands as a landmark.
Trust me I’m a follower. Scotland has some amazing people in the public sector. Carolyn Mitchell’s piece on the changing landscape is essential. As a former print journalist she has an eye for a line. That a senior police officer spoke of how he trusts his officers with a baton so why wouldn’t he trust them with a Twitter account is one of them.
Stop being irrelevant. Explains why I think comms people need to see their changing landscape and evolve to stay relevant. It drove my thinking throughout the year.
Localgovcamp. The event in Birmingham in June brought together creative thinking, ideas and inspiration. The posterous here captures blogs that emerged from it.
Brewcamp. I’m proud to be involved in this. It’s a platform for like minded people to come together, share ideas and drink tea. You can read it here.
@walsallwildlife on Twitter. That a countryside officer can attract 800 followers by tweeting about her day job of bats, ponds and newts astounds me. It shows what can happen when bright people share the sweets.
Joplin Facebook. Thousands of homes were destroyed and hundreds killed when a tornado levelled the town. It was residents who self-organised with sites like these. This shows the power of community sites.
Look how not on fire this is. When the shadow of rioting overshadowed Walsall in the summer rumour the town police station was burning was dismissed in real time by a police officer with a phone camera and a dry wit. PC Rich Stanley’s image had more than 2,000 hits.
The Walsall Flickr group. There are more than 9,000 images here from 130 members. This shows the power of community sites and the good things that can be achieved when local government can work with them as equals as we did on this town centre empty shop scheme.
The Dominic Campbell youtube. I love the idea of ‘militant optimists’ pressing for change in unlikely corners of local government. It strikes a chord. This is a good 15 minutes to invest.
Twicket. Because John Popham and others live streaming a village cricket match is a good idea and shows good tech is less about the tech and more about fun and community. The big picture stuff sorts itself out. Read it here.
The end of crisis communications. Jim Garrow is a US emergency planner. It’s called emergency management over there. He writes with foresight. Not least this piece on why real time social media is replacing the set piece emergency planning approach. I’m proud he talks about one of my projects but this wider piece crystalises why real time events work.
Comms2point0. I’ll blog about this more at a later date. But this is a place where comms people can share best practice and best ideas. It’s largely Darren Caveney’s idea. It’s brilliant and so is the photographic style guide.
Digital advent calender Number 1. Many say the media is dying. David Higgerson, of Trinity Mirror, proves that there is a home for good journalism on the web. His collection of writing is a directory of excellent tools of gems.
Digital advent calender number 2. Steph Gray steers Helpful Technology and helps people understand that technology is an opportunity not a minefield. He is that rare thing. A geek who can communicate with non-geek by speaking human. His advent calender will be pulled out and consulted far into 2012 like a Playfair Cricket annual is to a summer game enthusiast sat on the boundary at Worcester.
It’s a few like minded local government people in the West Midlands who want to innovate, share ideas and learn things. We speak nicely to a cafe or bar owner who has wifi to set aside some space for free, set a date, set-up an eventbrite for tickets and then come up with a few topics people want to talk about.
Jan has already carved something of a reputation with his blog. It’s accessible to members of the public as well as staff. It’s a great thing and you can see it here.
Unconferences like Brewcamp are great for sharing ideas and learning things. They’re informal and, heck, they make work fun. You don’t have to be an expert. You just need to turn up.
Previously these things have always been the haunt of the enthusiast willing to give up their time and often pay out of their own pockets to attend.
A running undercurrent debate at them is often that ‘this is great but how do we get the suits here?’
In other words, how do you get senior management?
Three things have made me think this brilliant approach is dangerously close towards making a breakthrough to the mainstream.
First, to have a first local government chief executive like Jan Britton to attend one of them is actually pretty significant. Let’s stop and think. He’s a talented man. He’s also busy. By actually coming to an unconference he’s opened up the door for others in his organisation.
As Ken Eastwood, an assistant executive director at Barnsley, wrote of those who attended:
“In many cases they are frustrated by their lack of influence and by local government’s resistance to change and bottom up innovation. It seems clear to me that this needs to change. We need to be more agile, more adaptive and better able to encourage and nurture grass-roots, low cost creativity.”
A third reason? It’s clear also that the traditional events sector has woken up to the creative side of unconferences too. The PSCF event in Glasgow will have an informal side to it in the afternoon with masterclasses.
The SOLACE conference in October, for senior officers, will also incorporate an element of unconference creativity too.
It would be hopelessly naive to think that we’ve won the war. But we’re slowly winning lots of important battles.
In local government in 2011 it’s clear we need to innovate and encourage new ideas. It’s not if but how.
As the excellent Nick Hill from PCSF says, mainstream is essential otherwise you basically remain like ‘Fight Club.’