September 2010

“That’s a bit pompous isn’t it – Redemption?  It’s only about improving work”

Well, by improvement I mean what I’ve meant in numerous posts on this blog – structured improvement of the sort variously known as systems thinking, lean thinking or kaizen (the aficionados will argue about the differences between the three and which is the true Holy Grail, but I’m not playing that game).

My trusty online Oxford dictionary defines redemption as

the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil

Perhaps being saved from sin pitches it a bit high.

But what I want to do in a short series of stories is tell how a range of very different people in public services had their work lives transformed by their involvement in structured activity that put them at the centre of improvement.

Not interventions by experts parachuted in to improve a process.  But genuine empowerment with support by managers (it doesn’t happen often enough).

At the moment I’m planning half a dozen examples.

Each will be written as a story.  Names, dates, locations and any other personal details will be changed because these are not the sort of cases where I can go back and ask everyone concerned if they are willing to be identified in public.

But the core of each story is true.

The first tale of redemption – the registrar’s tale – appears tomorrow and then, subject to other commitments, they’ll be posted at the rate of one a week with my reflections to follow in a final post.  Enjoy!

Oh, and comments welcome at any time.


I’ve touched before on the UK government’s spending challenge, their dialogue which invites citizen turkeys to vote for how they would prefer to be dispatched for Christmas – roast or microwaved, stuffed with chestnuts or sage & onion, basted with oil or butter.

I exaggerate of course.  The exercise was an attempt to seek people’s ideas on how to save money in the forthcoming spending cuts.

I last posted about this on 13 August, when I said Watch this space as HM Treasury prepared to knock the 40,000+ suggestions into some sort of shape and get the public to vote on them.

Well, I took my eye off that particular ball while other stuff (it’s called work) intervened.

Now the Spending challenge web site is back up with the results of the vote.

They offer a fascinating insight into both the imperfections of the exercise and the recesses of my fellow citizens’ minds (or at least those that take part in this sort of thing).

Order has been given to the suggestions by classifying them into 18 categories, with the number of suggestions made listed against each:

  • 6227 – Civil service
  • 5975 – Central government
  • 4192 – Local government
  • 3633 – Health
  • 2416 – Education
  • 1926 – Defence
  • 1609 – Police
  • 1282 – Quangoes
  • 733   – Benefits
  • 639   – Private sector
  • 561   –  Charities
  • 474   – Tax
  • 449   – NHS
  • 401   – Gem (no, I haven’t got a clue what it means either)
  • 378   – Bureaucracy
  • 332   – Transport
  • 122   – Prison
  • 99     – EU.

Each category then includes lists of suggestions by (1) the number of votes the most popular suggestions got and (2) the highest rated suggestions (1 – 5 stars) regardless of the number of votes.

The exercise must have been done with either some sort of software and/or an imperfect human intervention

  • the most popular suggestions listed under Civil service and Central government are exactly the same
  • apart from that overlap, some suggestions appear in more than one category
  • the odd rogue proposal is still there, like the brilliant suggestion that monocoles be prescribed by the national health service for people with a problem in one eye only, not only saving money but also reintroducing a certain style from a bygone era.

The ten most popular individual ideas (my summaries) are

  1. migrants should work for at least 12 months in the UK pay tax before they are entitled to claim any benefit
  2. the London-Birmingham high speed rail plan should be reconsidered
  3. foreign road hauliers should be charged a rate for every mile travelled on UK roads
  4. reduce foreign aid
  5. rather than make DWP civil servants redundant and using credit agencies to identify benefit cheats, redeploy them into a department charged with identifying fraud
  6. scrap Trident or any other similar weapon
  7. reduce the burden of health and safety legislation
  8. adopt the system used in the Middle East for newcomers of compulsory medical tests and having a job, health insurance and enough money to support themselves
  9. do not go down the route of parents running schools
  10. raise money, reduce landfill, protect the environment.

Some of these suggestions have more than a whiff of organised voting about them.  And some sound more like hobby horses than attempts to save money.

Even so, it’s interesting to see what people came up with given the chance.

Of course as with other things in life size isn’t everything and it may be that some truly brilliant stuff lurks in suggestions that hardly anyone voted for (like the heartfelt minority – me included – that proposed wider use of lean or systems thinking throughout government).

And with the Conservatives the larger partner in government, it’s salutary to see how few people had any suggestions about the EU, and one of those – hugely practical of course for short term savings – was no more than “Leave it”.

So now we grit our teeth and wait for the pain of the autumn budget.

On 19 August research by Knox D’Arcy Ltd claiming that UK local government could lose 500,000 jobs and still provide the same services was publicised on the Conservative Home web site.

Within a day or two the claim had been picked up across the UK media and reported from BBC’s Radio 4 to The Belfast Telegraph to the local government trade press.

I blogged about the claims on 20 August under the title The curious case of council productivity and then again on 24 August reporting the responses of readers to my previous summary.

It appeared that media reports were based on a press release and from the scant information available I summarised my reaction to the research as

the best you could say about it is that pending further information, the jury has to be out on its conclusions.

Overnight on 20/21 August a note appeared on the company’s web site that said

The research into public sector productivity will be available as a down load from this site when the report is released at the end of August.

I said that I would return to the subject once the report was available.

The end of August passed.  No download on the web site.

Sometime between the close of play on 2 September and the morning of 3 September a revamped version of the web site appeared with a News page.

The one item on the page is headed Two-thirds of each worker’s day is ‘lost’ in Local Government and leads to a pdf file (downloadable for sure) which is actually a press release not a “report” as previously promised.

So my eagerly awaited copy of a full report explaining how the conclusions were reached is still not available as a download although there is now a further statement that the research…is to be published in September.

Once again I am in waiting mode.

But in view of the publicity the topic has already received it seems not unreasonable to comment on the further information that is available.

The press release itself is well worth perusing in full.

I previously expressed scepticism about the scope of this work – its conclusions were said to be based on 1,855 surveys of managers and supervisors, of which only 173 were local government officers.  It was claimed from these surveys that UK private sector staff are productive on average 44% of the time and local government staff 32% of the time.

The press release raises two further issues

  • It says the research was conducted while undertaking assignments in private and public sector organisations, and draws on 20 years of data – but we do not know when the various elements of the data were collected over that long period.  We do not know who the comparators were or, since Knox D’Arcy work in other countries, whether they were all UK-based
  • while there is confirmation of the 1,855 surveys on which their conclusions are based there is the additional information that the research included 376 day-long observations, comprised of a minute by minute categorisation of how the manager in question spent his (sic) time, of which 36 were from local government (my emphasis).

A respondent to my previous post commented that

If this was some sort of random survey, and we don’t know, the confidence levels for a value of 32% (local government productive time) from a sub sample of 173 is about +/- 7 per centage points i.e. 25% to 39%.

A similar but lesser range (I haven’t calculated it) would apply to the private sector 44% so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that even if the data were from a random sample (but one company’s clients won’t be) there is actually no significant difference between the private and local government samples.

If you then factor in that a significant but unknown part of the detailed conclusions derived from only 36 of 376 day-long observations you really get to the point at which you question the statistical validity of the whole exercise.

In addition, I had said before that we did not know which or how many local authorities had been involved in the research.  That remains the case.

Knox D’Arcy’s web site lists local government amongst the Types of organisation that are their clients.  But the only public sector client named is the Royal Mint.

A search on Google for knox d’arcy + council returns only two examples of the company’s work for UK local authority clients in the first 200 hits (of course that does not mean there are not more).

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council

The council used the company in 2003/4 to carry out a diagnostic survey for a service and establishment review.  The results were considered by their cabinet scrutiny committee on 10 and 14 June 2004.

A number of concerns were expressed on 10 June including the fact that the company had not previously worked for a local authority… whether they fully understand the context in which councils operate, particularly the role of Members… had spent little time in discussions with Heads of Service…in some cases appeared to have used information that could not be verified and seemed to be inaccurate…[and]… there appeared to have been some misunderstanding by the consultants about the designation and role of manager.

On 14 June the committee recommended to council that the consultants be requested to hand over their working papers and steps should be taken to ensure that their obligations under the contract have been met.

Finally, on 24 June the council endorsed the first part of that recommendation and resolved that the consultants be requested to hand over their working papers.

London Borough of Hounslow

Hounslow’s cabinet accepted a preliminary issues report on their performance improvement programme from Knox D’Arcy on 12 December 2006 and agreed to go to tender to procure consultants to undertake the performance improvement programme itself.

Their overview and scrutiny committee called in the recommendation and on 12 January 2007 had what looks like a long and political debate on the report which raised a number of issues about the work undertaken including …the Consultants undertaking the preliminary study did not have sufficient knowledge of Local Government…they had never implemented a full business transformation programme in Local Government. ..the[ir] report included no proper costings and no breakdown of figures…[and]…a lack of understanding of basic health and safety issues when visiting a Council Depot. The committee resolved that the proposed programme not be implemented but be referred to full council for consideration, albeit because of the lack of budget provision.

Scroll on to the overview and scrutiny committee meeting of 16 July 2007 and it is clear that KPMG won the contract to carry out the performance improvement programme.  Asked to comment on the earlier work KPMG said that they had not disagreed with its findings. They felt that they would have written it differently and perhaps addressed some of the difficult issues more sensitively.

So on the basis of the information available it is possible (I stress possible) that the conclusion local government could shed 500,000 jobs and still provide the same level of service is based on 173 interviews and 36 day long observations in two councils in 2003 and 2006, in both of which at least some councillors disputed the conclusions they were given.

I would love to be proved wrong.

As a footnote, I should say I do believe there is scope for major improved efficiency and effectiveness in local government specifically and the wider public sector more generally.

But the way to identify those improvements is detailed work and prioritisation by each council.  An extrapolation of what in all honesty is a tiny survey to a conclusion that half a million jobs are dispensable across hundreds of councils helps no one.

[See Council leaders and chief executives – too expensive by half?]

A news report you won’t see.

Following the UK government’s radical implementation of localism and the Local Government Association’s takeover of oversight for the governance of Westminster the LGA today announced that the role of permanent secretary in the UK civil service was being abolished in favour of a new style executive minister.

LGA Chair Councillor Margaret Eaton saidHaving both permanent secretaries and elected ministers often, in practice, responsible for the same thing is both expensive and unnecessary”.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles MP was today unavailable for comment.  A spokesman for his department said “Mr Pickles is chairing a meeting of the management team today.”

When pressed by our reporter, the spokesman revealed that the management team agenda included a review of the department’s staff appraisal scheme, progress on its absence management policy and Mr Pickles’ back-to-the-floor programme when he will be spending a day shadowing a planning inspector.

[Practical point:  If you think something’s not right, it’s useful to reverse the situation and see if it still makes sense…]

Well, people need to get their priorities right.  I post a world-beating quiz on the blog and don’t get one correct answer (partner apart, who has the inside track to the devious recesses of my mind).

Worse, I don’t even get any wrong answers.  Zilch, nix, nada.

On the other hand, a few random thoughts on the trivial question of 500,000 job losses in British councils elicit 28 (and counting) heartfelt, thoughtful and wide-ranging responses.

Incidentally as everyone realises, the offending news of the 500k jobs came almost completely without reasoned justification by the perpetrating party, who promised on their web site that The research into public sector productivity will be available as a down load from this site when the report is released at the end of August.  As of 3 September it isn’t and I will definitely be returning to that subject shortly.

So back to the quiz.

The answer is: NAMES OF CARAVANS.

Yes, those large white boxes on wheels towed behind cars that divide the country into their proponents who experience all the freedom to roam-with-a-home that they offer and the rest, who think they clutter up the roads of the nation big time.

Are my prejudices showing?

What is a caravan?

It’s either a box made mainly from nails, staples, thin sheets of aluminium, bonded polystyrene and 3mm plywood (an enthusiastic caravan restorer) or a Monarch, Caravel, Conqueror, Challenger or any of the other improbable names dreamed up by marketing people (I quite like Campy, though).

For a fascinating insight into how these beasts of the road are built, you can’t do worse than pay close attention to the caravanchannel’s (yes, there is one) documentary of their visit to the Swift caravan factory:

That’s probably enough sadness for one day.  I can already sense the friendship of a number of ex-colleagues devoted to their “van” slipping inexorably from my grasp.

Oh yes, those 500,000 jobs.  Must get thinking about them…

OK this is it – senior staff and politicians holding official positions should travel first class even in these hard times.

Phew, that’s got it out.  I await the ritual shower of abuse from my fellow citizens.

Actually, I don’t claim unique ownership of this shaft of insight.

Saturday’s Financial Times (the best UK daily newspaper bar none) had an excellent article by columnist Matthew Engel on the subject, headed Britain buys a one-way ticket to second-class politics.

Selected bits are worth quoting

Gordon Brown, then prime minister, expelled generals and admirals from first-class compartments.  After the election, when Mr Brown was deposed, the pace increased.  The new regime imposed the same ban on civil servants…even though it can actually be cheaper to travel in first…

…Second-class compartments on British trains are cramped, generally noisy, usually crowded and sometimes standing-room only or, unless you have the temperament of a Buddhist monk, switch off and nap…

…[Say] Mr Clegg [non-Brits – our deputy prime minister] travels to his constituency [in Sheffield] every fortnight.  That means he would be spending not far off 5 per cent of his working-time on these trains.  If he can’t work in those hours he is not saving the taxpayer money…

…[relating the trend to the private sector] the rise of the corporate CFO, trained to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…found travel costs the easiest of all to cut.

Well you (I) can’t dispute any of that or the rest of Engel’s conclusions, which he dubs the fashion for hair-shirt travel.  It all rings true.

What he doesn’t do is lead on to two things that would help

  • maybe slightly sneakily, do away with the phrase first class and retitle it business class, a more accurate reflection of the majority of travellers in those parts of the average British inter-city train
  • make advanced reservation of a numbered seat compulsory on all longer distance trains.  Spanish railways have been doing it for decades and it beats me why the perennially growing and arguably technologically advanced UK rail industry cannot achieve the same civilised end.

That’s all!

Spot the difference


There seems to be a spat between Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles and his predecessor Labour’s John Denham.

At the heart of it is a proposal by Pickles to somehow allow the combination of the currently separate local authority (political) leader and (managerial) chief executive roles.  He wants it.  Denham doesn’t.

A Communities and Local Government spokeswoman is quoted in last week’s Municipal Journal as saying

Having chief executives and elected leaders often, in practice, responsible for the same thing is both expensive and unnecessary

Hmmm. I’m not sure if that’s a naïve or willful misreading of what might be termed the constitutional position of the two roles.

Regardless of whether change of the sort apparently proposed is beneficial, the best statement for me of the principle of the current position comes from nearly 80 years ago when Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson) wrote to London County Council officials after the Labour party first won control of the LCC in the 1930s

The Council and its committees decide policy, and it is for you loyally to carry it out, but I don’t wish you to feel that you are merely the servile instruments of one political party. You are the servants of the Council and of the people of London.  This is your traditional role.  I don’t know your politics, and I don’t want to know.  At all times in your reports say what you believe to be the truth; don’t play up to either political party.  Give the facts and if you make recommendations let them come out of the facts.  There is a standing order whereby chairmen may delay your reports for a short period.  I want chairmen to listen to you, and I want you to listen to them, but at the end of it all present the reports you believe to be right.  Discussion, yes, but I do not wish to coerce you, nor will chairmen of committees.  So report the facts and conclusions as you see them, and we’ll do what we like.  Your views will be taken into account, but always on the basis that it is for the Council and its committees to decide – Herbert Morrison: an autobiography, Odhams (1960)

Of course the modern day relationship between an appointed chief executive and elected councillors, in particular a council leader, is both more subtle and comprehensive than the writing of reports that councillors accept or not.

But the ethos implied by The Council and its committees decide policy, and it is for you loyally to carry it out and say what you believe to be the truth is spot on.  Could these fundamental principles be maintained with the “Pickles proposals”?

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