February 2011

The WeLoveLocalGov blog post on conferencing and my own footnote on the dreaded conference keynote speech got me thinking (more of  a nightmare really) about some of the other conference horrors perpetrated on unwitting delegates and the employers funding their attendance.  Enjoy.

  • The marketing guy – (on his third phone call) “There’s only a few places left” (lie); “The minister’s giving the keynote” (maybe); “The minister’s keen for people to attend” (lie)
  • The disruption of the late arrivers and early leavers, often the same people
  • Presenters – the know it all; the ego on legs; the 40 slides in 20 minutes; the 1 slide in  20 minutes;  the unreadable encyclopaedic text on slides (“I know you won’t be able to read this but you’ll find it in your conference pack”…where it’s also unreadable); the mumbler; the “I’m not used to these clip-on mics” (bang, hiss, scratch)
  • 200 delegates, a 20 minute refreshment break, one line for coffee
  • The graveyard slot post-lunch – zzzz…
  • Overrunning, building exponentially so the poor devil making the penultimate presentation is asked by the chair in public to complete his 30 minutes prepared script in 10 minutes “to give the panel time to answer questions”
  • The panel – zzzz…
  • Sore bum syndrome
  • (For those of us in business) – “We’ve heard you’re an expert on topic x and we’d like you to give a presentation”  “Do I have to pay a fee for the privilege?”  “Er, yes…”; “It’s a great networking opportunity.  Would you be interested in a stand in the exhibitors’ area?” (= four sad tables + four bored staff members vainly trying to attract delegates’ interest as they hunt for coffee or queue for lunch)
  • The mouse that strolled along the skirting board behind the speaker in the “prestigious” basement conference suite of a top Edinburgh hotel a while ago (true – and it was more entertaining than the speaker)

Unfortunately, we kn0w readers will be able to add significantly to WeLoveLocalGov’s original list and this supplement.


That’s as in I don’t believe it, not as in a song title.

This is a search term that in its various forms was not only No. 1 but actually generated over a third of all visits to the HelpGov blog from web searches.  It produced over five times the number of searches as the next most popular term, wheelie bin (that’s what statisticians call a skewed distribution – very).

It’s something so widely known and ubiquitous that I can’t understand why people would bother to search for it.

Rather as if they sat at their computers thinking deeply and said “Now what are those things called?  Cars?  I think I’ll see what the web says about them”.  Not “Škoda 110R Coupé”.  Not “Maserati Ghibli 2.8”.  But just “Car”.  There wouldn’t be much point, would there?

They’re something I’ve mentioned only a couple of times in passing in nearly 120 posts, most directly in a post about innovation which had what I now recognise to be the pretentious title The power of the web, the power of random (forgive me, it was only my fifth post ever).  It was a passing reference to innovation and read

innovators are often members of the “awkward squad” (various versions of the invention of product X are often cited).

And product X is

  • the post-it note.

The post-it note?

Who the heck needs to search for that, and why?

I can’t believe that what searchers found on this blog satisfied any burning need for enlightenment they had about what everyone in my neck of the woods calls a yellow sticky.  And you hardly need to go on to the web to source a supply of them.

But it did get me thinking.

Yes, the good old yellow sticky does have many uses.

There’s the usual run of the mill bookmark, password-reminder (usually stuck to the PC screen for all to see) and “Phone Dave on x4154” left on the desk.

But there are also many more.

So many in fact that with your help I think we should record for posterity some of the more creative, unexpected, even bizarre uses of the wee beasts.

Readers old enough to remember Simon Bond’s brilliant 101 Uses of a Dead Cat (now republished) may have worked out where this is heading.  Who can forget his cat pencil sharpener? (Ouch)

So to celebrate the success of the post-it note in heading the all-time poll of web searches bringing readers to the HelpGov helpful blog have a look at the new 101 uses… page, which now  joins The jargon bin as a diversion from the more serious matters that afflict the public service.

Contributions are actively sought.

No, no it’s not all rubbish.

But the title of this post is more likely to attract attention than waste collection and disposal which is what the No. 2 search bringing people to this blog is really all about.

In fact it’s a bit more specific than that.  This happy band of surfers searched for phrases like wheelie bin, wheely bin, wheelie bin wash, recycle wheelie bins and whellie bins (you’ll note the lack of consensus on how to spell wheelie in the wonderful anarchy that is the English language).

I’d like to think these searchers after truth were all interested in the same aspects of waste as me

  • the international innovation exemplified in my posts on Empty your bin, sir? (Ireland – pay a company to empty your bin) and Empty your own bin, sir? (Taiwan – their amazing musical garbage trucks)
  • the political dimension brought out in a subtly understated way by secretary of state Eric Pickles on Muck and nonsense (UK – he was having a go at the fact/claim that over the last decade council taxes have doubled and bin collections have halved).

Coming back to the subject I was surprised for a policy/performance/improvement wonk how often I’d mentioned the subject.

But Pickles was right on one aspect.

Waste collection is one of the most visible council services in the UK and one by which many people judge their council.

Back in 2008 market research company Ipsos MORI published a survey for the Local Government Association which identified the factors residents most associated with their local council’s reputation.  Seven out of twelve were to do to do with what they called Greener, cleaner, safer services (the others were all to do with communications).

So an efficient and effective waste collection service is important.

Tomorrow – the all-time No. 1 search term that brought people to this blog.  And a surprise (although not if you read these posts from the top down…).

Footnote: of course, wheelie bins are only one of the various receptacles we use to dispose of or recycle domestic waste.  The UK press recently highlighted one council, Newcastle-under-Lyme, that allegedly requires residents to use nine different containers to dispose of waste (the council web site mentions seven).  It’s apparently all too much for the residents to cope with, although I’ll bet most of them can work a TV remote control, a device requiring considerable more brain power in my view.

There’s a great post over at the WeLoveLocalGov blog about the horrors of the average conference.

So moved was I by the profound truths WLLG sets out that I added my own views on the dreaded keynote speech.  Being of a sustainable bent I thought I’d recycle those doodles here.  They’re written from the perspective of local government in particular but apply to most conferences marketed to the public sector.

The best keynotes are by ministers (of the crown not religion) and have a number of characteristics.

  1. They’re short (their main advantage)
  2. They’re scripted, usually woodenly so
  3. Civil servant(s) hover in attendance to ensure “their” minister commits no indiscretion and is hurried away a.s.a.p. to the next engagement
  4. If you’re lucky (?) enough to have questions allowed, they’re usually preceded by the formula “Time is short.  So to get as many in as possible I’ll take 3 or 4 at a time” – this neat and apparently democratic device means that awkward issues can be lost in the generalised response that follows
  5. They’re timed to suit the minister’s convenience – hence the not unknown sight of a keynote at 1345 after half the day’s jollity is over when it becomes more of an afterthought than a scene-setter
  6. Despite implications by the organisers in pre-event publicity, nothing new or unknown is said.  How could it when they’d be smacked hard on the wrist in the Commons if they announced anything significant outside Parliament first?  Why would they when confronted by an audience of dozy public officials and councillors (dozy because of what they’re enduring at the event – I cast no general aspersions).

The second best keynotes are when the advertised minister can’t make it and a civil servant delivers the script on their behalf, making it clear by their even more wooden delivery, lack of deviation from said script and unwillingness to take questions that they are gritting their teeth for a slightly distasteful and political act of supreme self-sacrifice.

Does anyone know of a better generic conference keynote contributor than a minister of the crown?

PS  For a complete antidote try an unconference.  Last July’s ScotGovCamp was a good example.

PPS Little known facts – the QEII Conference Centre, pictured above, turns out to be an executive agency of the Department for Communities and Local Government.  I’ll bet you didn’t know that.  A case for Pickles-isation?

When you get to the top three of any countdown you feel you’re getting close to the best, whether you’re thinking in terms of first, second, third or gold, silver, bronze.

I’d certainly give John Spedan Lewis at least a bronze medal in my Hall of Fame of lesser known heroes of improvement.

Other people also want to know about him, searching for his qualitiesquotes by him, and what sort of a leader he was and then clicking through to this blog to see what we say about him.

As a name, Spedan’s a bit obscure.  It doesn’t feature in the list of message boards for thousands of surnames on one of the world’s largest genealogy web sites.

But for the British reader the John Lewis bit is a dead giveaway.  He was of course the founder of the John Lewis Partnership, owner of the eponymous department stores and the up-market Waitrose supermarket chain.

I didn’t write it in my original post on John Spedan Lewis but there is a very contemporary connection between the department store chain and UK local government.

One of the more positive aspects of councils’ reaction to the dramatic budget cuts they are being subjected to is a creative search for new ways to deliver services (nothing like a good crisis to enable change).

Back in 2010 two London boroughs received a lot of publicity for alternative models of service delivery they were espousing – Barnet for their adoption of an Easyjet model, and Lambeth for aspiring to be a John Lewis council.  I guess the simple way to characterise the two approaches would be

  • Easyjet – as a resident you get a basic service and can then choose to add on extras if you want something better (some of course would say “if you can afford it”)
  • John Lewis – delivery of services by an organisation, not necessarily the council itself,  in some way held in trust for the employees (an added advantage for a “John Lewis council” of the branding is of course the implication of excellent service)

You can read and hear more about the two approaches, at least as they were in the run up to the 2010 council elections, on the BBC web site.

I don’t know if councillors and managers in Lambeth seriously studied some of the things John Spedan Lewis said.  But it would certainly be worth their while to do so.

Tomorrow, onward and upward to the No. 2 spot on this Top 10 web search countdown – something very different but also involving councils.

Ouch, this is going to hurt.  To mix my metaphors I don’t really like raking over old wounds.

Knox d’Arcy are a company who claimed in August 2010 that

The UK’s councils could do the same amount of work with 500,000 fewer staff if they matched the productivity of private firms

The claim niggled me because I couldn’t find significant supporting evidence for the statements in what was not much more than a brief press release at the time.

So I blogged about it, initially under the title The Curious Case of Council Productivity.  That unleashed a torrent of comment, mostly on the Local Government Improvement and Development web site, where I’d cross-posted my thoughts.

I copied all the comments to this blog in its longest post yet, The curious case of council productivity – what do people think?.  The almost universal answer to my question, expressed in many different ways, was Not much.

Spurred by this response I looked into the topic a bit more and then posted my conclusions under the straightforward question “500,000 council jobs could go” research – is it right?

My conclusion was

…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.

And that was an end to my active interest in the matter.

I kept my eye on the web site of the company concerned.  Eventually a link to download their report appeared – but only if you provided contact details.  Given my critical comments on their work and the way they publicised it I decided not to take that option.  I suspect I would not have changed my view of their conclusions.

Tomorrow, something more edifying with the No. 3 in my web search Top 10 – another of my lesser known heroes of improvement.

This one’ll be short and sweet.

The 5th most popular search that led people to this blog was helpgov.

I’ve no way of knowing whether they

  • were looking for Helpgov Ltd (“…helping the public sector and its partners improve performance”)
  • looking for the government to help them
  • wanted to help the government, or
  • just keyed in a random combination of letters.

Be that as it may, enough clicked through for a look at the blog to make this wonderful search term the No. 5 spot in our Top 10.

Sensible people.

Perhaps some of them even clicked through to our web site where they could find all the formal stuff about what we do and how we can help, as well as all the good things people say about us – and some freebies.

In the movies I think they call this product placement.

Tomorrow our Top 10 hots up with the No. 4 entry – the controversy that got more discussion going than anything else so far on the blog.

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