‘Lobbyists’ have never been far from the seat of government. The term derives from the lobbies of the Houses of Parliament where Ministers gathered before and after debates: and where those that wanted to influence their opinion would go to get their attention. The verb ‘to lobby’ first appeared in print in Ohio, used in the context of local politics. While the word ‘lobbyist’ was first found in the 1840s and mostly related to Washington. But a recent a recent turn of events has put the spotlight on the interface between British lobbyists and politicians – calling into question where one ends and the other begins.
Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, has become the first serving politician to be officially registered as a lobbyist. He is listed on the register of consultant lobbyists because of his chairmanship of Policy Connect, a not-for-profit company that has held meetings attended by paying businesses and ministers.
Alison White, the registrar of consultant lobbyists, concluded that Policy Connect should be defined as a lobbying company because it is paid money by clients who are then given the opportunity to meet ministers. Her judgement follows an inquiry into whether informal parliamentary groups have been used to gain access to government.
Sheerman confirmed that he had reluctantly registered as a lobbyist, but disagrees with the rules governing the register. Maintaining that Policy Connect is a social enterprise providing a service for industry experts and ministers.
Although lobbying rules do not prevent MPs from holding a paid outside interest as a director, consultant, or adviser, the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament is unequivocal on paid advocacy, stating:
Taking payment in return for advocating a particular matter in the House is strictly forbidden. Members may not speak in the House, vote, or initiate parliamentary proceedings for payment in cash or kind. Nor may they make approaches to Ministers, other Members or public officials in return for such payment.
According to the MPs’ code of conduct, they are allowed to work as a consultant or be paid for advice, but are forbidden from acting as a “paid advocate”.
Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 introduced a new registration system for consultant lobbyists, which came into operation in March 2015, following a spate of ‘cash for access’ scandals in Westminster. The first Register was published on 25 March, and it included 53 entries.
The aim of the register is to gain transparency about possible influences of interest groups on Parliamentarians and their staff. Several studies indicate that lobby transparency leads to a decrease in corruption, and registers exist for several countries. Their effectiveness is rated differently, strongly depending on their exact regulations. Many non-mandatory registers do not include powerful lobbyists.
The restrictions under the lobbying rules apply for six months. A Member can free him or herself immediately of any restrictions due to a past benefit by repaying the full value of any benefit received from the outside person or organisation in the preceding six month period
All-party parliamentary groups (APPGs), consisting of members of both houses, meet together relatively informally to discuss a particular issue of concern. They are either country based, or subject based, the topics reflecting parliamentarians’ concerns. Officers are generally drawn from the major political parties and strive to avoid favouring one political party or another.
APPGs have no formal place in the legislature, but are an effective way of bringing together parliamentarians and interested parties. In the UK and many other countries, APPGs must be registered every parliamentary year and must hold an annual general meeting where the Chair and Officers are elected.
Their benefit, to campaign groups, charities, and other non-governmental organisations active in the field, is that they allow them to become involved in discussions and influence politicians. Often a relevant charity or trade association will provide a secretariat for the APPG, helping to arrange meetings, and keeping track of its members. Other APPGs may resolve their administration burden in other ways, either by borrowing capacity from an MP or peer’s office, or by employing staff of their own. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, for example, employs two members of staff paid for through subscriptions from its stakeholders.
As of 2015 there were more than 550 APPGs. Associate parliamentary groups are similar except that they are made up of not only members of the House of Commons or Lords but can also include members from outside Parliament.
In early 2016 the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists launched an inquiry into concerns that APPGs were being used to bypass lobbying registration rules, following reports that lobbyists were acting as APPG secretariats, so gaining access to legislators. White launched her inquiry earlier this year after a growth in the number groups, which are also allowed use of the Palace of Westminster’s catering facilities and can invite senior ministers and civil servants for meetings with donors.
So, Sheerman’s registration raises questions about the role of MPs and whether they should be both lawmakers and lobbyists. Furthermore, it highlights the part played by trade associations and others in influencing policy decisions. Which, if challenged, will further undermine associations’ claims to wield influence in an age where their gatekeeping role is already compromised.
From the public perspective, there is a rising tide of scepticism about the honesty of their representatives; the influence of private business interests over the public sphere; and apparent diminution of citizen’s rights. The electorate are entitled to ask increasingly uncomfortable questions. And expect satisfactory answers! Especially if we don’t want to re-enforce the belief iterated by John Gastil, Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, when he says, “There are two fundamental problems in American politics. The first is that most Americans do not believe that elected officials represent their interests. The second is that they are correct.”
Ethical Lobbying, an Oxymoron? By J van Boven
There used to be a tradition around this time of year where broadsheet newspapers would ask politicians what books they were taking on holiday as their summer reading. Some went for populist options to show they were ‘in touch’ with the electorate. Others chose heavyweight tomes by Proust, Ayn Rand, Thomas Piketty, or similar, to flaunt either their intellectual or ideological inclinations!
Frankly, I doubt that any of their selections got read. Both Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ at 696 pages, and Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ at over 1100 pages are frankly too heavy to be supported whilst lying prone in a deck chair. And Proust’s ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ at over 3,000 pages would give you a pretty hefty blow to the head if you fell asleep whilst holding it aloft!
However, I’ve found a book that all politicians should put on their summer reading list. Its light, at just 300 pages including notes. It’s a paperback, so shouldn’t cause injury. And its message doesn’t require any interpretation. First published in 2015, The Joy of Tax by Richard Murphy, isn’t on any best seller lists any more, nor is it bang up to date.
However, I reckon it should be required reading for politicians of either stripe. Not that they will of course, because dogma does not permit such forays into joined-up thinking. But, even if you don’t subscribe to the author’s ultimate prescription for the ideal tax system, this little book is the perfect primer for the understanding of tax. Not only does Murphy remind us of the history of taxation and what exactly tax is, but swiftly deals with the naysayers who seek to undermine it for their own purposes. He also demolishes some of the canards that have become the backbone of much debate around the subject.
Laissez-fair capitalists my rend their clothes and tear out their hair at the notion, but tax can also have a social purpose. Murphy reminds us of the pillars on which an equitable tax system should be built and the fundamental ideas that can help fashion it. A ‘must read’ for ALL aspiring politicians!
Murphy was appointed Professor of Practice in International Political Economy in the Department of International Politics at City University London in 2015, as a part-time appointment involving research and teaching. Previously he had been a visiting fellow at University of Portsmouth Business School, the Centre for Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex, and at the Tax Research Institute at the University of Nottingham. He was the founder of, and remains on the Board of Directors of, the Fair Tax Mark.
At the back end of July Hart Square held a seminar entitled ‘Get Personal or Get Ignored’, featuring contributions from Rachel Weber of dotmailer and Steve Smith of City & Guilds. Here’s my verdict:
Plumbing the depths of his experience Allen Reid, director of client projects at Hart Square, the niche not-for-profit tech consultancy, ruminated in July on the lack of insight that most NFPs have into their customers and members’ personal preferences. Typically Sarah, Allen’s archetypal customer, is not interested in your work silos. She has her own, and she’s not going to waste time on yours. In fact she only opens one in fifteen emails, unless they happen to be from a colleague. Nevertheless, in most associations a ‘spray and pray’ methodology is still employed: scattering a plethora of messages over Sarah, most of which are irrelevant to her.
Even as far back as the turn of the 20th century, when nearly all advertising was via printed media, this was recognised as an inefficient way of promoting a message. However, in those days there was little other choice. Even John Wannamaker, one of the pioneers of American department store retailing, is quoted in 1917 as saying, “I know half of advertising is wasted, we just don’t know which half”. And, according to Allen at least, little had improved as the century neared its end, and he began his career as an analyst.
His experience, and that of Hart Square, proved that the keys to personalised messaging are data, systems integration, and staff empowered to make use of that data. However, in most organisations, there is no point staff having ‘good ideas’ because current systems are too clunky to make pursuing them worthwhile.
Very few associations can deny holding their data on multiple spreadsheets. Partly because ‘knowledge is power’, and those wielding that power fear that losing it will undermine their role in the organisation. However Allen – whose motto is “if it moves, track it” – contends that automated interactions should free up staff to do things that only humans can do. And frankly associations have got to re-think their role in an era when they are no longer information ‘gate-keepers’.
Linking the two presentations Rachel Weber, senior account manager at dotMailer, highlighted the benefits and technical improvements that could be achieved by installing a system such as theirs. Allied to all important timing, organisations could move to email personalised with mail-merge by name, branch, and areas of interest. Personal preferences can also be recorded, giving an advantage to sales teams tasked with sustaining client relationships.
Internally the practical advantages to the association are: simple and quick data transfer and synching; easy email set-up; unique customer view with data held in one place; and automated actions.Overall, Rachel’s advice to not-for-profits is to get trained, clean up existing data, implement developments in stages, and test everything as you go along. A discipline underscored by the final speaker.
City & Guilds are a global leader in skills development, providing services to training providers, employers, and trainees across a variety of sectors. Today’s workplace demands training, and two million learners are working towards one of their qualifications, developing their talents and abilities in the hope of career progression. Whilst vocational qualifications, technical qualifications and apprenticeships are valued by employers world-wide. So the task of integrating and personalising data and communications was no mean achievement.
The journey started in 2012 with no targeted audiences and over a four to five month tender period built into a brand refresh and the construction of templates. The original concept was a three-year strategy, bringing in other departments over time. Rapid progress followed, and by 2014 they were looking at customer preferences and interests at a granular level.
In 2015 it was decided to bring in the sales department, and the old system of disseminated Excel spreadsheets was abandoned. Hart Square held their hands throughout the process, asking relevant questions and helping define objectives, like what data was needed, how to capture it, and how and what to measure.
In 2017 the system went live with the global sales team using Microsoft Dynamics! But did integrating their ESP with CRM have the desired effect? The answer is yes, with deliverability up two percent, opens up forty-one percent, and clicks up by a staggering two hundred and twenty-five percent. They also have forty-one percent new contacts!
The future holds the prospect of further integrations, possibly including Hootsuite, Sitecore, Eventbright, and SAP. But what are Steve’s top tips for success? First, gain executive sponsorship and governance for your plans, including a Board level steering group, and have clear objectives from the outset. In their case they decided to think big, start small, then scale-up quickly. Next, always involve users from the outset, and plan for infrastructure to support the growing needs of the business. And lastly, use an external partner for scale, and don’t ever under-estimate the support you’ll need after going live!
Steve’s last tip – and my verdict? Don’t let the IT department lead the process!!!
Since the turn of the century jewellers have come under sustained pressure from campaign groups to consider the human and environmental costs involved in extracting the raw materials that they subsequently sell as finished products on British high streets. Numerous campaigns have sought to raise the collective consciousness, and retailers – as the interface between consumers and the supply chain – were encouraged to apply pressure on their suppliers to bring about change.
In the jewellery context, precious metals, diamonds, and gemstones are viewed as the main ‘offenders’ and their extraction and processing has been blamed for conflict, oppression, human rights abuses, exploitation, and displacement of indigenous peoples. Not to mention environmental degradation. Gold and diamonds, which for these purpose we can think of as the principle commodities, are extracted in many places around the globe. However the continent of Africa has historically been considered the main source of both. With large corporations and artisanal miners both bringing raw material to market.
It might be tempting to view the big mining companies as the villains of the piece, but they have done a lot to improve working conditions. It mustn’t be forgotten that, whilst small-scale artisanal miners may be less visible, they often leave an equally poor environmental legacy. Starting with the clearing of the ‘overburden’ that includes trees, vegetation, and topsoil, and leaving behind degraded subsoils potentially contaminated with mercury and cyanide (See Paul Laird’s report from Ghana about illegal gold-mining near to Montonnso Sacred Forest.)
During my twelve year tenure as former CEO of the National Association of Goldsmiths I witnessed a lot of good work done on cleaning up the supply chain. Members of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), for instance, now commit to – and are independently audited against – international standards on responsible business practices for diamonds, gold and platinum group metals that addresses human rights, labour rights, environmental impact, mining practices, and product disclosure in the jewellery supply chain.
My friend Greg Valerio on the other hand has worked tirelessly on the plight of artisanal miners, latterly championing the work of the Fairtrade Foundation. Their Fairtrade Gold scheme speaks directly to consumers about the effect their choices have on others, and the modest premium they pay improves the lives of small scale miners around the world.
Since leaving the NAG I have involved myself with the work of the International Tree Foundation (ITF). But this isn’t about ‘do-gooding’ or tree hugging! Just like Fairtrade, ITF’s work results in real incremental improvements in living standards, the environment, and well-being. Working in partnership with local organisations we support community forestry projects both in the UK and Africa. Helping to build secure livelihoods and improve the local environment through sustainable tree planting programmes. In Kenya alone there are plans for 20 million trees by 2024!
Yes, the planting and conservation of trees and forests does improve biodiversity, soil quality, water- retention and the air we breathe. But trees are also a source of economic benefits including fruits, wood, fibres, gum, cosmetics, and medicines. And they supplement livelihoods in rural areas.
International Tree Foundation works with businesses to engage their staff and customers in tree planting initiatives across Africa and in the UK. If you are interested in improving ecosystems and livelihoods, and in communicating your commitment to sustainable development to your clients and employees, then get in touch.
You can call 01865 318 832 or email email@example.com for further information on their business partnerships scheme.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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
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.
“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.”
Sources / Further Reading:
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
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