Saturday, 4 January 2014

65. Five reasons to ban the intranet

Most, if not all, local councils have an internal website called an intranet that staff can see but the public can't.  I'm not sure I know what the advantage is.  It can't be security - nobody would want to share anything sensitive where anyone of x thousand employees could cut, paste and share in an instant.  So, lets get rid of them and put all our intranet content on the public website.  Not convinced?  Here are five reasons why:

  1. Openness and transparency are good.  They foster greater trust between the council and the public.  Lets start with 'why not?' rather than 'why?' when thinking about whether something should be publicly available.
  2. Better corporate policy making.  First thing we do when designing a new policy is look at what other councils have done - making things publicly available would save time and encourage greater sharing.
  3. Support for home working.  Sure we support home working but how easy is it to see your intranet when working at home? Productivity would be improved if staff policies, telephone directories and staff bulletins could all be accessed easily.      
  4. Intranets can't give us the information that we need.  The world is a complex place and the information we need as public sector professional is scattered all over.  One site can never provide for our information needs - instead we need to become skilled at Personal Knowledge Management - working in networks that we construct in order to make sense of our world so that we can work effectively.  This is a culture of looking out, not in.       
  5. You can't separate Council staff from the public.  The distinction between staff and public and between internal and external just doesn't hold in the same way it used to.  Staff receive services and many/most will be residents.  Social media leads to a 24/7 professional/personal life for many.  Co-productive approaches blur the difference between public and professional.  Intranets represent a walling off of our professional lives that simply seems out of step with all of this.
On this last point perhaps we could go a step further and replace our council websites with the internet of public goods - something along the lines suggested by Phil Rumens here.  Another post perhaps..

Friday, 3 January 2014

64. Treat scrutiny support as professional practice

As a scrutiny support team we have been thinking about our work as professional practice, trying to get underneath what this means and considering how we can improve what we do.  I’m not sure everyone sees scrutiny support in this way.  It suffers from being a mix of different roles and can often be mistaken as a sub set of committee support.  Now that scrutiny is coming of age, however, isn't it time to recognise that scrutiny support is a professional practice in its own right?


In defining our professional practice we started with the list of five core competencies that came out of work on the role of the professional scrutiny officer done by the University of Warwick and the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

This is our slightly tweaked list of those five competencies:

  • Research – E.g. Undertaking and coordinating research activities.  Gathering and analysing evidence from a range of sources.  Managing public engagement activities.  
  • Communication – E.g. Managing meetings and facilitating communication between key individuals and groups involved in scrutiny projects.  Producing reports that clearly and succinctly reflect councillors’ views and Inquiry findings.  Sharing the work of scrutiny through social media and traditional channels.   
  • Political Environment – E.g. Working within a sensitive political environment and providing advice to cross party groups of councillors.  Providing diplomatic challenge to all parties as well as knowledge of how and when to share information appropriately.  
  • Project Management – E.g. Being able to scope, plan, manage, review and evaluate scrutiny projects with councillors. Working within a wider scrutiny work programme. 
  • Relationship Management – E.g. Building networks and effective working relationships with councillors, officers and external stakeholders.  Sourcing and sharing relevant knowledge and information.  Acting as a public point of contact. 

These competencies, which together make up the 'meta role' of the scrutiny professional, are reflected in our job descriptions and provide the focus for 1-2-1 supervision and discussions in team meetings.

Professional Practice

While I’m not sure there is a single definition of what makes something a professional practice, there are a number of aspects of scrutiny support that make me think that it is one.  As well as a core set of competencies it is certainly a specialised field that requires a significant knowledge base and a commitment to continuous development.  Scrutiny practitioners have to gain expertise in particular topic areas as well as in the practice of scrutiny itself.

Scrutiny Officers Development Project

In Wales, the Scrutiny Officers Development Project, being delivered in conjunction with a new Post Graduate Certificate in Governance,  is an important and welcome step towards underlining the professional nature of scrutiny practice.  This pilot project, supported by the Welsh Government, is being led by the scrutiny team in Cardiff Council in partnership with the University of South Wales.  It is providing an accredited Masters level course that supports scrutiny practice and, by drawing together a group of scrutiny officers as participants that together represent the majority of Councils in Wales, it should also provide an excellent opportunity for shared learning.

Professional Values

As well as expertise and skills I would argue that there is also a core set of professional values underpinning scrutiny support even if these are not always well articulated.  These include a commitment to the democratic process, independence of thought, evidence based policy making, openness, impartiality and fairness.  It seems to me that these all operate at the heart of our professional practice.

Of course I’m not claiming that scrutiny support is a profession in the same way as nursing, planning or teaching.  While professional networks are taking shape there is no formal professional body, no Institute of Scrutiny Officers, providing accreditation or bending the ear of central government.  Indeed, the research conducted by Warwick Business School and the Centre for Public Scrutiny mentioned above found ambivalence towards the idea from practitioners although, five years later, perhaps things may have shifted a little.

One achievable step forward, however, would be to gain greater recognition from councillors and other officers in local government that scrutiny support is indeed a distinct professional occupation.  This will not only ensure increased respect for the function and the people who support it but will also help bring greater attention on the capacity and effectiveness of the scrutiny function as a whole.

Photo: @catherinefarre

Thursday, 5 December 2013

63. A digital climate for rewired local democracy

Here is the digital democracy version of the diagram originally designed by Carl Haggerty to explain The Digital Climate for Local Public Services.  The value of Carl's diagram is that it provides a framework for organising thinking around what is a broad and complex agenda.   Carl Whistlecraft and myself have reproduced the broad structure in order to share our ideas about Rewiring Local Democracy - a work strand of the Localgovdigital Steering Group. We have done this partly to build on the original work, partly to organise our own thinking and partly as a homage to Carl (a leader par excellence).

What the diagram provides is a map on which different pieces of work can be located.  You can see that on Carl's original post.  As this is a map within a map you should check out the original first and use this one to zoom in on the particular issues associated with local digital democracy.

Below is a first stab and collecting together some relevant pieces of work.  This is very much early days.  If you know of any others please let us know.

Overview and Context

Mr Speaker and #Localgov Digital

The Left Hand Side of the Framework

Not much here yet - suggestions welcome!

The Middle Section of the Framework

Transition Stage

Democratic Digital Engagement - A Blueprint for Local Government?

Democracy Bytes


Local Digital Democracy: A Five Point Checklist

The Networked Councillor

CllrSocmed:  Social Media for Councillors

Social Council Decision Making

Scrutiny Bytes

62. Seven tips for writing your digital democratic content

Working in a democratic rather than a service context means that you have to write your digital content a little differently.  As a scrutiny team we have been thinking about how we can produce content on our website that councillors will want to share and engage the public with.  Here are the seven points we have come up with - some apply to all digital content, some have a democratic twist.

1.  Focus on a single point of public interest

Each post should be about one thing so that it translates easily through social media.  You can add detail at the end but don’t muddy the waters by having more that one up-front aim.

The point of public interest is something I've written about before. Successful content will be about something that people actually care about.  Think carefully about which 'public' and direct the post to them.  Is your post for all residents, for social workers, for parents, for carers?  What will motivate them to share, read or engage? What do you hope to achieve?

2.  Carefully craft the title

Turns out that most people will not read beyond the title of any content but that doesn’t mean that they won’t share it.  Using ‘you’ or the name of a group (e.g. parents, teachers) works well.   So do lists such as ‘ten ways to…’  Oh and adverbs and verbs work much better than adjectives and nouns.  A well crafted title will help with sharing through twitter and facebook.

3.  Summarise with a neat and tidy snippet

If people get beyond the title then they may not get beyond the first paragraph – what we call the snippet.  It needs to be short and it needs to deliver the main point of the post.  Have a look at these eyetracking heat maps to see why this matters so much.  This snippet might also be what people see when they come across your post through a google search.

4.  Use an engaging style

We can’t write for digital the same way as we write reports and council minutes.  The style has to be punchy, friendly and engaging.  We like the suggestions in this great post about digital style.  Check out the localgovdigital standards for other really useful tips on writing content.

Update:  Some extra things to consider from the world of press releases on making your content more engaging if you are stuck.  You don't have to do all of them!

  • Highlight what is different as a result of whatever it is you are talking about
  • Why is it relevant and why does it matter?
  • What are the risks / consequences of not doing something?
  • What is the human interest? How will it affect 'real' people
  • Are there striking facts and figures that you can include? They must be relevant of course!
  • Can you include a quote from someone involved?

5.  Include a picture that tells the story

A great image can add a lot to your post but a stock corporate photo can make it seem, well, a bit lame.  If you want to get your post shared on facebook then carefully consider the image. You might be able to find something good on flickr (under a creative commons license of course – and properly credited) but if you can provide your own picture of the actual thing that happened then even better.

6.  Place the content where it will be seen

If you want councillors to share content then you have to put it where they will see it.  A little time searching on google will tell you where your councillors are – we found that about half of our scrutiny councillors had social media accounts with facebook, LinkedIn and twitter being the most popular.

7.  Do the promotional work

To give your post the best chance of being shared you should probably also do a little nudging.  Facebook and twitter give you the option to target individual councillors and simply asking people to share or retweet can also make a difference.  Use email to encourage sharing and hey, if you are meeting with councillors in person why not just ask people face to face.

We have produced this checklist as part of our scrutiny bytes project - part of the rewiring local democracy strand of localgovdigital.  

Photo credit: