Swinging about by Ben Salter
Swinging about by Ben Salter

In my teenage years one Christmas day I answered the door to find my Great Uncle Ken standing there. He was wearing a blue beret. I ridiculed his headgear and he purported to be shocked.

“Monty gave me this beret”

he said.

When I reported this to my dad as an example of the crazy things that Grandad’s brother said, my father gently reminded me:

“He fought in the second world war. Monty probably did give him that beret.”

Their oldest brother was Great Uncle Sim. I remember him too, though he was quite old and had Parkinson’s which was disconcerting as a young boy. He received Maundy Money from the Queen. He was in the Sherwood Foresters in the First World War. He lied about his age. One gets the impression they weren’t checking too closely in that conflict.

My grandmother (married to the grandfather mentioned above) was a bookkeeper in Hereford in 1940 when a senior officer for the home guard marched into her department store and drafted her for war work. She was locked in a tiny office in Hereford Station trying to keep track of the soldiers being evacuated from Dunkirk. They were being put on trains and moved north as quickly as possible. Across the UK people like my grandmother were trying desperately to keep track of them.

My paternal grandfather made munitions. My maternal grandfather worked in the huge ICI plant in Teeside and was in a reserved occupation (during my childhood I understood he was a painter, I now understand he did something more technical). He was also a Special Constable. My maternal grandmother was a nurse. In later life she married her childhood sweetheart. He had served on the HMS Cornwall which was sunk in 1942 in the Pacific. He and his crew mates waited over 30 hours in shark infested waters to be rescued. Over 400 men died. Not long before his death he was welcomed on the newly commissioned Cornwall where the Captain addressed him as “Sir” which he clearly found extremely moving.

These people are not history to me. They are ordinary. They are my family. I knew them well. My grandmothers only died within the past few years. The second world war was a long time ago but the fact that my grandmother could talk to me about it makes it seem more recent and immediate.

My parent’s generation, my generation and the generation that followed mine have lived under an unprecedented period of peace in Europe. That is clearly an amazing, wonderful thing.

But we should never, ever, take that peace for granted. To the generation that lived through it, war was real and immediate. To those of us that knew them well it seemed like a real possibility. As our collective memory fades the risk is that we start to believe that peace is normal and natural. But peace requires effort, and vigilance and we should be profoundly grateful for the peace we continue to enjoy.

Six links for a blogpost

It’s Saturday. I’ve been doing nice things, seeing friends and walking dogs. I don’t really want to write much today but I must because I have an agreement with Dan Slee that we will blog every day in November.


What do we know about Brexit?

Not much according to the House of Commons Library.

Confused by the High Court decision on Article 50? Here’s an explanation in plain English.


Compare and contrast

Army on standby in case of flooding in the winter.

CFOA responses to announcement: Army on standby for winter flooding.


The Government and digital

Ann Kempster is ace. But she’s not happy.


So long and thanks for all the…cheese

She is not alone

The Government IT Self-Harm Playbook


Normal service will resume tomorrow


You cannot have public services unless you pay for them

End of the road by Javi used under CC BY-SA 2.0
End of the road by Javi used under CC BY-SA 2.0
I remember the moment when I decided local government would be a career not just a job.
It was a phone call I made while working as “Media Relations Co-ordinator” in a rural District Council (it’s long gone now). I’d received an email (yes we had EMAIL) asking me to write a press release (we still sent those by fax) about the young single homeless persons starter pack. I’d phoned our housing team to find out what was in the pack. I imagined it would be a load of advice leaflets.
I was wrong.
It contained saucepans. And plates. And mugs. And crockery.
Because when you are a young single homeless person you didn’t have those things. And when you managed to get a room in a bedsit or even, because this was a long time ago, a flat you were going to need a mug. Maybe two because you might have a friend.*
And I looked at a PR career stretching ahead of me organising product launches for big brands or promoting boxes of sucepans and thought “I know where I want to work”.
And for the past 20 years I have worked in or around local government. I’ve worked in comms and digital and other roles. I’ve worked on the front line and in an ivory tower.  It has frequently been frustrating. It can be hard to drive change in councils. The politics and the Politics can grind you down. And I have certainly had periods where I felt like Kafka was pulling the strings. But more often than that I have seen real changes happen, I have seen services redeveloped, scrapped and replaced because that’s what local people needed. I have seen people work through the night to collect, secure and count ballots and to look after people in floods and snow and other disasters. I’ve seen vulnerable people protected, looked after, respected.
Mostly what happens in local government is dull and unremarked. Often (in social work for example) you simply cannot know the detail, and sometimes you just wouldn’t be interested. But, in the main, the councils I worked for did important, real, human things without which we would be a poorer and more horrid society.
But not for much longer.
The mayor of Liverpool is proposing a council tax increase of 10%. This is just the most public signal of a sector in profound crisis. You probably haven’t noticed. This is partly because local authorities have been good at focusing on keeping the plates spinning in the areas that people really notice but it is mostly because the cuts have fallen mostly upon the poor and the vulnerable in society.
You might imagine that at some point it has to stop, that there is a limit below which we, as the people of the United Kingdom, will not sink. I would argue we passed that point some time ago and the long decline shows no sign of ending.
It seems hyperbolic because those town halls have stood for decades, centuries even and everybody knows that councils are inefficient and stuffed with over-paid lazy managers and the Council Tax just goes up and up and look at the potholes and they don’t even collect the bins every week.
It’s not hyperbole though. It’s happening right now.
This is a profound change to our society. The implications will be felt for generations and yet there has been no real public debate about it. There seems to be no real understanding of what is being done, in the name of austerity, to people and communities across the land.
I’ll carry on working with councils to become more efficient, to use data more effectively, to innovate and try new, radical approaches. And there is, undeniably, money to be saved, new ways of working to be found and innovations to be revealed..
But ultimately you cannot have public services unless you pay for them.
It really is that simple.
*housing nerds will be aware that there were restrictions on the money local government could spend on such things. The pack was actually funded by local churches. The council was using its convening power to get something vitally important sorted. Even back then we could do a bit of innovation now and again.

Social media and the bereaved

I’ve just returned from an excellent workshop run by Gwent LRF. They train professionals from the police and local authorities who might work with bereaved families after a major incident together. This workshop was focusing on issues relating to the media and the bereaved. I was talking, in particular, about social media. My slides are included at the bottom.

This is a great scheme Gwent are running and I think many other areas could learn from it.

It was a reminder of how many people from across the public sector will be called upon during and following an emergency. It’s becoming harder and harder to find the resource to train and exercise those people. But without training and exercising all you have are a list of names in a plan.

How we use Skype (and Slack) in the Standby Task Force

Chit chat by Dano used under CC BY 2.0
Chit chat by Dano used under CC BY 2.0

The Standby Task Force is a digital humanitarian group. Our mission is to hep to improve the understanding of the situation on the ground following significant disasters. We have hundreds of members in the network and an individual deployment can involve anywhere between 60-400 of them.

Using Skype

SBTF was launched in 2010 and from the very start it used Skype chatrooms. This wasn’t, I’m fairly sure, based on a detailed review of the the available platforms. It was based on the fact that the founders used Skype. Indeed Skype is still a vital communications tool in international humanitarian work. It’s flexible. It’s reasonably open and works across platform.

When you signed up for the Standby Task Force you were added to the General chatroom. This was a fairly low traffic room but allowed for announcements to be made.

When the SBTF deployed we would create a new chat room just for that deployment. When volunteers signed up for a deployment they would need to be added to the chatroom. This created a degree of friction in the process: you needed to be connected to someone already in the chat room to be added in. Which meant you had to shout in the general chat, accept a connection request and then be added in. Given timezone differences this could lead to significant delays.

We also, though this wasn’t transparent to everyone, had a chat room for volunteers playing a coordinator role.

The deployment chatroom was designed to encourage volunteers working on a deployment somewhere to ask for assistance “Does anyone here read French?” “I’ve just found this photo, what should i do with it?” “What are the priorities right now?”.

It also forged a sense of team and shared mission.

The actual work was done on individual’s PCs and recorded on Google Documents (it’s amazing what you can achieve with Skype and Google Docs).

In big deployments a single chatroom would become unwieldy and we would then break out into smaller chatrooms focused on particular tasks.

In any deployment we have volunteers undertaking coordinator and deployment lead roles. These are team leader type roles, encouraging and supporting volunteers but also answering technical questions and (in the case of leads) liasing with other groups and agencies in on the ground.

Good things/bad things

Chatrooms can be surprisingly satisfactory ways of interacting and the record of discussions really helped get a sense of the work that had been going on.

They didn’t work for anyone. In fact in my first deployment I did nothing because I was unsure of what to do and, as a Brit, was too diffident to speak (type) up and ask for help. I know I’m not alone in this. Some of this is personal, some cultural and some is familiarity and comfort with the technology.


Emoji use is massive in SBTF chats. I think this is really important. We have people from across the world many of whom are communicating in their second (or third or fifth) language. We’re working under pressure in a heightened environment. The risk of misunderstanding is high. Emoji really help to emphasise the intent behind the words. It took a bit of getting used to for me but now I couldn’t be without them. Indeed I work with a client on emergency exercises and we use Skype chat for exercise control. Emoji are banned in that chat room and it feels like I’m communicating under water.

Advanced uses

Early on in the evolution of SBTF we recognised the real risk of stress for our volunteers and counsellors and an “empathy team” have always deployed with us. Coordinators work hard to spot signs of stress and to encourage volunteers to take breaks. It is amazing how you can get to know someone just through their typing and notice their mood change.

I think it was in the Nepal deployment when the empathy team set up a new chatroom badged as a cafe bar. It was inspired. People would spend time in that chatroom at the end of a shift. If you came across someone who seemed to be getting down in the deployment chat you could say “Let’s get a coffee (or a beer)” and start talking in the cafe chatroom. The mood would change instantly. I strongly recommend this approach to any groups working in similar circumstances.

Using Slack

We’ve moved to Slack. Slack is better for our purposes. It removes much of the friction that we encountered creating chatrooms and adding people (because our members can just join the channel). It also makes it easier to have chatrooms that persist between deployments (for specialist teams like GIS). We have a permanent cafe bar now. Slack works well because web are a defined team (thanks Slack for letting us use the full version for free).

We haven’t cracked the problem of dropping into a deployment chat being a bit like being dropped into a huge room of people shouting at each other (with emoji) but we’re working on it.

It’s not the perfect solution (there is no perfect solution). For people who don’t use Slack for anything else it is, in many ways, no different to the old Skype days: they have to remember their login details for Slack and then remember to check what’s happening. Because we deploy infrequently many of our volunteers don’t spend much time in our Slack team between deployments.

We can’t ditch Skype completely. Skype is still widely used in humanitarian assistance and so liaison with other groups still happens largely in that environment. Skype chatrooms remain very useful for more diffuse communities where people may need to drop in and out of conversations and projects.

We often work with local communities affected by disasters. Typically they will use whatever platform they were already using for discussion. Facebook is very common along with WhatsApp and Telegram.

Lessons for others

I was prompted to write this because of a discussion on Twitter about using Slack for multi-agency comms in emergencies in the UK. I definitely agree that using a text chat platform is a good idea (I wrote about this yesterday). Personally I’m not totally persuaded that Slack is the right solution for that use case. Because it is not so much a permanent team as a lose network, some of whom may work together in a particular emergency. If I were in that situation, I’d look at Skype first. It’s become easier to join chatrooms without being invited and you can access Skype via a web browser (which can be very helpful in a public sector IT environment).

Can we use slack for civil contingencies chat?

Phil Rumens was looking for examples of using Slack for cross-agency team chat.

Its sparked a nice discussion including examples of the use of WhatsApp and Microsoft Lync  I’m also familiar with the use of Skype by VOST teams and Skype (and more recently Slack) by The Standby Task Force.

Why do we need anything?


First. Let’s talk about the problem.

There is a beautifully simple and flexible framework across the UK for dealing with emergencies (everything from floods to terrorism to zombie-apocalypse). Essentially all the bits of the public sector are required to work together in a series of interlocking committees. It works really very well.

And for many people it means spending a lot of an emergency on a phone or glued to email.

As a comms professional in local government (not right now, but often) I have been one of those people. And as a geek I have always felt that there must be a better way.

Illustrate through analogy

Let’s take a hypothetical emergency: there’s a massive fire in a factory in a big city.

Clearly there will be a lot of firefighters at the scene, fighting the fire. There will also be some police officers. They’ll be setting up a cordon to make sure people don’t come into the factory. A crime may have been committed so the police will also want to make sure no-one walks off with crucial evidence. People may be injured so there will be paramedics and ambulances. They may have to evacuate surrounding areas in which case the local authority will be looking for places for people to stay temporarily. The Environment Agency will be there to help minimise pollution from the event. Other local authority staff might be called in to provide specialist advice on things like the structural integrity of the building.

You get the idea.

And that’s just the start. There’s the health service making sure people get treated and that the health of the general public is protected, what if a care home is affected, what about a school and so on…

This quickly involves a lot of people and a lot of organisations.

And from a comms point of view there’s a lot to keep on top of. The public need good, fast, information on what’s going on (and advice on what they should do). Journalists will have questions about what’s going on. Staff within organisations will want (and probably need) to know what’s going on.

And the managers of the people at the scene will be talking. They’ll be trying to work out what might happen next. What if the fire spreads? What if the wind shifts? Do we have enough fire tenders? Will we have to close roads to traffic and so on. And those people also need communications input.

Coordinate those cats

The good news is that, even in these straitened times, there should be quite a lot of comms people (or at least some) able to help between all the organisations involved. The bad news is that they will be in different parts of the country, probably dealing with lots of other things as well and they will have specialist knowledge of their organisations.

So as the situation evolves different people need to be consulted, need to be brought up to speed or to hand over their thoughts to people coming on shift.

And typically this involves emailing ever changing lists of people and sitting on telephone conferences. It typically leaves out organisations that have less direct involvement (even if that organisation might have valuable insight) and makes it very easy to lose track of where the situation has got to and where the comms messages stand.

If only there were a better way.

Well there is.

The situation I’ve just described is exactly the one faced by digital humanitarian groups like The Standby Task Force or VOST and they use Skype and Slack. Really successfully.


Text chat systems like this have some real advantages. When you come on shift you can read up the chat and quickly get updated not just on what’s happened but why some choices have been made. You can also leave links to latest documents and more structured updates in chatrooms for people to refer to. And you can talk in real time to the people who are online right then. Different chat rooms can focus on different aspects of the task to avoid overwhelming the main discussion. But people who are less involved in that area but are interested or might have things to contribute can monitor and chip in when necessary. In The Standby Task Force we can coordinate the work of hundreds of people in all timezones using Skype (or Slack) and Google Docs.

It’s not for us though

So why don’t we use these in civil contingencies in the UK?

Well (as the WhatsApp example shows, sometimes we do). I think there are several reasons:

  • insufficient clarity on security. In fact on Twitter my instant reaction was that Slack would be unsuitable for this use because of operational security, Matt Hogan (who frankly knows an awful lot more about this sort of thing than me) thought this probably isn’t a barrier. Someone must know for sure…
  • operational friction. Email and phone conferences are extremely flexible and use extremely widely understood protocols. You can ask for a phone number and an email address with absolute confidence that everyone will have one. Ask for a Skype handle and you may be disappointed. And even if people use Skype, will it get through the Firewall? Exercise Watermark in 2010 highlighted that technical issues like Agency A not being able to use the WiFi in Agency B’s headquarters were a significant problem. I am aware this continue to be a problem in 2016. How many agencies not being able to take part in the chatroom would it take before the whole thing falls over.
  • innate conservatism. Emergency planning isn’t an area that encourages risk taking. When I was trained in emergency control centre operation (a few years ago I confess) we were shown how to run a control centre on pens and paper. That’s sensible because pens and paper work in power cuts and don’t suffer from WiFi incompatibility. But most of the time there isn’t a power cut and there are much better tools.
  • the LRF problem. Planning for emergencies is tasked to a partnership at police force level called the Local Resilience Forum. Each LRF is different but it can be hard to get new ideas adopted by the partnership bodies and, even if they are, to get each partner to implement them. No-one is in charge. This leads to flexibility in emergency response and, often, inaction outside of the response phase.

Slack may not be the best solution. I mean I love it but really it is designed for teams, it is not so good, to my mind, in the more ad-hoc situation of an emerging multiagency response. Skype probably would be my favourite solution. I can see why people might use WhatsApp (and I have used it myself in an event management role) but it’s a bit to mobile device -specific for me.

What do we need?

What we could do with is:

  • some nice clear guidance on what you can and can’t do in terms of emergency management on, let’s say, Skype, Slack and WhatsApp
  • some nice clear advice on how to make it work “we suggest you set up a chat room for the comms team” type stuff. There’s plenty of experience out there. Maybe I’ll write up how it works for us at the Standby Task Force.
  • a couple of LRFs to pilot it to reassure everyone else it’s a good plan
Any volunteers?

An open source Brexit?

Open Sign by Andy Wright used under CC BY 2.0

David Allen Green has always been worth following on Twitter (if that’s your sort of thing). He’s been particularly interesting on the Brexit mess/process/glory (delete according to your inclination). He wrote a lengthy series of Tweets today, essentially critiquing the government’s failure to introduce a Bill to give it the power to trigger Article 50 (don’t argue with me, read what he said). One of these Tweets jumped out at me.

Now that is interesting. What would an open and collaborative Brexit process look like?


The UK Government already has an Open Policy Making toolkit. Brexit clearly is going to require new trade, immigration, foreign, data protection and environmental policy (that’s just off the top of my head, smarter people can probably think of many more). So at the very least the development of these new policies could be undertaken in an open and collaborative way.

The government is already committed to publishing Open Data. So the data (read evidence) upon which policy ideas are based should already be public and available to use. It would be really helpful if this could be brought together in one place. So that we can all see what the evidence is (and then argue about what it means).

Open modelling. The government is going to have to make estimates about the impact of different aspects of policy and legislative changes on the UK as a whole, on particular parts of the UK (in terms of geography and in terms of sectors of the economy) and on the rest of the EU (and probably on individual member states like the Irish Republic). Those assessments could usefully be made public (along with the models that underpin them). This would help everyone understand the trade-offs that are being made and (perhaps of more practical use) allow academics, companies and other stakeholder groups the opportunity to suggest improvements. They’d also help businesses (and communities) make sensible contingency plans.

None of this is hard or expensive to do. In fact there are loads of really useful tools to facilitate this. Why not maintain Brexit on Git?

The Government is arguing that it can’t reveal its hand in the negotiations. The idea of Brexit as poker is seductive but superficial. This is a negotiation between nation states not a high stakes card game. In fact useful negotiations can be undertaken in open environments. In fact having a shared picture of the facts and the implications of decisions would be likely to lead to better, more solid and long lasting agreements.

In fact we could use this process to as the start of a new, open, relationship with the EU and the rest of the world.

And it would go a long way to improve the level of trust between communities and people within the United Kingdom.

 [updated 21:44 on 7 November to remove a stray apostrophe and add a link]


Brompheniramine Model by Iain George under CC BY 2.0
Brompheniramine Model by Iain George under CC BY 2.0

I am (when I have access to the Internet) somewhat glued to the FiveThirtyEight coverage of the US presidential election (their elections podcast is also awesome). At the heart of their coverage is “The Model”. They take data from published opinion polls, feed this into their model and then publish the likelihood of Trump or Clinton winning the race. The model allows them to understand and, to a certain extent smooth, the inherent biases and uncertainties in different polls with different techniques. They also factor in none polling factors (like the state of the economy).

So what they have is a simplified version of the United States. It’s based on some theories about how polling data relates to actual turnout validated against data from previous electoral races.
We are poised to find out how good a model it is.
Models are useful, possibly vital, in terms of understanding the world. We all have models in our head. In order to be able to predict with any likelihood the impact our actions will have on others, we need a model of how they are likely to behave. Luckily our brains handle all this for us in the background so we don’t have to be conscious about it.
If you ever imagine that an action you undertake will have a particular consequence you have developed a model.
I’m pretty confident that when I write a news release it will be picked up and used by a journalist. This is, of course, because of my great skill and experience. It’s also because I have a model of how newsrooms work, of the values of my target journalist, of the sort of writing style that will appeal to them.
This model was originally handed to me in my professional training and I have improved and refined it based on the experience of 20 years of communications roles. It’s a pretty good model. It’s not foolproof but most of the time its good enough.
We tend not to be very explicit about our models and that can be a problem. If we don’t tell others the basis of our models they find it hard to assess how confident they can be of our predictions. It’s also harder for others to understand how new data mesh with our existing model (and reinforce it or suggest it should be changed). And they can’t challenge the fundamental assumptions underpinning our model. Which is something we should welcome.
This may not matter that much in terms of getting news articles in local papers. But it really matters when we talk about the impact that changes to the funding of social care (for example), or housing allocation policy, or educational selection at age 11.
We have subconscious models for all these aspects of social policy. They are probably poor fits for reality. If we really want to improve services for the public we need to state our models, show how they fit the evidence and be ready to change them in the light of new data.


Time by Daniel Waters, Co. Sligo, Irelandused under CC-BY-2.0
Time by Daniel Waters, Co. Sligo, Ireland used under CC-BY-2.0
I have a blogging challenge going with Dan Slee. It’s fairly straightforward. We each have to blog every day. Or there is a forfeit.
I may have hit the forfeit on day four. Because I am staying in a delightful holiday cottage in West Wales. It has no internet connection and the mobile signal advertises itself tantalisingly as GPRS. Which feels like it should provide a connection but actually doesn’t.
So last night I wrote a blogpost and stumbled around a benighted garden waving my mobile phone in a caricature of the metropolitan visitors that are the butt of many jokes in this part of the country. But I couldn’t send it.
And this morning I couldn’t check Twitter, or read the news, or find out what my friends had been up to on Friday night.
Which is, of course, kind of liberating. And the digital detox is an established part of the chattering classes solution to the stresses and strains of modern life.
It’s also frustrating. Clearly there is stuff going on in the country and I’m not on top of it. Has the government taking a strong stand to support the role of independent judges? Maybe the Prime Minister has replaced “Brexit means Brexit” with “We don’t agree with the decision but we respect the people who make it. It is wrong to attack judges for simply doing their job because you don’t like the decision.” And America. Are they foolish enough to elect Trump (in a world where Boris Johnson is my country’s top diplomat that doesn’t seem so unlikely)?
Then again. What do I gain, as a citizen, from being tapped in to this discourse? I cannot, in any meaningful sense, influence it. I am a gawping spectator to a motorway pile up. Fascinated, concerned, terrified but removed and disconnected.
And nothing can be properly understood from the instant reaction. If we want our leaders to exercise their judgement. If we want to exercise our judgement we need to think about things. Reactive states reveal a great deal about what you feel but very little about what you think. High Court Judges are clearly not enemies of the people, though some people clearly are very cross about their decision in this case.
Digital communication technologies are great. But the ability to respond and track significant developments in real time doesn’t equate to that being helpful, desirable or useful.
I’m very much not recommending digital de-tox. But I am recommending taking time for reflection.

23:45 gamesmanship

It’s 19:28 and I haven’t written anything today. But I’m at a thing on Citizen (or Basic) income.

At 11.38 I still haven’t written anything but my views on Basic Income have shifted. It’s still any exciting idea that might have social benefits. But I don’t believe it’s a solution to more pressing issues in our society like the spiralling costs of housing and income inequality.

I am literally writing this to get something up before midnight and so not have to perform a forfeit.

Which may not be entirely within the spirit of the challenge.

But is, I submit, within the letter of the challenge.