UK prime minister David Cameron’s reshuffle of his Conservative ministers this week was preceded, as these things are, by a swirl of rumour. One odd, in the circumstances, claim was that the head of the civil service – Sir Robert Kerslake – was to be ‘sacked.’ Odd because he’s a civil servant not a politician so why would his position be part of a cabinet reshuffle? As with some of the other claims and counter-claims this turned out to be not strictly true but it reminded me that I’ve blogged before about initiatives he has been associated with

There’s an interesting, indeed excellent analysis of what’s actually happening to Sir Robert and the post he occupies on the Public Finance web site – Wanted: a real civil service CEO. I won’t attempt to repeat or plagiarise it but just want to highlight a few points.

First, I hadn’t realised that when he became head of the civil service Sir Robert retained his previous post of permanent secretary in the department of communities and local government. This information, new to me, adds another criticism to my earlier comments.  How was someone expected to lead the transformation of the entire civil service while keeping up his previous, already onerous, job? It’s a nonsense and spells out a real lack of commitment and understanding by the politicians of the bigger task.

Second, if this weren’t enough, the new arrangements post-Kerslake introduce further ambiguity and lack of role clarity if Public Finance is to be believed. The current Cabinet Secretary maintains his role and … you’ve guessed it, also becomes head of the civil service. Same problem as above. To make it worse a new civil service chief executive post is also to be created. Public Finance mounts a rational criticism of this arrangement, to which I would add more intemperately ‘For heaven’s sake , don’t these people ever learn?’

Third, don’t the two changes since 2012, when Kerslake was appointed to the ‘head’ job, just exemplify that old curse of bureaucracies? If in doubt, reorganise. Again, I’m tempted to conclude, don’t they ever learn?

Lastly, as the French don’t say, cherchez le politicien. As Public Finance explains

with an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased.

So there you have it. All the elements that bedevil the public sector – wrong-headed reform badly expressed, ambiguity and conflict, a probably unrealistic demand by politicians for rapid transformation, reform undone and done again, the lessons of the past not learnt.

I almost feel sorry for Sir Bob. As I say, don’t they ever learn?


I got myself in a debate on Twitter last night about this question. Someone made the following statement about people in Scotland

the majority wants Trident out.

I responded

Scot Soc Att Survey – 59% either in favour of nuclear weapons or no view

To ‘fess up straight away I was wrong about 59%, the true figure is 53%, but that’s still a majority. I gave a link to the correct data online (it’s set out in detail below) and the full source is the excellent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.

What happened next is worthy of some examination because there is a view around the independence referendum that people don’t have enough information available to decide. This particular exercise in correcting one small misapprehension led to the following exchange

HIM: nice manipulation of the data. Kudos

ME: Since I gave rational answer to yr prev point I assume ‘nice manip’n of the data’ isn’t directed at me

HIM: no you attempted to manipulate data to substantiate your opinion.

HIM: it isn’t a factual error…Out of those that have an opinion, the majority want it out

ME: Have to agree to differ then because I think ‘neither in favour or against’ *is* an opinion

HIM: not when you’re claiming majority by manipulating stats. Majority of those of opinion want it out

HIM: is that correct? yes or no?

ME: I can’t explain further but I do have a reasonable understanding of statistics. Good night.

So without the constraints of 140 characters per message of Twitter who’s right, ‘him’ or ‘me’?

Here are the statistics I was referring to, courtesy of ScotCen Social Research:

Trident table

Click to enlarge

Source: Table in Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013

The first thing to say is the question asks whether Britain should have nuclear weapons, not Trident specifically. But since Trident missiles are the only nuclear weapons Britain possesses it’s a reasonable approximation. It should also be noted that the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is a reputable, reliable and statistically valid source of opinion on the subject matter it covers. I know of no other up to date neutral source that addresses the same issue.

The nub of the difference between my interlocutor and me is whether people who answered ‘neither in favour or against’ should be included in the calculation of the percentage of people ‘against Trident.’ I say yes because to be neither for nor against is to express a view. Moreover, even a survey of this high quality is a relatively blunt instrument at catching the full subtlety of people’s opinions. So I could easily imagine a whole range of views underlying an opinion that someone is neither in favour nor against Britain having its own nuclear weapons. For example

  • You know, I couldn’t care less. I’ve got more important things to worry about
  • Well, I can see things for and against. It’s a fine balance
  • It’s not really relevant to defence these days but if the experts want it…
  • and so on.

In any event, the statement originally made was that ‘the majority wants Trident out’, not ‘the majority excluding “don’t knows” and those “neither in favour nor against” want Trident out’ – as the other person concerned amended his claim to when challenged. These are two quite different things.

To put it another way, if you lined up 100 Scots and said ‘Will everyone who is somewhat or strongly against Britain having nuclear weapons please step forward?’ 46 would. That’s a minority.

This sort of detail is important because it’s the only way to tease out the claims and counter-claims that accompany the independence referendum debate.

Incidentally, the question of Scotland being different from the rest of the UK features prominently in ‘Yes’ claims about the independence referendum. It is interesting to compare the results of the same question asked in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey’s sister survey south of the border (the small percentages of ‘Don’t know’s have been excluded from this table).

Trident UK

As the authors of this comparison say

The differences in the level of support are not that large, and both parts of the UK could reasonably be described as being divided on the subject (the full report can be downloaded here).

To go back to the original issue, I maintain that there is not a proven majority of people in Scotland who ‘want Trident out.’ But I’m open to reasoned arguments that prove the opposite.

 


Aficionados of the Scottish independence referendum debate will know how new words and new meanings for words are being created all the time. Some are apposite, some amusing, some offensive, some just plain daft – recently had a discussion online with a nationalist who writes his tweets as if he were Yoda, I have. A weird experience.

But there are words which, while not offensive in themselves, seek to create a misleading impression to the extent that they are actually lies.

One such word is colony, the accusation that Scotland is a colony of England. This canard surfaces frequently online and was used over the last weekend by former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, if I heard the news correctly.

Here I have the advantage over Mr Wilson. As far as I can see he has never lived outside Scotland except for some schooling on the Isle of Man. I have, and I am also old enough to have lived in a British colony (Singapore) and visited others either when they were still colonies or shortly after they became independent.

There was no single constitutional model for a British colony (the Brits pragmatists as ever) but most shared a number of features until very near their end. I would invite Mr Wilson and other perpetrators of the ‘Scotland is a colony of England’ lie to consider which apply to Scotland.

  • In a British colony, formal authority was vested in a governor as representative of the monarch and appointed by the British government.
  • There were often no democratic structures, certainly no elected national government. If there were elected representatives, they were usually confined to local councils and/or an advisory body.
  • Specific political parties, especially those that argued for independence, were often banned. Bans were often supported by imprisonment of party leaders, sometimes by detention without trial.
  • Even if there were some democratic structures, the people had no representation in the UK parliament.
  • The legal status of residents varied but they were not citizens of the United Kingdom and had no right of travel to the UK.
  • The authority of the governor was often backed up by British army units that were used if necessary to quell dissent.
  • In quelling dissent, protesters were dispersed in ways that would not be acceptable nowadays in the UK and people were sometimes killed. Widespread rebellion in some colonies like Kenya and Malaya led to the use of camps where local populations were relocated from their homes.
  • The judiciary was appointed solely by the UK government or the British colonial administration.

I can hear nationalist objections to my list – ‘Ah but there’s another sort of colonisation, of our cultural institutions and of our very minds themselves.’

Well, yes … but language is used in this way not as a form of subtle cultural metaphor but as a blunt instrument to give a false impression that through repetition might become a perceived truth.

There are plenty of arguments for and against independence for Scotland. The lie that Scotland is a colony of England is not one of them.


For anyone who hasn’t seen it Bella Caledonia is a web site that says it’s ‘an online magazine (launched in 2007) exploring ideas of independence, self-determination and autonomy.’ Whatever it was in 2007 it’s gone beyond exploration to being a sort of up-market intellectual cheer leader for the Scottish independence ‘Yes’ campaign.

They make great play of the high quality of debate about Independence, although they claim in a recent article (Doubt? by their editor Mike Small) that ‘the No campaign has a track record of constant disengagement.’ So, the high quality of debate is on their side only. Still, as they say,

just about everywhere you go, everyone’s talking about the same thing: the referendum, our collective future.

Or trying to. I tried to comment on this article when it appeared. My comment was held ‘awaiting moderation’ for a few hours while other, later comments were published. When I checked about ten hours after submitting it, my comment had disappeared. It has to be said that ALL the comments they published supported their point of view. But if one attempt to comment that didn’t fit their world view has disappeared, perhaps others have too.

Here is my unpublished comment in full:

Bella Caledonia consistently praises the quality of the independence debate from the ‘Yes’ side and consistently denigrates the quality from the ‘No’ side. The one thing I’d agree with about this post is the challenge of conducting a ‘nuanced complex argument’ on Twitter. So perhaps in this less-constrained space Bella could hitch her skirts up and answer a question I asked a couple of weeks ago on Twitter.

In a response to someone else on or before 23 April (I don’t have access to that discussion now) @bellacaledonia used the phrase ‘hate apologist.’ I asked:

‘Perhaps you could clarify what a “Hate Apologist” is? Or is it just a new term of abuse?’

You did not answer and when you posted a flattering reference the next day to an article in The Scotsman about Noam Chomsky’s view on Scottish independence as an example of the quality of debate I asked:

Hello, is that the @bellacaledonia who didn’t answer my query the other day about what they meant by “Hate apologist”? #qualityofdebate’.

The Twitter incarnation of the lovely Bella then replied:

@rogerlwhite zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’

And I couldn’t resist commenting:

@bellacaledonia Exactly my point #qualityofdebate So what *is* a hate apologist? If you use unexplained terms you really should explain them’ [perhaps not the most elegant way to express my point but I’m sure you see what I mean].

So, third time lucky from me to Bella – what is a ‘hate apologist’? I genuinely don’t know and would love it if you could maintain what you perceive to be the high quality of debate by telling me. Otherwise I’m afraid it will be zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz from me.

Is that negative or, heaven forefend, abusive? I was merely trying to get Bella Caledonia to say what they meant by ‘Hate apologist,’ because I didn’t have a clue, and still don’t.

You see, it’s not good enough to say how high the quality of debate on a subject is then go around calling people ‘hate apologists’ and not explain what you mean.

Meantime, here is the language used in some of the comments they have published on their ‘Doubt?’ article

  • the tame jock journalists and the lamentable bbc…
  • the amoral, policy free, running on empty machine, that is Scottish Labour
  • the feartie mongers of Better Together
  • pure mischief making [an article by composer James MacMillan referred to in discussion]
  • [David] Torrance [a ‘No’ supporter] is an agitator … a devious manipulating bar steward.

High quality debate? You decide.


The HelpGov blog has been a bit quiet recently as I’ve got distracted by other things. But as I write, it has just been viewed 40,000 times. So now seems as good a time as any to share my most-read posts with an eager world. Some may surprise you: some certainly surprised me.

None of my recent rants about arguably the most important current issue facing the UK – the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum – appear in my top ten. Sadly for an indifferent readership, I cannot promise I won’t write again about that subject again. I’m currently mulling over an effort on the positive case for Scotland staying in the UK. It may appear soon. In the meantime, enjoy the HelpGov top ten countdown …

No. 1 The new Civil Service Competency Framework. I smell…

What I smelt last year was either pretentious nonsense or (excuse me) shite, depending on how delicate my sensibilities were at the time. Lots of people – presumably many of them civil servants – seemed to agree and still do, judging by the number of continuing page views.

No. 2 Ten things PowerPoint presenters shouldn’t say – but do

… or at least did in 2010, from the pathetic ‘Where do I put the memory stick in?’ to ‘It’s all in the hand-out anyhow.’  Has anything changed?

No. 3 [An old] top 10 countdown: and the all-time No. 1 is…

A bit of a cheat this one since it was reporting a much earlier summary of HelpGov’s most popular page views. The No.1 at the time was an article about, wait for it, wheelie bins, a phrase huge numbers of web users used to search for at the time. If you’re a serious wheelie bin aficionado don’t click through to check this one out. You will be disappointed.

No. 4 101 uses …

No, not of a dead cat (very old book) but of Post-it notes. I ran out of puff at No. 12. Perhaps I should re-visit this classic office tool. All ideas for Nos. 13-101 will be gratefully received.

No. 5 Government web sites can be bad for your health

Well, they could be at the time and some still are. This was a rant at the dire DirectGov site, which after the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition came into power was replaced by the excellent www.gov.uk portal – simple, friendly and efficient. Which only goes to show that Messrs Cameron and Clegg hang on every word HelpGov utters. So there.

No. 6 The jargon bin

My continuing attempt to document how mainly public sector organisations and people feel they have to speak and write in order to sound, well, long-winded and pompous, from the euphemism of the ‘ability spectrum’ to the economists’ horror of ‘zero sum’ and all alphabetical points in between. So if as a cohort you’re into optimal end-games and want to stay ahead of the curve, do visit this curated collection. And let me know of any other nonsense you come across.

No. 7 The Singapore legal system and the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang

Not quite HelpGov’s standard fare but I’ve had a long time interest in the wonderfully-successful but not quite democratic Republic of Singapore, where I lived for three years in my youth. This is a report of an alleged sex abuse case that wasn’t quite what it seemed at the time – or quite what the government of the country wanted its people to believe. I guess lots of the readers of this were from Singapore. They certainly won’t have read some of the detail in their own (government-owned) press.

No. 8 Civil Service reform

I wrote this about nine months before my blast at the UK civil service competency framework – see No. 1 above. I was sceptical – still am – about the then-proposed performance management and appraisal system for civil servants. The competency framework, and the popularity of what I said about it, makes me think I was justified in my scepticism. Any civil servants (or ex-civil servants if you were in the ‘bottom 10%’) out there who think I was right?

No. 9 UK government uses social media to help quell riots: Directgov strikes again

You can see I didn’t like the old Directgov web site (see also No. 5 above). As the government’s then main web site its response to the riots in various English cities in August 2011 was … pathetic. I also highlighted the government’s inept use of Twitter on the same subject. Let’s hope things are better next time there’s an emergency that social media could help inform.

No. 10 New York Public Library Rules OK…

I suspect that like ‘wheelie bins’ (see No. 3 above) this is a post that got lots of views because of its title rather than its content. If you really needed practical information about the wonderful New York public library this, sadly, was not the place to come. It didn’t do much more than record a campaign to stop big budget cuts to the library and, at the margins, try to give the campaign a little extra publicity. I never did check what happened but I’m sure big cuts were made as they seem to have been made to libraries throughout the UK too. So easy to cut library budgets, isn’t it? After all, librarians by and large aren’t militant protesters. And sadly the temper of the times seems to be against spending public money that doesn’t immediately produce measurable outcomes … now there’s one for the jargon bin.

Note: given the passage of time not all the links in each of the ten posts will work. Never mind, you’ll still get the drift of what I was on about.

 


 

Not aff their heids after all. Common sense has prevailed. The flats will no longer be demolished as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, the reason cited to do with ‘safety and security.’ Er, yes. The decision still leaves the lingering question of why anyone thought it was a good idea in the first place but at least the outcome of  all the criticism is the right one.

I see Glasgow is going to blow up five high rise blocks of flats (apartments) as part of the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.explosion

Various worthies seem to think it’s a great idea. They’re quoted as saying things like

Glasgow is proving it is a city that is proud of its history but doesn’t stand still, a city that is constantly regenerating, renewing and re-inventing itself … [it’s] symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow … This spectacular start to the games within the opening ceremony will send a strong signal about the power of the Commonwealth Games … a bold and confident statement

There’ll be plenty of dust as the blocks come down and the plan is to show the spectacle on a 100 feet wide screen in the games stadium. The co-ordination sounds as challenging as parachuting HMQ into the London Olympic opening ceremony.

Personally, as a once-upon-a-time town/urban/city (take you pick) planner, I think they’re ‘aff their heids’ as a Glaswegian might say.

To me this gimmick sends the wrong messages, like

  • the renewal of our city has been a disaster for fifty years or more

and

  • we’ve got a lot of rubbish housing here.

Why focus on something that is generally regarded as having been a bad thing? Apart from anything else, it might prompt all those hundreds of journalists attending the games to spend their spare time having a look around some of the city’s housing triumphs that haven’t been demolished or noticing how well its motorways are integrated into the urban fabric.

No, it seems a funny way to start a celebration. About as meaningful as the Manchester games in 2002, when I seem to remember dozens of Morris Minors performing some sort of ‘dance’ in the pouring rain. A great reminder of everything that was wrong with British industry and the British climate.

I do hope Glasgow proves me wrong, but I’m not betting on it.


Anyone reading this blog over the last few months will detect a trend – I’ve been writing more and more about this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

I swithered before I started doing this in a blog I describe as ‘…trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff.’ My personal views on the subject are a tad removed from many of the subjects I’ve posted over the last few years about improving public services.

Maybe I could justify my ‘#indyref’ posts as ‘other stuff.’ But what could be more closely related to the subject of ‘government’ than how a people chooses to govern itself?

It won’t take anyone long to realise that I’m a ‘No,’ or perhaps a ‘Better Together’, person and I’ve tried on a number of occasions to write coherently on where I stand about Scottish independence. My reasons for being against independence are, I believe, positive but I’ve struggled to articulate them without getting bogged down in detail.

Tom Morton

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Shetland Library

So I was grateful to Tom Morton for writing Nationalism: a dangerous delusion on his ‘Tom Morton’s beatcroft’ blog. For anyone furth of Scotland, Tom is a journalist and broadcasts on BBC Radio Scotland, currently on Morton through Midnight. You can catch him, of course, on i-Player. I don’t always agree with his choice of music and I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of what he says about the Labour party. But I do like the main thrust of what he says about independence and how he says it. And I do agree with his final conclusion

it’s a thoroughly Scottish ‘no’ from me. No to separatism. No to division. And an end to this monumental and corrupting distraction from the central moral and political issues we face.

I thank him for putting into words what I haven’t been able to and urge you to look at what else he says.

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