What I learnt working at Public-i

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Warning this is a reasonably long blog post…

Last friday marked the last day of my six month contract with the folks at Public-i.

It has been a great experience and one which has provided me with many learning opportunities and chances to challenge myself and be challenged – I actually feel like I’ve grown in so many different ways, especially in confidence…I don’t think I realised how much my confidence had been affected by the restructure process that had pretty much been my life for the previous 2 years before moving into the Digital Communications arena in the council and then having this opportunity with Public-i.

As I look back over the 6 months and reflect on what I’ve learnt, what I’ve achieved and where I go next. I can’t help but look at what I wrote after the first month.

It was a really exciting learning curve and one which enabled me to learn a lot about myself, I wrote:

What I’ve learnt about myself

I need to give myself more time overall to reflect on things that are happening around me. In a work context I need to give myself time to think and make sure that what i am doing is right, fits with a vision and makes progress.

I need to be more organised, I’m trying to work out how I can manage my calendars for all the things I do without them all being loaded with the same information…It simply isn’t appropriate…I’m trying some things out, and only time will tell.

I should have more awareness of the skills and value I can bring to situations. I really need to complete the Business Model for myself to help me with this.

I really love what I’m doing but maybe I need to focus on one thing and do it really well instead of spreading myself so thinly…Sometimes I think I am actually being counter productive by only dedicating a proportion of my time.

I do actually trust those people around me to help fill the gaps, although I need to be more explicit with people in relation to the help I actually need. (I’m unaware that mind reading is a universal skill yet).

I actually set very high expectations of myself and I get frustrated when I’m not meeting them, this is an internal process but is something that I need to work through

I could work at a higher level than I am now if I simply believed in myself more.

I’m was never fond of train journeys but they do create time for thinking, especially if you have music or audio books to help you gather your thoughts.

Clarity of vision and pragmatic in delivery is a very useful tactic.

These are still very important lessons for me and some of them I’m still getting to grips with like being more organised, although I’ve learnt that having less time actually made me focus on only the really important things, which is good, but also meant that some of the things I should also be doing (although slightly less important) didn’t get done. So I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to getting that time back :).

One of the biggest things that I’ve learnt is that having a change of scenery if for a short time like 6 months is great to get new thinking, new ideas and also new energy for what you love doing.

With the recent discussions going on about Local GDS, greater collaboration, co-operation and knowledge sharing, I can’t help but think that actually spending time in a different plan / organisation even if for a short time and only in a part-time situation can only benefit individuals and councils.

I have been thinking about people I know in local councils who could and would  (whether they wanted to or not is a different thing) benefit from this exact thing and the organisations they worked with – perhaps Public-i would offer this to others again or even FutureGov, Learning Pool, Kind of Digital, there are many organisations who in their own way are already doing this and would gain a huge amount purely by having those amazing people working with them on a common goal or challenge even for a short period or on a project.

You maybe reading this thinking I mean you, well I do mean you, YES YOU – It would allow you to spread your wings and be able to use that incredible thinking you have demonstrated and challenge things in new and different ways. Seriously I can’t recommend this type of opportunity enough.

I know my council has now got an even more motivated person than before, someone who is more confident, better able to challenge and consider views from more angles than before. In the current context, why wouldn’t councils encourage this short-term skills and talent development approach. Local Government as a whole can only benefit.

So moving away from the personal learning as that is something that is actually an added benefit of what I was employed to do  - looking back on the first post this was the challenge:

First and foremost I’ll be working with the development team and the rest of the good folk at Public I on helping them improve the overall user experience and focus of the Citizenscape product.

I’ll be providing constructive disruption and challenge and hopefully help make it a solution which helps the democratic process evolve

Now my take on whether I achieved those will naturally be slightly one-sided, but I’m going to take a pragmatic view on what I think my impact was.

  • I think one of the things I enabled was for Catherine who was previously pushing the product forward to take a step back and trust me to unpick and question the current purpose and vision for the product and to provide an alternative.  I believe I did this, I was lucky enough to be involved in previous versions and to have had many conversations with Catherine about this idea from the start, so the overarching concept wasn’t in question, however the current purpose and opportunity was a bit lost.
  • I also believe that I allowed people to be brutally honest with me about what they thought the current issues were without any issue that what they thought was even right or wrong…I’m not saying there wasn’t an open feedback policy at Public-i because there is – however someone new allows people to perhaps share their concerns which they never felt were important or were dismissed, so I think I allowed people to resurface some past concerns which were also very useful.
  • Overall I think I achieved a new clarity and purpose with the product, I think that by the end of my six months nearly everyone understood what is was and how it needs to develop in the short-term. The longer term ambitions will naturally differ and will also be driven by market forces and opportunities.

To create a sense of balance to this review I asked Ady Coles, who was my line manager whilst working at Public-i to provide me with a short quote:

Carl has brought a tremendous amount to Public-i. He gave his expert, third-party view of our products and services, sometimes strengthening our thoughts and at other times, questioning them. In particular, his role as CitizenScape Product Manager has provided new ways to view the platform and – in his enthusiastic questioning and eagerness to learn – enabled us all to understand it better.
Both Carl and Public-i have gained a lot from the last 6 months and I would have loved for Carl’s tenure with us to continue.
Ok, So that wasn’t really balancing out the post :) But heh, it is great to share positive feedback and positive experiences with a wider audience and I’m proud of what I achieved in those six months.
I hope to be able to continue in some capacity my input and involvement with Public-i, after all, in those six months, people went from being “folks at public-i” to “friends at public-i”. That is probably one of my best reflections.

Managing a team, even a small one

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It is that time of year when the much-anticipated and eagerly awaited appraisals are held…I had my appraisal a few weeks ago and enjoyed it – Yes I really did enjoy it…I’m not being sarcastic here, I actually found it a really useful and valuable process and it helped me form the basis of my recent post about reflective thinking.

After my appraisal I obviously have to arrange and conduct the appraisals for my team (I manage 5 people) which has been happening over the last few weeks now - Whilst as a team we talk often (or least when I’m in the office we talk a lot, I suspect they are grateful for my days when i work for Public-i at the moment ) I always find this a good time to set aside focused discussion on an individual and reflecting on their learning over the past year, discussing what they think has gone well and not so well, what they are proud of in terms of achievements and we agree and talk through a series of targets – I assign my targets as team targets and then each member of the team may have some specific individual targets to focus on as well.

The whole process for me is refreshing as I have those conversations with individuals that are not often had in open, getting into their real motivations and listening and seeing the passion come through. As a manager you have such responsibility to ensure that the people you are employed to support and manage fulfill their potential and feel valued and empowered to get the work done.

Over the last 16 years of working in local government I’ve had such a diverse range of managers all with great qualities in different areas – I’m sure they had their own opinions of me too which I dare say were not all positive, but I’d like to think I’ve changed for the better and have listened and learned from them. Obviously I had and have my favourites (rightly or wrongly) but they all taught me about managing people and about leadership.

The one common factor they all shared in my experience was in allowing me as a person to grow, to challenge myself, to challenge others, to question why things are done, to be the awkward voice sometimes and for that I thank them…but it is this quality I need to replicate with my team.

I see the core purpose of my role to ensure that my team can do what they need to do – when all is said and done, I’ll not be the one who actually makes the changes, who builds the things people use and interact with, who codes some clever plugin to solve a problem…I’ll be the one going wow that looks awesome, how did you do that!

I guess I’m like a conductor of an orchestra, to most people I’ll simply be waving my hands about in random directions with my back to people, but people are not really interested in what I do, they are interested in the outcomes of the team.

This is one of the reasons why I’m encouraging my team [ and hopefully others from across the wider communications team ] to contribute to a team blog and to share their learning, their experiences, their thinking, their ideas.  The blog is called [ Re: Work Digital ] and we soft launched it last week, Matt in the team was the first to write something and went live with his post “A new pair of trousers“, we’ll no doubt get more things into the blog once we get things a bit more organised however it is a learning curve for the whole team so please be gentle and if possible,  encourage them with constructive feedback.

You’ll soon be in a similar position to me, learning about my team, listening to their motivations and passions, hearing about the challenges we have and how they might be solved. That is pretty powerful.

The power of reflective thinking…

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Reflection, Imitation, Experience

Reflection, Imitation, Experience By Rickydavid on Flickr

I’ve not blogged as much as I used to, partly because I’ve been really busy (or lazy) and my draft posts and rough reflections don’t get finished like they used to (again lazy), but also because sometimes it is worth just taking stock and reflecting on what has happened, what is happening and what needs to happen.

Last year I started a personal journey of reflection which has developed into more of a regular and critical part of my personal learning and development. Going through two restructure processes last year helps you think about what you believe your key strengths are and what you actually want to do and more importantly who you want to be…Part of this story of reflection has already been told, so won’t dwell on it further here, other than to say, focusing on your strengths and understanding them, I mean really understanding what they are is a very powerful and enlightening experience – a process which was supported in a blog post by Kate Hughes on strengths 2.0, where she managed to conduct some kind of online questionnaire to explore some of her strengths. She states…

This approach immediately resonated with me. A weakness I’ve carried through my career is my lack of attention to detail (something necessary in my field). I’ve developed techniques to manage it; re-reading with a fresh pair of eyes, using spell check and asking colleagues to proof read documents I’ve produced. But it always feels uncomfortable for me and no matter how much I kick myself when I make mistakes, I don’t seem to be able to overcome my weakness.
Once I’d identified my strengths (through an online questionnaire that you access through a code in the book) I could see that detail was never going to be my thing and it would make more sense to focus on what I’m good at. According to the questionnaire, my strengths were: Futuristic, Ideation, Strategic, Activator and Significance. I think it summed me up to a tee.

Back in January at #UKGC12 on the second day, I suggested and then spent pretty much most of the day attending a session on “reflective practice”. Initially it was suggested because there was a spare room and I had a bit of a hangover if I’m honest, so the quiet space seemed an ideal opportunity to simply “recover” – the silence, the space, the time was truly valuable.

I remember reading a blog post after UKGC12 by IceRunner which summarised the session held by Lloyd Davis on new kinds of conversations and the value of silence… I really like this quote…

One of the themes that kept recurring was that of ‘nothing’. How the natural pauses became less awkward as time went on, how we strip pauses and filler noises such as ‘um’ and ‘err’ out of a conversation when transcribing it. How ‘efficient’ communication makes no place for gaps, and how much information is contained in the gaps between words; how silence in a song can add an undefinable quality; to what extent our self-image is defined by others’ opinions of us, creating a space within which our self-image exists.

BUT I ended up learning a lot from the silence, the time, the space, the company (although conversation was sporadic and random) it all helped reflect on learning and also a range of other things.

So continuing the theme of reflection – readers of this blog will be aware that I also work part-time with Public-i – This has provided me with a lot of learning and also further reflection and has also helped me understand and prove to myself the strengths that I thought I had are actually real and can be of benefit to other people and organisations…that is a reassuring process which I’m lucky to be able to get.

The double-edged sword of working with Public-i is that on one side I get to be involved in some really fascinating projects which are generally in and around the Brighton area and also meet some very inspiring people in the process…what isn’t to love about this opportunity…on the other hand however for me this has simply inspired me to think about my own local community and how I can and should be doing more to improve it, connect people together and take forward and extending other people’s ideas into my local area. One example project which i believe has huge potential in my community as well as linking with my local school is Casserole (a futuregov project).

I’m hoping we can incorporate this thinking with the school and children’s centre, as we have starting talking about a community kitchen and garden project…I’ve no idea exactly how this will turn out, but we have some ideas, some assets, some resources and importantly some passion to at least see what can happen with it…It is this type of thing that I feel I want to do more of…These kinds of projects which make a real difference on local people. Now I know i can do that with Public-i but not in my local area and that is something which is important to me…It may take longer, it may be more frustrating but if successful my family will benefit directly from it which is why it is worth taking forward.

At this point in time I’m reminded of a great quote from Martin Howitt’s blog on being awesome

I don’t want to be chasing my own dreams on my own. I don’t want to stand out and be awesome.

If I have to sit in meetings all day nudging things forward inch by painful inch rather than being the swashbuckling, disruptive Lone Ranger to make that happen? Ok then.

What I love about Martin’s quote is that he simply wants to make things better, he isn’t after personal glory, he is more interested in being part of a team, chipping away at a wider challenge and pushing things forward, one day at a time…I really admire this viewpoint.

I’ve come to realise, more so in the last year than at any other time in my 16 years working for local government that I really love working for local government – I really do – you’d think that I would have already had that view, I mean 16 years is a long time working for one organisation, but I don’t think i really appreciated what opportunities you actually have to make a difference to other people’s lives.

It couldn’t be a more challenging time to work in local government, it couldn’t be a more financially challenging time, but yet within this context, I am meeting and seeing more and more great people – passionate about doing things differently, thinking differently and full of energy – It is very reassuring and something I thought wouldn’t happen as you see and read about lots of really amazing people leaving the sector and moving on to new challenges.

I’ve also learnt that (and i think this has become more pronounced since becoming a parent) getting involved in voluntary work in my community – I have developed a stronger and deeper passion for my local area and how it can be improved. I feel like I’ve become more of an active citizen and experiencing the projects with Public-i have brought these things into perspective more as I’ve seen and heard from people who are doing exactly that in their community.

The next few years will not be about doing more for less, the same for less or even less for less, it has to and must be about doing things differently. I for one want to be part of the journey and am grateful that I have that opportunity in Devon and in my local community.

Reflecting on my first month at Public-i

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At the start of March this year, I began my part-time employment with Public-i, the details of which I shared here.

So over a month later…what are my thoughts!

First and foremost the Public-i I team are a great bunch of people, they are all passionate about what they do and are very focused. They are all easy to get along with and all have very interesting things to say on a variety of topics. Even if I wasn’t working for them the people are the type of people I’d want to connect with. So if nothing else I’ve made some great contacts and had some great conversations which will no doubt continue in various places.

It wasn’t the major culture shock I perhaps had anticipated but it was still a pretty in-depth learning curve, which has made the first month a very tiring but fulfilling experience.  I think I underestimated how tired it would make me feel, but a good tired. I’ve had a lot to think about and if it wasn’t for the four plus hour train journeys to Brighton and back I’d wonder how I’d find the time to process all of the information, although I’m spending more time reading and checking things via my iPad and laptop then I previously did as I also have a number of voluntary positions that I still need to maintain on top of these paid positions.

So my role at Public-i is Product Manager for the Citizenscape product and this entails championing the product, defining the purpose, signing off development, designs and being clear about the overall vision and direction.

If I’m honest, I probably only do about a fraction of that at the moment and my initial focus has been on being clear in my mind as to what the purpose, proposition and vision is for the Citizenscape product. I’m not 100% there on that either yet as my thoughts are evolving the more I get into deeper conversations with people but I am becoming clear on what I think are the key underlying features of the product (more on this at a later stage).

In my previous post I referred to the issue around whether some of the free tools that exist to help aggregate content are in direct competition with the Citizenscape product. Well I think I can answer that question now…No they aren’t…So my personal opinion is that if a council wants a “free” tool to simply listen to some social media channels then do it, use those products, in fact I think they are very good at that and I’d certainly recommend addictomatic as a really usable platform.  This level (listening) is really quite a simple step, although finding and knowing your social media landscape is another matter and one which is likely to involve a social media audit of some kind.

The Citizenscape product isn’t really about listening, although it does do it, it is about a wider set of features (travelling content, interaction, participation, statistics and connecting people and networks) which in my opinion set it aside from the free tools. The challenge of course is in making sure the design, interaction and usability all come together to provide a product people will buy.

Aside from the Product Manager position it has been great learning more about what Public-i do and how they approach things. I perhaps didn’t appreciate the importance of the Public-i User Group in shaping developments, not just technical developments but also developments within the sector itself.

What I’ve learnt about myself

I need to give myself more time overall to reflect on things that are happening around me. In a work context I need to give myself time to think and make sure that what i am doing is right, fits with a vision and makes progress.

I need to be more organised, I’m trying to work out how I can manage my calendars for all the things I do without them all being loaded with the same information…It simply isn’t appropriate…I’m trying some things out, and only time will tell.

I should have more awareness of the skills and value I can bring to situations. I really need to complete the Business Model for myself to help me with this.

I really love what I’m doing but maybe I need to focus on one thing and do it really well instead of spreading myself so thinly…Sometimes I think I am actually being counter productive by only dedicating a proportion of my time.

I do actually trust those people around me to help fill the gaps, although I need to be more explicit with people in relation to the help I actually need. (I’m unaware that mind reading is a universal skill yet).

I actually set very high expectations of myself and I get frustrated when I’m not meeting them, this is an internal process but is something that I need to work through

I could work at a higher level than I am now if I simply believed in myself more.

I’m was never fond of train journeys but they do create time for thinking, especially if you have music or audio books to help you gather your thoughts.

Clarity of vision and pragmatic in delivery is a very useful tactic.

What hasn’t worked so well.

I’ve not been very good at reducing my work load at the council so the first month has a been a challenge, this is more my fault and my responsibility – it isn’t possible to try to fit 5 days work into 3 days (obviously), so I actually have to stop doing some things and hand them over to my team.

Managing my time has been a struggle…I’ve now started booking time in my calendar simply to get work done as my diary fills up very quickly now that I’m 3 days a week. However I also need to question whether my attendance at meetings is actually required and whether I would actually add value to the discussion.

Both jobs are very interesting but I don’t know if splitting my time is going to be practical long-term, this also includes some of the voluntary work I’m doing…I think i need to rethink my use of time and ensure that I maintain a healthy balance…but it is early days and I need to make adjustments which may well resolve some of these early challenges.

Finally

I don’t regret taking this opportunity, it is already proving valuable to me in a variety of ways. I need to give the whole thing more time to settle down.

Children are the best teachers…

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One of the many joys of having young children is that they can teach you so much – how to enjoy simple moments, how to express yourself through dance and how to skip along to just about anything. One of the most interesting areas my children teach me most in is about how human behaviour has changed around the use of technology.

The look on my sons (7 & 5) faces tells me so much when I try to explain that when I was their age, or even a bit older – I had to wait over an hour to “hopefully” load a computer game called manic miner on the ZX Spectrum.  For them it seems to take “forever” to wait for Angry Birds or in fact any game that shows the words “loading” on the screen before you can play it….Oh and the fact trying to explain that I had to use a “cassette tape” to load the game is even more amazing…You’d think I was almost from another planet.

I personally notice this more when my children interact with my mother – not that my mother is technologically ignorant, but I do notice the difference in the language my children use and the expectation they have around specific devices or situations – e.g. every phone is assumed to have a touch screen and is connected to the internet.

A  recent example of when my children made me laugh as well as taught me a new perspective was when my youngest son Finley, who is 5 years old, came home from school one day and walked up to me as said:

“You know on the computer at school, the screen you go to, to ask questions and find things, that is called google” he then did a little dance and then turned back to me with a big smile and said “google, that is a funny word isn’t it” and continued his little dance accompanied by a very infectious giggle.

One thing I don’t think I’ve ever done is actually think about the word google…listening to my son, got me thinking that actually it is a funny word, but up until then it had only ever meant “search” to me….

Another example was when my oldest son Ewan, who is 7, started telling me some very interesting and quite detailed facts about sharks, whales and other sea creatures.  When I asked him if he had found these out via google or the internet, he replied “No Daddy, I didn’t use the computer, I read it in my Ultimate Book of Knowledge”. This made me chuckle at first, I must never assume anything, also it was naive of me to think that the only place children learn is the internet – books, yes real printed books, play a very important role in the development of children (as my school colleagues and library colleagues would testify)…As a parent, I have to let my children help me understand where the balance is…

Sometimes we have to remember that not everyone see’s the world as we do and that we stand a better chance of communicating with people if we start to appreciate the world as they see it and understand how particular things could play a role in that world.

As I say to my children often, everyday is a school day.