Christmas, the annual landfill bonanza, is upon us again and I’ve been looking through the Robert Dyas Christmas catalogue which I was given last week when I was buying some hoover bags. (I live life on the edge.)  The catalogue is full of ‘must have’ items such as a spinning fork for eating spaghetti, a water-resistant Glo Gnome, a solar robin which automatically illuminates at dusk and a Hannah Montana hot water bottle. 

My favourite item is this fridge recorder, which comes with three AA batteries and costs just £4.99.You record a message and then hear it every time you open the fridge door.  Every single time.  How fun is that!


Kenny Davern


Click on the picture to hear Kenny playing 'Travellin' All Alone'

I was delighted to see Kenny Davern’s album, The Hot Trio, amongst a list of the top one hundred jazz albums in last week’s Sunday Telegraph.  As I’ve pointed out before on this blog (see the limitations of list-making) I am not a huge fan of lists but I agree whole-heartedly with Martin Gayford’s description of Kenny Davern as the finest jazz clarinettist of the late twentieth century.

The heyday of the jazz clarinet was back in the late thirties and forties when Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were huge stars.  With the ascendancy of bebop after the war, saxophones and trumpets become dominant and the clarinet became increasingly unfashionable.

But that didn’t deter Kenny Davern who was steeped in the history of jazz and was a great admirer amongst others of Pee Wee Russell and Irving Fazola.  I was fortunate enough to meet Kenny on two ocassions.  In the best traditions of jazz, he was a larger than life figure, a man of acerbic wit.  He took the time and trouble to write down for me the names of some of his favourite players and the records that I should check out.  He was delighted when I told him that I had a copy of his Hot Trio album and he took out from his pocket a photograph of the pianist on the record – Dick Wellstood – who was a life-long friend.

I remember one unfortunate punter requesting Moonglow, a tune that is synonymous with Benny Goodman.  Kenny played it but not before he made the point that he’d never aspired to play like Benny Goodman.  What he wanted was to sound like Kenny Davern – that is the challenge for every musician to find his or her own distinctive voice.

It was a challenge to which Kenny Davern was more than equal.  The jazz trumpeter, Warren Vaché, speaking shortly after Davern’s death a couple of years ago said, “You could pick Kenny out on a record after two or three notes —like a hot knife going through butter.  His playing was edgy and cutting and virile and, at the same time, passionate and tender…”

If you’re not familiar with Kenny Davern’s music and you’d like to hear more, in addition to The Hot Trio, I’d also recommend Summit Reunion which he made in 1990 with Bob Wilber but any record upon which you see his name comes with a guarantee of enjoyment.


At least both heads are looking in the same direction

 The idea that there can be perfect congruence from the vision and aspirations of an organisation all the way through its various strategies and action plans to an individual employee’s objectives has always struck me as overly simplistic. In practice, the so called ‘golden thread’ tends to be as elusive as the golden medina.

In a similar way, I’ve never really been convinced of the delivery chain view of the world which sees a minister in Whitehall pressing a button and seamlessly through the mechanisms of national public service agreement targets, local area agreements and the rest, the desired outcome materialises on the ground.   Disappointingly, this idea of a simple causal relationship between interventions and outcomes has become hard wired into our regulatory frameworks.

I’m more attracted to models which recognise the complexity of the world in which public service organisations operate. In a fascinating article in Prospect, Left Brain, Right Brain, Matthew Taylor argues that the actions of the state need to combine ‘the push of reform with the pull of social meanings and connections.’

 This seems to me a more realistic way of seeing how the actions of organisations like councils must interplay with the values and social norms of communities.  We are all familiar with the initiatives which seemed eminently sensible on paper and when discussed amongst colleagues which proved to have no resonance when it came to implementation.

Matthew Taylor goes on to suggest that, ‘as the public sector enters a period of austerity, we need to remodel services around the goal of building individual and collective capacity. This means drawing on the best circumstances for the emergence of connectivity, self-control and altruism.’

Brave would be the council that said its three priorities were promoting connectivity, self-control and altruism. But it seems to me that we need to recognise that increasingly our role is about building capacity, embracing ‘the pull’ rather than focusing so much on pushing through our own provider-driven agendas.

President ObamaI’m grateful to my colleague, Ben Unsworth, who gave me a copy of a briefing paper by Chris Quigley of Delib Ltd on how President Obama has been using the web to facilitate a more participative approach to governance. 

Chris explains how Open for Questions encouraged citizens to submit questions on line, via text or video, as well as to rate questions submitted by others.  President Obama then responded to the top questions via an online town hall meeting held at the White House and streamed live on line. Recovery Dialogue enabled the public to contribute their ideas on how to ensure transparency about the way funds provided through the Recovery Act are spent.  As Chris points out the Recovery Dialogue demonstrated a new way of running policy roundtable ideas-sharing events- it enabled 20,000 people to be involved in the policy-making process.

It seems to me that there are a number of things that we can learn from the approach that the Obama administration is taking.

1. the aim is to generate ideas and collaboration.  It is about participation not technology.  So, to take a current example from UK local government, if we want to encourage e-petitioning it needs to be because it’s an effective form of participation rather than because technology now enables us to do on-line what we’ve done for centuries off-line.

2. the way to do this is by trialing specific projects and learning from them.  There are always a lot of unknowns when it comes to participation so piloting different approaches for specific purposes makes sense.

3. if you get this right the rewards in terms of the extent and quality of the participation are high – much higher perhaps than could be achieved through more traditional mechanisms for the money involved.

4. we need to move on from our pre-occupation with surveys – there are other more participative ways of engaging residents in ongoing conversations about the key issues affecting local communities.

Rebranding exercises are always suggestive – you only have to think about Windscale’s rebirth as Sellafield.  Along similar lines, the Audit Commission looks to be trying to reposition the Comprehensive Area Assessment as oneplace (oneplace is onelowercaseword for this purpose.)  For sure, oneplace certainly sounds less clunky than Comprehensive Area Assessment which reeks of clipboard and classroom.  And there’s a certain logic in the name as CAA considers the broad spectrum of issues and performance in a locality rather than simply by organisation. 

But then again, isn’t there something rather Orwellian about this piece of rebranding?   The point of CAA is that it uses the same model to assess councils and their partners across the whole of England.  It draws upon the same national indicator set and through the same key lines of enquiry it seeks the same kind of evidence of outcomes.  The CAA is about consistency and uniformity because it is a national assessment tool.  Rather than oneplace, wouldn’t ‘anyplace’ be more to the point?

Like the teenagers we seek to influence, councils are only too susceptible to peer pressure. No sooner have we started to feel confident enough to say that we will no longer be hostage to targets than we all seem to be jumping collectively on the bandwagon of save, save, save.

And it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged within local government that a community of any description is in want of engagement. Despite research suggesting that levels of public participation have remained at about the same level since 1918, we are committed to suddenly coaxing large numbers of people out of their apparent indifference.

But rather than focusing on finding new ways in which the community can engage us, I believe the real issue is to make councils and other public institutions more receptive. Satisfaction from participation comes from feeling that you have effected change on an issue about which you care. So perhaps what we need more than e-petitions, citizen juries and the like, is a shift in mindset in public institutions – a readiness to admit mistakes and to act on feedback; receptivity rather than engagement. ‘Receptiveness,’ George Eliot wrote, is a rare and massive power like fortitude.’ It’s a power we could usefully tap into.

In the current financial climate this seems like a good time to be thinking about where public services are best carried out – by councils, by regional bodies or by central government.  Or maybe there are some things we do which don’t require the oversight of elected representatives at all?

When the media want a view on these questions, they turn to Tony Travers but it seems to me that the blogosphere is a good place to get views.  So, if you’ve ten minutes spare, please complete the short survey I’ve put together.

Click Here to take survey

As an added incentive, one randomly selected respondent will get a £20 HMV/Waterstones voucher.  I will share the results of the survey here.