Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How nine year olds can now reform governments, one bite at a time

With the tools available today, influence over government policy is no longer the preserve of the wealthy, the well-connected or those people with a significant TV, radio or newspaper presence.

While traditional media and interests still have significant influence, social media has allowed individuals to become far more influential.

Blogs, forums and social networks give individuals and small groups the ability to have a national or global public platform, at little or no cost, that can be used to tell their stories and present different views or facts.

This is both challenging and an opportunity for governments. Governments, including politicians and officials, that seek to ignore, marginalise or otherwise discredit individuals for standing up for their beliefs or reporting facts are much more likely to be publicly exposed, their reputations damaged and any hypocrisy cast into the public eye.

Governments that embrace the opportunity to bring more people inside the tent, balance well-connected interests with individual views and question whether traditional lobby and representative groups actually represent the groups they claim to represent, are likely to find their work more complex but ultimately more effective, with better policy and more relevant service delivery outcome.

A great example of the influence of individuals due to social media (bolstered by traditional media once the groundswell grew) has occurred over the last week.

Some of you may be aware of the NeverSeconds blog, and the struggles its 9-year author has had with the Scottish council, which banned her taking photos of her school lunches until convinced otherwise by online public opinion, celebrities and the Scottish Education Minister.

However if you're not, here's the story in a nutshell (referencing Wired's story NeverSeconds shuts down).

In April this year nine-year-old Martha Payne in Scotland, with some technical help from her father, started a blog as a writing exercise to document what she ate each day for lunch in her school, Lochgilphead Primary.

Martha's lunch on 18 June
Before starting the blog, she and her father (who is a local farmer), encouraged by her mother (a GP), surfed foodie blogs for inspiration. Martha decided as a result that she wanted to photo each of her lunches and provide a report including how much she liked the food, the number of bites each meal took to eat, the health rating (from a nine-year old's perspective), the price and the number of hairs in the food.

The blog was approved by the school and was written entirely by Martha under supervision from her father.

Over the first two months of the blog's life, Martha attracted a huge audience from around the world, with more than a million views of her posts.

Her blog started driving good outcomes. Her local council 'remembered' to tell the school that students were entitiled to unlimited salad, fruit and bread, she and her father were invited to participate in a workshop on school lunches, other students from around the world began sending her photos of their lunches (which she posted in her blog too). A newspaper sent her some money for use of her photos, which she donated to a charity (more on this later).

The media caught wind of her blog and began writing articles about it, including Time, the Telegraph, and the Daily Mail. She was interviewed on the BBC and also attracted the attention of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who has crusaded on the topic of healthy school lunches in Britain.

This, however, is where bureaucracy stepped in.

Martha's lunch on 30 May
An article in a newspaper used a throw-away headline, "Time to fire the dinner ladies", while discussing Martha's involvement in a thinktank on health school meals.

The local Council, Argyll and Bute Council decided that this criticism was too much, and claimed media coverage of the blog had led catering staff to fear for their jobs.

They promptly decreed on 14 June that students would no longer be allowed to take cameras into their school canteen.

Martha was accordingly called out of maths class and told that she could no longer photo her lunches.

By this time Martha had had 2 million views of her blog and had raised £2000 for charity, including £50 from the newspaper mentioned earlier.

However, as an obedient nine-year old, Martha wrote a goodbye post on her blog.

At this point her readers became activated, and the media coverage exponentially increased. She received 2,370 comments on her goodbye post and over 200 articles were posted in newspapers, plus radio and TV stories around the world. She received celebrity support from Jamie Oliver and Neil Gaiman.

Twelve hours later, the Argyll and Bute Council published an official statement (now removed from their site, but still visible online thanks to at http://www.twitlonger.com/show/hrom1r).

This statement, in part, accused Martha of misrepresenting what was on offer in the canteen,
 "The Council has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘never seconds’ blog for obvious reasons despite a strongly held view that the information presented in it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils"
Martha's lunch on 16 May
It went on to state the Council's dedication to good food standards in school canteens, said they'd not received formal complaints about the food in the last two years other than from Martha's family, and that the blog had, and would have, no influence on what they served students anyway. (It is interesting to compare the quality of the statement's writing with the quality of Martha's writing.)

Around this time the charity Martha was supporting, Mary's Meals, reported that they'd now received over £40,000 in donations from her blog - more than enough to build a new kitchen at Lirangwe Primary School in Blantyre, Malawi, to feed its 1,963 students. The kitchen is to be named 'Friends of NeverSeconds'.

Three hours after the Argyll and Bute Council published its statement, the council's leader, Roddy McCuish, told the BBC that he was rescinding the ban on photos in school canteens, and the council issued a statement commending Martha's blog and indicating that the council would be involving students in their efforts to keep improving school meals,
We need to find a united way forward so I am going to bring together our catering staff, the pupils, councillors and council officials - to ensure that the council continues to provide  healthy, nutrious and attractive school meals.  That "School Meals Summit" will take place later this summer.

 I will also meet Martha and her father as soon as I can, along with our lead councillor on Education, Michael Breslin to seek her continued engagement, along with lots of other pupils, in helping the council to get this issue right.   By so doing Martha Payne and her friends  will have had a strong and lasting influence not just on school meals, but on the whole of Argyll & Bute.

Martha has resumed her blogging, and has now raised over £87,000 for the Mary's Meal charity - see her total, and give to the charity here.

Meanwhile the issue of healthy school lunches is being more widely discussed and debated, and the council has learnt it needs to more closely consider the views of its constituents and the children it serves. Shutting down debate is no longer an option for successful governance.

And the children of Lirangwe Primary School in Malawi are extremely happy, with the short video below a fitting tribute to the impact individuals can now have on governments - one bite at a time.

No comments:

Post a Comment