I’m thinking a lot about how to involve the public in government policy at the moment, so was struck by a story which came up in a recent talk at the RSA about creativity. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA tells the story better than I could hope to so here it is in his words:
The Mayor of Oklahoma stands in front of the elephant cage in Oklahoma Zoo and says I’ve tried to lose weight and I’ve failed and the reason I’ve failed is because we’re a fat city so I’m asking you, the people of Oklahoma to help me to lose weight … The people of Oklahoma thought this was great, they loved their mayor, they loved the fact he was trying to lose weight and they all joined in. He challenged them to lose a million pounds in weight – he later admitted he had no idea what a million pounds in weight was – but they lost it. And only then did he do the things that you’d expect. He had a sales tax because he said that people are saying to me they’re trying to lose weight and they’ve got no bicycle lanes they’ve got no green spaces. And you know how much Americans love tax, but 90% of people voted for that sales tax. And then he raised another $200m from the corporate sector to green the city.
A perfect example of engaging the public in tackling a widespread social problem and bringing about behaviour change. And also a lesson in not acting before a policy objective – the notion of changing the city to help people lose weight – has been understood.
He told another story in the same session, asking why a widely admired government policy – Labour’s pledge to abolish child poverty –failed.
What happened to Labour’s pledge? Well what should have happened is this … [Tony Blair] should have said I have a vision that we could abolish child poverty, it would be the bravest and most amazing thing we’ve ever done. I’m going to spend a year going around the country talking to everyone and finding out whether this is real and in a year’s time I’ll come back to you and tell you three things – 1. Is Britain up for it? 2. The pledges I’ve received from business, unions and churches and most importantly from poor people themselves, the stuff that they want to do. And then I’ll tell you the things that we as government will do to help you because this is something that you’re doing and there’s a few things we could do to help.
That – obviously – is not how things happen in government. Instead pretty much every government initiative starts off as a twinkle in a policy-maker’s eye and then goes through the Whitehall ‘delivery’ machine. Making policy at the centre and then implementing it is slow and cumbersome; leaving policy to smart people in Whitehall can mean that policy is shaped by the opinions (and prejudices) of a group of people drawn from a fairly narrow section of the population who often have no practical experience of the problems they are trying to solve and limited understanding of the people they are trying to help.
To quote Matthew Taylor again:
I’m not saying you don’t need policy, but … you START with public engagement, public mobilisation, you start with those emergent elements and you may or may not need policy … The problem at the moment with the political class is they start with policy and then think about mobilisation… We don’t need a form of leadership which says ‘sit back and leave it to the experts – it’ll all be OK’. Because however good that sounds it means that people are entirely disengaged… When it comes to social policy, politicians and managers need to replace the blunt tools of policy making with those of design in which continuous experimentation, learning by failing, co-producing with consumers and users is the norm
And Amen to that say I.
The full lecture is well worth a listen – it’s the start of an RSA campaign to bring creativity to the fore in many areas of public life. The video of the event is here and the audio – which includes the Q&A in which the Oklahoma elephant house appears – is here.
There is a language spoken by recruitment consultants that possibly only they understand. From this morning’s jobs bulletin from Timewise:
Salary £50K FTE and excellent benefits.
Our client is a blue chip FMCG organisation, this person will internally, develop and lead all brand marketing strategies from an in-store perspective and externally execute the category and brand strategies in-store.”
Just back from a great event at the Write Idea Festival in Whitechapel on the subject of whether or not fiction still matters.
A number of people have told me recently that they read less fiction nowadays, diving instead into biography and history and popular science and philosophy. My husband has an admirably disciplined approach, alternating fiction with non-fiction in strict, not to say slightly obsessive, order. Me, I rarely read any non-fiction longer than a newspaper feature and don’t feel the need to apologise for it. I read for comfort and company, entertainment and enlightenment, insight into other cultures; to experiment with experiences I will never have and seek reassurance that experiences I am having have been shared by other people at other times. I read fiction because it has an emotional truth and resonance that I don’t find in non-fiction. And, as the panellists in today’s event said, it quite often has a depth and truth that non-fiction can’t rival.
I have, coincidentally just finished reading Penelope Lively‘s How It All Began which is in part about the power of reading. One of her central characters is a retired English teacher who is teaching a class of new arrivals to London to read English. There’s a wonderful passage in the book in which she reflects on what reading has meant to her. Too long to quote in full, but here’s a bit:
Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost but is in there somewhere. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way she has lived. She is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.
Me too. And maybe I’m also a bit like Anton, the Polish would-be accountant who goes to Charlotte’s class. She gets him to persevere with reading by giving him children’s stories to read, luring him in by making him want to find out what happens next. Sceptical at first, Anton succumbs eventually to the joys of reading Charlotte’s Web on the tube.
He rattled through the darkness, reading.
Which surely is what we’re all doing. Rattling through the darkness. Reading.
It’s a tough market out there
Over the past couple of weeks a rather wonderful discussion thread has been unfurling at LinkedIn (an unexpected sentence I never thought I’d write).
The members of the Interim Managers Group have been discussing what they do when they’re out of work – stuck “off assignment” .
This is heartening, not just because of the advice they’re sharing (of which more later), but for the simple fact that they are publicly acknowledging that even the most experienced interim has periods out of work when no matter how good you are, how expert, how well connected, you still can’t get hired for love nor money.
People rarely feel comfortable owning up to the fact that they’re not as successful/busy/in demand/well-remunerated as they’d like to be. There’s lots of success shared over the networks of LinkedIn, but very few accounts of troughs to go with the peaks. Having just finished a period “off assignment” myself, I was particularly cheered by this thread. People tend not to talk about this side of consultancy so it’s perfectly possible to believe that you are the only person who doesn’t move seamlessly from one well-paid assignment to the next. But hey, waddya know, everyone’s in the same boat. Lots of people – experienced, well-qualified, massively employable people – sometime endure hair-raisingly long gaps between assignments.
Advice from the horse’s mouth
It’s the notion of a shared experience rather than any one piece of practical advice which will be the most help to me next time I’m caught in between jobs. But here’s a digest of practical suggestions for what to do if you’re temporarily without billable work, with thanks to the massed ranks of LinkedIn’s interim managers:
- Maintain a structure to your day, your week, your month. Set some goals to achieve, work-related or not, and work towards them.
- Keep your networking fresh, especially during the time you’re in an assignment otherwise your network may see you making contact only when you’re looking for work.
- Create a business plan every year which will ensure the business is sustainable. Plan in time for personal development and marketing activity.
- Go to as many industry events as you can to keep your network and industry knowledge up to date.
- Work on your Linked In profile:
1- Look at other profiles and see how yours can be improved
2- Participate in discussions
3 -Look at your home page every day – use CTRL-F to search for relevant postings.
- Email your ISP contacts every 6-8 weeks to remind them you are still looking.
- Keep the faith – you will find work again.
And here are some tips from a different source on how to stay positive while you’re looking.
My eye was caught by the pull-quote on a piece in today’s Observer about why so many government IT projects end in digital disaster.
The key is to employ computing firms that think £100,000 is a lot of money and are used to delivering on time.
The writer pinpoints the problems that come when non-techy civil servants are responsible for the procurement of complex government IT projects. Too often he argues, they opt for the safe choice and bring in the large, established firms who have managed – and failed to deliver – big projects in the past.
What you see is not necessarily what you’ll get
That’s not just a problem for IT contracts – nor is it only an issue in the civil service. As the project lead on any complicated, big budget contract the safest thing to do, the way to protect yourself if things go wrong, is hire a recognised name. As the old saying goes – “no-one ever got fired for hiring IBM“. But in my experience not only can big companies take a generic, one size fits all approach to project delivery , they also have a tendency to wheel out the big guns at pitch time, dazzling clients with the lustre of their track record and the expensive cut of their suits, and hand the actual work to an altogether scruffier junior colleague.
The place to be – if you’re a client – is with a company which REALLY values your business, because you represent a significant chunk of their annual income. They won’t palm you off with the newly qualified trainee, they’ll make sure you get the personal attention of the MD. They’ll know their reputation relies on how well they do, because your project is going to feature in their portfolio in future. They’ll make sure they hit the deadlines and stick to the budget. And because they probably don’t have expensive overheads (or buy handmade suits), they won’t charge you an arm and a leg every day for the pleasure of their company.
Earlier this week I had an email telling me I hadn’t got a role I’d been interviewed for more than three weeks ago. They did have the grace to sound shame-faced about how long they’d taken to confirm what I’d guessed more than a fortnight ago: no-one who wants to work with you takes weeks to say so. Anyway I’d long moved onto something else – there’s no point brooding.
No one like me, I don’t care…
Coincidentally, last week I heard that an application to become a Trustee of a local charity had also been rejected. This time they asked me to suggest a time to discuss my application so I would be more successful next time. “Great idea”, I said. “Let’s talk. Here are dates that are good for me, does any of this work for you?” I’m still waiting for a reply and have the sour feeling of having been palmed off with a rejection note I probably wasn’t expected to reply to.
I’d have put these experiences down to the universe’s surprisingly common failure to appreciate my genius and moved on, had I not read this about trainees applying for entry-level jobs without getting responses:
any professional marketer would be appalled if their brand, a brand whose reputation they will have carefully nurtured and be dedicated to protecting, treated customers and prospects in a similar way. Yet it seems OK to treat prospective talent in such a brand-damaging way. And if it treats potential recruits like this, just how does it treat colleagues? And does the way it treats its people align with the customer experience it is seeking to deliver? And, more fundamentally, should those charged with responsibility for the brand, usually in marketing, take more responsibility for the employee experience?
By jingo he’s onto something, although the concept of caring enough about staff to extend good customer service to them would have been dismissed as mollycoddling in many organisations I’ve worked for. But it must be right, any point at which someone comes into contact with your company is an opportunity to win an advocate – or create a critic – and that goes for existing and potential staff just as much as customers.
After more than a year of wrangling with our insurance company about water damage in our kitchen we’ve finally given it up as a bad job and thrown ourselves on the mercy of the Financial Ombudsman Service. Anyone with a gripe about a financial service provider can go to them for adjudication, although we’ve had a letter saying that they will look at our issue within the next six months, so we may not be looking at a speedy resolution.
What’s driving your business – customers or processes?
The last straw with the insurers was their response to our final letter of complaint about what had happened. They were mystified that we didn’t feel they’d done everything possible – despite the fact that 12 months on from lodging the claim our kitchen looks like this:
They went through each point of our complaint and showed us that at almost each stage their actions were absolutely in line with company expectations, and in the few areas where they had fallen short teams would be given feedback on how to improve. Our actual experience of what it’s like to deal with them was outweighed by their confidence that the systems they had set up had worked as intended. There was such a total failure to see the situation from their customers’ perspective that it would have been funny – except it leaves me still hoovering brick dust off the stairs.
The customer defection capital of the West
The focus on internal business process rather than the actual experience of real live customers must be the very definition of bad customer service. Complaints, though difficult to hear, should be valuable in showing where systems are failing. They’re not personal assaults to be fended off at all costs.
Insurance companies – like any other businesses – should think about the cost of customer churn to their bottom line. The Institute of Loss Adjusters has a piece on its website describing the UK as the customer defection capital of the West – and suggests that insurance companies in the UK are worse than their European or US counterparts for the rate at which customers decide to move on. They should bear in mind that it costs more to recruit a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. Good customer service is how you hold on to customers who are otherwise willing and able to take their business elsewhere.