JRF, January 31st, 2021

Ella Fitzsimmons
9 min readJan 31, 2021

Bumper issue because I couldn’t press “publish” last week.

I’ve been thinking about the unnecessary, inaccurate, anecdote, and what it says about the teller.

I went through a deep Desert Island discs phase last summer, trying to understand more about UK culture. The most recent attempt of many. They’ve ranged from successful — quiz machines and pub chat — to outright failures — joining a 6-person rugby 7s team in 1999. (It’s a weird sport, and having the correct number of players really does matter, it turns out.)

So. Desert Island discs. Conclusion: many very boring, unmusical people become famous, especially in, ahem, public life (old school exception: Barbara Castle), Lauren Laverne is a better host than the past ones (Sue Lawlor a particular lowlight, Roy Plumley the second best one) and there are exactly two good songs from The Past: La Mer by Charles Trenet (or Julio Iglesias!) and Round Midnight (by Dave Brubeck).

I am not looking for feedback at this time.

I ended up listening to the Samantha Power episode the other day, which made me think about the stories people don’t need to tell, but do anyway. Especially ones that aren’t true.

Ahead of a Nina Simone track, she says “I think Simone, who was radicalised in her later years, meant it as a song of despair, a lament” and then something about how she finds it immensely motivating.

Which…sure. It’s not the Nina Simone track I would pick, and here’s a good discussion of a lot of the things about Power’s politics I disagree with.

But it’s also just that…look, Nina Simone wasn’t “radicalised in her later years”. She was an activist from at least 1963, when she was about 30, and she didn’t die until forty years later.

(No self-respecting person over 35 describes a person of 30 as being in their “later years”. We describe them as “young” if we’re feeling good about ourselves and our levels of good looks and worldly success, and “hatefully young” if we’re not. Again, I am not taking questions at this time.)

Why include that line at all, other than to fit someone else’s politics into your worldview?

I wish Lauren had corrected her, or that the nuance was in the show notes.

I know that I’m more persnickety about things like this than I should be, especially for someone who frequently mixes up the 1960s and 1970s. (Before I was born, did it even happen?). But still.

I wonder what mine are.

The work things

Did a couple of 12+ hour days the other week, which I had promised myself I wouldn’t do in this job. Must and will do better (or at least less).

On the one, RSI-shrivelled hand, switching between many meetings and writing long, explainer-based documents makes for long days. On the other, less enfeebled and positive hand, I got a budget and approach signed off and the people who did so said nice things about the documents being accessible and interesting (for a tech document, ha).

I still think “tech explainer” should be a standardised job title.

The UCD team had a kick-off for a part of the website work. I’m trying to divide up the next stage of the website into smaller chunks, so we can test and learn more before deciding what to commission. Alphas, basically.

Big thanks to Sanjay for his excellent intro to Risky Assumptions, which the team loved and which I reckon will become a digital transformation classic. (High praise, I know.)

The first one we’re working on I’ve called “campaign asset page”, which is a terrible name, and then went on to call “what’s next?”, which is not much better. No doubt the team will think of a better name. But it’s about how the JRF website could be part of answering “what’s next” when someone from JRF appears on the BBC etc, or there’s a big social media campaign. How much drop off is there if we redirect to petitions.gov.uk? Is it worth having an address lookup/draft letter to write your MP? Or is it all about retweeting data and descriptions? That sort of thing. It’s a mix between what we can change now (on a croaky, Drupal 7 CMS), and what JRF could or should do in the future.

We also did some research ops, sourcing and setting up contracts with user research agencies so we can do some user testing. (Thank you Cennydd.) Holly and Jude have been writing, which I’m pleased about. I want us to have a lower barrier to publishing to show what we’re up to and that things are moving.

Note: I need to come up with a better way of explaining why to do this than it being “a proof of life” — kidnapping analogies aren’t exactly the vibes I’m going for.


Working with the strat comms team on things like what goes where, when and for whom (on LinkedIn, I will be calling this a “channel strategy”, because recruiters love that stuff) as well as talking about people’s time (again, you will find this on my truly professional platforms as “business design” but again, it’s basically a combination of timesheets and asking people to run things past me or Husna before committing to things.)

Did some freelance work with Elisse and Jon the last two Fridays. Branding and corporate strategy workshops for a secret client. Hadn’t met Jon before, but his brave addition of Bezos’s space ship (image search it, this is a family-friendly blog post) to a corporate deck is a sign of talent and excellence. And working with Elisse again was a delight, as you’d expect.

I pitched Warby Parker meets Grace and Frankie as the basis of a rebrand, but the world isn’t ready for my genius. One day.

And Bill and I had a brilliant catch up about value and data and innovation and ethics. I’m really excited about the ju-jitsu move for public sector product strategies — if you’re thinking about value not being about financing and tracking, what parts of existing products could you use? What if you took Amazon Prime’s X-Ray and bunged it on to public service streaming, but about…plastics in an Attenborough show rather than the hot dude from Bridgerton. Use the fact that people want to nerd out after they seen something. That sort of thing.

Why are values statements so boring?

Seriously, I’ve written so many and they’re all pretty similar. Three to five nouns or values. The bad ones don’t much reflect what it’s like to work in an organisations, and the good ones do. But in general, it’s a useful format, but not one that allows for much creativity and flexibility. See also: design principles, data principles and…probably vision statements.

I was having this chat with Sym about Democracy Club’s values the other Friday, and I’m channelling my malaise into writing some less bland ones. Thinking much typing, 2 drinks in, idiosyncratic formatting and run-on sentences. Worth a try.

Amazingly, self-conscious title but similarly solid points about careers pages here:

I feel like there’s a lot of space for companies that know who they are to show that. Hire writers and listen to them ← EVERGREEN POINT.

Ethical decision-making framework

People love a framework. I don’t fully understand why, but they do, and I feel like it’s a thing I should be nice about.

Most of them feel really cumbersome and kind of…theoretical. But when Sym and I were chatting the other week, I remembered the Gut Check list.

Mark pointed me to it when I was trying to find a framework for how to talk about which projects to do or not do at IF a couple of years ago. It’s so good. Big thanks to the people who wrote it.

It was one of those moments when I want to go back to my 20-something self (“old people are boring, why does anyone hire them?”) and lecture her on the value of experience and of a professional memory-bank that wasn’t fully composed of who has slept with who and the complete Hong Kong happy hour schedule. (Mark: “I bet you can still remember that one.” Me: “Not taking feedback at this time.”)

Fun with Software

If you have clients with mixed to low digital confidence, EasyRetro is ace.

Super low learning curve (lower than Miro) but much more functionality than the admittedly useful low-fi template of sticky notes on Google slides I stole from Unboxed last summer. Though that one is also good:

The best EasyRetro feature is hiding other people’s answers while everyone is writing. You can see why this would be useful, group dynamics being what they are. Plus, it gives you all sorts of opportunities for mischief.

Some good tech for good

I’m more critical about tech for good and co-design than my CV would suggest. But! Even my jaded heart can get excited about things, it seems.

I stole this from Ann Friedman’s newsletter, and I find it so exciting.

Important point: it’s not because the case studies are great. Trust no case studies, people. Case studies are illustrations, not documentation. I’ve written a LOT of case studies, as a variety of other people — including less scrupulous academics — and in a host of industries. The format doesn’t allow for complexity, failure, or null results. It’s sales or training collateral. There’s a reason why they’re part of the entry exams to management consultancies.

But I think Built With Zero is exciting because it uses data, technology, policy and design in ways that seem like they actually draw on what those professions do well. I’d love to see something like it in the UK. Not *just* like it (see: cultural context, importance of), but something that uses different disciplines in a similar way.

Other arbitrary links

I enjoyed this from Sinead Burke and the students at the Dublin School of Art.

(it wouldn’t embed. here’s the link. https://www.instagram.com/p/CKbwytJDs63/?igshid=1tyq4udx5nush

And I listened to a 6 episode thing about Kamala Harris’s rise to power. It’s less hagiographic than you’d expect, which is good.

I listened to it while reading Heawood’s Hungover Games, which I didn’t love. But it reminded me of why I love LA and of the difference between careers that weren’t decimated by the 2008–2009 crash and those that were. Totally not the point. Or perhaps it is.

So much SOPHIE in the speakers at home this week. (Sadness.)

I read a great obituary about Izzy Young, who was a friend of a friend and the only guy in Sweden who had Bob Dylan’s phone number when Dylan won the Nobel Prize. Oui, this is a name drop.

But that’s OK, because I’ve been watching Call My Agent. And Andrea or Arlette would never allow such concerns to hold them back. May I one day be as intimidating as they are. Naturellement!