A while ago I blogged on Computers may rule but we still need people.

It was a short post responding to a statement by an IT whizz that

We are at a very interesting point in terms of the products we can make…Anything we can imagine we can build, we are no longer really limited by the technology

I listed some of the things that a supposed new computer might do including

strok[ing] the hand of an elderly dying woman in a council care home and assur[ing] her that her absent daughter loves her.

but what I was really saying was that these were some of the fantastic things our public sector staff do and a machine could never replace.

Today the wonderful world of the web brings me news of engineer-artist Dan Chen’s idea for an End Of Life Care Machine –

Watch it with grim horror.  I’m sure Dan’s making an ironic point about the care of the dying in society, but you never know…

Thanks to FastCompany for alerting me to this.

I don’t normally do commercials on this blog – except for myself of course.  But this is one such.

Scots and those quick off the mark for a Ryanair or easyJet flight from points south (no that’s not the commercial, other airlines are available – BA, bmi, FlyBe or, if you’ve got the price of a small mortgage, Eastern Airways) should get themselves to the wonderful city of Aberdeen, on which the sun always shines in September, for ScotGovCamp on the 24th.

I’m hacked off I can’t manage it (family commitments) because I went to last year’s event and thought it was great.  So great I blogged about it (where you can see what a govcamp is if the idea’s new to you).

Since ScotGovCamp 2010 I’ve discovered a lot in the world of government and social media.

  • I know in some detail what’s happening in Syria because of the brave souls there who get video clips out showing their government’s repression
  • I followed the good, the bad and the ugly of the English riots including the wonderful #riotwombles who were on the streets with brushes and shovels the day after cleaning up their communities
  • I suddenly realised that police forces (mostly in England it has to be said) are waaaay ahead of most of the rest of the public sector in using social media.  If you don’t believe me check out @hotelalpha9 (including his anti-grafitti video on YouTube – he’s apparently just nabbed his suspect), and our own @DCCTayside
  • I started following an increasing number of council chief executives who Tweet (again, mostly if not wholly English – where are you Scottish CEs?).

On the other hand

  • Where are the innovative Scottish public sector apps for all those ipads, androids and other fancy stuff my kids can’t live without?
  • Why does the oh-so-dire UK government DirectGov web site still stagger on, notwithstanding the best efforts of Martha Lane Fox et al?
  • Why does the home page of my local council web site under the heading Self-service access invite me to “Book it” and for community use of schools then takes me (today) to a page that tells me no public applications will issued (sic) nor accepted until 2 May 2011 and allows no online booking.  Misleading or what?  Grrr!

So ScotGovCamp’s got plenty to get to grips with.  You can book online (it’s free) here.  Do it.  And enjoy!

Well done UK council chief executives.

They’re having a summit in October to think about the future of the important services local authorities provide.  Their debate will be structured around five propositions you can find on the web site they’ve set up to prepare for the event.

One thing they didn’t anticipate (who did?) will surely inform their deliberations – the “riots”.

I was pondering this as I checked out their site and in particular their

Proposition 4 Public services in a networked world

Although they can’t have intended it, this is absolutely central to what happened in England (media, Twitterers, politicians, foreign commentators et al please note – England, and even then only parts of England, not UK).

Spurred by this thought I dropped a note on the web site concerned.  Being of an economical and sustainable cast of mind I thought an expanded version might have a wider interest.

My thoughts started with something I’ve already looked at on this blog – the performance of the UK government Directgov portal during the disturbances.  That led me to thinking about social media and four distinct groups.

Central government itself

Given my other blog post it probably needs least comment of all here.  My characterisation of it to the chief execs was

An apparent social media paralysis…Directgov, their web portal, and its Twitter feed remained supine over the first few days of the riots

Local authorities

My own trawls did not reveal any hugely systematic or proactive use of the web and social media by councils, councillors or council chief executives.  Was I reading the wrong sources (let me know)?  I found three honourable exceptions.

The leader of Lambeth council was out and about in Brixton the morning after their disturbance and blogged about what he saw.  It had the smack of authenticity about it rather than the dead hand of PR

I was astonished to find Ms Cupcake, owner of a bakery on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, out in Brixton this morning handing out brightly-coloured iced cakes. She told me this was no day to sell cakes, and she wanted to show the world the true face of Brixton –smiling, generous, and big-hearted.

The chief executive of Haringey wrote for his peers about his experience on the SOLACE web site and the Guardian’s Public leaders network gave it a wider audience.  A thoughtful piece that concluded

I would love to close with some coherent thoughts on how we move on from this but as I reflect on the events of the last few days both here and across the country – reading the reports of the damage to our street maintenance depot which was attacked last night – I find myself like many others wondering how we got to this point.

I watched for council Tweets on the situation but few crossed my path amidst the thousands tumbling out, initially tagged #londonriots then #ukriots (but see comment on “UK” above).  An ironic exception was the prolific Twitterer Ruth Hyde @relhyde, chief executive of Broxtowe Borough Council.  Ironic because they’ve had no reported troubles.  But they’re next door to Nottingham which did and she’s been keeping her followers up to date, most recently with

Riots updates with Police and partners. Great communication from Notts police, Nothing yet reported in Broxtowe.

Note the praise given to the police.  She’s also been assiduous in re-tweeting their messages.  She gets the point in a way that many don’t – to the point, a conversational tone, up to date and frequent (but not excessive) Tweeting, informal and friendly.  A great example.  You feel there’s a real person there not the junior member of a comms team.  She deserves more followers (so get on over there and sign up) .

Rioters and would-be rioters

This is the group that’s had all the publicity.  Not only their use of social media including Twitter and Blackberry messaging to co-ordinate (co-ordinate probably pitches it too high) their activities but also their Tweets and videos showing the results.  So social media is immediately cast as the villian of the piece and bizarrely, for this particular business user, the Blackberry with its secure encrypted messaging in particular becomes a “problem”.

Community response

This for me has been the most inspiring use of social media in the current disturbances.  Just as baddies can use it to communicate so can goodies.  Hashtags like #riotcleanup and #riotwombles (love that) came out of nowhere and residents appeared on the streets almost instantly with brooms and dustpans to tidy up their own communities (although a big plus to many councils who were also mobilising their own resources for rapid clean ups).  And elsewhere in cyberspace you could hardly blink before people had web sites up gathering photos of probable looters (innocent until proven guilty of course) for identifying and reporting to the police.  This looked like the big society in action, although it has to be said without any credit due to the only begetter of the idea.

Which of these groups made most effective use of social media?  You’d have to say central government was pathetic, councils good in parts but, sadly, the baddies were expert.  The good news is that the positive community response was probably more expert (certainly more educated).

Nothing here about the police use (and monitoring, which we’ll probably never find out about in detail) of social media.  That’s another story and someone else will need to tell it.

For various reasons, I’ve been looking a bit harder at short message site Twitter recently.  Still not tweeting as much as I should but at least looking more.

I’d been trying to see whether a particular council has a presence on Twitter. They do but it wasn’t easy to find (their fault, not Twitter’s).

So I thought I’d just check to see what use UK councils generally make of Twitter.  One thing led to another and I’ve ended up writing  a short report on the subject.

What I found was illuminating, at least for me.

  • One local government officer holder has over 100,000 Twitter followers
  • Of the largest councils in the UK one doesn’t seem to have discovered Twitter at all
  • I found some great examples of effective Tweets, and some that definitely aren’t
  • Some councils need to change their culture if they’re going to use Twitter effectively.

You can access the report through my web site, where you can also find a summary of my conclusions and recommendations for councils.

PS – Twitter are generous with the use of their name and logo but it seems fair to point out that nothing I write about them here or in my report implies any endorsement by them of HelpGov Ltd or any link between us except that I am an enthusiastic user of their service

PPS – Oh, go on.  Why not follow me on Twitter @rogerlwhite?

They say timing is everything. 

The RSA (Royal Society of Arts) couldn’t have forecast a coalition government when they sponsored an enquiry by the 2020 Public Service Trust back in 2008 into

how our public services can respond to the significant challenges of the next decade.

The Trust brought together a fair wodge of the (mainly metropolitan) great and the good around public services.  Their final report was launched two days ago.  I watched the part of the live feed from a sunny Scotland that bandwidth and BT didn’t freeze for me.

Their conclusions in what for me is very much a curate’s egg of a report?

We’ve reached what they call a moment of discontinuity with major costs looming of meeting the needs of an elderly population and abolishing child poverty.  Public services as presently delivered can not deal with issues of inequality.  Many “social outcomes” of those services are still disappointing.  Public sector productivity has fallen over the last ten years.  The Beveridge model has served Britain well but 60 years on, a reassessment of public services is needed.

Their prescription, summarised, is a shift from public services as deliverer of social security, to a new culture of what they call social productivity:

a new deal between citizen, society and the state (that) rejects both old statist models of universal service delivery and the new public management models of consumerism.  Instead a new settlement for public services should be based on the principle of social citizenship.  As citizens we should have a duty to contribute as well as a right to receive support – responsibility and reciprocity are essential characteristics of a more resilient society.

They say, correctly, that some of this is already happening (it’s always been there) but needs to be encouraged.

For that we need shifts in culture, power, and finance.

They identify three requirements of those who make public policy (I use their language even though I don’t like it):

  1. open and honest engagement with citizens and the workforce about the scale of the challenge facing public services, and how to respond to this
  2. a clear strategy for building social capacity is needed
  3. local accountability should be encouraged so that reform has genuine local ownership and control.

Interestingly, and despite political devolution, there’s not one reference to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland even though their public policy makers, not Westminster’s, have the major influence over local services.

There’s some reasonable stuff here and those with a vested interest are already claiming the conclusions as their own – central government because of the Big Society (I wouldn’t be too sure if I were them) and local government because of the emphasis on local solutions (I definitely wouldn’t be too sure I were them).

But you need to get past some of the convoluted language (“We would welcome introduction of a measurement framework that captures broader measures of social value as a catalyst for social productivity”).  And despite the number of “commissioners” and the length of their deliberations some of the report veers towards what a former senior civil servant I know calls applehood and mother pie.

The big question for me is “How?”

The report doesn’t paint a practical picture of what public services might look like in 2020 and I find it difficult to visualise that.  And there is absolutely no reference to other countries.  Have we nothing to learn from New Zealand, the USA, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Japan or the BRIC countries?

Most of all, I’m sceptical of the ability of government to fundamentally change some of the characteristics  that seem to be hard-wired into our societal DNA.  And to achieve that in only ten years?…

This is about shoes (sort of) – but fashionistas needn’t get excited.

Tomas Bata

It’s about a man born in 1876 in Zlin in what was Austro-Hungary at the time whose family were shoemakers – Tomas Bata.

In 1894 he started a company to produce shoes on a more modern basis than the old craft of the traditional cobbler. The company still exists as the Bata Shoe Organization, headquartered in Toronto, and does business in five continents.

I first became aware of Bata Shoes when I lived in pre-independence Singapore.  Strange that a mere lad should remember that but they had very clean, modern (for their time) shops and my parents were certainly aware of them from their earlier lives in the UK.

Fast forward many years and it’s only a relatively short time ago that I became conscious of Tomas Bata for another reason.  In an earlier blog on Some Random Quotes I listed one of his sayings:

Do not pursue money. He who pursues money will never achieve it. Serve! If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money

It was an intriguing quote to stumble across at random and led me to hunt around to find out more.

It turned out that Bata was a pioneer in many things, for example

  • customer focus – he said “the customer is our master”
  • control of the supply chain to ensure quality and efficiency (at one stage Bata not only owned its shoe shops but controlled the source of its raw materials, and made and distributed the shoes – and much more)
  • he understood what is still for many the perverse relationship between improving conditions and pay for workers in order to lower costs, and even
  • town planning – through the development of modern company towns to house his workers as well as locate his factories (there is an interesting example in East Tilbury in the UK).

Something he said to his workers is worth quoting in full:

…the chances to multiply wealth are unlimited. All people can become rich. There is an error in our understandings – that all people cannot become equally rich. Wealth can not exist where the people are busy with mutual cheating, have no time for creating values and wealth. It is remarkable that we can find the greatest number of wealthy tradesmen and a population on a high standard of living in countries with a high level of business morality. On the other hand, we can find poor tradesmen and entrepreneurs and an impoverished population in countries with a low standard of business morality. This is natural because these people concentrate on cheating one another instead of trying to create value.

We are granting you the profit share not because we feel a need to give money to the people just out of the goodness of the heart. No, we are aiming at other goals by this step. By this measure we want to reach a further decrease of production costs. We want to reach the situation that the shoes are cheaper and workers earn even more. We think that our products are still too expensive and worker’s salary too low (Zdenek Rybka: Principles of the Bata Management System)

Well, the rhetoric may seem grandiloquent now and the run of the mill shoe is an un-glamorous item we take for granted. But when Bata began his business, even in Europe many children went bare-footed.

I can think of no single UK business person who combines the qualities of the man – perhaps the 19th century Quaker confectioners, or John Spedan Lewis the founder of the eponymous John Lewis Partnership (another lesser known hero of improvement? – we shall see). But it was the combination of beliefs and actions that seem to me to make Bata unique for his era.

If I revert to my interest in lean or systems thinking for work it sometimes feels that there is a single great river where tributaries join to form one approach. Certainly there are zealots who will claim there is only one way and it is the philosophy of guru x or teacher y. Yet as Bata shows there are other separate rivers that never seem to join the mainstream.

Bata died tragically in an air crash in 1932 when he was 56.

Interestingly, one of the great modern thinkers in this whole area, Myron Tribus, who is often associated with the Deming approach, wrote a fascinating paper about Bata almost 70 years later in 2001 – Tribus on Bata. Well worth study and explains Bata’s significance much better than I can convey.

I struggle with innovation. 

On the one hand I read that the characteristics of innovation are: 

  • it often happens at the margins (of groups, organisations, societies)
  • innovators are often members of the “awkward squad” (various versions of the invention of Post-It notes are often cited)
  • innovations usually start small and take time to gain traction
  • innovators characteristically do not give up – for years .

 In other words, maybe not a lot there you can control or predict.

 On the other hand there’s a whole industry around public service innovation with government departments devoted to it, quangoes promoting it, reports analysing it, even auditors urging public bodies to adopt an “efficiency, innovation and improvement strategy”.

 Then along comes the wonderful web with a random tweet from davebriggs

 Good read from @craigthomler on innovation in government http://icio.us/tfcfsl  

Thanks Dave, it was good.  But more to the point, with a few clicks it led me via Australia back to the UK and the worldwide perspective of The Open Book of Social Innovation by Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice and Geoff Mulgan.  For once the content justifies the claim in the foreword:

The Open Book presents a varied, vibrant picture of social innovation in practice and demonstrates the vitality of this rapidly emerging economy. It is fantastically rich, and demonstrates the diversity of initiatives being led by entrepreneurs and campaigners, organizations and movements worldwide.

 My advice –go read.

 PS – I’d love to add the Open Book to my reading list on my LinkedIn profile but it’s an app by Amazon and since they don’t sell it I can’t.  But no need to buy – it’s online.