Friday, 29 November 2013

Just stay on the fucking bus - or, more politely, the Helsinki Bus Station Theory

When I started to write this blog, I didn't intend it to go any further than the safety of our private Teach Different writing group. And even now that it is out in the ether, it is on a personal blogging site rather than a work one.  It's not just due to the swearing.  It's the personal and emotional content that makes me want to hide it away.  This is typical of me emotionally, but on reflection this makes me want to consider - why do I share certain things publicly, and not others? How does my identity differ depending on professional and personal context?  Hopefully, these are more things to explore through my writing, but now, here's for the blog...

When I saw the words 'Helsinki Bus Station Theory'  on Twitter, it was the Helsinki part  that jumped out at me. I've always been fascinated by Finland, not least due to Pasi Sahlberg and his theories of education, plus, slightly less intellectually, a penchant for snow and vodka.  It is somewhere I definitely want to visit one day - inspired by a great time spent working in Norway in a wooden chalet with Finns and Swedes (that's another story for another day, though).

Anyway, back to the theory.  It suggests that having a creatively fulfilling career can be likened to a bus station (ideally Helsinki's, as I doubt it is quite as grimy and depressing as Leeds - the snow probably helps).  In Helsinki you have the choice of 24 different bus routes, likened to 24 different creative choices.  You choose a platform and get on the bus, but for the first mile or so, the route is exactly the same. The stops are identical, and each stop equates to a period of time of your career. After a couple, you start to become confident in what you are creating, so get off the bus.  You're proud of what you've created, but when you look around you see that someone else - that expert you're in awe of, for example, already got off at the same stop. You feel your work can't compare to theirs, and, frustrated, you head back to the bus station and start all over again.  Three stops later, the same thing happens.  You're stuck on the same route, always comparing yourself to someone else.

But... if you stay on the bus, you will find that the routes start to diverge.  At this point, you start to find your own original thinking.  Confidence emerges, and persistence pays off.  

This theory was originally developed around creative arts, specifically photography, but when I came across it I realised that it could be applied to any career or life decision.  For a while, after changing my entire work and life plans, I have been considering getting off the bus.  A lack of confidence, a sense that I can never be the 'expert', an overwhelming inability to cope with the change has made me question the route, the destination, and whether I should have even taken the bus in the first place. Why did I leave the warm and familiar comfort of my car, when I always knew where I was going and was safe in the knowledge that I was in control? 

But I also know that persistence is key to creativity.  When I think about some of my favourite writers - Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson - I know that it isn't luck or some magic gift that makes them write in this way.  Atkinson's idea of a good day is to write just one sentence that she is happy with.  Just one sentence.  We seek out originality, often forgetting the sheer graft and guts that are required to uncover it in the first place.

At the moment it feels like I am on the worst kind of bus journey - through central London maybe, stuck in traffic and staring out at the rain.  But despite this there are some great moments, shared with some amazing fellow passengers who make me laugh, inspire me, and make me want to stay.  So sod it, I'm going to stay on the fucking bus.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

How to build political awareness in your team - a recipe for good member-officer relationships

I've run lots of 'political awareness' workshops with local government officers and other groups who deal with councillors on a regular basis. These workshops have helped delegates to understand the vital role that elected Members play - in decision-making, representing others and leading communities.  On the flip-side, and just as importantly, councillors who have attended the workshops have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenges that officers face.

So much of it is about understanding each other, reflecting on experience, and building empathy. I've taken these key elements and turned them into a recipe for good member-officer relationships.  Fancy trying it in your organisation?

A recipe for good Member-Officer relationships 

A selection of local councillors
One large organisation (preferably a Council, but any other big complicated organisation will do)
You and your team
Respect (large dollop)
Learning (sprinkle liberally throughout)

Potential for thousands of portions - to be enjoyed by organisations, teams, individuals and communities

Step one.  Reflection

Firstly, wash and peel your large organisation so that you can work out exactly what it is, how it operates and why.  Spend some time reflecting on the organisation with your team.  Who is leading it? (really?) Who stops things getting done? Where do you fit in?  Explore what makes the ingredients different, and what makes them the same.

Step two. Building empathy

This bit takes some time.  Mix in the councillors and slowly introduce the ingredients to each other so that they all understand their different roles, responsibilities and strengths.  Provide as much exposure as possible - never hide the ingredients from each other! Stir in the following quote:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view... Until you climb inside of their skin and walk around in it."*

Step three.  Develop a respectful culture

Add a big dollop of respect and leave in a warm place, so that a positive culture develops.  If any ingredients do not 'take' to the new culture, ensure that you work hard with them so that they understand what kind of language and treatment of others is acceptable.  All of your ingredients should know how to behave, so make sure the organisation's values and expectations are made clear to them when they are first added to the mixture.

Step four.  Increasing contact

Many problems with member-officer relationships in Councils are due to a lack of contact and proximity.  So blend the officers and the councillors together, but make sure you use non-confrontational activities to do this (great methods for blending include joint learning programmes, social events, invitations to team meetings, shared celebrations, shadowing and buddying).

Step three.

You should now have a nice mixture of ingredients  - so bake in the oven (always adhering to the Council's health and safety advice!) Once cooked, share it and ensure that you celebrate the results.

Important note:

Expect this recipe to go wrong occasionally. Don't blame the ingredients.  Instead, reflect on the experience and start from the beginning again.

*from Harper Lee "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Top 10 induction sessions for new councillors

"There are two great things about being a councillor. All the people you meet, and all the things you learn."

A councillor once said this to me, and we went on to discuss at some length just how much there is to learn, especially in the early days. Most local authorities will do their best to support the induction process for their new Members but its a difficult balance - how to provide all the information needed without completely overwhelming people?

I saw over 70 new councillors join Leeds City Council during my time as Member Development Officer, and did my best to support them through the early days. Here's a list (in no particular order) of what I feel are the top 10 essential components of any councillor induction programme:

1. Basic Induction.

An introductory 'finding your feet' session should include things like a tour of the City Hall, information about where mail goes, how to get hold of officers, how your allowance is paid, what support is available to you, etc.

But perhaps even more important are really basic things like where the toilets are and where to get a sandwich. So simple but vital, and often overlooked in the haste to get on to more 'important' things like...

2. Understanding Council Decision-Making

It's useful to nail this stuff in the early days, to avoid asking embarrassing questions or making errors later on. A good session will include background information and legislation too, rather than just telling you 'this is how it is' without explaining why.

3. Using ICT

Any new councillors reading this are likely to have a good grasp of technology, but there are many who don't. Training (one-to-one ideally) should be offered with every piece of equipment provided, and sessions which help councillors to understand the benefits (and pitfalls) of social media are really useful too. It is also important to understand council policies relating to internet and email usage - and of course data protection and keeping information safe.

4. Managing Casework

A large part of handling casework is managing the expectations of constituents. Sadly, new councillors will soon learn how slowly the wheels of local government can turn, and that what seemed to be a simple solution to a casework problem is actually painfully complex. It's worth taking a step back and thinking about how you can manage your casework effectively without over-burdening yourself - and put some tools in place to help you start as you mean to go on. There are lots of great ways that technology can help these days - those with iPads can use apps such as Evernote - and a session like this can help you to share ideas and pick up tips from others.

5. Understanding the Members' Code of Conduct and Declaring Interests

Basic stuff but so important to understand and apply it.

6. Being a corporate parent

This is vital for any councillors elected to a council with looked-after-children. Sessions that actually involve young people can be very powerful in helping councillors understand what it is really like to be in care.

7. Safeguarding Children and Adults

Another important one. As a minimum, get hold of the council's safeguarding policies and familiarise yourself with the procedures. You never know when you might be confronted with this kind of situation and possibly have to make a referral, so it's best to be clear from the start.

8. Understanding Local Government Finance

More important information to get your head round. You might already understand how the council is funded, the difference between capital and revenue expenditure and how the council is dealing with the cuts, but if not, a session with the Chief Finance Officer should help clarify things.

9. Managing your time

It's worth planning how you will split your time (particularly if you work), before your councillor duties take over, as they will magically expand to fit any time available! There are some useful techniques to help you prioritise and work out what is urgent and what is important. Ways of managing that ever-growing email inbox are particularly useful.

10. Planning your personal development

In one of the sessions I run for new councillors, we spend a bit of time drawing the 'ideal' councillor. This is mainly a bit of fun to balance out the drier sessions (see numbers 2 and 8) but it raises some interesting questions. When you became a councillor, what kind of councillor did you want to be? What gaps are there and what skills do you need to improve on? What skills do you already possess, and how can you make the best use of them? What's your vision and goal and how will you get there?

If you can, find someone (outside of your party group) to talk these things through with, or even consider using a coach or mentor.

So, that was my top 10 - there's lots in there, and I can still think of lots more. Of course, no induction programme will be perfect and include everything - what is most important is that it is as tailored, as far as possible, for each individual.  But what do you think? Please share your ideas and experiences with me.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Doing it for the kids

Last year I considered the (supposed) differences between andragogy and pedagogy as part of my PGCE course at Northern College.  Andragogy focuses on learning strategies for adults, rather than children and is commonly associated with the work of Malcolm Knowles (1973). Knowles based his model of andragogy around four assumptions about how adults learn (my summary):

  1. Changes in self-concept.  Adults are self-directive; therefore they do not need direct instruction as used in pedagogy
  2. Use of experience.  Adults carry a wealth of life experience which can be brought to any learning activity; this can be significant life change such as becoming a parent as well as day-to-day experience at home and work.
  3. Readiness to learn. Knowles infers that learners become ready to learn at various developmental stages connected with their life experiences.  He emphasises the importance of timing learning correctly; so that it is real and relevant. 
  4. Orientation to learning. Adults have a more problem-centred approach to learning; they come into a learning setting in order to resolve or overcome an issue and then want to apply their knowledge immediately (as opposed to subject-centred learning in which children acquire knowledge purely to move to the next level of study).Considered what they already knew about elections and politics (more than they thought)
I found some relevance in these assumptions, but was uncomfortable with the implications about how and why children learn – and why their experience is different.  Surely children are also self-directive, when and if they are allowed to be?  Children are also brilliant problem-solvers; watching a child build a den, make a collage or learn to read are such natural and common problem-solving processes that we don’t even notice them happening.  It is more likely poor curriculum design that pushes children into subject-centred learning.

This debate was interesting but academic for me, until I found myself (as so often happens) – getting the opportunity to test out my theory.  I was involved in a ‘Schools and Democracy day’ aimed at helping young people from a local school to find out more about the Council and political processes.  I offered to take a class on ‘Voting and Democracy’, centering activities around not just the practicalities but to also questioning why and how people vote.  And of course I couldn’t do this without talking about suffrage. In fact there was so much I wanted to cover, my first challenge was to rein myself in!

I opted for a mix of group-work, discussions and a quiz.  Despite my nerves (why was I so scared? I was 13 once, I think!) I thoroughly enjoyed that hour with 20 kids.  But of course, what’s more important is what the kids thought of it, and whether they learnt anything.  In the session they:

  • Considered what they already knew about elections and politics (more than they thought)
  • Learnt about women’s suffrage – during a quiz where only the boys were allowed to vote
  • Discussed why young people don’t vote, and came up with these reasons/ideas:
    •  People don't know enought about it, or where to go
    •  There’s more interesting things to vote on, like X Factor
    • Why isn’t there an internet voting system or an app so you don’t have to leave the house?
    •  It should be more entertaining
    • Kids should be able to vote over the age of 11, so that it encourages them to vote at 18
  • Created a tweet that they could use to encourage people to vote (thanks to @samthewestie for this idea); and I then tweeted these from my @cllrdevleeds account.  They loved puzzling out how to get their message across in 140 characters!  Here’s one example:

“If you vote, you can change our country for the better. Just pop on down to your local polling station, it takes just 5 minutes of your time.”

So, did I find much to evidence Knowles’ split between pedagogy and andragogy?

  1. Contrary to Knowle’s assumption about self-direction, the kids had no trouble directing themselves to group activities. What they did need, however was facilitation to help the group work effectively and engage quieter participants (still not dissimilar to adults!)
  2.  They considered innovative ways to solve the problem of low turnout in elections.  “I could write an app for this”.
  3. There was no compulsion to learn in this session but they still asked questions to take their knowledge further: “so, why can’t you vote when you’re 16?”
When I look at the session plan and consider how it would have been different for an adult event, the only thing is around levels of knowledge.  For adults, (rightly or wrongly, perhaps) I would have assumed a greater understanding of political processes and a better command of political terms.  Otherwise the session would have been no different.

However, there was one very noticeable difference between this session and an adult one.  I got called ‘miss’!

Knowles, M. S. (1973; 1990) The Adult Learner. A neglected species (4e), Houston: Gulf Publishing

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

"The way it is around here" - surviving and thriving in local politics

For a week that focussed heavily on the death and legacy of a female politician, there was a marked lack of informed and constructive debate about the role of women in politics.  It was therefore really refreshing and timely for me to attend and speak at the residential course 'Women into Grassroots and Local Politics', run by the WEA at the University of Nottingham.

I decided to talk about resilience in politics and explore the kind of things that women need to thrive in a political environment.  Below is a summary of the themes I talked about, having observed resilience in action at a variety of different local authorities; and seen the often toxic effect of the political arena on both male and female councillors.  I'd love to know what you think!

Queen Bee syndrome

This is essentially where women reach a position of power but then keep that power to themselves, to the detriment of other women following them into politics or working with them (Thatcher, of course, was a classic example of the 'queen bee') .While I don't condone the behaviour I appreciate why it can happen - for some women, this has been the only way to get on and survive in a predominantly male space. 

So how can women in politics mitigate this?  One way is to avoid working alone; build networks of like-minded women, and if they don't already exist - create them.  Networks should extend beyond political groups and councils and don't have to be 'official'. Twitter, and other social networks are a great way of developing this kind of support.

As an aside, it's interesting to consider why this 'syndrome' is only mentioned in connection with women - surely men behave in these ways too? Or is this just the accepted way for men in politics to behave anyway?

Feeling the pressure

Most people do not appreciate and understand the pressures faced by, and the sheer volume of work that confronts local politicians.  Coping mechanisms are needed to deal with piles of (often distressing) casework, and these are skills that can be learnt. Most local authorities have courses and resources available; there are also national programmes available through the LGA and other bodies. Topics might include: managing your time, using social media effectively, dealing with your casework.

Coaching is a great way to help set goals and track progress, in a safe space - and there are some great coaches around who specialise in political resilience.  Keeping a reflection diary and collecting all the complements and thanks you receive can be very positive actions, as well as being great records to look back on.

Many political groups provide mentors for newly-elected councillors, but it is a good idea to identify your own.  A mentor is a powerful role and the choice of mentor should always rest with the mentee.

The passion and drive needed to be a politician can work against you and be misunderstood by even those closest to you.  The late MP Mo Mowlam wrote about achieving balance between politics and family:

"Make sure you have a hinterland...make sure you have something else in your life that is important. Make yourself as normal as possible; if not, you become addicted to politics and forget what life is about and what other people are thinking."

Political space

On countless occasions in my career, when questioning behaviour or the status quo I have been told 'it's just politics.'  Politics is used as an excuse for a lack of respect, rudeness, ignorance and discrimination and the effects of this are far-reaching.  It is hard to change a culture but that is no reason to accept it.  Questioning accepted practice and language is a great way to start to unpick and explore assumptions.  Why do Council meetings have to be held this way?  Does politics need to be combative and aggressive? If so, why? Can we have a discussion about it?  Why, why, why? (you can tell what kind of 5 year old I was...!)

I came across a quote by Saul Alinsky that sums up how I feel about the power of the question:

"It's not co-incidence that the '?' is an inverted plough, breaking up the hard soil of old beliefs, preparing for new growth."

So the next time someone uses the phrases 'that's just politics' or 'that's how it is around here' why not take that question mark and start digging around and exposing assumptions?

More information about the 'Women into Politics' programme run by WEA can be found here:

and for general info and debate about women in democracy 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

All change

The end of March is bringing some big changes into my life as I leave Leeds City Council and begin working for myself.

I've been spending a bit of time reflecting back on my past nine years as Member Development Officer. I've loved this job (hence the nine years) so thought - in true Big Brother style - I would share the 'best bits'. So here, in no particular order are my top 5 favourite moments in the job:

1. Baptism of Fire! (New Members' Induction, 2004)

The 2004 elections brought some pretty significant changes to Leeds City Council - 26 seats changed hands, resulting in a massive influx of new councillors. I had only started the job in January, so inducting and supporting all these new faces was a major project and very daunting. During all this, control of the Council changed from Labour to the 'rainbow' alliance of Conservatives, Lib Dems and Greens, so it was a stressful and turbulent time all round. Steering me through it all was my manager, Alan Theaker, who gave me my first grounding in political awareness. Alan sadly passed away the following year but I'm really grateful to him for showing me the ropes in those early days.

2. Member Development Charter, 2007

In 2005 we set up the very first councillor-led steering group for member learning and development. This cross-party group worked hard to develop a coherent Strategy and training plan for Leeds Members which resulted in us getting the Member Development Charter award. I was chuffed to see the award presented in front of full Council, but what made me most proud was the way that the councillors worked across party lines to get it.

3. 'Total Respect' training, 2010 onwards

I'd always been keen for members to learn about their roles and responsibilities as 'corporate parents' so introduced this programme to newly elected members in 2010. 'Total Respect' is different from usual programmes in that the actual kids who've been through the care system deliver the training. That course was the most powerful session I've been involved in. Three girls shared their feelings, hopes and experiences and helped us to understand exactly how it feels to be in care. It was a real privilege to work with them. And better still, a number of Members went on to take an active role in supporting local looked-after-children as a result.

4. Time to Change, 2012

Another great learning programme, this time on mental health. It was great to work with Tricia Thorpe (Time to Change manager, Leeds) and to hear about her journey from High Royds hospital to recovery. Councillors shared their experiences of mental ill-health too, either as individuals or carers. Volunteers gave up their time to talk to councillors about the reality of living with an often stigmatised or mis-understood condition. It was another great moment that transcended politics.

5. Political Awareness training, 2011 onwards

Out of all the courses I've delivered over the years, I think this one is my favourite. Around 300 staff have attended and had a chance to reflect on and consider their roles within the Council as a political organisation. Bringing a councillor in at the end has provided an opportunity for frank and honest discussion about relationships and how to make them better. I've learnt so much from the members and officers taking part in the course, and also it has been great fun!

So, just a few highlights from the past (almost) decade. I'm sure there's loads I've missed. Not surprisingly my favourite moments have been all about people and learning.

I hope to have as many great moments in the next ten years.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Cake and Community Philosophy

Following my community philosophy facilitator training I thought I'd set up a lunchtime group (fuelled by cake) to explore all of this a bit further.

I did try to come up with a witty acronym (CuPcake) - not that witty actually - then spent some time wondering if it is a club, society or group, which was equally unproductive...

Still, all this is evidence that I have actually been thinking, which bodes well for a philosophy group! Here are the details of the next meeting:

Cake and Philosophy Club

Friday 3rd May 2013, 1230-1330
The Light, Leeds

The aim of this group is to explore the practice of community philosophy, improving our critical thinking skills and gaining new ideas for facilitation along the way. It is open to anyone who would like to deepen their own thinking and that of others, have some fun and make some new contacts.

This session will explore the concept of community philosophy and try out a community enquiry.

Cake will be provided to fuel our thinking. Please feel free to bring a drink along with you (there are plenty of coffee shops nearby).

If you'd like to come along and find out what this stuff is all about, please contact me via Twitter - @KaySocLearn or email

We look forward to seeing you there. If you want to find out more about community philosophy in the meantime, my previous blog should fill you in.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

It's just thinking

I've been thinking a lot recently about my time at university. When I look back it is mainly to remember the social side rather than the formal learning. It's sad to say I probably learnt more from the social stuff than the academic - how to budget, how to live with other people, being independent (not how to hold my drink - still haven't mastered that!)

I studied English lit, which I thought I would enjoy more than I did. I remember sitting in seminars in cramped lecturers' offices with 7 or 8 others, feeling panic because I didn't have a clue what to say about books like Tristram Shandy or some obscure poetry. Since then I have put this down to a lack of confidence or feeling intimidated by brighter or more voluble students. But lately I have started to wonder if, actually, I hadn't really developed critical thinking skills. I didn't question things much; particularly the meaning of words. My thinking felt 'frozen'.

I recently came across a practice which develops exactly these kind of critical thinking skills in both adults and children - and helps to 'unfreeze' people's thinking. Community Philosophy is a growing practice, aimed at engaging groups with philosophical thought and action. The use of the word 'philosophy' scared me a bit, until I realised, In the words of facilitator Graeme Tiffany, 'it's just thinking'.

The practice interests me in lots of ways, but perhaps the best thing in my view is that individuals and groups create their own questions. Sessions often start with the introduction of a stimulus; a photo, newspaper article, poem, activity - anything really. In responding to the stimulus, groups come up with their own question which they then discuss.

What's philosophical about this? Well, discussion tends to centre around concepts - so that a question around 'community' may lead to debate around society, identity, respect, even love. There is something very empowering about deconstructing the terms we hear bandied about and lazily used in everyday language ('shirkers', anyone?). Try exploring and questioning the concept of 'health' and you will see exactly how complex an accepted concept can be! Community philosophy is a positive activity however, so doesn't leave a group feeling threatened by this exploration - as well as deconstructing, groups build new concepts with real meaning and value. Sessions end with a period of reflection, to discuss - where do we go next? Thinking can lead to action, and of course the very process is action in itself.

The sense of community is important in CP. In many discussions you have the sense that people have a 'story in their pocket' - that they are waiting to make their point and will do so, even if the conversation has moved on. However, the emphasis here is on 'building' the discussion - participants are encouraged to build on each others' points, and often it doesn't make sense to go back.

There's lots more I could say about Community Philosophy but I will leave it to the experts at Sapere who provide lots of useful information about it on-line (see link below). In the meantime I will be setting up a couple of groups to try it in practice, with the hope that helping others to think critically will mean a few less 'frozen' thinkers, panicking in their equivalent of a seminar on Tristram Shandy.

*New date for Community Philosophy and Cake club*

Friday 3rd May, 12.30pm.  Meeting Room inside Fabrication, The Light, Leeds

Please email me to book a place:

Some CP links: