5 animal traits to help hold politicians to account

Barnet Council has had a campaign running for a couple of years now to achieve 50% recycling of waste by 2016. It was launched on the back of considerable investment and a major revamp of the recycling and waste service – and a big piece of consultancy work for a couple of firms.

Laudable ambition. Challenging target. Important issue.

So, as we enter the last few days of 2016 you might have expected to hear how it was going. Has the council achieved its target? Did all the investment deliver value for money?

I don’t know. I’ve trawled Barnet’s website, I’ve tweeted them, I’ve looked through their suggested hashtag (#barnetrecycling – which threw up some interesting results but nothing on progress), I’ve even tried to navigate the London Data Store to find out.

I only single out Barnet because:

  1. I live in the Borough and so I have a ‘citizen’s-eye-view’, and;
  2. They have emblazoned their recycling lorries with the 50% target – like a sort of mobile ‘EdStone’ – to remind me.

I have no idea whether they’ve met their target (though I have a suspicion that their silence might speak volumes!). But I would like them to account for their actions by being clear and open about what has happened. Thinking about how I might go about that, it occurred to me that maybe we can learn a thing of two from the animal kingdom to help us go about it.

zooHere are my five animal traits that can help us better hold our politicians to account:

  1. The memory of an elephant – we must remember those promises and be able to recall them some time later if we’re going to hold politicians to account. There are often good reasons why things don’t happen the way we expect – but we need honesty in how we report progress. But if we don’t remember, we’ve got no chance of being able to ask questions about how things have gone.
  2. A dog with a bone – tenacity is a mainstay of any activist (and I suppose I would describe any citizen seeking to hold politicians to account an ‘activist’). This is the trait that is possibly most likely to infuriate officers and politicians but also serves an important purpose. Single-mindedness, fixating on an issue and going after it like a dog with a bone is often the difference between successful campaigning and being easily forgotten.
  3. The skin of a rhino – it can be tough questioning politicians and political institutions (like councils). Power is unequal and challenging power can be uncomfortable. It’s important to have sufficient resilience to withstand criticism, ridicule and attack if you’re going to hold politicians to account. When those with power feel attacked their reaction is often to attack right back – but it’s usually not personal, however much it might feel like it is.
  4. A bird’s eye view – being able to see things strategically, from upon high, is hugely helpful in order to identify the right ‘buttons to press’ and to develop tactics that are likely to succeed. Effective accountability requires the ability to switch between microscopic detail and big-picture thinking in the blink of an eye.
  5. The roar of a lion – it’s all very well having the personal fortitude and ability to understand issues and ask the right questions, but you have to make your voice heard. Effective communications are crucial – okay so it’s not always necessary to roar, sometimes a quiet word can be just as effective. What matters is having a clear and compelling message and getting your point across.

They say politics is a zoo… so maybe we need to learn from the animal kingdom if we want to ensure our politicians deliver on their promises and are held to account for their actions.


Stay radical – reflections on the Sheila McKechnie Foundation awards

Community activist and occasional academic Bob Holman has been (along with my parents) possibly the greatest influence on my professional career. When I first became a chief executive in my 20s he told me to ‘stay radical’. At the time I found it rather amusing as I was, I think it’s fair to say, a pretty gung-ho-take-no-prisoners-kind of a guy. It didn’t strike me (and still doesn’t) as particularly radical to suggest that homeless people should be part of the solution to tackling homelessness, but at that time this sort of thinking was a bit of a challenge to many housing providers.

15 years later, attending the Sheila McKechnie Foundation awards last night celebrating campaigners and campaigning, Bob’s words came back to me with renewed relevance and pertinence. The evening recognised some incredible campaigners, people who – often despite all the odds – fought to raise awareness, change laws and make the world a better place. From pursuing tax justice to reducing food waste, improve wheelchair public transport access to young people challenging alcohol advertising.

B-jK7AkIgAAytdGSo many amazing people who refuse to accept the way things ‘ought to be done’. They all honoured the spirit of Sheila McKechnie who followed Bob’s doctrine throughout her life.

Over the years, I have found myself – not deliberately – spending less time ‘on the coal face’ and though I have continued to work with some amazing campaigners, community groups and people doing amazing things, I’ve often done so in a more removed way. I still think of myself as a campaigner and an activist (indeed the Archer Academy started as a local campaign and only became a ‘school’ when we realised no one else was going to address the lack of local provision). I try and put the skills and experience I’ve gleaned from working with communities, running organisations and influencing decision-makers to good use. I believe change comes from outside and within institutions and I’ve written before about being a ‘professional disruptor’.

But I think it is easy to become too comfortable, too at ease with the bureaucracy and the ways of working that are so often part of the problem. The inaccessible language that excludes – and which can be successfully used to campaign – too readily becomes the norm, until we don’t realise it’s how we speak. In short, it’s too easy to become detached from the things that matter and the reasons why we are who we are.

It’s too easy to lose our radical zeal.

Mixing and working with people like those who were celebrated at the SMK Awards is a great way to remind ourselves of a few home truths. Lest we forget, Jack Straw was something of a radical back in the 1960s – and now look at him.

I don’t want to end up like some sad old man who used to stand for something he believed in. Hearing from the campaigners last night reminded me that I want to ‘stay radical’.

Revitalising our democracy – new political parties or just changing our politicians?

Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan was quoted in the Independent saying that political parties neglect young voters in favour of targeting older voters.

The reasons for this include changing demographics, with more older people and proportionately fewer younger people, and the fact that the over 65s are far more likely to vote than those aged 18-24 – 44% compared with 76% turnout at the 2010 general election.

Mr Khan said the way to address this problem was to encourage young people in Britain to vote from an early age. But he added that politics as a profession was not reaching out to young voters – precisely because they were less likely to vote.”

Interestingly Nesta’s chief executive Geoff Mulgan chose as his prediction for 2015 the creation of radical new online political parties. Citing internet-based political parties in many other European countries – such as the Pirate Parties of Sweden, Germany and Iceland, Five Star in Italy and Podemos in Spain – to predict that “…the aftermath of the UK election will see the first Internet-age parties emerge in the UK”.

Now you could argue that predicting that something already happening all over Europe will happen in the UK is hardly going out on a limb. In fact there are a number of examples in the UK of similar sorts of things happening already, such as the Open Politics Manifesto as well as plenty of organisations using the internet to increase participation and strengthen democracy, like the UK Open Government Forum.

But I did wonder about the connection between these two things – young people being ignored by politicians and the (possible) rise of open network parties. Young people are more likely than older people to be online and they are also less likely to vote. Is there a relationship here?

Given the paucity of digital offerings from the UK’s political parties perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that voter turnout is lower among young digital-consumers. [NB I am speculating as I do not know whether there’s any correlation between voter turnout and the use of digital, compared with wider demographics such as age]. I remember how we were told that the last general election would be fought ‘online’ but all we got was a forgettable animation of the Labour Party’s manifesto. Actually, we also got the televised debates and ‘I agree with Nick’ – remember when Mr Clegg wasn’t considered an electoral liability? – and the accompanying chatter on social media.

As Sadiq Khan says, politics is not reaching out to young people because they don’t vote. Perhaps that’s why the parties grasp of digital engagement and social media is so poor – as they (crudely and I would have thought incorrectly) assume that it’s not where their ‘key voters’ are at. If the internet is a place inhabited only by non-voting young people, then why bother wasting time and money with digital?

Of course this creates something of a catch 22: young online people don’t vote because they’re not engaged, so political parties don’t engage them because they don’t vote, so they don’t vote because they’re not engaged and so on…

I realise this is super-simplistic as young people are not synonymous with online and nor do I believe that a lack of digital nous on the part of political parties can be blamed for lower voter turnout among under 25s. But I still feel there’s a connection there between the ways traditional parties communicate and interact and the disconnect many young people feel from party politics.

However I am not convinced that new political parties are the answer, or that there’s tremendous appetite to stand for Parliament – which is after all the core purpose of a political party. Being interested in politics – being politicised – is very different to wanting to go into politics. Whilst I have found young people highly politicised, I’ve seen growing disaffection with the UK’s particular brand of party politics. We need to change our politicians as much as we need to change our political parties.

Our politics attracts people who aspire to be ‘professional politicians’ – certainly at the national level – too often from the conveyor belt of Private School, Oxbridge, a brief spell at a think-tank followed by working for a Minister and then standing for Parliament. Without a broader range of perspectives and real life experience we’re unlikely to address the disaffection with our politicians at the heart of our ‘democratic deficit’.