Friday, 25 September 2009

Is a proposal for a government of national unity for ten years such a bizarre idea?

By Tim

The UK has some pretty serious problems. But surely the idea of a government of national unity-conjuring up images of wartime as it does- is going a bit too far? Isn’t it all a bit overly dramatic and apocalyptic sounding? And anyway, what’s wrong with PR? I’m going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it is an over- reaction and that in the short term it is actually preferable and more do-able than PR. It has been mentioned already by the journalist and blogger Xan Philips and even Guardian columnist Michael White, although I'm going to employ slightly different arguments for it.

Here’s why I think the circumstances are so special that we can’t afford ten years or two terms of politics as usual. If all went well, we’d be able to return to that later, in 2020, if we really wanted to.

1. Global capitalism -while not inherently bad- has become too complex, too quickly, for any one political party to be believed when they say they know how to manage the profound implications it has for our economy and for our way of life. It will take ten years to properly understand it and get to grips with the challenges it presents (including the current crisis), by which time our economy may be in irrevocable decline.

2. In parallel, rapid changes in consumerism, media , technology and the cultural, sexual and ethnic mix of our cities have transformed our lives so utterly, that there is now an unprecedented gap between the life experiences of one generation and the next.

Approaches to managing these social revolutions fall far beyond the usual Labour-Conservative divide. In fact it is responses to these problems that are most emotive and create the most bad blood within the parties themselves. The gap between Conservatives who are both economically and socially liberal on the one hand, and economically liberal but socially conservative on the other, is probably wider and more rife with personal animosity than the gap between socially liberal Labour and Tory supporters.

3. We have a short space of time in which to prevent catastrophic climate change which would severely degrade the lifestyles of our grandchildren when they grow up and possibly lead to mass death being inflicted on their grandchildren a few decades later. We either take steps now or it’ll all be over within two terms of office.

And those steps are political dynamite.

The carbon emission cuts required mean that we will need to succeed in the biggest transformation in our economy and lifestyles since the industrial revolution, all in a matter of ten years- two terms. Government will have to persuade or compel voters to spend thousands a year on things they don’t want (such as insulation) and which may seem to offer them no gratification in their lifetime, as well as to change the way they shop and holiday. Where is this kind of measure written about in the books that have always informed Labour and Conservative ideology? And how exactly are parties going to resist the temptation to make political capital out of this, thereby endangering the entire process?

4. The free movement of populations the world over, combined with sometimes valid post colonial resentment and unprecedented free access to technology, mean that we have a tiny number of religious fanatics living here legally who are intent on, and potentially capable of, causing catastrophic damage to our cities. A larger number are able to move freely to plot and support these attacks either in failed states or-in countries such as Pakistan- in provinces where functioning states do not have control. There is no precedent in the UK for this kind of threat to be dealt with because it simply wasn’t a threat until very recently. No one really knows what to do about it.

5. Finally, a vast trading bloc taking in most of our export markets has developed on our door step, and the countries within it- including us-are being driven to ever closer political union. It wasn’t the brainchild of either of our main parties and in truth, we still don’t know what to do about it and we will never be able to control it. Only, a small minority on either side want either to pull out of the EU or to see it expand its powers further.

These five problems are an order of magnitude greater than those faced in normal times in traditional policy areas such as health, education, crime and economic policy- where elections are generally fought on the basis of opposing ideologies.

To tackle them, we need a government that is able to operate with cross-part support and thereby avoid the destructive propensity for opposition parties to score cheap points by questioning a government’s competence. Only a government of national unity with collective responsibility for these key areas can do this.

I’ve always been a supporter of PR but this seems to be a more viable short term proposal at this point in time. Why?

It’s the party conference season and I have been spending too long reading the political commentariat-both professionals and amateurs. What stands out more than ever is the blanket low esteem in which we hold all our politicians and the lack of belief that any one party have the answers. This seems to be genuinely pervasive, more than I can ever remember in the past.

The idea that all our politicians are not up to the job of governing, as many seem to suggest, is plainly nonsense. There are probably well over a hundred good MPs and many more hundreds of potentially good MPs who’ll be elected in the next election. However, the idea that those people are disproportionately banded together in one of three organisations –the main parties- who will receive a mandate for their ideas from the electorate accordingly, does not seem credible. Yet that is the implication of our system of government. It’s this belief that drives my preference for PR, as well as the obvious argument that it is more just.

But will PR be any better in the short term in addressing these five problems? I don’t think so- it will take too long to bed down. The main parties might fragment, new parties will form. Who is to say that a coalition might not get held to ransom by a smaller party who deny climate change or unduly influence policy on any one of the other crucial challenges above? PR does not automatically equate with consensus and that is what we need more of now.

Here’s an alternative. Commit to forming a government of national unity for the next ten years-with a Cabinet formed by the winner of the first past the post system but with cross-party cabinet level teams to deal with the five themes of Globalisation, Social Change, Climate Change, Defence and the EU.

Once we understand these problems better and have taken the potentially unpopular actions which might be necessary to address them, then let’s go for PR.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Social media and cultural relations: some reflections from a practitioner . Part three.

Part three: twenty recommendations for an organisation to think about…

Some time ago, a leading cultural relations agency asked me to conduct a consultancy to identify best practice in cultural relations online. Here is a summary of the practical recommendations that came out of that report.

Cultural Relations Report Summary

Social media and cultural relations: some reflections from a practitioner . Part two.

Four case studies of how social media can be used for cultural relations

In the first part of this post, I talked about the necessity and the difficulties of cultural relations practitioners getting to grips with social media. Now by taking you through four case studies I have personally been involved in, I will try to show exactly how social media can be used to build new partnerships, enable the participation of fresh voices and make an unambiguous statement about a culture’s openness and desire for dialogue.

First a bit about Yoosk (which is derived from ‘you ask’). Yoosk gathers questions from the public for named political, business and civil society leaders, arranges for the interviews to be conducted by a member of the target community and then publishes the answers. We use a set of web tools and associated methodology to help clients conduct domestic and international engagement exercises and this latter activity falls into the sphere of cultural relations.

Yoosk FCO: public diplomacy through direct conversations with political leaders

The website has been used to gather questions from the UK’s Muslim community and from the Jordanian public around visits by the UK’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. The fact that the questions are unmoderated and openly displayed so that the public can vote on which they most want answered makes a clear statement that the UK are open for transparent dialogue. Furthermore, these questions are then delivered by people that the target audience recognise as not being part of the establishment, bringing fresh voices to media content that would normally be the preserve of established reporters. In Jordan, the questions were put by a young Jordanian female blogger and elsewhere on Yoosk interviews are conducted by community leaders, campaigners and even respected celebrities.

An extract from David Miliband’s interview in Jordan

The UK’s Ambassador to Vietnam talks about his job on Yoosk

A full case study of Yoosk FCO can be seen here.

Yoosk London Summit: open conversations with leaders around major themes

There can be no more global an issue and no problem more in need of a cross-cutting response from government than the current worldwide financial crisis. In the lead up to the G20 London Summit, the FCO and Cabinet Office commissioned Yoosk to build a platform dedicated to allowing people from all over the world to put questions directly to a wide variety of leaders from government, business and civil society.

Questions came from all over the world and the UK. Visitors can see open debate and dialogue in action and the exercise itself makes a statement about the UK’s values. But beyond that, it is a convenient place for overseas visitors to observe the plurality of views in the UK and perhaps might help them separate the attitudes and behaviours of the UK government from those of its wider population.

Highlights of the interviews are below and a full case study can be found here.

Yoosk Vietnam: cultural dialogue as media content

Yoosk Vietnam involved ten conversations between leading UK cultural, sporting, business and political leaders and the Vietnamese public. The project was run on behalf of the Embassy in cooperation with a leading Vietnamese news publication, Vietnam Net and involved an editorial team working in both the UK and Hanoi. This partnership was essential to the success of the project.

The online conversations that took place using social media did not just contribute to the FCO’s strategic themes, it made a statement in itself- that the UK and its leaders are open to talking to the public. As a media activity, it generated a lot of press attention about different aspects of UK culture that wouldn’t normally attract coverage.

A further outcome is that the openness demonstrated by the UK has raised interest among partners in Vietnam and Yoosk are now working with the National Assembly on an FCO funded citizen engagement project.

This demonstrates the value of innovation and openness, which are the hallmarks of social media. The fact that a government institution traditionally seen as being inaccessible to the public is so enthusiastically showcasing digital innovation, will I believe, have an effect beyond the already valuable benefits social media brings to cultural relations.

A full case study of how it worked can be seen here.

Managing difficult dialogue: Yoosk’s feature on Muslims in the UK

Bringing together a right wing Daily Mail commentator and the spokesperson for the radical Islamist Hizb ut Tarir organisation and offering the public the chance to put questions to them would not normally be an easy task. Yoosk’s Question Time-type panel interviews make this possible. This is just one example of how social media can push the boundaries of intercultural debate-in this case showing clearly that neither holds views as extreme as they are often represented to be. To see the feature, click here.

In conclusion

I hope these case studies will help clarify the important point that social media is not a technical issue and can lead to outcomes that are very much part of a traditional cultural relations manager’s stock-in-trade: increased trust and understanding gained through subtle processes that combine media with social interaction.

In other words, it’s a continuation of our job by new means and well worth the time needed to develop the understanding and knowledge required to do it well.

Social media and cultural relations: some reflections from a practitioner. Part one

A senior manager in cultural relations? Some thoughts on getting to grips with social media.

Even if so far you have resisted the temptation to create a naff user name and input an instantly forgotten password to a website that you suspect you’ll never visit again, there’s no getting away from this one fact: you’re going to have to get to grips with social media at some stage between now and retirement. I hope that what follows might help you to confirm in your own mind why this is worth doing.
First of all, I should say that this is not a blog post, rather it is more of a short lecture delivered electronically in three parts. That is another way of saying that it is long, I suppose, but it is also an attempt to challenge the already well-entrenched misconceptions of what social media is. Getting beyond these is an important part of the process in understanding its potential.
I’m going to talk about why social media is important for cultural relations organisations, why it is difficult but can’t be ignored and I’ll finish by looking at how its value lies beyond a simple numbers game.

‘Media’ and ‘Social’ were always part of cultural relations

Here’s what cultural relations activity involves and always has done:

Media: We bring our target audiences together to watch films, listen to music or to people talking about ideas and events, they read articles and fiction, look at photographs, appreciate design, painting and sculpture, they might attend our exhibitions, conferences, classes and workshops or even play sport or video games together.

Social: Then they talk to each other about it, give opinions, disagree, agree, argue, reach conclusions and finally, arrange to speak again (or not), and if we are successful, keep in touch and even collaborate.

It’s difficult to conceive of any cultural relations strategy that doesn’t make use of media to convey messages about the achievements and values of the groups involved and rely on social interaction to build close personal ties. In fact the combination of socialising- face to face networking- and the use of media -press releases, films, music, publications, exhibitions- have been a staple of cultural relations for years and have often taken place at the same time and been mutually supporting.

Doing this online is surely a logical next step.

Social media: high barriers to entry for the organisation

So why then has there been reluctance from some practitioners to embrace online social media as a key component of their cultural relations work?

Perhaps it is because they don’t really see it in these terms. Sadly, the labels internet, website and ICT are too often used to confusingly describe social media activity. These are loaded words, implying as they do to some people, a complex undertaking that is beyond the skills of anyone except those with a certain degree of technical literacy.

But the truth is that not investing in social media, not taking the time to understand and not participating is like turning down invitation and after invitation to cultural events. It is the equivalent of staying at your desk and then going home at the end of the working day rather than attending conferences, seminars, receptions, openings, and parties.

That might seem an exaggeration- after all, not everyone is online and certainly most of the older influencers and decision makers in society are not regular users of social media tools. This is true perhaps. But the emerging generation of decision makers and influencers most definitely are using social media - so online socialising and the use of online content among this successor group are taking place right now. By the time you retire, they will be well on their way to forming a new generation of leaders heavily influenced by online content and interaction along the way.
Sorry to say this but part of the problem with cultural relations organisations making effective use of social media lies in seniority and organisational hierarchy. In every country where large cultural relations agencies operate, the 20 to 30-something future leaders of that country are socially active online and increasingly consuming media online. But the senior managers of the cultural relations agencies are not of that generation-they either don’t see these conversations or they are not able or inclined to fully participate. And in a hierarchical organisation, delegating very significant and meaningful activity like this to younger staff does not come naturally.

Another problem is perceived cost and tangible benefits. If the latter are measured in the short term as a set of numbers- traffic is the most convenient way to evaluate social media- then it is often easy to discount the impact of projects where social media is involved. Getting those fabled millions of hits is actually a very difficult and expensive process.
I could go on but the point is that doing social media well, as many organisations have discovered, is not easy. Organisations are just not set up for it and the barriers to effective entry are actually quite high.

Cultural relations: low barriers to entry for new organisations

If it is difficult for established organisations to use social media, paradoxically, social media has made it an increasingly simple matter for others to enter the cultural relations industry. Thanks to the ease with which online communities can be set up and are able to connect with each other, organisations, groups and individuals are now quite capable of participating in cultural relations independently of government agencies.

It’s true that friendship societies and twinning associations thrived without the involvement of cultural relations agencies long before the internet was created, but there’s no doubt that it is now far easier to find like-minded communities and share content and interact with them online. In theory, any civil society group can locate and build links with its analogues overseas.
Media companies too, are hosting intercultural dialogue. This occurs as an inevitable part of the commenting that goes on around their content- You Tube and the Guardian are just two examples of places where you can easily find people of different cultures communicating, although with often questionable outcomes.

The opportunities for established cultural relations players

This brings me to the opportunities for the established players in cultural relations: despite the problems they face in fully embracing the potential of social media, there is clearly a role for them to play in raising the bar when it comes to online interaction between different cultures.

Exactly how this can be done is a little complex to go into here and needs to be the subject of another post (sorry, mini-lecture), but broadly it can be summarised as follows:

1. How they can integrate their own social media activity into their existing work
2. How they can use other people’s social media activity to add value to their own work.
3. How they can use their physical presence and in-country networks to add value to the social media work of others.

In delivering these three objectives, established cultural relations agencies have two great strengths (and others, I’m sure). The first is their long experience in managing intercultural dialogue and mediating between peoples of different cultures. The second is the physical, boots-on-the-ground infrastructure, which uniquely positions them to fulfil the aspirations that people who engage online often have: to meet face to face.

A bewildering array of new partners, tools and communities

The landscape comprising potential partners, the tools to create and manage dialogue, and the communities who are ready to participate, are still a foreign country to many cultural relations practitioners. Sadly, a lot of senior managers who understand the potential of social media still find themselves in a position akin to arriving in a country with no induction, unable to speak the language and with no one available to show them around the new city. Knowledge is needed in addition to understanding. This has significant implications for the development of senior staff.

Inevitably, false expectations arise: it is assumed that all social media will go viral and reach millions, that it needs to take place on Facebook, You Tube or similar. Actually, a lot of social media work will make use of well known websites and communities but a lot of it will also involve specialist tools that bring more subtle outcomes that can’t be measured simply by hits and page impressions.

In the next post, we'll look at how one such specialist tool, Yoosk, can bring some quite distinct outcomes through innovative approaches to online dialogue.