January 2011

Having just blogged on Taiwan’s musical garbage trucks it looks as if I’m about to get mired in muck.

Today’s online Guardian newspaper quotes Communities Secretary of State Eric Pickles on the link between council tax and waste collection (they do get up to exciting stuff these Westminster politicians, don’t they?)

We need to remember that rubbish is the most visible and most frontline service of all in return for what they now pay – the best part of £120 a month in council tax.

If we don’t sort it out I think the cause of localism will be set back by a generation by creating an army of residents who view their council with resentment rather than respect. There is genuine anger that over the last decade council taxes have doubled and bin collections have halved.

Whoa Eric, chill out, how magnificently can you miss several points at once?

  1. Council tax is not a fee paid for the delivery of personal services to the individual tax payer.  It is a general tax that funds all the legitimate purposes of local government, just as income tax funds all the legitimate purposes of central government.  This sort of stuff feeds people’s mis-apprehension about this fact
  2. Halved bin collections are not a symptom of declining service, as you well know.  They are a direct response to the sustainability agenda and are invariably associated with recycling collections
  3. The cause of localism is more likely to be set back by UK politicians dabbling in the detail of local services than in the holding to account of local politicians by their electorate.

That’s it.

This post is tagged England. As UK readers will know Eric Pickles’ remit for local government does not extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I wasn’t aware of BNET The CBS interactive business network until today when a Tweet from @Summers400 alerted me to it – thanks Paul.

It looks like a great resource for all sorts of business-related stuff.  It even has an article in praise of Heathrow terminal 5.

Like all good web sites trying to attract public attention it understands the short attention span of  your average surfer and packages its content into handy bite-sized chunks, including some wonderful lists.

Lists like  Business Blunders of the Year (“To write a white paper that will guide British government policies on obesity, alcohol, and diet-related diseases, the UK Dept of Health enlists the aid of businesses including McDonald’s, KFC, Kellogg’s, Mars, and booze conglomerate Diageo”) and The 10 Worst Business Books of All Time (“ The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush.   10 Common Sense Lessons from the Commander-in-Chief”).

I particularly liked The 8 Stupidest Management Fads of All Time by author Geoffrey James.

To mix metaphors they’re all a bit tongue in cheek and close to home.  Most of us will probably find one that we actually thought was a good idea – until we read this.

I especially liked his dissection of Matrix Management, something I’ve struggled with over the years.

The theory he says is

People with similar skills are pooled for work assignments…For example…assigned to different projects and report to a project manager while working on that project. Therefore, each [person] may have to work under several managers to get their job done.

The reality he characterises as

An endless, debilitating turf war.  Each manager fights to be considered the “real” manager of the personnel.  They do this by forcing everybody to attend required “staff meetings” and by finding extra hoops to jump through and extra rocks to fetch, in order to prove that that they’re the ones who are really in charge.

Yup, I recognise that one!

One of my original aspirations on the HelpGov blog was to focus on innovation, something I fess up to not having achieved much – yet.

Back in April 2010 I blogged under the title Empty your bin, sir? about the oh so sexy subject of waste collection in Ireland and the model of paying one of two competing companies to collect your household waste, at least in rural Wicklow.

Now the BBC bring us a different model from the far side of the world – Taiwan’s musical garbage trucks.

Actually, the music isn’t really the point.  All it does is alert waiting citizens to the truck’s imminent arrival five nights a week (the truck on the BBC’s web site uses a touching version of Beethoven’s Für Elise for the purpose).

The eager inhabitants take their waste to the rear of the truck and hurl their blue regulation plastic bags into its churning interior (health and safety issue No. 1?).

Another vehicle follows for the recyclables – paper, plastic, metal, waste food etc., one category each night.

The waste food  goes to farmers to boil up for pig feed (health and safety hazard No. 2?).  This used to be called pig swill in the UK and was banned for fear of  spreading, I think, CJD.  I remember my two farming uncles had virtually a full set of cutlery retrieved from their swill that had been discarded by the careless catering establishments whose waste food they took away.

Somehow, I can’t see this working in the UK, even in densely populated cities.  We don’t have the same social discipline that would get someone from every household out on to the street at a set time five nights a week to chuck their waste into a passing truck.

Still, it might be a great way to meet the neighbours if people were willing.

And who knows, maybe there’s something in the idea that could be adapted to our peculiar circumstances.

After all, they say the concept of neighbourhood watch came from a brainstorm in the States into crime reduction (someone said “Make everyone a police officer”).  Any brainstormers out there with bright ideas?

This post is Part 2 of a response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  If you don’t see it on this page, Part 1 is here.

D3 (daughter No. 3) has just revealed she sneaked a look at Part 1 of these two linked posts.  I got the usual honest feedback, my finely crafted text being dubbed a “rant”.  I can take it.  Each visit racks up the number of page views and moves me up the league of business-based blogs.  Not that I’m one for targets you understand.

What D3 characterised as a rant was deliberate.

How easy it would have been to summarise my tale of travel woe.

I was stranded in Madrid by the appalling weather that closed Heathrow before Christmas.  The airline got me home as quickly as they could.

And that’s true.

But customer service is all about the attention to detail.

Here are my 15 golden rules to avoid the private sector mistakes I experienced. You might need to read across to Part 1 to check how they relate to my Madrid experience.  But trust me they do.

  1. Have a system and a plan for major foreseeable problems but respond flexibly when the chaos actually happens.
  2. Take responsibility for your customers even if what’s happened isn’t your fault.
  3. Be honest.  Explain what’s happening.  If you don’t know say so but find out as soon as possible and tell people.  In fact keep telling them everything you can by whatever means are needed.
  4. Get more staff on duty to deal with problems.  Don’t let problems grow uncontrollably.
  5. Don’t hide your staff or let them hide when things get tricky.  Do a stint out there yourself so you know what it’s like for them and your customers.
  6. Listen to your customers.  Counter rumour and mis-information.
  7. Try hard not to let people wait a long time for service.  If you have to, consider issuing numbered tickets (à la supermarket deli counter) so people can take a break from waiting.
  8. Empower your staff to go the extra mile to meet people’s needs.  Be clear to them about the high standards you expect.  Thank them for their efforts.
  9. Suspend normal rules.  If the crisis is going on 24/7 don’t leave your call centre running Monday-Friday 9-5.
  10. Be fair to customers, whatever that means in the circumstances.  Let them know how you’re being fair.
  11. It doesn’t always matter if you get it wrong but how you recover is critical and determines what customers think of you.
  12. Don’t start by relying on law or regulation to provide redress but where you have to don’t get it wrong.
  13. Say sorry.
  14. Use your brain.  Don’t do plain daft things.
  15. When it’s all over hold a post mortem (after action review in management speak) before memories of what happened fade.  Update the plan for next time.

And if you’re feeling smug about how the private sector gets it wrong, don’t.  I can think of occasions, some of them serious and large-scale, where public bodies I could name have got almost all of my golden rules wrong.  I’ll bet you could too.

WordPress tell me I’ve just posted the 100th message on my blog.  Phew, it seems like lots more.  Roll on No. 200.

This post is in response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  Part 1 is here.  Part 2 – how to avoid these mistakes in the public sector – is here.  You can also find it a couple of posts above this if you’re on the home page.

What a cracker of a subject.  Not customer issues or care – customer chaos.

A few weeks ago I’d have struggled to do anything but weave some minor inconveniences into a story (my BT broadband saga is too old to qualify).

Then the bad weather hits northern Europe before Christmas.  Heathrow collapses under the weight of snow and ice.  I’m stranded in Madrid for three days.  This is chaos.  This is what happens.

Day 1 (Sunday)

My pal delivers me to Madrid airport’s swish new terminal 5 (designer, Richard Rogers – more of this building later) with plenty of time to spare.

Problem No. 1 – my flight isn’t on the departure board.  Earlier Heathrow flights are all coming up cancelled.  My brain signals a need for information.

Problem No. 2 – no information.  No general notices about the situation.  Nothing at the airport information desk about individual flights, only “Heathrow’s closed”.  No airline information desks, only Iberia customer assistance (sic) kiosks (more of them later too) with long barely moving queues of weary resigned passengers snaking through the terminal.  One or two Iberia staff in red jackets out and about.  True to stereotype and passenger prejudice they disappear after an hour or two.  I don’t see them again in three days.  Every now and then a computer generated voice on the PA announces that due to weather conditions in northern Europe passengers may (ha!) experience delay or cancellation to Heathrow/Paris/Frankfurt flights (the combination of destinations varies over three days) and to “enquire the latest situation of your airline”.

Problem No. 3 – where’s BA, who I’ve booked my Madrid-Heathrow-Aberdeen flight with?  Even before their merger with the Spanish airline they’ve abandoned any presence at the airport to Iberia.  So it’s a tactical retreat to what looks like the shortest Iberia queue.

Problem No. 4 – with hundreds of passengers waiting Iberia has only two customer service assistance kiosks open (ambiguity surrounds a third with the legend “Unaccompanied children only”, which doesn’t seem to stop some apparently unaccompanied adults from queuing there in the vain hope of getting early attention).  Each kiosk has five positions.  So at most ten staff are available at any time.  One position in each kiosk is labelled “Excess baggage only”.  The staff there seem to take different views on whether they’ll serve anyone who doesn’t have excess baggage.  At times only three or four positions in each kiosk are occupied.  A knowing Spaniard next to me volunteers “They’ve probably gone for lunch”.

Problem No. 5 – some staff are great.  It isn’t easy.  All they can do is try to rebook people to other flights.  This typically takes 15-20 minutes.  But a few staff are just plain objectionable.  A young woman in front of me is trying for the third day to transfer from a Continental flight from Colombia.  The clerk – “I can’t help you.  You’ll have to go back to Continental.”   “I was told to line up here by Continental,” the young woman says, almost in tears.  My “You can’t just send her away after she’s been queuing for over three hours” draws a scowl and a reluctant offer of a hotel voucher and the instruction to come back tomorrow morning.  The clerk disappears for ten minutes in what looks suspiciously like a huff.

Problem No. 6 – back at my pal’s house I go online for airline enquiry numbers.  Hopeless.  Iberia engaged.  BA’s UK helpline only apparently accessible from a UK freephone number.  Their Spanish number only staffed 0900-1800 Monday-Friday.

Day 1 bottom line.  After nearly four hours I have a ticket for a rerouted Air France flight via Paris Monday afternoon.

Day 2 (Monday)

To terminal 2 for check in.

Problem No. 7 – no Air France queues.  Great.  “Oh,” says helpful clerk “Your flight’s been cancelled.  There’s an earlier one just about to leave.  I’ll phone to see if the gate’s still open”.  It isn’t.  Me – “Can you rebook me?”  Her – “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go back to your own airline”.  I decide to see if I can abandon BA/Iberia (and any refund) and just pay for a separate flight home.  I navigate a crowded terminal 2 to see if other airlines have seats on any route to the UK today.  The only likely option is Easyjet.  A 20 minute queue to be told “Sorry flights all full”.  Back to terminal 5 by airport transfer bus.

Problem No. 8 – just re-run Problems No. 1 – 5.  When I get to the head of my new queue after another three hours I’m beginning to feel I’m trapped in a hispanic version of Groundhog Day.  Rebooked on Iberia/BA flights for 24+ hours later.

Problem No. 9 – having been surrounded by people being offered hotel vouchers I ask for one.  “No,” is the answer “Transfer passengers only” (I later find that under EU regulations this is wrong).  But I can check in my bag for my new flight.  Rather than drag it all the way back across Madrid to my friend’s place for another night (thanks C for the extended accommodation and patience) I queue another 20-25 minutes to check in.  Goodbye bag.  I hope we see each other again (yes, that’s right, more to come on this too).

Problem No. 10 – in the absence of hard fact rumours abound all day.  “They put on an unscheduled Jumbo late last night to clear the backlog and took anyone who was here”.  “We’ve been waiting three days.  There’s people who’ve just turned up and got on”.  “If you team up with someone else it cuts the delays” and so on.

Day 2 bottom line.  Another long day spent queuing.

Day 3 (Tuesday)

Decide to get to the airport early to monitor the situation as far as I can from departure screens and general PA announcements to see if my flight’s likely to go.  If not, I’ll get in another queue a.s.a.p to try and arrange Day 4’s attempt.

Problem No. 11 – hours to spare so I decide to settle down with a book.  I walk the length of the sleek Richard Rogers building.  At a brisk pace it takes 10 minutes so it’s probably about ½ mile long.  With the exception of bars and restaurants I can find only a few seats, all hard metal (don’t encourage them to linger), most at the deserted far ends of the building.

Heathrow flights keep coming up on the departures board.  All seem to be taking off, although some quite late.  When my flight appears, hours into my day, I take the risk and go through security.

Problem No. 12 – security fine.  When I make the long trek to the departure gate, tense conversation amongst the waiting hordes reveals 30+ passengers must have been allowed through on standby.  I check my ticket.  Yes, I have a seat.  On Iberia’s track record so far this could mean zilch.  Unease is not assuaged by the sudden simultaneous announcement on a crackly circuit of boarding and a much louder update for the umpteenth time in three days of the general delays being experienced, enquire of your airline etc etc.  No attempt to maintain the orderly queue by Iberia staff.  It disintegrates into a shuffling crowd, sceptical about what’s going to happen but too weary for aggression.

Day 3 bottom line.  Everyone in the crowd seems to get on the plane.  We depart over an hour late.  No apology from Iberia.  No complimentary anything on the flight, just the usual tired selection of snacks for sale.

Amazingly at Heathrow I make my BA connection with time to spare.  On the hour-and-a-bit’s hop to Aberdeen we get a free drink and snack.  The pilot and co-pilot apologise at least three times for all the problems at Heathrow that have delayed many of us.  They even ask us to be careful getting off the plane into a bitterly cold Scottish night.

I’m name checked on arrival and told my bag’s stuck at Heathrow.  They’ll deliver it as soon as they can.  I can check its progress online.  It turns up at home five days later.  Because of the time of year and continued appalling weather I forgive them.

What lessons can the public sector learn from this private sector chaos?…to be continued

I wasn’t sure what to make of a blog called Public Path.

Was it promoting the cause of public access to the countryside and the right to roam?  The removal of dog excrement from pavements/sidewalks?  Or was its author a distant relation of the Peruvian Maoist movement Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path?

The post I had stumbled across was initially no more enlightening as it was filed under Tech geekery, a label normally guaranteed to make me switch off straight away.

But then I noticed the author was the estimable ingridk and her post was called Local gov blogging – ideas for you.

She was picking up on a theme she’s promoted in other places – the desirability (no, need) for more people in and around UK local government to use social media more to communicate, and to do it entertainingly.  To which I’d add people in and around the UK public sector generally.

But being American she’s brimful of positivity.  So she didn’t just harangue the Brit wallflowers who won’t step forward to speak and if they do are too often, well, boring (that’s me saying that, not Ingrid).

No, she suggested 35 topics people like me could blog on in 2011.  And there’s some great ideas there, freely offered.

Readers of this blog will know I’m not a great fan of targets at work (start again…I despise targets at work and their baleful influence).

But blogging isn’t just work, it’s fun, so game for a challenge I make this commitment to Ms Koehler.

Each month in 2011 I will blog on one of the topics she has proposed.

So you (and I) don’t get confused each post will be preceded by the message

This post is in response to a suggestion [link to this post] made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development

Oh, and no, I don’t know which of her 35 topics I’ll be using yet.

Watch out for the first post in the series later this month.

Thanks Ingrid.

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