To coincide with Black History Month, Corrinne Bailey has written about her personal experience of being a black female in 2020.
It’s that time of the year where being black is celebrated by all. However this year it’s front and centre as the senseless killing of George Floyd in America reminded me in the most powerful way that the battle is not over.
This tragedy ignited an incandescent social movement across the globe. Organisations suddenly felt an uncomfortable spotlight glare as they made every effort to both empathise with their black workforce and refresh diversity plans with real commitment.
A double threat (industry phrase not literally) as a black female professional this has been a particularly unsettling period for me.
Social media has become both a comforting and informative tool as well as a depressing reminder with the added sprinklings of COVID limiting interactions, which is for many of us the coping mechanism.
I dreaded the anticipated ‘black token’ efforts and tried to ‘remain corporate’. This was simply not sustainable with the constant and increasing movement of Black Lives Matter (BLM). What many of my colleagues did not appreciate is that these recent events were simply adding to the existing snowball of feeling how most black people feel. This is yet another reminder of the injustices that we live and feel every … single … day. It’s not just a hashtag or fashion trend you can pick up and drop as I cannot change who I am…a black female. This is what I am seen as first, not a professional employee that can get the job done.
So, I had to have ‘that conversation’ with my new boss. We both sighed with relief as thoughts and opinions were respected and valued. Did this fix everything? No, but all change must start with a conversation and more importantly a commitment to recognising cultural differences. The Ministry of Justice has always been a leader across government in our approach to creating and celebrating diversity. It’s about the willingness to face the difficult discussion with honesty and transparency.
My ask is simple:
be mindful of our emotional wellbeing as we are indirectly expected to be the spokesperson for all things ‘black’
educate yourself as we navigate through these overwhelming emotions very publicly in real time
talk to those in your sphere of influence (work colleagues, friends, family) about racism, and call it out when you see it happening
It is no longer acceptable to stay silent. You must have a view and a voice and use it to influence positive change. We welcome the discussion and support, let the conversation continue. Please remember that for us it is constantly on our agenda not just in October.
After a month of riding his folding bicycle for the charity Rethink Mental Illness and sharing mental health tips each day, Daniel Cattanach looks back on what he’s learned from his experience.
by Daniel Cattanach
I really like those "How it started… How it’s going…" photo comparison posts that have been doing the rounds. From the funnies, to the emotional and thought-provoking ones. And, as ever, I’ve greatly admired the work of my comms peers in the public sector who’ve taken the format and put it to good use.
I had hoped to do the same with before and after photos of my Feels On Wheels charity cycling challenge. However, given that I only began my attempt to ride 100 miles on 1st October – and I was set to complete it just 31 days later – I didn’t think that anyone would see much of a difference between my appearance at the start of the month and how I looked at the end of it (except for having my hair cut, maybe).
It has been quite a journey though – as I shared one line of mental health advice per day and pulled them together to create a bespoke song. Therefore I thought that I should share my thoughts on the things that I’ve learned over the last five(ish) weeks. I’m going to try to impart this knowledge in the way I know best; through cycling-themed puns.
1. Get a handle on the situation
In mid-September, I had an attack of anxiety brought on by the Covid-19 situation and the increasing nastiness that I was seeing across "social" media. My natural instinct was to try to hide away from it all. But I wasn’t convinced that stewing over it would do any good. Therefore, I figured that it would be better for my mental health (and hopefully other people’s mental wellbeing) if I attempted to confront the negativity with positivity. I turned to trusted comms peers Darren Caveney, Sally Northeast and Georgia Turner for sense-checking and moral support before I committed to the idea of "Feels On Wheels". Their kind words and generous donations (including my wonderful branded cycling shirt which I wear with immense pride) helped to keep me on the right track – especially through the bumpy times.
2. Be a good spokesperson for others
Like a lot of comms people, I much prefer being behind the scenes rather than front and centre. I gave up on my childhood ambition of becoming the next Philip Schofield a long time ago. However, I realised that if I wanted to encourage other people to talk about mental health then I’d need to overcome my camera shyness and share my thoughts via video. It can be good to step outside of your comfort zone from time to time, and I think that this was one of those occasions. The experience made me consider what I was going to say each day and how I would frame it, which has helped with my comms learning.
3. Don’t saddle yourself with too much
None of us are superhuman; there’s only so much that we can deal with. We need to take care that we don’t overload ourselves. This could mean not overworking to the point of burnout, switching off from the news and social media at weekends/ Sundays (I really can’t recommend this enough), and just generally taking time out from the hustle and bustle of life at the moment – giving ourselves the space to gather our thoughts and hopefully ease our mind.
4. It’s okay to switch gears
Sadly though, there came a point, about halfway through my month-long challenge, where I was pushed too far outside of my comfort zone. After experiencing verbal abuse and feeling threatened by the confrontational behaviour of a motorist on one of my early morning rides, my anxiety kicked back in with a vengeance. I closed in on myself and cut short my ride to do a subdued "Feels On Wheels" piece to camera from my sofa. Despite trying to empathise and consider how the man’s own mental health struggles may have cause him to lash out, I couldn’t help but feel hurt and scared. I also felt guilty for putting off getting back on my bike until late into the following day – like I was letting everyone else down for not keeping on going. As I gently took my time and eased back into it, I reminded myself of one of the l lines of advice I’d spoken: “It’s okay to be not okay.
5. Be part of the chain reaction
The brilliant cycling shirt that Comms Unplugged and comms2point0 made for me (did I mention how much I love it?) features a bike chain motif, designed by the very excellent Alive With Ideas. This reflects my thinking about sharing our mental health concerns with others. I’ve only been able to share my feelings because other people around me have done so too. I reckon that we’re all part of an ongoing cycle where we listen to each other and help one another out – someone helps you; which, in turn, gives you the strength to help someone else; then they can support somebody, and so on. Then, the next time you find yourself struggling and need someone to look out for you, the support network is even stronger and you’ll find yourself benefiting from being part of the chain reaction.
6. Sound your bell when you need to
There were many times that I needed to ring my bell to let someone know I was there – either to avoid startling them or to ask them to give way. Similarly, there are times when should let others know that we are there for them or we need their help to overcome the obstacles we face. So don’t be afraid to make a sound – especially if you’re worried about someone’s mental health and you think they may be struggling to make themselves heard.
I really do hope this experience has helped, and continues to help. Okay then, for those of you who’ve stuck with it, here’s the nostalgia trip:
How it started…
How it’s going
Thank you so much to everyone who has joined the journey; offering words of support and encouragement, as well as helping to raise over £460 for Rethink Mental Illness to continue helping people who are suffering with severe mental health issues. If you’d care to donate then please check out my JustGiving page.
Even though I’ve reached the end of the month (and my 100 mile target), I think I may keep going with my cycling and offering words of advice – just maybe not every day. For the time being though, I’ll head out one more time for this incarnation of #FeelsOnWheels and I’ll share the bespoke song I created, in a link below, on Saturday 31 October. I hope you’ll find it a treat.
Daniel Cattanach is a senior communications officer working in regional government. You can say hello to him on Twitter at @DanielCattanach
*Sign up for the comms2point0 eMag*
The comms2point0 eMag features exclusive new content, free give-aways, special offers, first dibs on new events and much, much more.
Sound good? Join over 2.3k other comms people who have subscribed. You can sign up to it right here
I see my Facebook timeline filled with comment and debate around the topic and with more than 40 million Facebook users it turns out I’m not alone.
I’ve written before about the importance of seeking out Facebook groups in your community to get your message in front of them. How to get your message into a patchwork of groups where people are is one of the topics I’ll be teaching in my new online learning programme.
But it’s the data, the data, that says this. Not me.
Elsewhere in the survey there is further supporting evidence.
86 per cent recieved emotional support through a Facebook group.
57 per cent gave emotional support.
77 per cent say the most important community group they belong to now operates online.
86 per cent say they plan to participate in groups at the same level or more.
98 per cent say they have a greater sense of belonging through groups.
Of course, its easy to dismiss the survey findings as they were commissioned by Facebook themselves. If they weren’t flattering we probably wouldn’t hear them. But they are and we have.
It’s also wrong to say that groups exist to spread cheer and goodwill. There are good ones and bad ones just as there are good reporters and bad ones. But they are absolutely part of the solution.
I joined Infrastructure Services last November to work in the Digital Network Services team.
Having spent almost my whole DWP career in front line operations I wanted a new challenge and change in direction.
I felt that my experience working with customers in jobcentres as a Work Coach and in Universal Credit implementation gave me a good grounding to work on the technology that supports those roles.
Initially I was concerned that a job within Infrastructure Services would be too technical. But after reading the job description I applied anyway, thinking nothing ventured nothing gained. With hindsight it was the best move I ever made and I’m so glad I took the plunge.
My role in Network Services
I joined the Wi-Fi team administering the Meraki Wi-Fi solution within the DWP estate nationally. This service enables colleagues and citizens to use their devices as flexibly as possible throughout our estate. The team manage all aspects of the service across DWP sites large and small, up and down the country. The job’s extremely varied and I’m able to use my existing customer service experience, collaborate with other teams and manage the many contracts and suppliers we use.
To say the job isn’t technical would be a fib. It’s my responsibility to ensure all aspects of the Wi-Fi service remain resilient and secure. I deal with things like configuring firewalls, working with site representatives to identify faults and when necessary engaging with suppliers to fix them. I work closely with the technical experts to deliver enhancements to the service, ensuring changes are deployed seamlessly and there is no interruption to the user’s experience. Ultimately I do what I need to do to ensure the Wi-Fi network is available throughout DWP on a daily basis.
I’ve found that my technical knowledge has increased massively since I joined. I’ve also been supported and encouraged on my journey by my colleagues at every step. I can even tell you the difference between Software Defined Wide Area Network and Local Area Network now.
Overall my experience has been great. Infrastructure Services have invested in me heavily. Within a year of joining I’ve complete my CISCO certification ECMS1 so I can find my way round the Meraki dashboard effectively, ITIL Foundation v4 for IT practitioners and my APM project management qualifications, with more training for additional qualifications planned.
I’ve also received masses of informal learning and support, which has allowed me to grasp the technical side of the job much better and faster than I would ever have believed possible.
We’re recruiting now and I can’t recommend the role enough. I would urge anyone thinking about a career in DWP Digital to take the opportunities available. Visit our Careers website for the latest vacancies.
Our borough may not be the biggest in London, but it’s the most diverse. Our 350,000-strong population is made up of vibrant communities that give Newham incredible life and energy. As a Council, we’re dedicated to connecting with every single individual and putting them at the heart of all we do. We are seeking to build a team that genuinely reflects the communities we serve, to ensure that all our policy and communications work understands and speaks directly to our residents and their life experiences. Our communications are absolutely crucial. And their success will be down to you.
As Digital Communications Officer, you’ll join a freshly re-structured team within a highly motivated council. Together, you’ll aim to engage every resident in an extraordinary area. As we shape our borough and the future, we want to hear voices that haven’t been heard before. And we want to tell the world about our work – from delivering badly needed housing to giving children and young people exciting opportunities. We’re proud to campaign for a better future for all. Your skills will make all the difference. Here’s what your role will involve.
Working as part of a large Communications and Campaigns team, you’ll help to translate strategy into output. Your aim? To improve the Council’s image through multiple channels and interesting, high quality content. It’s all about building a better picture of our ambitions, work and policies among residents, businesses and visitors. That means developing our websites, managing the flow of contact to social media platforms and creating clear, concise copy.
Degree-educated (or equivalent) or working towards a relevant professional qualification, you’re already digitally savvy. You can create and manage websites, use content management systems and draw on knowledge of web, design and digital software products. Because we want everyone to be able to access our content, you’ll also understand relevant accessibility standards. And thanks to your brilliant people skills, you can work with a wide range of stakeholders, influence, present and build strong relationships.
Ready to reach and engage people borough-wide? To find out more and apply, please visit www.newhamambition.com
A little tribute to Mr Phil Jewitt who retires from local government on Friday
by Darren Caveney
Leeds was my Uni town and so it will always hold a lot of fond memories for me. And I’ve tried to get back there with work as many times as I could in the 25 years since I left there with a graduation hangover.
It will have been on one of these trips that I became aware of the work of Phil Jewitt.
He’s leaving local government after 34 years with Leeds City Council.
“Less for murder”, he would joke.
I thought it would be fitting to pull together a little ‘Did you know?’ list to mark this milestone. So here goes…
My Top 10 facts about Phil Jewitt
Phil didn’t take the conventional route into comms. He wasn’t a journalist, like many, or a PR graduate, like people including me. As a young man he was actually a surveyor in Syria looking for oil in the desert. He explains the journey here.
Phil is one of those people who would have been good at whatever he did. He works hard, does his research, talks to people, he speaks the truth, he’s nice, he listens, and he’s full of ideas. That’s pretty much the perfect person specification for a comms person.
In 2016, Phil won the prestigious ‘Lifetime Achievement’ UnAward. He remains the only man to ever scoop the accolade. It’s decided by public vote. That tells you everything you need to know about Phil. He dedicated his win as ‘One for the quiet people’.
I would describe Phil as the comms person’s comms person. He just got on with the job and never sought the limelight. But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have an impact or built a profile.
Phil coined the phrase ‘life leak’ and was an early advocate for trying to look after mental health and wellbeing in our industry.
Phil is a talented photographer. Check out his pics on Instagram and on his official snaps site. Although it does have to be said one of his best shots ever was ‘accidentally taken’ during a photography workshop he led at Comms Unplugged 2018 😊
We’ve since become buddies and I have benefitted from his wise counsel when I was having a bit of a shitty time with an issue. A pint of Leeds Pale Ale and a chinwag can help sort many a problem.
Phil has an aptitude for attracting feline friends. You’ll find Phil within the #NotMyCat hashtag on social media and you’ll see what I mean.
Phil is a natural leader. The quiet, smart, thoughtful type. The type who others will navigate to to seek advice. He’s begun doing some mentoring and he’ll be so good at that. And his leadership extends beyond work, so when he started playing golf of course he would become the captain of the club.
I, together with Emma Rodgers and Kate Bentham, had the great pleasure of being invited to Leeds to celebrate Phil’s 50th birthday a few years back. It featured a lovely film (The Station Agent) at Cottage Road Cinema and then a meal with friends and family. We met his wife Fran, his boys, and his lovely Mom and Dad. What a perfect day.
Thanks for everything you’ve done for local government. Thanks for the support you’ve given to me and comms2point0. And tonnes of good luck for the next chapter.
Don’t be a stranger
Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of Creative Communicators Ltd
*Sign up for the comms2point0 eMag*
The comms2point0 eMag features exclusive new content, free give-aways, special offers, first dibs on new events and much, much more.
Sound good? Join over 2.3k other comms people who have subscribed. You can sign up to it right here
Last week we had to quickly prototype some ideas remotely with a client. They didn’t have any experience of prototyping or access to video conferencing tools. So we decided to send over a PowerPoint template for them to play with.
Screenshot from Google Slides showing the template
Here’s 3 things that are useful about using slides for this type of work.
Everyone can contribute
Prototyping helps to explore and communicate different ideas, the less the tool gets in the way, the better. Google Slides or PowerPoint are familiar things that most people can use, so it’s quick and easy to get started.
Even though Figma has done an amazing job at being easy to use, it’s still pretty technical. If you’re not used to design tools, they can add friction that either excludes or frustrates people because they can’t do what they want to do.
Scarcity forces deeper thinking
In a slide deck, you don’t have fine controls and that’s a good thing. As there aren’t many options, it forces you to distill what the page or flow needs to do.
Sometimes design tools make you worry too much about things that you might not need to (at that point).
It’s easier to throw away
Because it’s a tool people are familiar with and understand what it takes to make something, they aren’t so precious about the prototypes and ideas.
It’s easier to throw them away and start again. It’s easier to iterate.
My experience with code is that it’s sometimes harder to let go or to think differently.
When to use slides for prototyping
I’ve found this most useful when you want to figure out an idea or a flow with others. Especially at that first stage when you want to test the utility of some ideas.
It can’t be really clever as you can only link to slides or pages, and it definitely has its limits.
This post was co-written with Dom Freeman, Senior Software Developer at FutureGov.
Recently, we’ve supported a few councils on developing their service directories. We’ve learned that while it’s fairly straightforward to make a service directory, making a good one can be difficult.
It’s not enough to show people the services near them, Google Maps can do that. To make a directory effective, you need to show coverage areas, accessibility information and be sensitive to the problems residents may face.
Following a data standard makes these jobs easier. Once a few directories have a standard in common, it’s easier for others to adapt this information, building on this work to create their own products on top of the existing data infrastructure.
Here’s a look at how we implemented a service directory in a new data standard in Buckinghamshire.
Getting acquainted with the standard
We’re following the OpenReferral UK standard for community services data. It’s new work, so it’s likely that we’ll discover things that can be applied back to future versions of the standard.
The standard breaks data into many tables, so we can represent complicated service offerings. We can represent an organisation that offers lots of services to different groups of people, on different schedules, from different places.
The downside of this complexity is that existing datasets, like the one we’re trying to migrate, are rarely designed with this flexibility in mind. In this case, our starting point was a single spreadsheet with several hundred columns, added at different times by different people. The exact purpose of some lost to history.
Spreading out our data across so many tables also poses a software architecture problem: how do we collect everything the user’s asked for in a reasonable amount of time?
People will be making complicated queries (“show me things in X category, on Y day, near Z location”) and we don’t want to keep them waiting. We need to pay careful attention to database design and caching to prevent queries taking too long.
What we made
From the start we knew we needed to build a custom front-end for people to explore and browse services, powered by a public, standard-compliant API.
We considered making use of existing open source tools to manage the dataset and publish the API, but were quickly disappointed with the tools on offer, and made a custom rails app instead.
Originally we hoped we could use a basic back-end/front-end split, but the team we were working with were used to surrounding their data with complicated business processes.
We simplified these where we could, but after building several approval and versioning workflows into our app, we realised it was slow and complicated. We were failing at getting all the right data together in a reasonable amount of time.
Eventually, we decided to add a third component to our architecture, MongoDB, an API service that sits between our back-end and front-end apps. We’ve written about MongoDB before for managing community datasets. The job of the API service is to serve data as fast as possible, without having to go digging through version histories or workflow rules.
You can think of the API service as a “staging area”. It knows that everything in its database is good to share publicly, there’s no need for it to carefully inspect and scrutinize data like our back-end app does. That makes it much faster.
Our original choice of database was PostgreSQL. It’s a classic database choice, good for general purpose workloads. No one will raise an eyebrow if you start a new project with PostgreSQL.
For the API service, it turned out MongoDB was a better fit. MongoDB doesn’t have tables, rows and columns like a traditional database. Instead, it stores chunks of JSON data. This is a very close fit to the data we want our API to return, so there’s less overhead when a user requests the data, and we can fulfil the request much faster.
Rather than doing expensive look-ups across several tables, you simply nest all that data inside a single JSON blob, ready to send. MongoDB’s great features for geographic sorting and filtering of results make it a great fit for “I want to see X things near me”.
Augmenting the standard with GeoJSON
Since we started working on this project, a global pandemic has happened. People aren’t leaving their houses as often, and when they use service directories they’re more interested in questions like “who serves my address?” than “where is their office?” So coverage areas seem to be the future, not point locations.
It’s harder to describe an area in data than a point, but MongoDB comes with first-class support for GeoJSON, a toolbox for doing just that.
We can use a familiar syntax to describe polygon areas, filtering and sorting based on whether a user lies inside them. This example describes the area between four points:
Now, it’s hard enough to geocode a large database of point locations, and even harder to reliably define coverage areas, but we want to do the hard work to make things simple.
We had a similar problem when we came to categorise our dataset according to a standard list. The dataset was already categorised, but there wasn’t much logic or strategy to them, nor much overlap between the lists of recommended standard taxonomies and the ones we had.
Completely replacing the existing categorisation would’ve been a burden on the team we were working with, and there was some evidence that people did understand and find the current list useful.
Instead, we decided to build a flexible taxonomy feature into our app that can handle a gradual migration, rather than a hard switch-over.
What we’d do differently
The value of standards comes from the predictability of interacting with something for the first time: sometimes it’s better not to try than to do a half-finished job.
It’s easy to end up with an app that uncomfortably combines meeting a standard with the unique needs of a particular team. Which should win?
It’s hardest when the standard is new, like this one. Disparities could be clues that the team could be working in a different, better way, or they could be hints that our standard is incomplete and needs to be improved.
When you try to implement standards like this one on your own projects, it’s important to start with a clear idea of which is more important to you; a clear and painless “upgrade path” for your immediate client or the possibilities offered by bulletproof following a standard.
Local authorities had experience of managing short-term local crises, but the national and long-lasting crisis created by Covid-19 has been something newoutside wartime. Local authorities had to manage the local implications of the lockdown and Covid-19 preparedness in their area whilst also moving all of their own non-essential workers to a home working model.
Our 21st Century Public Servant research (first published in 2014) looked at the changing roles, skills and values of people working in local public services. Over the previous six months we have partnered with North West Employers to understand how Covid-19 is changing working practices and skills, and how it links to the 21st C Public Servant findings. Given the constraints of doing fieldwork with local authorities themselves at a time of crisis, we gathered the learning through a series of conversations with the NWE team, published in our new report Keeping the Window Open: the 21st Century Public Servant and Covid-19.
The strain on local authority staff has been intense, as it has on the whole population. However some of the changes in organisational practices have been seen as positive, and have flagged opportunities for long-term reconfiguration. Some of our key findings include:
The importance of Storytellers: the most effective public servants during the crisis were seen by interviewees as those who were values-based and able to tell stories that drew on those values, setting out a path for the long term. They were the energiser and cheerleader – ‘we can get through this’ – despite not knowing the length or trajectory of the story.
The need for Entrepreneurs: the pandemic context has meant that staff have had to innovate, without always waiting for permission, and in some cases bypassing the usual sign-off procedures. The speed and extent of change has been unlike anything in local government before.
A new kind of Resource weaver: A key part of the Covid response has been using internal resources differently. Redeployment has been extensive, which has helped to break down silos within organisations. Many teams changed roles completely – for example leisure services and democratic services teams took on tasks like delivering PPE and setting up community hubs. The urgency and scale of the task made possible changes that otherwise would not have happened. As one of our interviewees put it, ‘People have been more willing to cross organisational lines, looking at partners and saying we can’t afford you to fail.’
Professional skills have been vital for those working in public health, environment health, planning and emergency response. However for many others, it is their more generic skills that have come to the forefront during the Covid-19 crisis. Through skills matching processes, there has been a new understanding of which individual skills are transferable. As one interviewee put it, ‘Lifeguards and fitness instructors have been redeployed to do community support because of their personal style and approach rather than their technical skills.’
Mass working from home has required high trust relationships with and between staff: ‘I think some managers have had their eyes opened about how home working can work. One local authority had no home working at all before this, they didn’t allow it – they had to go straight to 100 percent’. This creates questions about the future beyond Covid-19: ‘Are we prepared to let go and let people continue working from home or will we go back to the long hours culture? Can we focus on outputs and outcomes rather than hours worked?’
Something we didn’t address in the original 21st Century Public Servant research was endurance. It is still unclear how long this crisis will last. In the early phases at least there was hope that the lockdown could be short. Now it is clear that home working will continue for many people: ‘we won’t have everyone back at work ever again’. However, many have found home working to be much more intense, with few opportunities for down time, such as the chats in the lift with colleagues or the daydreaming on the train: ‘There isn’t much informal in my day at the moment. The intensity of it can be quite exhausting. How do we sustain the informal interactions like we had in the office?’
The long-term organisational legacy of Covid-19 is unclear, but the months of the crisis have made much clearer what public services are for and what the people working in them can achieve. Organisations and individuals need to think about how to keep open the window of change, and what are the new working cultures, roles and skills that can be sustained for the future.
The October episode of the Government Digital Service (GDS) Podcast is about Black excellence in tech. This episode our guests are Samantha Bryant, Associate Delivery Manager on the GovTech Catalyst team, and Founder and Co-Chair of the GDS Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) Network; Chucks Iwuagwu, Head of Delivery in GOV.UK; and Matthew Card, a Software Engineer and Senior Leadership Team Advisor from the BBC.
They share their career paths, future aspirations and thoughts on how allies can support Black colleagues in the tech industry with Vanessa Schneider, Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS and this month’s podcast host.
If you’re interested in any of the organisations we talk about in the podcast, you can find out more about them on their websites: