Category Archives: notes from JK

“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.

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!

One Year On: Life after politics

In May 2015 I stood down from Brighton & Hove City Council. It had long been my plan to take a break from the council by this point. It was the end of my second term on the council, marking 8 years as a councillor and around 12 years active in local politics.

While I miss working with many of the wonderful people I got to meet working in local politics, I don’t regret my choice. I was ready for a change.

So what I have been doing for the last year? For starters I’ve been able to spend much more time with my family and finally watched all episodes of House of Cards!

In terms of work:

  • I have continued my work with the Local Government Association on supporting councillors and officers to do more thinking and doing around the power of digital for local government and local democracy. This also led to fruitful collaborations with the Department for Communities & Local Government, GeoPlace, TechUK, ADASS and the Leadership Centre. Sadly however in all cases serious permanent funding for local government digital transformation is still all too scarce. I fear sector-wide approach to local government digital transformation remains out of touch at the moment.
  • I worked on the incredible NHS Citizen programme with the Democratic Society and their partners. As a programme for NHS England aiming to enhance patient participation this was a hugely ambitious and worthy cause. We made some progress but I know vast potential remains to be tapped.
  • I also supported the wonderful team DemSoc on some of their other projects, my favourite being the online participatory budgeting work they have been doing for the Scottish Government and councils.

These have all been fantastic, engaging projects to work on. I can’t do them justice in a few bullets, check out the links for more info. Thank you to everyone who invited me to work with them over the last year.

Meanwhile serendipity has been hard at work. Back in February 2015 I was contacted through a mutual friend by the CEO of Crunch. This CEO, Darren Fell, wanted help with planning policy which was putting his fast-growing company’s office space at risk. He thought the Leader of the Council might be able to help.

Unfortunately there was little I could do since the Government had changed the rules around converting offices to residential at a national level. We had tried to seek an exemption for all the key office sites in the city but the Government had only granted a tiny sliver of what we had asked.

Still Darren and I kept talking long after I had explained this, and discovered we had much in common: A passion for how digital tools can transform business and services, common experience in running our own companies and a passion for improving public policy to benefit small and single-person companies.

We kept in touch and come May ’15 we began to collaborate on a campaign to raise awareness in Westminster of the impact the planned rise in dividend taxes would have on lower earning business owners. I blogged extensively about this over on the Crunch blog. This campaigning, combined with all the advice and guides Crunch already provided, was recently launched under the name Chorus. Chorus is a unique new business association exclusively for micro-businesses that is completely free to join.

As time went on I got more and more involved in the business of what Crunch does – which is making things as easy as possible for all types of micro-business whether they are freelancers, sole traders, contractors or small companies. So much so that at the start of this month I changed from being an occasional consultant to a full-time member of the Crunch team as Head of Policy & Public Affairs.

Crunch is a fantastic local company filled with passionate people all working to make a difference. I’m extremely lucky to be part of the Crunchie gang (insert KitKat chocolate-related jokes  here) and can’t wait to show you what we’re working on next. Watch this space!

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year. How about you?

Culture, values and accountability: Are network aggregators like Airbnb and Uber really just a middle-man?

The media is ablaze with analysis with what sites like Airbnb, Uber and others mean for the future of work, our economies and local government mandates over regulated services like hotels and taxis[1. Good recent  posts on this include those by Tim O’ReillyLauren Smiley, Matt Buchanan.].

Lots of businesses are now being pitched as the ‘Uber for x’ or ‘Airbnb for y’. The sort of network aggregation model they offer is becoming a dominant mental model for many discussions on digital transformation at the moment. So I think it’s worth some further consideration because I don’t think this model in practice is quite as clear-cut as some suggest, though it certainly is disruptive.

In essence the thinking goes that network aggregators are simply making the market more efficient. They connect customers with providers more efficiently than ever before. They lower barriers to entry so that underused resources (homes, cars, drivers etc) can access the market to generate revenue whilst meeting consumer demand. Quite simply the thinking I’m seeing expressed is that they (network aggregators) are like the travel agent matching a holiday package with the customer’s budget and desires with underused airplanes and hotels lowering their prices to attract more demand – but now individuals are the providers using their own cars, homes and time.

Airbnb and Uber often say that they just are making connections between buyers and sellers. They argue that the quality of the service, the accuracy of the service listing, the liability etc all lie with the providers who are categorically not employees of the network aggregator. Yet it’s not quite that simple.

First we have the reviews and verifications these aggregators offer their ‘community’ to assure quality. These can go as far as checking the passports and other identity documents of providers. Then we have the controls on pricing they offer plus the overarching branding they lay on top of the providers similar to a hotel chain or limousine firm. We also have the customer service they end up providing. They try to nudge you into resolving problems directly with the providers but if you can’t then they regularly step in to intervene, to offer refunds and smooth things over, desperate to avoid negative stories sticking to their surging brands[2. I have personal experience of network aggregators forking out hundreds of dollars to leave everyone feeling happy with their brand after things have gone wrong].

So network aggregators aren’t merely aggregating supply and demand, they are building brands and owning customer relationships so much so that they will even extend refunds and credits when the provider won’t. Yet because of their very nature and their legally-driven insistence that they don’t employ the providers they have few ways in which to encourage genuinely better behaviour. We see Uber and Airbnb offering programmes trying to encourage and celebrate their best providers but to me they read like weak cultural change programmes with no oomph.

Because ultimately this comes down to culture, values and accountability. (Well what doesn’t?!) Tom Peters rightly said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Successful hotel chains like Accor know this – their brand is a promise that wherever in the world you are you will get a good night’s sleep, a comfortable bed, a certain kind of breakfast and service etc. If anything goes wrong they train and incentivise their staff in ways to not just make it right but to leave the customer feeling better about the brand than before. Good taxi and limo firms keep their drivers trained up on serving customers with disabilities, on major works happening in their patch, they trial new vehicles and tools for improved efficiency, safety and access. They get to know particular clients with certain preferences and needs.

Now any individual provider to a network aggregator can and does do those things, I’m sure. Most likely they will even get good reviews. But how does this scale? What kind of experience can Airbnb and Uber promise me? Nothing really. Offering a special badge or annual $100 voucher to their best providers is light years away from the organisational leadership, accountability and values a good firm in any sector can provide.

So where does this take us? Network aggregators almost certainly open up the opportunities for micro businesses to reach more customers than ever before. And for now the big ‘unicorn’ aggregators are willing to spend time and money to retain customers even after bad experiences. They are even financing some of their providers, as Uber do with car loans. But that won’t be able to continue indefinitely, at some point either after launching onto the stockmarket or with a private owner, profits will need to be made. The result will have to be far greater control over providers and/or retreat from the level of support offered to customers.

Are there lesson we can take from the network aggregators? Most certainly but we must do so with caution – recognising that they are not proven, sustainable businesses yet and that they aren’t quite the light-touch networks they like us to think they are.

If one applies this to public services then I believe ultimate accountability will continue to lie with public bodies, even as delivery becomes ever more distributed, digital and networked. Agile and networked we should be, but the need for accountability, culture and values can’t be magicked away in a puff of network aggregation.

Thoughts on whips and collective responsibility

Whipping, for the uninitiated, is the British term for party discipline. Essentially the party leadership decides if a vote is ‘whipped’ and if it is then all party representatives in the council or Parliament have to vote along the agreed line of the leadership. If they don’t then various forms of discipline are used from simple threats to taking away plum jobs including the extra payments they attract. There have been many tales of the extraordinary and terrible lengths some Whips (those ‘whipping’ their colleagues into voting along party lines) have taken to impose party discipline. This has led to some taking a view that the whipping system is ‘part of the problem’ and should be avoided. Perhaps, but it depends on what purpose you believe parties and elected representatives serve.

Having spent 8 years as a councillor in a party which constitutionally doesn’t allow whips I have some thoughts on this whole issue. I should note that I am no longer involved in party politics and these are just my personal reflections.

So on the matter of purpose – I don’t believe that parties and elected representatives (councillors, MPs, MEPs) are simply delegates of their electorate, party selectorate nor party machinery. Their role is to be representatives who use their best judgement and considered deliberation to come to decisions in the best interests of the collective good for their city, county or country. But of course parties stand for election on a platform, a manifesto of principles and policies. If elected then they are expected to deliver on those promises. So party discipline is understandable in furthering the cause of progressing the promises made to the electorate. There is a natural, unavoidable tension between this need to deliver the party’s platform versus the individual judgement of each representative from a party who may not have entirely agreed with the party’s electoral platform in the first place.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, party discipline such as through whips, is open to abuse – it can be used to impose ‘government business’ which is in no way a manifesto promise, it can also be used to protect a leader’s position. Whips are not infallible by any means though, parties with the most terrific whips offices still see rebellions happen.

Top-down leadership typified by whipping works in a crisis, for example it’s essential for the emergency services. But in considering the big issues facing public services a more collaborative approach is needed for success. Yet on the other hand no organisation nor political party works if it is merely a collection of individuals. There must be some sense of collective – the greater good, which can logically lead to some way of maintaining that collective through discipline. Tensions abound!

The intentions were good for the system I had to work with in the Green Party: Nobody could be forced to vote against their conscience, a party line couldn’t be imposed. The implication was that deliberation would lead to collective views. Indeed that was what we usually did in the Brighton & Hove Green Group of Councillors. While I was Leader of the Council, I was quite separately the Convenor of the Green Group which I felt to be an important and helpful distinction. I had a clear task to present key issues for the group’s deliberation, to convene colleagues over the big decisions. We would deliberate openly amongst colleagues before taking a vote on what our view was.

Unfortunately, while some felt that they should follow the group’s collective view even if they personally didn’t agree (which was my approach), some felt that the party’s constitutional position allowed them to always break the group’s collective position. Technically I’m sure this was allowed and we had a protocol so that people would let me know they were going to do this. However it made for appearances of a group that was divided and disagreed on too many issues.

Having pondered this at length I think we saw a clash between individualism and collectivism in how colleagues approached our decision-making. Indeed I think we are now seeing this played out in all political parties: Across the political spectrum I see those who feel their personal ideological and political purity trumps a collective party position in pretty much all circumstances. My personal view is that politics and public policy are inherently collective so the individualistic approach holds some irony. But I also understand the pressures to individualism that politicians face when lobby groups challenge each and every vote, towing a party’s collective view can be thankless especially if you don’t understand or agree with the party’s decision-making processes.

Despite the pressures of being without the simplicity of a whip to impose the party line we did manage to deliver over 85% of our manifesto promises in Brighton & Hove. All the same I’m sure one of the challenges of the next decade has to be find ways to avoid politics descending into self-indulgent individualism, to find models and tools for reinforcing the idea of the collective in decision-making and party discipline.