The tyranny of narrative

hamilton_smallI’ve become mildly obsessed by the Broadway musical, Hamilton. I don’t feel embarrassed about this, it’s a massive hit and is crushed under the weight of the awards it has won.
It follows the life story of the least well remembered American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. If you like writing it’s the musical for you. If you like musicals it’s the musical for you. If you have a pulse… you get the point.
Spurred with enthusiasm by the musical I’ve started to read more about the history around the founding of the republic. And it turns out, unsurprisingly, that certain scenes in the musical have been tweaked or condensed compared to history. They depict things that happened, but not in exactly the way depicted. Which is fine. Dramatic licence is wide and anyway you want a paying audience to actually enjoy their evening rather than get a dry history lecture. The confrontation that drives a wedge between Washington and Hamilton is more dramatic if it occurs over a duel fought with Charles Lee rather than over Hamilton being a bit late for the meeting (which the Washington biography I’m reading suggests was in fact the case).
The point of this is we like narrative.
And listen to Hamilton (you can’t watch it, you have no chance of getting a ticket).
But mostly: narrative, it’s important.
Narrative helps us to understand the world, to position ourselves in a story. But the story has to make sense. Some things serve the narrative, some don’t. We respond to the things that serve the narrative, we gloss over or ignore the things that serve the narrative.
This happens in organisations. We develop narratives about restructures, about cuts, about new ideas. Showdowns between managers are explained in terms of the narrative. We also develop narratives about customers, about partners, about consultants and about politicians.
This is not, intrinsically bad. It’s possibly even good. Trying to understand any organisation as a set of dry history lessons would drive most people mad.
But it shuts our mind to the actual, objective truth. Facts (we might call them data) that conflict with our narrative are dismissed, or changed to fit what we already know.
That’s bad and destructive.
Facts are dull. Narrative is fun.
Get swept up in the narrative sweep of award winning musicals. Not organisations.

GovCampCymru 2016: my day

Man and a woman looking at each and laughing
Photo by Nigel Bishop used under a creative commons licence.

GovCampCymru 2016 took place last Saturday (24 September – ahem – 23 September) at the Pierhead Building on Cardiff Bay. Because of my advanced age I usually can’t spend a moment at the Bay without stopping people and saying “I remember when all this wasn’t here”. Luckily GovCampCymru was so engaging that I didn’t really start lamenting the loss of the Red House until the post event drinks at World of Boats.

This is how it went for me.

Actually before that. Let me just say The Pierhead (I remember when ABP was based there you know) is a great venue. We were so lucky to have the support of  Adam Price AM in making this event happen. Also massive kudos to National Assembly events and security staff. I was involved in a very small way in helping to organise and I really can’t praise the friendliness and helpfulness of all the staff I worked with highly enough.

(Get on with it)

There were 20 sessions and I could only get to four.

This is what I found.


The first session I went to was run by Barod CIC. They were demonstrating their jargon challenge. I had 2 minutes to explain to a (very friendly) panel what I did for a living. If any of the panel heard some jargon they would buzz me. Too many buzzes and I would fail. Luckily I passed (with no buzzes may I (smugly) add) and won a rosette.

Even so I was conscious that I was editing how I would normally describe my work and this sparked, for me, a really interesting conversation around jargon and accessibility which then roamed into questions of how disabled people are represented in the media.

Now I’m a communications specialist so I could discuss jargon, its origins and how to tackle it till the cows come home. What was distinctive about this discussion was we were talking about the consequences of jargon. Excluding people and disempowering them. These are important issues that I think we spend too little time thinking or talking about.

If Barod has a fan club I want to join it.

Crossing the border.

The next session I had pitched. It was not well defined. It was based on my lifelong fascination with borders.
You see I grew up in Hereford, which is about 15 miles from the Welsh border. We had bilingual phone boxes and got our water from Dwr Cymru. In fact our water comes quite literally, from Wales, down the Wye which returns to the principality after its brief sojourn in our county. After living and working in mid Wales (including Hay on Wye which actually is the border) and Shropshire (more borderland) I’m back in the fair land (it’s the gift of God you know).

I wanted to talk about ways in which public services can be responsive to the way people live and work, often on either side of the border. (For a couple of examples Hereford County Hospital serves patients in both England and Wales, the main train connections from Hereford to, well, a lot of places we might want to get to, are run through Wales and the Borders a franchise shortly to be handed to the Assembly).

I wasn’t (and am not) saying there is a problem but I am interested in how well we are managing the governance around these “border effects”.

Some other people felt this was a subject worth talking about. We heard that policy makers have been thinking about some of these issues. There are issues around legislation to try to ensure that border effects can be identified and dealt with. And it was pointed out that petitions to the Assembly are not restricted to Welsh residents so border counties could petition the Assembly if they felt legislation might affect them. And of course Welsh communities have MPs who could represent their interests if the House of Commons passes English legislation that may affect them (though the question of the role that Welsh (and Scottish) MPs should play in English legislation is somewhat vexed of course).

For me the most interesting point in this conversation was the suggestion that this is not an exclusive (or even primarily) England/Wales issue. Maybe this is just what happens when you draw borders around areas. We heard from a charity working with people in need of social care support that moving between local authorities in Wales can cause real problems for individuals (as, for example, councils disagree about which of them is liable for the funding). Apparently Scotland is tackling this issue by, amongst other approaches, creating a pooled budget so local authorities can focus on the need not the budget. That sounds really interesting (though the cynic in me wonders how easy it will be to manage the overall spend on that budget).

This felt to me like the start of a conversation. If devolution progresses in England (which is by no means certain) it would be really helpful to bake in governance for border communities. Though we probably won’t of course.

Considering open data and future generations.

After lunch I went to a session pitched by Angharad Owen. Well it was more of a joint session. We are both core team members of ODI-Cardiff: the Open Data Institute community in Wales and we wanted to explore what people though ODI-Cardiff should focus on. We also wanted to explore what we see as the opportunities Open Data offers to the implementation of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

This was a pleasingly well attended session with a whole bunch of people with different skills and experience. We talked a bit about Open Data and the legislation. I won’t detain you with that here.

The key take aways for me were.

Someone needs to “sell” open data to individuals across organisations in Wales. I think that’s probably a job for ODI-Cardiff. We’d love to hear from people who want to help.
Soon public service boards will be publishing statements showing their approach to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. These will be based on data. The data is unlikely to be opened. So, in the consultation phase, we have an opportunity to talk to people about why opening data (which they’ve already been using) would help them and the communities they serve.

I’m really excited by this. If you are too and you’d like to get involved with the Open Data Community in Wales please join our Slack team.

Am I sustainable?

The final session was a pitch on how we can build sustainable (in terms of sustainable development as well as viable) enterprises in Wales. This was exactly the sort of pitch I really like at govcamps. Essentially we had someone thinking through the next phase for her social enterprise and she invited us to think through some of those issues with her.

We talked about the challenge of balancing the need to focus on your social mission with the need to pay the rent and feed the cat (or the kids). We talked about trading vs grant funding and the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. We talked about ethical approaches and how to think through ethical issues in advance.

I really got a lot out of this session (even if I did, perhaps, spend too much time talking about the Standby Task Force).

One question that it raised for me is the issue of being a “sustainable” enterprise. One thing I always say to people thinking about going freelance or setting up small businesses is that one of the key factors is you will never be sure you are going to be paid next month (well maybe next month but in six months maybe not).

This is a fact of life for trading organisations. It’s not a bad thing. It concentrates the mind and encourages innovation (or perhaps more accurately destroys businesses that don’t sell what the market will buy). This is fine. But it’s not what most people would call “sustainable”.

There is a role in our society for organisations that are sustainable, that will be here next year and in ten years, that can hold our assets and our heritage. In Wales there is still a reasonable consensus that that is a key role for the state (that consensus has broken down in England).

I think the consensus in Wales has it right on this one.

I’m firmly committed to the principles of participation and self-organisation that lie at the heart of govcamps.

One day all public sector gatherings will be like GovCampCymru.

Using web stats to engage colleagues and improve performance


(Not my choice of title)

I gave a presentation at Better Connected Live yesterday (25 May).The slidedeck is available online including a cheesy stock image that amused me (but, it would seem) no-one else. And a slide only included so I could make a “Why did the chicken cross the road” gag. Which I totally failed to do.

A talk of two halves

The first half of the talk was a rambling discourse of my, possibly ill-advised, research into the use of local government websites. I have written extensively around this research so I will spare the reader what I failed to spare the audience.

Engaging colleagues

First of all let me confess that I was never brilliant at engaging colleagues. My tactic of repeating “I don’t care what you think” was often not seen as an offer to collaborate.

However it did happen occasionally and since I’ve fled the shores of local government I have seen good examples of other people working closely with their colleagues.

Let’s not talk about data. Let’s talk about services.

The more I work with data the more I think it’s the wrong thing to talk about. No-one (apart from data-geeks) really cares about the data. They care about what the data tells them about their life or work. So let’s talk about that.

This also shifts the power dynamic. The web team “owns” the webstats. The service manager “owns” the service. So let’s talk about the service.

Who used your service? How did they get there?

My old friend Google Analytics (don’t forget Google Analytics is used by 89% of local authorities) is good at capturing and reporting referral headers. Referral headers, broadly, tell the stats engine which website the user was on before they arrived here.

Except referral headers are not passed by many email clients or by social media apps (though typically they are passed by social media platforms opened in web browsers). Which has the effect, for many organisations, of under-reporting referrals from social networks and emails.

There is a solution but I don’t see it widely implemented across local government: campaign tagging. Essentially manually appending extra information to the URL when you share it.

The Google URL Builder tool makes this easy and the process can be automated or semi-automated for enterprise use.

Referrals tell you not just what channel they used, but potentially infer some information about the user (if they clicked a link on the St Mary’s School website maybe they are a parent or pupil there). Device use, browser choice all help build a profile of who is visiting your content or accessing your service.

What did they do next?

One of the most powerful signals that your content or service is working well (or not working).

If people visit the missed bin page and then vanish from your site it suggests that they got what they were looking for. If people visit the missed bin page and then visit other pages in the waste area it suggests that page (or potentially the navigation leading to it) is failing the user.

What did you expect?

The killer question.

For the service manager .

This is your service. Who are you expecting to use it? Where are you expecting them to come from. What are you expecting them to do next?

It’s OK if this is a back of an envelope calculation but my golden rule of not getting hopelessly lost in analytics data is never to look at it without a question. The best question (at least to begin with) is “did this work the way we expected”.

The answer is almost certainly “No it did not work the way we expected”.

Why did it happen this way?

Your chosen webstats package can tell you what happened and when but it cannot tell you why.

The why is the interesting question of course. It’s probably because the service isn’t working for the user. The best way to fix it, of course, is to go and talk to some users.

But now you know what to talk to them about.

Use simple infographics

In the same way as the longer I spend working with data the less I talk about data the longer I spend with graphs (or infographics) the less I want them to do.

My favourite infographic is a single word.


(this worked as expected) or


(this did not work as expected)

Time series bar charts and scatter plots are terrifically useful for investigating “Why did it happen this way” but they are, in my humble opinion, largely rubbish for engaging colleagues.

Keep it nice and simple. Add complexity only when the user needs it.

The goal is your friend

Goal tracking is a very powerful tool in Google Analytics. It’s not expressed in language that resonates with local government (lot’s of stuff about ecommerce). But goals can be expressed flexibly and give you really powerful insights into how people are interacting with your site over multiple visits.

It can be a challenge to define goals for your website. But if you don’t know what the most important tasks are right now then what do you know?

The unit of delivery is the team

(As someone once said)

This stuff works well when everyone gets focused on the same task. I achieved most as a web manager when I worked alongside service managers looking at all of our data: web, calls, service levels together. I achieved least when I used data to try to win arguments (or service managers did the same with me).

In conclusion

There is mixed practice in local government around the use of webstats but I don’t think that can be broken out of the organisation’s practice around the use of data generally.

In fact data was a recurring theme at Better Connected Live. Which is good.

I find it helpful to remember that organisations don’t switch between binary states of “using data well” and “not using data well”. Instead data-sophistication is a journey.

In fact I’m involved in a data sophistication project in the voluntary sector called Data Evolution for just that reason.

(Photo credit: why by Art Siegel used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

The wind in the website

Photo of toy rat and mole in winter woodland

I’ve been thinking about using different ways to communicate ideas lately.

I wanted to write something simple about Campaign Tagging and why it might be a good idea to try it.

I could just knock out a simple blog post. That would actually probably be the best idea in terms of SEO. But it’s dull.

I could create an exciting video. Maybe a 2 minute YouTube or a quirky and imaginative Vine.

But I wanted to play about with the idea of story and to try the excellent Twine.

So here is my first effort “The Wind in the Website (with apologies to Kenneth Grahame)“.

I’d really like to know what you think.
It’s also an opportunity to have a play about with GitHub HTML hosting.

(Photo credit: In the Woods by John Nolan used under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Interesting things are afoot in, of all places, Gloucestershire.
I mean no disrespect to that fine county.

Alright I mean a certain amount of disrespect: I was born and bred in Herefordshire. We don’t have much to look down on but we try to look down on Gloucestershire. Though they have a very nice cathedral and can make a passable bottle of cider.

I didn’t ask Jon Hall to comment on these matters.

Though he has worked for Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service and now he runs Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service.

And their Highways department.

And he’s the Chief Fire Officers Association lead on National Resilience (deploying CBRN and USAR teams in the event of significant incidents).

And he’s one of a growing band of “suits” (uniforms in this case) championing social media. He tweets as @GlosFireChief and where he has influence he is using it to make better use of new technology.

Twitter streams have popped up for Gloucestershire’s Fire and Rescue Service, Highways, and Local Resilience Forum. Localgovcampers will be delighted to learn that Gloucestershire has joined the ranks of the twitter gritters*.

Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Commanders find that they are strongly encouraged from the top to get on twitter. In fact Jon believes that social media is a core skill for everyone working in civil protection and crisis management.

“If you are a Station Commander and you are not paying attention to social media, you cannot know your patch” he says.

Despite the global reach twitter gives him, Jon has found the most significant benefits from the local community. Through twitter he has made connections with parish councillors and other local community leaders that he would struggle to meet in the real world of a large, mostly rural county.

So he encourages everyone to get on social media if only to listen to what’s going on. He is very clear on the importance of local intelligence. In fact some of his officers were embedded with Gloucestershire Police intelligence analysts during the August riots.

His Head of Highways role is a pragmatic response to reorganisation imposed by the cuts but it has given the county a new perspective on issues like flood planning and road safety.

It seems fair to say that Jon is not hidebound by traditional ways of doing things. Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service has just announced an integrated command with a river rescue charity: Severn Area Rescue Association. One SARA team is now based within a Fire Station and firefighters and volunteers deploy together.

Jon says that SARA brings different capabilities. The Fire Service needs slipways, SARA can launch craft down muddy banks. Close working means the Fire Service can have confidence in the training and quality of the volunteer partner.

I asked him whether this was a one off or the start of more state/volunteer integration. He definitely sees more of this sort of thing in the future. Though I’m not sure he was thinking about digital volunteering programmes like standby taskforce (which I was).

Despite the enthusiasm, Gloucestershire hasn’t yet started including social media in exercises. Jon is also conscious that more imaginative uses could be made of the technology. He pointed me towards #woofwednesday which has been used to talk about UK search dog teams, personal safety when dog walking and a whole host of other messages targeted to dog lovers.

And finally, Jon has a simple message for his fellow Chief Fire Officers.

“Take the reins off and let people go for it”

*If this is your sort of thing you might like my social media checklist for councils gearing up for winter.

I had a chat with Amanda Coleman, Head of Corporate Communications at Greater Manchester Police on 23 Aug 2011. I was particularly interested in the process behind the force’s escalation on social media and the learning from it. This is an edited version of what she told me.

Greater Manchester Police is the constabulary serving the conurbation around Manchester in the North west of England. It employs 8,000 police staff and 4,000 other staff. The corporate comms team stands at 36 (including a number of staff employed on dedicated roles such as working within the police museum).

We saw the value of social media in 2010,  developed a social media strategy and started using several social media channels. A big turning point came in October with the 24hr twitter marathon.

Our corporate team has been training police staff in neighbourhood teams to make use of twitter. Out of 52 neighbourhoods 45 have twitter accounts (all badged and starting with GMP). For example @GMPDidsbury (run by PCSO Ben Scott) has over 2,000 followers.

We use twitter extensively along with flickr and youtube. We had struggled to find a clear business role for facebook, prior to the recent disorder.

Our social media use was driven by a combination of wanting to improve engagement, reduce costs and make communications more interactive. We hadn’t given too much thought to integrating social media into emergency plans.







Trigger and escalation


Obviously we were aware of the disorder in London. Pockets of disorder took place on Sunday night / Monday morning in Liverpool and Birmingham. On Tuesday the force level meetings began planning for the if, where and when and the force command suite was opened.

We developed a social media plan quickly as the situation unfolded. The fact that we had a team already familiar with the tools and networks was vital in doing this successfully.

Communications staff were put on a rota to support intelligence staff with social media monitoring in an operational context. They also monitored the networks for communication related information from within the command suite.

We kept talking to people on the networks, gathering data and getting messages out promptly. We aimed to challenge inaccuracies but did not get into issues where the force had no data. We aimed to make the corporate account the focal point of trusted information. We wanted the message to be “check with GMP”.

We use a conversational and personal tone normally on our twitter account. We continued this through the disorder and afterwards.

There was a period when disorder was escalating when the situation was very confused and we were silent for a couple of hours. In retrospect we should have put out some comments. We will definitely learn from that experience.

We sent guidance to the people operating local, official, twitter accounts and encouraged them keep a sense of normality and to follow messages from the corporate feed as appropriate. Greater Manchester is a big area and most areas were untouched by the trouble. Having neighbourhood accounts behaving normally and providing reassurance was very valuable.

We put press conferences straight onto our Youtube site and began to post CCTV (and other) images of those suspected of crimes onto our flickr site within hours of the first reports of disorder. There were over 1 million views of these “most wanted” pictures within days. At the peak over 101,000 people were following our corporate twitter account.

And we found a use for facebook in sharing these images and receiving images and reports from the public.







Learning points


Senior officers in GMP have described social media (in the light of these experiences) as a “game changer for policing”. We had to deploy significant amounts of communication resources on a nearly 24/7 shift pattern for several days. We had five or six quite intense days.

Our on-call press team now check twitter as part of their response and we are always aware that journalists read our twitter feed so all our corporate communications channels have to be integrated.

We already run exercises to test how well we deal with media enquiries in major incidents. We will be looking to make sure we integrate social media into those exercises in future.

We were able to respond successfully only because we were already using social media networks and had the skills necessary to adapt to this situation.

We made mistakes on some occasions. The situation and the medium move with such speed that it was easy to trip up. We tried to catch these mistakes, put our hands up, apologise and move on.







Message to other category one responders


Do your preparation, make sure you understand the networks and plan.

Amanda tweets as @amandacomms.

I did some very quick analysis of GMP’s twitter as part of this blog post.

For a second night London has seen violent disorder in several locations. The Metropolitan Police has engaged in a significant public order policing effort.

There will be many reviews and there are already many arguments about the causes and triggers of these events. The Police tactics have been criticised. The actions of the Police surrounding the death of a Tottenham man have also been criticised and are the subject of a review by the IPCC.

I want to look at three issues which all emergency managers should be reviewing this morning.

1 How rapidly can you deploy on social media?

There is no doubt that the Met has wised-up to the existence of Social Media. There is no doubt that the scale and speed with which Saturday night’s violence erupted surprised the Police. Had they had intelligence that such disorder was likely, it seems likely that they would have been ready to use their corporate channels as part of a policing plan. But the Tottenham riot took them by surprise. They clearly had to scramble to deploy resources, to seek to get ahead of the incident and to ensure an effective chain of command. The incident was playing out across twitter from Saturday evening. The MetPolice twitter account was silent on the matter until Sunday midday. Since then it’s been a bit more active. This may have been a tactical decision. If so it was the wrong one.

Scrambling onto social media presents a series of problems for many organisations. Practically though, it is the way most bodies are going to deploy social media in emergencies. You need a structured approach. You need to be able to mobilise someone (someones) with appropriate training so that they don’t inflame matters, reveal confidential tactics or otherwise make matters worse. They need sufficient standing with the incident commander that they can provide meaningful advice and suggestions. They need to be available at short notice and have access to the requisite kit, passwords and support documentation.

It’s widely held in emergency planning circles that emergencies always occur on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. This probably isn’t true. But you really need your plans when they do.

2. Have you trained for third party use of social media?

When I talk to emergency planners about social media (and mobile and related tech) these days they tend to focus on the organisational uses of the technology. “We could have a facebook page” they say “and use it to warn people about incidents”. That’s all very true and you certainly should do that.

There is, until I get going, less of a focus on the impact of social media on the wider community. Riots need several things: they need an underlying feeling of anger, dissatisfaction, resentment. They need a trigger. And they need a bunch of people to join in. Social media has impacts on all those aspects but its most spectacular impact is on the scale and speed at which people can be mobilised. It does look very much as though this was the effect in Tottenham. People used private and public networks to share information about the riots. The pictures of police cars on fire caused most of us to shake our heads and worry about the local community. It seems to have caused some people to think “I’ll have a bit of that”.

We need new plans to handle these new forms of communication. Only a few years ago you could control a bought of disorder if you got enough resources on the ground quickly enough to isolate the instigators then keep enough force around to stop groups from forming. That task has become much more complex because of the ability of crowds to share information over any distance, to actively coordinate or to merely share intelligence, to recruit and plan dynamically. A load of abilities that used to be reserved to the police with their radios, control centres and command structures.

And it’s not just violent disorder. Imagine the impact of social media and related tech on another fuel crisis, a Pandemic Influenza incident, foot and mouth.

Scale and speed. That’s what should become your mantra. Scale and Speed.

3. Are you training for greater openness?

This is a one-way street. The whole world has instant access to news, views and comment from any incident, certainly in the west. 24hr rolling news is the least of it.

The traditional approach of tackle the incident, try to bring things under control and then hold a press conference may not be appropriate in this new world. On the other hand it probably isn’t appropriate to give a minute-by-minute account of operational policing decisions. Somewhere in between those two is the new balance. Next year the balance will shift, and again, and again. It only moves in one direction

Incident commanders work in a goldfish bowl now. How well trained are they for the new world? And how well supported?

In summary

Social media and online tech does not fundamentally change the management of emergencies but it must radically alter the tactics used by responders.

The effects of the new technology need to permeate not just the corporate comms team but all aspects of the planning and decision making process. This is not only about warning and informing its about a fundamental change in the way citizens behave in emergencies.

Photo Credit: Firefighters – High Road Tottenham & Lansdowne Road by Alan Stanton used under CC BY-SA 2.0