A decade ago, in 2009, I decided to experiment with blogging as a way of engaging with public policy and management debates.
It wasn’t easy.
I was an academic employed by Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.
I said I wanted to start a blog. They said – no you can’t. I asked why? They said, first we don’t know how to and second we don’t want you freelancing and possibly “damaging the brand”.
Let’s back-track a bit to see how I got to this point.
I am not a conventional academic. I left school at 16 with only 5 “O” Levels and went to work as a Lab Tech with what was then ICI Pharmaceuticals research in Alderley Edge.
Between 1969 – when I started working – and 1990 I was a political activist, a student union activist, a trade union activist and a local government officer. I learnt to write simple, explanatory, and hopefully persuasive articles for ordinary readers. Some was political, some trade union, and some was internal organisational communications and training material.
Then in the late 1980s I started doing a Masters degree and subsequently became a full-time academic in 1990. In 1992 I started a PhD at the LSE and my writing style changed. I learnt, if that is the right word, to write “academically’. Long sentences, lots of references to sometimes tangential ‘authorities’, obtuse language, all that usually academic obscurantist nonsense.
I then spent a decade – until the early 2000s – writing “academic” articles and eventually several books. Academic writing is not like writing for the general public. At its best it should be very precise and this can lead to the use of specialist language and even common words used in very different ways to their ordinary usage.
At worst academic writing can become obtuse, obscurantist and sometimes “theological” – debating how many Angels can fit on a pin head. It is especially prone – at least in the social sciences – to dwelling far too much on “the literature”. That means ‘what other academics have said about the object of investigation’ rather than on the object of investigation itself.
It also tends to tends to over-qualify and caveat everything which can be good, but can also just muddle things. It can certainly make it hard for non-academics who are interested in academic expertise and research for public policy purposes to engage with traditional academic outputs – books and journal articles.
As a former practitioner and someone who always thought the point wasn’t just understand the world but to change it, I was always engaged with practitioners – researching, teaching and consulting.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s I started writing things for more practitioner and policymaker audiences. I got involved with writing submissions to House of Commons Select Committees and giving evidence as an expert witness.
This lead, in turn, to me starting to write for practitioner and other media outlets and a worrying realization that my years writing as an academic had “de-skilled” me when it came to writing for non-academic audiences.
Fortunately I was rescued by some very kind journalists – Judy Hirst and Mike Thatcher on ‘Public Finance’ magazine, David Allaby of ‘Public Servant’ (sadly now defunct) and several MS
M journalists who helped – Nick Timmins (FT), David Walker (Guardian), Evan Davis (Newsnight economics editor back then). Judy was especially helpful – and patient. None of them are to blame, however, for what followed.
Starting in 2003 I wrote over 50 articles for a variety of practitioner magazines and newspapers over five years. The fact I kept getting asked suggests I’d certainly (re?) learnt the art of communicating to a wider audience than academics.
I’ve republished that output in book form, especially as many of them are no longer easily available.
All this whilst, I hope, not losing the art of academic writing (I published 5 books and more book chapters, and academic articles, between 2005 and 2010).
Which brings us back to 2009 and the start of my blogging experience.
Having been told “I can’t” by my academic School I decided to do it anyway and set up “Whitehall Watch” and started blogging.
Blogging was both less and more constrained than writing for print media. It was quick – I could write and publish in a matter of hours, so I could react quickly to developing news stories. This was much less constrained than print media – especially the weekly or monthly magazines I mainly wrote for.
However I also learnt quickly that blogging is more constrained in length. People are reading on-screen and, in my experience, tend to find reading lengthy articles less enticing. So a limit of about 800 words is advisable – the same as a short column for a magazine, but not a feature article (usually about 1,500-2,000 words or even longer).
Whitehall Watch grew – by the last full-year of publication (2012) as an independent blog I had nearly 55,000 ‘views’. And the fact that I knew how many readers I had, and to some degree who they were, was an unexpected part of blogging. Sometimes intoxicating when a post went well, sometimes depressing when it didn’t.
It was mainly a single author blog. A few were co-authored but despite my best efforts I found it hard to get fellow academics to write for ‘Whitehall Watch’. Maybe it was too soon? Or maybe they saw it as “Talbot’s blog”? Many were certainly disdainful of blogging. And maybe I was asking the wrong people – mainly senior academics (I was later to discover ‘early career’ academics are much more enthusiastic – but that’s for the next instalment).
One extra lesson from this period – blogs persist. Unlike print media which tends to become “tomorrows fish and chip wrapper” (as the old saying goes) blog posts are still there, online, and relatively easily found. This leads to some posts acquiring a “long tail” of small but persistent number of views over sometimes years.
I’ve even had cases where ‘old’ posts suddenly comes back to ‘life’. There seem to be several causes for this. One is where the issue has come around again – so for example stuff on Universal Credit kept regaining attention every so often. Some times it was obviously a group or network (students doing a course for which it was relevant or a ‘community of interest’) that had come across a post they found useful or interesting and shared it.
To end this first part of the story – by 2013 my University had moved from “don’t do that” to “how can we do that?”
The obvious success of ‘Whitehall Watch’ was one factor in my being asked by our Vice-Chancellor to look at ways of improving the University’s public policy profile.
More on that experience in the next instalment.