Deja Vu All Over Again

I am personally inspired by the folk who are driving forward the LG “”Digital”” agenda in multiple ways, through events, blogs, tireless work and at significant personal cost in terms of time, and, um … cost.

From several local gov camps and similar, and much tweetage there seem to be a whole set of recurring themes around getting this stuff to break through into action. Again.

There is an emerging realisation that something higher-order than good work in one or more authority is needed. And various attempts to create organisational forms that will take things to the next level. Again.

All of this dialogue, though eerily familiar, is actually incrementally useful in trying to put our fingers on the question of why this isn’t yet breaking through the way we’d like.

I don’t know the answer to that, but here are some thought pebbles to set spinning across the pond of “”digital”” discontent.

  1. Maybe it is breaking through but we’re just not seeing it! Maybe what’s coming through is the result of the sheer grind of compromise and risk aversion that is almost inevitable in organisations which are (think about this) – local monopoly providers of essential services which are publicly funded, which are democratically accountable, and politically rationed in a hostile scrutiny (small or big s) environment.  Tough context!  Those things are like the weather – we can’t change them, we have to wear appropriate clothing. So maybe the progress we are seeing is brilliant, maybe it’s as good as it gets, maybe it’s going to take a shed load longer than we think, and maybe we don’t have to beat ourselves up so much. Maybe. I think it’s worth considering.
  1. Councils are different and becoming more different all the time. Localism rocks! But it works against standardisation, and it means that partnerships for eg joint development need to be chosen with care. The innovation need, capacity, capability, leadership of councils varies considerably, even if in other respects they seem pretty similar, or are conveniently close. In some of the recent tweetage I pointed people at slides 6-13 of this. I think we need to have language for understanding the differences between authorities and their contexts. I think we also need to accept that the best thing might be to give up on 95% of councils and work with the smaller number who want to innovate, and currently have the capacity and capability to do so. Let’s beam a small group “coalition of the willing” down onto this new planet, and hope that our council isn’t the one wearing the red shirt. (Note to self, do I need to explain Trekkie references to this audience …)
  1. Controversial one this. Perhaps we need to think about going where we can do most good. This might mean taking a super-honest look at one’s current authority and acknowledging that you could do more good somewhere else, somewhere that’s playing with a better hand of cards. Or somewhere that demonstrably gives an actual stuff. That might not be practical for some people given family circumstances or bonds of loyalty. But it’s a thought. What if we could get all the localgovcamp people working for the same council! Well actually it would be an unmitigated disaster but you get the underlying point, I hope. To add extra controversy to this point I will take my life in my hands and say that a lot of people I talk to decided to stop working for a council but stay passionately involved in local government by stepping out as freelancers, establishing or working for companies, and found they could do more good that way (despite enduring the ever so funny jokes about the dark side, and not getting invited to things any more – or asked to pay – but let’s not go there).
  1. Do we care about it enough to get our hands dirty to make change happen? I did some sessions at PS Launchpad about this sort of stuff for example this and this. One of the reported reasons why corporate services professionals in local government (eg IT, HR, Finance) often don’t want to get promoted to Corporate Director roles is that they will no longer be able to represent the interests of their tribe – they may have to make decisions which compromise the purity of the vision. I’d love to see some of the LG “”digital”” folk say “right, I need to get to be a chief executive ASAP, then I can sort it”. That wouldn’t actually work as a strategy but the people trying it would learn so much in the process. Many years ago I was a manager of analytics consultancy types in a discipline called operational research and I wrote this paper called “wearing your clients’ shoes” – anyone fancy working with me to update it for “”digital”” in local government?

(Note: In this blog I have put “”digital”” in double quotes to signify that I am loosely referring to people and concepts which are currently aligning themselves with the word “digital” but which in my mind have very little to do with technology (either digital or analogue) and which therefore risks massively confusing means with ends, but happens to be the only flipping label we have currently.)

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Tim Garner’s Autumn Irwell – Manchester Mid-Life

On a recent visit to Manchester I dropped in to the ARTZU Gallery and discovered an artist called Tim Garner.

Tim’s work is fascinating. His most recent work in and around Manchester consists of large photographs painted over to bring out relevant effects. For me the dominant theme is of transition. His works are post industrial but they don’t just think about the past – they also look to a future. One picture in particular exemplified this for me – it is called Autumn Irwell.

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Autumn Irwell differs from some of Tim’s other work in that it is less obviously “post industrial” – other works by him show disused mills, warehouses and so on. However this is most definitely post industrial – the river itself is and was navigable and part of what gave Manchester the ability to import raw materials and distribute finished goods. It also contains within it the LS Lowry Luxury Hotel. I’m not sure I can conceive of a more post-industrial concept than is contained in the phrase “LS Lowry Luxury Hotel”.

A little about Tim – Tim is my age – middle age (slight clenching of teeth there). Like me, Tim grew up in the country and came to Manchester later. We both moved away from Manchester and the occasional returns expose and underline the enormous changes that have happened in that city over the last three decades. Manchester is reinventing itself, just as, I am beginning to see, people do too.

For me, this is a mid-life picture. It is a picture that illustrates a complex past of many changes, and yet still a future, albeit uncertain. This picture reeks with symbolism of time: a river, a bridge, a time of day, and a specific season – and that season is of course Autumn. As with Tim’s other works this is paint layered onto a photo – but the aspect ratio of the photo is that of a snapshot, a polaroid – a point in time.

The bridge – which appears more sharply in the original than it does in reproduction – is a high tech, computer designed suspension bridge. We are invited to read left to right – the support member is on the left – in the past – and it reaches out across the river – the landing point is indistinct. But the sun is shining onto the future bank of the river.

I think that a meaningful work of art is like a poem – it gives you different things when you go back to it, and gives different things at different ages. But just as I like the poetry of Martin Farley because he and I are similar ages and have similar childhood backgrounds, I feel that I can resonate with the work of Tim Garner – even if I am getting things out of it which he didn’t intend to put in! Anyway, in the musings of a day off, this is what I get from this picture, today – my snaphot.

 

{Blog updated December 2017 to reflect that the artist/gallery have since changed the spelling from Irewell to Irwell on all of Tim’s works with that name in them}

Why I won’t be going to the Roman Colosseum again

A few years ago I wrote a piece about the way that as a society we tend to forget past horrors and end up glorifying things that we surely wouldn’t, if we could manage a little empathy for people who were basically no different to us.

A further experience in this vein happened recently when I went around the Colosseum in Rome. Some frankly pretty shitty stuff happened to people there. People who were sentenced to death “ad bestias” were killed by wild animals in front of 75,000 baying spectators. I suspect a significant number were crying for their mothers while it happened. Unarmed people pitted against gladiators, slaves forced to kill or be killed. Thousands of people put to death brutally and publicly; imagine being pulled from a dark cell into the bright sunlight of an arena and thousands of people shouting and cheering as you are chased by a starving animal, or as you have to decide whether you are going to attempt to stave off death for a few minutes, possibly at the cost of another person’s life.

So when visiting the place where these atrocities happened, what kind of demeanour would you expect from the visitors? Smiles and selfies, laughter and chatter wouldn’t be the main thing for me. And yet, times hundreds, people walking round, posing for photos, and even the ones who read the factual, non-glorifying information that set all of this out clearly, grinning like idiots.

This may seem like a small complaint – after all it was a long time ago wasn’t it? Well, no, it wasn’t really – in evolutionary terms the people were indistinguishable from us, and a couple of thousand years is a blink. The speed at which our system of ethics, culture and values has developed is astonishing by comparison, but it can clearly move quickly – in any direction.

This is a distasteful comparison, but I am going to make it – how many years will it be before visitors to Auschwitz are trooping around in laughing groups, deciding whether to be photographed with the guy in the SS Guard uniform or the one in the prison uniform? I hope: never, but I wouldn’t bet that it won’t be happening a couple of thousand years from now.

Then and Now

Originally a long facebook post I’ve decided to turn this into a short blog entry.

Walking in the rain tonight, cosy in my coat, I remembered a particular Saturday when I was about my son’s age. It had rained and rained all week with an intensity that followed as logically and as relentlessly as a mathematical proof, from our axiomatic valley position near the Atlantic coast. 

I got up on that particular soggy Saturday, and put my heavy, untrendy second hand tracksuit on over my pyjamas, then put on my gloves, and peaked cap, then my quilted brown anorak (gloves and cap first so that the ends of the gloves were inside the cuffs of the coat, and the cap was sealed in to the hood), socks over trousers, and then feet into my wellies. Then I went outside and I ran around like a delighted dervish in the pouring rain, protected by my layers of clothes.

The sunlight was pushing through the clouds giving the landscape an amber-grey hue and an other-world, dreamlike quality. I can see now the flickering and scratches on the Super8 of my memory. 

I rolled down a slope in our garden compressing hundreds of huge heavy drops from overburdened grass blades into the quilt of my anorak and the thick cotton of my trousers. I remember now the thick nature smell of freshly wetted earth and squashed grass. Then, before the water got through to my skin I ran inside to my mum, to towel my face, to dump the heavy wet clothes in the laundry basket, and fill my chilled red cheeks with hot buttered toast.

But I wouldn’t have done that if I’d had an iPad to play with.