Monthnote July and August 2015

In June, I was approached by a new client: UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). In July, I filled in lots of forms for them and waited. I’m not very good at waiting. In August, I started work there as Head of Digital Services. My role is to set up a digital delivery team. We’ll build excellent services for UK companies that want to export and brilliant tools for UKTI staff. Over the 6 months I’m at UKTI we’ll take the first services through discovery, alpha and, if we go fast enough, beta. I’ve learnt loads from existing members of the UKTI digital team, who’ve been doing really valuable research and discovery work. There’s a big opportunity to improve the UK government’s trade services and I’m very happy to be involved.

I wrote about what I learned from working at GDS, what I learned from working at departments, and why we should keep getting better at digital government. People seemed to like it.

I went to San Francisco. It was lovely. I saw some big trees.

Big trees

Monthnote May and June 2015

I’ve had a quiet couple of months work-wise, so they are sharing a monthnote.

I just got back from Porto where I did some excellent wandering, eating, drinking and general hanging out. I was delighted to be in the presence of many beautiful buildings. Porto is full of gorgeous churches and dishy art deco. My two favourite kinds of building! I also went on a tram and a funicular, my two favourite forms of transport.

Porto church

Porto art deco

I finished working at the anonymous IT company after a year. I’m proud of what my colleagues and I achieved there. They now have a digital proposition for public and private sectors, a team and a go to market plan. I wish them the best of luck!

I’m doing my first Rebecca Industries event tomorrow (July, I know, but arranged in June). I’m MCing a breakfast event about digital health, at Digital Catapult in Kings Cross, London. The event is organised by TechTalkFest and Tech London Advocates. I’ve missed public speaking after not doing it for a few months, and am looking forward to this and hopefully many more events. They may have to drag me offstage.

Having less client work has given me more time to attend to my network. I’ve loved re-connecting with existing friends and meeting new people. I’ve also joined Exponential and am interested to try this more curated (sorry) way of getting to know new people in the industry.

Finally, I’ve been reading things and feeling inspired by them. I recommend them all! Ella wrote about simple things men in tech can do to make the industry less sexist. Ella recommended Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, which is an absolutely exceptional memoir I cannot do justice to here. I devoured it in one sitting and will return to it many times. For your more theoretical needs, Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos is an argument that neoliberalism is hollowing out democracy, through an analysis of Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics lectures. Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime responds to the idea that technology is speeding up time by analysing the experiences of time by people in different jobs, and argues that people’s experience of time are shaped by their place in society. I’ll end my feminist nerd-out here.

Monthnote April 2015

In April I finished up my short project at Trafford Housing Trust, an organisation with an excellent commitment to neon, to which my limited photographic skills cannot do justice.

IMG_1849

My role was to write them a digital strategy in 15 days. I’m proud of what I did in that short space of time. I’m grateful for inspiration on this project from from Emer ColemanLou Cordwell and Anne McCrossan. My Trafford colleagues, especially Matthew Gardiner and Liz Dowd, have grand ambitions for digital and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

I’ve also done more work for the anonymous IT company, mainly on proposals for potential clients. It’s nice to be doing business development work again. It’s been a few years since I’ve done it for people other than Rebecca Industries. It’s also nice to get top marks on the proposals from clients, hehe.

Outside client work, this month I bought a flat. I’m proud and happy to have achieved this important Rebecca Industries objective. Now I’m taking 2 weeks off to move in.

Monthnote December 2014 and January 2015

This is a bumper monthnote because I took 2 weeks off at the end of December. I spent one of those weeks at home in Yorkshire. Here is Scarborough in all its gloomy magnificence. Note large expanse of grey sky.

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At the anonymous IT company, colleagues and I have got approval to do the next stage of our project, which is brilliant news. I’ve also been doing some enjoyable work on digital projects for their clients.

Elsewhere, I’ve been turning my attention to using my skills for Good. I’ve started getting to know SH:24, a sexual health start-up, and will be helping them out a bit in February. I’ve become a fellow of the RSA. I’m not sure what exactly these two things are going to involve but I think they will be excellent. I’ve also got a new project with an organisation that does Good (and is ooop north) which starts in February.

Most importantly of all, Sleater-Kinney, creators of the Official Rebecca Industries Corporate Song returned with a new album called No Cities to Love. It is magnificent and made January 2015 the best January of all time. Surface Envy is currently my favourite song. It’s about working hard to achieve excellence, and choosing to do this hard work collaboratively.

Concept: executive realness

This is a post about a concept that helps me make sense of the world I work in. Part of my reason to write it is because I find that when feminist ideas are used in the digital, government and digital government communities work in, they are frequently used to explore and understand matters of gender only. For me, feminist, queer and anti-racist ideas can help us explore and understand much more. I would also like to modify the citational practices of digital government, which as an intellectual project rests almost exclusively on a canon written by white men.

Definition

When a person who is not a business executive dresses and acts so much like an executive, that people think they are an executive, and in some sense they become an executive.

History

To the best of my knowledge, ‘realness’ and the related concept ‘executive realness’ come from ball culture in the US in the 1980s and 1990s. Some drag performers explain what ‘realness’ means to them in the documentary Paris is Burning:

‘to be able to blend, that’s what realness is’

‘it’s not a take-off or a satire, no, it’s actually being able to be this’

The concept of ‘executive realness’ thus means being able to be an executive through your actions and presentation, even if you are not employed as an executive. Note that is means ‘being’, not just ‘pretending to be’. You can see a tiny bit of an example at 0:12 in the video. There are examples of executive realness elsewhere in Paris is Burning, but I can’t find clips of those sections online.

Note that the term is probably not fixed in definition, rather becoming fixed through the documentary (see bell hooks’ critique below).

The term has also been used in RuPaul’s Drag Race, which brings styles and language of drag balls to the genre of the TV talent show.

Paris is Burning has been analysed by feminist scholars including bell hooks in her essay ‘Is Paris Burning?’ and Judith Butler in ‘Stories that Matter’. In my mis-remembering, it is a text used in Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’ in relation to the theory of gender performativity but this is not the case. I note that here because Gender Trouble and Paris is Burning, and so executive realness, are things I always think of together. I make a Butlerian interpretation of the concept because I stress the idea of someone ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ executive through their actions, not just the idea of pretending so well you pass. If the idea of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ something rather than ‘pretending to be’ something through your actions is unfamiliar, Butler is a good place to start.

Implications

At the most superficial level, the concept points out that in the workplace, we are all acting within certain modes of behaviour. Or deliberately acting outside them, but probably not too much outside, else we are likely to have to leave the workplace.

The concept points out that executive-ness is unevenly distributed across bodies. In the context in which I live and work it is most frequently found on/in white, heterosexual, middle class, cis male bodies. It is naturalised in these bodies, so it doesn’t seem like acting or adopting and performing a set of behaviours, it just seems ‘real’.

Or, some people get to act in ways that accrue socio-economic privilege, in large part because of their existing socio-economic privilege, while others don’t.

The concept also shows, though, that these behaviours can easily be adopted by people who don’t usual exhibit them. If you can pass as an executive in a drag ball, then you could pass in an office. To stretch this again, there is no intrinsic greater value or talent in a person who gets to be an executive every day, than one who gets to pass as an executive in a drag ball. The only difference is that one owns the body on which executive-ness is most often found and moves in the socio-economic circles that make doing executive-ness everyday possible.

Or, don’t think you’re in your position just because of your talent and hard work. 

To use the concept in a more cheeky and personal way, when I dress smartly at work or perform boss-like tasks, I sometimes conceptualise myself as doing executive realness. As a white, middle class cis woman, I can pass as an executive pretty easily. There are small penalties for adopting these behaviours, for example receiving negative comments about being overly confident in my abilities, being called blunt, or being called masculine, or excessively careerist, which to the best of my understanding are not negative comments that men who are broadly equivalent to me receive. These are minor penalties, however, because I occupy a body which can pass as executive relatively easily, from which I accrue substantial socio-economic privileges.

Finally, and most importantly, the concept reminds me to value and respect the perspectives of people who do not adopt or fulfil the expectations of executive realness, either because their bodies are not those on which executive behaviours are naturalised, or because they do not choose to or cannot adopt these styles. It reminds me that there are people who do not appear at all in the work I do, where I frequently work entirely with people exhibiting executive behaviours. These ideas are often discussed in the workplace and in the technology sector in the language of ‘diversity’. I’m going to write more about ‘diversity’ and what it means to me separately.

Considerations 

I’m using the concept of executive realness a long way from its home. I am taking it from US to UK context and across boundaries of gender, race, class and sexuality, in which I am the more privileged party. bell hooks criticised the film Paris is Burning and its critical reception for presenting the particular culture of drag balls through the lens of a middle class, educated, white woman, as if it was an unmediated truth and ‘as though [Jennie Livingstone, the director] somehow did this marginalized black gay subculture a favor by bringing their experiences to a wider public’ (hooks cited in Butler, Bodies That Matter, Routledge, 1993, p92). I don’t think I’m doing them a favour by writing this post. I think the subjects of Paris is Burning did me a favour by creating a concept that illuminates how executive authority is created. (Edit: the language of ‘favours’ suggests that the creators of the concept did it to benefit me, which they didn’t – they did it for themselves and I pinched it). I hope I am using their concept respectfully, but do so expecting to be critiqued if I am not, in which case I will change or discontinue my use of it.

Monthnote November 2014

In November I spent quite a bit of time on Rebecca Industries work, in which I

  • had interesting conversations about potential new projects for 2015
  • did lots and lots of admin
  • wrote more blog posts, which, happily, people read

On the Healthbox Health Social Innovators programme, I helped a couple of the ventures out with how to build digital products, which was really rewarding.

At the anonymous IT company I worked on

  • the business case for them providing digital public services
  • financial modelling, not my natural environment but good to dust off my modest spreadsheet skills
  • external meetings to discuss the proposition with potential clients

I also went to Paris to visit a schoolfriend, where we saw the Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective at the Grand Palais.

Three of Niki de Saint Phalle's 'nana' sculptures
Three of Niki de Saint Phalle’s ‘nana’ sculptures

Monthnote October 2014

October has been an excellent month, and not only because I spent the first half of it on holiday. I went to New York and San Francisco. It was wonderful.

The view from our apartment in New York
The view from our apartment in New York

In San Francisco I gave a talk at Code for America, and met some people from 18F, both of which were brilliant experiences. I’ll write more about this separately.

When I got back, it transpired that the members of Sleater-Kinney, creators of the Official Rebecca Industries Corporate Song, have reunited. This is the best thing that’s happened since 2006, when they went on indefinite hiatus.

Back at work, I’m carrying on at the un-named big IT company. My work there has focused on central government until this point, so this month my colleagues and I started work on what they are doing, and what they can do, in health and local government.

I’m going to be doing some coaching on Healthbox‘s Health Social Innovators accelerator programme for social health ventures, which launched last week. I’m going to be helping the companies that want to work with the public sector. I’m not exactly sure what this will involve yet, because it’s going to be driven by the needs of the ventures on the programme, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

I’m also on the hunt for more work. This is the first time it’s happened and I’m finding that it makes me less stressed than I thought it would. The aforementioned holiday is probably helping with this. It makes me feel motivated and enthusiastic for the future. A good way to feel.

It’s also give me time to catch up on Rebecca Industries admin, of which there is a lot. But the less said about that, the better.

My thoughts on the Department of Health Digital Passport

Dave Briggs wrote about the Department of Health (DH) Digital Team’s work on a digital passport and asked for feedback. It’s part of their work to increase the digital capability of all staff in the department. The aim is to: “equip [DH’s] people with the confidence they need to be able to do great work, using the best tools and approaches available to them”. This is my feedback.

I really like the idea of having a clear set of digital things everyone is expected to know and do. I like that it is a simple list. I think it covers a sensible range of topics and I like that it focuses on useful things people would need to know to deliver their objectives, rather than learning about digital for its own sake. One of my bugbears is the attitude that digital isn’t something you need to plan, monitor or involve yourself in the delivery of, it’s just something that you don’t give much thought to and chuck over to an agency. The passport shows that this isn’t the case.

There are three things I’d change, though.

1. Put users first

This one might sound semantic but is really important to me. The line about users should come before agile. If you understand your users, you have a chance of doing a good project without using agile (though I’d recommend you do work in an agile way). If you don’t understand your users, you might as well go home, whatever way of working you choose.

2. Shift the focus from understanding digital, to being able to think and talk about how it can be used

Lots of the parts of the passport are about ‘understanding’ digital. I think it needs to go further, from understanding digital to thinking and talking about it. In my experience, many people are easily able to understand digital in principle, but don’t know how to talk about it or how it can be used. This limits their confidence. I’ve had many conversations where colleagues eagerly agree that they “need to be more digital”, but it all gets a bit uncomfortable and fizzles out when the digital people start talking about it in more detail, or suggesting ideas, and the colleagues can’t take the conversation, and so the project, further.

3. Emphasise being able to make digital delivery happen

The list talks about getting support and guidance inside and outside DH. I think this could go further to equip people with a bit more understanding of how they can make digital delivery happen e.g. in-house digital team, suppliers, what you might be able to start doing within your team. This might help shift the idea that digital is something you automatically put out to tender, or that it’s something only a few people within the department can do.

My second and third suggestions make the passport much harder to achieve and teach. But I think they would make it more impactful.

Good luck to Dave and the team in refining and using the digital passport. I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.