Book Review: Client Earth – Building an Ecological Civilisation

July 23rd, 2017   •   no comments   

 Client Earth are activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet: using environmental law to protect oceans, forests, and other habitats as well as all people. A new book which tells the successful story of Client Earth over the last decade since it was founded, was launched in May. Written by founder and CEO, James Thornton and his husband Martin Goodman, the book charts the journey of the non-profit environmental law group from inception to the present day.

 

Just before the recent election, and following a legal challenge by Client Earth, the UK government was ordered by the High Court to produce new improved plans to show how it is going to comply with legal limits of air pollution in the shortest time possible. This is but one of their successes in holding legislators to account.  But also a perfect example of their approach. So, as a Trustee of an environmental charity, you can imagine my sense of anticipation at its publication. And the book does indeed chart the rise of public interest environmental lawyers in the USA since the 1980s, and makes valuable points about NGOs and the law.

 

Cutting his teeth on the ‘Save the Bay’ campaign, focussed on eliminating the run off of agricultural pesticides and fertilisers in 1983, and moving on to the dumping of heavy metals and chemicals in watercourses by Bethlehem Steel in 1984, some of James Thornton’s early successes concentrated on pollution of rivers and seas. Since then his, and his team’s, work has widened in scope, and its geographical boundaries. In 2007 he moved to England, qualified in British law, and established his first European office. This was shortly followed by offices in Poland, Brussels, Africa, and most recently China. Where he is working with the government to draft law and train lawyers.

 

The American passages are perhaps the best in the book. But, at risk of being accused of a bad case of ‘not invented here’, the move to Europe comes with the bold assertion that environmental law didn’t exist in the UK until Client Earth’s arrival.

Thornton is absolutely right to say that environmentalists must create a new vision for their efforts. Presenting logical, but doom laden, arguments about the future of the Earth does not work for many citizens. Just as the referendum result in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US have both defied logical explanation so, Thornton and Goodman contend, we must correspondingly construct a new ‘brand’ for environmentalism based on hope. Along with this goes the acceptance that, having passed through the historical stages of agricultural then industrial civilisation, we are now entering a new epoch of ecological civilisation.

 

Personally, I largely agree with the authors’ assertion that enforcement of the law is one solution. I can also empathise with their view – based on my own experience – that some campaigning NGOs see their role as exposing problems. Not in fashioning the solutions. I am also firmly of the belief that it is naïve to believe that something – the ‘techno utopian card’ – will turn up to save us. So the thrust of the book is not at issue.

 

Where I have a problem is with the book’s style and execution. Alternating chapters between two different authors leads to a disjointed and repetitive reading experience. Thornton’s chapters are clear, concise, and brief. Goodman’s are rambling, plagued by extraneous quoted dialogue, and gushing in their admiration of Thornton.

 

Jonathan Porritt’s flyleaf endorsement may be correct in saying that ‘more important still are the vision, values, and gritty dedication of an amazing group of lawyers’, but I can’t escape the feeling that this book has something of the Hollywood movie about it. So, can our plucky heroes defeat the forces of evil?!

 

Published by Scribe Publications 2017 (www.scribepublications.co.uk) UK edition 978 1911 344 087  ©2017 M J Hoare

THINKTANK: Curtains for Cash?

July 23rd, 2017   •   no comments   

 

Is it All Over for Cash?

 

I make contactless payments just like anybody else, and it always alarms me to hear the person next in line decline their receipt. How on earth do they keep a tally of their spending, stop going overdrawn, and incurring bank charges? Maybe they are so spectacularly wealthy that it’s irrelevant, or they always run an overdraft, or maybe they just don’t care.

 

New figures from the British Retail Consortium suggest that, 10 years after their introduction in the UK, contactless payment cards have finally won over the British public. They now account for about a third of all card purchases, up from 10% as recently at October 2015. And, for the first time, notes and coins have been evicted from their position as the UK’s number one payment method.

 

Cards now account for more than half of all retail purchases, according to the BRC. And, in its latest annual payments survey, it claimed that debit, credit and charge cards had “firmly established their place as the dominant payment method in retail”, and were “increasingly displacing cash for lower-value payments”.

 

So, some adherents to the new doctrine are suggesting that this is the tipping point that signals the beginning of the end for cash? But wait. Cards have accounted for the majority of retail spending by value for years, but 2016 was the first year they also accounted for more than 50% of all transactions. It is also the first time that debit cards have overtaken cash. They now account for 42.6% of all transactions, putting them a fraction ahead of notes and coins, which fell almost five percentage points to 42.3%.

 

Contactless cards were introduced in the UK in 2007, and were slow to take off; a cautious public gradually accepting the technology in coffee shops and other low value outlets. The initial upper limit of £20 per transaction was increase in 2015 to £30. Subsequently, the technology has spread, and it is now possible to pay bus and tube fares, give charitable donations, and buy drinks at the bar with a flick of the wrist. So, much of the increased use must be down to the availability of the technology as to citizens rejection of cash.

 

Plus, customers’ psychological barriers have been gradually whittled away. Which is good news for shops! Handing over £20 in notes – and registering the diminishing cash in one’s wallet – is so much harder than flashing the plastic cash. So, if you subscribe to the theory that these cards make it too easy to spend money, one can imagine why retailers are keen to encourage the contactless revolution. Shops also have a vested interest in the demise of cash as it costs them money to transport and deposit it.

 

On the downside, the Bank of England last month suggested that the popularity of contactless cards was helping to fuel the rapid growth in consumer debt. Going overdrawn may also result in bank charges, further adding to that debt.

 

So could the UK end up going cash-free? Arguably we’ve been headed in that direction since the repeal on the Truck Acts – legislation that allowed workers to insist on payment in cash – in the 1980s. So it’s had a long gestation in the UK. Now Sweden is in the vanguard, and is expected to become the world’s first truly cashless society, with a study by Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology predicting that cash could be history there by 2030.

 

Notes and coins may be dirty and a nuisance to transport but, in their favour, they are tangible stores of value. Electronic cash – Swedish style – is just a call on the local bank that issued it. What happens when all record of this month’s pay, and your bank account, mysteriously disappear due to a computer error? Who underwrites your money? A note issued by the Bank of England – which is wholly owned by UK government – at least carries a promise to ‘pay the bearer’ the relevant value. So you have some chance of redress.

 

But never fear, Victoria Cleland, chief cashier and director of notes at the Bank of England, reckons the folding stuff and loose change will be around in the UK for some time yet. “Cash is very much alive and kicking,” she said in a recent speech. The value of Bank of England notes in circulation peaked in the run-up to Christmas 2016, reaching more than £70bn for the first time. So, no need to worry about that stash of notes under the mattress just yet. But maybe you should swap those old tenners for new ‘Jane Austen’ polymer notes!

NetXtra Breakfast Club ‘MIND THE DIGITAL GAP’

July 10th, 2017   •   no comments   

Allen Reid, Hart Square

The phrase “Mind the Gap” was coined in about 1968 as an automated announcement, after it became impractical for drivers and station attendants to warn passengers verbally on London Underground. Now, minding the gap between customer expectations and our digital performance may not be as devastating as tumbling between a tube train and the platform, but it will have consequences never-the-less.

Simon Pardy, Hart Square

And so it was that Allen Reid, director of client projects, and Simon Pardy, a business consultant at Hart Square gave their early-rising NetXtra Breakfast Club audience a two-handed rendition of the pitfalls. Helping, along the way, to identify approaches to adopting contemporary technology. But first, over to Sarah, the cause of all this angst. Sarah is the average member, and doesn’t care about your departments. She isn’t interested in your data silos, and doesn’t much care about her membership body. She doesn’t like admin; won’t just go to the website; and does NOT want to call you.

You, on the other hand, want to talk to her! But she’s busy, and you’re bombarding her with impersonal email messages, texts, and Tweets – particularly when they’re mostly irrelevant to her – simply doesn’t cut it. In-fact they might drive a wedge between you. And pretending to be personal is even worse, as it exposes your lack of authenticity.

Welcome

Sarah has loads of choice, has apps coming out of her ears, and in these economically straightened times may choose not to invest in a membership body that views her simply as a statistic. So why not take a leaf out of the Mumsnet book, or even Coeliac UK, with its scrapbooks, recipes, restaurants, and advice on diagnosis?

To succeed, you need to understand your members’ needs and what’s driving them to you. How can you satisfy those needs? Great – maybe crowd sourced – content is good; self-service (for booking, buying, and profile updates) is a must; and, most of all, community. People talking on your site, exchanging news, jobs, and events, add to that feeling of highly personalised communications according Allen and Simon.

Rob Ilsley and Scott Cole

Next, in a break from tradition, Scott Cole of NetXtra interviewed Rob Ilsley of The Dispute Service (TDS) to extract some important nuggets from their decision to go for CRM. As a government regulated scheme provider that protects over £1 billion in tenant deposits TDS membership is something of a grudge purchase. But with their current systems having grown organically over a number of years, minor tweaks to any process would result in unforeseen chaos further down the line. It was time to act, sweeping away processes that weren’t user friendly and replacing them with a high degree of self service. But only after analysis of the tenant’s role as a customer. The result has been efficiency, cost savings, and a reduction in disputes.

Tom Bowden, Footprint Digital

Pay per click advertising (PPC), search engine optimisation (SEO), and conversion rate optimisation (CRO) are Tom Bowden’s game at Footprint Digital, and he had everyone on their feet to demonstrate the fact. Measure it – test it, is their mantra, and Tom demonstrated it. Although we may make assumptions about what looks great and is likely to engage our audience, with the benefit of A/B testing partnered with SEO/analytics reporting, we can actually put definable data behind decision making.

So, what did others think? I asked fellow delegate, Dan Nimmo, Communications Manager at the Institute of Biomedical Science, and he told me that,

“Having only started as the communications manager at the Institute of Biomedical Science in January, and with no prior experience in membership organisations, the Breakfast Clubs have provided me with a wealth of information and ideas of how to make improvements in our organisation. As well as the steps to overcome some of the problems I have had and can foresee in the future.

The June presentations were the second Breakfast Club that I have attended this year and I was pleased that on both occasions the content has been relevant to my role. I also enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the presentations and meeting fellow communications professionals. The added bonus of a fresh cup of coffee and a bacon roll on arrival are also a much appreciated welcome to the day ahead.”

  1. Any stand-out moments?

“Yes, learning about some of the challenges other organisations have overcome and the different ways that they have done this is helpful when I come to plan our communication and engagement strategies. As I am currently looking at ways to improve the user experience of our digital membership platform, I found the ‘Mind the digital gap’ presentation especially rewarding. The idea of personalising the membership area for each member is something that I am going to look into further and the Coeliac example used was very appealing.”

  1. And did the round-table and interview sessions add to your enjoyment?

“I really enjoyed discussing some of the issues in the round table discussion. As someone that is new to my role, I discussed some of the issues that I have faced with the new ideas I am bringing to the role and changes I am beginning to implement. So it was really helpful to hear from other comms staff at my table, who discussed the problems that they have had to overcome in their organisations.”

  1. What will you be able to apply most immediately to your current role?

 “The last presentation on ‘Mind the SEO gap’ was informative and good fun. Although being one of only 3 in the room to pick the first correct answer was a source of pride, although I soon found my short-lived quiz success was over by the next question. The style of the presentation proved a great way to drive home the idea that A/B testing along with SEO/analytics can enable us to make better decisions in our marketing. Something that will come in especially handy to all membership communications teams as we all look to improve on our engagement and better ways to measure it. It also comes at a time when I have been investigating A/B testing to increase our level of open and click through rates in our digital communications to our members.”

  1. See you next time?

“The NetXtra Breakfast Clubs have given me a really useful insight into the membership sector. I am able to take away lots of new ideas for member engagement and it also allows me to network with fellow comms professionals. I look forward to the next event in September!”.

Written by Michael Hoare

 

THINKTANK: DATA – Democratic or Divisive?

June 21st, 2017   •   no comments   
THINKTANK: DATA – Democratic or Divisive?

It Does You Good

The flavour of the month may be data, especially in its ‘big’ form. But are we deluding ourselves into believing that big is always beautiful? Sure, big data identifies trends; helps to better understand and target customers; recognise and optimise business processes; and improve mechanical performance. It also has a role in public health, scientific research, and financial trading.

But, should we show caution when it extends unchallenged into security and law enforcement, or the ‘optimisation’ of cities and countries? It cannot be assumed that all data will ultimately be used for social good. Sometimes projects based on mass data increase inequality, and consequently harm those they were designed to help.

Bigger the Better

In 1907, Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton asked 787 villagers to guess the weight of an ox at a country fair. None of them got the right answer, but when Galton averaged their guesses, he arrived at a near perfect estimate. Beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. Thus the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ was born.

Groups of people pooling their abilities to demonstrate collective intelligence and average judgement converging on the right solution. It’s a pleasing theory and tempting to apply to all sorts of decision-making processes. Until, that is you realise that the crowd is far from infallible. Good crowd judgement only arises when people’s decisions are independent of one another. Influenced by other’s guesses, there’s more chance that they will drift towards a misplaced bias. In other words groups, when fed with information, tend towards a consensus to the detriment of accuracy. Witness the recent election polling predictions.

Analysing the Detail

Nothing in doing data analysis is neutral. How data is collected, cleaned, stored. What models are constructed, and what questions are asked. All tend towards discrimination.

As Dana Boyd, in her excellent article, ‘Toward Accountability’ asks, “How do we define discrimination? Most people think about unjust and prejudicial treatment based on protected categories. But discrimination as a concept has mathematical and economic roots that are core to data analysis. The practices of data cleaning, clustering data, running statistical correlations, etc. are practices of using information to discern between one set of information and another. They are a form of mathematical discrimination. The big question presented by data practices is: Who gets to choose what is acceptable discrimination? Who gets to choose what values and trade-offs are given priority?”

Even so, making data available to the public must be a good thing – it’s democratizing – right? But what if it’s not? For instance, what happens when big data is used in conjunction with a computer algorithm to predict crime? In theory analysing large amounts of crime data should spot patterns in the way criminals behave. Resources could then be deployed more effectively in the areas of predicted criminal activity. Result!

Or, what happens when parents are encouraged to select their children’s school places on the basis of an education data ‘dashboard’. Benchmarking every aspect of a school’s performance against the mean should tell you everything you need to know to make a rational decision about your child’s future. Simple!

Lastly, how good would it be if, when you applied for a job online, you were swiftly shortlisted for interview on the basis of your merits? Your CV having been analysed against the qualities of those who had previously succeeded in that role. Brilliant!

But wait! Critics of this kind of data analysis raise a number of ethical concerns. They claim predictive policing, for instance, leads to victimisation, and unnecessary stop and searches in areas with high crime rates;   displacement of crime elsewhere; gathering of sensitive data, leading to invasions of privacy; and lastly, that it ignores the social, economic and cultural factors that cause crime. Advocates, on the other hand, argue that a variety of policing approaches are necessary; that research has found no evidence of victimisation; and that it makes police decision-making less biased.

Surely no one can argue that giving parents access to school data is a bad thing? But what data? What constitutes a good school? Is it test scores, student makeup, parent ratings, or facilities? Presented with the data, does every parent have the time, language skills, and ability to interrogate the statistics? And, if they do, is everyone equally able to act upon their findings by dint of wealth or mobility?

Oh yes, that job you applied for! Being filtered for interview on the basis your abilities is one thing. But what about your gender, ethnicity, or sickness record? You’ll never know, because you won’t get the chance to explain. Not that anyone would be so crass as to filter on that basis. But subtle clues, like blips in your career timeline or post-code may result in unwarranted inferences. Combine these factors with feed-back loops and machine learning and before you know it you may never work for a large company again.

Conclusion

“Data scientists”, said Mike Loukides, VP of O’Reilly Media, “are involved with gathering data, massaging it into a tractable form, making it tell its story, and presenting that story to others.” So, I remain conflicted on the benefits of big data. It has its uses. But, rather than thoughtlessly surrender ourselves to its machinations – in the belief that the outcome will always serve the interests of humanity – we should remain sceptical, questioning, and downright belligerent. Especially when told that it’s for ‘our own good’. I plan to keep in mind a quote from Ronald Coase, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, when he said, “Torture the data, and it will confess to anything.”

Michael Hoare

June 2107

Sources / Further Reading:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zqsg9qt

http://www.thwink.org/sustain/glossary/FeedbackLoop.htm

https://points.datasociety.net/toward-accountability-6096e38878f0?goal=0%203391a19d97-ade738409c-101345329&mc%20cid=ade738409c&mc%20eid=ca3d28b2b4

https://www.ap-institute.com/big-data-articles/how-is-big-data-used-in-practice-10-use-cases-everyone-should-read

https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ofsted

Think Tank: Engagement, The Emperor’s New Clothes?

June 8th, 2017   •   no comments   
Think Tank: Engagement, The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Hang on a minute! What is all this stuff about ‘engagement’? Everywhere I look these days membership organisations are talking about engagement as though it was the be all and end all of their existence. But why? And what do they mean by the term? Look up ‘engage’ in any shorter dictionary and – apart from a ‘promise to marry’ – to engage somebody means to attract or hold their attention of sympathy, or to cause them to participate. But that isn’t what the tech wizards appear to mean when they come knocking at your door with a ‘solution’ to your dwindling membership. What they have in mind seems much more superficial. Just clicking in some cases!

Now, if I click an online petition, that no more makes me an activist, than liking a post or a tweet makes me engaged with the author or their organisation. The truth is, there is no definition! We may have been bandying the word around since the mid-2000s, but in reality you can make engagement mean anything you like. It could be defined as consumers’ behaviour online, or the strategies brands use to attract attention, or the things you can count. Context is everything!

If you’re a writer looking for blog readers, or you’re an ecommerce site looking for shares, it will alter the type of engagement you’re looking for. If you want people to purchase, then it’s all about the first meeting and activity leading up to the sale. But if you’re a blogger, then engagement may be a comment or a share by an influencer.

When it comes to associations, I contend that engagement is the result of a member investing time and money with them in exchange for value. That value may me financial, practical, emotional, or a sense of belonging. The more resources they invest, the more engaged they are. And that happy state can’t be brought about by clicks alone!

Engagement is also about value. The value for the person doing the engaging as well as the value of that engagement for the association. It’s not the ‘output’ of a programme, but the strategies and actions that go into establishing relationships. It’s a discipline not a goal.

So, I reckon that any system that offers to analyse your engagement by counting clicks is leading you into a fool’s paradise. Vacuous statistics are just vanity metrics. Handy for keeping critics off your back, but essentially worthless when it comes to predicting outcomes or measuring success!

The twin goals of most associations are member acquisition and retention. When it comes to acquisition, the numbers that view your website, blog, or twitter account; share content from your publications; or even read your press coverage, are superficial. They’re not a signal that you have held attention or triggered participation. And transactional interactions, like buying a product, or paying for a course, are unreliable as an indicator of likely member retention. Attention gained through financial incentive tends to be transient!

It’s only when you put issues of empathy into the mix that you can really start to measure engagement; when participants align with your ethos, and the significance of the relationship outweighs the financial cost of membership! Indicators of that state of mind are a willingness to write or speak on your behalf; volunteer for a committee or task force; serve in a leadership role; achieve status; invest in sponsorship or similar. Of course, not every member can achieve this, but at least they should have the feeling that they could!

Healthy associations create more engagement opportunities in areas that create value for both organisation and member. Strategically, it’s also worthwhile for associations to plot the members likely progress from pre to post engagement, and consider what the first steps on the commitment escalator might be. As an efficient flow from low to high value engagement will tend to be healthier from both revenue and mission fulfilment perspectives.

Edition 259, Association News, 9th June 2017

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THINK TANK: Smart Enough for Artificial Intelligence?

February 8th, 2017   •   no comments   

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour – has made great inroads into the automotive, aviation, and other highly technical manufacturing industries in the last few decades. However, those that rely on human dexterity, such as clothing manufacture have remained relatively unchanged; mostly because their response to price pressure has been squeezing labour costs. Investment in new machines and processes has taken second place to offshoring; moving manufacture to lower priced economies where human labour is cheap.

But now even that may be about to change with the advent of a sewing robot that it is claimed can assemble an entire garment from scratch. If it lives up to its inventor’s claims it could bolster the hope that domestic factories in the US and UK might be able to compete once again. But it won’t bring back jobs!

So, automation, having eliminated many manufacturing and assembly jobs over the last couple of decades, will soon remove another tier of human employment. But this time they won’t be so called ‘blue collar’ production jobs. Commentators and futurologists predict that artificial intelligence (AI) is set to take over the service sector – then the professions!

As Dhaval Joshi, economist at BCA Research, has noted, it is not going to be the low-paid jobs in the service sector such as cleaning, gardening, carers, bar staff or cooks, whose jobs are most at risk. That’s because machines find it hard to replicate the movements of humans in everyday tasks.

“The hard problems that are easy for AI are those that require the application of complex algorithms and pattern recognition to large quantities of data – such as beating a grandmaster at chess”, says Joshi. “Or a job such as calculating a credit score or insurance premium, translating a report from English to Mandarin Chinese, or managing a stock portfolio.”

Seen in this light, the looming threat is obvious. The first army of machines wiped out well-paid jobs in manufacturing; the second army is about to wipe out well-paid jobs in the service sector. In many cases, the people who will be surplus to requirements will have spent many years in school and university building up their skill (1).

Could it go further? We know that machines have beaten humans in chess, draughts, and most recently in the ancient game of Go. But, more significantly, a machine has just beaten four professional poker players at their own game. The importance of this development lies in the fact that poker is an imperfect information game — similar to the real world where not all problems are laid out. The difficulty in figuring out human behaviour is one of the main reasons why poker was considered immune to machines.

The machine, developed by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and called Libratus, employs a problem solving algorithm that can be used in any situation where information is incomplete, including business negotiation, military strategy, cyber security and medical treatment. But, what next, if a machine can learn the ability to reason and bluff?

Over the last half-dozen years, deep learning, a branch of artificial intelligence inspired by the structure of the human brain, has made enormous strides in giving machines the ability to intuit the physical world. Three years ago, Microsoft’s chief research officer impressed attendees at a lecture in China with a demonstration of deep learning speech software that translated his spoken English into Chinese, then instantly delivered the translation using a simulation of his voice speaking Mandarin—with an error rate of just 7%.

So, how will these developments affect the membership sector? Can trade associations acclimatise to the new reality, and – assuming we still have them – how can we help members adapt?

©2017 M J Hoare

THINK TANK: All in Favour Say Aye! : Associations’ Digital Democracy Dilemma

January 22nd, 2017   •   no comments   

 

As recent events – such as allegations of Russian electoral hacking – have proved, the merest hint of uncertainty over the conduct or legality of a selection process can seriously damage the credibility of a ballot in the minds of the voters. Even a whiff of mismanagement will leave a bitter taste of dissent lingering amongst the electorate. Remember George W Bush and his hanging chads!?

Cock-up or conspiracy all become one in the minds of those who have begun to question the validity of the process and therefore the result. History has shown us that governments adopted on the basis of a dubious selection process almost always fail to maintain the trust of the people. Except, of course, for dictatorships, and they just don’t care!

So, electing governments is one thing, what about day-to-day decision making?  How many times have you, as a trade association manager, been asked your membership’s view on a particular issue, policy, or piece of legislation, only to realise that you are completely in the dark? And, in all honesty, how many times have you responded to such an enquiry – possibly from the press – with your own best guess; hoping that the majority would tow the party line?

We’ve all done it, and because we’re all seasoned campaigners – with our ears to the ground – we generally get away with it. But what if your judgement call goes awry? Second-guessing the mood of your constituency is a risky business, and careers can be seriously dented by getting it wrong. So, why not limit the risk by asking your members what they really think? Most often, the answer to that question is that to do so would be costly, time consuming, and possibly wasteful. But what if it was none of these? Enter digital democracy!?

Under modern government the people elect representatives rather than decide matters directly. The resulting administration may be viewed as more or less democratic depending on how well it represents the will of the people. So, in these terms, digital democracy – where all adult citizens are presumed eligible to participate equally – might be considered an improvement on the democratic process. Or as a remedy to the insular nature, concentrated power, and lack of post-election accountability in a process organized mostly around political parties. And, because the Internet is a primary source of information for many people, it enables citizens to get and post information about politicians, and it in turn allows them to get advice from the electorate in larger numbers. Thus collective judgement and problem solving gives more theoretical power to the citizens and speeds up decision making.

So, online voting could be an effective way to reduce an association’s printing costs; provide wider communication choice for members; be more environmentally friendly; and represent members’ views more accurately. However, not everybody is comfortable with computers and it is vital in a democracy to ensure that no voter is disenfranchised; the right mix of communication methods need to be employed. Maximising communications and using social media within an election context is a powerful way to raise its profile and foster engaging discussion with the electorate. But unfettered it can also backfire badly leading to the dissemination of half-truths, falsehoods, and even character assassination.

But in a world where interest groups already exert influence via platforms like 38 Degrees, Mumsnet, and Global Citizen, digital democracy has to be about much more than just responding to trends on social media. And there are barriers to voting online, including lack of trust in the security of the process; technophobia; and voter fatigue or cynicism. However, as more commercial transactions take place digitally, and security improves, members may become increasingly comfortable with online voting. And if the effective capture and use of data allows for targeted communications it may also increase the ‘buy-in’ to online polling and elections.

So, where does that leave association and membership management skills? Will there be any further need for judgement and experience once all options can be tested – Swiss style –  by referendum and all decisions can be digitally ‘crowd sourced’?  But, can we really trust the wisdom of crowds to get us through? Are rapid decisions always wise ones? Or, is a wily CEO with his / her ear to the ground still the best barometer of member opinion?

Whatever the answers, membership organisations can’t afford to ignore digital democracy. Having long-since sacrificed their role as information gatekeepers, how long will it be before their ability to represent members and influence policy is also side-stepped on the web?

Michael Hoare 2017

Association Collusion Model?

June 6th, 2016   •   no comments   

Agencies Accussed of CollusionAccording to recent reports in The Guardian the Association of Model Agencies (AMA) has about three months to submit their responses to allegations by the Competition and Markets Authority that it is involved in price fixing with some of its members.

Agencies allegedly used the trade association as a vehicle for price coordination when their representatives controlled the AMA’s managing council. Like most associations, the AMA claims its Council meets to discuss industry matters and promote the interests of its members, but it is also alleged, by the CMA, to have circulated regular “AMA alerts” that encouraged agencies to reject fees offered by customers and negotiate higher payments.

I wonder how many trade association councils haven’t at one time or another thought it might be a good idea to give members a ‘heads-up’ on sensitive commercial information; suggest ways of capitalising on their dominant position in the market; or have an ‘informal’ discussion of tenders?  Or more likely perhaps, agree a price to avoid competing with each other.

In September 2005, fifty prominent independent schools were found guilty of operating a fee-fixing cartel by the Office of Fair Trading. The OFT found that the schools had exchanged details of their planned fee increases over three academic years between 2001-02 and 2003-04, in breach of the Competition Act 1998. For their part Bursars freely admitted that they used to meet regularly and talk about fees, but maintained that the swapping of information did not amount to a concerted plot to push up fees.

It’s a familiar dilemma for association CEOs. A general discussion at a council meeting can all too soon result in some bright spark suggesting a monthly alert to all members with a guide price for some service or functions. And it’s often down to the CEO to nip it in the bud before what seemed like a helpful suggestion turns in anti-competitive behaviour, generally to the accompaniment of harrumphing about what exactly are the ‘benefits’ of membership!

FLUX: Fair Luxury

April 25th, 2016   •   no comments   

Thirteen years as CEO of the now defunct National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG) and I was beginning to experience a sense of frustration that the debate on transparency and trace-ability in the jewelley supply chain was going around in circles! After more than a decade of work – heroic efforts by Greg Valerio and Fairtrade Gold, and a bucket load of green-wash from other quarters – I was starting to feel that the pool of committed people was almost saturated and that we were now just having a circular debate within a group of devotees to the cause. But the recent FLUX: REDEFINING LUXURY conference has restored my faith!

The True Cost

Now, after three years watching from the side-lines, I’m immensely encouraged to find that the message is again reaching a wider, grass-roots, audience of designer makers. Why is this? Well, persistence is one reason, recognition another! The award of Greg’s MBE contributed new impetus and pushed ethical gold several notches up the awareness ladder. Ethical fashion has helped too.

Valerio 1

Greg Valerio

In 2000 – when I first became involved with retail jewellers – many didn’t really get the connection between themselves and the fashion industry. But brands and diverse materials have broadened their horizons, and cemented the bonds between jewellery and fashion. Interestingly fashion and jewellery have been running on parallel tracks when it comes to ethical supply chain issues too.

Both are concerned with provenance, the elimination of destructive environmental practices, human rights violations, and exploitation of local workers. But their gestation periods have been different. Environmental and exploitation anxieties about gold, precious metals, and diamonds matured over decades, reaching their tipping point with the No Dirty Gold and ‘blood diamond’ revelations early this century.

Similarly, the extraction, and consumption of water during cotton cultivation and subsequent pollution in the processing of fabric has long been an environmental concern for the fashion industry. The universality, accessibility, and relentless rapidity of fashion trends – ‘fast fashion’ – has accelerated that destruction but also propelled the possibility of change in the garment industry. The durability, value, and complexity of jewellery, has driven change more slowly.

Fashion Revolution 1

Fashion Revolution

Fashion Revolution was born, in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed 1,134 and injuring 2,500 others.  Its belief that ‘fashion can be made in a safe, clean and beautiful way, where creativity, quality, environment and people are valued equally’ seems to me to be the fundamental linkage between jewellery and fashion! Thanks to Greg, Fairtrade Gold, Lina Villa from ARM, and Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution for bringing that fact vividly to life!

Michael Hoare

Bavaria 1

A Gem of an Idea!

April 11th, 2016   •   no comments   

Gem Idea Graphic

The jewellery industry has been angst-ridden for most of the current century over the moral, ethical, and environmental damage done by the exploitation of gold and diamonds. Child labour, the blighted lives of miners, the spoil left by extraction, the financing of civil wars, and the buttressing of repressive regimes have each left their own stain on the industry. The Kimberley Process, the Dodd Frank act, OECD Due Diligence, and subsequent legislation, attempted to deal with these concerns, and bring forth order out of chaos. However, the plethora of initiatives in the supply chain remains perplexing for retailers, and those that want to trade ethically.

As CEO of the now defunct National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG) and a founding Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), I worked with NGOs and others for over a decade to influence the practices and policies of miners, refineries, processors, wholesalers, retailers, and banks in their efforts to regulate and monitor the movement and provenance of gold and diamonds within the supply chain.

Today, rigorous policies – both imposed and self-policed – are impacting on the tracking of both commodities back to responsible origins.  But the work still isn’t complete, and the industry still needs to shore up its claims to social and ethical sourcing with transparency, trace-ability, and communication across the entire supply chain, before retailers can trade with complete confidence in the attribution of their stock. Platinum group metals have also been added to the scope of the RJC, but one of the unsolved problems remains the provenance of coloured gemstones!

Therefore the announcement of the launch of a technical feasibility study to include coloured gemstones into the scope of the RJC should be music to jewellers’ ears.  But, past experience of working alongside the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A), whose work is the study and identification of gemstones, I am acutely aware how complex a task it is likely to be. Not just because of the range of stones, but because of the fractured supply chain.

Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) – labour intensive and often in remote and inaccessible areas – still accounts for the majority of the worldwide supply, raising obstacles to transparency and trace-ability at even the production stage. Compared to diamonds, the supply chain of coloured gemstones is highly complex, making it nearly impossible to trace their trajectory from mine to end-user.

Mined in roughly fifty countries – located mostly in the global south – gemstones pass through numerous hands before being polished, transformed into jewellery and sold in the international retail market.  And – unlike diamonds – the coloured gemstone supply chain doesn’t have a history of being governed by a centralised cartel, so opportunities for human rights abuses, environmental damage, and illicit activity, are legion.

So, while the RJC’s intentions are entirely laudable, their desire to plug the remaining gaps admirable, I think we should all recognise that the road ahead will be strewn with moral and ethical boulders, and some will be very difficult to work around!

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare

Contact me on info@michael-hoare.co.uk for strategy, communications, and public relations consultancy.

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