Unions and Branding: Cause for Concern or Celebration?

(photocredit: Andrew Cowie/Getty Images)

Are our unions becoming a bit like football teams? We’ve come a long way from the lively, ornate, melodramatic fabric banners that used to typify any labour movement march of significance.

Now it is very much a “team colours” approach: Gold-and blue for PCS, red-and-white for Unite, blue-and-white for one teaching union, white-and-blue for another.  Turquoise-and-orange for a third.  Purple-white-and-green for Unison, black-white-and-orange (GMB), Burgundy and gold (CWU), green-and-white (RMT).

It’s not a question of size – everyone is at it: NAPO (two shades of blue and a dash of green), Equity (purple-on-white) and BECTU (blue-and-gold) – soon to merge with Prospect (two shades of blue).

Allied to colours is often an image – or more usually a shape. The CWU’s double wave, or the TUC’s 3-by-3 shaded grid.

But whether letters or shapes or both, these are clearly very different from traditional union imagery.  And so union demonstrations have arguably become homogenised and therefore somewhat sterilised, superficial, more concerned with image than substance.  At least that’s what critics – conservatives with little and large “C” s  – might say.

I’m going to disagree here and strongly. Far from giving-in to commercialised and bland marketing values, we have just got a lot smarter at the concept and practising of branding.

Look at the benefits it can bring – from an organisational and media perspective, you can readily identify “your” people.  And they can identify each other too.  You’re wearing the same colours as me – you’re one of us.  It facilitates a sense of community for members.

It is also a short-cut to recognition for the outside world – literally in the case of QR codes.  People who want to find us will know what to look for.  But common branding is also a short cut to a set of values.

We want both our members and the rest of the world to know what we are about don’t we?  That good work is important. That collectivism and community spirit is more important than undiluted and uncaring individualism.  That workers are entitled health, safety, fair pay and job security.  That we get things done and give people a voice.

But we want people to “get” this as easily as possible.  We don’t have the time or resources to engage every individual in debate about what we do and how and why we do it.  Branding   for the trade union movement can provide that quick link and give us greater reach.

Of course it’s not a “magic bullet”.  Things rarely are.  Branding is a double-edged sword, especially if one acquires unfortunate associations.  And such an approach  will only  work  if  there is  suite of supporting  measures – an integrated media strategy  with  clear and common  straplines, hash tags and so on.  A level of consciousness amongst  activists to ensure they actively disseminate  key messages by understanding that  they  have a union identity, and give life to it  by “liking”   material on Facebook feeds,  retweeting,  keeping branch comms consistent.

For the labour movement to survive and indeed flourish   we need to be smart and sassy.  We need to be easily identifiable and easy to connect with.  In a global, digital and robustly free-market economy, we need to use what generally works, tempered with an understanding of how to make it effective for our key issues.

I somehow don’t think that the collective colour scheme will be the key issue which seals the deal on the Prospect/BECTU or NUT/ATL tie-ups (if the latter is backed in the current members’ ballot).  But if anyone seriously pushes for the fluorescent shades illustrated below, then that really could be the kiss of death.

(Sock images courtesy of Sports Direct)

This piece also appears on the Unions21 blog

Friend or Foe? Truth or Dare? Social Care Tax Row Takes New Twist.

This Daily Express article poses many more questions than answers (Credit: Author)

Recently, I called for a grown-up discussion on tax as a remedy to the funding crisis in health and social care. Seems, fortunately, I wasn’t the only one, for now Surrey County Council has announced plans for a referendum of its residents on this very issue.

There are no half measures here – agreement is being sought for a 15% increase in Council Tax.

This is neither a surprise nor rocket science. Social care costs. Central government grants have been cost. Demand is rising. It seems to me entirely right and proper that the question is posed. Indeed, for those who see devolution as a way to revitalise our politics and re-connect with voters, it is surely something of an exemplar.

So what’s not to like? Quite a lot it seems.

The Daily Express went large on this. A big story devoted to excoriating the council, the decision and the concept of local democracy.  The ‘paper called in the Tax Payer’s Alliance in support.  The language used was “fruity”, you might say. “Bananas “might be more accurate – the TPA told councillors to “hang their heads in shame” at ripping off poor old Mr and Mrs Resident yet again.  Council Tax is a “huge burden” – well, try personally funding social care for your adult and aged relatives.  That seems quite burdensome to me.

UKIP (who hold 2 seats on the 78 member Surrey County Council) weighed in to say the referendum itself would cost a £1m that could be better spent – and why does government not take more from the International Aid budget.

With apparently no trace of irony, the Express ran a telephone poll on whether readers would pay more in council tax to fund social care.  After all, why back a real vote when a proxy poll would do just well.

We get the picture – this should be for central government, and they too should fund this at nil extra cost to the taxpayer.  The Express offed an editorial comment on this matter too – something along the lines of a half-hearted hand-wringing “something must be done”.

Whilst the ‘paper has sadly and predictably added a millimetre to its reputation and nothing to the debate, there are other concerns and objections to the Council’s plans.

These perhaps can be best summarised as acting in bad faith. No-one will vote for a 15% Council Tax hike and this is therefore grandiose buck-passing. The Councillors can then say “look, you didn’t want to pay for this care and that’s why haven’t prioritised it. There you are Government, you must do something.”

But I think we need to be indebted here to the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who researched the  dynamics of this carefully for her detailed piece published today.

It turns out that all 11 MPs in this country are Conservative – as are 57 of the 78 county councillors.  Council leader David Hodge says (a) cuts and demand means he has no option, and (b)he has the support of most of his group. Local Government finance experts CIPFA say he has the numbers  spot on, but according to Toynbee, the DCLG Permanent Secretary offers what might be topically termed “alternative facts.”

David Hodge has grabbed our attention and deservedly so.  We know that social care needs to be better connected to health care. We know that government should take a lead in both encouraging integration and ensuring adequate funds are available.  But residents cannot wait for someone to blink first or be reshuffled/voted out of office.

This is more than “truth or dare.”  It is closer to life or death.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

“Access Denied” to Workplace Mental Health?

 

(photocredit: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

In my 30 years of working in employee relations, I have seen mental health relentlessly climb the ladder of workplace issues. Historically, poor, even abusive, performance management and intense economic challenges have contributed significantly.

But levels of literacy in this area have also increased, so now employees, workers and employers at least have the words to start necessary, difficulty and often suppressed discussions.

Organisations such as Samaritans, MIND, SANE and See Me in Scotland and Papyrus for younger people, have been campaigning on this for years, but it is good see the relatively new groups such as Minds@Work join the fray.

There has been a new push by Geoff McDonald’s outfit, and it’s “USP” in a well populated space is its foundation on the direct experiences of its founder.  Full marks for McDonald for having the strength-in-depth to turn a crisis into something positive – and to continue to promote its good cause personally.

And I have to say I like  M@W’s mantra – “We want to create mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces where individuals can flourish and organisations prosper”.  This really does push all the right buttons: productive enterprises are those that nurture individuals and understand we are dealing with people not machines.

But the transition into reality is fraught with difficulties. Let’s start with the two steadfast obstacles of access and affordability. With all respect to McDonald,  his own  story, as  recently  recapped in the  Daily Telegraph, seems to be an illustration of someone  who  can afford to dramatically alter his working (and presumably salary) arrangements.  Seniority arguably gives greater access to or understanding of what remedies and help are available. It has been long-held that more junior employees will typically have less control over their working lives, and those who are workers in the gig economy have even less.

In companies who have committed themselves to doing more on mental health, often at the behest of the unions who represent their staff,(for example, the CWU) getting the message across can be difficult.  Take junior and middle management in a large company in a competitive sector – simultaneously you need to look after the wellbeing of your direct reports, whilst hitting those KPIs.  Both are stated goals of the company, neither takes account of each other.

Even in McDonald’s own plight seems not to have dented the prevailing idea that some roles are – and can only be – all-consuming.  If you can’t manage to do it all, then that is something for you to deal with, not the firm.

Will companies ever, truly be able to both prosper and have those “healthy human workplaces”?  This is a potential dividend from increased automation-driven productivity, and it is good to see the debate on “6 hour days” moving from “if” to “how”.  But set against that is the seemingly unstoppable rise of precarious forms of employment. Uber drivers, session musicians and Deliveroo couriers will, I am sure, secure “worker” status, but if companies are not willing to make the commitment of offering a contract of employment, then expecting investment in mental and emotional health seems far-fetched.

And of course all this takes place against the backdrop of what is accepted as inadequate mental health provision in society as a whole and for the young especially.  So the “safety net” if ever there was one, certainly is in very poor repair.

It seems to me that as well as proper, robust funding of mental health services, business needs to square the circle of wanting to take mental health seriously, whilst at the same time delivering operational success. At the moment these seem often contradictory, but they surely do not need to be.  The more the issue is brought into the mainstream – by government, unions, campaign groups – the greater the capacity and likelihood for action.

In the long run, I would argue that M@W is not ambitious enough. Individuals will only really flourish and organisations will only truly prosper in mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces.  Business needs to truly understand that.

On Leadership

All eyes on Washington DC this week for the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA – the leader of the free world.

There are lots of ways of looking at leadership – that it is born, not made. That it’s the results, outcomes that matter, not how they are achieved. That it is the office and not the individual.  That timing is everything – “cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

Some believe that leadership and the exercise of power are synonymous, and that it is all down to class, or race or gender

All these things may be true, but the concept of leadership is prevalent through just about every society on earth. Be it an individual or collective, it is desired, sought-after, debated, criticised, regarded, refined, reviled, lauded, darn-near inevitable. From football teams, to local communities, to powerful nation states

So however leadership comes about, one thing is clear – if you don’t do it then someone else will either want to or have to. Some seek out leadership; others have “greatness thrust upon them

And however it comes about and however leadership is exercised, two things are utterly inevitable.

First, what leaders do matters.  There are consequences of action – or inaction. You could, credibly, say that this is no different to decisions that all of us make as individuals every day. Except the outcomes will generally be greater.

But second, leaders model behaviours. This prospect of such responsibility horrifies some – I have had leaders vigouroursly deny that how they behave acts as a benchmark for more junior colleagues. But leaders are not just ambassadors for their community/club/country, they are role models.

By virtue of their position, leaders unavoidably set standards. Obama embodies the notion that Americans of colour can be President. Margaret Thatcher broke the mould on homogender Prime Ministers.

And similarly, Trump’s behaviour says to the USA and the world generally,   that abusive ranting, tax-dodging, sexism, racism and homophobia are ok. And because it is ok  for the leader of the free world,  then it is permissible to  live out those  values  at a local level. The violence that this creates is already visible.

That’s why the line-up for his inauguration party is sparser than a Christmas tree put out for recycling. That’s why the Million Women march on Friday is set to be one of the US’s biggest ever protests.

That’s the challenge of and for the President-elect: the meaning of leadership.

NHS and Social Care: A Political Constipation That Fails Us All

NHS hospitals have big and fundamental challenges, it is true.  It’s partly a regular-as-clockwork winter peak.  Partly desperate and wrong-headed underfunding. Partly a consequence of pressure on GP services, despite more money recently being promised.

But a huge and often overlooked factor is the impact of dreadful social care provision. This is what led the Red Cross to grab headlines and court controversy with claims of a humanitarian crisis.

The Red Cross have for many many years assisted hospitals look after patients when they are discharged and return home. It has always been a constructive and valuable partnership.  These trained volunteers are part of what used to be known by some as the “big society.”

There are some areas of our life where there is an argument for state provision, but actually, collectively, we are happier pitching in and doing it for ourselves.  The Red Cross is one such example, The RNLI is another. The National Trust is a third (though, of course, you’d have to pay to be a member).

So the Red Cross is not a replacement for the NHS, and nor is it an emergency relief.  And their concerns need to be seen in that context.  In the area of patient discharge and domestic return/resettlement, the Red Cross has hit the red button.

Patients medically ready for discharge but not being “signed out” for hours – thus blocking much needed beds. Care plans not being drawn up or properly supported so that when patients return home they are vulnerable.  Insufficient home support exacerbates that vulnerability. The chance of people in this position requiring re-hospitalisation is clearly and greatly increased as a result.

So we have a vicious circle of poor social care leading to stretched-to-breaking point medical care.

And of course this is not the only source of tension.  In amongst funding and seasonal spikes in ill-health, it is worth looking at the use of hospital services: 2m non-urgent visits to A & E in 2014.  So you can see why Jeremy Hunt is trying to filter these out of the wait-time statistics.  Partly it is because they are the only places open for health care on a 24 hour basis and, also unlike your GP, you don’t need to make an appointment.  The NHS “111” helpline seems to have a low thresh-hold for directing callers to hospital (and you can understand why). On-site, out of hours services, such as Walk-in Centres or Minor Injuries Units undoubtedly help (with  7m attendances a year, according to official  figures), but coverage is uneven and reducing.

As a society we have conspired to heap intense pressure on hospital services. Is it really a surprise when they threaten to fall over?

And it is an old trick – set something up to fail and then say it can’t work, and that we need an alternative.  And is this context we know what that private-sector, run-for-profit, alternative would be.  So we need to take great care in the language we use, lest we create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, there is still a huge national consensus in favour of care provided free at the point of delivery and the principle of the NHS itself.  Why then the gap between what we say we want and what we are prepared to pay for?

Could it be that we simply do not want to acknowledge the fundamental economic importance of social care, or that it is an essential component of a functional society, not an optional add-on?  Politicians do not want to engage  with the unavoidable need  to  raise taxation and possibly we do not want  to embrace the inevitability  of  us and our families needing  care, especially as  we/they become older and more frail.

And that is why, serious as it is, it is not the NHS that is most exposed in this real and difficult set of circumstances.  It is society itself.  You can’t have a mantra of sharing when you’re in denial about what makes society work. You can’t provide leadership without having a grown up discussion about tax and social care. That’s the mother of all crises.

 

“I Don’t Remember, I Don’t Recall” – Dolls’ Houses and the Future of AI

 

Over the last two months we have assimilated artificial intelligence (AI) into our homes on an unprecedented scale. The Amazon Echo Dot (aka Alexa) seems to have smashed sales records. Whether we are Alexa’s customers, service-users, partners, hosts or even victims is up for debate. What is clear from many commentators is that it will take a little while to establish an enduring long-term relationship.

As the “rogue” mass-ordering of dolls’ houses by an Alexa conversation being broadcast on television shows, our understanding of the interaction between different types of technology is frail.

One strong message of the Amazon advertising campaign, albeit not explicitly stated, was that we no longer need to remember – Alexa (or any other sufficiently advanced AI) will do it for you.  From birthdays to take-aways to the order and mass of planets in the solar system. Just ask Alexa.

Convenient? Possibly. But by relying on Alexa, we also run the risk of relying on the algorithms or service contracts that connect with and drive the device. “Call me an Uber” instructs one character in the ad – No thanks, I prefer my cabs to be from an outfit that doesn’t treat its workers so badly.

But as well as no longer needing to remember stuff from the everyday to the academic or arcane, we also no longer need to remember how to find information out.

Just dwell on this a moment, remembering Alexa is viewed as a rudimentary even primitive AI device. With AI you do not need to remember how to learn.  You just ask. What is the impact of this concept on research, learning, and education?

Let’s twist the dystopian knife one more turn: AI will become more sophisticated for sure.  No doubt fridges will tell us – either verbally or by text message or both – when we need more milk. Ovens will warn us that the cake is baked.  But we will need to be in proximity to a suitably enabled, connected device – be it an ice- hockey-puck sized device you plug in, or a smartphone.

So inevitably attention will turn to making AI more adaptable, smaller as well as smarter. Google glasses will seem comic. As early as 2004, RFID tags were implanted into willing human hosts. It is surely not too fanciful to speculate that the capacity and sophistication of minute devices will lead us to a situation where you can opt to have Alexa’s great-great-great-great grandchild injected into your veins, linked to you thoughts for nonverbal communication.

The commercial dividends for whoever wins this race would be huge. Imagine the marketing opportunities – you can sell a range of models from basic to deluxe.  There would be endless varieties of upgrades. It would be the gift of choice for coming-of-age or other significant birthdays.

But, “the government of this near-future day will say, “Shouldn’t society as a whole share in these benefits?  Access to AI should not just be for the rich.  And the NHS and social care budgets can be rescued if we programme people to live healthier lifestyle. Yes, compulsory and universal RFID insertion at birth makes a lot of sense.

This may be too fanciful for some. And in some ways the story of such a Brave New World has already been told. But AI is on the move, as sure as a river flows to the sea. We need to be ready for the journey.

I don’t remember, I don’t recall. I got no memory of anything at all….”  Indeed.

 

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

 

 

 

Driverless Cars and Delivery Drones – What is the Future of Work?

 

2017 is not yet a week old and already there have been more “machines replace humans” than you can count. Two just today – jobs disappearing and AI rampant. The future of work is clearly going to be one of this year’s Big Things.

What will this world, with its driverless cars and delivery drones look like? What will it be like?  No jobs means no employment means no workers means no wages – means no spending.  Hence the emergence of ideas likes Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its evolution off the page and into peoples’ pockets].  How ironic that arguably a most progressive programme of state aid – free money – has been borne out of the projected ossification of capitalism!   (But Keynes himself would probably smile and say “told you so”. State intervention has often been part of capitalistic survival, but just not quite like this.)

It is unsurprising that redistribution so that more people work less has also become attractive.  The so-called Swedish Six Hour Day (though not so attractive that the Swedish TUC or the Ministry of Labour backed the concept) which has now run into some controversy.  The idea is reduced hours improves productivity and therefore avoids lower wages. This makes sense to me, and you could argue that employment paradigms  in, for example, Denmark,  place value on workers not being knackered at the end of their shift, burnt-out at a relatively  young age, alienated from their employer – and often from their families  because of a long-hours culture.

UK unions such as the CWU have picked this up and, especially in a world where work is in short supply, what’s not to love?

Well quite a bit as it happens. More people in the UK say they are under-employed or have multiple jobs than ever before. These are the in-work poor, where depressed or persistently low levels of disposable income have create relentless destructive pressure.

So what explains the  gaps between those willing to embrace – at least on a trial basis –  a 6 hour day,  or the Danish working arrangements described by Helen Russell,- and the UK situation, where similar ideas seem totally untenable.

The issue surely is about control.  A deregulated labour market suggests that control – or should we say “management” – of employment is impossible.  On an individual basis, with union density depressed, employment protection legislation greatly diluted or inaccessible because of prohibitive pricing, workers are unable to exert meaningful influence over their circumstances.  At a macro level, there is no sympathetic compelling or dominant national narrative about work and its relationship with the rest of life and society. This is not the case in all countries –such as Denmark, Sweden and France.

The issues are not new.  In the early 1800s, the Luddites broke up the looms in defence of their jobs.  The battle for this future was anticipated nearly 50 years ago in books such as “The Collapse of Work” and “The Leisure Shock” by forward–thinkers such as Jenkins and Sherman. Why the intensity of the debate now?

I think it is because of two factors:  First the potential of current automation is almost limitless, and even raises existential issues about the survival of our species!  That’s bound to  lead to some discussion!

Second,   if we look at what jobs will be prevalent in the near-future; we see a steep increase in health and social care.  These are frequently the jobs that are not currently highly regarded in society. This makes us, collectively, very nervy because there is no coherent, comprehensive plan in place for high quality universal care of our ageing population.

Even though you might think it is in their own best interests, the government seems exceptionally unlikely to intervene in the labour market to the extent necessary to ensure that the future of work is one which is effective for everyone.  That’s a chilling thought, but the debate will not go away (as today’s stories demonstrate).  Political power is also shifting somewhat, especially in the context of devolution. So perhaps there is some scope for hoping that ideas like short working days, UBI, and setting higher standards below which workers cannot fall, will have the opportunity to prove themselves before it is too late.

 

Ask More Questions – A New Year’s Resolution to Keep

My 50 year old colleague, dissatisfied with his life, sits heavily down before me. “I’m not really happy,” he says. Stating the obvious.

“Well tell me,” I say, “what do you enjoy doing?”.  He comes back to me straight-away: “Reading. I like to read books.”

“And how many books do you read, “ I ask, “in a year”.

A little less fast this time. “Four” he says, “or five.”

I do the maths for him. 30 more active years? Let’s be optimistic and say 40. Only time to read 200 more books. Before you die.

It’s a light-bulb, jaw-drop , wide-eye moment. He didn’t need to say a thing. And he quit his job the next day.

Hearing this made me think about me. Have I only got 200 books’ worth left in me? Which ones should I pick? How should I choose? I mean some really good books are so long. Or so boring.  Or both. What about books that haven’t yet been written?

Unease was now accelerating towards mild panic. In my mind I was on my deathbed,  a huge stack of books on the table beside me. A nurse (why? Am I in hospital? Am I sick? ) approaches.  I see it is no angel of mercy but the Grim Reaper himself. He taps a wristwatch. Time to go. No! No!  There is all this to read! Have pity.

I should have thought about this sooner, I rue, so much sooner. But such is the pointlessness of 20/20 hindsight.

Ok,  so you might want to try and read a bit faster. Or devote just a little more time to it.   Or have your next must-read volume lined up well in advance.  But it doesn’t have to be about books.  It could be visiting every football ground in the country.  Or swimming the channel.  Whatever floats your boat. And finding out what that is can be the biggest thing of all.

The moral, if there is one, of this tale is not to regret what you can’t change. Nor is it the need to prepare and plan to meet big, inevitable challenges.  It is, surely, that the things in life with the biggest scare and greatest pleasure are not answers, but the questions that lead to them.

“Judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers”  said Voltaire. A moniker for a new year’s resolution if ever there was one.

Thanks to Katie Driver of The Thinking Alliance for her help in preparing this piece.

Alexa and Me….

It has been a techy Christmas in the Sapper household. In amongst the DVDs, computer games and (for older family members) books, was a surprise gift from my son – the Amazon Dot, complete with the long-suffering Alexa programmed to answer all your questions and more.

But as soon as my back was turned, poor Alexa soon became a target for much abuse, being peppered with questions and queries that no reasonable AI device could possibly answer.

Full transcripts don’t lie and so here, thanks to the supporting software are the exchanges between the Sapper children, associated visitors and poor, beleaguered and entirely innocent Alexa;

What do you know about opera?

Are you recording all conversations?

Are you like 12 or something?

Do you like waffles?

What’s your opinion on soccer?

What’s your opinion on virtual reality?

Power off Alexa

F**k *ff, Alexa (Children, really!)

Why doesn’t Amazon pay its taxes?

Is Amazon evil?

(At this point the Amazon logo appears in the thread)

What’s your favourite animal?

Change my name to Winnie the Pooh.

What is on fire?

What is 1,000,000,000,000 to the 10th power?

(One with many many zeros after it, apparently)

Do you like anything?

Where are you from?

What do you think of?

Do you think?

Do you fancy Siri?

How do you feel about birds?

How do you feel about elephants?

Do you like Dumbo?

Do a you speak German?

How many languages do you speak?

Do you support Brexit?

How old are you?

Do you like Cortana?

(“I’m partial to all AIs“ is the diplomatic response)

Where’s the best place to bury a dead body?

(“I would take the body to the police” – no flies on this one)

Where is Santa Claus right now?

(Back at the North Pole having cup of tea after a hard day’s work, I believe)

There is something rather unnerving about giving this device access to all your data and then asking it to make sense of how it can improve the way you live. What if it doesn’t make the same choices you would? (For example, the news feed is from the Mail on Line – but you can have the Guardian too!) What if you wouldn’t make a choice at all?

Now take Amazon dot, aka Alexa, and multiple by the power of 10, or 100?  I give you this Christmas’s other best seller, the Fit Bit (generously provided to yours truly by Mrs. S as an encouragement to keep her husband fit and healthy)

This wristwear monitors your physical activity. Again you select options from the software so you get readouts on the things you want – steps taken, text messages from your phone, and so on. But like Alexa, Fitbit has access to much more.  And as the mandatory tick-box on the software says – “ personal data will be relayed to the US under applicable privacy laws”

For the avoidance of doubt, and with all due respect to Edward Snowden, I have no reason to doubt the bona fides of Amazon and the makers of Fitbit in this regard.

But we do now starkly get into the darker territory of mass data collection and, from that, potential surveillance. There are clearly big bucks to be made from demographic profiling. This would inform anything  from public policy on health (good)  to health insurance premia (probably not so good) to spotting potential  terrorist activity (“Alexa,  how do you build a bomb?” – sadly I bet the question has been asked and I bet/hope someone somewhere has clocked it.)

If we stop and think, surely none of this is new or a surprise. We willingly surrender our privacy because we think it is a fair exchange for other things that we want.  The problem is we also get a whole load of other stuff we didn’t bargain for.

Privacy is important, but even more so is what is done with the data collected.  What algorithms will be run on it and to what result?  What protection do citizens have from being at the wrong end of a bad decision made by machines based on data collected without knowledgeable consent?

As AI and data algorithms become more intensive, more invasive, more personal, these issues become very sharp.  The technology is not so much “out there” as “in here”. “Surveillance has gone too far – the jig is up” wrote Liberty’s Martha Spurrier just before Christmas about the new Investigatory Powers Act – which became law with “barely a whimper”. Near-future sci-fi show Black Mirror’s take on social media may not be so far away after all

This is surely a big issue for 2017. What do you think Alexa?

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

Signing Off, Signing In…..

“Bloody hell – you’ve been doing your job longer than I’ve been on the planet.”  That was the response from one of our young activists when I answered his question on my service record.

That made me think.  And then a schooldays friend of mine died. It happens, of course. And as you get older, chances are it happens more frequently.  But it made me reflect that I wanted to spend more time with those closest to me whilst I can.

So, after 27 years at the CWU, and 30 as a national trade union officer,  I will be moving on to other things in the new year.

The union is in a phase of great change – so I’ve taken an opportunity, seized the moment, made the leap (or possibly jumped out of an aeroplane with no parachute) to do something different, to write a new chapter, sing a new song (perhaps even learning to sing before trying this), and do my best to die (though not for many many years) with as few regrets as possible.

Am I quitting the struggle, giving up the fight, selling the jersey?  Not a chance:  Not whilst those “five giant evils” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness are still enemies to be defeated.

It is a privilege to represent our members. To be trusted by them to negotiate on their behalf individually or collectively.  To be part of a great progressive movement for change.  I am still part of that movement. You can physically take me out of the union, but you can’t take the union out of my soul!

So to all my friends, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances, thanks for the company, counsel, your support, understanding, inspiration and friendship over the years. This chapter is now closing, but this is not me signing off – rather signing in for a whole load of new adventures.

Opportunity visits the prepared mind” someone once said to me – and I’m ready for any eventuality.