Monday, 20 June 2011

A victory for transparency...and a warning for public sector procurement?

"Organisations tend to be less stupid when they know the public can see how stupid they are." - Nick Booth, Podnosh

Four years ago I was part of an HMG team trying to persuade 43,000 UK public sector organisations to save vast sums of money through buying collaboratively.   Our crusade wasn't exactly an enormous success: simply because back in 2007 saving money wasn't even in the top fifty list of Government priorities. A less sexy agenda it's hard to imagine: back then, noone really gave a fig how money was being spent in the nooks and crannies of the wider public sector: not the media, nor the public, nor local authorities and nor even, frankly, our own Treasury ministers.

Fast forward four years past the financial crisis, the MPs expenses scandal, a general election and Eric Pickles.  Saving money  - or at least, spending money responsibly and accountably - is now top of everyone's agenda. And with the help of the Coalition Government's transparency and open data policy and the huge power of new social media tools and platforms, it has never been easier for the curious or the crusading to find out how much is being spent, and what on.   Today, an ordinary member of the public probably has access to more and better spend information than a senior civil servant sitting in the Office of Government Commerce would have done just a year or two ago.

Whether or not this new transparency is a good thing, however, all depends on who you are and what kind of procurement crimes you may have committed in the last few years.  

As the London Borough of Barnet Council recently discovered...when a group of dogged local "citizen" bloggers managed to unearth evidence  - through FOI requests and Companies House searches - of Barnet Council's rather dodgy "relationship" with a security firm called MetPro (now out of business).  Last week the findings of an internal audit were announced:  including the troubling revelation that the council had spent £1.3 million with MetPro with no tendering exercise, no written contract or SLA, no formal authorisation, no proper invoicing... thus violating just about every CPR that Barnet had.  

Cue some serious questions about Barnet's finance, audit and procurement processes, and some serious embarrassment for the cabinet and senior officers of this so-called "flagship council: especially so given Barnet is one of the councils planning mass outsourcing of services imminently. 

My hunch is that there are two reasons this happened. One, Barnet's service teams and procurement teams aren't talking to each other.  Two, Barnet's procurement team made classic mistakes that could easily have been avoided with a proper central contracts register (which Barnet doesn't have) and some basic supplier intelligence homework (which many local authorities skip through "lack of time"). Barnet didn't do even the most basic of checks before engaging MetPro: financial, criminal, health and safety, nada.  Noone ever picked up that services procured locally with 3 different MetPro trading names were actually all with the same vendor. And corporate procurement only kept a list of the top ten vendor names by spend for each category, not all vendors over tender limits

In the bigger picture, however, this is a wake up call for procurement everywhere. Organisations need to be constantly vigilant that their procurement processess are both A) appropriate and B) being followed - because if they are not, someone else is going to point it out for them, potentially causing huge damage to corporate, political and personal reputations.  There are many communities of developers and digital activists making huge progress cleaning, sorting and making sense of the spend data tsunami coming out of central and local government: such as LinkedGov and Openly Local . For journalists (whether professional or citizen), this stuff is a hundred Christmases come at once. Ominously for Barnet,  the call has already gone out via Twitter for more developers, researchers and digital campaigners to help examine the rest of the council's spending to see if there are any more MetPros on the books.

And just in case you're reading this blog from an ivory tower in the private sector, thanking your lucky stars no FOI requests will be coming your way, think again.  As outsourcing of public services accelerates, the Government is clearly hoping that greater transparency will protect the public against poor value, ill thought through contracts with private sector firms (PFI, anyone?) It is only a matter of time (one more Southern Cross?) before transparency requirements are extended in some shape or form to private firms which provide public services.

PS The final irony of the Barnet case is that one of the duties MetPro performed for Barnet was secretly (or so they thought) filming residents who attended council meetings, and monitoring the blogs of those who wrote about them.  If MetPro had not been as inept and Keystone Cop-pish in their efforts as Barnet were in commissioning them, this particular procurement crime might never have come to light.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

How many years of your life have you wasted....

... on boring, mostly useless awaydays, conferences and management team retreats?

Be honest.

Over the years I've been to a fair few. Whether it's a concrete Hilton in Baltimore or a country house hotel in Bath: whether we're sitting on beanbags in a wacky Clerkenwell "design space", old tyres in a muddy field, or hard backed chairs in a windowless Helsinki basement, I feel like I've seen it all... and it's rarely much good.

Yes, some conferences are lavish.  One of my former employers hired out the whole of Beijing's Forbidden City for a conference closing party for its top 400 global managers. Cost millions.  Another time, we ended up down a salt mine in Krakow.

Some are impressive merely by who else is present. I've never been to Davos, but I imagine when you've paid $150,000 to attend, you're going to come home raving about it whether or not you shared a ski lift with Angelina Jolie.

But for me, all these fancy trimmings are just sugar to help some seriously nasty conference medicine go down.
Is there a universal rule that the bigger the title the keynote speaker has, the duller his or her speech will be?
Or that you must get yourself stuck in plenary sessions dominated by sponsors' agenda, not your agenda? Or trapped in a neverending panel session that bears no resemblance to the topic advertised, where audience questions are taken in threes so they don't have to be answered properly?
Or worst of all, get involved in a brainstorm where lots of good intentions and ideas are generated that everyone knows will never make it out of the break-out room?

 There's something both inspiring and depressing about being asked to organise an internal conference or awayday. You start with a blank sheet of paper, full of possibility and potential.  Then before you know it, you've got an agenda of information-heavy powerpoint presentations that are "vital" for various, mainly political, reasons and you're wondering how you're going to fit in time to let the attendees go to the loo.

Or at least, all that was what I thought it had to be before I came across the "Unconference".

Unconferences take everything you thought you knew about conferences and turn it on its head.

1) The object of an unconference is not to make money. They are cheap to organise and even cheaper to attend. The most I've ever paid to attend one is £5. Many are free.  There are no money-spinning exhibition halls. There may be a few sponsors to help pay for the room hire, but they keep a low profile: definitely no overt selling or hogging of agendas.

2) Due to 1), they usually aren't in glamorous occasions. Less Honolulu, more Birmingham. A students' union building out of term time, not a five star hotel.

3) Due to 1), there are no glossy delegate packs or goody bags.  Registration at an unconference consists of handing over your fiver and writing your name and Twitter name on a sticker. If they've found an extra sponsor, you may also get a raffle ticket that doubles as a beer token.

4) Most importantly of all, there's rarely an agenda. And there are NEVER any keynote speakers or plenary sessions.  Usually what happens is this:

The unconference leaders invite everyone to gather around - standing up, ideally - and introduce themselves.  Name, where you're from, and the answer to a random question like "what word best summarises you or why you're here?" (Last week I went to an Unconference where 120 people took less than half an hour total to introduce themselves. The week before I went to a conventional leadership retreat where 30 people took more than an hour to introduce themselves....)

Then come the session pitches.  Attendees take it in turns to go to the front and pitch an idea for a 40 minute session they'd like to lead.  Unless the rest of the attendees *really* don't like the idea (last week a man pitching something about Sharepoint, for example, got soundly booed), the session idea gets written onto a post it and stuck on a white board.

Once the crowd has run out of ideas, the Unconference leaders take a few minutes to sort the ideas out into a schedule for the day for each of the available meeting rooms.  Pitchers who've suggested similiar ideas may be asked to share a session, and if the Unconference leaders are sensible they'll make sure that sessions on similar themes won't be scheduled at the same time.  Once that's done, there's some brief chaos as attendees study the whiteboard and scribble down times and locations of the sessions they're interested in, and the Unconference is properly underway.

One other great characteristic of an Unconference is that attendees are encouraged to vote with their feet. If you find yourself in a session that turns out to be less than relevant or interesting, it's entirely OK to leave and find another more up your street. And knowing that, most session leaders try very hard to keep things entertaining.  Audience interaction is strongly encouraged: most Unconference sessions turn into an open discussion in which anyone can venture an opinion, ask a question,  share a story or offer a solution. 

Traditional Powerpoint presentations are almost unheard of, although screenshots are sometimes shown on a big screen, or websites mentioned in the discussion will be brought up.  Social media plays a big part too: some in the room will invariably be sending tweets with the session hashtag - allowing people who can't be in the room to join in the conversation.  Others might be liveblogging or livestreaming: literally recording the highlights and learnings of the discussion as it happens, so there's no danger of anything being lost.

It's hard to convey the experience of an Unconference until you've tried one.  They leave you feeling inspired, informed, engaged, and better connected.  Try one for yourself and see.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

If you build it, they won't necessarily come

I’ve been meaning for a while to write something on a subject dear to all procurement managers’ hearts:  how to use the wonders of social media to exchange gossip – sorry, valuable market and supplier intelligence – with peers and colleagues in reasonable privacy and security.
And I still am planning to write about that – it’s just going to have to wait for next time.  Because this week I want to pick up on Steve Hall’s recent Procurement Leaders blog, in which he got straight to it and argued that social media isn’t catching on in Procurementsville because it’s pretty useless to non-marketers.
Now, I don’t blame the more hardened cynical brethren among you in the procurement jury for being… well, cynical about social media.  It’s new, young people like doing it, and it’s on TV all the time.  Sounds dodgy already.
But let’s look at Steve’s case for the prosecution, which is:
a) a witness (a friend who apparently knows a lot about social media) who has tried several new tools and then stopped using them after a couple of weeks because they don’t generate enough value.
b) a claim that suppliers and buyers already have adequate tools to communicate – social media doesn’t offer anything new
c) an argument that social media ROI is too hard to calculate unless it’s directly linked to sales
d) the concern that social media isn’t interesting or powerful unless it’s open to all-comers (which would make closed loop or internal-only tools pretty pointless)
(Is that a fair summary, m’lud?)
First off, the defence is quite worried about Steve’s witness – his social media friend.  You MUST have a strategy before you rush off adopting any tools.  What (and whose) problem are you trying to address? Is social media the answer to the problem? Then decide which tool would be the best solution. And finally – what’s your implementation plan? Who will participate? Do you need a facilitator, manager or moderator? How will you sell it in? What management support/internal policy do you need to encourage participation? How can you integrate it with offline and face-to-face communications? Is training required?
Without any of this, I am not altogether surprised that Steve’s friend had a rather lonely and unsatisfying experience trying out some of his new playthings.  Social media is by its nature social – you need other people to come and play. And two weeks is not nearly long enough to lure sufficient people to play with you to make it interesting – let alone to know whether it’s going to be useful.
Secondly, I am far from being sure that suppliers and buyers already have adequate tools to communicate.  Just ask any supplier who’s wrestled with entering data into a screwed-up  (insert name of most hated software here) RFP template whose fields are completely inappropriate for his industry at 11pm the night before submission deadline.  Or a buyer sick of answering the same questions about the screwed up RFP template 12 times from 12 different bidders.
Or a buyer in one small part of the public sector who has no way of knowing whether anyone else in the public sector is experiencing the same problems with sourcing an item/dealing with supplier X/adapting that template.   Social media tools can offer solutions to all these common problems and more.
And how do you know if it’s working?  You’ll know.  But if you need to prove it, which often you do, ask.  Collect feedback through the social media channels themselves. Add a question to 360° CAFs and feedback surveys on communication, information accessibility and relationship quality: has it improved since the introduction of social media tools?  Look at the data, too: sign up and participation rates, both to the tools themselves and also to the initiatives, meetings, conferences, collaborative deals, white papers they promote and develop.
And there, because this is only a blog for the defence, my case must rest for now.  I’d love to know what you, the jury think.
(Some will notice I haven’t tackled Steve’s final point: can and should social media ever be private? I’ll be addressing that in my next post, I promise.)

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Faddish CEOs and hulahooping apps: how procurement can dodge common social media bullets

BAM!   A BA Highlife magazine lands on your keyboard.  You eye it warily…it’s rather dog-eared and you don’t even want to think about whose sticky, germ-ridden in flight fingers have handled it for the whole month of February….

“I was reading about this social media stuff on the plane back from Belarus/Brussels/Bogota,” says your Highlife-lobbing CEO over her shoulder, as she heads into her office in a whirl of Burberry trench coat and cabin baggage.

“ Tweeting.  Yammering.  Or is it Hullabalooing?  Anyway… it seems to be huge. What are we doing about it?  And ‘apps’, for instance: it sounds like we should definitely have some of those.   Sort it out, would you, old chap – sounds like an IT sourcing one! ”

Your heart sinks.  As if you didn’t have enough on your plate already. You haven’t got a clue what yammering is, but you’re pretty certain it isn’t included in scope of your current exhaustive and exhausting negotiations with your biggest software provider.  You consider the odds that your boss will have forgotten all about hulahooping apps by the time your team has researched them and identified some potential suppliers… but you have a sneaking feeling that it’s just the sort of “innovative” thing she likes to mention in quarterly results calls ….

In just about any other category of spend, such a random, unstrategic nightmare would be unthinkable in a professional self-respecting organisation.   But when it comes to social media, this scenario is played out every day in corporate HQs across Europe.   An unholy mixture of media hype, peer-envy, panic and a huge dose of blind ignorance in the C-Suite can conspire to trigger investment in social media “initiatives” which never really catch on.   Eighteen months and significant sums of time, money and credibility expended later, it’s tempting for exasperated CIOs, CPOs and CMOs to mutter under their breaths, “Well it wasn’t MY idea…”

But it doesn’t have to be this way.    Don’t be discouraged by your apparent ignorance of social media. Regardless of whether you know what yammering is at the start of the process (see below if you are curious to find out!), insist that your organisation applies strategic, rigorous discipline to these decisions.  What business problem are we really trying to solve, and for whom?  What are the strategic options?  Is a social networking or social media approach one of them?  (Beware of social media agencies telling you that social media is always the answer – when you are a hammer, after all, everything looks like a nail).

What criteria will we use to evaluate these options?  And then – and only then – which social media tool/s might help us deliver, and how do we evaluate these?   This involves, very simply, a crystal clear understanding of the end user’s real needs and very firm discipline when it comes to value for money, total cost of ownership, ROI measurement and risk management: habits which should be second nature for any good procurement manager.   Do you really need to build or buy an expensive customised enterprise platform, when a Google product provides the same benefits instantly, more simply, more accessibly, and for free?

**Jargon guide**
Twitter:  free micro blogging service, open to all to “tweet” on it .  Extremely interactive and flexible: great for real time news, external and internal comms, customer service, feedback, research, content sharing.  Capability limited for highly confidential information exchanges.

Yammer:   micro blogging service designed for internal corporate use.   Offers more security than Twitter.   Freemium model (monthly fee per user charged for full service).

Audioboo (referred to by Peter Smith as “Hullabaloo”):   Mobile app and website which allows very easy recording, posting and sharing of audio files.  Freemium model.

App:  piece of software, often designed for a smartphone, which helps someone achieve a specific task, eg check-in for a flight or scan groceries to a list.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

It’s a revolution, Jim, but not as we know it; social media makes a difference

Last Friday evening,  I was at the gym, half watching CNN’s coverage of the Mubarak resignation, when a local pundit came on air tearfully to thank Mark Zuckerberg – founder of Facebook – for making the Egyptian revolution happen.

Other than our emotional Egyptian pundit, perhaps, no one else is arguing that social media was the cause of the deep public dissatisfaction in Egypt and Tunisia which ultimately forced their Presidents to step down.   (While Zuckerberg has never seemed the most modest of men, I suspect even he would feel a little sheepish about taking all the credit for that one.)  There is a little more debate over how far social media activity materially influenced the coverage of the uprisings in the traditional media such as newspapers, radio and TV…although as virtually all newspapers, radio and TV in north Africa and the Middle East are censored, and one could argue that the UK media is pretty irrelevant to the outcome, that seems a bit of a moot point.

But one thing is very clear about the last few weeks in Egypt and Tunisia.  Social media tools can play huge role in accelerating change.
-          We saw incredibly fast information sharing: real time casualty figures from streets and hospitals posted on Twitter, a set of Flickr photos showing minutes-old propaganda SMS messages sent by the Egyptian government, and hours- old YouTube video footage of the military clashing with protesters.
-          We also saw information reaching far more people.  While much was still shared by word of mouth on the streets of Tunisian and Egyptian cities, social media played a crucial role in keeping the people in remoter locations and overseas up to date on what was going on.   New stats from Chartbeat show that 71% of the huge traffic to Al Jazeera’s English language site immediately following Mubarak’s resignation announcement was coming from social media sites – the vast majority from Twitter.
-          We also saw networking and coordination taking place through social media.   Grass roots activists, who had never before met, found each other through Facebook and Twitter.  New leaders emerged, and demonstrations and protests began to be organised – far faster and more efficiently than if people had relied on leaflets, noticeboards, face to face meetings or even just phone calls and emails.
-          And it seems there was one final accelerating effect of social media during the protests: that of mobilizing ordinary people to act, by giving everyone a voice, making them feel informed and involved and crucially, not alone but part of something much bigger.

I wouldn’t presume to liken even the most burning corporate platform (no, not even Nokia’s) to the Tunisian or Egyptian regimes, nor the most radical internal change programme to the subsequent revolutions.  But it is impossible not to be inspired by the way we’ve all seen social media tools help to bring about previously unthinkable change so quickly, simply and cheaply.   Could it do the same in your organisation?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Social media – it’s here and it ain’t going anywhere

The man seated next to me, whose eyes were already wandering towards the buffet table even though the social media training session had only been in progress for six minutes, could contain himself no longer:

“No disrespect, but I work in PROCUREMENT!  I don’t have time for all this social media marketing nonsense,” he snapped.  “I couldn’t care less about the minutiae of teenagers’ tedious lives,  I’m quite sure they don’t want to hear about mine, and I certainly don’t want my team wasting company time on gimmicky fads – we’re hard pressed enough as it is.  Now can we please have a drink?”
“Rupert” (let’s call him), the man in question, was an intelligent, very successful head of procurement in his forties who’d had a long, tiring day and needed a beer.   I – a social media strategist – was trying to show him and his colleagues how social media can be used to help tackle real business challenges.   It wasn’t an ideal scenario.

“Rupert, I think I love you.” I replied. “You couldn’t have captured more perfectly in one sentence every myth going about social media if you’d tried.  Let me get you a cold beer, then let’s tackle these myths one by one.”

1)      Social media is all about connecting people who care about the same things that you do.  Yes, you work in procurement. But you also work for a company or organisation trying to achieve complex goals in an increasingly interconnected world, where information exchanges are now taking place through social media rather than newspapers, TV or even email.  The question should be: how can you afford to ignore or isolate your team from this critical information in a highly competitive marketplace?
2)      Social media isn’t a fad, and won’t disappear.  It is only going to become more prevalent.  Everyone your organisation recruits who is born after 1985 (known as “Millenials”), and all of your Millenial customers or service users, will have grown up with a socially-connected, digitally-oriented mind set and capability: it is as deeply ingrained as their first language.
3)      Social media is not about marketing.   Big consumer brands with big marketing budgets were among the early adopters of social media tools, networks and spaces, and still tend to grab all the headlines. But social media has a huge amount to offer disciplines like procurement in terms of more effective, more cost- and time- efficient collaboration, communication, creativity, customer service, market and supplier research.
4)      Social media ≠ “wasting time on Facebook”.   Yes, Facebook has half a billion users.  But there are many other more useful and appropriate networks and social tools that you’d probably choose ahead of Facebook to help you serve your internal customers in remote locations better, for example, or to pre-qualify potential suppliers.

PS: I’m happy to report that with a beer in his hand, and reassurance that no one was asking him to post photos of his last stag ski trip to St Anton on the company intranet, Rupert was a lot more receptive to hearing about how social media could help make his life easier.

This blog was originally written for and published on Spend Matters UK.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Yasmin was right

The first big Twitter story this week was the "Twitter Joke Trial": the failed appeal of @PauljChambers against his conviction for a tweet threatening to blow up Robin Hood airport.

Twitterati are up in arms about the #TwitterJokeTrial, arguing that it is an infringement of free speech. "So that's the banning of sarcasm, irony, sub-text and any of the other subtleties of language that we use AS GROWN UPS", said Dara O'Brien.  Thousands are now retweeting Chambers' original Twitter threat, with the hashtag #IamSpartacus in a show of solidarity.
Compare and contrast with the second big Twitter story of the week: a tweet following journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's appearance on a radio talk show:

The sender, a 38 year old Birmingham barrister and Conservative councillor, was arrested yesterday and has been bailed pending investigation. He has apologised for the indirect threat against Alibhai-Brown, claiming that it was an "ill conceived attempt at humour".  The case has not (yet) attracted the support of civil rights campaigners and celebrities as the Chambers case has done - probably because the liberal media feels rather less comfortable about taking sides against one of their own.  But thousands of blog comments and tweets are criticising Alibhai-Brown, saying she is humourless, should "chill out", and "get stoned".

Chambers didn't really intend to blow up Robin Hood Airport. In fact, on spotting Chambers' tweet at the time, even the airport didn't take his threat seriously.  It's unlikely Compton really wanted to stone Alibhai-Brown either, although she DID take it seriously enough to report it to the police, saying that she and her daughter felt genuinely threatened.

I think she was right to complain, for the wrong reason.

Every day, thousands of people round the country get away with making sexist, racist and homophobic remarks in pubs, in break rooms at work, at football matches, and increasingly, on internet forums.  Some make threats of violence against women, gays and other groups: on a football forum I used to belong to, one long-time member suggested that another rape his female friend. I've also seen and heard groups of fans at football matches chanting for away teams from North London to be sent to the gas chambers.

But just because they can get away with it, surrounded by their mates in difficult-to-police situations, doesn't make it right.  These kind of threats and insults, if allowed to go unchallenged, create a climate in which young, easily influenced people think it is socially acceptable to view women and other groups in a demeaning light, and that violence against them might also be OK, even condoned by their friends and associates.  When I complained about the incidents I mention above, I - like Alibhai-Brown - was also accused of lacking a sense of humour.  But since when has rape been funny? Or being stoned to death?  Or Jews being sent to the gas chambers?

Councillor Compton has been a bit unlucky that Alibhai-Brown complained - many targets of unpleasant tweets or Facebook flaming do not want hassle or confrontation.  He's also been incredibly stupid, as an elected official, to post such an inappropriate remark in such a public place. The Conservative Party will be furious that Compton has undermined the rehabilitation of its brand:  he will now inescapably go into the same bag as Philippa Stroud, to be fished out whenever someone wants to "prove" the Tories are still the nasty party.   But I am glad he has been copped.  Whether the free speech Twitterati like it or not, it will make most people think twice about making mindless, offensive and menacing threats to, or remarks about, others.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

 Ta- dah for the annual BCS MP Web awards - taking place, after a year long election hiatus, next month at the House of Commons.  Having (mind-bogglingly) reviewed every single MP's website, the team at the Chartered Institute of Technology have come up with a shortlist of 77 digital-political paragons.  These will be whittled down to the final list of winners by a panel consisting of Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail,  politics professor Rachel Gibson, Mark Say of Government Computing magazine and Matthew Windle of the UK Youth Parliament.   The judges say they are looking for sites which are not only navigable and accessible and ""use social media", but also "engage, excite, provide information" and "encourage two-way communication between MPs and their constituents".

My strong hunch is that this final criteria - "two-way communication" - will sort the men and women from the boys and girls.    Most MPs and councillors would be in favour of flying purple turtles if they would broadcast their name and mugshot for minimum effort and cost - and for that not-very-well-disguised-reason, many MPs have duly added Facebook bells and Flickr whistles to their web presence.  But even the most digitally-competent of our elected representatives have yet to get the message that social media is NOT just another broadcast channel to share pictures of themselves making a "royal visit" to the local school or hospital, or to boom out their strident opinions on Trident.

Social media is about having two-way conversations with people who care about the same things you do, in the (online) places where they spend time: an incredibly powerful idea with the potential to transform the very distant, opaque and slightly cynical relationship that most people have with their MP.  Sadly, for the vast majority of MPs, the prospect of opening doors to these conversations is still a  horrifying one, which is a great shame for themselves, their constituents, and democracy.   For that reason I hope this year's BCS winners won't be the usual suspect celebrity bloggers, but the band of brave and few MPs who are daring to engage genuinely with us online.

My own interactive MP favourites:
Andrea Leadsom MP and Charlie Elphicke MP: clean sites by Politics Web that showcase innovative chat maps

Grant Shapps MP and Barry Gardiner MP  very unusually for MPs, have discussion forums on their websites. Shapps has vastly more traffic - partly because he makes more effort with social media (one of most followed MPs on Twitter) but mainly because his forum is at the very centre of his site and it's focused on the local community.
Alec Shelbrooke MP combines blogging and polling nicely to invite feedback on specific bills before he debates and votes
Alison McGovern MP:  has a Twitter feed on her site, and crucially, uses it to invite opinion, not just broadcast it.
Kevin Brennan MP:  puts reader comments and tweets right at the centre of his homepage
Mark Reckless MP, who manages to regularly update a dazzling array of social media sites (blogger, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Flickr), although they could be better integrated

Lynn Featherstone MP and Damian Collins MP:  just for being lifestreamers, though there could be more evidence of reader interaction on their sites.
Finally: Mark Pritchard MP, whose website isnt remotely interactive but is the most incredibly regularly updated.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The secret diary of a new media dodger, by M.P. aged 44 and a half

Just come back from a fascinating few days as a fly on the wall (watching, listening and tweeting...) at a party conference.  I went to understand how digital and social media is currently being used in the democratic process; where the government and elected representatives still need to do more work to connect and engage with people: particularly Gen Y millenials (those born after 1980); and what all this could mean in the context of the "Big Society".

Among the most encouraging things was meeting a vanguard of really savvy MPs and Assembly Members, who've managed to fund and create imaginative, informative websites incorporating bang up to date social media tools.  Even better, they are personally generating regular blogs and tweets and responding to comments, giving all their voters a better opportunity to get to know and interact with their elected representatives.  (See these two great Tory and LibDem examples!)

There are also encouraging signs from central and local government leaders of a new attitude to consulting tax payers, service users and employeees: using digital crowdsourcing tools such as Delib (used for HMT's recent Spending Challenge) and Counter Context to gather and evaluate new ideas, rather than carrying out a prescriptive box ticking exercises.    I also heard many inspiring stories from councils, companies and charities using new media to engage and motivate young people in their communities - such as ITV's - and I think we'll see a lot more of this under the Big Society agenda.

More frustratingly are those MPs, MEPs and Councillors still stuck in the Stone Age:  either avoiding new media entirely or possibly worse still, regarding it as just another channel for broadcasting their name and opinions.  Expenses fallout is partly to blame, but is not a good enough excuse.  Greater transparency and visibility is the medicine to recover from that, not less.

Other excuses given by MPs during the week included:
the boring:  "I don't have time", "I have too many Blackberries",
the verbose:  "I can't say anything in less than 140 characters",
the narcississtic: "I won't start tweeting because if I stopped the media would demand to know why"
....and the disarmingly honest: "I'm afraid I'd get drunk and tweet something by accident".

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Will you be ready for the data tsunami?

Horribly early the other Saturday morning, I blearily Boris-biked through a completely deserted Fitzrovia to attend Opentech 2010.  It's a refreshingly low-budget (think £5 entry, write-your-own namebadge, one-microphone-between-seven ) low hype conference, which aims to connect various types of geeks interested in how to change the world through data and technology.

This year a big catalyst for discussion was the Coalition Agreement's pledge to create a public "right to data" .  This should be a massive step forward in transparency from the previous government's FOI legislation.  All kinds of public sector data: ranging from procurement contract details to service usage and performance data - should become available to the public for the first time over the next six months.  What's more, the government has promised that our data will be published in a way that will make it clean, comparable, linkable, and above all, useful.  At which point, an army of geeks, entrepreneurs and journalists will move in to analyse the data and ultimately, make money educating, entertaining and alarming the nation with the results.

That's the theory, anyway.

If we lived in France, possibly the most bureaucratic, systematic, hydromatic nation on the planet, this might not be such a challenge.  The French Government has been collecting metric tonnes of data in centrally prescribed, standardised format for years - although there is an equally consistent complete absence of any political will to disclose it.    But  - fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective - our public sector in the UK is a devolved, highly fragmented collection of organisations.    Just on the procurement front alone there are over 44,000 public sector organisations in England that buy things.  All of them record their spend differently, using different software, different formats, different categorisations, different levels of detail: even different names for the same supplier.

"If you build it, he will come"

The task of addressing the mind-bogglingly enormous problem of how to link all this data together has fallen to an admirable group of digital pioneers.  Presenting at Opentech on Saturday, John Sheridan and Jen Tennison of the Cabinet Office team explained their technical approach to cleaning up submitted data.   The team's hope, as with many of the other presentations at Opentech, is to encourage and inspire geeks to go forth and develop the APIs and applications that will help us all make sense of the gigantic data tsunami soon due to hit the UK.

And they will succeed.  That is to say, spend analysis is a multi million pound industry in the UK.  The same people who have historically made good livings from being given a council's own spend data and selling it back to them in a unique proprietary format have a very strong incentive to find new ways of making money from the right to data.  There are also true transparency champions like Chris Taggart (@countculture) whose site Openly Local already contains partial data from 158 local authorities, and  Hadley Beeman (@hadleybeeman) of LinkedGov.Org

What is of far greater concern - which I sincerely hope is being addressed very seriously by Cabinet Office and DCLG  - is collecting the data in the first place. Yes, data submission deadlines have been set by the Government  - autumn this year for most central government spend data, and January 2011 for local government.   But at present, these deadlines look  hopelessly optimistic.  Many PSOs don't even know themselves what they are buying, who they are buying it from, and how much they are paying - let alone be in a position to report it all to Francis Maude in correct standardised format by Thursday next please.  Small PSOs have never had the technical expertise, and post-Spending Review in November, no PSO will have the time or the resources to prioritise the difficult exercise of identifying, extracting and cleaning up data.

Most importantly - having worked with many local authorities, and regularly witnessed the trials of colleagues in OGC attempting to gather spend data,  I know how difficult it is to impose commands from the center onto the wider public sector.  Even an Eric Pickles shaped transparency stick cannot beat complete clean datasets out of a council if there is no serious will locally.  While PR and marketing has spectacularly fallen out of vogue under the Coalition, there's a very pressing case to direct whatever comms resources are available to selling this to devolved PSOs.  Councils need evidence that extra-organisational linked data can deliver local hard cash savings in order to commit fully - just as they are now beginning to recognise that extra-organisational collaborative procurement will also deliver cash savings.  In both cases, they want to see the gain for their pain.