Participating in an Advisory Board: Five Principles

Having created and served on advisory boards in a number of organisations and countries, I’ve begun to see some principles that can guide others serving on an advisory board. I am not a management consultant nor an expert on advisory boards, but as I try to think through my own experiences on boards, I thought it would be fun to write about my views on what could be key principles. These have been learned the hard way, by seeing the reactions of organisations and other members of boards to my interventions – efforts to give advice and support organisations, mainly those involved in academic research.

Any organization, such as an academic unit, can get too insulated or too loosely connected to a multitude of important stakeholders, ranging from other academics to policy and practitioner communities and any audiences it seeks to reach. They may ask themselves: Is our work meeting the high expectations set for the organisation? Are we doing our work in ways that are recognised as best practice in relevant communities? How can we excel further on any number of criteria? Are we missing important topics or areas of work? Are there new and promising sources of funding? To answer such questions, it can be helpful to set up a group of individuals who are trusted to be constructive but also have a critical perspective that can inform the unit moving forward.

Given such questions, the organization often sets up an advisory board to review the unit’s work on a periodic basis and give them feedback on notable strengths and any weaknesses that could be addressed. A report or multiple documents are assembled for the board members to review and provide feedback during a short but substantively rich meeting of the board. So what principles might help board members in contributing to their next board meeting? I apologise in advance for keeping this simple, but I often forget them in the process of meeting.

  1. The organization knows far more than the board about its activities and practices.

One positive role of a board meeting is that it should force or at least incentivise the organisation to pull together a clear overview of its activities and the issues it is facing. In the process of pulling this information together and communicating it to the board, a large proportion of the work of the advisory board is accomplished. The managers and leadership of the organisation updates its sense of who has done what and with what impact over the last period of time. In the course of doing so, the organisation develops a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, and how they can or cannot be addressed, before the board even meets.

An obvious corollary of this point is that outside advisory boards really can’t possibly understand internal personnel and management issues. They might need to know they exist but without knowing the individuals and circumstances in detail, they have no basic grounding for advising an organisation. Keep the board focused on the work of the organisation and its implications. At the same time, I’ve been impressed when an organisation does not hesitate to note that it is facing some interpersonal, management, or leadership issues as one aspect of conveying the factors facilitating or limiting its work.

2. Advice is not likely to be the only – or even primary – objective of meeting with the board.

An advisory board can help progress a number of objectives with advice being only one and not necessarily the primary reason for its existence. As noted above, it creates an occasion for self-reflection by the organisation. In addition, it can help the unit reach out to other stakeholders and constituencies – by incorporating influential individuals across these different targets for outreach and providing them with information about the organisation. It can provide support to the organisation, endorsing its activities and practices. The status and diversity of individuals on the board can communicate something about the importance and diversity of the organisation. The board in a reflection of the organization.

3. There is limited time for advice.

It seems inevitable that there is limited time a board can be expected to spend reading material before a meeting, and meetings are generally limited to one or at most a few hours. Once board members reintroduce themselves to one another and the organisation presents information to remind the board about its activities and accomplishments and any new developments then little time is left for real feedback or discussion. Organisations should and usually do try to ensure there is ample time for discussion, but often over-program meetings in ways that little time is actually left for feedback. It doesn’t help to send a questionnaire or email soliciting further feedback, as the organisation will only hear what there is time to communicate during the meeting.

This is one reason why online meetings do not work nearly as well as personal face-to-face meetings of a board. Recent experience during the pandemic suggests that more advisors can attend an online meeting, which is one of the best features of meeting online. However, most in person meetings are able to embed meaningful but informal communication around the event, such as a dinner or site visits. These occasions enable individuals to clarify their assessments, time for people to get over their differences of opinion and ‘makeup’, and for the group to gain a better sense of its value to and support by the organisation.

4. Advice is difficult to give and to receive.

It is common for board members to provide very general feedback that recognises the accomplishments documented by the material communicated to the members and validating the challenges the organisation has identified. In 1995, I put together a document for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) that I directed which was entitled a “A Profile of Research and Publications 1995”. My key aim in compiling this was to communicate the incredible range and quality of research projects and publications that the PICT centres had completed. I was delighted when the board noted that we had done a great deal over the span of the project – they were impressed as they had not seen this pulled together until this report. It was 120 pages jammed packed with information about our work and its impact. So the members simply acknowledging the productivity and quality of the programme was exactly the feedback I had hoped for. Very simple.

Too often, as a member of a board, I can get carried away with a perceived need to provide advice, partly, I am sure, as a reflection of commonly being asked to review books, articles, or proposals, when critical comment is genuinely requested. But an organisation probably does not want a review of its report to the board and most advice we could give is already known by the organisation. As above, they know more than the board about the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation. So I try to prioritise what I have to offer in case I have a very limited time to speak – what would be my one idea.

Nevertheless, organisations need to listen and accept that they have asked for advice in creating an advisory board. So do not be surprised if you get advice you don’t want to hear. There is no need to take the advice. More than likely it is something that should have been considered before, but it is always worth understanding what the advisor is seeing and saying, and asking why particular advice was given and whether it is an idea for the leadership to kill, further discuss, develop, or possibly better deal with in your communication about the organisation’s project(s).

5. Advise and forget.

Finally, despite all I have said above, it is entirely fair and appropriate for any member of an advisory board to give any feedback that seems useful for the board member to convey. In my opinion, as a board member, you really should not worry about how it is received or whether it will be well received. Some may regard your advice as simplistic, wrong, old-fashioned, patronising, ill-informed, or in any other way, unhelpful. But that is not your problem. You are simply responding to what you’ve read and heard and think important to communicate. That is what you volunteered your time to do, so board members really can’t afford to second guess whether to communicate what they’ve gathered from the material. It is the option of the organisation to take or leave your advice. If your feedback is unhelpful, such as in misunderstanding what the organisation has done, then they need to do a better job in communicating their work or in selecting advisors.

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In conclusion, and to be fair, the aim of any member of an advisory board is not simply to give advice. People join an advisory board because they have been asked, or because they want to keep up with the field, support an organisation, or meet other members of the board – network, or you name it. In commenting on this blog, a colleague put it this way: “In addition to giving advice, I see the board’s role as providing a web of professional networks that create an additional resource for the organisation. Advisory board members should use their networks for a variety of functions, such as raising visibility, distributing information about outputs or vacancies, and helping organizational leaders establish contacts.”

Given these potential payoffs, I’ve found every advisory board I’ve served on to have been beneficial in many ways, both personally and professionally.

Is there another principle I should add to this list?

Private Emails Are Not (Yet) a Thought Crime

Private Emails? A Personal Perspective on Politicizing Norms of Communication

In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith opens himself up to accusations of thought crimes for walking onto a street with a shop where he could buy pen and paper. In 2021, politicians and even the UK’s Information Commissioner wonder if ministers are guilty of some criminal offense for using private email.[1] The ICO, charged with protecting our privacy, does not want to lose data critical to her surveillance of public officials! All in the name of ‘transparency’. 

Increasingly, accusations seem to fly around such issues as the security of public officials using personal email. While security, legal, and privacy issues are embedded in these criticisms of the practices of others, my concern is over the degree they lack common sense, any historical perspective, and politicize what is fundamentally a cultural difference that has risen over the decades across different kinds of Internet users. Moreover, technical advances are diminishing the distinctions being drawn. Let me explain on the basis of my experiences. 

Winston Smith, 1984

I began using email around 1974, when I had to call colleagues to tell them to look for an email sent from me. Otherwise, they would not check their inbox. Those were early days, when academics in universities could get an email address from their university if they were at one of the institutions that were early nodes on the ARPANET. 

At that time, in the early 1970s, I wrote most of my correspondence by hand, and it was typed up by a pool of typists. I would revise a draft and someone in the pool would revise it for me to mail or fax. A carbon copy of all my letters was (I discovered) put in a chronological file of all correspondence going out of our academic research unit and studiously read by one of our managers. He knew what was going on across the organization by reading all of our outgoing correspondence. This was part of a culture of administrative control, which I accepted, but did not like and was surprised to discover. That said, I was an employee of an organization and in that role, it is arguable that I did not have a true right to privacy within the organization. 

Presumably, even in those early days, an archive of all incoming and outgoing emails existed in the university so our manager might have had even better intelligence about our work, but most administrators were not email users. If a malicious user sent hate mail, for example, I would imagine it could be found in the archive, but then again, it is likely to have been sent under another user’s name. (Yes, it was a problem in very early days of email.)

By the early 1980s, one amusing (to me) concern in business and industry around email was its use for social purposes. Before email, most electronic communication was costly for organizations. The telegraph created a mindset in government and industry of every letter and word costing money, so electronic communication, reinforced by fax machines, was that it was considered costly compared to regular, physical mail – later called ‘snail mail’. 

So when employees in organizations began using email, managers were concerned about the cost and the potential waste of money if used for social purposes. Academics used university email for anything – teaching, research, or personal reasons – and lived in sort of a free culture, meaning free of control as well as cost. But this was not the case in business and government where the legacy of telegrams, faxes, and costly phone calls created a sense of email being expensive. 

One of my students in the early 1980s studied an aerospace company in Los Angeles and found the managers very concerned over the employees using email for personal or social purposes. Rather than counting the letters, they would embellish their business correspondence with a joke or questions or pleasantries about the family, etc. Even then, we defended the social uses of email at work as it would undoubtedly help executives and other employees to adopt this new communication system. Moreover, communication in the workplace has always been a blend of social and business uses, such as over the proverbial watercooler. Nevertheless, an administrative control structure still pervaded the use of communication at work. 

It was only when private email services arose, such as through CompuServe, from 1978, and one of the first commercial email services, MCI Mail, which was founded in 1989, that this mindset began to change. Google Mail, was launched in its Beta version from 2002, about the time MCI Mail folded. Private email services like Google Mail made it possible to escape this administrative control structure and the control culture of communication in organizations. 

In my own case, having changed universities many times, one of the only steady email addresses I have maintained has been my gmail account, established with the Beta version. I’ve never sensed it being any less secure than my university accounts, and I don’t have the feeling that an administrator is looking over my shoulder. It is free of charge and free of administrative surveillance. I give my data. My main concern is not burdening colleagues with unnecessary or too frivolous email messages. The last thing I want to do is audit myself to determine if my message to a particular person about a particular topic requires me to use my personal email or one of my academic email accounts. 

Moreover, today, more individuals are moving to private conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Skype) and private messaging services (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, Signal, Slack, or others) rather than email for interpersonal communication. If you are in government or business or academia, you want your colleagues to be exploring and innovating and using those information and communication services that support their work. Don’t dictate what those are. Let them decide in the spirit of bottom-up innovation within your organization. But this is exactly the worry of the ICO and politicians who fear they will not have access to every word written by a public servant. 

But will private services undermine security? Increasingly, public organizations from universities to governments are moving more of their services, such as email, to the cloud. That is, they are not running their own home-grown institutional services, but outsourcing to private cloud service providers, which offer pretty good security protection. This is how private gmail is provided as well. So, no, it will not undermine security.

To me, those who discuss email use from such an administrative control perspective are simply administrative control types – in a prerogative sense of that term. I for one do not want to be told what email account or what information or communication services to use for each and every purpose. I am not at the extreme of the ‘free software’ movement of Richard Stallman, but sufficiently supportive of civil liberties that I find these almost Orwellian efforts to police our communication to be a huge mistake.    

Some politicians and administrators live in a control culture rather than a free digital culture. However, interpersonal communication is good to support, particularly in these times of incivility and toxic politics. Let’s encourage it and not politicize email or the use of private messaging on any account. 

Reference

Richard M. Stallman (2002, 2015), Free Software, Free Society, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Free Software Foundation. 


[1] https://news.yahoo.com/information-watchdog-launches-investigation-health-194714162.html

Flawed Economics Behind Online Harms Regulation

The Flawed Economics of Online Harms Regulation

I am not an economist,  but even I can see the huge flaws in a recently published “cost/benefit analysis of the UK’s online safety bill”.[1] My immediate reactions:

The author, Sam Wood, of ‘The Economics of Online Harms Regulation’ in InterMEDIA, begins with an argument that the pandemic ‘[feuled] concerns about harmful content and behaviour encountered online’. Quite the contrary, I think it is arguable that the Internet and related online media became a lifeline for households in the UK and across the world during this period of lockdowns and working from home. The impetus for the online harms [now called ‘safety’] bill was fueled by the demonization of social media in the years before the pandemic. So, from the very introduction to this piece, I worried about the credibility of the economic analysis it promises. 

I was not disappointed. It is jaw-dropping. Even enumerating some of the many online harms to be addressed and outlining some of the ‘challenges’ in quantifying them, the piece proceeds to do exactly that. Using Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sports (DCMS) estimates, the author argues that the estimated costs of seven types of harm, the greatest being cyberstalking – at £2,176m over ten years beginning in 2023, is much greater than the costs of implementing the bill, the greatest cost being ‘content moderation’ estimated to be £1,700m over the same ten years in the future. 

Pulling the costs of regulation out of a hat?

Of course, the costs of implementing this bill are not simply captured by the activities enumerated: awareness campaigns, creating reporting mechanisms, updating terms of service, producing risk assessments, content moderation, and transparency reports. What has the analysis left out?

Well, what about reductions in freedom of expression and commensurate reductions in the value and use of the Internet and related social media for the public good? This will be the major impact of the disproportionate incentivisation of censorship by tech platforms in order for platforms to avoid huge the potentially huge costs to be imposed by government regulators.

The duty of care solution is the problem that will have major negative impacts on what has been the lifeline for households, educators, healthcare professionals and all government departments at all times, but made so visible by the pandemic. The duty of care mechanism will incentivise censorship and surveillance of users and push the tech platforms to act like newspapers in performing ever stronger editorial roles, such as determining what is ‘disinformation’.

One could ask: Would not an economist need to list all the benefits of social media and related activities, and not just the costs?

This is not a neutral, critical analysis, but seems to be a political stitch up to support the proposed regulation. That said, such a flawed analysis might well make a better case for opposing than supporting this bill. Read it, consider its flaws, and oppose this misguided effort to address particular grievances by introducing a terrible policy. The proposed bill will do unmeasured damage to one of the most critical infrastructures available here and now for enabling enhanced means for communication and information for every age group in the UK and worldwide. 

With apologies to the journal editors, but if the BBC or public service broadcasting were subject to such a flawed analysis, I am sure that InterMEDIA would not have even considered publishing such a piece. Then again, this bill seems to enjoy widespread support and specifically advertises its intent to protect freedom of expression. Yet how often do the intentions of regulation end up in failure and the unintended collateral damage overwhelm any positive outcomes. I’m afraid we are about to see this happen when this bill undermines an open and global Internet and free expression, and privacy is further eroded in order to enforce tech’s duty of care.

Progress on the pandemic is allowing the UK to talk about moving back to a new normal. In that spirit, may the UK apply a level of common sense and closer parliamentary and public scrutiny to the online safety bill – a level of care that such an important piece of media regulation would normally receive.


[1] Sam Wood, ‘The Economics of Online Harms Regulation’, InterMEDIA, 49(2): 31-34. 

The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The filibuster was not invented to serve some lasting and critical role in democratic governance, but unintentionally, it does perform that function.  The filibuster is a structure – one rule of the game in American politics – that plays a powerful role in supporting more stable democracy. And it is particularly critical in times of deep polarization in politics. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Capitol Hill on June 8. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Critics of the filibuster tend to take one of two overly simplistic positions on this device. 

One is that the mechanism of the filibuster is simply antithetical to majority rule by allowing a minority of Senators to delay and thereby often block bills in the US Senate despite a majority in support. This position ignores key realities of democratic political processes, such as the importance of intense minorities, the pluralist nature of democracy. 

Democratic systems are rightly respectful of intense minority opinion, such as the respect normally accorded to protests that gain strong support, but by no means a majority. It is likely that, overtime, intense minorities have fought for the status quo, and thereby have a conservative bias. However, there have been intense minorities for change in many cases, from anti-war protestors to climate change advocates. Democracies ignore intense minorities at their peril. 

More generally, in a pluralist democracy, like that of the US and many other liberal democratic nations, policy is shaped by specialized sets of individuals who care about and have expertise in particular issues, what has been called a polyarchy (Dahl 1971). Those who govern education are different from those who govern defense or healthcare. You want this kind of pluralistic, polyarchical form of governance to insure a division of labor that supports greater competence and focus. Even when legislative or parliamentary bodies meet, each member does not understand every issue – they could not even read every bill that comes before them. They rely on committees, specialized experts and policy makers, and then take cues from their partisans on the committee reporting the bill. They take cues as a necessary short cut (Stimson 1975). So, minorities are making policy that is endorsed or rejected by majority voting.

In short, majority rule is an oversimplification of the democratic process even in leading liberal democratic nations. 

Secondly, critics of the filibuster ignore the central importance of democratic stability, perhaps the most important issue, by focusing on the issue of the day. 

In the aftermath of the second world war, a seminal study of the cultures of democracies (the US, UK, Germany, Mexico, and Italy) identified the US as being relatively more stable due to its ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Verba 1963).[1] In contrast, in the period prior to the second world war, Germany had democratic regimes that were notoriously unstable. Stability in the US was attributed to a political culture that supported consensus, enabled diversity of opinion and moderated change. Arguably, the US has lost its civic culture as its politics is typified more by polarization, tribalism, and distrust – none of which are compatible with consensus and moderation. 

However, the filibuster can incentivize moderation and compromise to find a consensus that goes beyond the tyranny of majority rule. It is true that the use of a filibuster has caused many politicians to dig in their heels even further and say the fight has only begun, but a small but growing number of promising politicians have seen the value of the filibuster in supporting compromises that promote greater stability in policy and in democratic structures. 

Most recently, US Senator Kyrsten Sinema helped lead a bipartisan compromise that resulted [if enacted] in support for a $1trillion package of measures to upgrade declining infrastructures across the nation. She herself expressed support for the filibuster before her election and before this bill in a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post, which countered conventional wisdom to argue that ‘we have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster’, arguing that it ‘compels moderation’ and counters ‘instability, partisanship, and tribalism that continue to infect our politics’.[2]

This rising star of the US Senate also warned against changing democratic rules of the game based on the policy issues of the day. As a Democrat in the senate, she reminded her colleagues that the filibuster was used by them in defeating some major Republican efforts, when Republicans were in the majority. Her opinion piece is must-reading for those who oppose the filibuster, but have an open mind in considering a serious issue for the future of American politics. 

References

Almond, Gabriel A., and Verba, Sidney. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Dahl, Robert A. (1971), Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Stimson, James A. (1975), ‘Five Propositions About Congressional Decision-Making: An Examination of Behavioral Inferences from Computer Simulation’, Political Methodology 2 (4): 415–36.


[1] Some critics of the time argued that Almond and Verba were simply describing American politics and ascribing the attribute of stability to it, rather than having a clear causal argument. But even if only descriptive of the era, that kind of civic culture is arguably absent in most cases of American politics today. 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/21/kyrsten-sinema-filibuster-for-the-people-act/

Value Tradeoffs for a Cashless Society

A recent news story (Sunday Times 6 June 2021) highlighted the potential for Sweden to lead the way to a ‘cashless’ future.[1] Not surprising in the context of so many observable trends moving in this direction. However, it reminded me of the early forecasts of a cashless society that were debated in the 1970s, and sense, particularly to the work of my former colleague and pioneer of social informatics, the late-Rob Kling, who died in 2003.[2]

PPRO Colleagues 1979

Early in my research on the social aspects of information and communication technologies, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Rob Kling at UC Irvine, when we were both involved with the Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO), directed by Professor Kenneth Kraemer. I joined this team that also included John Leslie King, Jim Danziger, Alana Northrup, and others, in 1974 to work on the URBIS Project. Supported by the US National Science Foundation, URBIS was one of the first systematic evaluations of the role and impact of computing in American governments.[3]

In 1976, Rob published one of his early critiques of what were then called ‘electronic funds transfer systems’ that pioneered in raising some of the social and ethical issues for society, namely around privacy. Here is the abstract of this piece, entitled ‘Passing the Digital Buck: Unresolved Social and Technical Issues in Electronic Funds Transfer Systems’:

“Over the last decade, plans for using computer-based systems to automate the transfer of debits and credits have moved from a technologist’s pipe dream to an emerging reality. During the last few years, several components of this technology have been developed in prototype form and have begun to be implemented on a large scale. While such systems promise financial benefits for the institutions that exploit them, they also raise significant social, legal, and technical questions that must be resolved if full-scale Electronic Funds Transfer Systems (EFTS) are not to cause more problems for the larger public than they solve. Few of these problems have been systematically articulated. This paper describes the mechanics of EFTS, and the benefits it should provide its promoters. But it emphasizes a variety of the problems that EFTS raises and places them in context.”[4]

Like many others, I’ve followed the development of electronic payment systems over the decades. Three simple but notable reflections repeatedly come to mind from this work. 

One is the degree to which some thoughtful thinkers really can provide valuable forecasts of future developments. I most often find myself marveling at how wrong forecasting can be, but yes, there are some clear examples of individuals, like James Martin, clarifying the social and technical dynamics of likely trends and their future development. Rob’s discussion of the social and value tradeoffs of EFTS is one that we are seeing played out today – 4 decades later. The trick is to sort out the forecasts that are truly prescient as they have a sound empirical basis in the history and underlying dynamics of their development from those that are silly, simply technologically deterministic extrapolations, or based on a limited and possibly misleading example. Of course, even the best of forecasts need to be understood as problematic given the many factors shaping the use and impacts of technical innovations. 

The second is that everyone needs to be skeptical of forecasts as long-range expectations about the future are most often overly optimistic or pessimistic. Even forecasts that are on target are often a decade or two further in the future than originally forecast. Video telephony was forecasted in the 1960s and marketed in the early 1970s but is only recently flourishing. 

The third is the unpredictable fluctuations in these trends. It is not just a straightforward linear, non-linear or slower curve of development, but often entail major perturbations over time. For example, in the case of digital payments, the automated teller machines were an early development that seemed to be a gift that enable a return to privacy. Rather than paying for everything electronically, people tended to get cash from distributed teller machines and therefore be able to make a larger proportion of their purchases privately – using cash. So, surprise – digital systems were enhancing privacy – but only for a time. 

Of course, it became clear that cash withdrawals could be so well tracked that individuals could be followed with considerable accuracy. And today, given the many ways payments and clicks are analyzed online for marketing and advertising, the concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’ has become widely accepted.[5] Moreover, in the context of the global pandemic, individuals have been incentivized to use electronic payments for everything and not to use cash. That brings us full speed ahead into a more truly cashless society with all of the social and political tradeoffs that Rob warned us about in the 1970s. While even Rob could not have foreseen the pandemic and its pressure on moving to a cashless society, his forecasts of the value tradeoffs remain valuable to this day. However, far more empirical research needs to be conducted on the actual development and impacts of our cashless society.

Further Reading

‘The Social Construction of Rob Kling’, The Information Society, 2003, 19: 195-196. https://tisj.sitehost.iu.edu/contact/rltork.pdf

Rob Kling, ‘The Social and Institutional Meanings of Electrnonic Funds Transfer Systems’, Chapter 15 (pp. 183-195) in Kent Colton and Kenneth Kraemer (eds), Computers and Banking. New York: Plenum Press, 1980.


[1] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sweden-leads-way-to-a-cashless-future-5kqj75mb9

[2] ‘The Social Construction of Rob Kling’, The Information Society, 2003, 19: 195-196. https://tisj.sitehost.iu.edu/contact/rltork.pdf

[3] This research was reported widely, but captured in two books, including Kraemer, K. L., Dutton, W. H., and Northrop, A. (1981), The Management of Information Systems, New York: Columbia University Press, and Danziger, J. N., Dutton, W. H., Kling, R., and Kraemer, K. L. (1982; 1983 paperback), Computers and Politics: High Technology in American Local Governments, New York: Columbia University Press.

[4] https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Passing-the-digital-buck-%3A-unresolved-social-and-in-Kling/83643a73b2c0400d0a680d4fd5e6a72f5e81e145#paper-header

[5] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile Books. 

Jay G Blumler and the Joy of Academia

Jay G Blumler – Embodying the Joy of Academia

On 30 January 2021, Professor Jay George Blumler died at his home in Leeds. His family was with him in the last days of his 96 years. Over the last several months following his death, many beautiful tributes have conveyed the love and admiration of his family, friends and colleagues for one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of Political Communication – an American born, but British-based theorist of communication and media. Jay was active for nearly all his academic career at the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University, but he had many ties with colleagues and academic institutions around the world, including the University of Maryland and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, where I met him in the early 1980s. 

Jay Blumler at the Duttons

I will point you to some of the many tributes to Jay, which wonderfully capture his life and work in more detail and in the words of those he worked with throughout his career. At one of the last tributes given for the members of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), six world class scholars in the communication field commemorated his life and work, including Lance Bennett, Nico Carpentier, Stephen Coleman, Mark Deuze, Sonia Livingstone, and Claudia Mellado. While each was a leader in their own field, each noted Jay’s role as a valued mentor to them. I could hardly believe that I knew of the work of all six initially through Jay. It seemed as if early in every visit I had with Jay, whether he or I was getting off a bus, train or plane, he would without fail call my attention to the work of some promising new scholar of communication he had met, and whom I should follow. My colleagues could not have had a better mentor and scholarly promoter. I could easily say that Jay was proud of each of them. He truly was. He was absolutely buoyed by the success of his colleagues. 

That brings me to one personal reflection I would add to the many tributes: Jay Blumler found real joy in academia. He found delight in all aspects of the academic enterprise. Many mentioned how he never failed to ask a penetrating but incisive and constructive question at seminars. He’d be in the front row and raring to join the discussion. But in so many different situations and interactions, Jay was able to creatively construct a fun and valuable occasion. 

For example, whenever I asked him to comment on a draft paper or outline, I came to realize that I would not just get a quick sign of approval or a few recommended citations. To the contrary, I would get an invitation to tea or a meal at which he would bring his notes and we would speak for hours about my work and how it could be refined, rethought, better conceptualised, and tied to earlier work. He constructed such tutorials in ways that not only contributed to my work but educated and entertained me and anyone nearby. He initiated me to this process in the early 1980s when we co-edited a book, with Ken Kraemer, entitled Wired Cities, about how networking communities would have major social implications. He made that such an enjoyable experience and such a better book.  

That was just one example. Those in academia know that being asked to comment on a paper or book can be seen as a burden. It can be an occasion when many academics would not bother to respond or offer a quick reply. Many – including myself on occasion – are often too busy and too seriously focused on their own work to be distracted by helping a colleague. Not Jay. 

Jay would make what could have been a burdensome task into an enjoyable experience that was socially and educationally memorable. Maybe even a nice meal at a new restaurant. He enjoyed himself in the process and that joy infused his colleagues with greater enthusiasm to refine their own work and also to spare more time for those seeking their help, having learned from Jay’s example. 

This is not to say that Professor Blumler was not aware of the slings and arrows of academic criticism and one-upmanship. As a theorist in his field, his work was highly visible and the subject of critiques as well as praise, such as around his pioneering work with Elihu Katz and others on the uses and gratifications of the media. While critics never seemed to hurt his feelings, they could make him cross. But he was seldom if ever angry, as he seemed to be able to focus on the work and those colleagues he admired rather than fretting about those he did not. I never recall him criticising or dismissing any academic. Instead, he championed those he most respected and whose work he followed most closely.

Jay is famous for adding a song to his keynotes or seminar talks. He loved to sing and had a wonderful baritone voice. But that is just another one of many ways in which Jay found and spread joy in academia. He made academia a better place for all those who knew him. 

Tributes to Jay G Blumler include

Stephen Coleman’s written for Leeds University, where Jay founded the former Centre for Television Research and was an Emeritus Professor, and which is available on his family’s memorial website at: https://everloved.com/life-of/professor-jay-blumler/obituary/

Sonia Livingstone’s written for the International Communication Association, for which Jay was President (1989-90): https://www.icahdq.org/blogpost/1523657/366476/In-Memory-of-Jay-G-Blumler

Roland Cayrol’s written for La Monde: https://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2021/02/10/la-mort-de-jay-g-blumler-professeur-de-science-de-la-communication_6069476_3382.html

Antioch College, where Jay studied in the US and remained a proud promoter, published this tribute: https://antiochcollege.edu/2021/02/jay-blumler-47/

International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) special session: https://iamcr.org/nairobi2021/online/special-sessions

Social Media Could Have Prevented the UK’s Post Office Scandal

Over seven hundred  (736) ‘sub-postmasters’ were charged – many if not most unjustly – with criminal offenses from 2000-2013 because of discrepancies in their accounts, leading to charges of theft, fraud, and false accounting (Meddings 2021). Had they been siphoning money from their accounts?

We have learned that many of these discrepancies were due to the faults in an IT system, called Horizon, that had been in place for over twenty years (Croft 2021) – enough time to find and correct an problems! Thirty-nine sub-postmasters ‘were convicted of stealing money, with some imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches’ (Peachey 2021). Many convictions have been reversed recently, following six other convictions that were overturned in December 2020 (Peachey 2021).

In Britain, small branches of the Post Office are called Sub-Post Offices and are headed by a Sub-Postmaster or Sub-Postmistress. They serve as agents of the Post Office but the heads are self-employed. Many offices are based in convenience stores, or in small shops in the center of villages – all sorts of locations – and they and their postmasters become one of the centerpieces of many communities. 

A Generic Sub-Post Office

In an interview on the BBC World Service with one of the sub-postmasters whose conviction was overturned, it was clear that law enforcement led each to believe that they alone were being charged. It was only their office in which accounts showed discrepancies. If only they had been socially networked. The post office knew of the faults as did some public officials, but the problems were not disclosed to the subpostmasters, led to believe they alone were at fault (Meddings 2021).

Facebook had not been launched until 2004 but imagine if these sub-postmasters were on a social network, whether a group on Facebook, WhatsApp, or another network that would enable them to ask if only they were charged with these offences. One query but one post master could have unravelled this scandal.

Instead, they were isolated in their post office, and not informed about similar problems occurring in many other cases. Admittedly, there are a number of ifs, ands, and buts. That said, if many who were charged with stealing from their accounts were aware of similar accusations at many other sub-post offices, they would have been more likely to put two and two together, tie them to an IT system they shared and raised alarms that would have prevented this scandal from happening – one that literally ruined the careers and lives of many of those charged. Sabah Meddings (2021) referred to this as an ‘industrial scale failure of justice’. Sadly, it could have been avoided if they would have been enabled to communicate with others if sub-postmasters offices were on a social network, where they could seek advice, ask questions, raise issues and more. 

Many other occupations have social networks that are particularly valuable for those in relatively isolated offices. For example, Sermo is a social network of physicians, which enables any physician to ask questions of other physicians. If something similar to Sermo had been available to the sub-posts, the likelihood of such an injustice would have been greatly reduced. For all the demonization of social media, it is sometimes easy to forget how valuable they can be to networked individuals. 

Afterword

Government compensation will be coming to sub-postmasters wrongly convicted. Again, this would not have mushroomed over such a long period had social media been prominent in 2000 (Dempsey 2021).

References

Croft, Jane (2021), ‘Sub-postmasters clear their names in court after grave miscarriage of justice’, Financial Times, 24 April, p. 1. 

Depsey, Harry (2021), ‘Sub-Postmasters in line for £100,000 interim payments’, Financial Times, 23 July, p. 2.

Meddings, Sabah (2021), ‘Post Office scandal was an industrial scale failure of justice’, The Sunday Times, 25 April: p. 23.

Peachey, Kevin (2021), ‘Convicted Post Office workers have names cleared’, BBC News, 24 April: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56859357

Six Benefits of Academics Working with Government

The Value of Academics Working with Government: Lessons from Collaboration on Cybersecurity 

William H. Dutton with Carolin Weisser Harris 

Six of the benefits of academics collaborating with government include realising the value of: 1) complementary perspectives and knowledge sets; 2) different communication skills and styles; 3) distributing the load; 4) different time scales; 5) generating impact; and 6) tackling multifaceted problems.

Our Global Cybersecurity Capacity Centre (GCSCC) at Oxford University recently completed a short but intense period of working with a UK Government team focused on cybersecurity capacity building with foreign governments. In one of our last meetings around our final reports, we had a side discussion – not part of the report – about the differences between academic researchers and our colleagues working in government departments. Of course, some academics end up in government and vice versa, but individuals quickly adapt to the different cultures and working patterns of government or academia if they choose to stay. 

For example, the differences in our time horizons were not controversial, as some of us on the academic team have been working on particular issues for decades while our government colleagues are focused on the start and finish a project over a short, finite time, such as lasting one year or even less. These different time horizons are only one of many other challenges tied to the very different ways of working, but what about the benefits? 

Drawing courtesy of Arthur Asa Berger

What is the value of fostering more academic-government collaboration? Here we were not as quick to come up with clear answers. But collaboration between academia and government is more difficult than working within one’s own institutional context. There must be benefits to justify the greater commitments of time and effort to collaborate. On reflection, and from our experience, a number of real benefits and taken-for-granted assumptions come to mind. The all ways to realise the benefits of:

  1. Complementary Perspectives and Knowledge Sets

Our focus on cybersecurity, for example, is inherently tied to both academic research and policy and practice. By bringing actors together across academia and government, there is less risk of working in a way that is blind to the perspectives of other sectors. It might be impossible to shape policy and practice if the academic research is not alert to the issues most pertinent to government. Likewise, governments cannot establish credible policy or regulatory initiatives without an awareness of the academic controversies and consensus around relevant concepts and issues. 

2. Different Communication Skills and Styles

Academic research can get lost in translation if academics are not confronted with what resonates well with governmental staff and leadership. What is understood and misunderstood in moving across academic and government divides? Think of the acronyms used in government versus academia. How can assumptions and work be better translated to each set of participants? Working together forces a confrontation with these communication issues, as well as the different styles in the two groups. Comparing the slides prepared by academics with those of government staff can provide a sense of people coming from different planets, not just different sectors.  

3. Distributing the Load – Time to Read Everything?

My academic colleagues noticed that many in the government simply did not have the time to read extremely long and often dense academic papers or books, much less to write a blog about collaborative research! It was far better to have brief executive oriented briefing papers. Better yet would be a short 10-minute oral explanation of any research or a discussion in the form of a webinar. Do they need to know the finest details of a methodology, or to simply have a basic understanding of the method and trust that the specific methodology followed was state of the practice, done professionally, or peer reviewed? Can they quickly move to: What did they find? Being able to trust the methods of the academics saved an enormous amount of time for the governmental participants. 

Likewise, did the academics want to take the time to read very long and detailed administrative reports and government documents? Clearly, they also appreciated the brief summary or distillation of any texts that were not central to the study. Unless academics were focused on organizational politics and management, they often do not need to know why the government has chosen to support or not support particular work, but trust that there is a green light to go ahead, and their colleagues in government will try to keep the work going. 

So, the two groups read and were interested in reading and hearing different kinds of reports and documentation, about different issues, and at different levels. Working together, they could then cover more ground in the time of the project and better understand each other’s needs and what each could contribute to the collaboration.  

4. Different Time Scales

As mentioned above, another aspect of time was the different time scales of academic research versus governmental studies. One of our colleagues had been working on Internet studies for over four decades, but a short governmental study could draw easily on that investment in time. Everyone did not need to spend decades on research. 

Academics can’t change the focus of their research too rapidly without losing their basis of expertise. The cycle of attention in government may move towards the interests of an academic from time to time and then it is important to connect governmental staff with the right researchers to take advantage of their different time scales. 

The different time scales do not undermine collaboration, but they put a premium on being able to connect governmental research with relevant academic research that is at a level and at a time at which the findings can be valuable to policy or practice. Academics cannot chase policy issues as they will always be late to the debate. But governmental researchers can find researchers doing relevant work that is sufficiently mature to inform the questions faced by the government. 

5. Generating Impact

Academics are increasingly interested in having an impact, which has been defined as ‘having an effect, benefit, or contribution to economic, social, cultural, and other aspects of the lives of citizens and society beyond contributions to academic research’ (Hutchinson 2019). Is their research read, understood, or acted upon? Does it make a difference to the sector of relevance to their research? Working directly with government can enhance the likelihood of governmental actors being aware of and reactive to academic research. Collaboration does not guarantee greater productivity (Lee and Bozeman 2005). However, it has the potential to support the greater dissemination of the research across government and create greater awareness of the evidence behind the policy advice of academic researchers.

Of course, governments do not simply write reports to tick boxes. They also wish to have an impact on policy or practice. Working with academics can help gain insights and credibility that can make reports more novel, interesting, and meaningful for enacting change in policy and practice. They can also gain a better sense of the limits of academic research as researchers explain the lack of evidence in some areas and the needs for additional work. 

6. Tackling Multifaceted Problems

Cybersecurity is not only tied to academia and government. Many other actors are involved. We found that our partners in government had different contacts with different networks of actors than we had and vice versa. Putting together these networks of actors enabled us to better embed the multiplicity of actors – other governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations, business and industry, and experts in cybersecurity – in our joint work. 

#

The potential benefits are many, but there are risks. Participants need to care a great deal about the common work and be committed to the area in order to overcome the challenges. That said, the different time frames, communication styles, and more that confront collaboration between government and academia not only can be addressed but also bring some benefits to the collaboration. 

Cybersecurity is one of many policy areas that requires engagement with various stakeholders, and for meaningful engagement to develop you need to build trustful relationships. Projects like ours where partners from different stakeholder groups (in this case academia and government) work together can enable building those trustful relationships and strengthen the potential for others to trust the outputs of joint projects.

References

Hutchinson, A. (2019), ‘Metrics and Research Impact’, pp. 91-103 in Science Libraries in the Self-Service Age. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102033-3.00008-8

Lee, S., and Bozeman, B. (2005), ‘The Impact of Research Collaboration on Scientific Productivity’ Social Studies of Science, 35: DOI: 10.1177/0306312705052359 Online at: http://sss.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/5/673

American Hubris on the UK and Northern Ireland

This morning’s Financial Times (17 March 2021) notes that the ‘US fires warning shot at Johnson on Northern Ireland’. President Joe Biden is said to be preparing to hold St. Patrick’s day talks with Irish premier Micheál Martin. President Biden reminds the world that he is Irish and will oppose any US-UK trade deal unless UK negotiations with the EU uphold terms of the Good Friday peace agreement. 

I am an American, and generally support President Biden, who has had remarkable accomplishments in his early days in office. But I have lived and worked in the UK, and England specifically, since 2002. I have long warned my colleagues in Britain – even though they already know this – that when Americans come to the UK, they start giving advice the moment they get off the plane. Joe Biden has not even gotten off a plane and – even before he was elected – has been giving advice or one might say orders to the UK on how to resolve trade issues with the EU. 

Puck’s “The Bull in the China Shop” 1898

There is something endearing about American hubris to think they can advise nations on matters on which they know far too little. I’ve yet to hear any responsible voice in the UK opposed to the Good Friday peace agreement. However, the complexity of the relationships between multiple stakeholders in the UK, and the nation of Northern Island and other nations and regions of the UK, and the EU and its member states, and Ireland in particular, are seriously difficult to resolve. For any US public official to make such facile statements that specifically threaten the UK is simply foolish. 

President Biden and the US State Department need to be a bit more modest, better informed and more balanced before weighing in on this issue. Joe Biden may think he is Irish, but is acting like a proverbial bull in a china shop. Could he ask what the US can do to help ensure that these negotiations are resolved in a way that is fair – if not a win-win – to all parties and preserves the peace agreement? 

Addendum

Press coverage following President Biden’s meeting with Ireland’s PM suggested that the US took a more balanced approach, arguing that “the UK and the EU must ‘move forward with a positive relationship’ on the Northern Irish protocol” (Williams, A., and Noonan, L., ‘Irish Premier Tells Biden EU and UK Must Back Good Friday Pact’, Financial Times, 18 March 2021: 4). This sounds like a more modest request.

Afterword

Later, coverage of President Biden’s administration seemed to have thrown gasoline on the fires in Northern Ireland by furthering the impression that ‘the Irish’ Biden and events were favouring the nationalists v the unionists. Later the administration said they ‘join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.’ My hope is they keep that message front and centre and stop interfering with a situation they do not seem to understand. Do no harm.

Update: Here he goes again: an editorial following Biden’s comments around the G7 Conference in Cornwall in The Telegraph that also makes this point about his lack of understanding of the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland politics: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/06/10/joe-biden-doesnt-understand-northern-ireland/?li_source=LI&li_medium=liftigniter-onward-journey&fbclid=IwAR0_RAluAGuiQ2joGKZw6LSC5WGrwaFfNTMcEEw7er6tXJ4j7S7M5qBDp8U

Reading and Endorsing ‘Elements of Style’

Reposting from 2018

Looking into one of my College’s hallway recycling bins, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.

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Copy Retrieved from Recycling Bin
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