Curtains

Curtains

Ever sat in front of the TV and screamed at the politician “Do you take me for an idiot?”
The short and most honest answer would most likely be “Yes.” Though it might come as something of a shock, it would at least demolish the all-pervading pretence.

It’s an election year and for some of us working in local government comms, it will be local and national elections. The double whammy.
Shortly we’ll be entering the period known as purdah. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originates from the early 19th century Urdu and Persian word parda meaning ‘veil or curtain’
Purdah is a period when comms teams must steer clear of communicating anything that has the slightest taint of political spin. We mustn’t be seen to be giving unfair advantage to the incumbent administration over the opposition. Ironically, we won’t be hidden or remain totally silent. We can still report the day to day operations of our authority, the bread-and-butter, so to speak.  In that respect, the notion of a veil or curtain is not entirely apt. One could argue that the veil or curtain is transparent or at least opaque in that we will be telling people exactly what we do. There just won’t be any gloss on it. Which begs the question, does it ever need any?

I’ve been in local government for over a decade now having spent the previous ten or so years in the media. I’m lucky to have seen both sides of the story as well as experiencing local government as a civilian. And the more I look at it, the more it occurs to me that party politics are a distraction when it comes to dealing with local and hyper local issues. Often you will see the leader of a local authority at odds with the national government of the day when the two wear the same colours. The view from the local coal face isn’t always the same as the one from central office.
Council Chamber discussions across the country too often degenerate into political point scoring and name calling when they ought to be run like a boardroom meeting. Like it or not, local authorities are a business these days and businesses don’t adopt bad practice for the sake of ideology or political expediency..at least, not the enlightened ones.

I do have a particular business model in mind. The 18th century in England saw the emergence of a new breed of industrialist. Brave innovators who invested as much energy into the welfare of their workforce a they did the bottom line. They understood that the two are inextricably linked. Check out Darby, Fry and Cadbury for starters.
There are many competent councillors who transfer skills honed in the business, public and voluntary sectors into local governance. It’s that interesting mix that makes local government so lively. And though some councillors may serve for long periods, you don’t get the phenomenon of career politician so prevalent in national politics. Councillors live in the real world not the Westminster bubble.

We joined Streetlife recently. It was interesting to read the tone of comments that greeted our arrival; much less embittered than the tone on Facebook or Twitter. In the context of this piece, one in particular stands out:
This is the sort of thing that brings a special relationship between the Council and residents. Please use it wisely for non political purposes and enjoy the positive response that you will receive from the local people.”
It’s early days for Streetlife but if I read this comment correctly, it’s the ‘localness’ and practicality that people are warming to. And the gentle nudge to keep politics out of it only serves to underline my original point.

So, councils run on enlightened business principles by councillors who have the right skills and the interests of all their residents and workers at heart may be a pipe dream but it leaves little room for petty party politics. Allegiance would be to residents not political ideals.
Non-political governance based on human dignity, sound business sense unfettered by dogma , a dedication to sustainable practice that has the courage to take the long-view; all this may be even further away at a national level but in that respect, local government is the most likely place to incubate it.
Governance would become much more of a partnership between the governors and the governed. And ‘vested interest’ would be a universal notion rather than an exclusive club. In this utopian future evidence will be the pillar of every decision. Political rhetoric would become redundant and I for one would spend much less time screaming at my TV.

To paraphrase John Lennon:
“You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m surely not the only one.”

If you build it, will they come?

building blocks

Back in the sixties, when I was a kid, I loved to play with a well known building block toy (you’ll know the one).Essentially it was a collection of plastic blocks in a range of sizes. Some were grey and some were red and at some point in my childhood, they introduced clear plastic ones. With these basic blocks I built castles and forts, aircraft carriers and rocket ships. They were clunky and angular but my imagination filled in the curves. The point is, from those basic building blocks, I made whatever I wanted. There seemed no limit to the things I could construct.

Some years later, the parts became more sophisticated and were clearly intended to build a replica of whatever was illustrated on the box.

Now, this post isn’t about corporate greed dulling the creative capacity of our children. I’m using this as an analogy for public consultation. Local Authorities deliver stuff. It may be the management of refuse, a working road network, libraries (for now) and leisure centres. But in future, what will it be?

Perhaps if we began with basic blocks and not proscriptive solutions and had a dialogue with residents around that, we could identify what people need, rather than want. We could start with a snap shot based on known data sets and local intelligence at the hyperlocal level. We’d need to manage expectations and establish some ground rules. For instance, asking for a positive, can-do attitude. That isn’t about air brushing out failures. When we get it wrong we should fess up but airing old grievances wastes time and if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Most importantly, the blocks don’t have to be three-dimensional because people are infrastructure too; they have interests, passions and transferable skills. If we harness those, that’s a lot of energy. And if you add those into the mix, you’re on your way to creating sustainable solutions. So, when it comes to public consultation and building communities, let’s see what happens when we don’t put a picture on the box.

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with Rob Francis @ThinkingRob on Twitter. Check him out, he does this kind of stuff for a living.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Nike

So, the story goes like this. A group of young, British nationals become radicalized and leave their families to fight a Holy War on foreign soil in the Middle East. Their families are baffled and upset and lay the blame on clergymen who have lit a fire under impressionable minds by citing holy scripture to justify bloody acts. In the name of this Holy War, barbaric deeds are committed, including the massacre of innocent civilians and all for the sake of an idea.
Ideas are powerful things. And all the more powerful in a vacuum. Apart from a small minority, most people would agree that the world is in a bit of a mess right now. And, historically, when the world is in a mess, many people seek leaders to get them out of it. But. if history has taught us anything, it is that even the dumbest ideas can be adopted by the majority, if the circumstances are right. What’s that phrase? “Well, do you have a better idea?” That’s the moment for rational, reasoned minds to speak up though too often they do not. And in this way the direction of travel, already misguided, is set on a course of inevitable destruction with leaders out-doing each other to appear more in favour of that direction of travel for fear of losing their position.

Occasionally, leaders buck the trend.Take the response of then Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg to the infamous slaughter of innocents in a summer massacre.

What is occurring now in our domestic political scene and across the Middle East is bad ideas thriving in a vacuum. And it isn’t the fault of the medium through which the ideas are spread. Because the story I referred to at the start of this blog is the story of The Crusades and the first of those happened 800 years before the creation of YouTube.

In Moderation

Consultation was always a hit and miss affair. We tried to run it by appointment but more often than not, the community centre would be empty apart from the local government officers and the tumble weed. Social media has changed all that. We need to pay attention now, because the comments and feedback come when our residents feel inspired. It’s useful stuff and it helps us design the way we deliver our services. Mind you, there is that other stuff too. And if you want to retain your sanity, it helps to recognise it for what it is.

Recently, I was listening to a radio interview with a moderator for a successful community swap & sell Facebook page. Like many such sites, it’s run by volunteers. Asked what takes up the most time, he cited the amount of energy used to respond to what he called the ‘me too’ brigade; people who see a comment and can’t help but add their h’apenny worth. We all know the scenario and we may even have done it ourselves in our private lives. But not all comments are prejudiced or misinformed Sometimes, a voice of reason speaks out as if to reset the balance. It put me in mind of when I first moved to rural Shropshire. A local farmer used to graze his sheep in the adjoining field to our property. After a few days, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The sheep would graze silently for long stretches of time but as soon as one broke the silence with a bleat, one-by-one, the rest would join in. After a short time they would fall silent again before repeating the process a little later. If sheep do communicate, I wonder if the last bleat has some significance and if social media moderators can learn anything from it? Hope you enjoy the following strip by way of illustration…

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

 

 

Evening All

Dixon of Dock Green

Dixon of Dock Green

Back in the sixties, the police were viewed very differently from the way we view them today.

There was something called ‘due deference’. It was a thing, you may need to look it up.

On our black & white TVs, Dixon of Dock Green epitomised the public perception of the police. Played by Jack Warner, Dixon was a mature, steady hand at the helm of public order. Each episode was prefaced by Sergeant Dixon addressing the camera, beginning with the immortal words “Evening all.” He would then set up the story for that week. And after the drama had played out, he would return to address the camera once again with words of reassurance to help us sleep easy in our beds.

In the intervening years, a number of real life episodes have dinted the reputation of the police for some. In the 1970’s, accusations of corruption and malpractice were met with closed ranks and secrecy which did little to restore public trust.

In the 21st century, it could be argued that the police are more accountable than they’ve ever been. Statutory bodies, PCC’s and formal public liaison aside, there’s been another development. For a number of years, the police have slowly but steadily been using social media to reach across the thin blue line and connect directly with the public.

I applaud the police for taking the risk because their lead has been followed by other public organisations…”if the police can do it”

So the news that, since 2009, a number of officers have contravened police social media guidelines is regrettable but hardly surprising given the scale of the operation. And if it serves to spark a conversation about the right way and the wrong way for public organisations to use social media, that’s fine. But, please let’s not start talking about restricting the deployment of social media by the police.

Bobbies on the beat, dog handlers and even helicopter crews are using social media. They’re sharing their day-to-day work and providing the reassurance that Sergeant Dixon did on a Saturday night. And that’s a good thing.

If Sergeant Dixon had been able to use twitter, I’m pretty sure he would have done #eveningall

Perspective

perspective

Knowledge is knowing stuff.

Wisdom is being able to use it wisely.

So. where does the wisdom lie in your organisation?

At the coal face is the practical experience, in the boardroom is the strategic vision and somewhere in between there are people with perspective.

Perspective is a valuable thing and acquiring it is something of a luxury. When you’re at the coal face or balancing the books, you rarely have time to acquire perspective. Perspective doesn’t tell people how to do their jobs; it accepts that the coal face and boardroom have years of accumulated experience. However, perspective might suggest that there may be ways to make life a little easier – a different angle, another approach. Perspective doesn’t judge, it enables.

Progress stalls when experience won’t listen to perspective.

So, if you’re wise, you’ll make room for perspective, even if you don’t have it yourself.

Gone Fishing

gone fishing

The last time I went fishing, if you don’t count crabbing off Aberdovey jetty, was 1972 in Dartmouth Park Pool, West Bromwich. After at least ten minutes in a rowing boat, I became so frustrated at my lack of success that I ended up throwing my meat pie at the water. This tells you at least two things about me. One, I’m no angler and two, I demand instant gratification.

I mention this only as a precursor to an analogy that neatly encapsulates everything I learned at Commscamp14. As comms officers, we are essentially in the business of marketing. It could be encouraging people to recycle more or pay online instead of coming to the Town Hall but either way we want people to buy-in to something.

And whatever the proposition is, the principles remain the same, regardless of the channel; so. Let’s go fishing…..

1 The Stream

Choose your spot. Don’t market to everyone; it’s a waste of time and effort. Go where you have the best chance of success. It could be appealing to an interest group on social media using an existing chat room, community or hashtag. It could be editorial in an old school, printed community newsletter.

2 The Bait

This needs to be appealing to your target audience. Something glittering and attractive that looks very much like the kind of thing your target audience is regularly attracted to. For instance, people like sharing images of cute animals on social media. One council gets a huge response on Facebook when they post pictures of lost dogs – no accident. Plus they re-unite said pooch with owner on a regular basis. Result.

3 The Hook

The bait will be consumed greedily but on its own, it’s wasted effort. Tie it to something; a proposition, a call to action.

4 The Line

Tie the hook to a friendly URL that isn’t searchable. A tracking device is the term often used in the marketing world. In the case of Facebook, this moves your fish away from 3rd party metrics to stuff you can measure for yourself.

5 The Reel

So the fish is on the hook, time to reel them in. They’ve taken the bait and they’re on the line, the web content they’ve come to needs to be compelling or at least fit-for-purpose. Don’t generalise. The bait promised something, it’s time to deliver.

6 The Keep Net

Okay, I admit, the fishing analogy is wearing a bit thin at this stage but essentially, this is where you land your fish. If the proposition was to sign up to something or get into the habit of self-serving, this is where it happens; because, if you hadn’t already guessed, this whole exercise is about behavioural change.

Of course, our customers aren’t fish and, as you already know, I’m no angler but I hope you’ve found this useful. Tight lines

LINKS: Local Government social media marketing survey by Deeson Creative

Martin Belam, Editor New Formats, Trinity Mirror on creative content