Category Archives: Citizenship

It was never about the money, really. Only about what it did.

Some of my  family asked what I thought about the bad news at my former employer Save the Children, so here is what I think.  The recent news is that Save the Children has stood down from applying for DFID funds, as I understand it, to earn back trust following the disgrace of the sexual harassment scandal involving Save’s former CEO and his former Deputy.  To me, that’s like standing down every doctor and midwife in a busy hospital because of what happened in the CEO’s office.  Different punishments would have been possible.  However this is the one that is happening  and it’s not for me to say whether it is right.  But all the press talks about is the loss of £100 million a year, and not what it does – so I want to add a little drawing in the margins to show what it meant to me.

I ran a team that worked with country and technical expert teams at Save the Children, and cutting the jargon, we pulled together bids for large and complex programmes and helped them start up.  So I feel very sad that Save will have to sit on its hands next time it sees an opportunity to save children with DFID funds.  For some, this seems a peripheral issue, what are a few bids here or there, that’s just money.  But the programmes that we got funded really did matter and I wonder who will really pay the price for the transgressions of the men at the top.

The UK public often has a perception that there are a lot of development NGOs and that the market could probably be culled without too much damage.  I think that perception arises because public fundraising in the UK is indeed frenetically competitive – however the globe is big and the distribution of NGO activity across some parts of the world can be pretty thinly spread out, especially in conflict affected or very remote areas.  Save  had made strategic decisions about focusing more on exactly those fragile regions.  Not every organisation could make that decision, as if you don’t have the networks, legitimacy, and security systems to work there then you are taking risks, at worst with peoples’ lives.  But those that can, like Save and Oxfam, felt that they needed to support people in those places.  So if Save and Oxfam cannot be funded to do work, there are certain districts or provinces where it is extremely unlikely that any other organisation can step in, certainly not with any speed or scale.

There were times that we at Save were really uniquely well-placed and I have no doubt that lives were saved by our work because we were there.  I won’t identify specific programmes as I do not speak for Save, but just one example I know well.  In Country X, we were one of only three organisations present in the region where most child deaths were happening, and where an opportunity arose that would enable us to treat 100,000 child patients a year for acute malnutrition.  One of the other organisations was smaller than us but we worked closely with their excellent experts to harmonise technical protocols and agree how to coordinate our work.  In the acute malnutrition programme Save had worked on jointly with them, we had a 90% cure rate. The third  organisation in the region had a 50-60% cure rate, and although they had other important strengths that we wanted to see deployed, you can imagine how strongly we felt that the approach with the higher cure rate had to be the one delivered – you can do the math yourself on what that means with 100,000 seriously ill children.

The nutrition advisor told me how she used to go up and down the queue outside the clinic, among women queuing with skeletally thin children in their arms in hot, dry air; and she would look for the children who were hours rather than days from death and get them to the front of the queue for therapeutic food treatment.  Oh fuck, I thought. We wrote in sophisticated technical language but it was oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck  that drove the work.

Actually, we brought all three organisations together, and got over the tensions to become partners.  The overall programme we were part of was worth about £45m and we helped shape the whole, it ran on a plan that we sat and bashed out with some aggression and fierce honesty.  It would have been easier to ‘know our place’ and ‘stick to our knitting’, implementing what someone else told us to, but it was right to speak out for children.  Those were our values.

A lot of money?  Yes, it needed money.  But the bit that momentarily floored myself and my colleague Joe, walking down the steps after it was signed off, was saying that it was likely that 100,000 children’s lives would be saved over 4 years.  And if the world had another 80 programmes at that scale, mass child mortality would be at an end.  Of course it doesn’t really scale like that but never before had I worked for an NGO and seen the resolution of a global challenge within that achievable order of scale.  That country changed me, it made me profoundly optimistic about the future for a while. Over the next few years I was privileged to watch my growing team work with our colleagues on education, livelihoods and health programmes that would reach many tens of thousands of children more.

I wish people in NGOs talked about impact targets instead of fundraising targets.  We did talk about results and quality but in NGO-world if you are successful in securing large amounts of money, people assume you are driven by money. But, no, not really.  It was never about the money.  It was only ever about what it did.    And that’s why I believe that it’s a tragedy that Save is not going to be turning DFID funds into therapeutic food, science equipment for schools, making orphanages safer, helping refugee families to survive, and all the other very many things it does for children.  I hope that this period is short, and that it can get back to its job of transforming children’s lives very soon.



What should I do after Britain’s EU referendum?

Stop no right turn

I cannot remember a darker week for British public life than this last one.  This blog is not directly about Jo Cox, the brilliant MP and passionate campaigner, who was murdered in the course of her duties by a man who gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. But of course it has shaken me deeply.  A politician was targeted and killed in the course of her duties: this is shaking Britain.   I never met Jo Cox, but have worked for the same charities, and read with admiration her writing and speeches: she was someone I saw as a leader on issues I care about.  My first thought when I woke on Friday morning was of her family, and what waking up that morning would mean to them.

A piece I admired a lot was one that Jo Cox wrote on Syria together with Conservative Andrew Mitchell.  As I have got older, I am less attached to party loyalties. What I have seen is that where something really matters, the best chance of a lasting result is in cross-party political consensus.  Here, in Jo Cox and Andrew Mitchell, were politicians showing that they cared more about what happened in Syria than they cared about scoring points off each other.

Jo Cox also said:  ‘What surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’.

I tried to get more involved in the Remain campaign but was defeated by the weight of work, study and my pregnancy.  My body shut down every time I tried to push myself to do more.   But the death of Jo Cox has made me feel that there is more I should do, soon.  I have not tried to challenge and comfort the cynicism and despair when friends on social media said politicians are corrupt,  all in someone’s pocket.  I could have found examples of politicians who are trying to make it better.  I have not been encouraging enough when friends have found ways to act out their values, and make our places and relationships better.

Part of what holds me back is feeling vulnerable.  I have a young child and am pregnant, I feel alarmed out campaigning when a big man towers over me and shouts ‘I’m voting OUT, come to your senses!’ I’m a dual national, and one of my oldest friends voiced her discomfort with the idea, saying that dual nationals were looking at both sides to see where to get the best deal.  I’m easily intimidated and get confused if I feel personally drawn in.  But I have to say this anyway.

It may be that next Friday, June 24th, it will fall to those of us on the Remain side to accept a result we have been dreading, to swallow our bitterness, and to search internally for the strength to get on with helping to build the future.  This does not mean that we should accept that all the things we fear must come to pass. I will definitely need the NHS in the next 6 months and my daughter will start school in a year.   As someone who depends on public services working, the economic shock will impact on me and my family.  So it will fall to people like me on both sides, to try to make the system work under the new, unwelcome, dispensation.  As my husband said last night: ‘The job is, always, to try to make things better.’   We will continue to believe in democracy but we will also be clear that we think the Leave campaign, if it wins, will have won largely on the back of misleading statements about money and on a terrible platform of fear about immmigration. A Comres poll showed that Leavers are more likely to believe that man-made climate change is a made up scare story, and to distrust scientists. We will need to argue the case for science and for a better direction of travel for the climate, among many other tasks.  It will be unwelcome work but we don’t have a choice.

On the other hand, if our side wins, what then?  We will be hugely relieved, but we should not over-celebrate.  We should not use that phrase ‘this is a victory for democracy’ when, vilely, we mean only that ‘our side won.’  (Equally we should not call a Leave vote ‘a sad day for democracy.’  Democracy’s sadness or happiness is not tied to a particular result).  It should fall to us who voted Remain, if we win the vote, to hear the many voices on Leave which were not racist, but which worried about housing, jobs, services, about the health of our democracy.  Many Leavers have the same worries that I do.  I cannot share their conclusion but I can share their concerns.

For all our sakes, let’s not exhaust ourselves with bitterness before the 24th.  Let those of us who believe in democratic process, dialogue, civility, citizenship education, on all sides, find the strength to help each other continue to believe in those things, even when, especially when, we have had our hearts broken.

Community orchard


Did voters for the progressive parties in the May 2015 UK election share common policy concerns?

So, the election… yeah. That didn’t go the way anyone was expecting.

The prospect of a progressive coalition melted like a rainbow at dusk, and both Labour and the Lib Dems are in psychological shock. The Greens and UKIP both have every reason to call for electoral reform. The SNP must be excitedly planning how to spend or save their new political capital in Scotland.

The soul-searching of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour is painful to see, but what I’m curious now in the immediate aftermath is not so much the campaign mechanics of how each party rebuilds itself, but what the election tells us about national culture and which policy issues connected across voters.

Is there any core of values across the left-wing and/or progressive parties?

Given the fiendishly complicated Maggie Simpson map that is the Which, as you all spotted, looks (a bit) like Maggie Simpson.British constituency system and my lack of psephological chops, the best I could do until the political analysts have done their thing was look at Lord Ashcroft’s polling on people who voted, and this absolutely lovely Buzzfeed article about the political maps of #GE2015.

Getting grounded in the facts, here are the figures for the proportion of the vote at the national level:

Parties % of vote Seats
Con 36.8 331
Lab 30.5 232
Lib Dem 7.6 8
UKIP 12.6 1
SNP 4.7 56
Green 3.8 1
Others 4 21

These figures are percentages of the 66.1% of the electorate who voted. One third of the electorate either did not want to vote, or fell through the cracks.

The first concern from a progressive point of view is that even adding up percentage shares of Labour, Lib Dem, Green and SNP is still less than the combined figure for the Conservatives and UKIP (Nick Clegg’s hypothesized ‘Blukip’ coalition).   The Conservative result on seats is not counteracted by a progressive groundswell split over the other parties.  Another concern for Labour is that turn-out was lower in regions where Labour did well on the night.  If Labour did lose voters to UKIP when Nigel Farage ‘parked his tanks on Labour’s lawn), could it win them back and at least swing the popular vote away from the Conservatives?

Lord Ashcroft’s poll of 11,898 people who voted produced the following percentage shares:

Parties % of vote
Con 34
Lab 31
Lib Dem 9
Green 5
Others 2

So the poll is somewhat under-representative of the actual Conservative share, and over-representative of Lib Dem, UKIP and Green vote share. And of course it says nothing about people who did not vote. But it’s a good place to start comparing some numbers.

Is there any common core of policy issues of across the Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and the SNP?

What was important to the people who voted for the parties in that hypothetical rainbow coalition that never was?

I looked at the summary of Lord Ashcroft’s post-vote poll data for this and did some colouring in.

The people he polled were asked to rate the top three issues facing their country, and then asked separately to rate the top three issues facing them and their family.

I ranked the data so that the issues were rated from most important to least important across all parties. (1)

Then I coloured the set of voters that found each issue most important in green, and the voters that found it least important in red. If another party’s voters were within 5% of the highest or lowest group of voters, then I coloured them in appropriately too. I put the most important issue for each group of voters in bold (or two issues if they were only apart by 1%). I highlighted ‘dealing with crime’ in amber, because all groups of voters were within 5% of each other, and it was a relatively unimportant issue for all voters.  My charts are on this link:  ashcroft country


One of the things to stand out is that Labour voters distinctly thought the NHS more important than anyone else, but the NHS was nevertheless the issue most often selected in the top 3 issues facing the country not just by Labour but by the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP. However both the Lib Dems and the SNP had an issue which was just as important to them, (‘Getting the Economy Growing and Creating Jobs’ in both cases) and for the Greens, the Environment was not far behind the NHS. Labour voters were unusual in the distance between the NHS and the next most important issue (the economy and jobs).  Only UKIP had a top issue which stood further from the others (immigration).   Paradoxically, when asked which issues most affected them and their families, the NHS grew slightly or significantly in importance for all groups of voters except for Labour, for whom it decreased.

Economy and jobs

The voters most likely to agree that ‘Getting the economy going and creating jobs’ was one of their top 3 issues were the Conservatives, Lib Dems and SNP. Labour and the Greens were less likely to rate this issue in their top 3, but the surprise to me here was how low the UKIP score was – only 27% of UKIP voters put the economy and jobs in their top 3. This is especially surprising given that elsewhere in the poll, 51% of UKIP voters agree with the statement ‘I am not feeling the benefits of an economic recovery and I do not expect to.’  SNP voters had a markedly different reaction: they were the most likely to agree with the statement ‘I am not feeling the benefits of an economic recovery and I do not expect to,’ but rated the economy and jobs as their joint most important issue affecting the country.

Cost of living

‘Tackling the cost of living crisis’ moved up significantly in importance across all voter groups when asked to rate the 3 most important issues affecting them and their families, compared to its positioning when asked to rate the most important issues facing the country. The issue was up by 20% or more for Conservatives, UKIP and Lib Dem voters when asked its importance in relation to them and their families.  It is hard to interpret this unanimous uprating in importance when the issue is considered from the personal rather than the national level.  Possibly those voters were more swayed by the country issues than the personal ones, or equally possibly, perhaps they did not see the issue as owned by Labour.

Relatively unimportant issues – education, the environment and crime. 

You can see that issues that did not feature much in campaigns really fell by the wayside in terms of the importance that voters gave them when asked about importance to the country. Education and crime were relatively unimportant to voters from all parties when asked to take a view on the country as a whole, and the Environment was only significant to Green Party voters (53% of Green voters unsurprisingly included it in their top 3 issues, against an average of 9% across the other parties, and only 3% of Conservatives). Education became somewhat more important when voters were asked to name the three most important issues affecting them and their family, although even then, only 18 – 22% of Lib Dem, Labour, Green and SNP voters put it in their top 3 issues. Only 13% of Conservative voters and 9% of UKIP voters put it in their top 3.

Do any parties place similar importance on the issues?

Looking at the top 3 issues for the country across all voting groups, Labour is not very close in its importance ratings to any other party. Looking at the top 3 issues for self and family, Labour is only close to one other party on issue: similar percentages of SNP and Labour voters rated ‘tackling the cost of living crisis’ in their top 3.

Labour, Green and SNP, and sometimes the Lib Dems become closer in their ratings on the issues that overall were not rated as most significant across all parties, such as education, Europe, and welfare reform. Arguably, the left-wing or progressive parties are more similar in what they don’t care about so much, than the issues they care about.

The Conservatives are very close to UKIP on many issues, but not on ‘Growing the economy and creating jobs’ where they are most like the Liberal Democrats and SNP, or ‘cutting the deficit and the debt’ where they are most like the Lib Dems.

How similar are Labour and UKIP?

Hardly at all. There are almost no issues where Labour and UKIP are close to each other in their ratings, which suggests it might be hard for Labour to reach that group of voters on other issues, even if a social consensus on immigration could be reached. There is no one piece of common ground. This could be very significant for Labour’s electoral prospects. UKIP’s vote share went up across the nation, even in Scotland.  A growing portion of the population is choosing a party for whom the far and away biggest issue is immigration. UKIP’s stress on immigration is not only unmatched by any other party, the percentage of people choosing that issue in UKIP was higher than the percentage in any other party choosing their most important issue.

Overall, is there a common set of important issues among progressive and/or left-wing voters?

I do not get the sense of one progressive or left-wing voting bloc which circumstances split into different parties for this occasion – the different ratings in importance between the parties feel  significant. It is interesting that the NHS did have such broad importance but that its cardinal importance to Labour (maybe reflecting its Labour origins) is unique.

It looks as though the Lib Dems and the SNP pulled away significantly from Labour in how much they rate the importance of the economy and jobs.  Whereas UKIP and the Conservatives are quite similar in many things, but not on the economy, jobs and the deficit. And UKIP is not much like any other party in the primary importance of the immigration issue.

Perhaps the most worrying factor for Labour would be that of the voter groups who felt that the economy and jobs was one of the biggest issues, one is in a country that may become independent or at least more politically separate sooner rather than later, and those votes, lost this time, may never have the option to return again.

Voters rating issues in top three facing country

Voters rating issues in top three facing country

Voters rating top 3 issues facing them and their family
Voters rating top 3 issues facing them and their family

(1) Ranking the issues from left to right as most important to least important is based on averaging the percentages produced by each group of voters.  It  is not the same as saying that the ranking shows the ratings for the whole population as there would be more individuals producing some of the party percentages than others. But it gives a snapshot of something like combined party voice.

(2) The poll data also shows many other reasons why people voted – there is no intrinsic match between policy issues and voting decisions, as factors such as leadership, tactical or local voting play their part. But the policy issues matter if you’re trying to build bridges, which is what many progressives are thinking about now.

The Commons – tragedies, games and corporate citizens

One of the areas we discussed  in our first week in Cambridge was the challenge of  shifting business incentives from the short-term to long-term, which would line up better with sustainability.  We recognised that shifting incentives to the long-term is a major undertaking and the conclusion I felt we were nudged to is that it can only happen if  top leaders make those decisions.   One of the lecturers made a comment that stuck with me:  ‘no CEO wants to be the last’ – i.e. the one that brought the company down.   I agree that key individuals can make big changes.   But that leaves the question of how leaders represent and cooperate with their communities, and how we all look after the things we hold in common – nature and knowledge being two examples of that.  My reason for doing the course was (partly) to look for ways to bring different cultures together in an alliance against ‘global public bads’ such as climate change.    Community management is one way to preserve ‘the commons’ (see evidence for assertion below) but businesses as we know them are called  the private sector for a reason.  How could two such different things cooperate?

My one-line definition of the ‘Commons’ is that it is about how we steward the things we share, i.e. the things which are not privately held – whether that is a place of wild nature, or information on the internet. It is closely connected to the idea of ‘global public goods’, and some policy types have begun talking about ‘global public bads’.

I am not pretending that ‘business’ are the bad guys.  At the social level the challenge of coalescing motivation to tackle climate change is even bigger – I’ve heard people who have children and grandchildren say that they don’t care about climate change because it won’t take effect until after they are dead.  If people don’t care viscerally enough about those specific cute little members of future generations that they play peekaboo with, what hope is there that anyone would care for people from a different class, a different country, or  a different time in the future?

And ultimately if people don’t care enough in their personal lives, why would they be motivated to make a difference at work – to lobby their CEO and lead in their own sphere of influence  – or to be effective as a citizen, helping their community, being clear what deals they want governments to make for the common good, and protect us from our own worst selves.  And so I sink into despair, think  – what the hell, might as well enjoy myself while I can, and leave the course and spend my free time drinking Martinis, sewing cocktail hats, throwing soirees and watching Modern Family.  Actually, I sometimes really wish I was doing that. Sigh.  There has been a Martini soiree deficit in recent months.

But.  If I was to let myself think that humanity in general is doomed to be as driven by short-term incentives as the consumer feeding frenzy of Black Friday suggests, I’d be a total jerk.  The actions of people all over the world prove that people are courageous and civil and smart and rational.  And yes, tutors,  there is academic literature to back that up.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the 1968 theory by Garret Hardin is supposed to prove that rational economic agents will inevitably over-exploit a common resource.  The logic would be irrefutable if humans were only rational economic agents and not also members of a community, and if you suppose that rationality excludes knowing that if you eat every fish in the sea today, there will be no fish tomorrow.  (Although if you’d eaten every fish in the sea you’d probably fancy something different the next day…)  There is a video explaining the theory and its flaws here by Geof Glas which also refers to fish resources as a prime example of the commons.  I’ll mention fish again later.

The Financial Times wrote an inspiring piece about Lin Ostrom, who worked on a much more positive approach to the Commons, and was the first woman to win a Nobel prize for economics.  If I could time-travel, I would love to spend a day in her Workshop .    Lin Ostrom, working with her husband Vincent, believed that common pool problems needed to be solved by a polycentric approach, i.e. that problems like climate change can be solved bottom up by communities, cities, regions:  FT article: (paywall, but free subscription for three articles a month available).

The intergenerational commons

One of the questions that interests me is the idea of intergenerational commons.  Although at the core of the Brundtland declaration:  ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, ‘ there is also a legalistic argument which says that you cannot make commitments to future generations because they are not yet people in the legal sense.  And my anecdote of people not caring about events that will happen after they die shows that this is not just a legal but a cultural issue, and perhaps an intractable one.

A brilliant piece of research ‘Cooperating with the future’ (Hauser, Rand, Peyskhovich, Nowak) created a ‘public good game’ with the intention of finding out if there are means to prevent over-extraction of resources. Their research discovered that creating a democratic system to govern extraction is effective in conserving resources in the game, but only if it is binding.  I loved this as a  fusion of citizenship and sustainability research.

What does the private sector have to do with sharing?

For my first assignment, I looked at the insurance sector and the role it can play, especially in poor countries, in helping people manage risks.  The rationale for studying this is that climate change is going to hit Asia disproportionately; where there are lots of poor people.  The insurance sector, theoretically at least, appears to be among those whose incentives are more likely to be long-term, and more likely to be aligned with sustainability goals.  There is a potential market (in line with ‘Base of the Pyramid’ thinking) and so it seems useful to find out why insurance schemes for low income people are currently not working, or at best are niche products, and to look at what can be done to overcome some of those problems.  I’ll write another blog about my findings, about the importance of non-traditional business models (at least non-traditional to us in Europe) and how co-design could overcome some of the challenges.

I think my deeper interest in this topic is what it says about ‘the Commons’ and how that concept intersects with business.   Climate change and the risks it will bring (is bringing) to millions will, if we don’t stop it, be the ultimate ‘global public bad’.  So looking at cooperation as a concept in the middle ground of ‘the Commons’ and the private sector, I thought that insurance is an example of cooperation within capitalism.  You don’t usually go to the website of a major re-insurer for an inspirational quote, but I can’t describe the concept better than the Willis Research Network did:

“How can society, at local and global level, share the costs of extreme events…?  Populations and institutions share and transfer risk by pooling resources … The principles of insurance underpin this vital function: insurance has been described as the ultimate community product; and reinsurance as the ultimate global community product. All insurance consumers participate in this global system of risk sharing and cooperation but many remain unaware of the role they are playing to support others, just as they will be supported when required. As risks increase, this global system of risk sharing will be fundamental to sustaining resilience for exposed populations and assets.”
It’s actually quite beautiful and surprising to think that through the mysterious workings of the market, we are unwittingly providing help to those who need it.  Unfortunately, this market does not yet reach the most vulnerable.
Fish, community management and the commons
In the group project I am in, we are looking at the role of eco-labels in driving sustainability in the fish and seafood sector.  I have come across several examples of community management as ‘by-catch’ of our research that provide examples of how and why community management works: i.e. for the simple reason that if the community exhausts its resource, its livelihood disappears so people are powerfully incentivised to conserve it.  Community can operate at many different spatial levels, and this article from Swiss Re (another re-insurer) asks whether increasing national responsibility for oceans could help drive sustainability as a larger unit of community.  (Sadly, the link to their earlier discussion on the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in relation to fish no longer exists).

So, to end:

Solving the temporal aspects of sharing the commons may require political action, but there is a lot of work we can do now in civil society and in business by advocating the effectiveness of community management approaches and looking more at the benefits and drawbacks of models such as cooperatives.  And there are indeed drawbacks, as the Cooperative Bank’s widely publicised disgrace in 2013 showed, creating a sense of deep betrayal among many of their loyal customers, evidenced by the number of people switching accounts.  Hybrid models that draw on business traditions and community traditions may be possible.  My open question to all sides of the private/public/community triangle is whether we can learn and be open to change, even if that change comes from points of the triangle where we might not be willing to look for partnership.  Do we care enough about the Commons to work with people with whom we might feel we have very little in common?  Can the cooperative movement and corporate citizens share their ideas?

They work for who?

I’m still puzzling over the problem of localism.  I can see all its virtues in terms of making democracy feel more meaningful and enabling decisions to be made closer to the point of impact.  I’m not cynical, and I believe that people want to engage.  Yet there’s something about the debate on handing cities ‘control over their own destinies’, or at least their own tax-raising powers, that makes me uneasy.  The lack of local accountability mechanisms is a main blocker.

I do think localism would be good for governance.  But it has to be accompanied by a conversation about how we hold together as a society.  For example, there have to be means to carry out fiscal transfers from richer to poorer areas to avoid entrenching regional inequalities.  Also, I’m not sure how genuinely popular a move to localism would be.  The current turnout for locally elected officials such as police commissioners is poor.  Although there was a widespread passion for Scottish independence, there is not (anywhere that I have seen) the evidence that localism at the level of smaller units will be a smash hit.  Presumably part of the issue is citizenship education, building confidence, skills and interest in building local societies.

I’ve seen my local area convulsed in a debate about a PFI streetlighting contract between our council and a construction contractor.   Some of the issues might seem small to outsiders, in which term I include the council and the contractor – but they are vividly felt by residents.  It seems fair to say that even if the contract is a success in terms of the metrics the council and contractor set themselves, it is a failure in terms of public engagement.  Even someone as stroppy and well-informed as me was told that information I requested about safety standards was ‘commercially confidential’.  I found the feeling of being told to shut up by my Council interesting, as previously I have always had a good experience of contacting people like my MP or MEPs.    I am noting it down here to remind myself of what it feels like.

So (recognising of course that anecdote is not evidence) my experience suggests that people do feel passionate about their micro-locality, and the Scots referendum  suggests that people feel passionate about their national identity.  But if we are to make localism a success we would need to find that spot between the micro-local and the national where people have a sense of belonging and responsibility; decisions can be made; citizens can engage, and hopefully the work of local authorities can be made more efficient with higher quality results.  Digital solutions such as City Dashboards, if stepped down a level to the local authority, could be one of the tools to help create a sense both of belonging, transparency, relevance, and even socialising and fun: And the system of effects should be monitored to see that greater localism does not entrench postcode lotteries in issues like health services.

Smart Cities, technology and democracy

I wouldn’t normally just post an article without commenting on it, but I’m nearly out of time for everything on my course, so I will have to. This article on smart cities and democracy is brilliantly written, it is a stream of crystallised gems.  By Stephen Poole for the Guardian.  It encapsulates everything that fascinates and worries me about smart cities and democracy.  What if the thing that really got disrupted by technology turned out not to be cab rides and hotel rooms but democracy and our very nature as individuals with free will? My favourite paragraphs are these ones: ‘And what role will the citizen play? That of unpaid data-clerk, voluntarily contributing information to an urban database that is monetised by private companies? Is the city-dweller best visualised as a smoothly moving pixel, travelling to work, shops and home again, on a colourful 3D graphic display? Or is the citizen rightfully an unpredictable source of obstreperous demands and assertions of rights?’ Some really thought provoking stuff on how we can be predicted as crowds (something I suppose market researchers have known for a long time); and on the double-edged sword that is big data in both empowering citizens, but putting them under mass surveillance at the same time.    I need to come back to this when I’ve finished my study obligations, there is so much to think about and unpack here.

Another great article to think more about here on the FT – 17/01/15:

It discusses the potential for Britain’s smaller towns to flourish more by becoming bigger.  It quotes interesting numbers of inhabitants required to make various facilities viable:  a nursery, a pub, a cinema.

Here’s another article that provokes some thought, although quite differently.  Google are investing in an urban technology division (apparently to the dismay of their investors, who grow ‘restless’ about the tendency of Google to make long-term investments). What is almost most interesting about the article is how uncritical it is of some of the aims.  It describes Uber and Lyft in Messianic sustainabilty terms as reducing demand for car ownership by making car service more cheap and accessible.  Nevermind that they are not actually reducing demand for car usage (possibly just displacing that demand to hire cars) and certainly never mind the precarious employment situation and low pay of the people driving Uber’s cars.  Similarly, the software predicting where crime will happen – tell me, journalist, exactly what sort of profiling does that software use?  Would that profiling be legal in America if a human being rather than a machine was carrying it out?  I’m a huge fan of technology and its capacity to make the world a better place.  But uncritically failing to place technology in a social context runs risks of those technology gains being made at the expense of other important needs, like the needs for living wages and equal treatment under the law.

Ideas for social and visual budgeting software

I have been thinking about data visualisations a lot, which reminded me of one of the ideas I want to develop one day, but I will probably have to learn to code, so it’s some way off.

The idea is a visual participatory budgeting tool.  It would mash up (for example) spreadsheet software with Google Earth and an image bank of animations of things like people walking, a bus driving, a midwife, a school.  It would help people working with others to plan  a budget in a way that can be understood by everybody, not just the person with the unenviable task of wrangling the Excel workbook.

The idea behind it is that all programme budgets that we do in NGOs involve trade-offs, because if you put money into one thing, you are usually be definition not putting money in something else.  There’s not really a ‘line of sight’ (see what I did there) between the changes you make in a budget as you make the trade-offs during the process, and what that feels like in practise. For example, imagine you are planning a health programme in a particular area.  You can afford six well equipped health centres with a staff of 6 people each, catering to a host of health needs.  Then someone comes up with an innovative idea for something using solar power.  Everyone loves solar power, it’s as irresistible to funders as a basket of kittens.  You really feel you’ve just got to include the solar powered  camel transported pharmacy or whatever the innovation is.   Someone says that you should do research about the innovation to see if it’s effective so that you can scale it up properly later, so you put some research in the budget as well.  Ooowee, academics cost a lot!  So you’re over-budget.  If you cut some centres that means some communities will still not be anywhere near a health centre.  So someone suggests that you have two proper centres, but four basic health posts with two staff.  So you draw them roughly and put them where they might go on google earth.  That makes it easier to see what sort of roads and terrain you’re looking at.  Are they physically impassable?  If you know how many miles each health post is from the centre, you can quickly calculate petrol.

Perhaps you could take it even further in making budgeting truly social.  Someone draws a floorplan, and asks the community on social media for three ballpark costs for building something on that scale.  You get the thinky thinky people in the hivemind to do a quick and dirty peer review of your innovation idea.    You could overlay the maps with environmental data, so you know you’re not proposing to build a new school on a flood plain.  Or data from the UN about conflict levels so that you’re not siting that school between rebel groups and the government.

Would this kind of budgeting/planning  software be commercial?  I can see how you would use it in a development project when it’s really important to get participation in the project right from the beginning.  And it would probably live in Beta for a long long time and look really rough to begin with.   Someone would still have to wrangle it into an elegant but chunky set of workbooks for the funder.  Would it be useful for businesses, e.g. in doing market assessments when they are thinking about expanding services into new areas?  Would it help them consult a more diverse range of people and therefore get a more rounded view of what their new strategy might cost them?

But I think it could go somewhere, even if not as an accurate budgeting tool, then as a way to think differently about development.  As we integrate nanotechnology into our bodies and we become part of the internet of things, it should get easier to virtually feel our way into a budget (unless we decide that actually we’re going to go all out on a rearguard action for privacy and biological determinism).  We might be able to do a simulation of the programme we are trying to create.  Obviously that would work better for physical, infrastructure heavy kinds of programmes than intangible governance ones.  But in terms of getting more diversity of thought into the whole project planning experience, it could be a good way to go, and if it can build more ownership and support more bottom-up approaches to sustainable development, I would love to see it happen.

I’m sure that other people are thinking the same way, or even that someone is already working on it.  If anyone is, I would love to hear from them.  Maybe it’s already out there, please let me know if it is as I would love to use it.    And if I’ve sub-consciously nicked this idea from one of the brilliant practically minded brainiacs I’ve worked with along the way, tell me and claim your idea – and then make it!

After they said ‘no’.

Before the referendum I pledged to write to my MP if there was a no vote pleading for the wishes of the Scots to be respected for greater devolution of powers, whichever way the vote has gone.  But as things turned out, there was no need to lobby for further devolution (yet) as that was promised, ooh, whole days before the election, without about as much thought gone into it beforehand as I put into choosing my lunch.

I hoped very much it would be a ‘no’ as my family crosses England, Scotland and countries outside the UK altogether, and the run up to the referendum was a period of great frustration for many of us denied not just a vote, but a voice altogether.  As time wore on, I sympathised with more of the ‘Yes’ campaign, especially every time the  parties in the rest of the UK rattled their sabres about leaving the EU.  My husband  would apparently have been eligible for citizenship (although ironically, not eligible to vote) and I indulged in one of my daydreams of moving to Edinburgh and watching from afar should UKIP really start tearing the UK to shreds.  Still, the ‘no’ vote came as a relief, but it was sad and there was no celebration. I knew how the ‘Yes’ voters must have felt because I know how devastated I would have been if they had won. I thought ‘that’s how I would have thought about them if they’d won,’ when I heard people in Scotland on the ‘Yes’ side who were furious in their grief, like David Greig who said: ‘The result was, in those final weeks, a feeling arose that if we voted Yes we’d be yoked to a grieving, lunatic, hostile nation to the south.’

And then, repulsively, as things have turned out, there has been a huge spillover from the Scottish referendum into ‘English Votes for English Laws’, claims of greater tax powers for London, (even for Croydon), party politicking with the legal soup we call the Constitution. There is no national leadership. We’ll go to Dundee for the first time since the referendum in a couple of weeks and see what the mood is there, but down South, the only mood I’ve seen is, ‘so enough of that brief interruption where we talked about Scotland for a fortnight, let’s go back to talking about me.’  And the only thing in all this I might get a vote on is London.

I complain that there is no-one talking about the common good, nobody talking about cooperation or trying to heal the injuries in relationships between people since the referendum, and no wider appeal to the fact that a few months ago, politicians here were vowing that we were ‘better together,’ in the general landgrabs on resources and party-political constitutional rigging that is going on at the moment.

I hoped that Scotland would not separate, and I don’t believe that London, or any region, should take further steps towards isolating its budget from the rest of the country – because it is too short a step from there to refusing help to parts of the country that need help. We are all interdependent, and likely to become more so. Why should London keep its tax revenues itself when its workers commute in from the counties all around? Why aren’t we giving away some of that money to create jobs nearer where people live,  rather than proposing to make the centrifugal force of London even stronger?  Why not take some of the pressure off London, and its overheated housing bubble and over-stressed infrastructure?

Even worse, people seem to be abandoning the idea of mutual help.  Climate change could bring about floods or other disasters in the richest or poorest parts of Britain, and so we never know when we might need the help of a city or region in another part of the country.  Many of us don’t know what the changing economy will bring for us and so community should become more important to us, not less.   I can’t imagine saying to my family that I would vote for London to keep more of its own tax revenue, if I had even the smallest reason to believe that that over time would mean London staking a claim to its ‘own’ money and not contributing to the public purse to help parts of the country that will never be so well off.

Which is not to say that more devolution might­­­­ not help. We have  social problems and economic inequality in the UK, and perhaps devolution would lead to innovations in governance based on a deep understanding of the local context. Local charities, small businesses and social enterprises might find new roles based on closer access to power and a more pragmatic, tactical, human scale politics that is less combative and ideological. If we could have that, and still have the idea of helping and being helped, and of thinking actively about how the country as a whole can develop, not just the city or region we are in, I would vote for that.  The post-referendum debate could have become about citizen engagement rather than gone straight to taxes, and maybe it still could.

But I’d have to be more sure about it than I am. Maybe local systems would develop new power elites, and cronyism could thrive. Maybe competitiveness between neighbours would result in a race to the bottom and an attempt to export one unit’s problems to the next. Southwark Council’s leader being wined and dined in Cannes by companies he then sells housing estates to, isn’t a great advert for localism.

Maybe one day I’ll vote for London to be a city-state, but I don’t think so. I have family ties to Dundee, East Devon, York and parts of Lincolnshire. I have studied in Leeds, Norwich and Cambridge. I have daydreamed about moving to Edinburgh or the North Essex coast. And I can’t begin to list the places that I have got to know and like because friends hail from there or have moved there. And that’s just the UK. Many of my friends are bi- or tri-national and multilingual, and I can’t imagine trying to unravel their lives, or force them to choose one identity and reject half their family through something like the Scottish vote.

In the days after the referendum, I decided after years of dithering, to apply for British citizenship.  Partly I’m tired of having paid taxes for 18 years without representation, partly scared of the way that the mood against Europe threatens the basis on which I’m here.  But also because the Scottish referendum made me realise how viscerally and passionately I care about Britishness.  I agree with Billy Connolly when he talked about his distrust of nationalism, and his sense of community with people beyond national borders. I was raised to believe in solidarity more than in national borders.  But you have to have an identity of belonging to convince people that you are arguing constructively from a position of love, and British politics and culture, including the left-wing and the ‘Yes’ campaign have gone down the path that says that a geographic identity is the primary form of belonging.  So I will apply to be British, and I feel happy about it. We have so many identities and the power of Britishness, it has felt to me now that I have decided to apply for citizenship, is that you can be British and something else too: a Yorkshireman, a Scot, a Finn – and that’s just my closest family. But if that identity does not mean mutual help, it cannot build anything else, and has only a symbolic role. Losing all that mutual help in a spate of local devolution would be a long-term injury that would outweigh any short-term economic benefit.  If I become part of that system then I will be able to vote for mutual help.

World Statistics Day and rows about statistics I have loved

In the run up to World Statistics Day, I thought, well I like stats myself, but really, it’s hard to convey what’s emotional about them. Then I realised that some of the most charged moments of my working life have been triggered by a statistic.

Statistics cursed my first job. I spent three months of my life laboriously data-inputting a set of survey results into SPSS, then endured a month-long argument with my boss of the time because I was convinced that our results showed that the female professionals we were studying earned less than the men. He was absolutely sure that I was being ideological. He pulled rank and I muttered mutinously and impotently until the end of my contract. For the record, I was right.

After that I went to work for a family planning organisation, where rows raged about people who were considered ‘Malthusians’ (caricatured as neurotics terrified by the thought of large populations of people who weren’t likely to go to the same sort of school as them) rather than us activists who cared about women’s rights to plan their families.

Then there was the time I had a battle royal with a close friend who picked up a proposal for an HIV programme that I was writing. I was using a certain government’s HIV statistics, my friend had worked on HIV in the country under question, and he was absolutely convinced that the government data was wrong. I knew my proposal would not get funded unless I used the data. He said I was using data that I knew was a lie, and that made me a liar. I called him an idiot idealist. For the record, he was right.

I accepted that I was burnt out when the mortality and morbidity statistics I worked with every day had lost the ability to move me. I moved out of the sector for a while until I was ready to work with data about death again.

Now I’m back with a different set of questions. Why are donors mostly unwilling to help NGOs invest in their statistical capability? Why are there no incentives or requirements for NGOs and private sector providers to share their data with one another and with donors – not just through ad hoc and interactions but as a global strategy? Every NGO I have worked with has been desperate to deliver value for money so that we can deliver our promises. We work with statistics about sad facts and we are outraged by the stories those statistics tell. But generalities only help a bit, while better data would help us work in more targeted ways and ultimately save more lives. Data should not be seen as a luxury but as a driving force in the way we work.

(Btw, on a feminist angle the rehabilitation of Florence Nightingale from sentimental generally nice person to ‘passionate statistician’ health campaigner, look at: