Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Category: Higher Education

The Song Remains the Same

While it is as far away from the UK as it is just about possible to be, it is remarkable that the housing problems and the lenses that academics use to interpret them in New Zealand and Australia are essentially the same as what you find in Britain. Of course there are cultural, institutional and contextual differences but it was the similarities not the differences that struck me during the University of Auckland’s hosting this week of the Australasian Housing Research Conference.

This was a good sized conference over two and a half days with more than 120 scheduled papers and two keynotes. The audience was predominantly from the region and I found the whole event very friendly, supportive and welcoming. While I did know maybe a dozen colleagues at the conference, I made many new friends. In particular I should thank Larry Murphy who organised the conference and invited me in the first place. He did a great job in a good humoured way throughout. I particularly liked the way he asked the conference administrator, Aimee, to go and purchase the kind of flowers she would like to be given as a gift, especially so, as it turned out at the conference dinner, that they were for her anyway!

The themes at the conference via the papers I heard and the discussions I was involved in, were familiar ones. Housing affordability problems making home ownership less accessible in high cost cities like Auckland, problems with the large rental market e.g. interesting post-doc work on the provision of elderly care for older private tenants closely linked to pension policy assumptions about seniors owning their homes. Insufficient social housing supply was also stressed by several speakers. There was much interest also in homelessness, understanding it by modelling or deconstructing structural and individual characteristics, and assessing policies like housing first. At the same time, critical analysis of policies like those on affordability, new supply and income-related housing allowances – stressed neo-liberal discourses as well as conducting the research from a range of disciplines including public policy and economics.

In the end I had a few reflections on what I heard. First, there is a lot of really excellent research coming out of Australia and New Zealand. Second, there is a growing appetite for more sophisticated and critical policy analysis of housing. Third, there must be space to debate and articulate different conceptual approaches to understanding and situating housing, be it applied economics, in-depth qualitative interviews, discourse analysis or policy studies.

Finally, having done my plenary talk on the first morning about policy divergence between Scotland and the UK, I had a lot of positive feedback, though one rather direct Australian said to me that ‘your slides sucked’. Interesting. Part of me recognises that doing a talk with text-based slides can be hard work for the audience because they have to listen to the speaker at the same time as taking in the material on the slides. I do plan to move much more to simple images and less if any text and this will only encourage me to go down this road a little quicker in future presentations. So that directness was welcome, honest (even if I liked the slides in question).

Three Days of the HSA

I have spent the last two and a half days in York at the annual Housing Studies Association conference. The themes of the conference included housing, inter-generational struggles and responses; housing policy in the context of the general election and constitutional change; and, the very rich and very poor in contemporary urban Britain. There were also parallel sessions of both academic papers and early career researcher streams. Everything was well-organised, ran smoothly and was an enjoyable environment of polite and engaged inquiry.

There were great plenary speakers including Beverley Searle, Sue Heath, Kate Barker, Rowland Atkinson and Lisa Mckenzie.  I also enjoyed some great workshop papers. One in particular was by Sarah Payne on the first day on house builders and their recovery from recession, a paper which spoke directly to Kate Barker’s plenary on housing policy, much of which was concerned with planning and housing supply.

Conferences like HSA are very social both in terms of meeting up with old friends but also about engaging fully with social media. Apart from Twitter and such like, Alex Marsh and I planned beforehand to do a podcast interview on housing and the election (what else do you do in that hour before dinner?).

My plenary paper was a reflection on the diverging housing policy framework in Scotland, the experience and consequences of the referendum and Smith proposals, and the implications for the UK election and for policy transfer in both directions.This hopefully complemented Kate Barker’s more detailed assessment of known housing policy proposals in the election debate. We had interesting questions, particularly one suggesting that much of the debate was really about upstream issues to do with the labour market, income and wealth distribution, health inequalities and education.

My recurring theme or metaphor was quantum mechanics. I recalled the day of the referendum when we held an important strategic meeting about future work and simply did not know which vote outcome would happen and hence where our new work would best be directed. On reflection, a bad choice of day for such a meeting but it was very creative! Moreover, we were like Shrodinger’s Cat – both outcomes were possible until the vote was over. The general election is currently highly uncertain and discussing it inevitably leads us down similar alternative futures. It also strikes me that the choices we make at such a conference with all these different parallel workstreams mean that we experience quite different conferences as a result of our choices – something like a series of parallel universes!

One workshop discussion I was in did raise the lack of range in the political discourse at the conference – the almost complete absence of a non-left or non-centre left position or narrative. Some were relaxed about this fact or even welcomed it; others worried that perhaps it may limit our capacity to influence and persuade. 

My other memories of the event that will remain include when Kate Barker was talking and made the comment that on a specific policy issue she was ‘barking up the right tree’. Also, I finally met my namesake, Len Gibbs, who is doing interesting research on low demand and market failure. Nice man and surely he and I should be writing papers together and causing copy editors great confusion (in fact the Scottish MSP, Kenny Gibson, has also made a similar suggestion to me).  

Finally, it was good that we had an opportunity to remember Alan Holmans, who was a longstanding pillar of the HSA, a great housing scholar and a thoroughly nice man.

Remembering Miller

I was sad to learn today that Miller the cat is no longer with us. This cat was not only well known to thousands of staff and students past and present at Glasgow University, he was a fixture of the place for many years. His fame has stretched so far that there is even a story of his passing in the Glasgow Herald today and on other news websites [1].

I always thought he lived quietly in Hillhead street in the residential area near the middle of the campus. Apparently he was known to frequent the main gatehouse of the Gilbert Scott building too but we knew him best in terms of his many forays into the Adam Smith Building and to Urban Studies in Bute Gardens.

In fact, he did rather well for many years via secretaries who fed him and kept him warm in inclement weather. You would often see him climbing the Adam Smith Building stairs heading to one of his sanctuaries along a teaching corridor (I seem to recall the urban studies journal office was for a long time a favourite destination) Miller had a facebook page for many years (I think called something like ‘the Adam Smith building cat’).

The Herald story said that he was 18 though it feels like he has been around much longer than that. The last time I saw him was a month or two ago and, to put it mildly, he was not exactly in playful mood. More to the point, in the midst of the University building a new smart campus over the next few years, the cry is now going up to name one the new buildings after this splendid cat. Quite right, too.

Note (includes photos):

http://www.deadlinenews.co.uk/2015/01/22/top-university-may-name-building-after-cat/

 

 

Deal or No Deal?

Last night, Policy Scotland and the University invited the leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, to talk about the future of the City in the context of the recently agreed City Deal for Glasgow and the Clyde Valley. At a well-attended event, the city’s political leader covered a wider range of topics centered on the notion of the city-region, and the metropolitan economy as key economic driver of the future.[1]

When it was announced, I blogged about the City Deal (September 1 2014), a 20 year project, supported by both the Scottish and UK Governments and signed up to by all eight local authorities and valued at £1.13 billion. This is for the core infrastructure fund described as a ‘once in a generation’ investment. Complementing this will be a range of life science, business support and labour market schemes. Over the life of the City Deal, its proponents argue that it will create an additional 29,000 jobs across the city region (on top of 15,000 construction jobs), active labour market work with 19,000 unemployed residents, and it will lever in a further £3.3 billion of private sector funding.

The lion’s share of the public funds comes from UK Government and the Scottish Government (equally) [2]  but there is also a contribution from the partner councils. It is a binding long term agreement aimed at boosting national economic growth led by the city region over 20 years. It is intended that this will be capital funding for an infrastructure fund (20 projects across the city-region), an innovation fund and support to combat youth unemployment and to help low income workers progress through their careers. The infrastructure projects include a train route from the airport (a long-standing plan), land decontamination on the Clyde Waterfront, unlocking new housing sites in Lanarkshire, and harbour investment in Inverclyde. The Innovation work includes the University’s stratified medicine investments as part of the ongoing Southern General hospital project.

The Glasgow city deal is the largest in the UK and the first in Scotland. But there have been critics. How will the monitoring and accountability mechanisms ensure project delivery, implementation and private sector leverage? Will learning lessons be drawn on from other city deal projects? The public funding is argued to be less impressive when looked at annually. However, like the Commonwealth Games investment, it is to an extent about providing certainty about long term projects, accelerating their development and providing the strategic coherence that long term funds can provide. Also in an echo of the Games, the council leader pointed to the continuing collaboration benefits from the Clyde Valley councils working together in partnership – mainstreaming new ways of working. However, it was striking to place the City Deal in the context of the University’s campus redevelopment plan which involves somewhere between £500-700 million investment in the city’s west end when the University takes over the western infirmary site and in partnership with the city will remake a large part of that quarter of the city.

The council leader’s lecture was peppered with urban studies references: Glaeser, Katz, Leo Hollis, as well as nods to Richard Florida. For instance, on climate change, he cited the athletes village in Dalmarnock as the biggest carbon neutral development in the country and further major recycling plans at Polmadie as well as for combined heat and power across the city. This line fitted with his espousal of Glaeser’s defence of the contemporary environmental policy record of cities, the promotion of compact cities, active travel and higher densities.

It was also from this basis i.e. the metro revolution and city regions as key engines of economic prosperity that Matheson argued for stronger city-region fiscal and functional devolution. He contended that Scotland lags behind English urban policy where city deals are now established in all city-regions, where ‘Devo Manc’ is city deals on stilts’ but in comparison Scottish city-regions lag behind. He referred to the recent Respublica research that suggested the UK was one of the most centralised systems of local government given the dependence in central grant. The position was posited as even worse in Scotland (requiring 80% of grant in aid to fund services). Moreover, the council tax freeze, now in year 8, meant that if Glasgow raised its council tax at the margin it would face claw backs of £75 million.

Matheson went on to argue that while the political classes were focused via the Smith Commission on more powers for Holyrood they were weakening the scope for empowering dynamic city regions. He called for more devolution but less power for Holyrood and Whitehall. He identified a paradox of more devolution to Scotland but yet greater centralisation. More fiscal powers might help to address the imbalance between the core city (600,000 plus population) and the surrounding urban system (1.75m in total) in terms of paying for services provided by the city. Glasgow is a member of the UK Core Cities group and leads on smart/future cities – they see this lobbying collaboration as the way forward.

Gordon Matheson identified a number of functional areas that the council should have greater powers over, one of which was welfare. I asked him what he meant and in particular if he thought council should have more control over welfare benefits. He said he was more concerned with making welfare reform more humane and also that policies that work at a local level should not be compromised unnecessarily by similar but different policies at a higher level of government. A specific example of this was the living wage 12 month wage subsidy policy established in Glasgow provided by the council thereafter followed by an Scottish Government 6 month policy based on the lower minimum wage – sowing confusion among employers.

It was an interesting evening. There is opportunity associated with the city deal and further inter-council collaboration in the Clyde Valley. But there are also huge challenges in terms of revenue spending cuts and austerity that will need to be accommodated. The issues concerning devolution to council levels, fiscal powers and decentralisation chime with what Policy Scotland raised in its own submission to Smith. It was also significant that Glasgow sees itself now as part of a network of UK and international cities, drawing on urbanists and evidence that might promote learning about how to help support urban economic growth.

There is clear complementarity between the agenda set out by Matheson and that found in the Strengthening Local Democracy prospectus. Moreover, devolution was also not seen to stop at the city chambers – there was also much discussion last night about the enhanced role of community partnerships, area partnerships and proposals for community budgeting at the local scale. How this will work in practice is a key element in the What Works Scotland Glasgow case study that will proceed over the next three years.

Finally, there was the dog that didn’t bark – will there be renewed calls for city deals for Edinburgh and further up the east coast to Aberdeen and Dundee? What might that mean if more of Scotland followed the UK urban policy route?

Note
1. A more party political and less policy-focused account of the lecture can be found in the Herald, November 6 2014, ‘Matheson: Sturgeon is stifling revolution for cities’

2. This is an updated version of this post. David Waites pointed out correctly that SG and the UK Government both put £500m into the pot – not, as I had originally suggested that more had come from the UK end. Mea culpa.

Unaccustomed…..

I know two people who are about to make important public speeches and in their different ways they are concerned to make the right kind of impact and not make mistakes. I do a relatively large amount of lectures, presentations, seminars and the like. It is par for the course for an academic and also if you are explicitly involved in knowledge exchange. I enjoy it when it goes well and I hate it if I don’t think or know that it hasn’t.

When I became a Faculty lecturer I realised that this was going to be a significant part of my working life and I had better work out some mechanisms and supports to help me overcome any problems speaking in public. I did some lecturer and media training, read some good books (e.g. Max Atkinson’s Lend Me Your Ears) and got on with it.

Actually, I did bit more than that. Periodically through my life I have had a stammer. For those who have a speech impediment there is no need to explain further but for those who don’t, they typically fall into two categories: those that are inherently physical and those are essentially in the mind. My form of problem – being unable to complete certain words and instead freezing on them – was it turned out something going on inside of me and not caused physiologically. When I started full time lecturing it was pretty obvious that I was struggling in certain classes, as I was also when speaking at some conferences and on other platforms. So, for the third time in my life I went to speech therapy.

What I found out from simply talking through the underlying causes of the problem was that, first, I needed to prepare properly and focus on things I was comfortable talking about (lecturers can find themselves in front of classes well outside their comfort zone). I used to worry about being asked questions I could not answer and that pushed the probability of stammering into near certainty. Second, I realised that I was not contributing to meetings, avoiding chairing and making up reasons not to make points – because of the risk I might stumble or stammer.

Third, I thought more about the things I knew already about my own problem. For instance, and somewhat bizarrely, certain individuals made me stammer (and there are not necessarily folk in positions of power). Equally strangely, I know before the fact when I am going to stammer – I can see the problem word lying ahead of me as I construct the sentence I am speaking. This makes me try to avoid the word or find a synonym. The problem is you can’t simultaneously provide a coherent smoothly deployed argument to the external world while internally trying to think of a non-stammering way to do it. Instead you blow up. The fact that a potential stammering episode lurks under the surface also makes you incredibly self-conscious and also very aware of how others speak and communicate.

Now this may all sound terrible but I think, now, that working one’s way through it reflectively, reading about speaking techniques and watching good speakers all helped. To an extent it is a phase that I have now, happily, largely passed through. Today I still sometimes stammer giving a paper or teaching but I am no longer that worried about it. I know if I prepare properly, try to add value in some way compared to the normal ‘talk to powerpoint’ mode, and just get a bit of perspective – it is not that big a deal and audiences are not generally out to get you.

Like blogging, you need to find your own voice. I would probably like to be more consistent but it is no longer a chore. Instead it is usually quite a bit of fun (for something that can be very important). Recently I have given evidence to Parliamentary Committees and done live tv and radio. This kind of public speaking is ok and I find I can thus far cope with it. This is so because I think I know what I am talking about, I know that I have survived doing media work before and I will have done my homework. As a result, I have really not been that nervous or unable to function as once would have definitely been the case. I even quite like to play what BBC presenters call ‘that’s a good question bingo’ and actually engage in proper Q&A and be quite relaxed if I don’t have a pat answer.

As I am a big fan of lists, here are a few thoughts about public speaking as a result of these experiences.

  • I rather self-consciously try to be humorous as a rhetorical device. I have two notebooks full of quotes and jokes. Just yesterday in a traffic jam I found myself scribbling down two great quotes from James Joyce heard on the radio. The big problem is not telling the same audience one of your favourite stories for a second time. You also need to go easy on these things, judge what is appropriate and make sure that it is the argument that they are listening to not for the next joke. And of course what I think is funny may not not be to who are listening. Know your audience.
  • I try to mix up my audio-visuals, including alternatives to powerpoint like prezi.
  • Some people I have heard speak effectively and remain in the memory work with a very straight but impressively clear presentation style. This can work just as well if you can be disciplined. This is what my colleague Jack Parr calls the ‘John Wayne’ style – you come into town, get off your horse, tell it straight, get back on your horse and leave town.
  • Narrative and logical progression are incredibly important. Also, Max Atkinson argues that you need to speak steadily and at a level of argument slightly below what you are comfortable with – audiences don’t necessarily follow at your pace so try to marginally simplify but don’t ever patronise.
  • Try really hard to prepare, speak and plan for the timed allocation you have to speak for. If that also means extemporising to finish on time, do that and even have a plan B (to coin a phrase). Try not to skip slides or race back and forward in your powerpoint.
  • Finally, if despite your plans and efforts, the worst things happen, you can’t answer a question [tell them you’ll get back to them and do so], technology fails [have a paper back up] or your paper simply does not work as a presentation and you confront a sea of baffled faces [rehearse it and test it with others informally especially if it is a new idea or application]. If all else fails, don’t worry and be happy. Tony O’Sullivan used to present the Scottish House Condition Survey publication at an event with teeming hundreds in front of him. I asked him how he kept so calm and normal. He argued that you have to recognise that there are much more important things going on in the world than your ability to speak through nerves – get a bit of perspective, man.

In the end I am a bit longer in the tooth now, fairly relaxed about public speaking and usually up for the challenge. I hope I have a bit of that perspective these days but at the same time I know I have to put the time and thought into each presentation and actually try to get something out of it that feels creative to me.

Good luck.

Editing Blues (or, Learning to Love Manuscript Central)

Academics have an ambivalent relationship with peer-reviewed academic journals. In the REF-dominated UK we are all under pressure to place papers in our discipline’s top ranked international journals. That means we have to learn how to play the game and know what works and what does not. We also feed the monster by acting as (hopefully) anonymous referees providing (hopefully) constructive but honest expert reports in an objective disinterested way. Third, some of us may in time go on to act as editors of journals.

In an era beset by technological change, multiple public access controversies, the changing industrial economics or business models of said journals and publishers, as well as the proliferation of new journals – one can forget the other side of the coin of delivering the journal itself.

For my sins I was for over ten years, an editor, managing editor and even latterly editor-in-chief of a big international journal. I stepped down at the end of 2011 but even so I have since found myself involved as co-guest editor of three special issues at other journals and I still sit on four editorial boards. I have also done a stint of editing handbooks and reference works – it is addictive but I am trying to wean myself off it.

I dread to think of the number of papers I read for the journal I edited. Thousands. Typically for each submission we would have two or three external reviews plus the input of two of the editorial team. From this we would seek a consensual decision. I started off very cautious and careful when coming to a decision on a paper. I was always amazed when my senior and very experienced editorial colleague would rapidly conclude whether or not there was a (potentially publishable) paper in what we had been sent. But, I must confess, as time has gone on, one does become more confident, in part because of the on the job experience you build up but also your sharper sense of what the journal is for and what ineffably constitutes a publishable paper – I know it when I see it but I am not sure I could define it.

My main other ‘editorial blues’ lessons to impart from this experience are:

  1. Over time an editor clearly reads a lot and can get really on top of a literature to by a form of osmosis. But I think they probably get better in most cases at seeing how effective is a given literature review section of a paper in terms of how it is written rather than somehow mastering that literature in a substantive sense.
  2. Never let people off with going over the word limit. Ultimately it damages someone else’s ability to be published given total journal word caps set by the publisher; it is also a good discipline for the author. You grow to hate long papers, yet we had a major battle with authors when we reduced our papers to 8,000 words!
  3. Disputation is mercifully rare but when it happens it has to be robustly addressed (as do author disputes re. right to reply, etc.). It is all about natural justice and being seen to be fair (as with all author dealings). A good publisher can be very helpful.
  4. Writing clearly is incredibly important (and something perhaps easier to sell in a multi-disciplinary journal where there is a wide ranging audience who have even less tolerance for jargon). There is no better source for good writing than the wonderful Strunk and White ‘Elements of Style’.
  5. Most editing work is undoubtedly about choosing referees at one end of the process and reworking those referees comments at the other. We always took the view that we had the right to do this, and that it was in everyone’s interests to, where necessary, tone down or in some cases civilize specific referee reports (academics are capable of saying some shocking things in anonymous reviews).
  6. We had excellent administrative staff both locally and at the publishers. It is obviously true that smaller journals can be run well hands-on by a small group of committed editors. However, when you reach the critical mass of large-scale industrialisation (latterly on my watch we had more than 1000 submission a year), you need significant administrative support and you need co-ordinated editing and strong relations between both parts of the system.
  7. I hated it at first but as an editor I learned to love manuscript central – the online editing/reviewing/ paper management/submission systems now ubiquitous. It can be customized (I guess if you have some clout with the publisher) and can be improved particularly in the critical area of linking to the flexibility of the reviewer database.
  8. I became (and remain) unhealthily obsessed by those authors who insisted on the imputation of meaning from non-significant statistical findings (and also weak significance i.e. to 10%). In the end I instituted arbitrary rules in the journal guide for prospective authors – but did not go far enough.
  9. Don’t believe special issues in the journal you edit will be easier to manage. Typically, they are not – though they are often relatively popular and more cited in the end than mainstream issues.
  10. And yes, there have been almighty howlers, terrible titles, bizarre papers and even odder covering letters – they can keep the team going but of course cannot be repeated.

It has been said many times before but the system, warts and all, hinges on the timely supply of thoughtful and constructive reviews by referees. This is a widespread problem across academic disciplines and we, like other larger journals, debated several possible approaches to increasing willingness to referee e.g. entering into an implicit contract with authors that if they want to submit a journal article with us they should expect to review other papers as part of the deal.

I am the first to admit that though it has become easier for me to make a decision on most papers, I have written shorter and shorter reports overall. The editor of course cries out for substantive comment from the referee. Editors as referees do have the excuse that they are looking at large bundles of papers each month (I tried to aim for half a dozen short key comments for each one I read – but did not always manage to provide as many). So, next time you find yourself reviewing a paper do try to help the editor with constructive comments. Encourage others to do so too because it might be your paper next in the pile and you’d want helpful comments that point you in a stronger direction.

The future of academic journals is uncertain and the system is under pressure to change to meet the requirements of academics, readership and research funders. And, despite its problems (and many of us at some point will have experienced them at first-hand), peer review is unlikely to go away any time soon. I greatly enjoyed editing a big journal and I am convinced it was a great learning experience for me. But is nice that it is now over and I can happily live with being just a reviewer and an occasional guest editor.

 

Brown in Motion

As part of my day job at Policy Scotland we have been hosting and co-badging a series of events about the independence referendum. We are neutral in this endeavour and the objective simply is to put evidence into the debate. We have to that end hosted events by both sides and a series of ‘what if’ scenario debates. We had a lecture by John Swinney, a session by Douglas Alexander, a debate on the currency options were there to be a yes vote, and last night we had Gordon Brown.

The Chancellor of the University, Sir Kenneth Calman, introduced the event and said some nice things about Policy Scotland. Gordon Brown spoke for 45 minutes before taking questions for about a further 25 minutes.

I have seen him speak before. In 1997, as part of the devolution referendum, a series of Labour ministers flush from the landslide election victory came to Hamilton to talk up voting yes for a Scottish Parliament. I remember him being impressive, quite academic and almost scholarly in his speech. But perhaps he also benefited from following a less impressive John Prescott?

Last night he was speaking in the University Charles Wilson lecture theatre – a remodelled church with a steep banking of seating but a place I always like going to for these kinds of events. His name and reputation brought a big crowd, media and a buzz of anticipation for a rare sighting of the former PM. The large audience were generally very warm and supportive. The only heckler of note actually wanted to turn the unionist clock back to the position before 1999.

I thought I might use this post to talk about the rhetorical style he deployed rather than the substantive details, most of which had been widely trailed in the media before and after the talk. He remains an impressive speaker, building his argument and working the crowd hard.

He started in the classical style with three or four jokes. This included quite a good line about Universities and their stressing of integrity and rationality. All the virtues, he noted, that were left behind when he went into a career in politics. He made the usual jokes in favour of the host city he was speaking in at the expense of other cities and Universities.  The lines were well-delivered and often quite funny. He can be a bit ‘clunky’ but somehow it still all works as a package.

I was also very struck by two distinctive features of the presentation. First he had, no teleprompter, notes or aide memoire but rather performed something of a feat of memory including plenty of statistics, stories and historical evidence. Second, rather than stand at a lecturn, he spoke by prowling from one side of the stage to another with a large banner behind him that stated ‘strength, stability, security’. Throughout the evening he was in perpetual motion and this rhythm seemed to be a key to working his way through the structure of his speech.

A further key to the speech was that familiar rhetorical trick of repeating the same phrase again and again till it was independently bouncing around inside your head. How many times did he say ‘pooling and sharing’ fundamental social and economic rights? I think this is a standard part of his speaking style but it was particularly striking.

Like 1997 he drew a lot on the historical record, such as the key role of Tom Johnston during the war promoting the case for a nationalised NHS against the majority of the war coalition cabinet. During the Q&A he argued that there was not anything uniquely or more radical about the Scottish political position relative to others in the UK – but that there is a myth of a Scottish progressive tradition that can be built on.

And those jokes? Some were old but they were still generally effective. Two examples:

A new Chancellor of the Exchequer receives four sealed envelopes from his chief advisor on the grounds that they are only to be opened in consecutive order in times of real crisis. Things eventually do go badly wrong – the first says ‘blame your predecessor’, the second says ‘blame the statistics’, the third says ‘blame the EU’, the fourth says ‘write four letters for your successor’.

Richard Nixon travels to Ghana for its independence celebrations when vice president in 1959. He goes into the crowd and asks everyone he meets how it feels to be free. The third person he asks says ‘how should I know, I come from Alabama’.

In the end, those committed to the opposing sides of the debate will make up their own mind on the merits of the arguments Gordon Brown deployed and I was not surprised to see a wide range of reviews from the media present at the lecture. I am sure people will consider the significance of his intervention and the apparently wider role he appears to be taking in the referendum campaign. However, even if you disagree entirely with his position, we were given the rare opportunity to witness the effective rhetoric of an old-fashioned political speech made by a senior politician who can still unquestionably ‘do the business’.

 

 

Notes from a Conference

I am at a housing studies conference in York. This is an annual event, comfortable, and with many familiar faces and old friends. This year’s event has been about housing and value (deliberately multi-dimensional). A lot of tweeting went on throughout (#hsa2014).

Highlights this year were the many high quality papers we heard in workshops from several disciplines including papers on race and class by David Robinson and on policy ‘fictions’ by John Flint. There were two valuable papers on knowledge exchange projects. Ian Wilson from Sheffield Hallam also did a nice paper on the economic impacts of social housing organisations. There was a pantomime villain in the form of a Conservative councillor speaking in a plenary debate who gave as good as he got. Julia Unwin from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did the final plenary paper on the role of housing within welfare – a crumbling but essential pillar. An excellent, at times scary, but also an inspirational way to send us off.

Outside the formal business, we had Steve Wilcox’s blues band playing after the conference dinner. My personal highlights were the new people I met and got to know a bit (including Julian Birch who hitherto had been merely virtual). I also enjoyed a late night walk from the town back to the Heslington campus. And, of course, there is that excellent train journey across to Edinburgh and down the east coast to York. A friend of mine and I have also got into the habit of an early morning run on the middle morning of the conference and that was great, too.

Alex Marsh and I did a paper building on earlier research about the extent to which (and when) housing economics as an academic discipline identified and forecast the GFC, as well as the extent to which the type of work being done subsequently by housing economists has been altered, methods modified and research innovated? This is quickly quite controversial and also touches on fundamental questions of how the academy works and how change or innovation occurs. We had good feedback on a paper that has tried to systematically and chronologically review a large volume of material, most of which was a read through of 10 years of two eminent relevant journals. A lot of the substantive focus looks at fundamentals versus bubbles and the comparison between the problems experienced by macroeconomics as a discipline compared to housing economics. We now have to build on this and turn a rough incomplete draft into something submittable.

I have been coming to these events for many years (my first job entailed that I was the first honorary secretary of the Housing Studies Association in the early 1990s). While housing education is struggling it is patently obvious from meetings like the one this week – that housing research is vibrant and many younger or early career researchers are doing or contemplating conducting exciting and valuable research. This may of course be in part because of the extent of the housing ‘crisis’ that fuels demand for the work. Whatever the sources, the housing research body collective has much to be positive about.

My favourite line from various speaking platforms throughout the meeting came from a seasoned academic musing over a long historical analysis of housing politics. To paraphrase: ‘I have resigned from the Labour Party many times; once I had to rejoin just so I could resign over Iraq’.

Trying to Get Things Done

I had a catch up meeting with a dissertation student on Friday and for maybe the second or third time I met someone who also uses the time management or self-organisation system developed by David Allen – Getting Things Done.

I have been a devotee for more than 3 years now. It started simply by reading a story in the Guardian about how some of their staff had become enthusiastic followers after doing a workshop with Allen. I checked out the book of the same name and I have been hooked ever since.

Prior to going down this road, I have, for more years than I care to recall, tried different ways to organise myself better to cope with what the world flings at me, and thereby to manage my time better in essentially conventional ways. I probably bought a few too many books in airport bookshops (you know the ones) that promised simple solutions to the self-organising holy grail.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is both very simple but still quite challenging. It is an enabling framework and allows you, within a set of guidelines, to tailor and customize a GTD framework that suits you best. Assuming you have a well-functioning calendar, the key elements are a series of actively managed lists that allow you to organise and prioritise in a comprehensive way. The first of these critical lists is an in-tray of all new requests, required responses and other stuff that implies obligations on your part. Keep this up to date and out of your head and adopt a systematic way of adding these things to your system of actionable lists.

For me the key lists are projects and actions. A project is anything that is important to you and require multiple or on-going actions (at least two) to achieve outcomes important to you. I split these up into work-related and non-work related around 5 or 6 sub-headings. In parallel there are the current actions that flow from these projects (organised in the same way). Actions are the immediate focus of the prioritisation of both work and domestic tasks.

There are other lists that might be employed depending on your requirements and preferences but the other key element is the weekly review, where you spend an invaluable time working through the next week and beyond to plan and prioritise your actions and projects, set them in context and, for me, simply try to incrementally improve the whole project.

Beyond these elements it is really up to you to make this work to meet your own requirements as you see it. For instance, I distinguish between simple actions that can be done swiftly in a few minutes (quick wins) from other more substantial undertakings and I focus on keeping my email in box as near or as close to zero as I can with a document filing system in Dropbox that parallels my email sub-directories. Everything is read and far as possible actioned straightaway or at worst filed in my GTC in box for further action. When GTD is working for you it really unclutters the mind and helps focus and prioritise but the keys to its working, for me at least are threefold: being consistently comprehensive in capturing everything you do; actively managing the system on a daily basis and updating and reviewing lists; and, third, working continuously to make small improvements in the system you use that work for you. Most of the time however it is simply a great tool to manage yourself and create space, paradoxically, to work on substantive, interesting things (including leisure).

Since getting on board I have swapped between doing my list on paper in a notebook I take with me and electronically on an app that works on my smart phone/tablet and laptop. The latter sounds great and is good in some respects but I keep going back to paper. I am currently using a bespoke app for getting things done but I am sure that I will inevitably return to paper and pen.

There are challenges with this type of approach to how you fit this together. One is being a victim of its own success. There is an element of Parkinson’s Law that applies such that you fill up the spaces in your schedule with more projects and actions and you replace one form of stress (disorder) with another (congestion). Paradoxically, fitting more of your non-working time into the model may help though it may leave your partner doubting the concept of free will.

It also has to be said that this is absolutely no guarantee, from other peoples’ point of view, that you will necessarily do the things they want you to do when they want you to do it. Rather it is a system that among other things help you prioritise, rationalise, and allocate your own scarce resources.

Because it works only if you stay on top of it, you may periodically fall off the wagon. That is fine if you can get back on and it really is not hard to reinstate the system through a weekly review process. For me, though the best of many good aspects of GTD is the automatic or endogenous way it encourages me to try to improve and tinker with my own working practices to increase productivity and make life simpler. A day doesn’t go by when I am not struck by some little way of improving how I am organised or ways to think of removing impediments to some work or non-work goal.

I am convinced GTD is is part of a deeper engagement with self-organising. It was not mathematical or economics training but rather reflecting on how I try to manage myself that has led me to increasingly champion parsimony and Ockham’s razor in seeking simplicity (and recognizing those things that just are complex and multi-level). I can’t begin to enumerate the occasions in recent months when I have thought there must be a simpler more direct solution to research design, a paper’s structure, a filing system or whatever. The other complementary benefit is thinking in a GTD way helps you recognise imperfections in how things are organised and, hopefully, ways to improve.

It is a realistic reflection that this is an endless pursuit of seeking to improve one’s position but it is always better to be on the road going forward and making positive change rather than stopped or even worse letting the weeds of entropy push you backward towards disorder. I am also only too aware that a bigger and wider set of commitments makes you more exposed to exogenous shocks. I am a great believer in the old adage that ‘man plans and god laughs’ but we have to roll with the punches when our plans are knocked asunder by wider forces out of our control (I once set up a conference that was literally undone by the 2007 credit crunch decimating the conference attendees). In short: be organised, but be philosophical about it.

If any of this rambling about self-organizing is remotely interesting, do have a look for David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. There are also a number of You Tube videos by him and others about the system that could serve as an interesting introduction, A search in the internet will yield some other bits and pieces (and Allen and GTD have their own website). A video tor two to start with might be:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_mLp6x8rts

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHxhjDPKfbY

I am off to do my weekly review.