Author: BenF (Page 2 of 4)

Digital Heroes – Kevin Davies & Helia Phoenix

A couple of months ago I jumped on the train to Cardiff to meet the National Assembly for Wales Digital Engagement team, as is my want to do. It struck me that, despite working with organisations all over the world, I had little to no idea what the Welsh were up to, and after accepting that this glaring anomaly needed rectifying, I had a good old chat with Helia and Kevin.  It turns out they’ve been quietly doing all manner of interesting citizen involvement work, which I thought the rest of you might want to know about. Without further preamble then, let’s jump right in to another fascinating interview filled with the big questions, (Biscuit dunking and so on).

1. What’s your name and where are you from?
KD: Kevin Davies originally from Carmarthen, living in Cardiff.
HP: I’m Helia Phoenix, born in Cardiff, lived in loads of other places (London, Exeter, Southampton, Sheffield, Bristol, Berkeley out in California!), now living back in Cardiff again.


Helia Phoenix

2. What do you do for a living?
KD: I work for the National Assembly for Wales (not the Welsh Government!). The Assembly scrutinises the decisions made, the money spent and laws proposed by the Welsh Government, and my job is to get more and different voices to help the Assembly scrutinise the Welsh Government, particularly for committee scrutiny. I arrange consultation engagement activity like events, focus groups, surveys, web-chats, video interviews, online discussions and so on to facilitate a service user/citizen voice in the process.
HP: I’m a digital media specialist working for the National Assembly. It does everything that Kev says! I head up all things that relate to web content, which covers a vast range of things like digital accessibility, trying to improve our online content as best we can, and working on new innovations for how we communicate with people online. In my spare time, I run a (hyper)local blog about Cardiff, called ‘We Are Cardiff’. It’s been going for six years and is mostly based around pen portraits of people who live in the city, alongside information about alternative culture and events. It’s won Blog of the Year at the Welsh Blog Awards, and been named as one of the world’s best city blogs by the Guardian.

3. Favourite band and / or artist?
KD: LCD Soundsystem
HP: ARGH that’s too hard, I have too many! Queens of the Stone Age, Jon Hopkins, Leftfield, Four Tet. I also really loved the most recent Belle and Sebastian album but was never a fan of theirs before. Sub Focus. Fleetwood Mac. Pinch. Everything!

4. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
KD: Creature of habit
HP: Maverick …

5. You house is on fire, what do you save?
KD: My housemates?
HP: I put the fire out and save everything!

6. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
KD: Dunk. Everytime.
HP: Dunk!

7. What does digital democracy mean to you (or maybe, what should digital democracy mean)?
KD: Digital democracy to me means breaking down walls and accessibility, it’s about us talking to people in the way and in the places they want to, it’s about recognising that different people consume information and have their say in different ways in different places and we need to embrace that. It isn’t the way that everyone wants to engage so it’s horses for courses and from my experience almost always needs to be combined with offline promotion/face to face interaction. It’s a way for people to help us figure out if the Welsh Government is doing a good job, and helps us make recommendations to the Welsh Government on what actions  they should take to make Wales a better place to live and work. It should be a way for the public to shape political debate.

HP: Digital democracy to me means showing people how ‘government’ is relevant to them, in places that they’re already using to carry out communications – online, email, social media sites, and so on.

I use the word ‘government’ really to talk about any kind of state apparatus that organises or affects the lives of the people. Particularly in Wales, devolution has been such a complicated process – the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government started off being one organisation, then they split, then full powers have been devolved, and then the Wales Bill will see even more powers devolved. UK Parliament has been basically the same for hundreds of years, while we’ve got all these changes, which makes it so hard to educate people.

Also people have a negative perception of politics and politicians … it’s about making it relevant to them. Do you care about hospital provision in your area? Do you care about your local schools? About the park on your street? Politics is all of that. If you don’t participate, you have no right to complain. It’s making people understand and think about those links, and then make it as easy as possible for them to get involved when they are moved to do so. It’s about everything as simple as answering every tweet or Facebook comment we get (the sensible ones, that is!).


Kevin Davies

8. Where do you see the field of digital democracy/ digital engagement in ten years? Opportunities and pitfalls?
KD: Smarter and more effective ways of getting information out to citizens. better transparency. Better informed electorate.  Direct democracy – people raising issues with politicians, political establishments quickly and easily. Electronic voting. Possible pitfalls: online security, information overload, internet access, older population, managing people’s expectations – public conditioned to expect instant results from their interaction (twitter/xfactor etc).

HP: I can’t even imagine where we’ll be in ten years time. Electronic voting, definitely. Possibly direct input into legislation via online means? Or voting directly on budget allocation? Hopefully there will be ways that people can get more directly involved in the democratic process.

9. Best project you’ve worked on at the Welsh Assembly and why?
KD: One of the Assembly’s committees was looking at STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) Skills, and they wanted to speak with young people to find out what inspired them to choose their course, how easy/difficult it was to find an apprenticeship in their field, and the main obstacles that they faced in pursuing their interest in the subject. It’s important that the Assembly seeks the views of people from all parts of Wales, so we ran a web-chat using Google Hangouts where Assembly Members gathered in a room to have an online conversation with students. When it came to the end of the project, the Committee wrote a report to the Welsh Government, which included 14 recommendations.

What I liked about this was seeing how rewarding students found the experience, and how much the Assembly Members enjoyed themselves too. Here is a blog one of the students wrote after taking part, and here’s a video of Rhun ap Iorwerth AM and Julie James AM talking about taking part in their first web-chat:

What I loved about this project was how much impact it had on the report. Web-chat participants were quoted or referenced 17 times throughout the report, which demonstrates how much effect their contribution had on the project and on the suggestions we made to the Welsh Government. For me that’s what it’s ultimately all about, I think we can get lost in doing things for the sake of it, particularly when it comes to digital, the real success comes when you apply new techniques and technologies to the objectives of your project as we did here.

HP: One of my favourite projects was a week we spent in Wrexham earlier this year, where we worked with the local authority to train staff about what the Assembly does, had events at local schools and colleges, had our outreach bus in the centre of town, and also had a session with hyperlocal journalists. I worked on two events there. One was a ‘digital takeover’ of our youth engagement channels by students from Coleg Cambria, where media students set up a camera and filmed other students talking about lowering the voting age, and about other political issues in general. We let the students take photos and create content throughout the day, which we put out over our Your Assembly channel. A couple of the students went off and wrote blog posts for us – they were such high quality, I was so impressed. Who says the youth aren’t engaged and don’t care? This is student Ieuan Walker’s blog post from that day and this is another student, Callum Murray. The day after, I took part in a little interactive training workshop session with some hyperlocal blogs from Wrexham, like, and some university students from Glyndwr University. It was a brilliant couple of days – exhausting, but really rewarding.

10. Any shout-outs?
KD: Dyfrig Williams and Ena Lloyd at the Good Practice Exchange, Will Barker – digital man @1000LivesPlus in NHS Wales, Dave McKenna – Local government scrutiny and policy person at Swansea Council

HP: Jo and Esko at The Satori Lab, who are putting on GovCampCymru in one of the Assembly’s building in September this year. Gareth Morlais who is an endlessly valuable resource on Welsh language in technology. Carl and Tom at Native HQ, who’ve been amazing advising us and are working endlessly on exciting projects!

Thanks to Kevin and Helia for taking the time to share their work. If you’d like to carry on the conversation, Helia does Twitter here and Kevin does it over here.

Until next time.

Delib’s Tour of the USA

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to spend five weeks touring Australia and New Zealand to support our Delib Australia team as they were getting setup. I shook a lot of hands and talked in front of many, many rooms of people and all in all it was quite an eye opener. Meeting large swathes of local, central and state government was a great way to understand the differences (and indeed, the similarities) between the work we do in the UK; helping organisations to utilise progressive forms of online participation, and the methods employed down-under.

In April, I’ll be heading over to the US to undertake a similar trip, although this one will be firmly grounded in research as I attempt to understand how citizens are included in decision making stateside and perhaps, even, learn what ‘civic tech’ really means. I’ll be focusing my efforts on the North East, North West and D.C. and I’ve so far arranged: meetings, open coffee mornings, brown bag lunches, tech meet-ups and a few speeches here and there.

I’d like to fill every last minute of the trip, meeting interesting people and sharing Delib’s particular brand of digital democracy, (or should I say civic tech?), so if you’d like to meet or you know someone who might, please do get in touch. The dates and location of the trip are below:

  • New York: Monday 6th to Friday 10th April
  • Boston, MA: Monday 13th to Wednesday 15th April
  • Portland, Oregon: Thursday 16th to Friday 17th April
  • Seattle, WA: Monday 20th to Tuesday 21st April
  • Washington, D.C.: Wednesday 22nd to Friday 24th April

I’m also, somehow, shoe-horning in brief trips to Salem OR, Olympia, WA and Buffalo & Albany, NY.

I’ve got plenty to share about our work with: online budgeting, community dialogues, policy consultations, the Open Policy Making agenda, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy and the wider field of change makers, culture hackers and tech pioneers.

If you’d like to meetup you can get hold of me on Twitter or good old fashioned electronic mail –


Introducing Delib Account Manager – Alexis Mackie

AlexisDelib continues to grow, and as it does, supporting our clients becomes ever more important. As such, we continue to hire account managers, the vital link between our customers and our tech people; the jam in a digital sandwich. The latest in that noble line is Alexis, a keen bean from the other side of the pond, who’s kindly agreed to share some insight about her background, her hopes, her fears and yes, her thoughts on biscuits.

Let’s jump right in.

1. What’s you name and where are you from?
My name is Alexis Mackie and I am from Vancouver Canada. To be specific, I grew up in a town called Port Coquitlam which is just on the outskirts of Vancouver. Most people struggle to say ‘Coquitlam’ so for ease I stick with Vancouver. “Coquitlam’ is a First Nations word meaning “people stinking of fish slime” or “a small red salmon” in the Hun’qum’i’num language. But the town is much prettier than the definition of the word! Before I moved to Bristol I lived in Whistler for 6 years enjoying everything that beautiful village had to offer.  Amazing skiing and snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking and lakes…heaven. Now I’m in Bristol I get outside as much as I can to Ashton Court/Leigh Woods, the Mendips and Dartmoor.

2. Favourite band and / or artist?
I love music and what’s on the jukebox is entirely dependent on what I’m doing.  If I’m cooking dinner it will be David Gray or Damien Rice.  For baking I prefer Sam Smith, James Blake or London Grammar.  If I’m getting ready to go mountain biking it has to be DJ Fresh and Gold Dust. For chill time there is nothing like a little bit of Puccini.

3. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
Habit in some ways and airy fairy in others.  I have a driven need to change household linens once a week and keep the kitchen clean at all times, however, I love a last minute trip, the latest one being to Marrakech which was awesome!

4. You house is on fire, what do you save?
My two puddy cats, Roger and Jemima.  Roger is a large ginger tom whose sole purpose in life is to source out more food and Jemima is a very naughty little ball of black fluff who constantly tries to climb curtains.  I am madly in love with both of them.

5. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
I don’t really use the word biscuit as that would be weird for a Canadian. Crumbs in my tea are not on – I am definitely not a dunker.

6. Before joining Delib, how did you put bread on the table?
Working for SunLife as a Relationship Manager and in marketing.  In Whistler I worked for Whistler Blackcomb in product management and customer service.  I’ve been pretty lucky to work for some great companies who are very friendly and love a laugh.

7. Why did you want to join Delib?
The number one reason is I love account management and was really keen on the people I met through the interview process.  You spend a lot of time with the people you work with – being able to enjoy each others company is a priority.  I am super keen on digital and working for a company who makes a difference in our world.

8. Any shout outs, comments or other musings?
Being able to laugh and be silly makes life better.  Smiling at someone on the street may brighten their day and improve yours in the process.

If you’d like to get in touch with Alexis, you can do the email thing here and the Twitter thing there.


Accessible Ideas from Anne Collis of Barod CIC

Anne_CollisHere at Delib we take accessibility seriously, ensuring all of our apps work with assistive technologies so that anyone, irrespective of their abilities, can take part in democratic processes. A while back we heard about a Welsh community interest company who’d been founded with just such a purpose and, after meeting Anne Collis at Gov Camp Cymru (#gccy14), I thought she was probably well placed to expand on the subject.

Let’s jump right in.

1. What’s you name and where are you from?
Anne Collis, from Bangor North Wales

2. What do you do for a living?
I’m one of the worker-directors of Barod Community Interest Company. Barod is Welsh for “ready”. We chose it because we are a mix of people with and without learning difficulties who got fed up being sent on “work readiness” courses when we were already ready to work.

3. Favourite band and / or artist?
I do like a bit of Pink Floyd, but Eminem is great when I’m getting in the zone for Crossfit.

4. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
Definitely maverick. Barod’s strapline is “spreading ideas, changing attitudes”. We need a bit of maverick to make that happen.

5. You house is on fire, what do you save?
Me! Anything material can be replaced or you can learn to do without it.

6. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Shock horror, I don’t eat biscuits since I started Crossfit. But Barod’s biscuit of choice is jaffa cakes, so if I had to eat one it would be gently nibbled in an unsullied state.

7. What does accessibility mean to you (or maybe, what should accessibility mean)?
It means being able to do what I want, how I want and when I want, without having to overcome barriers that only affect some people. Barriers could be things like money, where I live, the way things are done, or people’s bad attitudes and assumptions. I get frustrated when people use “accessibility” to mean “let’s change a few things for you personally because you don’t fit into the way we do things round here”. That’s my politely frustrated way of saying that I don’t like “reasonable adjustments” because that assumes it’s OK to carry on excluding people by how we do things as long as we are willing to sigh and do something different for individuals who we’ve excluded – if they have the confidence to insist we make things accessible to them.

8. What guidance exists to ensure things are accessible online and is it sufficient/ understood?
Funny you should ask that, as I was at a meeting with some lovely folks from Southampton University yesterday. The bottom line is that there are international evidence-based guides and standards for online accessibility but they focus on making sure the web is accessible to people with physical and sensory impairments. It’s really hard to find any research about making the web more accessible to more people with learning difficulties. And that’s an issue, because the project we are working on with Southampton University will probably need academics and people with learning difficulties to access a website on an equal footing.

9. Where do you see the field of online accessibility in ten years? Opportunities and pitfalls?
I have no idea about the techie stuff! Barod has started following some people on Twitter who could probably answer that one, like Alistair Somerville of Acuity Design. What I do know is that if the content is rubbish, the site will remain inaccessible even if the techie stuff is amazing.

10. Best project you’ve worked on at Barod and why?
Hard to pick a favourite. I think the most fulfilling thing we did was setting up Barod as a workers cooperative. We started with a bunch of ideas and visions, and slowly worked out the best way to turn them into reality. Our greatest moment had to be when clients stopped acting like the people without a learning disability were either the bosses or the support workers to the people with a learning disability and started to treat us as equals. The most fun came from a project that involved being paid to eat cake and drink coffee (those were the days before Crossfit when I still ate cake!) and chat to fascinating people. The aim was to find out what was going on in people’s heads rather than what they would say if they came to a consultation event. We call the method ‘coffee shop conversations’, and I’m currently seconded to Bangor University to develop a theoretical framework for the method. Watch this space…

11. Any shout-outs?
Got to do a shout-out to fellow directors, Alan Armstrong who I rely on to stop me from getting lost and to keep my feet on the ground, and Mal Cansdale who does an amazing job of oiling the wheels of Barod and who taught me to tweet. And a completely off-topic shout out to The Crossfit Place on Anglesey who in the last 9 months have got me physically and mentally fitter than I’ve ever been in my life.

So there we have it, 11 questions answered by the queen of accessibility (new job title?). Aside from some great pointers, I really like Barod’s wider obsession with Jaffa Cakes; something I both support and encourage…

If you’d like to talk to Anne, contact details can be found here and a Twitter follow is just a click away.

A ‘Few’ Thoughts from Ali Stoddart of Demsoc Scotland

At Delib, we’re big fans of the Democratic Society or Demsoc as pretty much everyone Ali_Sknows them. They do interesting, useful work that promotes and builds the wider democratic sector and, more importantly, they’re a thoroughly nice bunch of people. One of those people is Ali Stoddart, a surprisingly loud, ceaselessly keen and properly Scottish individual. Ali has just started Dem Soc’s first ‘regional’ office in Edinburgh which shows a remarkable, some would say foolhardy, amount of trust in him. Therefore, I thought we should hear a bit about his background, his thoughts on biscuits and his hopes for a post indy ref Scotland. Unfortunately, whilst Ali is a very bright guy he does struggle with brevity; you probably want to put the kettle on for this one.

1.  What’s your name and where are you from?
My name is Ali Stoddart, I come from Glasgow via Aberdeen. Spent my early youth in the Granite City but escaped the Haar and moved back West to Glasgow where most of my family are from. Where you are born is not necessarily where you are from…

2.  What do you do for a living?
I am Community Engagement and Scotland Lead for the Democratic Society (Demsoc). My job involves running projects and events that help make more participatory democracy a reality through small, repeated experiments. I have recently opened our office in Edinburgh, and make up the Demsoc team in Scotland.

I love my job as it is very eclectic: one day I am helping senior civil servants think about improvement to citizen engagement within their institutions; the next I am on my hands and knees helping to pump up a tire on a bicycle, disguised as an Elephant, to be used in a Village Fete Jousting Competition… I think that is what they mean by “on the ground community engagement!”  I’m not afraid getting my hands dirty when it comes to giving citizens the opportunity to get involved in decisions and services that impact on their lives. I feel Demsoc is as much about ‘doing’ as it is about ‘thinking’ when it comes to implementing participative democracy.

3.  Favourite band and/ or artist?
I would have to say Beirut. Zach Condon is an unbelievably talented musician who has managed to channel Eastern European musical influences into melodic alternative pop music. I had the pleasure of sharing a pint with him during the Edinburgh Fringe a number of years ago. He is, needless to say, a very nice guy.

In order to score ultimate hipster points I should declare that I am delighted, Edinburgh based trio, Young Fathers have won the Mercury Music Prize. Their song “Get Up” should be hard to listen too because of how low the bass is, but the catchy vocal hook transforms the song completely. Listen to it here.

4.  Android or iPhone?

5.  PC or Mac?
PC, but that may change as the majority of the Demsoc team are all Apple Zealots… I may be forced to rebel from Emperor Gates.

6.  Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
That is tough. I would say I am creature of habit when it comes to theoretical stuff; I like to stick to what I know, which is participative democracy. However, when it comes to putting the democratic theory into practice I would say I am much more open to trying new methods and seeing what happens. All failure is learning and all that… Fortunately, most of the time things seem to work.

7.  Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Other than loved ones, it would definitely be my electric piano, Yamaha P-155 , which I have had for 11 years, and has graced many a stage in Glasgow and Edinburgh, when I was in a Blues Pop band called Alan Panther and the Energy Treadmill. That was fun.

8.  Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Chocolate Digestive – Unsullied.

9.  Best project you’ve worked on at Dem Soc and why?
There are so many to choose from but I will narrow it down to two: one for its direct, on the ground, impact; and the other for its huge potential.

The first is a project we did with Lewes District Council called the Zero Heroes Community Competition which was effectively an experiment to see if the council could use participatory budgeting as a carrot to encourage behaviour change around the not-so-sexy issue of waste and recycling. Although it was really hard work, as scheme covered the whole district, it ended up being incredibly rewarding. All of the areas managed to win some money for funding local projects chosen by the community and this resulted in over 140 ideas being generated, some of which will be funded and make a difference to the area. Furthermore, the project has encouraged the Council to be more confident when it comes to thinking about future citizen participation.

Secondly, I would have to say our work with the Scottish Government on Collaborative Government in Scotland. We have been working a lot with SG’s Strategy Unit and, former Delib Blog Interviewee, Christian Storstein, on thinking about how to improve the Scottish Government’s engagement and consultation techniques and create stronger a relationship between government and the people of Scotland.

We started the process in July with a workshop that brought together senior civil servants and members of civil society to discuss how the Scottish Government should go about creating a more collaborative ethos to their work and the attendees came up with a set of shared intentions about how to take the agenda forward. It is really exciting and hopefully the start of something transformative for Scottish democracy. It is early days yet but I really like the idea of government “collaborating to create collaboration” and establishing a lot more opportunities for co-creation with citizens on policy and other aspects of governmental work. You can read the report from the workshop here.

 10.  Now the dust has settled, what’s your feeling about the whole indy ref palava?
First off I have to say I was delighted about the level of engagement that came out of the #indyref discussion. It was a privilege to walk around the streets of Edinburgh talking to voters about their relationship with democracy which you can read about here and here.
I feel that the reason that the turn out was so high was because people actually felt they could have an impact on something, which is unusual in other electoral situations.

Therefore, the independence referendum has energised Scottish Democracy and provided a fantastic opportunity for a more involving and participative democracy in the future.  The issue is now harnessing all of that potential democratic energy.

Furthermore, I don’t think it should be about Yes/No or 45%/55% any more as that is divisive. It should be about all citizens in Scotland deliberating and working together to create policies they feel will improve Scotland. You can read my short submission to the Smith Commission here. You can read more thoughts on the #indyref here and here.

11.  Where do you hope Scotland will be in 10 years in terms of public consultation/ digital democracy/ open governance? Opportunities and pitfalls.
Wow… In ten years time I would hope that Collaborative Government in Scotland, or something like it, is the norm. A Scotland where people feel more connected to politicians and civil servants; where there are a range of digital and offline tools available for people to co-create with the people they have elected to represent them; and where there is a political culture that shares power with people, as opposed to wielding power over them. Basically, the utopia outlined by, Demsoc governor, Andy Williamson and Martin Sande in their book From Arrogance to Intimacy: A Handbook for Active Democracies.

The opportunities are the growing, but fragile, desire from the public and government to explore the participation agenda further, and the potential of technology available. (I am not a technological determinist, more a digital democracy potentialist).

The pitfalls are the traditional political pressures of time and the need for constant success. Once more people realise that monumental change, like reshaping our 19th Century Representative Democracy into a more Participative system for the 21st Century, takes a lot of time, effort and learning, we may have a better chance of making it a reality and being part of something more.

12.  Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GDS.
I’m going to go with the Paris city council participatory budgeting site. The new mayor Anne Hidalgo has got all the bits right – commitment from government (€450m over five years, in increasing amounts), a “participation charter” that sets out what people can expect, an attractive easy-to-use interface, open voting rules (anyone who lives or works in Paris can vote), and even publishing the results as open data! The fact that the money available will increase each year shows that they are experimenting and learning as they go. So, by the time there are very large sums of money for Parisians to play with the Council will know what works best when it comes to city-wide participatory budgeting.

So there you have it, an exhaustive interview with the man behind Dem Soc Scotland. If you want to talk to Ali about how he can help your Scottish organisation or initiative, you can find contact details here and his Twitter account here. If you do call him, just remember to hold the phone away from your ear…

Introducing Matt Hornsby

At Delib we’re always keen to help support and improve government’s undersMatttanding and use of digital, so when it was suggested that we had a Civil Service fast streamer seconded to us for 6 months, we embraced the Del Monte school of thought and said ‘yes’!

Matt’s going to be helping with, and learning about, all aspects of our work, so here’s some quick fire questions with the man himself.

What’s your name and where are you from?
Matthew Hornsby, from London

What’s your professional background?
I’m in my second year of the Civil Service’s fast stream development programme. For the last 6 months I’ve been a policy adviser in the office of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, before that I worked in the Department of Health, managing public health programmes. Prior to joining the civil service I was a ‘secondary raw materials trader’ (kind of a glorified scrap dealer), at Hanwa Co. ltd, a Japanese trading house, for 2 years. I’ve also been an English teacher in Japan and in Spain.

What made you want to be seconded to a digital company/ Delib?
I wanted to experience an atmosphere that’s really quite different from what I’ve got used to in government, and I think 6 months at a small(ish) tech firm with big ideas like Delib will be perfect to put the sometimes rather staid and unambitious attitude you can encounter there in perspective. One of the big tasks for government over the next few years is to learn from the digital sector how to do things better. People are already wondering why they can order an air freshener off amazon in two clicks but need to fill out 5 different pieces of hard-copy paperwork to claim back taxes, apply for a passport or register at their GP.

What are you most looking forward to learning about?
Seeing things from the other side of the fence – so as a ‘supplier’ to government, rather than the one doing the purchasing, will be really interesting. I find everything to do with digital really fascinating – the business model of the company, some of the real technical stuff about how the apps and the web work, the AGILE project management techniques. I’m particularly looking forward to developing a good ‘tech’ vocabulary, so that I can go back to the civil service and dazzle senior colleagues into submission with a lot of acronyms they don’t understand…

Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Myself! I have an exotic banknotes collection which I’d grab if it was handy. Everything else is replaceable, more or less…

Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Normally leave it, due to a fear of crumbs in my tea.

Favourite band and / or artist?
Too tough to answer! My two most listened of all time are probably Billy Bragg and the Smiths, which is sad because my dad also likes both. Recently I’ve been listening a lot to Ethiopian jazz maestro Mulatu Astatke, which is a bit cooler.

Bristol – historic, vibrant city or regional backwater?
So far I haven’t met anyone with a bad word to say about the place! Looking forward to exploring and getting to know the city.

Anything else to add?
Delighted to be here and can’t wait to get stuck in!

Steph Gray – Digital Hero

steph-portraitDigital Heroes; our series of quick chats with people doing interesting digital work in and around government, has so far been a roaring success (well, my mum likes it). We’ve heard from engagement people, culture hackers, social entrepreneurs and big data types – but I feel like there’s been an obvious and glaring exception. That exception is Steph Gray of Helpful Technology, arguably one of the most well-known, well-liked and well-respected people in the field. A lot of you are probably already aware of him from his work organising Gov Camp, the Social Simulator, the Digital Engagement Guide and his blogging, but for those of you who are reading this on another continent, you might not have come across him. For those people and also to give the rest of you an idea of how much influence Steph has, I decided to hack the format somewhat and ask a few notables what they thought of him.

This isn’t a blog post, this is a tribute.

“In terms of digital in government, I don’t think there is an opinion I value more – whether face to face or in a blog post. He cuts straight to the nub of an issue and does it in such an elegant way that it makes you embarrassed for your own daft and muzzy thinking.  All hail the new Apollo!”
Christian Storstein, Digital Engagement Manager, The Scottish Government.

“Steph is a veritable giant of the digital world and an inspiration to even those of us mere mortals who know him from afar. He somehow combines an unassuming and mild demeanor with the ability to just get things done and get other people to work harder than they thought they would, producing not only great work but also a sense of team and direction that people want to be a part of. I genuinely wish I could do some work with him in the future and tick him off my bucket list of top digital collaborators. Steph, you are a true digital hero.”
Glen Ocskó, of ‘We Love Local Gov’ fame.

“You don’t realise how good it is to work with Steph until you stop. I have never come across anyone so able to marry a deep understanding of government with the ability to make technical magic happen quickly and beautifully. A real star of the sector.”
Anthony Zacharzewski, Chief Executive, The Democratic Society.

“Steph is a true digital hero who has helped move Government digital forward in the last few years. He is creative, innovative, very supportive and always happy to chat and give practical advice where it’s needed. It’s been a pleasure having the opportunity to have worked with him and Helpful Technology.”
Marc Archbold, Content Lead / general digital dude, Ministry of Justice.

“Steph Gray ranks high in my top 10 public service heroes because he has this genius knack of mediating his encyclopaedic frame of reference in an accessible, generous, and gentlemanly manner for the benefit of others.  If the public sector were full of Stephs the business he has since moved on to wouldn’t have an addressable market.  Try saying Sir Steph Gray quickly three times in a row, you’ll need the practice.”
Esko Reinikainen, Co-Founder, The Satori Lab.

1.  What’s your name and where are you from?
Steph Gray. The ‘lesteph’ thing was a university nickname (I’m half French) and comes in handy getting social media profiles. I’m from the south coast originally, now in London.

2.  What do you do for a living?
Apologise profusely, much of the time. Mainly that’s because I’m juggling running Helpful Technology, a digital engagement firm, and also The Social Simulator, a social media crisis simulation service. We’re also building the Digital Skills Gym, a new way to develop digital skills that’s aiming for the gap between e-learning and conventional training.

3.  Favourite band and/ or artist?
I like a bit of late 90s indie, Kula Shaker and the like. I secretly put Coldplay on when there’s nobody else around.

4.  Android or iPhone?

5.  PC or Mac?
Mac, ever since a black and white Classic in 1991. I think I’ve probably owned 20 different machines. I get good use out of my MacBook Air 11″ which has travelled the world with me. I’m basically just like this guy from the old ads:

6.  Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
Bit of both. I admire revolutionaries but I’m a big believer and more naturally at home on the evolutionary side of change.

7.  Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Is the correct answer ‘my wife and children’? (I’d check my phone was to hand too, probably. You have to Instagram these things.)

8.  Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?  
Only ginger nuts.

9.  Best project you’ve worked on at Helpful Technology / BIS/ whenever and why?
There have been some crackers – a consultation on credit card regulation was probably the highlight of the digital engagement work I kicked off at BIS, combining some (at the time) pioneering outreach, votes and public commenting – and it got a big and interesting response. Earlier this year, we were commissioned to build an iPad web app for the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces architectural exhibition which helped people find out more about the architects and installations. That was a lot of fun, and a rare opportunity to literally watch users playing with our work.

In recent times, I’ve enjoyed the thrill of simulating a crisis situation in social media for all kinds of corporate and government organisations – including a great trip down under in February this year running one with Delib Australia & New Zealand. I get to be rude to people in return for money and gratitude, which is all you can really ask for in a job.

10.  Where do you hope Helpful Technology will be in 10 years, in terms of wider digital democracy? Opportunities and pitfalls.
The big thing for us is digital capability: how can organisations – rather than just a couple of smart individuals within them – make the most of low-cost digital tools to work collaboratively and openly? Leaders in the private and public sector are taking an interest in digital now in a way they weren’t five years ago, but things are still getting stuck at the level of skills, process, technology and strategy. I think we’re building a team with some of the right skills to unblock those things.

11.  Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GOV.UK.
I like what The National Archives have been doing with their site – in a slightly utilitarian world, the stuff around the centenary of the First World War ( is rich and engaging, and they back it up with brilliant social media and blogging.

So there you have it, 11 questions answered by the ubiquitous Steph Gray. We’ve partnered with him on a few projects of late, including the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Your Voice, Our Vision’ and I’d recommend him unreservedly if you’re ever in need of an engagement site. He does Twitter here and electronic mail here.

Anyway, if you’ve got any thoughts on Steph, post a comment; I promise I’ll actually check and publish them for once.

Until next time.

Digital Hero – Fran Bennett

FranBIt’s that time again; another installment of Digital Heroes, a quick chat with people doing interesting digital work, in and around government. This time I want to introduce you to someone grappling with the challenges of big, <sometimes open> data, a subject we haven’t covered yet. I’ve got to admit I struggle with the whole open data thing, after attending one too many conferences where it’s been discussed to death. It’s not that I don’t believe in its potential power, it’s just that I sometimes question why we’re still talking about how one can publish it, the problems of common file formats etc, etc, etc, and instead moved the conversation onto – ‘what useful things shall we do with it’? The prevailing answer seems to centre on, in my opinion, a slightly naive idea that somehow people will build apps and business models from it, which I don’t think is going to happen any time soon, outside of the odd isolated example.

It was therefore with interest that I learned about the work Fran and her co-founder Bruce Durling, have been doing, with their company Mastodon C, processing and using the data for public gain. The project which has deservedly got the most amount of press, is one that analysed vast amounts of prescription data, looking at disparities in prescriptions of licensed and non-licensed cardiovascular medication, which identified how the NHS could saves 100’s of millions of pounds – worth getting out of bed for.

Let’s see what Fran has to say for herself.

1.  What’s your name and where are you from?
My name’s Francine Bennett. I grew up in Norfolk and on the Welsh borders, and I now live in central hipsterville, Dalston in London.

2.  What do you do for a living?
I run Mastodon C. We’re a tech company (startup? I’m not sure how long we keep that label…) which builds and manages custom cloud-based big data systems, using open source technology. We work in particular with government, health, and energy data. It’s a lot of fun.

3.  Favourite band and/ or artist?
AARGH REALLY HARD QUESTION. I’m going to go with Tom Waits, but also Super Furry Animals.

4.  Android or iPhone?
Definitely Android. I prefer being able to tinker with things.

5.  PC or Mac?
Mac (even given comment above). I love my Macbook Air, it comes everywhere with me.

6.  Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
I’m a creature of habit, as a way to stay sane. We work with cutting-edge technologies, and are often trying to solve hard or new problems in innovative ways, plus there’s the general unpredictability of running a startup, so routine and habit are really important to keeping things rolling.

7.  Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Just the people in it. The stuff can burn if it needs to.

8.  Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Dunk, quickly. There is nothing more sad than a disintegrated biscuit, but the risk is worth the reward.

9.  Best project you’ve worked on at Google/ now/ whenever and why?
The best project is always the next one! I’m really excited right now about the new Embed system which is heading for launch ( – this is a system we run for Energy Savings Trust, using Cassandra technology, which collects and analyses hundreds of millions of datapoints at high frequencies, and lets them understand building and energy efficiency performance in a way that should make a real difference to UK-wide housing decisions. I’m excited because we’ve managed to turbocharge the technology to deal with huge quantities and speeds of data without falling over, but also because the end result is an important one.

10.  Where do you hope Mastodon C will be in 10 years in terms of wider
digital democracy? Opportunities and pitfalls.
We are doing a lot of prototype work at the moment on Future Cities – building systems that make sense of city data, to help city leaders make operational and strategic decisions better. I think there’s a huge additional opportunity in this area to use this data and these
visualisations to explain how and why policies are made, and to help people participate in that democracy.

Doing that is going to be tough, though – the technology is there already, but there’s a big culture change required in order to have those conversations in an open way.

11.  Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GOV.UK.
I just this week came across, run by a civic group which remixes Taiwanese government websites to make them more transparent and more useful. They’ve explained more at I think their approach is really constructive and impressive.

So there you have it, another fascinating installment of Digital Heroes; what a journey we’ve been on. If you want to talk about harnessing the power of all that data you may or may not have, you can holler at Fran here. Failing that, she does the Twitter thing as well as anyone else.

Until next time.

Esko Reinikainen : Digital Hero

For the latest in our ‘Digital Heroes’ series, a quick chat with people doing interesting Esko_Squaredigital work in and around government, I thought it was about time to introduce you to a man who you’re probably already aware of, but haven’t had the chance to hear from directly. Esko is widely known for his innovation drive at Monmouthshire County Council, as part their much lauded transformation over the last couple of years. In recent times he’s left that fine, beautiful County (I grew up there) and setup as The Satori Lab with a number of associates, to carry on the work with other large organisations. That aside, I first met Esko after chatting to him at a few events, and subsequent long form conversations have confirmed my suspicions that he’s a very interesting man indeed. He also shares that other admirable quality – in his company I feel like an illiterate child; poorly read he is not. On that note, we should probably hear from the man himself.

It’s game time.

1.  What’s your name and where are you from?
Esko Reinikainen – My civilian and military passports says I’m from Finland, I was born in France, have a German mother, and learned to speak English in Belgium… You tell me.

2.  What do you do for a living?
I run a small start up that helps organisations with culture transformation and to take advantage of new models for doing things better faster cheaper. Things like design thinking, peer production, agile development, innovation processes, open source, etc.  Basically we blow up peoples’ hearts and minds so they can see and adopt better alternatives into their businesses and practice. That, and we’re also going to fix government…

3.  Favourite band and/ or artist?
Pink Floyd – they helped me to think wider when I was first being taught how to think properly at school…

4.  Android or iPhone?
Android and got my eye on Jolla’s Sailfish

5.  PC or Mac?
Linux (various Debian flavoured distros), also rocking a few ChromeOS devices. I do have an iMac sitting in the corner that only gets used for video editing and the odd skype call. Raspberry Pi for little hacking projects.  Haven’t used any Microsoft stuff (apart for an xbox) for almost 5 years now, and my life is much better for it.

6.  Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
Maverick thinker who habitually returns to the forest for a bit of reflection…

7.  Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Puukko, axe, bow saw, box of matches. With those I can survive and rebuild my life in the forest…

8.  Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?

9.  Best project you’ve worked on at The Satori Lab and why?
We’re so new we don’t have a major catalogue of projects to draw from yet, but our existence emerges from a project I did while working with Monmouthshire Council called the Intrapreneurship School.  The architecture of that programme was essentially a two year long conversation with my dear friend and colleague Phil Blight.  Two public servants with a background in culture start to unpick the social and structural dynamics at work in public sector organisations. We realise that this is what is stopping good people from delivering excellent public value. So we designed a personal transformation journey that also reconnects public servants with their values, new opportunities afforded by technological innovation, and better models for designing and delivering public services.  Almost 100 people went through the programme and for some it was such a life changing experience we acquired a phrase to describe the transformation: ‘They don’t live there (the past) anymore…’ Two of them, Jo and Danielle, even left their jobs to come co-found the Satori Lab.

10.  Where do you hope The Satori Lab will be in 10 years in terms of wider digital democracy?  
Hopefully in 10 years we will have resolved all of the current issues that prevent governments from taking advantage of new technology to facilitate democratic participation. Issues like broken procurement, native digital capability, use of open standards, escape from vendor lock in, misguided ‘security theater’ obstacles, and adoption of open source solutions should all have been fixed by then.  We hope to be playing in a space where the majority of government data is open, machine readable, and exposed via elegant API’s. Much as the interfaces between citizens and the services they use are being redefined today by projects like the GDS digital exemplars, I think we will see a redefinition of the interfaces between the citizens and the policy machinery that determines how their lives are governed. It’s the space that Delib is building tools for today, but imagine if you marry up citizen voices with all of the data held by governments and big data analytics, deep learning machine intelligence, sentiment analysis sensor networks, and add to that the ability to poll every voter on issues of national significance. It may sound a bit techno utopian but when you consider recent voter turnouts it is clear that citizens aren’t exactly excited by the choices offered on the left and the right of the political spectrum, so the engaged or disengaged axis becomes the focus for intervention, and advances in digital technology will play a massive role here.  I’m heading to the Collective Intelligence conference at MIT next month and there will be  presentations by people working on the notions of post representative democracy.  That is a space we hope to play a role in shaping over the next 10 years.

11.  Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GOV.UK [In Finnish] [info in English] The open ministry in Finland is a place where citizens can crowd source legislation and send it to parliament for a vote. It is markedly different from the various petition sites that have been popping up in that citizens can actually draft the law to be considered, and not just propose the topic or position they want addressed. It democratises the legislation development process that was previously out of reach of normal citizens. They also built the whole thing for 30000 euros, so replicating this is not a question of cost, but of political will to allow citizens into the legislative process. Maybe Delib could build one for the UK?

So there you have it, 11 questions answered by a very interesting chap indeed. The Satori Lab is based in Cardiff, so if you find yourself in town or for that matter you want to bring some innovation to your large organisation, give Esko a shout. You can go all email about it here or tweet him something nice here.

Go forth and innovate!

Digital Hero – Luke Ashby

LukeAfter the glorious success of our previous ‘Digital Heroes’ posts I thought it was time to broaden the spectrum somewhat and hear from one of our democratic allies – Luke Ashby of Electoral Reform Services. Luke helps pioneer new approaches to elections by embracing the opportunities of digital, something that we at Delib thoroughly approve of. At this point I’d usually write a somewhat rambling introduction but, as Luke has actually answered the questions seriously, and in long form, I’ll instead let him do the talking.  Let’s jump right in.

1. What’s your name and where are you from?
It’s Luke Ashby and I grew up in Oxford, living in London now…

2. What do you do for a living?
I’m a Digital Consultant for Electoral Reform Services.

3. Favourite band and/ or artist?
Roots Manuva is a long standing favourite.

4. Android or iPhone?
I have the iPhone.

5. PC or Mac?
MacBook Pro and an iPad // BOOM! (work laptop is a PC though).

6. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
Keeping a lid on my maverick thoughts requires full-time attention! Take a look at some ideas from the fringes here

7. Your house is on fire, what do you save?
There are a couple of paintings I would be very sad to lose.

8. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
If the opportunity is there I think it’s best to take it!

9. Best project you’ve worked on at ERS and why?
There are some very exciting projects going on here at ERS, I’m still waiting for my invitation to the Brit Awards… In the meantime, I’ll go with a glass factory in Enniskillen. Far less glamorous, but manning the ballot box for a couple of days and listening to the conversations of employees as they cast their votes was a real insight into grass-roots democracy.

10. Where do you hope ERS will be in 10 years in terms of wider digital democracy? Opportunities and pitfalls.
Aside from the fast-moving advances in the use of communication channels and content mediums (which I think within 10 years will be predominantly video optimised for mobile devices), I hope the use of data will be the big change.

In my opinion there is great opportunity to benefit democracy with more sophisticated use of data and targeted information, addressing voter apathy in particular. Considering the increasing relevance of content delivered to individuals by the likes of Google and Amazon as well as initiatives such as the Institute for Government’s MIND SPACE, I think it’s possible to expect election information which is highly tailored to an individual’s specific personal interests in order to make democracy more relevant and engaging.

In my mind the challenge of addressing concerns about online voting security will soon be won. With the rapid increase and acceptance of the conduct of financial affairs on the internet, the argument against voting online for security reasons is wearing thin, indeed most ballots (legislation permitting) administered by ERS include an online element. It will, however, be much more complicated to tackle the ethical issues presented by manipulating election messaging. While I personally believe that content made relevant to individual voters will have a positive effect on election turnout, maintaining a position of independence and impartiality will be a challenge when different variations of voting material are sent to the same electorate.

11. Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GOV.UK
Hmm, nothing jumped out at me so I did some research and found the US Airforce website which is pretty slick, complete with its own Airman Challenge computer game! I’m not much of a gamer, but do like gamification as a concept. I recently read that the Swedish Government use speed cameras to take photos of drivers sticking to the limit so they can be entered into a lottery with a chance to win a percentage of the speeding fines. Now that’s progressive policy making!

So there you have it, 11 questions answered relatively seriously. If you’d like to talk to Luke yourself about ERS stuff or that blog of his, you can as always find him on Twitter, alongside the fine ERS account.

Until next time.

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