Tag Archives: local government

My worlds collide

When I first wrote this it was relevant but I got overtaken by other events. Still, whilst it’s old news there’s no point it staying sat in my drafts.

There is no single theme for my blog. Most of the time there’s very little overlap so maybe I should be more focused and write in different places for different content. Irrespective of that, today is a bit different.

In the aftermath of this story I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of bluster in various media. As I’m a Christian who works in local government and have family connections to church in Bideford this particular story couldn’t be more relevant. Continue reading My worlds collide

Why I love Local Gov

The Guildhall by hullcitycouncil on Flickr
The Guildhall, Hull

Last weekend I was asked by @WeLoveLocalGov if I could send them a sentence or two about why I love Local Gov for this post.

Absolutely, I thought; I know I love local government so surely I can send them 140 characters easily enough? Apparently not.

Whenever I sat down to muse and fire some letters in their direction it was really hard. And it wasn’t because I’d had one of those days where you’re reminded about the reasons why Local Gov is a frustrating place to work. No, it was because every time I sat down I remembered something else about why I love Local Gov.

And as the list got longer I thought the only way to do this justice is to blog.

So, why do I love Local Gov? Continue reading Why I love Local Gov

#lgcyh1: Crowdsourcing

>Sorry that this has taken so long to emerge and you’ll have to forgive that it is no longer as directly attributed as I might have liked. So, it may be less a report of the session and drift into a discussion of the themes…

This session was hosted by Rob Wilmot who wanted to talk about how we could harness the wisdom of crowds in the work that we do. He showed off Nation Thinks which asks people to contribute their ideas to the budget and then to either vote up or vote down the responses. Sites like MyStarbucksIdea.com are the inspiration for it and this is that idea writ large for the very act of governance on a national level.

We started off with our doubts. Aren’t we all already over consulted? How on earth do you manage to differentiate between what is noise and what is of value? Isn’t encouraging the crowdsourcing of opinion dangerous? After all, newspaper polls generally suggest that the crowdsourcing of criminal justice policy would result in reintroducing capital punishment? And we forget Godwin’s law at our peril

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1

Emma Langman suggested that it was possible to crowdsource arguments and connect their dots to maintain credibility. She flagged up Cohere, a project from the Open University that helps to visualise the thread of an argument and cite wildly different sources in a way that allows cases to be assessed on their merits and sources to be verified. She argued that it is in the divergent opinions that crowdsourcing finds its beauty. Too often we are encouraged to fall in to a particular way of thinking and to follow the crowd. Can crowdsourcing present an opportunity to change that?

There’s probably a lot of us who went to LGCYH because we want to find those divergent opinions and get stuck into them. Understanding conflict is something that in general we don’t do very well and we try to hide from. Crowdsourcing has the potential to shine a giant light onto those disagreements and we don’t much like that so it’s inevitable that it isn’t coming to us naturally.

But crowd sourcing isn’t just about ideas, it’s about gathering data and information too as we saw in the way that The Guardian treated the expenses scandal. We shouldn’t forget that it’s also about being able to make a personal contribution to seeing change take place. Chris Taggart very wisely pointed out that the act of self-organising used to be really hard but the tools are there for people to get something off the ground very quickly.

Sites like What Do They Know simplify the act of making Freedom of Information requests whilst publishing them to give everyone access. The internet has changed our expectations: 28 days for a response used to be fine, but we find it possible to get almost instantaneous tweet. The pre-internet age restricted dialogue to letters, now rather than single, direct answers we offer open and transparent conversations that can be accessed by anybody. I think what the state of Texas has done with GetSatisfaction is excellent and the open discussion and publication of ideas, questions, problems and even praise it offers can build into an excellent resource for the public and a much cheaper access channel for the state.

So can the #opendata movement help local government to move beyond the numerical to seeing dramatic shifts in organisational culture? Emma Langman had seen her sister driven to ask her council for the process maps relating to a particular issue and that raised the question of why our default position isn’t to put those maps somewhere accessible for people to understand what exactly happens when they report a problem, or request a service. There’s very little to be gained by shrouding the act of doing local government in mystery.

There’s also very little point in just publishing data believing that it equates to transparency. The thirst for transparency needs us to think about how we use crowd sourcing tools and practice to make consultation, data providing, wisdom gathering and idea generating more meaningful. Successfully doing that necessitates it to be rooted in a culture that is open to the things it flags up, or that seeks to build on, or feed into, the personal contribution of others. It’s the implications, not the technology.

>LocalGovCamp Yorkshire & Humber: #lgcyh

>I spent last Saturday at the National Railway Museum but I wasn’t there to look at the trains. I was there with about 80 others for an unconference about local government.

Erm, what’s an unconference?

I’m sure there’s a full definition at Wikipedia but I think of them as being what you’d be left with if you turned the principals of participation on their head and removed keynote speakers and the cost from a traditional conference. There is a venue and there are organisers but the agenda and the structure are pitched over coffee and bacon sandwiches. Some come more prepared than others; the experts can be relied on to bring their insights, others collaborate before the event but equally things just bubble up as the day progresses.

Hold on, you gave up a Saturday during the World Cup to talk about work…are you mad?

I have some sympathy for those who looked at me like I’d lost the plot when I attempted to entice them along and I wonder whether it’s hard to see the value if you’ve never come face to face with the concept in the first place? I’m not sure of the conversion rate but it always seems to find people singing their praises afterwards.

Twitter eavesdropping had given me my exposure to these events as well as connecting to some of the main protagonists but I did get to LocalGovCamp Lincoln where I put real human people to @s and avatars and found the unconference format to be really enjoyable (Andy is talking of hosting another). And Saturday was another opportunity to rub actual shoulders with some of the people pioneering new ideas in local authorities around the country. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to collar all those I follow and sadly I was the only person from Hull City Council to make it (obviously I was more irritating than persuasive in my efforts to encourage people to come!)

One of the other disappointments of the day was the absence of the movers and the shakers. I work in a very hierarchical environment and it seems that across the country there’s a real disconnect between the influential and the innovative. Of course there are notable exceptions and it’s clear that some of the places represented at #lgcyh have achieved significant victories. Their trailblazing can help to further the debate but, for now, those paid to provide leadership in facing down the challenges we face are conspicuous in their absence from the discussions and these events.

In many ways perhaps there was little point in my having gone on Saturday given my role at work. However, from a completely selfish perspective it was fantastic to spend the day surrounded by a group of people who are passionate enough about the work they do and the public they serve to give up a Saturday and travel significant distances to share ideas and talk about the challenges they are overcoming. I took plenty from the four sessions I attended (blogs coming soon) and it was great to meet new people as well as those I already knew.

Last week saw the start of the formal process of the Graduate Scheme coming to an end. When I applied for this job I was excited by the hope of transformation that shone through the city’s rhetoric. That excitement has been dulled by the discovery that much of it was just words and the apparent lack of value or strategic thought given to our futures. However, it’s great to know that elsewhere in the region real value is placed on innovation and that there’s a real ambition to transform public services.

An event like #lgcyh fits snugly with the excellent parts of the Graduate Scheme. Our flitting from service to service has offered a wide experience of local government. Our studying in Birmingham has exposed us to new ideas and encouraged us to explore innovation on an equal footing to men and women with varied experience and varied responsibility. Saturday was an opportunity for the story of local government to be told from a variety of angles and provide a fertile environment for new ideas. It was inspiring, exciting and challenging.

Huge thanks to Ken Eastwood, Kev Campbell-Wright and Melanie Reed who were the ringleaders in organising the day and kudos too to the National Railway Museum which was a cracking venue and put on a good spread (I judge most things on the quality of the cake).

Picture credits:
‘The Programme’ by London Looks (@ingridk)

Listening to the interwebs

The other day I saw a tweet that pointed me towards @SavvyCitizens and their Top Ten online resources for getting savvier ahead of the general election. It really is a top list of resources and all but one of them are fully featured, for free.

Council Monitor is the one that you have to pay for to get all its features. Now, for a basic ability to look around the country and see your council’s sentiment rating or look at how it compares to others this is excellent. It can give you at a glance that sort of information. However, to find out anything more you need to pay. And, for me, the costs they’re suggesting make this a little bit more than just Freemium.

The basic subscription of £99 a month gives you insight into your own organisation and allows you to actually see the mentions being made about you. For an extra £100 a month you can add 5 keywords and for the princely sum of £299 a month you can have up to 10. And they’re the special introductory prices.

OK so that’s only about £1,200 a year and no more than £4,000 tops, so what’s the big deal? After all that’s nothing for organisations with budgets in the multi-millions. But it’s this seemingly common attitude to the pennies leaves me thinking that it’s no wonder we have a problem with the pounds. So, perhaps what will follow is not worth your effort but I end up feeling a bit disappointed that we’d rather end up paying for a service than shaping the tools that are out there ourselves*.

Council Monitor is an aggregator of content that can be found ‘out there’ but happens to be housed within a shiny package that allows for comparison across the national picture. I have nothing at all against the shiny but what is most important is actually hearing what is being said, listening to it and then responding. It’s gratifying to know that ours is the council with the most positive mentions in the country but it’s not what’s important.

What’s important is recognising that people are saying things and we need to hear them because our service delivery can be improved by responding to the comments being offered in cyberspace. Not in a terrifying Big Brotheresque fashion but in the way that we’re coming to expect of organisations and companies that are important to us. The way that sees a need and then fills it or hears a criticism and fixes it so that not only are people valued for their contribution but the next person benefits from such a proactive response.

So, on that basis it’s content which is key. It’s not the overview of sentiment, which can be picked up for free but it’s the actual information itself, the stuff that sets you back £99 a month for a single keyword that an organisation wants to hear. Set against Radian6 or one of the other very impressive, and fairly expensive reputation management/social media monitoring services that seems good value.

But we don’t have the budget even for the good value. Dave Briggs flagged up this list of Social Media Monitoring resources which are free and sometimes have similarly shiny interfaces. But we’ve been thinking about how we make something that we can control and that which can pull a variety of different sources into one place. It is still in a prototype stage but the idea of doing something ourselves, whilst it might seem daunting, may actually be preferable.
But first, 2 caveats, and 3 tools:
  • These are not pretty solutions
  • There is a lot of potential to improve them
  • A variety of search engines
  • Yahoo Pipes
  • Netvibes


There is an impressive array of tools with which to interrogate the internet. We identified the following 15 services as being useful for different reasons but it is by no means exhaustive.



Almost all of these use APIs to enable the interrogation of their results from afar. What this means is that we can enter a search term away from the site in question and get a response directly to us or as part of an RSS feed or into an email or a widget.

In order to do this I use Yahoo Pipes. Now, I’ve blogged here and here about how to do this for wildly different purposes and I like Yahoo Pipes. It is certainly quite daunting to begin with and it can be quite temperamental but on the whole it is a very clever environment in which to build tools that can search for information, connect it together and then filter it as necessary. We’ve used it to make pipes for the search engines listed above.

So, using that lovely technology we’ve put together a pipe that looks at SocialMention, and, crucially, for the point I’m hoping to make, it does return sentiment too. At the moment it is pulling two pipes – the Social Mention search and the Sentiment tracker into one.

If it doesn’t work in the page then take a look at one of the following:

SocialMention (all mentions)

SocialMention (sentiment)

SocialMention (mentions and sentiment)

We’ve got pipes for all the search engines we listed above and had wanted to make a single feed from these individual elements but find Pipes cannot cope with this although, if we had there was a recognition of what we could do and a commitment to resourcing it I think we could probably identify some other solutions too. And the beauty of it? Once you have it set up outputting for one search term you can set up more using the same infrastructure (if you want it all lumped together it will accept multiple search terms separated by commas).

We have a dump of all our pipes onto one page. Some of them do not contribute anything to us and will be rooted out; some of them duplicate content and that may mean those two feeds could be merged into one; and being a public page makes tracking and storing activity impossible. In practice this would be a private page accessible to whoever has the responsibility to keep track of the content that had been seen and/or dismissed and that which was still of interest or had not yet been looked at. The Comms & Marketing team are going to be testing it out and exploring how best to use the information and how to process it for the benefit of the organisation.

It is true that we might not be getting the same results as Council Monitor and we might not be able to gauge sentiment elsewhere (although with the right commitment to developing this we could certainly get there). It’s also true that we can’t get trends but that’s just a metric that means nothing if we’re not hearing or responding to the people who are talking about, or to, us.

We’re exploring how we make this better and more useable. I’m moving placements but I’ll look to blog through the technical aspects of making these things happen so that you can make your own sentiment monitoring tools. But, in the meantime, feel free to test ours and see whether they’re useful as an alternative to spending money.


*I feel the same about GovDelivery. What they offer is much more technical and would require more effort to duplicate but, nevertheless, it is essentially publishing content in ways that would not be difficult to fashion yourselves. At least that’s my take on it.