Friday, 7 March 2014

You get what you deserve

Somewhere between 1605 and 1610 Williams Shakespeare wrote a play called Coriolanus. It is the story of a mans rise and fall from grace among the political columns of Rome in the 5th century BC.

That would be a brief synopsis. This will be neither. 

Coriolanus was his mothers son. She appears to have shaped him into a warrior, celebrating his successes by the scars he returned with. Her approval was wrapped in his demonstrating a lion heart. She encouraged his passion, flamed it even. He went to fight, fought bravely, and based on that fighting encourages him to run for consul. This post was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic. The Republic had multiple consul but loosely this could be equated to a modern day Prime Minister, the highest elected office of our land. 

Brutus and Sicinius are tribunes. They too are elected but are beneath the consuls in the hierarchy. They are schemers and instigators, directly and persistently opposed to Coriolanus, despite theirs and his elected role. In the play they are portrayed as spin doctors, the people with the real power who control through their own networks the emotions and moods of the people. The modern day equivalent? Strictly speaking there is none. No elected officials have the power to control 'the people'. Instead this power has been assumed by portions of the media.

Coriolanus' is also influenced by a Patrician called Agrippa. He is the man Coriolanus trusts to speak the truth, but he is not elected, his post accorded to him instead by social standing and perceived knowledge and understanding of politics. These days we call them Special Advisors and they are no less connected, nor any less trusted by those who require advice and guidance from someone outside the circle of democratically elected officials. 

In order to be elected consul, it is not enough for Coriolanus to have shown his mettle on the battle field, where he excels and understands the clear aims of what he must do. He is asked to collect notes from the phlebians, the ordinary citizens of Rome who are not wealthy and connected but who are 'normal' people. These notes must be collected in order for him to have been 'elected' as far as I can make out. It is the modern day equivalent of a ballot with no box, where the electorate hand their papers directly to the man they want to elect, or instead withhold them.

Coriolanus is a man of class. But he is also a man of war. Like the old Kings of Western Europe, he is uncomfortable with the political manipulations of power, or rather lacks the personality, and so instead ends up on the end of the strings of those who do. But those strings cannot contain his core beliefs, which are that the phlebians, the ordinary citizen do not deserve what the state gives them, because they do not fight and do not earn it. Because this tale is missing a Press Office, his opinions arrive at the foot of the citizen unfiltered and unmoderated and the citizens dislike this and rise up, fanned by the well placed words of the tribunes. 

Coriolanus leaves Rome and this is where I leave him, except to say that he ends the story dangling from his feet above the stage, his throat cut as a traitor. 

Coriolanus is a man. Nothing more. He is his mothers son, his advisors listener and his tribunes target. His wife is an irrelevance. And so we must close the circle to acknowledge that our Prime Minister is just a man, his mothers son, his advisors listener and the medias target. He is not superhero. He is not script written. He is not a figment of imagination. He is real, of flesh and blood.

And like Coriolanus he makes mistakes. And so do his fellow elected officials, who these days spend less time it would seem manipulating the electorate because the media has become a wedge to prevent them, and instead spend far more time than perhaps they should turning their manipulations onto their Leader. Possibly. I cannot speak for the current government, only for past ones. Mandelson, Blair and Brown spring to mind.

So what's the point of all this?

Coriolanus was a great warrior but he was no politician. But because he was a great warrior, he was wedged into becoming a politician. He was honest and spoke the truth at every turn, unable to hide his disdain of the ordinary man. Eventually, inevitably, he was crucified for this.

Sound familiar?

Well actually it doesn't does it. What actually happens is this. A man is elected, Prime Minister or MP. He has good intentions, because they all do. Whether you agree with the policies the good intentions are based or no is completely irrelevant here, the relevance is the starting with those good intentions. Clear objectives. Brave hearts. A determination to change something for the better and leave a legacy. Yes, the leaving a legacy bit is egotistical but bear with me. You've got to forgive them something, because they're human. As are we all, and if you delude yourself into thinking you would do better, well... we'll come to that in a moment.

So they start with good intentions. And then reality gets in the way. Inherited omnishambles, press offices, communications teams, the media, the opposition who have nothing to lose, the fact that you are no longer in opposition and the game has completely changed, all this gets in the way. And the man you were, the honest man, the man who had decided to be open and brave, stand by his pole planted firmly at the top of the mountain called 'Good politics' disappears in a melee of voices clamoring about timings, messages, crisis, reactions, 24 hour rolling news responses and being doorstepped at 4am.

To put not to fine a point on it, a man inevitably walks into this machine as one thing and inevitably walks out another. 

We ask great things of our leaders. All of them. We ask them to be truthful and honest and then we crucify them when they are not. Or rather the media do. But you buy that media, you watch it, you pay money into it's big fat machines. You are responsible whether you like it or not, every single time you buy a front page splash of yet another expenses scandal so you can take it home, devour the details and tut under your breath the next day when it comes up over lunch. Expenses scandals are the red button for the media. It sells papers like Diana used to. And an MP being honest doesn't. You don't want to hear when an MP does something right. You don't want to hear when an MP is being honest. I know you don't because it doesn't sell papers. Unless that honesty is at cross purposes with his own government's policy. Then you're all over it. Because he did something wrong by being honest.

You get what you deserve.

We ask them to deal with the business of the day. Some days, that's a big lot of business. Russian, currencies, global economies, US foreign policy - all of it lands on someones desk. That someone works until 11pm, midnight, 1am, 2am, 3am, so you can sleep in your nice warm bed with your nice warm children tucked up safely in the room next to you without having to worry about any of this because someone else is doing the worrying for you. That person has children and a wife too but you don't think about that because that would be too difficult. And then when they make the wrong decision, guess what happens? The media tears that decision apart, and the subsequently the person who made it, they tear them apart too. Like a pack of animals, no one will rest until there is a name. It's not enough to have a group of names. No. It has to be one name. And no one cares how many good decisions that person has made prior to making that one bad decision. And no one asks if there is a better qualified person to replace them, which often there is not. No. Instead he is fired. Or resigns. Which is basically being fired but politely.

You get what you deserve.

We ask them to look perfect for TV. For camera. Make up and well fitting suits. Heels but only kitten and pearls but only if they're 'on trend'. We pillory them for their weight, for looking podgy (it might be steroids but lets not talk about the shocking fact that an MP might get ill), for getting out of breath (they cared enough to run, it was important enough, god damnit, for that person to run), for wearing the wrong earrings or the wrong colour shoes. We laugh at them. We mock them. We disrespect them and the fact that they may have more important things to think about than what's in their handbag at every turn.

You get what you deserve.

I could go on and on and on. Out of touch. Too posh. Too Scottish. Too down to earth, not down to earth enough, cross eyed, wearing glasses which glint on television, gaps in their teeth, sack of potatoes in that dress, wrong decision, right decision but never fast enough, considered decision was considered too long, you didn't look like you cared, god why on earth do we want MP's that care so much they cry...

You get everything that you deserve.

As a result, a result of all of this, the final mockery of our democratic process is as comedian telling people to disengage entirely from it. Don't vote he says. Express your ire and anger in a different way he says. Nothing happens. I tell you why nothing happened. There is no call to arms so great that it could motivate anyone to take action, no personality nor leader that can fix this mess we have got ourselves into. You say you want normal people to represent the normal people but there is no space for normal people any more, because normal people cry and have kids and sick down their front and have to wear glasses because they're too icked out to wear contact lenses and break arms having fun at the weekend and want to go on holiday where they want to go on holiday not where the fucking papers think it's okay for them to go on holiday.

Those of you who do bother to vote whine a year later that you didn't vote for that policy that's steam rollering through your beloved NHS or your education system. Well you did. If you're naive and stupid enough to not do your research on something so important that has been minimised completely to ticking a box after some random bloke may or may not have bothered to knock on your door during the day while you were at work cos he does have a family to go home to in the evenings who you may or may not have actually asked questions of regarding those policies which are so damn important to you...

You got what you deserved.

This is it people. The end. There is no where else to go in a democracy. Voter apathy means mess. No decisive winner means mess. Politics isn't clear cut and occasionally it does result in a complete mess. Dithering results in mess. Not doing your homework results in mess. Not cutting people some slack results in mess. People are mess. People are human. You elected human beings, not some group of Toshiba robots who box tick endlessly without even thinking about it. 2am or 2pm, there is thought. It's more thought than you'll have, and it will be a bigger decision, that one decision on that one day, than any you will have made in your life short of getting married or having a child. 

You entrust super scary massive shit to these people. Either accord them some respect and do some homework and work out who you actually believe in and trust to represent you and what you want and how you want to live your life or stop whining, devouring the trash in the newspapers and let them get on with it. 

Trust them, or trust yourselves. But for gods sake pick one. Because we really don't want to go back to the end of the beginning of this story where a man hangs by his feet with his throat cut.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

UK Gov camp 2013

Last Saturday I made my annual pilgrimage to UK Gov Camp, or UKGC. This year was only my third, others have been going far longer than I including some of my colleagues though I'd not actually come across any of them before which considering past shyness, is not so surprising.


Had UKGC happened when it should have done, I would have not been in the right headspace for it. Postponement had good side effects for me. A collision of conversations with various people meant that I even had an idea for a session pitch - and stood up and pitched it which was a first for me.

How did the session go? Well, it was in the last slot of the day, none of the people who'd inspired the session idea 'digital mentoring networks' turned up, I walked past someone who commented that 'that sounds scary, I think I'll avoid' and yeah. Not the best start.

However. The best laid plans are sometimes waylaid for good reason and so it turned out. We don't need a digital mentoring network and a digital women network and 3,000 other networks besides. I shouldn't have bothered pitching and should have twigged this. But as it happens, the conversation switched to reflect a discussion which had happened in another session I hadn't attended earlier in the day where Tom Steinberg decided to throw a gauntlet down and ask a room full of digital bods when exactly they were going to step up and think about becoming the Directors and Chief Executives of the future.

ETA: We do need a Women in Digital network. I think. But that's for another post.

This then bled into my session as the discussion turned away from us acquiring mentors who could help us in our careers, to what we could do to pass on our experience and learning onto others. Clare White challenged us to go into local businesses and offer them our expertise as a form of digital volunteering. Jonathan Flowers pointed out that charities and assorted other organisations needed digital guidance and steering and Governors and Boards of Trustees were good ways of getting experience at a higher level of organisations to boot.

Inside this, an idea for a LinkedIn group were people could offer to mentor or ask to be mentored each other was raised. I'm not sure this is the answer. I'm not sure I know of a successful LinkedIn group. They all seem to die - I've yet to find a thriving one where my request to join is accepted within 48 hours. Someone suggested that LinkedIn add a tag or field for people to indicate whether they'd be happy to be approached for mentoring/questions/advice and conversely for those who were looking for a mentor and I think this would be a far more valuable implementation than a group.

So I'm going to go and talk to LinkedIn about that.

But that then leaves the gauntlet Tom threw. And that's a sticky one. Lots of people seem to think that UKGC lacked it's spark and fire and more than a few said 'that's cos GDS is doing it all'.

Well, here's a thing. Tom is right. If there's a Dep Director post in digital going, do you apply, or do you think that that's someone else's job to do? When a Head of Digital Comms job comes up, do you apply, or do you think you've not got the exact skill set, missing some of the essentials and there's just no point?

Are you happy sitting in a room, being brilliant (yes, almost down to the last, you all are) never letting anyone else actually benefit from that brilliance, or are you going to stick your head above the parapet, find out what skills and capabilities Heads of and Deputy Directors need and work on acquiring those? More to the point, are you going to ask for some help in acquiring those, do some research, send some tweets and use your network to get the help you need to lead an organisation, any organisation, into the 21st century, using all the technology, innovation, capability and knowledge that you have at your fingertips?

Because to be honest, talking strategy, vision, channels...that's fine. That's good. We're all growing up and we all should be. In maturity lives wisdom and in wisdom there is the future. But don't lose your fire and your passion. Don't wait for someone else to sort this stuff out. Don't assume someone else has it all wrapped up and you're not allowed to say anything or comment or question or aspire.

Don't let the fire go out. This isn't a game of tame the dragon. It's the long game and 20 years from now, there are at least 20 people within the corridors and rooms of UKGC who I'd be very happy to see in CEX and CEO roles across the public sector.

But that just isn't going to happen unless you use the digital embedded in your DNA to level up and learn some of the skills that leaders and managers of organisations need. I don't know what they are, I may never know what they are. But that's me and this is you and you all have the potential to be phenomenal. So. What are you waiting for?


Thursday, 14 March 2013

Nerd API

Yes I know, a human as an API is going to be a bit challenging and stretching a metaphor slightly. Bear with me.

In my life, I have had the pleasure of both spending a lot of time with geeks/nerds and also managing them (for the purposes of this post, I am going to refer as geeks, to save my weary fingertips). When I say pleasure, I really do mean pleasure as well. In fact, in my experience, managing those who aren't geeks is quite a lot harder. Perhaps the subject matter of the types of escalated problems I'd deal with not being geeky either, perhaps not. Who knows.

What I do know is that very often, in the same way that I tend to act as a tech interpreter for people who know nothing about something technical, I also tend to end up being a people interpreter as well.

So here's some more things. Things I've had to explain and things I've noticed. Things which wind me up and things which make me smile. 


Short, sharp and to the point is a geeks modus operandi. Ranting is never personal, and almost always never directed at the person on the end of the rant. This is usually because geeks tend to rant about big and complicated things and the controller of the big and complicated thing isn't accessible right now. And the right now is a thing here too - geeks tend to want to have a rant, get stuff off their chest and then forget about it. Until either you do the dumb thing you did to wind them up again, or the subject comes up in conversation again. 

If it's uncomfortable, note the subject, avoid it, and assure the person that you've listened and heard this one time. If you can, offer to do something about it. If you can't, mentioning you can't might help. At the very least it will reduce the likelihood of you getting an earful again. Someone else can have the ear bashing next time, you've done your time nodding your head like you have a clue.

Most of the time you won't have a clue. Unless it's your actual job to have a clue, don't worry. Just nod your head and if you want to try to engage, ask questions. Just bear in mind that if you do, you might be there a while...

Body language

I'm sorry what? Sometimes, some of us get it. Not all the time. Specially if it's really really subtle. Most of us have learned by pattern matching and most of us do quite well thank you very much by using this system but if you're an exception to general rules, and you know you are, do us a favour and if you're spending more than one interaction with us, tell us.

It might help with the excessive communication thing above. It might help with us knowing when we're okay to bother you and when we're not. 

An example of this is a discussion which is often had at GDS about headphones. My wearing headphones generally means it's okay to interrupt me but I'm working on something quite complicated and need to block out background noise so I don't make a mistake. Other people use headphones as a Do not disturb sign and will get very irritated with you if you ignore that signal that they think they're sending loud and clear. If unsure, GChat or DM someone first, and check how long it takes them to respond. If it's not urgent and you don't get a response in 5 minutes, leave them alone. Well alone.

Seating and comfort

Slouching. Shifting around a lot. Going and finding a different place to sit or sprawl or perch. These things are noticeable too. It's not cos people are not working. In actual fact, what it probably means is that once again, so much concentration is needed that that person has had to step out of their normal working environment and go somewhere else because something was blipping. 

Or it might mean that they just were't comfortable and needed a change of scenery. This may sound strange when most of the time geeks are doing little else but staring into screens. Don't be fooled. Staring off into space and closing eyes are two often used tactics to remove visual input stimulus for geeks in order to allow them to concentrate. It's also a memory recall technique. Good luck in working out which one of those the person you're watching is currently doing. It could be either or neither. Just leave them alone, generally, to get on with whatever it is they're doing.

Also, meeting space. The opposite of meeting space is alone space. Introverts need quiet. Open plan offices are many things (stimulating, encouraging sharing, encouraging looking sideways at what others are doing, laughter tends to spread) but quiet they are not. Sometimes it's simply a case of something getting on someones nerves or some deep thinking needing to happen and it just not being possible at a desk. You can't pace at a desk. You can't close your eyes and stare into space at a desk (well you can but check the looks you'll get when you sneakily open your eyes a little bit to see), you can't sprawl comfortably sat at a desk.

Sometimes something requires that much thought that removal from desk is necessary. Absence from desk does not indicate absence from work mindset, or indeed an absence of work being generated.


You're not going to get the jokes. If you pretend to get the jokes there will be strange looks because they're gonna know you didn't really get the joke. Spotted on a desk near me once upon a time, a copy of the Princes Bride. I was unsure if it was intended as a geek primer or not. I am uncomfortable with the idea if so, because it takes more than reading a book to understand the thing behind the Princes Bride which very much makes it a geek thing, but not necessarily an easily understood geek thing.


Nope, it's not obscure cos it's cool. I don't know for sure, but I think we're a wee bit more open minded about musical genres generally. And the crossing over from one to the other thereof. There's a reason Jaguar Skills and Last Knight are my two favourite DJ's ever. Cleverness > predictability every single time. Quality of music is a whole other thing, mind. I've spent more time in Richer Sounds over the years than any woman has any right to. Except of course if she's the one trialling headphones obsessively. Then she belongs there, obviously.

I could go on and on and on.


Some of these things apply to me. If you've not worked out which ones and you work with or have worked with me, I will be shocked. Not all of them do. Not all of them apply to all geeks all of the time, just some of the geeks some of the time.

But if just one sentence in here helps you understand your colleagues in your current job just a little bit better, I count that as a win. 

Oh and...cake. It's important.

Friday, 22 February 2013


In the lift at work:
"Hi, you're @loulouk aren't you? I'm @xxxxxx. I thought I should introduce myself, I keep hearing your name around the people I work with"
"Oh yeah, I'm the dork"
"You're in a room full of them"

Later in the day in Tibits:
"So what are you nerd about then"
"Trains, gadgets, the everything!"
"Star Wars or Star Trek?"
"Star Trek but only Next Gen"

Yesterday I wore a t-shirt with the word Nerd on it. In big letters. In white on black. I didn't actually give it a second thought, I work somewhere where it's okay to be one, I mean mostly it's full of geeky people with the odd nerd thrown in but I knew it would be okay to wear it and I knew I wasn't scheduled to be in any meetings within anyone outside of work and it'd be fine.

But the reaction of other people has caused a bit of a rethink on that assumption.

I wasn't always a geek. Or perhaps I was. I do know that it was at the point where I first say in front of a box that let me talk to other people in front of other boxes and to read what they thought and did that I discovered I definitely was a geek. Geek is a word. It's just a word. But it used to be an insult and now it's a compliment and there's just no arguing with that when there's geek tours, geek bands, geek chic and geek conferences.

So I tried to think about what geek meant to me and why I wore a tshirt with nerd on the front and why I felt totally comfortable with that. And I think it's something to do with the venn diagram. This one: Nwerk?
I just don't think it works anymore.

If it did Dorkbot wouldn't exist. Which is basically a bunch of people who like doing super creative things with electricity all over the world, gathering together to tell each other about the new super weird and wonderful ways they've found to make electrons dance.

According to that venn, they'd not have the brain cells to rub together to generate electrons, never mind play with them.

Take /dev/fort - a bunch of gathering together, essentially sequestering themselves away, having fun, writing code, eating food and By choice? With other ? That's their leave they're using up. That's because it's fun. And fun doesn't look like what it used to look like either. By the venn, they're geeks. I'd argue they're not. But even I hesitate to call them nerds because we didn't define it yet, and how can I know whether I'm insulting them or not if they don't have a nice neat little label?

And then there's the other thing. The complicated thing which says that when you're clearly part of a group of people who have historically been on the end of some abuse (and believe me, it was absolutely definitely totally not always cool to know what # was on your keyboard for), it's sort of okay to self label with something that if someone else labelled you with would prompt feelings of...mild irritation.

But what if it's not clear you're a member of that group? If you're a girl and you've been on the end of the whole 'you're a girl, you're wearing that Spiderman tshirt cos it's cool not cos you've read all the comics and seen all the films not just the latest ones cos it had some fit bloke in it'. Cos believe me, that happens. And as it happens, no I haven't and yes I have. I hate comics. Bite me.

So for all kinds of ridiculous complicated socially expected reasons we seem to be in need of a revision of labels. Because if watching Big Bang Theory makes you kinda geeky, it's a crowded room I'm in all of a sudden. And I'm reasonably sure spending weekends at sci-fi conventions isn't really considered a mainstream activity (thought when a convention in Wrexham of all places sells so many tickets one year, they've got to double admission the next to the size of the MEN arena I start to wonder) and nor is loving spreadsheets and missing working with them, or thinking up new and interesting ways to draw maps of random things.

So here's the thing. Can someone come up with a way of explaining that social ability doesn't define nerds, geeks sometimes aren't super-intelligent to the level that the name used to imply, dweebs are dressed by their mothers in their twenties and dorks? Who knows. That defining by intelligence presupposes an agreement on what intelligence is, super logical doesn't necessarily imply social aversion, wallflowers can be cool and some people consciously dress in a slightly different way that intends to misstep rather than accidentally doing so? That tribes exist but they're evolving more towards a complicated amalgamation of sub-genres and interests, some combinations of which definitely put you in the dweeb category and some of which firmly sit you in the dork box?

Because I can't. But I do know, in a way I can't really explain, that I am the right person to be wearing that Nerd tee.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Forgive me, for I have sinned

It's been 2 weeks since I have blogged.

Flippant, perhaps?

Built to Spill the Beans
But it's an issue and I think it's time for some honesty. The following is entirely the fault of Anne McCrossan and Chris Watson, but even I have to admit that it's been a long time coming and it's purely coincidental that two conversations from different angles collided within such a short period of time.

I'd like to think that I don't shy away from difficult subjects on this blog. Read back and there's some pretty honest stuff buried in there. And then I became a Civil Servant. And suddenly it wasn't so easy any more.

My name is Louise, I used to be considered, I think, a 'social media expert' in government circles and I am scared.

I've been too scared to tweet. Too scared to retweet. Too scared to comment and too scared to blog.

Every single time I've sat down to write a blog post, I've ended up writing a paragraph and then exiting the post, leaving it in draft to sit and fester, never to see the light of day. My Twitter presence has dwindled to occasional retweets and banal comments on my working life - the safe bits, in other words. The boring bits. The bits that couldn't possibly be misconstrued.

Take last Thursday for example. I was at an open data event at Imperial College as part of Teacamp which is an event which is not government affiliated nor officially run. It's an event run and managed by Jane O'Loughlin, requires a lot of hard work to keep going and while she is a Civil Servant, and it's run mostly for Civil Servants, it's also open to others as well. Someone from the open data community commented about circumventing private sector data storage such as Nectar Card information by asking people to voluntarily contribute the data themselves to a central gathering point.

I tweeted, in 140 about this, contributing my own little bit of observation to the #teacamp hashtag.

A day later, an old friend said it was an irresponsible attitude for government to take. My heart sank, and I immediately replied back that I had been at a non-government event, had merely been relaying someone else's idea who was not a Civil Servant and this was absolutely not government policy or attitude or opinion or anything else besides.

It's all about context. I've only got 140 to play with. If you read the rest of the #teacamp tag from last Thursday then you'd understand it was actually unlikely that that comment would have been uttered by a Civil Servant (we were in the minority at the event, I think it's fair to say). But that friend didn't and so took my comment out of context and so misinterpreted the comment.

Was it his fault for taking it out of context? Or mine for assuming a hashtag was enough context?

It scares me. It's hard. I am not going to lie - every single time I tweet these days I question what I am tweeting and whether it's breaking the Civil Service Code, the rules which I, as a Civil Servant, must abide by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Add to this that I am in a politically restricted post, and be impartial takes on another dimension above that laid out in the Code itself. Then there's the fact that people who may hold my future career in my hands may read what I say, that journalists do too  (some, in fact most, because I used to write and now don't and they simply haven't unfollowed me, but nevertheless are very there), that our Executive Director too follows me, and the weight that weighs every time I press tweet is not inconsiderable.
Sign 2
And the absolute worst thing? I was the very first person in line, not so long ago, telling people how damn easy all this was, that it was just communication, that it's not scary, just get on with it, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Well, here's the thing. They do. They really do. I connect people on a weekly basis who can and do help each other. I do it inside government via email as much as I do visibly on Twitter. If someone wants a hand with something, if I don't know the answer, I'll know someone who does. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with maintaining reputation as a trusted source by pointing people at interesting articles and blog posts. There is nothing wrong in taking responsibility for my own learning, and sharing that learning with others who may benefit. There is nothing wrong, even, with talking to MP's or other Civil Servants on Twitter. What would be wrong would be allowing anyone to think they knew my political partiality (which I don't have, and never have had, as I've repeatedly mentioned in this blog) by the volume or sway of the signposting or retweets or conversations.

So it comes down to this.

Yes I should think before I tweet and before I post, in the same way I should consider responses to emails or questions face to face. Yes I should make a conscious effort not to break the Code that I am bound by. But I think that what it comes down to, for me, is that if I can justify my actions, they don't break the Code and, as happened last week, I can explain clearly and quickly if someone has incorrectly taken something out of context, I'm covered.
Man in the bowler hat, entrance, Mayflower Park Hotel, celebrating 84 years, Seattle, Washington, USA
Because on the flip side of this, there is a 'thing' around people getting to see that Civil Servants are normal people. Just normal people. We read MIT review, Forbes, Boing Boing and El Reg. We disagree with some things that happen in the world, we find science fascinating, we watch in awe as David Attenborough shows us yet more of the wonders of the world, and we get stuck in snow related transport failures. Just like everyone else. We are not faceless, we are not boring, we don't wear bowler hats (well, most of us) and we have opinions.

But we also have rules and legislation which ensures you can't know some of those opinions. Never discuss religion, sex or politics, my father used to say. Words to live by, say I.

Friday, 25 January 2013

RSS - Really Simple Syndication

I tapped out a quick guide to using RSS and using Google Reader during the week.

I thought it might be useful to someone so I've re-hosted it on my personal Google docs area (I didn't want to make a work Google doc public, I'm sure there's no reason why not but just in case...) and made it public so any can view it.

Feel free to reuse and recycle if it's useful.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Sucking eggs

This post may involve teaching most readers to suck eggs. It doesn't name a tool because it can't. I'm a  civil servant and we can't do stuff like that. But it might be useful anyway, we'll see.  (edited to add: as I've written this, I've realised that this is the way that someone who is a P on the Myers-Briggs test may become more J)

As may be evident from this blog, I think a lot. And I must confess, it's not always ordered thinking. In fact most of the time my head is a mess of ideas and enthusiasm shooting off in different directions with little coherence and even less order.

Switching from an environment where ordered thinking was easy because the edges of where thinking was needed or required were very clear, to one where the exact opposite is true exasperated the problem. Massively.

And lots of good ideas are absolutely pointless if none of them ever get implemented, or more importantly articulated in a way where someone else could maybe pick them up and implement them for you.

So something needed to happen.

Oddly, the answer is a writers most feared nightmare inducing process. A blank page. I was given a project which left me so at a loss that I opened up a Google doc and called it [project name] thinking. Then I wrote everything I knew about the project down. Straight out of my head and onto the page without any order at all, exactly the way it was in my head.

Then I went back and started cutting and pasting sentences out and categorising them. Then broken those sections down into bullet points. And finally, pulled a list of tasks out from them.

From chaos, came order.

From this order then came the need to track the tasks. And since the project was a team effort, and contained many kinds of tasks for different members of the team, we needed to find a way to manage that too. So off I went on a mission to find such things, and lo! I found it. And shared it. And mostly it seems to be working very well though as we approach deadline day I must confess it is being used less and less.

But the deadline is only for the first iteration of the project and so we now have a neat record of all the tasks that require doing, in the second iteration and beyond! all headlined neatly by label type into categories, all tracked and all persistently heading towards the Done pile.

I've never had a Done pile. It's incredibly satisfying to dump things into that pile.

But most of all, I seem to have found a way which allows my very chaotic brain to be chaotic, revel in the chaos, but always to produce coherence that can be consumed without indigestion by everyone else.

This post written in the hope someone else may avoid the year of frustration I have recently experienced. We got there in the end :O)

Friday, 11 January 2013

That was the week that was

Someone asked me to try and explain why this week was so awesome, cos I'd said it would be impossible. So here is my try. Some of this is very vague as I'm working on a project that's in alpha and very not ready quite yet for the world to descend on it but I'll tell you as much as I can. Also bear in mind, other vaguenesses may be resulting, not from hiding things, but for reasons of respect, courtesy and privacy of others.

This week my brain has been doing this:

Image credit: SJPhotography, via Flickr
But it's not a thing about fireworks going off. It's also a thing about the venn diagrams that particular picture displays, and the colour themes running through it.

So what did it involve? Well there's a main project that now all the main protagnonists are finally physically in the same place is moving quite swiftly. This week I've learned a bit about project managing, discovered a magic tool that replicates the walls the dev teams use at GDS to sort their incoming and outgoing workloads but digitally cos we don't have a wall (I'll post about this over the weekend), and realised that as long as we chop the super massive huge thing down into teeny tiny little bits, anything is possible.

I'm really excited about it, because it's useful. It looks like duplication but it's not, it delivers some key points within the Civil Service Reform plan and it doesn't tick boxes. It creates them and then encourages people to throw all the boxes in a big pit and jump up and down on them. Love.

My colleague Chris, who will be referred to by first name only as ironically he does not wish to be above the parapet (and is our teams resident tech geek) is epic. I knew this before but this week I have discovered the sheer joy of watching someone wrestle with a bug, get help with the bug, take the help away and apply it and fix the bug. And then squee about it. Well not squee exactly, he doesn't do that but well...

So in amongst writing a tonne of documentation in a particular tone which welcomes people to the new project but doesn't scare them off either, and explains beta but really simply, and acquiring guinea pigs from all over the Civil Service (and potentially outside of it too, thanks @somazi @mattnavarrauk) to test and break things and generally see if this stuff will work, there was lots of other stuff. So this was the big firework. I told you it wasn't accidental.

Some of the smaller fireworks were thus:

Image credit: Kozu Moriya via Flickr

 The lovely team from DCLG who run the Really Useful days came and had a chat and I'm off to North Allerton to share some of the wrong and some of the right about open policy making and digital engagement. More importantly, recommendations for speakers were made. Good to have such an easy job on that side at the moment.

I caught up with everyone I'd not seen since before Xmas and gosh it was good to see everyone looking so very well. Lots of red cheeks and smiles. Lovely.

Teacamp last night was fab, @lesteph and @somazi spoke respectively about UK Gov Camp (for which major scheming is going on on the Google group, go see!) and a social media first aid kit. I am so excited for Gov Camp this year because there's already about 8 sessions I want to go to but I did inhale a little sharply at the idea of no post it notes. No post it notes??? Heresy! As ever with these things though, it was the chat with @hadleybeeman and @pubstrat which was really awesome. There's yet another blog post, I think, in what we discussed but it basically condenses to 'every time someone told you you were either extrovert or introvert, they lied to you' (well me, not necessarily you, I mean you might be nicely neatly boxed, I don't know).

We did some teamwork on goals and priorities for the next 30 days which has made us all focus more more on sprints and delivery.  This is ace, because though we've established stand ups don't work for us, we've sort of changed it around a bit and are having short team meetings and then retrospectives towards the end of the week to share successes and challenges. This has had the added bonus of workloads becoming much more visible and support being offered and help being given every which way within the team. It also resulted in some neat problem solving of a niggling but crunchy problem some of us have been wrestling with. This gave me much joy.

There was discussions on how scary pressing the submit button on a big blog is, some small training on basic blogging, some helping with making Twitter monitoring much easier via Tweetdeck and a big big Wordpress session for the rest of the team from @annkempster. The floor meeting was inspiring and awesome and so was @tomskitomski's internal presentation. @liammax said some things, specifically about the 'art of the possible' and external forces pushed crystallisation of social media use in work time to the fore, resulting in arriving at the conclusion that intent really does matter (probably another blog post in that as well, but not yet).

Board game geekery was resureccted and a venue found which will potentially eventually allow for expansion. Much walking and chatting was done and much drinking of coffee, either incidentally, or as a focus. Salt provided the best, naturally. @adewunmi sat and briefed me patiently on where open policy making was up to from a GDS perspective and in the process managed to explain all the things I didn't know or understand without me even needing to prompt with questions, leading me to believe she may be somewhat psychic and one wonders if that's not entirely accidental given the task ahead of her which is monumental but necessary.  As a by product of this we had a brilliant discussion about openness, and about personality traits which dictate comfort zones when it comes to levels of openness and why it comes naturally to some and not others. (Yes, yet another blog post).

@marilyneb was missed but plans where made to meet with @adewunmi and I have no doubt that that right there is going to be one of the highlights of next week or next. @alexschillemore was caught at the right time, or rather I was at my desk when she circled and in 5 minutes managed to leave me grinning with excitement at the amazing things which will be happening in her new role, but also surfacing something which needs resolving which I had dropped but now need to pick up again.

Somewhere in there I ate food and @fatbusinessman arrived to inspire thinking on how our team could be more agile (it was before the bit above about the 30 day priorities discussion but seemed to coincidence not be driven by) but also about teamwork, which was the subject of the previous post. How many are we on now? I've completely lost track. At least as many as there are fireworks exploding in the first picture, I think, unless I'm very much mistaken. Anyway, it was a fine discussion with someone who really really helps me think. And while I may have found an alternative to needing to think out loud (another blog post, but tying in to one of the ones already mentioned above) nothing really replaces the luxury of being allowed to unpick and unravel something verbally.

Finally, I need to say goodbye but not goodbye to someone. @geek_manager is leaving us and her blog explains why. In the floor meeting on Tuesday, @mtbracken alluded to the fact that Meri might be especially ace at allowing people to...flourish, shall we say. I hope I can say I am one of the people that Meri has spent time with, explaining, coaching, mentoring, guiding and oh, did I mention, being exceptionally patient with. The reason that this week has been so damn awesome is down to, in no small part, the work that Meri has put in with both myself and others. I alluded to something similar on Twitter a while ago about someones contribution not always necessarily being visible. A really rather lot of us are going to miss her terribly. Having said that, she's off to some pretty awesome pastures new whichever of the three million epic offers she currently has on the table she decides to take and I understand and respect someone who can decide that no, this is not right, and move on.

Go well lady. But I'm sure you'll still be beating us all stupid at board games ;O)

This week was a 4 day week. Next week looks even more bonkers. :O)

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Whoops. I got it wrong again.

Reflective post is reflective. I'd class as self indulgent but that's just me. It feels awkward, I've not done this before.

So. My old team. Me, bod same job title as me, boss with same job title as me but Manager tacked on the end of it. Above him, our Head of Service. I think it's fair to say that when I arrived on the team, morale was er... wobbling. Main aims of the team seemed to be to leave meetings with no actions. It was the standing joke but I knew well enough that if I went to meetings and committed to providing work, I would be the person providing the work.

I am appallingly bad at saying no.

This led to the predictable situation. Not helped, really, by the fact that the other two team members saw social media as nothing special, nothing that needed time devoted to it, and something that had had its box ticked. The rest of the organisation weren't quite on the same page with this and so most of the work fell to me. I did my best, mostly on my own. To be fair, a new CMS procurement and roll out was also taking up much of the rest of the teams time.

This meant that a lot of the time it felt like I was a team of one. It was hard at times and in an effort to make it easier, I became very independent and forgot some rather useful skills. Like er... talking to people about my work. Or rather, talking about my work in terms that allowed others to help with it. Instead of chatting about it in social terms, over coffee in a kind of 'yeah I'm fine, I could do with a bit of help but everything's fine' kind of way.

I wasn't fine. I was having at least 3 meetings every single day for what felt like weeks after the launch of the social media guidelines for government. I'd go home barely able to hold a conversation. And I thought this was normal. I thought I had exactly the same workload as everyone else and I thought I was being pathetic.

I wasn't. But I was being exceptionally stupid.

Teamwork means visibility. It means knowing what everyone else is working on so you can help. It means knowing someone didn't know you could have multiple accounts in Tweetdeck and sorting it out for someone. It means sharing a problem and getting four heads, rather than your own. It surfaces issues quickly when it comes to overload but also when someone is drowning and becoming more and more miserable about workload.

Unfortunately, for those things to happen, you have to communicate. And bunkering down just doesn't work. It cuts you off. It deprives you of others subjective viewpoints and all the good things that come from that.

Like the suggestion that instead of those 15 meetings a week, that perhaps it might have been more productive to run workshops at beginner, intermediate and advanced level, invite all the people who wanted to have meetings and then take individual Q & A's at the end so everyone could benefit from the learning.

All of which would have prevented repetition, been more time efficient and done wonders for my sanity. I don't know about you but there is only so many times I can painstakingly explain that manning Twitter for 5 minutes every day at 9am might mean you miss out on some lovely conversational type stuff. You may laugh, sat there in your smugness. Now stop laughing and have a good long hard think about exactly how obvious it is you can't just do that when you've never seen Twitter before.


So. This is my learning and it's taken longer than I'm entirely comfortable with. Without your team, you're nothing. Without input from others, you're nothing. And can I just say, how much I am enjoying working on a small project with a small team with boundless enthusiasm? Can I? Thank you. I'm really rather proper enjoying work at the moment, and hopefully I can tell you a bit more about the lovely small project soon.

Hard won lesson, that one.

Friday, 4 January 2013

I'm sorry, I didn't know who you were

True story time.

Last year, I was honoured to be asked to present and run two workshops at the LGcomms Academy, their newly revamped AGM meeting of minds. For those who don't know, LGcomms stands for Local Government Communications and is national body representing UK Local Authorities in their efforts to better their communication efforts.

It was a brilliant day. But something which was said to me on that day is still resonating over 6 months later and it just wont go away.

I sat, after my 8am presentation, among the other delegates and settled myself to do some learning. I listened to Cormack Smith from Basildon give a very different perspective on the Dale Farm situation to the one I had seen on the news - a behind the scenes view, if you like. I sat between two people who I felt would rather have sat next to each other, a chap to my left who I think was another one of the workshop facilitators and a very well turned out lady to my right.

The gentleman made polite efforts to chat to me. The lady did not. This is normal, some people feel comfortable enough in these situations to strike up a conversation, and some do not.

The time came for the workshops to be run and I noticed the lady who I'd been sat next to stayed in her seat. I rose, went to the front, set up my laptop and gave a very quick abbreviated version of my earlier presentation on the process we went through to write the social media guidelines for the UK government and then I took the mic, sat on the edge of the stage and chatted to people.  I asked questions. I pitched a few grenades. I tried to get people thinking...I wanted people to go away and still be thinking about the things we had talked about after the Academy had ended. I wanted to plant seeds. I didn't want to broadcast at people because that is not what social media is about and it would have seemed hypocritical and wrong to do so.

It went well. There were fears shared and discussions had and we didn't agree on solutions but we did hone in on some pretty prickly problems.

After the workshop it was time for another presentation and so I went back to my seat, to sit next to the lady I'd been to the left of before.

She leaned over and said "that was a quite brilliant workshop, thank you. I'm terribly sorry for before, I didn't know who you were".

And I had to bite severely down on my tongue to not reply by asking her quite why it would have mattered.

Months later, of course, I've worked it out. It's about networking. Everything these days is. But it's also about resilience building and knowledge sharing too. It's about pulling people in who know some stuff you don't know so that should you need them in the future they are there. It's about reciprocal sharing, reciprocal curiosities and reciprocal questioning.

And she'd missed an opportunity.

What I still can't quite work out is how she hadn't noticed something quite crucial. So had I.

I have held off blogging this post for a long time to protect the identities of those involved. I don't know their names, I am not deliberately withholding them. However I would like to thank the lady who sat to my right for teaching me one of the most important lessons. Open your mouth and say hello. You'll gain far more than you'll ever lose from doing so.