The Shift in the Responsibility for Change!

Every once in a while an article, a talk, a debate etc. comes along which helps crystallise nagging concerns/thoughts that I haven’t been able to pin down. Well, this has happened recently upon reading the recent thought provoking IPPR article and listening to debate on “The happiness industry: How the government and big business sold us wellbeing”.

Based on Will Davies’ book of the same name IPPR curate a fascinating discussion between the author and a representative from NEF on the growing medicalisation and how our emotions, psychology have become monetised. We can now apparently measure our happiness and wellbeing! By offering strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Mindfulness and the plethora of “self-help” techniques around we are now apparently far better equipped to take control and “heal thyself”.

As individuals we of course ideally need to be independent, healthy, fully-functioning beings. Yet a primary contention of Will Davies is that the focus on the individual focus for change somewhat negates the need for the populous to put pressure on or for organisations and political institutions themselves to make changes which address root causes and not simply focus on symptoms. To give this particular Wellbeing area justice take a look at the IPPR article with podcast or video.

It set me thinking about other matters and work I’m either directly/indirectly affected by or involved in. Yes, in public service austerity and budget cuts remain all-pervasive, yet does this mean our models of transformation are going in the right direction or supported from the ‘correct’ perspective?

We talk a lot about changing the relationship between citizen and state, partly to break the so-called “dependency-culture” and partly because we require greater collaboration to meet increasing community needs with diminishing resources. There is undoubtedly tremendous potential in areas such as collaborative consumption but unless public institutions take the lead we run the risk of leaving a space within which, what I term, a mythical “free market” will be filled by profiteering conglomerates.  Far from being anti-business, I’m more concerned how we as public bodies support communities to be engaged and involved on an equal footing. In order to achieve this structural barriers need to be tackled alongside empowerment strategies.  Ideas explored more fully in Chapter 4 of an insightful paper by NESTA.

A strange and possibly trite indirect link here – I’m hopefully about to move house and as you know the paperwork to be completed seems endless. Proof of ID etc. for a mortgage is essential yet all the necessary documentation is on line meaning all the cost of production and effort to coordinate is placed on us as customers. Now, anyone who knows me will testify my belief in the power of cyberspace to be a positive force for good, nonetheless my current experience got me thinking about the inexorable move to Digital by Default a bit more.

Certainly as a strategy it will save money for local councils and for many make services easier and more available. To me though we have to avoid a consumerist approach and as referenced in an article entitled: “The Role of The Individual in ‘Digital by Default’ Public Services” local government must, as the LGA have stated –

  • Put citizens at the forefront
  • Give citizens real reason to participate
  • Co-design services that are affordable, are built around needs and make a visible difference

Self-service either externally or internally in an organisation has to avoid issues such as disadvantaging the ‘user’ in respect of overly shifting the burden costs and compromising service standards and the like.

Again the point being that we organisationally need to design with a citizen-led focus ensuring we avoid potential systemic problems like digital exclusion. Cost savings cannot be the only principal driver, it surely has to be about enhanced and improved pubic services.

On a digital note it is why I’m very excited and proud to be part of the #notwestminster ‘posse’. The latest phase of our work being coordinated by colleagues such as Dave Mckenna and others, focusing on “local democracy design challenges”. Dave’s blog explains where the ideas emanated from, how they have been built on an event earlier this year and a are being pushed forwards by a quasi digitally based movement rooted in local democratic engagement with the purpose to improve all aspects of collectively-based local democracy via a digital lens and grass roots development, buy-in and now active implementation.

To conclude…

OK, I could go on but let me try and bring these ramblings to a summation. The endless refrain right now is that public services must transform and constantly evolve. Hard to disagree with this on many levels. My concern is that we transform without a “public service ethos”. For me it’s a belief system, an approach to society and why many of us “got in the game” in the first place.

Public services have always embraced change that is not up for debate for me; it’s more about the basis and nature of the change. Local government has always placed tackling inequality, democracy and serving communities at the heart of what it does. Certainly many failures as well as successes can be cited, however the right raison-d’etre and ethos is still running through and being fought for by the public sector family.

Going back to where this piece began, the current dominant thinking about Wellbeing strategies and interventions (as an example) purports a very individualistic model. Dangerously for me, we run the risk of moving people’s dependency from a social interventionist sphere to a psychological dependency reliant on mechanisms like CBT or counselling without improving people’s quality of life and long term self-sufficiency. Neither positions are ultimately desirable, however the latter seems to be moving us further and further away from a strong ideological basis for tackling the larger societal and structural injustices that no individual citizen could hope to affect by themselves.

A generalisation but do we really want a USA-style “I’m in therapy” dependency culture?!

It may be viewed as counter-culture right now, nevertheless my belief is more than ever public services should adopt a  fully democratically mandated quasi-collective bargaining role in collaboration with its citizens.


Social Media Elections – Revolution or Integration?

As the ‘Pre-Election‘ period looms large and guidance for local government officers like myself is disseminated, noticeably the social media aspect of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” is front and centre! Does this mean we are moving, both locally and nationally, towards a truly Social Media based Election for 2015?

Being a heavy user of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. for work and pleasure it is clearly apparent that national and local political parties have upped their social media output. Undoubtedly the larger parties have their on-line strategies in place to help increase reach, engagement and persuade the electorate of their respective virtues.

It is well documented how President Obama used a Digital Strategy and particularly social media to help him win in 2008 and repeat the feet in 2012. A method of campaigning now adopted globally. The parties in the UK are gearing up and if you can get a copy of this research it’s interesting how certain parties get more traction on Twitter than Facebook and vice-versa.


On-line, Off-line or Both?

This is a lazily framed question really because right now it surely has to be, unlike my favourite whiskey, a blended approach! My educated guess is that social media is principally being utilised to attract the younger voter. Emerging research indicates that broadly speaking young people will be more influenced by social media, or at least more engaged by it, although it remains to be seen whether this will have much influence in terms of voting.

At the moment most people do not use social media to follow mainstream politics. Very astutely for now political parties are not using social media to engage directly with the electorate. They mainly seem to use platforms such as Twitter as a way of amplifying a message in traditional print or audio-visual media rather than asking people to actively participate in an issue that is of interest to them. Over time my feeling is this approach will change and more people will engage more directly via digital, however we are not there yet.

The foot soldiers will still be out leafleting, doorstepping, supporting local campaigns and so on. Just as they cannot afford to be absent from the digital world any more; it would equally be politically suicidal not to have a presence in traditional media and visibly doing the grass roots work – the off-line world at the moment remains the bread and butter of successful campaigning.

What Next Then?

Yes, the cliché is: “If I knew that…” Nonetheless, the move to digital campaigning is evidential merely by parties seeing the need to invest time and resources to this method of campaigning.

For me, the greatest traction being gained in local elections is through the growth of the ‘hyper-local’ campaigning and reporting: before, during and after whether we choose exercise our right to vote on 7th May – an argument succinctly articulated here.

So, for the time being I see Social Media approaches to elections as integrating into and augmenting established campaigning and media/reporting methods – the revolution, driven by the grass roots, is on it way but sometime in the not too distant future I feel!

Like a Kid in a Digital Toy Shop!

I’m still a relative ‘newbie‘ trying to work my way through the multitude of Digital Tools at our disposal! There’s so many which could enhance and complement off-line engagement methods to support involvement and democracy.

We know there is a growing desire to harness the power of the Internet and social media to engage on-line, to share stories, to gather insight and to harness the power of the crowd. Too often traditional ways of engagement and involvement seem inadequate and reach only a tiny fraction of those affected by decisions taken and traditional meetings alone can too often be confrontational and composed of the active few.

As stated, I’m still finding my way and part of the issue is knowing what’s out there – do I ‘Hangout‘ with Google or ‘schedule’ with Doodle???


Where to start? I do feel “Like a Kid in a Digital Toy Shop” however the danger is I will gorge myself and get or become sick of the plethora of goodies out there. The starting point for me is to know what’s available; here’s an excellent piece entitled “Let’s Get Digital! 50 Tools for Online Public Engagement by Community Matters, outlining some current cracking resources. Read it quick because it’ll be out-of-date next week!

The key I think, is how we work our way through the options for our personal use and organisationally testing the best platforms/tools etc. with our communities on a ‘hyper-local‘ basis. To illustrate the latter, if a healthy democracy is partly dependent on a free press then as the Carnegie UK Trust report last year, “The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Local” showed how Digital neighbourhood reporting for example is positively disrupting established practice in a community-led way.

Time for us all to see which ‘Toys’ R US and which work best with our local communities!!!