April 2010

Why?  because I like ‘em…

 [Attributions, if at all, are as I have them – no guarantees of correctness: amendments welcome]

  •  There’s no career path these days, only crazy paving, and you lay it yourself – anon. career teacher
  • Let’s make toast the American way.  I’ll burn, you scrape – W Edwards Deming
  • If you want to increase your chances for improvement, focus on the system.  If you want victims, focus on the people – Phil Monroe
  • Do not pursue money. He who pursues money will never achieve it. Serve! If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money – Tomas Bata [I may return to this interesting character]
  • If you put good people in a bad system, the system will win every time – Myron Tribus
  • When all is said and done, more will be said than done – Winnebago Tribal Council, Nebraska
  • Partnership Version 1: the suppression of mutual loathing for mutual gain Version 2: the suppression of mutual loathing in the pursuit of government finance  – both anon.
  • I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by – Douglas Adams


Yes, it’s a hung Westminster parliament – maybe.

You have to sympathise with politicians and what they need to do.  In an election, of course, you have to say your aim is to win.  But since the first UK leaders’ debate poll after poll puts the three big parties at (roughly) 33% -33% – 33% each.

Even if the parties find it difficult to talk of a hung parliament (Lib Dems and minority parties of course prefer “balanced”) just about anyone else who’s interested is.

It’s a bad thing.  Unstable government.  An inevitable second general election.  Who will get into Downing Street?  How will the existing incumbent be got out?  The money markets won’t take it.  The economy is doomed…and so it goes.

Well, look North, West or North West – to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Or East to our  European neighbours.  Or further East and South to Australasia.  They all seem to be able to cope with this supposedly disastrous electoral arithmetic.

Take the instructive case of Scotland.  Not total harmony of course, but very workable government in ten and more years of devolution, first in a coalition and then with a minority administration.  It works, and so much better than the old Lib-Lab pact at Westminster decades ago.

And while we’re at it let’s remember many councils across the UK where joint or minority administrations work without the world collapsing in on them

The reality of course concentrates the mind.  Politicians do what they must – set out their position, make it clear what their bottom line is if they’re in the frame for government, negotiate their interests on an issue by issue basis if they’re not, remain aware of public opprobrium if they don’t make it work.

There seems to be something uniquely confrontational about Westminster, bolstered by tradition and even the shape of the chamber that makes it difficult to contemplate what happens routinely in many other stable democracies.  Let’s hope our new MPs learn the lessons from those other places if they’re “hung”.

The one difference of course, is that those other places have some form of proportional representation which makes it unlikely that one party will ever have a built-in majority.  Now will that be the Lib Dems’ bottom line if they’re in the frame for government?

Oh dear, it’s all hugely unfair but the Glum councillors web site definitely has something going for it.  It’s not right to catch them in that unguarded moment although some of the things they have to deal with would make a martyr glum.  

Check out the captions too.  The Guardian sums it up:

…surely, the crowning cultural achievement of the internet era: the Ridiculously Specific Single-Topic Blog – Oliver Burkeman The Guardian 6 March 2010


No sooner does this chiel think it’s time to have a look at efficiency than a parliamentary committee does exactly that.  “What,” I hear you say, “in the middle of a general election?”  Yes, a trick question for English readers – the Scottish Parliament of course, which quite rightly continues business (almost) unaffected like the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.

 Two days ago the finance committee gathered evidence for their enquiry into the Scottish Government’s budget strategy for 2011-12 and how to improve efficiency in the public sector.

I was there.  Well, thanks to the BBC’s fantastic Democracy Live  channel I was.

Eight witnesses, some known like Seddo (John Seddon – well why not if we have Subo?), some more or less familiar to Scottish readers who follow this sort of stuff, and one or two unknown to all but a specialist technical audience.

A very varied performance from those witnesses, one or two missing some key points (no names – I may need work from them) balanced by some perceptive contributions.

Lots of old friends and jargon springing from various lips.  Salami slicing, inspection, targets, benchmarking, economies of scale, ringfencing, total place, lack of meaningful data and shared services all featured.

Jack Perry of Scottish Enterprise, with a mainly private sector career made some telling points.  Incremental improvement is not radical, transformation change is needed.  Where’s the thinking that will transform a typical public sector timescale of months into days?  Partnership engagement can be “horribly over-engineered”.  And in response to a committee member clearly thinking about private sector bonuses, the incentives you need in the public sector are organisational, devolving responsibility and lifting the burden of inspection.

Questioning from the parliamentarians mostly astute and not for the first time politicians not always getting the answers they deserved

Interestingly, and I checked a previous evidence session on the 13th, no one from either side of the table seemed to address what efficiency or waste actually mean.  Am I the only who thinks it matters to agree a definition before discussing?

It’ll be interesting to see what the committee make of it all in their final report.

In a previous post (Part 2…) I established, to my own satisfaction, that efficiency is working productively with minimum wasted effort or expense, or  more technically the ratio of the output to the input of any system.  And in the public sector inputs are mainly money (yours), staff, buildings, IT equipment and materials while outputs are usually services (occasionally products). 

So simple it’s almost a no-brainer – in principle.

Who would positively want to waste effort or expense?  For a typical output – say, repairing a pot hole in the road – who wants to

  •  use more staff time than necessary?
  • waste materials?
  • travel the long way round to the site of the repair?
  • take two trucks when one would do?

And yet, throughout the economy organisations do these sorts of thing all the time.  Even worse, the people in charge often don’t or can’t see the problem.

PhDs have been written about why.  Here’s my list of some of the more important reasons:

  • senior people are focussed on the big picture, strategic issues of policy.  They often don’t see or think about the million small things that together can make their organisation more efficient
  • despite almost universal lip service to the mantra “staff are our most important asset” many still think they know best, certainly better than the people who actually do the work
  • they wrestle with the public sector conundrum of never ending demand for more/better services and static or declining resources
  • they don’t always see how things are linked together.  You can be super-efficient at repairing a pot hole but what about arranging things so there are fewer pot holes in the first place?

There’s more of course, but these are fundamental.  I’ll look at each one in turn in future posts

Estanys de L Ubago and Gran Collado de Anglos, Aragon

…planning the rest of his Atlantic – Mediterranean Pyrenean walk by the Spanish GR-11 long distance footpath – la senda.  It’s a long-held ambition.  I’ve had years of being preached at by HR colleagues about work-life balance so why not a bit of balance on this blog? 

Proceeding west – east, I hit Catalonia on the last leg.  Just over half-way.  Not quite downhill all the way now but a feeling of the end in sight. 

The cliché “up hill and down dale” doesn’t do it justice.  Last year the highest pass we toiled over was 8,700 ft.  Magnificent scenery.  Days with no clouds and half a day hailing at full pelt.  Fantastic food at amazing prices. 

Work was far from my mind.  Yet as always the similarities and differences struck home. 

Similarities? – immigrants in the smallest places doing the work Spaniards won’t, even with 15+% unemployment – Ecuadorian builders, Romanian shepherds.  EU-funded courses for those sin trabajo in the town hall.  Political sparring between left and right over a councillor in Benidorm who changed sides and tipped the balance of power between socialists and conservatives (now there’s a surprise).  Tensions between different levels of government including the two regions – Catalonia and the Basque country – that would much prefer (maybe) to be independent thank you.

Differences? – four levels of government from local council upwards with up to four police forces.  A weirdly flexible No Smoking policy that means if a restaurant or bar sets aside a smoking area the noxious habit is banned elsewhere in the premises but if they don’t it’s allowed anywhere.  A used battery being snatched by the check-out operator in a supermarket because that’s how they make sure they’re recycled.  The mobile matadero who’ll come and slaughter the pig on your smallholding (what happened to the EU regs there, then?)

It’s all good stuff and leaves me hugely refreshed for the other side of the work-life balance.

  • la senda­ – affectionate name for the GR-11 footpath
  • sin trabajo – without work, unemployed
  • matadero­ – slaughterman 

I struggle with innovation. 

On the one hand I read that the characteristics of innovation are: 

  • it often happens at the margins (of groups, organisations, societies)
  • innovators are often members of the “awkward squad” (various versions of the invention of Post-It notes are often cited)
  • innovations usually start small and take time to gain traction
  • innovators characteristically do not give up – for years .

 In other words, maybe not a lot there you can control or predict.

 On the other hand there’s a whole industry around public service innovation with government departments devoted to it, quangoes promoting it, reports analysing it, even auditors urging public bodies to adopt an “efficiency, innovation and improvement strategy”.

 Then along comes the wonderful web with a random tweet from davebriggs

 Good read from @craigthomler on innovation in government http://icio.us/tfcfsl  

Thanks Dave, it was good.  But more to the point, with a few clicks it led me via Australia back to the UK and the worldwide perspective of The Open Book of Social Innovation by Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice and Geoff Mulgan.  For once the content justifies the claim in the foreword:

The Open Book presents a varied, vibrant picture of social innovation in practice and demonstrates the vitality of this rapidly emerging economy. It is fantastically rich, and demonstrates the diversity of initiatives being led by entrepreneurs and campaigners, organizations and movements worldwide.

 My advice –go read.

 PS – I’d love to add the Open Book to my reading list on my LinkedIn profile but it’s an app by Amazon and since they don’t sell it I can’t.  But no need to buy – it’s online.

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