Booklog: City on the Line and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

City on the Line – Andrew Kleine

Andrew Kleine is an unabashed government budget nerd. But that’s ok, in fact it’s what has made his book so good. In it he reflects on his time as Budget Director for the City of Baltimore, taking the city government on a journey from siloed budgets as usual to ones focussed on outcomes, on value delivered for the citizen all informed by staff and citizen involvement. The book combines an engaging memoir of his time in Baltimore, a crisp analysis of why public sector budget processes often founder and a very approachable guide on how to adopt outcomes based budgeting in your own public authority. I absolutely loved it and have bought a pile of copies for colleagues at Essex County Council. It’s a journey we’re committed to going on too.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo is a professional tidier from Japan – yes she gets paid to help people organise and tidy their homes and offices! She has become something of a phenomenon with her own Netflix series and a range of books. Kondo tells how even from a very early age she had a fascination with tidying and organising, how she tried every trick, gadget and gimmick to keep her home and school organised. Through trial and error she has developed a very different approach to the typical keep-tidy books. This approach, the ‘KonMari Method’, provides a route map to rethinking what relationship one wants to have with our stuff. This leads one down to having much less stuff in a way that is easy to keep organised. It works – I’ve found it very powerful and useful. Watching some of the videos available online and Netflix do help to bring her techniques more to life.

What I also found interesting was – incredibly – how similar the core of Kondo’s techniques were to Kleine’s outcomes based budget approach. How so? Both are absolutely clear that nothing else matters in what they write if one cannot agree a clear sense of what the outcome you are seeking to achieve is. Obvious perhaps, but hard and it’s far too often that work sets underway before that clarity on outcome is achieved.

Listenlog: More investigative podcasts to enjoy

I’ve started 2019 with a continued appetite for podcasts mostly featuring journalists exploring injustices and unsolved crimes. I’ve had more success finding great listens in this category than the others I’ve explored such as around health or government innovation.

Serial

I know I am very seriously late to the party on listening to Serial, but wow it’s good. All three seasons are different but gripping in their own ways. Season 1 explores the apparent murder of a Baltimore high school student by her recent ex-boyfriend who claims to have been wrongly accused. Season 2 is the remarkable tale of how a US soldier willingly left his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban and freed after 5 years in captivity – and now faces prosecution through the US military courts. Season 3 is harder to describe but essentially is a year following the justice system in Cleveland, really trying to understand all the players in the system and whether the system works as intended. It’s really good.

The Hurricane Tapes

BBC World Service sports reporters luck into some extraordinary tapes of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter talking to an author about his life. These lead them into a triple murder mystery which led Carter and another man to be imprisoned for nearly 20 years. The ensuing legal battles had Bob Dylan and Mohammed Ali campaigning for their freedom and even a movie of the trials with Denzel Washington. It’s a brilliantly produced series with cracking music. There’s also something really charming about the northern English burr of the presenter’s accent whilst interviewing New Jersey natives.

Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams & Finding Cleo

CBC do lots of excellent podcasts, as I’ve mentioned before. As a Canadian who, according to family legend has some indigenous blood, this series was particularly poignant. Each season covers the death of a young indigenous female, but also the shame of how Canada treated the indigenous communities more generally. They are gripping true-crime stories whilst deeply sensitive historical explorations of the horrors of forced adoptions, residential schools, violence against indigenous women, Police racism and more.

Other Peoples Problems

Another CBC podcast: Somewhat like Esther Perel’s series, this lets us listen in on real therapy sessions. However unlike Perel’s, where she doesn’t include her regular clients but specially selected couples who apply for the podcast series, here Vancouver therapist Hillary McBride has worked with her regular clients with their consent. It’s a fascinating series, particular because across the two seasons so far we get to follow the journeys of a number of her clients as they change and grow.

Listenlog: Investigative podcast recommendations

2018 has been the year I’ve really immersed myself in the world of podcasts. I think this has been driven by my desire to avoid hearing the news much as it’s all too frustrating!

Bear Brook

Four bodies are found in barrels in New Hampshire woodland. A public radio news reporter is asked to attend a police news conference about the cold case investigating those bodies and gets hooked on trying to find out more. Follow as he investigates this story which eventually leads to a serial killer, and the groundbreaking use of DNA in a method which is now changing how investigations are conducted the world over.

In the Dark

Both seasons of this superb investigative series from Minnesota public radio are gripping tales of loss and murder. The reporters go beyond ‘whodunnit’ to look at searing policy implications around how sheriffs and district attorneys in the USA have scant oversight, leaving the public with little recourse should they misbehave or be incompetent. 

Someone Knows Something

Each of the 5 seasons so far of this podcast series, from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, the public service broadcaster of Canada – bit like the BBC), is different but wonderful. Presenter David Ridgen has a long history of documentary work and investigations which we slowly learn more about over the episodes. He brings a degree of introspection and care to the podcasts which can be deeply moving, particularly as he works so closely with the families of victims. I can’t commend these highly enough.

“Hey Bulldog” – My first novel is out now

I’ve always enjoyed writing. I write much of the time, whether it’s opinion, fiction or non-fiction. What I’m writing and how varies greatly on mood, place and time.

I think it was around 2015 or early 2016 I started what became “Hey Bulldog”. I had been having a number of abortive attempts at novel-length fiction where I was trying to plan the story out in a detailed plot before getting started. As a method it wasn’t really inspiring me. I read  these three pieces on Lee Child’s writing method which encourage me to switch to a more iterative method. With this approach I tried to tap into my mood and the spirit of my thinking much more. I also had quite a bit of time as my wife was away in Poland helping to look after her sick father who sadly passed away in late 2016. So during that difficult period, once the kids were in bed, I had time to write.

After a few detours and sections being re-written I had a full draft complete in early 2017. There have been some further tweaks but essentially the book was done by then. I then spent quite a bit of time considering what to do with it: Was I comfortable publishing or should it stay my private hobby? Did I want to go with a publishing house, self-publish or do something else with it? I spoke to friends and distant cousins with involvement in the world of books and publishing to gain as much insight as possible.

After much deliberation I decided that while I did want to publish it, I didn’t want to go through a publishing house because I wanted to retain control – including over timing – and this is not my day job. I have huge admiration for full-time professional writers, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. I don’t think it’s something I could do, certainly not at this time in my life. So for me publishing is a way to share my work, learn about how it all works and get some feedback. It’s not a living. Still, I’m nervous and excited to being putting this work out there.

So what’s the book all about? Well it’s set in our present day world, and is narrated by a loner web developer. A guy who’s self-conscious, sexually frustrated and generally just trying to get by. His life isn’t very interesting but it’s not too bad either. He hasn’t quite figured out his place in the world, that’s for sure. He starts receiving some strange messages by unconventional means while he’s doing his work. These messages lead him on an international journey to find someone who may have been very important in his past. It’s a story about lost love, lust, growing up all mixed in with some international intrigue.

If you’re looking for authors it’s similar to, the best I’ve been able to come up with is that’s a mix of Henning Mankell’s socially aware thrillers and Haruki Murakami’s magic realism.

Official blurb is below, do let me know what you think. So far you can buy through the Amazon empire in paperback and Kindle ebook. I’m working hard to get it available through other sources too.

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A loner web developer stumbles across messages pleading for help in a system where nobody should have access…

Are the messages real or just from colleagues keen to make fun of the loner? As the narrator delves deeper into the source of the messages he finds himself pulled into learning more about his past than he could ever have imagined.

Hey Bulldog is the debut novel from Jason Kitcat, combining elements of social critique thrillers by Henning Mankell along with the more lyrical personal discovery of novels from greats such as Haruki Murakami. This original new novel brings together geopolitics, technology, personal discovery, lust and lost love into an engaging new story.

Available to buy now from Amazon as eBook and paperback (more outlets coming soon, promise!)

Listenlog: Some podcast recommendations

I’ve been on a bit of a podcast listening binge recently so wanted to share some of the best of the crop.

BBC Intrigue: The Ratline

Philippe Sands, a lawyer specialising in international law, presents this genuinely gripping series looking into the story of Otto Wachter – a senior Nazi responsible for the death of a significant part of Sands’ family.Wachter managed to escape justice at the end of the war before dying in hiding under mysterious circumstances. Not only fascinating in terms of the main story, the background of a world re-organising on new polarities post-war but also on how the children of Nazis cope with the sins of their fathers especially through the 80 year old sone of Wachter’s participation.

Esther Perel: Where should we begin?

Imagine this – one of the world’s most highly regarded relationship therapists lets you in to listen on her sessions with couples. That’s what you get with “Where should we begin?” Perel’s team have worked to bring together a fascinating array of couples who Perel expertly counsels. Even more compelling are the moments when Perel adds in her reflections and regrets on hearing the sessions over again. I was hooked and binge listened to both series on Apple Podcasts in a matter of days. There’s a third series just out, only on Audible, I’ve not yet listened to that.

Death in Ice Valley

I heard Alan Carr mention this on an interview with Jo Whiley and Simon Mayo. It was a completely chance moment as I almost never listen to Radio 2 nor Alan Carr! But something about how they described this podcast made me look it up. And I’m so glad I did. A joint production between the BBC and NRK (the Norwegian public service broadcaster) this investigates the mysterious death of a still un-identified woman discovered near Bergen, Norway in November 1970. I listened to this while on early morning holiday walks in sunny Cyprus, but the richness of the production transported me to a cold, rainy Norway every time. A really marvellous series – must listen.

The Assassination

The BBC World Service’s Owen Bennett-Jones takes us through the tumultuous story of Benazir Bhutto’s life, and violent death. Having been personally present through many of the key moments in Bhutto’s political life Bennett-Jones brings an energy to this series which is filled with a sense of his love for Pakistan mixed in with his despair at the many failings in its political and legal systems. Pretty much everyone covered in this series emerges as tarnished in some way – by corruption, failure to act, malevolence or plain incompetence. The violence surrounding the recent blasphemy case in Pakistan now makes more sense to me having listened to this series. This isn’t just a series trying to find out who killed Bhutto, and why; but also lifts the lid on how militants, the Taliban, Pakistani military, the US and others are all strangely interconnected.

Booklog: The myth of the strong leader

The myth of the strong leader – Archie Brown

On the fundamental argument of this book, I completely agree. In short, Brown’s core argument is that far too much emphasis is placed by the media and political analysts on ‘heroic leaders’ being the source of success and change for their parties and governments. Indeed their influence on election results and delivering change is far less than many think is perhaps the most compelling case made in the book’s opening chapters. Then sadly this thread is lost as the author gives us his potted histories and opinions on a number of world leaders of the last century or so. 

While I found some of these parts to have some interest from a historical perspective, and being well written, they undermine the book’s case by barely mentioning the teams of people that worked with the leaders reviewed. Also the book verges on becoming more of a trot through the 20th century’s geopolitics – as seen by the author – than a book on leadership.

With a third of the pages and a greater focus on the core argument this book would have been far more powerful. Too much time is spent reviewing leaders’ histories and a typology of leaders without doing the leg work of explaining how they were part of much wider teams and collaborations.

Migration complete

In recently wanting to make sure this site used https by default I had the long overdue realisation that I no longer have the time nor inclination to be worrying about my WordPress and server settings.

So I’ve migrated to WordPress.com (and a touch of Amazon S3 as it was easier to fix some broken links that way) pretty smoothly, I hope (touch wood etc).

The export and import process is very impressive capturing comments, users, posts and pages pretty much all without a hitch. So onwards and upwards.

I do want to acknowledge Futurequest who I have hosted with for almost exactly 17 years now. Without them this site but also the many sites I ran for businesses, schools and charities would never have been possible. They have always been a joy to work with – if you need great hosting I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Booklog: Scripts People Live and We Do Things Differently

Scripts People Live – Claude Steiner (2nd ed)

Wow. What a powerful, optimistic book. I wish I had had a chance to meet Claude Steiner as based on this, and his other books I’ve read, he was a humble and clear thinker pushing forward radical ideas. His obituaries give a hint of his impact. 

From some reviews and the introductory chapters one might be lulled into thinking that this is a theoretical work for practitioners, but it most certainly isn’t. It is in many respects a manifesto for helping oneself and others towards living a “good life” based on principles of honesty, equality and cooperation. 

Yes there is theory in there, and a range of common scripts people live, which are fascinating to explore in one’s own life context. But on finishing the book I felt they had just been the necessary building blocks for the concluding sections which argue powerfully for a harmonious way of living in our communities and how to raise children to ensure their autonomy, intuition and judgement. 

We Do Things Differently – Mark Stevenson

At the outset I worried this book could turn into an extended Wired magazine puff piece where a ‘heroic leader’ (nb that’s not a compliment in my lexicon) is going to solve a world problem with nothing but their charisma and amazing startup. There are moments in this book where it could go that way, but Stevenson is wise to such temptations. The book combines a travelogue, potted histories of major developments (e.g energy grids, industrialised agriculture), interviews with genuinely interesting people, new ideas and technologies along with inspirational projects which do give me hope for some of the intractable problems we face today.

Stevenson’s nifty wordsmithing and humility have crafted an uplifting book which manages to romp joyfully through the failings of drug trials by corporate pharma, crowd sourcing cures to TB, boosting rice yields organically, using air for power and cooling, local renewable power generation and storage, urban farming, participatory budgeting and schools reform. I finished the last page feeling uplifted and curious to learn more.

Booklog: Factfulness and Help

I’ve decided to make more effort reading non-fiction books and thought a booklog (a blog?!) would help me with that goal and also capture some key insights. So here goes…

Factfulness – Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

A wonderful romp through facts, data, the world as it really is and engaging personal tales of Hans Rosling’s extraordinary life understanding disease in Africa, influencing the rich and powerful whilst also creating the tools and teachings for a better world. 

As the book argues, it is humbling and relaxing to realise that things are getter better but there are still big problems. For understandable reasons the news and campaigners often try to make issues feel more urgent and troubling than they really are. One of the best and most important books I’ve read in a long time.

Help! – Oliver Burkeman

This book, being made up of Burkeman’s columns for the Guardian, reads a bit like a lots of intellectual snacks without ever getting to the main course. Which can feel unsatisfying given that he does touch upon some pretty deep issues around happiness and the meaning of life, but never pauses to explore any of the ideas he raises in anything more than column length. 

Each piece is well constructed – mixing humour, self reflection and a healthy skepticism to provide a solid quick dip into some major areas of life. But given that he had the space of a book, a little bit more exposition and depth would have been welcome. 

All the same I took some inspiration and ideas from it. I was encouraged to try writing a journal again. The section on prioritising was insightful – wherein he argues that there is probably no point having much more than a today and someday set of priorities. 

I also enjoyed the sections poking fun at self-help books which promise change in 28 days whilst also demanding immediate massive action. Burkeman advocates “radical moderation” and recognising that habits probably take more than 60 days to form. 

Essex County Council: One year on

A Chelmsford Sunset

This month marks a year since I joined Essex County Council. I feel so fortunate that Councillors and our CEO Gavin Jones took a chance on me, a recovering politician, to lead the County Council’s new Corporate Development function. Since being appointed I’ve moved the whole family from Brighton to Chelmsford, our third child has arrived into the world and I’ve learnt a fair bit of Essex geography.

So what have I been working on in the past year? Key things:

  • Restructured most of Corporate Development to focus on multi-disciplinary, agile working with professional guilds of practice, whilst delivering 30% savings;
  • Created an internal Service Design team backed by Full Council approving GDS service standards as core to our 4 year strategy;
  • Brought together Digital and Technology Services into a single new department with a dedicated director;
  • Gained agreement on a new strategy and pipeline of commercialisation work;
  • Launched redesigned web content for Adult social care;
  • Championing working in the open with our new blog platform.

It has been so energising to come in to work every day with so many people carrying the burning fire for change. I’m incredibly lucky that so many teams have such a breadth and depth of talent. They’ve kept the show on the road with lots of benefit delivered for the Council despite so much change all around them. But the progress hasn’t been all smooth nor as fast as I would have liked. Some reflections and challenges…

  • Procurement and contract management is still really hard – Yes GDS/CCS frameworks have made it so much easier for some stuff, but that doesn’t fix legacy contracts nor fields of work their frameworks don’t cover. Often the challenges are emblematic of insufficient risk appetite in the sector or excessive focus on reducing costs. These are hard cultural norms to shift.
  • Recruiting permanent staff is really, really hard – Yes, some of our processes and procedures within the council have room for improvement. But it’s also hard to get heard in the noise out there when we don’t have some of the sparkle and treasure others can offer. Standard recruitment campaigns for in-demand fields just don’t cut it.
  • The words ‘digital’ and ‘transformation’ are so overused in localgov that they now mean nothing. Language matters and we need to be very careful about what we say and what it is heard as meaning.
  • Legacy technology is painful. Obvious really, but the bigger and older the council the more of this stuff will be lying around. Bodges which got us through difficulties in the past become burdensome technical debt. Big suppliers with exciting visions, claiming to have done it all before, often become silent in the face of the custom spaghetti code of integrations which need upgrading and unpicking before the shiny new thing can land. Clean breaks are hard to achieve in a land of so many legacy systems and contracts. It’s a work in progress.

What next? Well just because structures have changed doesn’t mean all of our habits, practices and culture have followed suit so we’re doing lots of work around support, learning, coaching and development to ensure the new ways of working really embed.

We’re aiming to get a public beta for a new essex.gov.uk out in the next 12 months too, it’s critical to unlocking a lot of the service design thinking we want to support with colleagues across so many parts of the council.

Finally there’s huge amounts more thinking and work to do on integrating our our financial and business planning more closely. We also need to do more soon re-imagining our technology investment strategy and then re-aligning the teams in light of this. This stretches across fun like social care case management, ERP and more.

So lot’s more challenge and opportunity ahead!