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!

Thoughts on saving Twitter

Ongoing annual losses and a lack of user growth has meant that Twitter has long been considered ‘at risk’ as an independent company. Most recently there have been several reported failed takeover bids from suitors including Salesforce and Disney.

And what is the problem exactly? Twitter has over 310 million monthly active  users. For many Twitter is an extraordinary medium for learning, discussing and sharing. I’ve found it to be the one social medium I have used consistently over the years. Yes I’ve had bad times on there – awful abuse which Twitter the company did nothing about, but Sussex Police handled superbly. But these negative moments have been by far outweighed by the positives: Reading things I’d never normally see, hearing different views, meeting interesting new people and staying in touch with old friends. And above all I’ve found Twitter to be a place where politics can become more interesting. As a politician the ability to communicate (and rebut) directly was powerful. Now as a citizen and someone working in policy, being able to see politicians, analysts and journalists working in public is both fascinating and useful.

This all has value. Huge value, just perhaps not the level of monetary value the market seems to expect when they compare it with Facebook’s 1.7 billion monthly users.

And therein lies the rub. Since Twitter floated on the public markets it has been judged against juggernauts like Facebook and Google. Yes they have produced extraordinary revenue streams, which is great for their investors. But not everyone can nor should aspire to those levels of income and growth. Yet I fear Twitter has been hurting itself and its users in a doomed quest to satiate unreasonable market expectations.

Perhaps trying to beat those expectations has been why we’ve seen such a high turnover of executives at Twitter, including CEOs. But it’s unclear to me whether this is a cause or symptom of the problems. Maybe someone will get the real inside scoop one day.

Given the fact that so many of us value Twitter I’d like to suggest that the company focussed on serving our needs first and foremost. I’m genuinely worried we could lose a valuable online community so here are some thoughts I’ve jotted down on a viable way forward…

  • What features would average users (like me) pay for in a ‘PRO’ level subscription account?
  • Similarly, given the impact celebrities and corporates can gain from their Twitter presence, how can that be tiered into free and paid-for packages?

I think it’s essential that anyone can post and read tweets for the community that Twitter offers to keep working. So what sorts of features could reasonably be held back for paying users? Some ideas, which probably have been suggested many times over by others before, for features to restrict to paying Twitter users only:

  • Analytics: Anything beyond basic numbers (how many followers, retweets etc).
  • Graphics: Ability to attach more than one image or video to a tweet.
  • API access: This will outrage some, but I think providing access through apps should be a feature which is either paid for by the user or the app developer.
  • Archives: This already happens to some extent at corporate level, e.g. Google paid for access, but individual access to the full searchable archive and an option to auto-archive media into other services (e.g. all photos you tweet get saved in Dropbox/iCloud/whatever) could be a paid option.
  • Premium status: A paying customer should get quicker support, faster verified status (if needed) and so on. I wouldn’t want a premium label (a la LinkedIn) to appear on profiles, but I would understand why if it did happen.

How much would I pay for something like this as an ordinary user? I’d guess between £12 and £20 a year. Let’s pretend that would be the only revenue source for Twitter (so forget the bigger bucks corporate accounts and advertising should attract) and model it on 5% of active monthly users signing up at the lower end of the price bracket. In the scenario Twitter would be booking  £186m revenue every year.  That’s $230m in US dollars. Surely enough to run a sustainable social network on, especially if you throw in the online advertising and licensing income already coming in?

Unfortunately Twitter’s cost base has ballooned from $172 million/year to an astonishing $1.94 billion/year in 2015. Gross income has not kept up so Twitter has been consistently booking a loss, though the gap is narrowing. It’s hard to see what we users are getting for the $800m/year being spent on R&D and perhaps spending on video deals for the NFL aren’t the greatest uses of cash so I’d imagine there’s room to reduce the cost base. I think on its own terms Twitter can and should be financially viable.

The question for me is this: Is it reasonable to be chasing billion dollar revenues to please Wall Street, when a perfectly sustainable business exists ‘down’ in the hundreds of millions level, rather than the billions.

We risk seeing this wonderful community being killed or seriously damaged in the search for ways to turn it into a billion dollar company, when maybe, just maybe, sustainable life was only possible lower down the mountain. That would be a crying shame.

 

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.