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Category: Social Media

Is the Liberal media bias a myth created by the conservative media?

Slight change to my normal blog topics today. This is an essay I wrote in 2005 while studying American politics. I thought of it the other day when discussing the recent events in America. Reading through the essay I was amazed at how much of it was still relevant to the world today; and thought it was worth sharing for those with an interest in such things. The one obvious change I spotted when rereading my essay is the changing and evolving role Social Media has had in the world of news coverage, and political (or ideological) bias; and impact this has had on the so called ‘informed democracy’.

(When reading, please remember I was much younger when I wrote this, I’ve resisted the urge to tamper with it, and instead shared it as I wrote it over 15 years ago – the only thing I’ve added is the pictures!)

“Independent, aggressive and critical media are essential to an informed democracy.”

A picture of The New York Times

Today the debate over bias in the media is a hot topic, with many surveys and poll’s being carried out to establish if there is a bias in the media, and if so what this bias is. The definition of bias “is a prejudice in a general or specific sense, usually in the sense for having a predilection to one particular point of view or ideology”. Many websites have been founded by different organisations to ‘watchdog’ the media for any signs of bias, one way or another. One of the main topics of this debate on the nature of bias in the media is whether the media is more biased towards liberals than conservatives. Over the last thirty years the growth of the internet and cable television not only on a national but a global scale has led to an eruption of media networks. Newspapers are distributed across the world, cable news channels are available in the majority of countries and the internet can be used to keep track of the news at a click of the button. These media outlets have led to a change in how the news is delivered.

While accusations of bias in the media may have grown over the last fifteen years, in fact bias has always been present in the media. Newspapers in the late 1700s and early 1800s reflected the views of one of the political parties. James Fallow noted that “The Philadelphia Aurora was the voice of Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans (forbears of today’s Democrats). The Gazette of The United States was a steadfast supporter of Alexander Hamilton- Jefferson’s greatest rival- and his federalist party.” But this partisanship meant that the newspapers circulation was limited to those of its political affiliation. Thus by the 1800s newspapers began to realise that by becoming more bi-partisan they could increase their circulation and their popularity by having politicians court them for favour. Thus they began to move away from their image of a mouthpiece for a political party towards a more bi-partisan image. This did not mean that all newspapers were now ‘un-biased’, but as tabloid newspapers grew in popularity these openly biased papers were faded out. 

In the early 1940s the Federal Communications Committee established the ‘Mayflower Doctrine’ which prohibited editorializing by stations. This was then changed in 1949 when the Federal Communications Committee introduced the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ in the hopes that all coverage of controversial issues would be balanced and fair. They believed that all media outlets had an obligation to provide reasonable opportunity for discussion of different points of view on controversial issues that were of public importance.  The fairness doctrine ran parallel to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937, which was a federal law that required stations to offer “equal opportunity” to all political candidates running for any office if they had allowed any other persons running for that same office the use the station. 

Yet the Fairness Doctrine disturbed many journalists, who considered it a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and free press. They believed this should allow reporters to make their own decisions concerning the fairness and balance of stories. Fairness, in their view, should not be forced on them by the Federal Communications Committee. There for in order to avoid this requirement to go out and find opposing viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists began to simply avoided covering any controversial issues at all. This effect was exactly the opposite of what the Federal Communications Committee intended. 

But by the late 1980s the FCCs argument about finite resources was decreed by the Supreme Court as null and void. This was due to the increase in the number of Cable Channels available. Thus in 1985 the FCC issued its ‘Fairness Report’, stating that the Fairness Doctrine was no longer having its intended effect, and that it might in fact have a “chilling effect” and may also be in violation of the First Amendment. 

It has always been argues that the media promotes liberal views above those of conservatives. This argument has been used against journalists and editors for decades. Many reasons for this have been suggested; because of the nature of their work, journalists are very likely to meet many types of people from all walks of life. Reporters, especially when they are just beginning their careers, cover human interest stories, often meeting those people who have had some kind of tragedy in their life. This can be especially true in city’s, where critics argue that reporters are likely to form a liberal outlook by welcoming diversity and developing a miss trust of authority through their day to day dealings with politicians, policemen and big business’. 

Many reporters argue that while their views may be more liberal than those of the average population of America, these views do not affect their reporting. They argue that they are capable of reporting in a largely un-biased manner when covering critical stories. While many critics argue that most reporters can not separate their private political views from their work. Studies carried out by organisations like the Pew Charitable Trusts Project for Excellence in Journalism have found evidence that suggests that, as James Fallow suggests, “the reportorial elite- those based in large cities and working for large news organisations- have an outlook different from that of average Americans.” But by stating that Journalists have generally more liberal views than the public, does it not follow that if the majority of press was liberal, the public’s opinions would lean more naturally to that of the press? Unless as many reporters claim, they can separate their private political views and those they express. 

 % Journalists.% Public.
Liberal5523
Conservative1729
   
Pro-Choice8249
Pro-Death Penalty4775
Pro-Gun Control7850
Pro School Prayer2574
pro Affirmative Action8156
Pro-High Defence Spending1538
Pro Gay Employment rights.8955

This view can be backed up by a further poll carried out in the year 2000 by ‘Pew’ this poll found that the bias of media coverage for the Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W Bush was in largely in favour of the Republican candidate George W Bush. 

 Al GoreGeorge W Bush
Positive Press13%24%
Neutral Press31%27%
Negative Press56%49%
Total:100%100%

Some liberal reporters have stated that they are just as likely to give negative press to their own party as they are to the conservatives. When looking at the treatment of President Clinton by the press it can be noted that Clinton received just as much negative press from liberal reporters in comparison to conservative reporters. James Fallows notes that the treatment of Clinton by the supposedly ‘liberal press’ illustrates the problems of such a theory. He notes that Clinton should have been the ideal candidate to a liberal press, Clinton “advanced the ‘New Democrat’ positions that many liberal columnists had been advocating”…”Nonetheless, coverage of Clinton was both more hostile and more volatile than that of any president since Harry Truman.” One previous white house staffer has stated that peer pressure encourages reporters to not get to close to any Democratic White House, if they do so they are very likely to lose respect from other reporters. Fallows also noted the different treatment of presidents by their own party’s publications. “The semi-liberal magazine the New Republic had beaten the drum for the Clinton campaign. But even before Clinton took office the magazine inaugurated a ‘Clinton Suck-Up Watch’ feature, in which reporters were ridiculed for cozying up to Clinton too much. It is inconceivable that a comparable conservative publication- the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, the National Review, or the American Spectator- would have published a ‘Regan Suck-Up Watch’ in the 1980s”.

It is also interesting to note that while the majority of reporters may class themselves as liberal, the majority of editors, senior writers and publishers hold more conservative views. This can be contributed to many things; for example many editors and senior staff are older then the average reporter, this may in tern have led to them having developed a more conservative attitude as they have increased in social and career status, and therefore have more to lose socially and financially. James Fallow believes that “concentrating on this cultural politics gap conceals a larger source of bias in the press… The supposed ‘liberalism’ of the elite press is more limited than many people believe. On economic issues- taxes, welfare, deficit control, trade policy, attitudes toward labour unions- elite reporters’ views have become far more conservative over the last generation, as their income has gone up.“ This conservatism can be noted in the fact that 80% of editorials favoured President Nixon, yet Nixon himself claimed that the media was highly biased towards liberals. 

When trying to discern the bias in the media it is interesting to note the opinions of the American public. Another poll carried out by ‘Pew’ concerning the thoughts of the public concerning the media found that 64% of the public wanted fair and un-biased media coverage, and a further 73% wanted Anti-American view points to be included in the news as well as Pro-American views.  When trying to discern whether the public believed their was any bias in the media in general, the ‘Columbia Journalism Review’ suggested that in general the public does not always believe there is a bias present in the media coverage. Yet ‘The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ published a report in which 78% of adults in the United States believe there was bias in the news media.  But the ‘ASNE’ also stated that there was no consensus definition of what “bias” meant. “Almost 30% see bias as ‘not being open-minded and neutral about the facts’; 29% believe bias is ‘having an agenda and shaping the news to report it’; another 29% define bias as ‘favouritism to a particular social or political group.’ and 8% said that bias is ‘all of these”’.  ‘ASNE’ also stated that the public was also split on the issue of liberal vs. conservative, with 47% saying their local paper tends to be more politically liberal than themselves, and 34% saying it tends to be more politically conservative than they are.

Brent Cunningham, writing for The Columbian Journalism review, stated that “Over the last dozen years a cottage industry of bias police has sprung up to exploit this fissure in the journalistic psyche, with talk radio leading the way followed by Shout TV and books like Ann Coulter’s Slander and Bernard Goldberg’s Bias. Now the left has begun firing back, with Eric Alterman’s book What Liberal Media? And a group of wealthy Democrat’s planning a liberal radio network.He believes that one result of this is hypersensitivity among the press to charges of bias. 

When looking at whether there is any bias in the media it is important to study the media networks themselves. Republicans often argue that channels like CNN, NBC and ABC are heavily biased towards Liberals. Bernard Goldberg, an ex CBS reporter, states that channels like CBS use tactics like “pointedly identifying conservatives as conservatives, but don’t bother to identify liberals as liberals.” He states that this was done in order to make the liberals appear to be objective moderates, and thus by implying that liberals are the middle of the road this further implies that conservatives are more right-wing than perhaps they are. Goldberg suggests that it is for this reason that liberals can not recognise their own bias. 

Democrats argue that FOX, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is the mouthpiece of Pro- Conservative and Pro-Republican views. FOX’s tagline is its “Fair and Balanced reporting”. A documentary released in 2004 called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s war on Journalism is devoted to questioning FOX’s biased reporting. The documentary featured many interviews by ex-employees of FOX and other leading persons claiming to be for fair journalism. 

Frank O’Donnell, an ex-feature writer for FOX, stated that they were “ordered to carry right-wing Republican propaganda’. Clara Frank, a highly respected writer and broadcaster and also ex- broadcaster for FOX, stated that while working for FOX she had “Recognised all the Conservative experts who were on contract to FOX, who varied from talk-show hosts to Radio- show hosts and key political commentators”. But the liberal roster had only one person whose name she recognised, and all the others were unknown names. 

Several studies conducted by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have found that FOX highly favours right-wing conservative news. When looking at one and one interviews featured on FOX’s flagship news show ‘Special Report’, there is a large inconsistency between the political affiliations of its guests. Over 25 weeks of one and one interviews republican guests out weighed Democrats by 83% to 17% respectively. When looking at the affiliation of the Democratic guests who were interviewed, 5:1 were conservative Democrats rather than Liberal Democrats. 

12/02/2020 – BOSTON, MA. – Fox News stock on Dec. 2, 2020. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

While Democrats claim that channels like FOX, and radio shock jockeys like Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy make no pretence to be un- biased, Republicans often argue that it is channels like CNN, NBC and ABC that are heavily biased towards Liberals. FOX itself argues that liberals are unable to hear pro-liberal bias, because they are used to so much of it being on every other channel, and as FOX is ‘fair and unbiased’ their liberal bias is equal to their conservative bias, and thus smaller than the bias featuring on other channels. 

There are several organisations that have been set up to monitor the bias in the media. Groups like ‘Accuracy in Media’, ‘Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting’ and ‘Media Matters for America’ all claim to ‘watchdog’ the media for examples of media bias. Each of these organisations blames different factors for the amount of bias in the media. FAIR states that “Mergers in the news industry have accelerated, further limiting the spectrum of viewpoints that have access to mass media. With U.S. media outlets overwhelmingly owned by for-profit conglomerates and supported by corporate advertisers, independent journalism is compromised”.  Both ‘AIM’ and ‘Media Matters for America’ state their mission to set the record straight on important issues that have been ‘botched’ due to bias, ‘AIM’ believes that this bias is liberal, while ‘Media Matters for America’ believes the bias to be conservative.

 As these organisations themselves are often set up by one of the political party’s, they are likely to them selves be prone to bias. Only a small number of these organisations offer a reasonable way to get rid of bias in the media. ‘FAIR’ is one of the few organisations to offer what it believes could help the media rid itself of bias. It believes that “structural reform is needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting, and promote strong, non-profit alternative sources of information” 

Another survey carried out by PIPA (The Programme on International Policy Attitudes) shows that there is large discrepancies between the views of FOX’s audience and other news networks audiences regarding key issues.  When asked questions regarding the war in Iraq, for example “Has the US found links between Iraq and Al-Queda?” 67% of FOX viewers said yes, compared to 16% of PBS or NPR viewers. 

But it is unlikely that the media will ever be able to rid itself of any bias. In today’s media environment bias is as inevitable as conflict, and as long as there are so many avenues for expression in the media through newspapers, radio, television and the internet, everyone is able to voice their opinion.  No organisation in the world is likely to ever be able to police them all, and thus an environment does not exist in which any legislation or code of practice like the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ can be enforced. And while it can be complained that bias is present in any given column or news channel, as long as there is a medium that is accessible to all who wish to voice their opinion it must be asked if it matters whether this bias is conservative or liberal, so long as both may have their say somewhere.  

Bibliography:

Books:

  • Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the news, University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media undermine Americas democracy, Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Al Franken, Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them, Penguin, 2004
  • Bernard Goldberg, Bias, Regnery Publisher Inc, 2002.

Websites:

New thoughts for the new year

As 2021 starts I’m sat in my home office, trying to support my 10 year old’s home learning whilst also ensuring contracts and commercial agreements are in place and ready for my new teams due to begin new projects tomorrow.

This time last year I was looking at a busy calendar with meetings on clients sites, sorting my travel to Newcastle and London etc. My main concern was making sure I could balance train times with school pick ups etc.

This year most of us are coming back after the festive break to home working full time, many of us in Tier 4, so not only can we not hope on a train, or go into the office, we can’t even go work in a coffee shop to get out of the house.

Last year was incredibly stressful and challenging for us all, and it’s easy to want to write off the year completely. But I achieved a lot I can be proud of, and learned a lot that I think will help me going forward.

What I have achieved:

  • I got engaged (Hooray!)
  • I got a formal ADHD diagnosis.
  • I stood up and embedded new teams within 48 hours to support the COVID-19 response, and help deliver critical services.
  • I developed the new Design function and grew the Delivery function within Difrent.
  • I helped win multiple large contracts (this was new for me last year)
  • My team delivered the Social Care Jobs Discovery and I helped move it forward to Alpha.
  • We began work with a new client and helped them prepare for their Live Assessment (happening this month, keep your fingers crossed for us).
  • We began work with another new client and helping them get their service ready for launch.
  • I supported another service approaching it’s national large scale roll out.
  • I built multiple new partnerships with other suppliers which have improved ways of working not just for us but also for our clients and partners.
  • I continued to be asked to speak at events on delivery, diversity and digital topics.

What I’ve observed/learnt:

How we recruit and hire has also changed radically over the last year; there’s still a lot of uncertainty on ‘where’ people could be working long term. Previously I’ve been focusing on hiring people in specific locations, currently we’re instead hiring people to work remotely, but no on is sure how long that will last; for some clients they’ve accepted this is the new normal, for others it’s a stop gap. This makes planning and managing recruitment campaigns much harder; and makes open, transparent, communication much more important. I’ve been working really hard in interviews to be as open as I can to candidates with the types of contracts/ projects/ teams they could be working on; and owning up to the unknowns and knowns, so that they have as much information as I can give them to help them make their own decisions.

Another thing I’ve noticed over the last year is a move to more public sector departments using Digital Capability contracts rather than pure outcome based contracts. This seems to be in response to the fast pace of change that has been needed to support the COVID-19 response; and again means a change in how we plan and manage recruitment. Lots of people, especially in the User Centric Design community, often want information about the project they will be working on, the problem they will be working to solve, the team they will be working with; which is much harder to give on these kind of contracts. Conversely many client side Delivery Managers still want to see CV’s before they will accept people into their teams; but with three projects starting at the same time for the same client, knowing exactly who is going where three weeks in advance is hard to manage. Get it wrong and you effectively become a soulless body shop, but get it right and you can offer your people an exciting range of work and your clients a flexible/ experienced team to work with them and meet their needs. This is definitely something going to be pondering on at the start of the year and ensuring I can iterate and perfect my approach as much as possible; and I’m sure I won’t be the only one!

My aims going forward:

As mentioned, one thing I kick started in the last quarter of last year was a Partnership forum across all our clients and partners, given how critical this year looks to be already, I really think that forum will prove itself vital this year; if for no other reason then allowing us to sanity check our approaches and keep things moving at pace.

More and more people seem to be struggling with their mental health, and over the last 6 months especially I’ve had a lot more people approach me to ask about my ADHD, the diagnosis process/ medication/ how I manage it etc. This has helped reaffirm to myself that being open and visible about my neurodiversity is important and the right thing to do; so I’m going to try and keep doing that, and possibly set up a specific section in my blog where I write about coping strategies and answer questions on the topic.

As we remain working from home for now, time management will remain key for me, which obviously somewhat links to the above; so making sure I give myself time away from my desk, and ideally time outside my house (weather permitting) is really important, and something I want to get better at!

Sadly we’ve had to delay our wedding until next year, but I’m still trying to approach the new year with new hope. We have vaccines. There will shortly be a new President in America. I have a holiday abroad booked (not sure I’ll be able to go, but I shall remain hopefully for now). There are reasons to be positive, and I shall be doing all I can to hold on to that hope even as the months ahead continue to challenge us all.

Speaking confidently

Last month I got asked to speak to some University of Salford’s Business students about how to present well. Every year the University apparently holds a conference for their Business students to attend and hear form industry experts on a range of topics, all with the aim of building the students understanding of how to speak confidently to an audience.

Because of COVID-19 they couldn’t hold the conference as they normally did, nor could they have external speakers come in to talk to the students, as such they were really struggling to help the students build their own confidence in presenting; and I got asked whether I could run a session for them via Teams.

I speak a fair bit nowadays, generally on Product Management, Diversity and Inclusion, Career development, Agile Delivery or User centric design, so doing a talk on talking was a new one for me, and something I wasn’t quite sure how to approach, especially virtually; as such I reached out on Twitter to gather some thoughts on who people thought ‘presented well’ and why.

Interestingly, when gathering my thoughts for the talk, I had a number of people I know reach out and ask whether the session would be available to a wider audience; it turns out lots of people really struggle with their confidence when it comes to speaking publicly; and while I got share the video of the session, I can share my notes, so I thought it was worth turning into a blog for people to read!

But I think the fundamental points are:

  1. Know what your brand is. What are you good at? What do people know you for?
  2. Know who your audience is. What are you wanting them to take away from your talk? How can you best engage them?
  3. Find your own style. Some people need to do several run throughs before they do a presentation, some people need detailed notes, some people talk better to stats or words, some to images.
  4. Keep it simple.
  5. Be yourself.

Presenting or talking in public is one of the most common things that causes people imposter syndrome or anxiety. Most people assume that others are just ‘better at it’ than they are, but the truth is most people find this hard.

I spent years avoiding speaking in public myself as I thought everyone had better things to say than me, and that there was no way I could present without messing up; but I realised the issue was that I was trying to make myself look and talk like everyone else, and because it didn’t feel authentically me, I had no confidence in myself, and my audience struggled to connect with me.

Yes, snazzy images and stats will help a presentation go well; but if you can believe in yourself, even a little, others will find it easier to believe in you.

And this is why we test with users…

A blog on the new National Careers ‘Discover your skills and careers’ Service

As I sit here are ten past ten on a Wednesday night watching social media have a field day with the new National Careers service, I’m yet again reminded about the importance of the Digital Service Standard, especially Standard Number One – Understand users and their needs. And why we need to get Ministers and senior leaders to understand their importance.

The first role of any good User Centric designer or Product Manager within the public sector is understanding the problem you’re trying to solve.

In this case, the problem we’re facing is not a small one. Because of COVID-19 we currently have approximately 1.4M people unemployed with many more still facing redundancy due to the ongoing pandemic. ONS data states that between March and August, the number of people claiming benefits rose 120% to 2.7 million.

The Entertainment, Leisure and Hospitality sectors have been decimated, amongst many others. Just this week we’ve had Cineworld announce 45,000 job loses and Odeon may soon be following suit. Theatres and live event venues across the country are reporting they are on the brink of collapse.

So, when the Chancellor announced as part of the summer statement, a whole host of support for people too retrain; it included advice for people to use the new Careers and Skills advice service to get ideas on new career options.

A service to help people understand new career options right now is a great idea, it absolutely should meet user need.

A screenshot of the national careers service skills assessment

Unfortunately, you only have to look at the headlines to see how well the new service has been received. The service is currently such a laughing stock that no-one is taking it seriously; which is a massive shame, because it’s trying to solve a very real problem.

A number of my friends and acquaintances have now taken the quiz (as has half of twitter apparently) and it was suggested I have a look. So I did. (As an aside, it recommended I retrain in the hospitality industry, all who know me know how terrible this would be for all involved, last week I managed to forget to cook 50% of our dinner, and I am clinically unable to make a good cup of coffee, never mind clean or tidy anything!)

It has good intentions, and in a number of cases, it may not be too far off the mark; the team behind the service have done a write up here* of how they have developed it, and what they set out to achieve. Unfortunately, while the service seems to be simple to understand and accessible to use; what it seems to be missing is any level of context or practicality that would help it meet the problem it’s being used for.

*EDIT: Which has sadly now been taken down, which is a massive shame, because they did good work, but sadly I suspect under political pressure to get something out there quickly. We’ve all been there, it’s a horrid position to be in.

While they have tested with users with accessibility needs, the focus seems to have been on whether they can use the digital service; not does the service actually meet their needs?

My friend with severe mobility and hearing issues was advised to retrain as a builder. Another friend with physical impairments (and a profound phobia of blood) was advised they were best suited to a role as a paramedic. A friend with ASD who also has severe anxiety and an aversion to people they don’t know, was advised to become a beautician. Another friend who is a single parent was given three career options that all required evening and weekend work. At no point does this service ask whether you have any medical conditions or caring needs that would limit the work you could do. While you can argue that that level of detail falls under the remit of a jobs coach; it can understandable be seen as insensitive and demoralising to be recommending careers to people they are physically unable to do.

Equally, unhelpful is the fact the service which has been especially recommended to people who have been made redundant from the worst hit industries; is recommending those same decimated industries to work in, with no recognition of the current jobs market.

My partner, who was actually made redundant from her creative role due to COVID-19, (and the target audience for this service according to the Chancellor) was advised to seek a role in the creative industries; an industry that doesn’t currently exist; and a quick look on social media proves she isn’t alone.

The service doesn’t actually collect enough (well, any) data about the career someone is in, nor does it seem to have any interface to the current jobs market to understand whether the careers its recommending are actually viable.

Unfortunately, the service is too generic, and while it would possibly help school/ college students who are trying to choose their future career paths in a ‘normal’ job market, (And I honestly suspect that’s who it was actually developed for!) it’s not meetings the fundamental problem we are facing at the moment; ie. help people understand their career options in the current market.

If you’ve worked within Digital in the Public Sector you’ve had to deal with Ministers and Directors who don’t really understand the value of user research or why we need to test things properly before we role them out nationally. The current debacle with the careers website is possible a perfect example of why you need to make sure you actually test your service with a wide range of users regularly; not just rely on assumptions and user personas; and why its important to test and iterate the service with real users multiple times before it gets launched. It highlights the need for us to get Ministers to understand that rushing a service out there quickly isn’t always the right answer.

We all need to understand users and their needs. Just because a service is accessible doesn’t mean it solves the problem users are facing.

Having pride in our diversity and learning to be inclusive

June is Pride Month when members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies come together in different ways to celebrate, remember and reflect. As such, now June is over, I wanted to reflect on the things I learnt this year.

Pride and Trans Pride Flags.

This June was a Pride Month like no over, because of COVID-19; lockdown meant that the usual pride marches were cancelled and then moved online.

June was also the month that #BlackLivesMatter came to the forefront of Western consensus because of unforgivable killing of George Floyd in the US, amongst sadly so many others around the globe. With marches and rallies both in the US and UK (and elsewhere) to call for the end of police brutality and discrimination against Black people.

And finally, June (yep, still Pride Month) was when JKR yet again decided to use her platform to gatekeep women’s spaces and to decry the acceptance of trans women as women. (I’m not linking to her article, because I won’t give it airspace, but there are MANY fantastic pieces that explain why this stance is harmful, here’s just one. But the Tl:Dr version is, Trans Women are Women.)

As such, this month, more than any other June that we have seen in a long time, has been one in which the conversations about diversity and inclusion have been so important.

I was asked this month, why diversity and inclusion were important to me?

As the very wise Fareeha Usman, founder of Being women, said “Discrimination can only be tackled if we first tackle our own insecurities.”

Working within and alongside the public sector, we develop policies, products and services for the public; for citizens, for society. We can not develop things for people, if we can not empathise with them; if we can not understand where they are coming from and the problems/ barriers they are facing. The people we are building form come from diverse backgrounds. If our teams all look and sound the same, and have the same life experiences, then we will never be able to deliver things that meet the diverse needs of our users.

Lots of hands coming together with a heart over the top

The Lesbians who tech (and allies) held their annual pride summit from the 22nd to 26th of June, and this year there was a clear focus on #BlackLivesMatter and also #TransWomenAreWomen as well; with a whole host of fantastic speakers discussing actions we can all take to be more inclusive. I was also lucky enough to be asked to speak at a D&I panel* on the 24th held by @SR2 and had the opportunity to attend the Dynamo North East event on the 25th, and to attend several other virtual pride events.

Key things I learned:

  • Locational geo-clusters can be a blocker to diversity and reinforce racial discrimination – @LorraineBardeen
  • When attending a meeting/ workshop or invited to sit on a panel, it’s our responsibility to check who else is ‘in the room’ and see if we are needed there, or is there someone else from a different group who’s voice needs amplifying more than ours. – @JasmineMcElry
  • When awarding contracts we need to look at companies track record on diversity / pay etc. And make sure we are not unconsciously biased against companies that have a makes up that does not match our own. – @SenatorElizabethWarren
  • It is our job to educate ourselves and not ask anyone else to educate us; as leaders our role is to admit we don’t know everything, that we are still learning, and to actively listen to others – @TiffanyDawnson

COVID-19, if nothing else, has given us the opportunity to think about the society we want to see coming out of this pandemic. We have all embraced things like remote working to help us keep working, now is the time to consider whether these tools can also help us going forward to be more inclusive in our workforce, and our society.

Removing the dependance on geographical hiring would enable us to include people from wider ethnic communities, as well as disabled people who have often found themselves excluded from office jobs by the commute etc; or people with caring responsibilities for who the standard 9-5 office job doesn’t work.

A fantastic session led by Nic Palmarini, Director of NICA, on Agism stated that “We need to reimagine a new society that is more inclusive”. This for me sums up the conversations I have seen, heard and been lucky enough to be part of this month; and I am proud to be part of a company, an industry and a community, that is trying its hardest to do just that.

Difrent's Diversity stats
The Diversity stats from Difrent

*If you fancy catching up on the panel, details are here: https://zoom.us/rec/share/7uV5L-rezkhIZZXT8FjFVKQIAZTCeaa82yJI-Pdby0whYlngi4VRx3mii2Gvb-zR Password: 1H+a15=#

What ever happened to “there are no stupid questions?”

This week I had a great conversation with @ClareSudbery of MadeTech and @RachelleHunt of StrangeDigital about the importance of using plain english and creating an inclusive environment where people feel able to speak up and ask questions.

Back when I started working in Digital as a Product Owner in 2011, and I did my agile training course, one of the first ‘principles’ that was discussed was ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question”. Which as a newbie in the agile/digital world was great to hear, because I felt like I knew literally nothing.

A neon sign with a ‘?’

This concept has always been something I’ve repeated to the teams and people I’ve been working with. There will always be something you don’t know, it is impossible to know everything. Therefor we have to be able to ask questions and find out information without fear of being made to feel stupid.

However, as digital transformation and agile begins to roll out and spread, that acceptance of ‘not knowing’ seems to have become less common. I hear a lot from colleagues outside of digital that ‘agile is a cult, or digital is a clique’ with it’s own language that doesn’t welcome in those who don’t know the ‘lingo’.

A friend of mine had a scrum coach in to speak to their team and deliver some training to their organisation (if you don’t know what scrum is, that’s ok, here’s a link), and she said the way that he spoke to them was as if they were all idiots who knew nothing, and that he made scrum sound like a religion for zealots. There was no opportunity to question, only to agree. This isn’t what should be happening. There’s no better way to foster feelings of exclusion and frustration than be treating people who don’t know something as ‘lesser’.

The public sector has always struggled with acronyms, and while we regularly hear about the drive to reduce the use of them with the greatest will in the world, everyone will find themselves slipping up and using them sometimes, because they are everywhere and we assume that everyone knows them. But we have to remember that they don’t.

At a global digital conference last year in The Hague I was happily chatting away to someone working for the Dutch Pensions service and kept referencing several Government Departments by their acronyms without thinking, leaving the poor person I was speaking to rather lost.

Similarly in my interview for my current role, I was too embarrassed to check an acronym (PnL) and just assumed I knew exactly what I was being asked about. It was only after 10 minutes of waffle I was politely corrected that I was not been asked about Procurement frameworks and instead about my experience of managing Profit and Loss. Obvious in retrospective, but never an acronym I’d heard before and who want’s to look ignorant in an interview?

Graffiti asking ‘what do you mean?’

Clare made a point that often we’re not actually saving time by using acronyms, but we are gatekeeping and increasing that siloed attitude, which is counterproductive to the work we’re doing. This is especially important, as Rachelle pointed out, given how inaccessible acronyms often are, and that they are actually not unique. One random set of letters to me may mean something completely different to someone else working in a different organisation or sector or with completely different experiences. We are actually increasing the chance for confession and misunderstandings while not saving time or effort.

There is a lot of great work happening in the Public sector, using the Digital Service Standards (primarily standard 4 – make the service simple to use, and 5 – make sure everyone can use the service) and the principles of the Plain English Campaign, to simply the content we provide to users, to make it clear, concise and easy to comprehend. However when it comes to how we talk to each other, we are forgetting those same standards.

My conversation this week has reminded me how important it is, as a Senior Leader to:

  • firstly try and not use acronyms or digital/agile jargon, or to not make assumptions about other peoples knowledge without checking first their experience and understanding.
  • Secondly, speak up and ask more questions when I don’t know things. To show by doing, that it is ok to not know everything.

After-all, there are no stupid questions, just opportunities to learn and share knowledge.

Image asking what are your questions?” taken from the universe awareness blog

What even is agile anyway?

So you’re a leader in your organisation and Agile is ‘the thing’ that everyone is talking about. Your organisation has possible trialed one or two Agile projects within the Digital or Tech department, but they haven’t really delivered like you thought they would, and you think you can ‘do more’ with it, but honestly, what even is it in the first place?

It’s a question that comes up fairly regularly, and if you are asking it, you are not alone! This blog actually started from such a conversation last week.

Tweet https://twitter.com/NeilTamplin/status/1220608708452999170

First and foremost there is Agile with a capital A, this is the project methodology, predominantly designed for software development, as defined here. It “denotes a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.”

However nowadays, especially in the public sector, agile doesn’t only apply to software. More and more of the conversations happening in communities like #OneTeamGov are about the culture of agility. How you create the environment for Agile to succeed, and this is where many people, especially leaders, are getting lost.

So how do you ‘be agile?’

Being agile is borrowing the concepts used in agile development, to develop that culture. As Tom Loosemore says when talking about Digital, it’s about “applying the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

But it’s more than what you transform, it’s how you do it.

The Agile manifesto says that Agile is about:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

When you consider individuals and interactions over processes and tools, then you remove unnecessary hierarchy and empower people to make decisions. You don’t enforce rigid processes for the sake of it, but iterate your governance based on feedback of users (in this instance your staff!). By being agile you focus on communicating directly with human beings, looking to how you can accommodate more actual conversations, and time together, rather than relaying on emails and papers as your only way to communicate.

By prioritising working software over comprehensive documentation you are constantly testing and iterating what works based on what is meeting your user needs, rather than deciding upfront what the answer is before knowing if it will actually work. You involve user research in your policy and strategy discussions. You analyse and test your new processes before you implement them. You change your funding and governance models to allow more innovation and exploration, and base your decisions on data and evidence, not theory. By being agile you are able to demonstrate working product or tangible services to stakeholders and customers, rather than just talking about what will be done.

Customer collaboration rather than contract negotiation is about bringing people along with you and working in partnership, achieving results together. Embracing and managing change to be innovative and deliver value whilst still being competitive and minimising unproductive churn and waste.

When thinking about responding to change over following a plan, it’s about being able to innovate and iterate. Prioritising and working on the most important work first. Building in short feedback loops and taking on board feedback.

Post it notes on a wall

Why is ‘being agile’ important?

Because as the market changes, and users expectations change, companies that can not take onboard feedback and iterate their products and services loose out. This is also true when it comes to companies themselves in terms of what they offer their staff, less people now go to work just for the money, people want more job satisfaction, empowering staff to make decisions and cutting bureaucracy are not only ways to cut costs, but also increase the value to both your users, your stakeholders and your staff.

Resources to help:

  • Scrum.org have a decent blog on Agile Leaders which can be found here
  • For Leaders in the Public Sector, the Digital Academy has an Agile for Leaders course, details of which can be found here
  • The Centre for Agile Leadership has a blog on business agility here (and for those in the US they run courses)
  • And the Agile Business Consortium have a white-paper describing the role of culture and leadership within Agile which can be found here

#OneGreenGov

One of the key reasons I joined @Difrent was their commitment to #TechForGood. In my experience #TechForGood is one of those phrases that gets batted around, as such I was very keen when I started to understand what that phrase meant to Difrent and if it really meant anything at all!

Much to my delight, I found that it was not just a meaningless motto for the company, but a value we as a company use every day. Be that the hoodies all staff are given (made from sustainably used cotton) to the work we do and the clients we will work with.

As such, when the opportunity to volunteer and or attend the #OneTeamGov #OneGreenGov appeared, it was obvious that at least one person from Difrent would be headed there. 

OneGreenGov was a one-day event held in multiple locations around the world for those working in and with the public sector to discuss ways to combat climate change. With events happening in London, Wolverhampton, Helsinki in Finland and Canada. 

Icebergs

On the day itself, there were a lot of fascinating conversations, ranging from some more scientific presentations on the effects of climate change on both geography and people’s health to sessions on how people can make a personal difference to climate change and even how Wikipedia can help the climate change battle. 

You can see some of the conversations that happened on the day here. Throughout the day there was chat about the Trees for Life page set up at #UKGovCamp a week earlier and a discussion of what other initiatives could be set up to help the climate. 

Placard with a climate change slogan

One of the things I learned from the event was the importance of reviewing your data regularly and removing out of date data, this is because the transmission of data via the internet can be very polluting, contributing to between 2-4% of our greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a Defra blog here about ways to try and reduce your digital carbon footprint. 

Climate change and heat stress slide from OneGreenGov

Some of the conversations were happening in the room, some happened with the help of technology to cut down on the carbon footprint! As well as there being great conversations happening in the physical (and virtual) room, the sharing of ideas didn’t stop once the event was over. 

Apolitical are asking people to share their ideas on how to combat climate change here; WholeGrain Digital shared their Sustainable Web Manifesto and #designandclimate shared their draft Master Remote Workshop (to cut carbon) guide.

In terms of the event itself, all the plates and cups used were biodegradable and all the food leftover was donated, so that nothing went to waste, which was lovely to see. 

The whole day was full of energy and passion and it was fantastic to see so many people committed to making a difference and let’s just hope that we will see that difference continue in the days and weeks going forward.

We’re all a little weird down here

Yesterday Dominic Cummings, the PM’s senior aid, wrote in his blog about the need for number 10 to hire assorted super talented weirdos, unusual software developers, fantastic communicators and great project mangers (amongst other things).

This clarion call for change in the public sector followed up from his previous statements about the need for change in the civil service. Whether you agree with his politics or not, or even agree 100% with his message about the civil service; many of his points do ring true; and the need for a radical reform in the culture, methods and leadership of the civil service has been the focus behind #OneTeamGov for years now.

A sign reading ‘Change’

Having worked in the public sector for 15 years I can recognise that Mr Cummings is right when he says that the civil service is full of “people that care, they try hard” and that, at least in the start of my career it very much felt like “The people who are promoted tend to be the people who protect the system and don’t rock the boat.”

However, I don’t think that is 100% true anymore, certainly not in some areas. The growth of Digital within government departments has certainly led to more of the ‘weirdos’ Mr Cummings mentions finding homes (at least temporarily) within Digital, and more of the radical thinkers and champions for change getting promoted and having successful careers.

However, in the last 18 months, many of my peers have, like myself, left the civil service and moved agency side into the private sector; so why is that? Is it because, as Mr Cummings states The Public sector “ruthlessly weeds out people who are dissenters, who are maverick and who have a different point of view.”

There certainly seems to be a ‘ceiling’, at which point all the change agitators and ‘new wave’ of civil service leaders leave. These people tend to reach Deputy Director and then, as I did, decided that it’s time to look outside the civil service for their next role.

However when you look around, none of us have gone very far, few have been lost to the likes of Apple; Vodaphone or HSBC. Instead we’ve all moved to the likes of Difrent, FutureGov or ThoughtWorks. For me this shows that these people still care passionately about the public sector and what it is trying to deliver, but that the red tape and restraints that bound us in the civil service were becoming too much.

For myself, Difrent gives me the chance to work somewhere that still allows me to make a valuable different, to work on the problems that effect society and to deliver change at scale and pace (which was hard to do within the public sector). Everyone I’ve spoken to, who has made similar moves, says similar; but we all agree we would return to the Civil Service, and indeed many like myself are planning to, but for now they needed a change and a change to truly deliver.

A neon sign reading ‘this must be the place’

I personally don’t think this is a bad thing, gaining experience outside of the civil service can help us all grow, open us up to new ideas and ways of working, help us to become better leaders. However, the number of people who have made this move this year is interesting; especially on the back of the #OneTeamGov conversations.

While Mr Cummings states that “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’.” Personally, I believe that it is different life experiences that bring different perspectives; however I do whole heartedly agree with Mr Cummings when he calls for “genuine cognitive diversity” within the public sector.

I think this is especially needed within the Senior Civil Service. As Kit Collingwood wrote a few years ago regarding the need for Civil Servants to become experts on empathy “we must be able to understand and accurately predict how policy will affect people’s behaviour. We must be able to understand other humans’ motivation to change, to walk in their shoes.”

Making decisions on homelessness and poverty is very hard when no one in the team or the leadership has ever had to make their limited food supply feed a family for over a week. We also need to be able to understand the links between poverty, health and crime. There are so many different factors at play when trying to write a policy on reducing knife prevention, that if you have a policy team who all look and sound alike, you will never be able to understand or deliver the changes society needs.

A group of white men sat round talking

The Civil Service has recognised for years that it has struggled with recruiting a diverse workforce, and looking at how it recruits and the messages it is putting out there, as well as the culture that potentially puts candidates with some back grounds off is definitely key. Even within Digital, recruitment could still feel siloed and closed off to some people. I’ve blogged before about problems with role names and job descriptions putting off people who could very likely do the job just because they didn’t 100% match with the job description or found the process to apply off putting. The problem is we often make assumptions about the kind of people we are looking to hire that put off people we may never have considered.

Mr Cummings states that “I don’t really know what I’m looking for but I want people around No10 to be on the lookout for such people.” For me this open approach (wether you agree with the actual method or not) seems like a good way to try and reach the ‘cognitive diversity’ we need within the Public Sector to deliver the radical change we need.

I believe a lot of the people Mr Cummings is looking for are around; either already within the public sector, working alongside it, or trying to get inside but struggling to find their way in.

I think we do need to think outside the box when it comes to recruitment, however it’s not just about recruiting the right people. We need to change the culture within the Public Sector to take on the lessons we have learned within Digital about User Centric design and the positive impact of multidisciplinary teams and reflect on how we can bring ‘cognitive diversity’ into the whole of the public sector. It requires a culture that invests in those people, their development and that allows them to successfully deliver. To change the system, you have to build a culture that enables the system to change.

What I’ve learnt this year

This year has been a year of big change for me; I started a new job, left the public sector, moved cities, moved in with my partner, bought a new house, and most importantly, we got a dog.

As a Pagan, I celebrate Yule and the Winter Solstice; At the Winter Solstice we reach the longest night of the year. Darkness has reached its peak; and with the end of the longest night we celebrate the return of the Sun, the return of light, hope and promise. 

Sunrise over a snow covered village

As the year comes to an end I thought it would be worth reflecting on the year that is coming to a close, what I have learnt from it, things I’m still working on and taking forward into the year to come.

This year has been an interesting one, full of frustration and challenge; but also opportunities and excitement. I’ve always talked about the importance of finding your tribe, of being true to be yourself and being able to bring your whole self to work. For most of this year , if I’m honest, I was in a role that was not a good fit for me and I had never felt more cut off from my tribe. It taught me a lot.

What I have learnt:

What good leadership looks like

Reflecting on my time at the CQC, the fantastic opportunities that made me want to join the organisation when I was first offered the role, and the disappointment and frustration I felt in the last 6 months of the role after a change of line management left me being excluded and ignored. While CQC was a good fit for me at the start, a OneTeamGov event earlier this year on Leadership made me realise the impact a good (or bad) leader can have on an organisations culture.

The opportunities the organisation were facing were (and still are) real, but some of the recent hires brought in more recently made me realise that perhaps its readiness to embrace change at pace was not as real.

The difference within Difrent has been almost breath taking. From day one I’ve been empowered to get on and do things, with full support from my manager (the wonderful Rach) who has reminded me that there are good leaders out there fully capable of caring about their people.

Change is a movement not an individual

Whilst at CQC I got to speak to the Scottish Government Product Management community; I volunteered at OneTeamGovGlobal and attended my first international conference (the Delivering Digital Government event) in the Hague, where I got to catch up with Andrew Greenway and Tom Loosemore about the fantastic work Public Digital is doing around the world.

By the time I left CQC’s culture, and its ways of working, were no longer right for me, it felt more insular and less a part of the Digital movement. I felt more cut off from my tribe than ever before, it was a lonely feeling. I think something I have learned in the last year, you can not change everything on your own; nor will you always fit in everywhere; someplace’s are just not right for you (which doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but bad for you), sometimes you need to make a change. But note, even when you can’t see it, change is happening. You are not alone.

A person holding loose coins with a note saying ‘make a change’

Why the right culture matters

My frustrations with the culture in CQC, along with some advice from my mentor made me make a move outside of the public sector for the first time in my career. It’s something I thought long and hard about, as frustrated as I was at the CQC I didn’t want to just leave for any old role. The CQC made me realise I needed to find the right role, at the right organisation, with the right culture.

The senior leadership within Difrent talk constantly about our values, but it’s not just talk, it’s obvious everyone truly want to improve things together. Two months into the role, the suggestion we run a retro for the leadership team was met with open arms not disdain; everyone bought into the session and it felt very positive.

That’s not to say everything is perfect, it’s obvious that moving from ‘start up’ to ‘scale up’ means the culture has to adapt and change as well. But one thing I have learnt in the last year is good leaders don’t shy away from that challenge, they welcome it and talk about it in the open. That good leaders don’t just see ‘culture’ as a token word or a by product, but as a thing to invest in.

A row of different coloured leaves

You need to believe in yourself

I am an optimist, which made me ignore the initial doubts and worries I felt at the CQC; made me assume the problems I was facing were unintentional, that things would improve, and my desire to make things better things and to protect my team meant I pushed aside my doubts and tried hard to work things out. It took me a long time to realise the cumulative effect that was having on my own confidence.

Two months into my role at Difrent and I think it was absolutely the right move for me. After months of being disempowered and isolated by a manager who did not welcome challenge and for whom Digital was only about the technology, not the people; my role in Difrent has been a reminder that people matter, that I matter, and I am good at what I do.

I was absolutely delighted this year to be featured in Audree Fletcher’s book A Day is Not Enough, which featured 365 women influencing design for social good.

Within days of starting at Difrent I dived straight into contract negotiations and client engagement; talked to teams about what support they might need to enable them to deliver and within my first 60 days I lead on delivering my first (successful) pitch for business. I felt like I’ve achieved and delivered more in my last 2 months than the previous six months.

The importance of finding your own voice

My year has been a good one blog wise, many of my blogs were born from the frustrations I was feeling at the CQC, but also it felt like I finally hit my stride and found my tone of voice. While this blog has never been about ‘getting hits’ and more about sharing information, it’s been a very pleasant surprise to see how well they’ve done, the blogs about Thomas Cook and the Parliamentary Petitions site in particular seemed to strike a cord with people.

My goals for the year ahead:

My aim for next year is to keep building on the blog, but too also to try and get back into the swing of speaking at events. A year ago I was speaking at events fairly regularly, but the CQC hit my confidence more than I would like to admit. It’s hard to stand up in front of a crowd and feel like you have things to say when your manager regularly ‘accidentally’ leaves you out of the conversations your male colleagues seem to be invited to.

Since moving to Difrent I’ve already thrown my hat in the ring to speak at two conferences, and my aim is to try and have done 6 speaking events by the end of 2020. We shall see how that goes!

While politics at the moment is worrying, and has led some to question whether there is still empathy in the world, I’m approaching the next year full of hope. News like that of Twitter users recently joined together to develop a free Food Bank app highlight why the #TechForGood movement is so important and why I’m so proud to work for somewhere that is doing what it can to make a difference.

By this time next year I want to be able to stand up and talk about the things I have personally delivered. Up until now, while I’ve worked on amazing projects, very few of them I’ve been able to see through to delivery (either because of funding cuts, reprioritisation of projects, or promotions meaning I’ve move on before I got to see things through) the main reason for me taking the role at Difrent was to change that, to truly be able to deliver things that matter.

Both personally and professionally I’m doing what I can to add value, and learn from mistakes in the past to ensure the future is better.