Five good habits for better public services

Posted on 6th July 2015 by

The magazine New Start has been looking at alternative approaches ot create economic vibrancy in a number of uk cities, including Birmingham and the West Midlands.  They asked me to write something ….


Senior leaders in the city know that they need to help their teams focus on the values that shape what they do. It’s hard to do though, hard to lift the head from process to values. Here some simple ideas from the people we have worked with and the experience we’ve had over 10 years at Podnosh:

1. Be useful and helpful:
This is a statement of the obvious, This is the whole point of public service, isn’t it? So often we meet people embroiled in public services that simply seem to be a process. If the process is useful to anyone it often feels like it’s the people who designed it. Have you created a service which allows the people on the coal face to say what’s the most useful thing I can do now? And then they can do it? Can they ask themselves how can I help here and have the permission to do the next most sensible thing? If not who is it for and is it likely to be wasting public effort ? So less like a mobile phone operator trying to prevent you closing your account and more like a neighbour who’s sharing their oven when yours is broken.

Good examples:

Pregnancy Outreach Service

2. Act like citizens:
Citizens tend to spot bullshit where bureaucrats don’t. Citizens tend to do what makes sense for their community, not their organisation. Citizens tend to get active about complacency or waste, not wearied by it. Why can’t workers also think and behave like citizens some or all of the time?

Cotteridge Park *
B31 Voices *
NHS Change day*
Young Rewired State*

3. Keep it simple – where you can:
Complex problems often lead to complicated processes to help solve them. We can easily get bogged down in the complicated. So how far can you get by doing simple things that can just be done?

Social Media Surgery*
New Optimists*
Hyperlocal Bloggers
Casserole club
Greaves Hall coffee mornings
Big Lunch
Park Run

4. Good relationship make for better services:
Collaboration is a product of good relationships, so concentrate on the relationships.

Community Policing
21st century public service*
Creation of a regional super council?
Birmingham Open Spaces Forum*

5. Be Generous:
Give so you can receive. If you want to collaborate with people in Birmingham to create public good start by giving what you can. Co-production is born from relationships, not wishful thinking. Open data is a generous act, it is trusting that, if you share, people will do good with this stuff.

Nat West/Entrepreneurial Spark
Birmingham Data Factory
Makeshift in Wolverhampton – supporting community activity, mentoring

I don’t pretend that this will solve all problems and the analogies I use won’t apply to all people. But I do think that framing public service using these principles more often will free up more resources for the very difficult or very complex problems.

Tranparency: The examples included here are just that, there will be many more and some you might dispute. Where there is an * asterix us lot at Podnosh have either worked on this or been involved with it.


#futureshift notes – Joel Blake on grassroots change.

Posted on 26th April 2014 by


Joel Blake is a CSR specialist. (well there’s more to him than that.

  • When will being socially responsible and profitable be the norm?
  • There’s a revolution where people are no longer sitting there and taking the crap that came their way.
  • Many corporates have seen CSR as a brand exercise –
  • The corporates that will survive will be the ones that are adaptable.
  • Social Impact is not just about great projects – it is about personal responsibility from people within business.  It should be intrinsic to growth plans for a business.
  • Philanthropy/charity is dead.  No longer ok to just give money away –  instead you need to know what imapct it will have.
  • CSR can be seen as a tool for growth – the thing that allows a business to be sustainable for the future. Unless you business has an impact on the people you serve your business is limited.
  • Measure the social return from csr in terms of the value of the business.
  • The next generation of CEO’s will be someone who’s got clarity of vision. It needs to be tangible.
  • Watch your language –  be careful not to say things that demoralise you. Say positive things for yourself. Ignore other people’s stereotypes.
  • Embrace fear –  it’s means there’s something I need to do. Lack of fear opens up the door for innovation.
  • Embrace change. Be willing to burn bridges – including people or ideas.
  • Nothing replaces hard work.

Live Streaming Council Committee meetings – How we helped Birmingham City Council Billesley Ward Committee get online.

Posted on 28th March 2014 by

I’ve mentioned about how we’ve worked in South Birmingham in conjunction with the South Birmingham Community Safety Partnership when we wrote about what Austin Rodriguez , South Birmingham Safer Places officer had to say about the project.

What I haven’t said yet is that we’ve been working on a second phase of the surgeries with him.

Austin has been doing a great thing empowering the people he works with to use social media to talk to each other, to improve where they live and  to  build a stronger communities and with him we’ve continued to build on the momentum from phase one of the project.

In February we were holding a surgery in Bartley Green that  Alex Buchanan  – Ward Councillor of Billesley – attended. He came along with Austin with the idea that he’d like to trial live streaming his ward committee meeting .  Birmingham City Council have been live streaming their meetings from the council house and he wanted to see how he could make that work locally.

The Technology

Out in the community centres and church halls where community meetings are usually held there isn’t the infrastructure the council have  – there isn’t high speed Wi-Fi or  high definition webcams and high quality controlled audio. Nor is there a bespoke website to send the feed to,  so we had to look at what was available. 

Councillor Buchanan had invested in a laptop with a webcam and a decent microphone so we decided Google Hangouts would be the way to go, using the On Air function to stream to Youtube, which also meant it could be shared via other platforms and embedded into blogs – We spent about an hour looking at how this could work for them and then on the 20th February they put it into action.

Some observations – Be brave.

You can see in the video above that while the camera was positioned in such a way that the whole top table could be seen – the microphone struggled to pick everyone up. As the people farthest away from the set up took their turn to speak at times the audio wasn’t very clear at all but then they weren’t using a multi-directional mic that can pick everyone up like at the council house. What they had was a small mic plugged into a laptop  –  but  it could have been moved to pick up more voices.

This seems obvious watching it back but again it comes back to the fact this was a trial and a learning experience. What it needs next is just a bit of bravery, Bravery to do it again and to take what they’ve learned doing this and apply it. If during the meeting they were willing to pause proceedings by just a few seconds to re-position the mic before people took their turn to talk this would greatly improve the quality of the audio, make better use of the technology they have available and improve the experience for the community watching.

In saying that though it is fantastic that Councillors are looking at ways to open up the local democratic process to more people, and live streaming of meetings is definitely a good way to go. The fact that Councillor Buchanan was willing to even consider giving this a try is fantastic and who knows what could be next? What other public conversations could take place in – well – public?  

The Sprit of BCCDIY rides again – an open data platform in a day in Birmingham

Posted on 20th February 2014 by


I often talk to people about BCCDIY.

In 2009 a group of local developers and bloggers got together and built an alternative to Birmingham City Council’s website. They called it BCCDIY.

They wanted to demonstrate that information could be better organised and more easily accessed.  They did it in a day (with some preparation) (you can see a version here) .  The council’s new website had taken one of the countries largest consultancy firms four years and they had charged £2.8 million pounds.

A group of people working on BCC DIY

BCC DIY taking shape in 2009 – image Dan Davies

When I tell public servants and residents about the cost of the council website they gasp. They’re not surprised, but they are angry.  When I tell them about BCCDIY they also gasp – with a sort of mischievous happiness. They are delighted to see people taking things into their own hands and showing where bad decisions lead to wasted money and effort. A councillor involved in spending the £2.8 million pounds response to BCCDIY – when I explained it to them – was “we didn’t have the knowledge.”

Now you do, or you can (come and talk to any local developer – they’ll help you learn).

And now is not the time to repeat the mistake of just doing what the big consultancies tell local government is right.

The lesson of BCCDIY was not learnt when the Library of Birmingham website was built (by the same contractor) for £1.2 million pounds.  I don’t know how much it should have cost – but I’m confident I know local agencies who would have been delighted to deliver it at a sixth of the price and to maintain it for much less than the current annual cost.

So let’s not make a similar mistake a third time, when the council eventually creates a place to put and share Open Data .

On Saturday Simon Whitehouse and some others will be building an Open Data platform for the West Midlands – in a day. You can join in, if you like.   In effect he’ll be doing the equivalent of BCCDIY before a silly sum of money is spent by the public sector…

This is what Simon says about the plan for Saturday:

In Birmingham we are holding an event at Birmingham City University where we are going to set up a West Midlands “Open DataStore In A Day”. The idea is quite simple. Over the day we will set up a website that can hold open datasets and publish what we can find to it. You don’t have to be a technical whizz to take part. Enthusiasm and curiosity are enough to make it worth your while coming along.

We’ll spend the day finding and collecting the data that people are interested in and we’ll put it all together in one place online, in the West Midlands Open Datastore. Once we’ve done that, it makes it all a lot easier to do something useful with.

If somebody can’t find the data that they are interested in then we will help them to write a Freedom Of Information request to ask for it. When those are answered we will add them to the Open Datastore.

I’m really pleased that Data Unlocked, the co-operative venture that I’ve recently helped to co-found, are providing the website for people to work on during the day, and that we will continue supporting it afterwards. We’ve helped to organise the day along with Open Mercia and RnROrganisation.

In Emer Coleman’s recent post about the City as a Platform she says that she has seen quotes of up to £200,000 for Data Platforms. We think that we can do a lot with some free open source software and the goodwill of people volunteering their time and skills.

Emer Coleman goes on to add that any datastore should be deliverable well within a developer budget of £20k.  It seems that  Saturday might  get local authorities in the West mids off to a flying start.