23 September 2013

Wake up and Sheikh up

“It’s been too long since you blogged, man”, read the accusatory DM from that @danslee.

Foolishly I replied, ‘Give me a topic’.

Almost as if he’d already thought of it (*suspicious face*) Dan replied, “Some say digital will take five years to be properly embraced in local government. I say that's too late.”

I say that’s too late.

I recently spoke at a ‘summit’ on social media use by government. I said things like,

“We have not been listening to customers”.

“We’ve been ignoring private sector best practice, where business understands audiences are made up of individual customers and different groups with different needs” and

“Social media lets us reach a range of audiences across services, and - with a good ‘web site’ and a range of online customer tools -  is massively important in how we meet customer demands”

The usual stuff.

It’s almost incidental – but it is Dan’s fault - that the summit was in Dubai, and while I was there I got into a few conversations about the UAE’s new drive to online service. Put simply, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has announced a new "government vision of the future". Its aim is to provide information to people any time and anywhere.

That he did so on twitter, after meeting a thousand government officials, tells its own story, but it’s a story for another day. Today’s tale is this:

Sheikh Mohammed tweeted "The Government of the future works 24/7 and 365 days a year. It is as hospitable as hotels, fast in delivering and strong in its procedures".

Who doesn’t want that?

While we are asking if the NHS ‘will become paperless by 2018’, his aim is for government to reach people.

"Through their smartphones we can make their lives easier. The Government of the future is innovative and adaptive. It improves the quality of life and helps people achieve their happiness. Today we want to move government information and service centres to every phone and every mobile device in the hands of users, which will allow them to place their government request from their phone wherever they are and without waiting," he said.

Tellingly he has given officials two years to get it sorted. Failure will not be tolerated. Officials have been told that if they fail to deliver mobile services, they will be given a "farewell ceremony".

Two years or fired.

The crisis of finance facing local authorities in the UK, in my view, means that we don’t have the luxury of five years.

We may not have three.

As I was drafting this post, Dominic Campbell appeared in the Guardian (like he does) saying ‘councils will collapse unless they embrace tech’. 

That may not be true everywhere, but for those, like mine, which face another 40+ million pounds cut in the next two years, his warning that “most councils can see the next couple of years ahead financially, but there is a gulf appearing after which – if they do not act now with very different thinking – they are going to have to stop services rather than reinvent them”, seems terrifyingly real.

We all know the change is needed. So what holds us back? What? Really?

Our customers are not ours alone. They already use online tools; payment stuff and booking stuff, self service and information gathering stuff in every other sphere of their lives.

We are not asking for the radical any more. We’re asking for what is now ordinary for most customers.

And delivering it won’t stop us providing services to those for whom digital exclusion is an issue. We may need to invest for them, to provide training and assistance. Or we may need to put some of the savings driven by the ‘new model’ into the remnants of the old model to ensure we support the most vulnerable.

But we just don’t seem to be doing it. I have seen first-hand that Dom’s right when he says, “there is a lot of flirting with something which is a good idea but then (they) do not actually go ahead with”.

And this is not the starting line. We're well past that. This isn’t new this week. It’s been there for years. We’ve mostly been not doing digital for years.

I think that giving ourselves another five years is to avoid the issue.

More ‘flirting’.

Parkinson’s Law repeated first as tragedy then as farce.

If we really think we have five years, I’d say that’s because we have not been listening to customers and we’ve been ignoring private sector best practice. Social media, a good ‘web site’ and a range of online customer tools is massively important in how we meet customer demands today. 

And that's before anybody even thinks about changes in the technology that will occur in those five years. Are we actually planning to be out of date?

The Sheikh has it. "A successful government is one that goes to the people and does not wait for them to come to it."

23 July 2013


I briefly featured in a local paper recently. In the long-standing political editor's weekly, hilarious, 'Off The Record' column. Because, he said, I had broken my council's own embargo.

(Now, aside from the obvious question as to whether - given I manage the team - that means I broke "my own" embargo and whether in some philosophical way I might be wholly entitled to do so as that would be a matter for me... I probably had. Kinda.)

Here's what happened. My team were responsible for a press release (I know, I know) announcing that Hull's Ferens Art Gallery had saved a very important painting for the nation. The story is here: 

The National Gallery had apparently asked for an embargo, (and the team tell me they resisted that to no avail) because for whatever reason, it seemed they wanted the Guardian to have it first. 

The Guardian duly obliged, and published well before the (corny, I'd say) 00.01 embargo, with the first readers' tweets pointing at the story not long after 5.30 in the afternoon; some six and a half hours before the embargo expired. 

I saw the link in a tweet from a Hull-based photography firm owner and tweeted it myself at 22.06, leading to the story in the #deadtreepress. Oh silly me.

But, but, but....
For me it raises some questions.

First, in what world is it proper for a local authority media team to seek (or more accurately in this particular case, to be asked to seek) to hand a commercial advantage to any particular media brand? I'm not sure it is, and I think we might need to ask ourselves some tough questions about that.

Second, in what world is it appropriate for a local authority comms team, with tools now available which allow us to publish directly to customers, to keep back publicly-held information when it is ready to be released, and put it into the hands of the news media first? 

Third, once the embargo was breached, isn't it just all over in terms of maintaining it in the modern 'twitterverse'?

Fourth, and if it is all over once (as in this case) an embargo has been broken, or has served its purpose, or both, in what world should the very team that issued the release be the only people in the world who cannot then share it on social media? Some three hours before I tweeted, the Guardian story was tweeted by an arts organisation in Shanghai.

And fifth, doesn't the ability of the news media to publish almost instantly online render the whole embargo idea just a wee bit redundant? I guess it may have had a purpose in the days when newsprint hit London pavements at some shallow hour of the morning, and the breakfast table at about the same time you put the radio news on, but what purpose does it really serve now? And at 00.01? Really?

It perhaps seems to me that there are too many who still think slapping an embargo on is actually somehow a fundamental part of drafting a press release.

But why? 

I don't know. I only have questions at the moment. But it does feel to me that, if the story's ready for your customers to know, shouldn't you just tell them, and tell them first?

19 July 2013

I've had this bobbins in my head for months. Better out than in...

John Torode, bake me scones
With a paste of abalone,
dressed in ginger.
Mount in marmite.
Bake me scones, John Torode..

7 June 2013

Un-like us

I've been lucky to have attended a few unconferences over the last three years. They have shaped my learning, changed my thinking and helped me to develop a network of people I respect and collaborate with, in communications and marketing, customer services, across local government and outside of all of those.

What I discovered recently is that they've shaped my expectations of conferences too. I found at LGComms Academy in Cardiff that I struggled a bit to stay with the old format of speakers - however brilliant (and they were) - talking to, and sometimes at, us one after another after another. 

Unconferences, done well, allow for more collaborative learning approaches; more listening, exchange and engagement and I recognise that - as a (terrible and incessant) talker - my learning style prefers that.

So when @lloyddavis arrived at LGComms to run an all-too-brief unconference session as part of the Academy it felt like a bit of a relief. 

Until he asked me to pitch a session. 

I'd never done that before. But he and @allyhook said I had to, in case it all went 'too quiet', so I did. 

And I loved it.

Ally suggested I run a session on how we might take up Alex Aiken's offer, made the previous day, of moving into sexy and leadership jobs in central government comms. So I asked a group of people who fancied that decussion how we might take him up on his offer.

It started brilliantly, not least because people who knew Alex explained that he meant it: and as a consequence of @garethdn and his genuine enthusiasm for the idea. He led us into some of the obvious and not-so-obvious practical responses. Ring up and offer to go and muck in. Volunteer to work on the news desks. Look for short term contracts (if that's open to you financially).

We recognised that some of those ideas might not work for some people, depending on geography or other commitments, but as we started to look at the barriers to those practical ideas, what we discovered was quite saddening. 

We largely agreed that we have become riddled with self-doubt, as communications people, and as public sector workers. 

We confessed that too often we lack the confidence to apply to new jobs in ANY sector. 

Not one person in the group (of 15 to 20 by that point) was prepared to back themselves in an application to the BBC for example, in spite of believing we share at least some of the skills and behaviours that BBC staff require. 

Very few felt the private sector would entertain us. 

Many felt applications to government would meet with a response summed up as 'sniffy' (while recognising that some of us can sometimes be sniffy in our own way towards those from "lesser" councils...

What we came to realise was that we have perhaps internalised too much of the stuff that has been poured on public sector workers for what feels like ages now. We've come to entertain that debilitating, nagging doubt at the back of the brain; 'Maybe they're right... Maybe the TPA are right. Maybe we are all rubbish; in non-jobs; time-servers; blockers'. 

We recognised that we have become self-limiting, and we decided that it's high time it stopped.

We agreed that we communicate for everyone but ourselves; that we enable collaboration between groups of everybody but ourselves; that we sell everything but ourselves.

And we agreed that we need to try to regain some pride, to trumpet our value, and to support each other to show that we are the dreamers of dreams, the creatives, the innovators, the narrators, the meaning-makers and we can work anywhere we damned well want to because we're proud of who we are.


And then it all went quiet while we tried to work out if we really believe that and if there is really a way to make that happen. 

Don't be surprised if we do. 

16 March 2013

Journalism Day

When invited by Dave Windass, leader of the FdA in Digital Media Journalism and BA (Hons) Journalism & Digital Media courses at Hull School of Art and Design to address a conference - Journalism Day - on the future of journalism some weeks ago, I thoughtlessly said 'yes'. I said yes because Dave's a really top bloke, and we try to support him when we can, because I'm mostly happy to help, and I assumed it was to be a low-key local affair.

Two days before the 'gig', I found out I was closing the show, and following Martin Bell, Alastair Brett (the former Legal Director of Times Newspaper Ltd) political journalist David Torrance, and BskyB's senior news editor Dave Betts, and frankly it all got a bit 'squeaky bum time', as I believe Manchester’s old people say.

So I did what I knew I had to do. Dressing it up as, 'Eddie's talk seeks to ask questions about the future of news, and to raise what he thinks might be the challenges for both local authorities and journalists in the modern world', I went for provocation and told 200 journalists that 'Public Relations Is Dead'. The first refuge of the scoundrel.

Oh, and - just for good measure - that newspapers are dead too. Or at least damned close to it.
I tried to be a bit more sophisticated than that. Whether I succeeded is perhaps a matter for those who were there, but the feedback was pretty good.

I started by suggesting that HMV, Blockbuster, and Jessop's did not go under because nobody wants music, movies or photos any more. They failed because a tipping point was reached as a critical number of customers - but not all - stopped wanting physical product and the shops became unsustainable.

Then I showed them this video

And because (in the same way) it won't take until the last person who has the Times ironed at breakfast to die,  for papers reach that same tipping point, I told them newspapers were dead too.

But I also said that there is probably a growing demand for news brands and journalism. Customers have online access to so much more than the one paper they used to buy each day, and use it.

I went on. What we increasingly know about customers is that few much care about The Council (capital T capital C) any more, if they ever did. They care about those parts of it that touch their lives; the road closure, the school closure, the theatre ticket, the bin collection. And I implied that may be true for news items too. Customers have become information nomads, choosing where to find out about and access services. And as more and more services are online they have become online nomads too. And that means we have to communicate and deliver services across those online choices.

I suggested that local government has to learn that the massive range of online tools that customers can use,  along with their own presence online, means that they are connected. Not just council to customers, but customers back to councils and to each other. All of it connected. The days when we could send a one-size-fits-all council 'magazine' have gone. Customers want granular. They want the information, news, service, and events that they are interested in; not an homogenous communications department idea of what they might want, or worse, should have.

And in that connected space, customers write back, and bite back, making us all accountable in a way we have to get used to, and learn to learn from. I talked about Julie Burchill, Jan Moir, the News Of The World, Urban Outfitters and Amazon and how the accountability that connectedness enables is as much an issue for news brands and journalists as for anyone else. It is not without its challenges - not least to ideas of freedom of expression, and whether we have a right not to be offended - but it is happening anyway.

And before I demanded they follow him on twitter, I talked about the changes in behaviour we need in our  communications teams, and quoted Dan Slee that …

"A press release is no longer your gateway to the media.

"A press release, web update, a picture of a nature reserve posted to Twitter on a mobile phone, a sharable Facebook image, a Soundcloud audio clip of a politician speaking or a LinkedIn group contribution from a named officer is. But the thing is. It’s not always all of those things. Knowing the landscape means knowing which will be relevant."

And I ended with my prediction of the future for journalism; that it will be fast, fast, fast; that stories are everywhere, not on a Press Release; that everyone can be a journalist (not necessarily a good one, but everyone can break stories and has the tools to publish); that journalists have become a brand in themselves; that  broadcast without response is dead; that there will be ever more accountable journalism, more easy disgust, more easy offence and that accountability is every organisation’s to handle, and that there are more easily targeted campaigns and more moral tensions. activism is clicktivism and that might mean more and more difficult challenges, to freedom of expression, politically unpopular views, financial security, even – when wrongly done - to personal safety.

And then, to end, I introduced them to Emer Coleman and read them two bits of her recent post:

"There are those who seek to uphold their own silos and empires even though they don’t face the electorate at the ballot box... Remember the scene when Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill everything stays the same – if he takes the red pill (like Alice in Wonderland) he falls through the rabbit hole and sees things like they really are. We are at a juncture in society and technology where the system (and government) keep taking the blue pill struggling to deal with a new generation who swallowed the red one years ago" and:

"If I have to name a sector to whom I want to give a special shout out then it has to be to the journalists that I have worked with over the past year... They have been amazing critical friends. They have not offered an easy ride but they are not the stereotype of “gotcha” either. If the mantra of of Silicon Valley is “you have to collaborate to compete” then my mantra for government and media is that we have to “collaborate to comprehend”.

Then I finished with what I hoped was good advice. As well as suggesting they take the red pill, I went with a Facebook meme attributed to Gandhi, and with Emer. Like you do.

I told them I thought they should,

"Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you're right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.

"Be yourself. Collaborate to comprehend."

And they clapped and they were nice, and I left. But not before I got my photograph taken with Martin Bell, even though he did confess that he had not understood half of the words I'd used.

2 March 2013

Stop taking the pills - Some #CommsCamp13 thoughts (at great length)

I was 'nudged' recently by @Comms2Point0 to post my thoughts on #CommsCamp13, but as so often I found that talking about it was easier than writing it down.

I must apologise to people at work for the talking about it... And thank @danslee and @annkempster again for a very fine event.

But then, in a brilliant post today to mark an exit from government (into what will doubtless be an equally brilliant private sector career) @emercoleman said something which set me off; about public service systems taking the blue pill and those in them who take the red one.

I'm not much given to Matrix geekery. Those who were with me in a fantastic #commscamp13 final session, led by @curiousc, in a challenge to comms folk to see that they can too often be the blockers, will know I'm more of a Doctor Who fan.

(Excitingly, when suggesting that communications people need to become the voice of the customer and drive organisational learning, I actually got to say 'reverse the polarity of the neutron flow' in a public place. Yes, I know;  I'm pathetic.)

But Emer's idea of the 'juncture' at which we work seems spot on;

"... remember the scene when Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill everything stays the same – if he takes the red pill (like Alice in Wonderland) he falls through the rabbit hole and sees things like they really are. We are at a juncture in society and technology where the system (and government) keep taking the blue pill..."

I'm finding blue pill dependency to be on the rise.

Behaviours (and for me, as I never seem to stop saying, it's always about the behaviours and not the shiny toys) seem increasingly to seek top down, controlling, non-consultative, 'manage the message', 'manage the media', "only answer if you have to" responses.

Those are the responses learned through so many tired decades of unlearning, disempowering public services, too often easily characterised as having no actual interest in the public being served. Years and years in which it was all about structures and hierarchies and the right to make decisions without challenge and you being bloody grateful for what you were given, and not having choices or complaints taken seriously and blah, blah, blah.

You know, there's a ton of academic research that says that in spite of the perception that the public sector is close to its customers... It just isn't.

And - to return to the task at hand - that all put me in mind of @nickkeane's 'theory' at my first #CommsCamp13 session: 'twitter is now useless', where more than one person expressed an almost sneering belief that, because customers use them to ask for stuff, management of organisations' twitter accounts "should 'just' be handed over to Customer Services".

Nick suggested that tools of engagement have altered customers' approaches to public services; have altered expectations of access and treatment and accountability. Customers expect to engage horizontally - directly with the CEO, ward councillor, or communications team; but they are still met by vertical hierarchies.

I'd reckon that the days when comms teams merely broadcast and didn't listen and respond; when complaints were left to rot at the office being complained about; when the journalist was the most important character in town because they could damage your reputation more than any individual customer; when elected representatives could fail to consult, or ban tweeting or filming in council meetings, and so many other of those old behaviours could be maintained... I'd reckon those days are gone.

And if anyone's still fighting that, I'd reckon it's only a matter of time before the customers change your mind.

They will expect a say in how we design public health responses; to be heard as we agree budgets; and to advise on how our services perform. And the tools will make sure they get it. Letter by letter, call by call, online petition by online petition, and - arguably - most powerfully and crucially, tweet by tweet; they will change the behaviours.

And so they should. When did we ever have the right to ignore complaints, to not answer questions, to fail to learn from customer experience, to meet and make decisions in private (saving the exemptions of the 1972 Local Government Act, natch) or to keep the spending figures away from a public whose services they actually are. When?

I think Nick's right. Emer too. At the risk of being a bit pretentious ("You, Eddie? Really?") the issue seems to be that decades-old, Weberian models of government are no longer fit for purpose. In a world with social media, Open Data and the looming possibility of instant reputation destruction by one aggrieved customer on twitter, the hierarchical responses have to change.

Tragically, the Francis report tells us that much more clearly than I could ever hope to. The not listening has to end. The not learning has to go. The behaviours have to change.

Not broadcasting, but representing and learning.

Not remote from the public, unfilmed and untweeted, but open and learning.

Not Press Releases, but consistent, equal approaches to communicating information which treat all stakeholders equally. Being human. And learning.

I'd reckon it's all customer services now.