Tag Archives: storytelling

Backstory: The Audit Commission – Part I

Interestingly, as I’m thinking about what you say and what you don’t and considering how to flesh out the story of me online, this weekend it was announced that the Audit Commission is to be abolished.

The Audit Commission was a big part of my working life. Did you know that? Probably not, there might be fleeting references to it, but to an extent, when I left in 2002 I drew a line under it as an experience and moved on. So as an interesting exercise in backstory writing (ie creating panels before the first panel – and of course a gutter between) what did I do there?

I arrived at the Commission’s Vincent Square headquarters on 1 August 1994. It was coincidentally the day that Commission staff were all moving back into VSQ after refurbishment, so it was a more laid back introduction than I’d expected and everyone else had a little air of being new themselves. I was there as a placement student for a year as part of my degree in Computing & IT at Surrey University.

My role as a student was to provide data analysis support to study teams in the directorate of Local Government Studies. I found myself allocated to a number of studies, but primarily a team just starting to look at the education of children under five. In the course of the year I got more and more excited by the prospect of understanding public services by collecting data and going out and talking to people.

The classic commission study contained a comprehensive and thorough narrative exploring the area of interest coupled with facts and analyses to support the argument. In addition there was usually an audit tool of some sort which would allow local auditors to carry out a value for money audit in the services affected.

So much of my time was spent following the study team around, carrying bags and getting to understand what they were doing and seeing where I could spot things that could be measured and interesting stories that might be told based on thbe data. It wasn’t up to me to come up with the stories, more to spot interesting avenues of investigation and then, if the study team agreed then to look further.

A running joke was that study teams always found there to be “significant variation between councils’ performance in X” for a number of Xs. Spotting variation was only the beginning. Explaining why variation occurred and what managers could do to improve their performance was much more important.

Not much was expected of us as students, but I loved bringing large sets of data together and seeing what you could tell from it. So I set about recording all of the data we were collecting, right down to attendance patterns in nursery schools into one big database that I could play around with.

The key output of this was a spreadsheet that allowed an auditor to compare the data they collected in an individual educational setting, or across a local authority, with national averages. My innovation was to present this data in the form of a “cost tree” for cost per child per hour.

A figure for cost per anything is usually one big number divided by some other big number, so in this case the total cost of provision divided by the number of child hours provided. Now this might vary for a wide range of reasons but by laying out the factors that go to make up the costs and those that might vary in the calculation of the total number of child hours (a policy decision, for example, to limit the number of hours 3-year-olds might get) it was much easier to see where differences arose.

It was very simple in the end but effective. It gave people something to think about, something to discuss and help them put a local picture into a national context. As well as helping the study team understand the dynamics of costs and differences between the costs of types of setting, it would help auditors to show councils where they might make improvements.

I went back to university for my final year, but was very pleased when the people in the study team lobbied for me to be recruited following graduation. But that’s a story for another day.

OK – what does this tell you about me? How does it help explain what happens next? Does it explain anything at all? Or is the gulf between this and what you know of me today too wide for you to suspend your disbelief that they’re the same people (*I* struggle..!). Do you want to give up, or carry on? Have I jumped too far from yesterdays post for you to understand what I’m trying to do here?

Keeping out of the gutters

I was struck by a piece by Scott Walker a few weeks ago on the use of the gutter in comic-strips and relating it to transmedia storytelling. I identified with it immediately because I know that the space you leave between the things you articulate are hugely fertile places – our minds are great at filling in the gap between A and B. Storytellers have exploited this by setting the audience up with a series of scenes that lead you to a certain conclusion and then revealing something that was left out that turns the plot around completely. In great detective novels for example the truth becomes clear when we find out exactly what happened between B and C rather than what we’d taken for granted and therefore Y to Z makes perfect sense.

I’ve applied this to Tuttle. When we started I made up some simple boundary conditions that I wanted to hold and I reinforced them over time: minimal structure; no-one grabs attention; regular meetings; as free at the point of access as possible; it isn’t for everyone but it is for anyone, etc. and theen I let you all make up the “rules” or ways to behave that make sense to you. I think this is the best way to make co-creation work.

And with Tuttle it still works: it leads to conversation that draws out and articulates what we can agree on – just such a conversation happened this week about moving Friday mornings to another location, out of which came the insight that maybe Tuttle needs a social space to feel comfortable in. We’ll keep this conversation going. It isn’t finished – that’s because the gutters are fractal – everytime you fill the gap between A and B with X you actually create two new narrower ones A-X and X-B and so we continue on.

So my favourite advice to people thinking about co-creation is “Pay as much attention to the gaps you leave as to the structure you build”

But this brings to light an error in how I’ve unconsciously applied this to everything I do, particularly in the narrative I create about myself when marketing the things I do. I realise that it’s not obvious how Tuttle arose out of my previous work, nor how Tuttle the meetup relates either to Tuttle Consulting nor to Tuttle2Texas – it’s clear perhaps that I’m involved, but how are they Tuttle things – and what’s all this art stuff about?

So there’s more to say on each of those than fits in a Monday morning blogging session. However, I offer the following observations relating to keeping wide gutters between things:

  1. Some (maybe lots of) people just give up trying to work it out, it’s too hard – this means they give up on the story altogether.
  2. People make up the stuff based on their own experience and that can have positive and negative consequences for someone trying to maintain a narrative.
  3. People vary in their ability to give up a bridging idea that they’ve constructed, but most hold on pretty tight.

PS I recognise that I might not have completely recovered from this – ie I’m leaving holes that might be too big for you to traverse right now. Sorry, one blog post at a time :)

PPS there may be some more clues in my soon-to-be-launched newsletter – sign up here