Who is missing on the Employment & Skills Board for Cambs & P’boro?

Why are so many vital sectors not covered? What does this say about the way the public sector runs such forums. Would you be interested in serving on the Board?

This was raised as an issue at the previous board meeting – and written up in the minutes as follows:

“To increase the number of influential people, especially from the employers,
the Chair requested that every member put forward a nominee and send their suggestion to the Interim Associate Skills Director. Membership would be discussed once all nominations were received.”

Employment and Skills Board 17 May 2022

Have a look at the agenda and expected participants here or below.

When you think of not just of the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough, but also the market towns and the rural economies, which are the economic activities that are:

  • The most critical to the functioning of economy, society, and ecosystems/environment?
  • The sectors that have the greatest and most chronic shortages of skilled workers?
  • The sectors where shortages are likely to have the greatest short and long term impact?

Three that immediately come to mind are:

  • Town planners
  • GPs and dentists
  • Public transport workers

So, who to approach and how (for those examples)?

Off the top of my head I’d go for the RTPI East of England’s office. For GPs I might go for the British Medical Association’s Cambridge Group, and for dentists their Cambridge or East of England equivalent at the British Dental Association. And for public transport workers? Why not their trade union representatives – in Stagecoach Cambridge, Unite The Union? (previously part of the Transport & General Workers Union)

Those are just some quick examples.

But there are longer term structural problems that the Board needs to deal with – ones learnt the hard way with the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly.

Watch over three hours of Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly video footage from July 2017 at South Cambridgeshire Hall/multi-use large room. (The video playlist I filmed five years ago is here)

Go on! I dare you!

Above – Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction 1996 shouting “I dare ya!”

Many of the videos from that era were commissioned by the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations – here’s another example from October 2016 – a playlist of public questions to the then City Deal Board which at the time was controlled politically by the Cambridgeshire Conservatives. A reminder that all three political parties in control of councils within Cambridgeshire have at least some responsibility for the actions of the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP).

The point about the GCP Assembly is that if you substituted a consultancy rate for all of external participants, (which would come up as a not-cheap hourly rate), did the GCP Assembly get value for money from its members? To which the answer surely has to be “No”.

The reason – based on my previous regular attendances of such meetings – followed by going to GCP Board meetings and seeing what was fed back to Board members, is that problem of meeting structure: one person at a time speaking. It was only later on that the GCP started to experiment with alternative methods by commissioning InvolveUK – whose methods library is here.

The ‘key stakeholders’ model of policy-making.

At the end of my civil service career in 2011, I played with some ideas on how social media might affect policy making. I produced a very large set of slides public policy-style that I uploaded to Slideshare so everyone can see them. The model of policy-making I was trained in, and worked in during the 2000s looked like this.

Above – The Impact of Social Media on Whitehall – Antony Carpen (2011) slide 16.

That was how public policy was done. When the internet originally came along, the model was more broadcast than genuine consultation. And everyone needed a webpage in the year 2000 just as everyone needed a Facebook account in 2010. Or so we thought.

The problem that large organisations have been facing for a number of years – and still struggle with, is that the information they were once the experts in and the gatekeepers of, is no longer within their domain. It is ‘out there’.

The recent consultations run for both East West Rail, and The Beehive Centre Redevelopment more than exposed this. The East West Rail event in Cambridge, along with the earlier Beehive Centre public event did not have nearly enough staff who were familiar with the city geographically, let alone its local history and local communities. How am I supposed to explain issues to their consultants if they don’t know where Parker’s Piece in Cambridge is?!?!?

What we now see – in particular in Parliament – is the scenario of ministers being pulled up in real time by live social media reporting and fact-checking.

Something I predicted over a decade ago – a senior politician being fact-checked while being interviewed, or as is far more common now, fact-checked by opposition MPs inside the House of Commons because someone familiar with the policy area has posted an update that MPs can pick up on their social media feeds.

And thus you end up with”

“Mr Speaker, I believe the Minister has inadvertently misled the House because it has emerged from [insert name of source] that the Government’s own statistics on this matter do not match what the Minister has just said”

But then under Boris Johnson’s leadership we’ve ended up with a culture of routine lying to the extent ministers no longer care or are bothered whether the ‘line to take’ is the truth or not. It’s simply a response, and the past few years has shown that a political system based on ‘honourable gentlemen’s codes of conduct’ with no sanctions or disincentives for bad behaviour can no longer function – if it ever did in the first place.

“What has this got to do with the Skills Board?”


It shows that modern policy making relies on a diverse group of people from diverse backgrounds who are connected to their communities. A system of long meetings with only one person speaking at a time in a forum with a very limited membership makes me wonder whether the Board are asking/answering the right questions on the actual economic state of the county, and whether the advice they are feeding back to the Combined Authority is as sound as it could and should be. That’s not to question the calibre of the present individuals – it’s to question the structure, systems, and processes of an institution established by Ministers of the Crown.

“So…who else is missing and what gaps need covering?”

Cambridgeshire – take two of the three cities away and you have an economy dominated by…agriculture. Who represents agriculture and the interests of agricultural workers?

Trade union representation – conspicuous by their absence.

If there’s one area that needs representing on the Board, its employee representatives. For agriculture this might be someone from Unite the Union’s Rural and Agriculture section. Or for supermarket & convenience shop workers the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) – of which the county is covered.

Inevitably the questions will arise as to party-political interference on what is supposed to be a non-party-political advisory committee. But if you look at the history of trade unions, promoting learning and skills for their members is one of their core functions.

In 1949, The Labour MP & barrister Moss Turner-Samuels K.C., M.P. published his guide on British Trade Unions as part of a series about life in the UK and its institutions – the back cover publicising “The Stock Exchange” and “Insurance” – so hardly a socialist propaganda series. Note the chapter headings on the functions of trade unions.

Above – British Trade Unions – by M. Turner Samuels – digitised here

Furthermore, the History of Adult Education by Thomas Kelly (1962) which I’ve digitised here tells us that the trade union movement was involved in the setting up of a series of adult education institutions in the 1800s and 1900s. See the references below.

Above – references to Ruskin College Oxford, The Workers’ Educational Association, and Labour Colleges.

“We’re proud that trade union members have been learning with us for over 100 years and now, responding to current needs, our digital courses use secure, interactive tools where you can share ideas, see new faces, make friends and stretch your mind.”

WEA West Midlands – Trade Union links
The Green New Deal – who has direct experience of installation of the technologies needed to adapt to the climate emergency?

If we need to upskill and retrain in new green technologies – for example the widespread installation of solar panels and other renewables, who is represented? This is something that needs to be linked into the adult education policies which combined authorities now have policy responsibility devolved to them.

This is where a representative of a trade association – who also is experienced in fitting the technologies concerned, would be extremely useful. Not least because of the market intelligence they can feed in – for example if demand is so great they cannot get the skilled workers in, or broken supply chains, to times when there might be spare capacity going (but still the public policy need to install the renewables) that a publicity drive or even public sector organisations bringing forward procurement timetables might result in work for the firms and more competitive prices for those placing the orders.

In conclusion?

Yes, the Board needs a refresh, but please ‘think strategically’ about it – don’t just invite the easiest-to-persuade / most familiar faces to take part. Go to those areas and sectors that are traditionally not represented on these forums, but whose participation is both essential and will add value – and a significant amount too.

Food for thought?

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