April 2011

Like many bloggers and tweeters whose thoughts I’ve seen these last few days I have mixed feelings about royalty.  Ask my kids, who experienced dad opting out yesterday and then creeping in to watch the actual ceremony.

But many people clearly do have positive feelings about the institution and the grand state events related to it.

Positive feelings impact on wellbeing and wellbeing is supposed to be the new measure of how we’re doing as a nation and a society.

Health professionals recognised the importance of wider social, environmental and economic wellbeing to health a long time ago.  Our last (UK) Labour government, and in my neck of the woods the devolved Scottish Government,  both accepted the notion and our current UK coalition has gone as far as to ask the Office for National Statistics to come up with a measurement of it to supplement if not replace the blunter measurement in money terms of gross national product.

Wellbeing related directly to the big state/royal events can also give rise to other positive feelings.  Witness my neighbours, who held a royal wedding day garden party (thanks Ruth, thanks Andy).  A sunny day, a great atmosphere, white wine on the lawn, a chance to catch up with the neighbours and a consensus that we live in “one of the friendliest streets in the city”.  Perhaps not the big society in action but a nice small society.

So neither the notion of wellbeing nor its practice seem to be much in dispute.

I then move to the fact that at least three Scottish councils declined to give their staff the day off for the royal wedding.

Reading the media reports of their decision it’s clear that their motivation seemed to be financial rather than political.  Indeed, the leader of the one party in Scotland that might have the greatest cause to feel indifferent to a British royal wedding, the SNP, accepted his invitation as first minister to attend the wedding with his wife.  Good for him.

This comment is not about naming and shaming and anyone interested in the three councils can easily find them online.

But in general terms, their reasoning tends towards the curmudgeonly and doesn’t seem to be wholly supported by their arithmetic.

For example, one says a fixed public holiday plus an extra day’s leave for staff would cost them £300,000.  Their revenue budget for 2011/12 is a whisker under £599 million.  So that extra day would cost them 0.05% of that budget.  In my experience the education department of a medium sized council can blink and lose or gain a mere £300,000 through some unforeseen circumstance.

Another council, much smaller with a budget of about £112 million, says a public holiday would cost it about £375,000 in lost productivity, 0.3% of their total budget.  Again, even in these hard times a variance (as the accountants call it) that is quite manageable.

Balanced against these notional savings would have been the positive wellbeing arising from a more generous attitude to their staff.  It seems a tiny price to pay.

I wonder how many of those staff anyhow spent at least some of the day clustered around a TV in a staff room or with the radio quietly on in an office.

Apologies are not quite the sentiment, but I’m sorry if I’ve missed any other UK councils who counted yesterday as a normal working day.


Nothing approaching an obituary has featured in this blog in the year since I started it, let alone one of someone I hadn’t heard of until last weekend.

The Saturday Financial Times brought Lampl to my attention but a quick Google search threw up any number of other references confirming what the FT said.  Some are listed at the end of this post.

Frank Lampl’s background led him to suffer at the hands of the two great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century.

As a Jew born in pre-war Czechoslovakia he was deported with his family to Auschwitz and then Dachau where he became one of the thousands of slave labourers employed in German industry.  He was the only member of his family to survive the holocaust.

Returning to Czechoslovakia after the war he was dismissed by the communist regime from his studies because of his class background – his family had been landowners and their land was confiscated.  In 1950 he was arrested as a bourgeois undesirable and spent several years doing hard labour.

When he was released he worked as a labourer in the construction industry and eventually became the director of a state construction company.

When the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring he and his wife left for the UK carrying just a single suitcase.

In London he learned English and obtained a job, again in the construction industry.  Within a decade he was heading the international operations of Bovis, saw the company through a period of major growth, became its chairman, and even after its takeover by Australian company Lend Lease remained as life president until his death.

There’s much more to his life than this brief prėcis.  But what fascinated me were some of the things he said.

(After working as a site labourer in the 1950s) That kind of experience is a great advantage, particularly in construction because it helps you understand what motivates people.  If you come through the ranks … you have a much better feel for what’s happening on site

Building a career is an interesting thing.  I always tell ambitious young people to be careful how they treat their colleagues …If your subordinate does not like you, you won’t succeed.  Most success depends on colleagues, on the team …People at the top can have large egos, but you must never say ‘I’: it’s always ‘we’

was brought up to believe that the most important thing is your reputation. If you lose it, it’s hard to get back.  And I believe that this is true for companies, just as it is for individuals

Scanning some of the things said about him (see the references below) it is clear this was an exceptional man in an industry not known in the wider world for its inspirational leaders.  Many could learn from his story and his beliefs.

Some online references to Frank Lampl

Building.co.uk obituary (includes many appreciative comments from their readers)

Construction Enquirer article

Daily Telegraph obituary 

Financial Times obituary 

Wikipedia article

Scene: a supermarket customer service desk

Me: Do you have change for the photo booth please?

CSA (customer service assistant): I suggest you go to Timpson’s

Walk to in-store Timpson’s, which (coincidentally as it turns out) is adjacent to photo booth

Me: Do you have change etc etc.

Timpson’s: We only take photos

Me: You don’t own the booth then?

Timpson’s: No

Return to customer service desk

Me: You told me to go to Timpson’s but they don’t give change and only take photos themselves

CSA: Yes, well there’s lots of harassment with the photo booth

Me (unthinkingly facetious because frustrated):  Harassment?  Does it leap out and hit people?

CSA (doubtless calling on reserves of customer training to avoid facetiousness in return):  No, er er…

Me: It causes problems?

CSA: Er, yes…

Me: Then why do you have it here?  Can you just change the money for me please?

CSA provides requisite change

(The photo booth worked fine – a bit of a fiddle but that was due more to the rigorous requirements of the Identity and Passport Service)

Old hands will know that when I have a go at private companies I usually try and draw lessons for the public sector.  So…

  • Don’t send out ambiguous messages – like placing two conflicting services adjacent to each other – it suggests you don’t know what you’re doing
  • Don’t set up a situation in which, in trying to be helpful to a customer, your staff subvert a service you provide
  • Encourage your staff to give feedback about something that isn’t working – and act on it.

Check out the comments on this post – many thoughtful contributions from the Local Government Improvement and Development web site are gathered together under the comment in my name

I’m getting fed up with dodgy research by private companies that draws unwarranted conclusions about the public sector from poor data.

An obscure column in the business pages of the Saturday Scotsman newspaper drew my attention to “research” by a company called uSwitchforBusiness.com which purported to show that

Poor perception of public sector workers puts small businesses off employing them

uSwitchforBusiness.com offers a “free, impartial energy brokerage service…focus[sing] on helping  business customers get the best gas and electricity contracts” receiving “a small commission payment when a customer chooses to switch or apply for a product through us”.  An interesting definition of impartiality but we’ll let that go.

Why they should waste their time hammering the poor old public sector workers being made redundant in their 1000s just now only they know.

They make their claims on the basis of

a uSwitchforbusiness.com poll, undertaken online with 240 key owners and financial decision makers of businesses with between 1 and 50 employees during January 2011.

The “findings” include

only 2% of SME employers would actively seek to recruit public sector workers

almost a quarter of small businesses (23%) would only consider a public sector worker if it was a role that they couldn’t otherwise fill – one in ten (12%) wouldn’t be prepared to employ a public sector worker at all

55% of SME owners believe that public sector workers have unrealistic expectations about pay, holidays and employment terms while just 11% consider public sector workers to be as productive as private sector employees

only 6% of private sector employers agree that public sector workers would fit in well in their company.

They have not published detailed results so we know nothing else about how the survey was carried out

  • how they chose the sample – whether it was random (and therefore some statistical reliability could be assigned to the results), what sectors of the economy it covered (hairdressers and florists might have a different view and level of understanding than accountants and management consultants), and whether the respondents were all uSwitchforBusiness.com clients
  • why it was of 240 businesses, an unusual number to survey and a very small sample for statistically reliable conclusions to be drawn from the results.  Latest government figures show that there are 1,187,275 enterprises employing 1-49 people.  240 is a sample of 0.019% of the total
  • what questions people were asked and the options they were given to answer them (their press release mentions some but it’s not clear if they are all the questions asked and options given)
  • why they’ve confined the survey to businesses employing 1-50 people.  They use the acronym “SME” in their press release, incidentally without explaining what it means.  The official definition of an SME (small and medium sized-enterprise) is 0-249 employees
  • the sizes of the businesses who responded.  A 1-person business might tend to have a different view from one employing 50 people
  • where in the UK the sample came from.  There could be significantly different views amongst small businesses in different regions
  • it’s not clear who was actually surveyed – the phrase “key owners and financial decision makers” has little meaning for a very small enterprise and the difference between a key owner and any other sort of  owner eludes me
  • the research credentials of those undertaking the survey are not known.  No independent research organisation is mentioned in the press release that forms the only source of information about the survey, although two members of staff of a public relations company are.

Some wider questions are also relevant

  • have any of the respondents actually worked in the public sector?
  • do they have any employees or close relatives who have?
  • when they completed the survey were they even considering what the public sector encompasses – not pen-pushing bureaucrats but teachers, firefighters, nurses, social workers, soldiers, customs’ officers, prison warders, librarians, judges…?

I’m not knocking small enterprises – I run one – just this survey, its opaqueness and its unwarranted conclusions.

As to what the results of the survey actually mean, consider just one conclusion

almost a quarter of small businesses (23%) would only consider a public sector worker if it was a role that they couldn’t otherwise fill – one in ten (12%) wouldn’t be prepared to employ a public sector worker at all.


To put it another way 67% (two-thirds) of the small businesses surveyed either would consider a public sector worker regardless of the role they are filling or have no view on the subject.  And the 33% who wouldn’t are only 80 out of 240, or if you prefer 80 of the total stock of 1,187,275 UK businesses of this size.  Incidentally, don’t you love that one in ten (12%)? Something wrong there I think.

Put like this the headline “Poor perception of public sector workers puts small businesses off employing them” isn’t quite so impressive.

Note also how in the presentation of their conclusions a sample of “240 key owners and financial decision makers” become “SME employers… small businesses…SME owners.. [and finally] private sector employers”.  These are not the same things.

In a related blog, the company claims

The government may need to rethink their employment strategies in light of the research.

I think not.

In short this is not serious research but a PR puff designed to draw attention to uSwitchforBusiness.com.  The shame of it, as with all endeavours of this sort, is that myths about public sector workers are perpetuated and extended and real people – redundant workers looking for a new job – can be seriously damaged.

Footnote – the uSwitchforBusiness.com survey bears an uncanny resemblance to a publication by another company in 2010, again PR puff dressed up as serious research

Someone challenged me to write about why partnerships that public agencies enter into fail (see footnote).  It was only too easy to work up a long list of reasons but here it is – messy, overlapping and lacking in rigour.  Just like many partnerships.


  • Lack of leadership – no champion at political, board or management committee level who understands (or cares) how partnerships succeed
  • Lack of genuine commitment – “We’ll join so we’re not left out”, “The chair’s had her arm twisted” etc.  See also Going though the motions…
  • Unwillingness to compromise – missing the point completely of working together with other organisations and groups
  • Lack of budget – which reduces any partnership to no more than a talking shop
  • Lack of devolved responsibility/complex decision making structures – the partner that has to refer everything back for a decision; the partnership that cannot delegate within its own structures
  • Lack of dedicated staff – when everyone involved is also doing their day job and no one is wholly associated with the work of the partnership
  • Poor governance – lack of openness, poorly documented discussions and decisions, lack of budgetary control, poor or no ground rules for making decisions, no accountability back to partners
  • Going through the motions in response to some external demand – usually from central government, and usually because a partnership is required to access money (often a modest amount)
  • Central government hasn’t got its act together – different sponsoring departments give different messages to their agencies about the importance of a partnership
  • Different partners speak different languages – their jargon, acronyms and assumed understanding.  Councils talk of “members”, the police of “gold, silver and bronze command”, the NHS of “PAFs”
  • Different cultures – from the emergency services where command and control and uniforms are the norm and everyone’s instincts are to address more senior colleagues as “sir/ma’am” to the raffish informality of some local government professions and charities where everyone is on first name terms
  • Different processes and procedures – different or no plans and planning cycles, different financial rules, different ways of measuring and improving performance
  • One partner too dominant – when some partners say of another “Well, it’s really their partnership isn’t it?”
  • Arrogance – “We know best”, sometimes hidden beneath a veneer of hypocrisy which is however only too visible to other partners
  • Lack of equality in the partnership – partners bring different levels of understanding and scale to the table.  But if some are seen as less than equal (“Just a small charity, only an unelected community rep…”) they’ll behave exactly as they’re treated
  • Unclear objectives – the idea that We ought to do it and It’s a good idea but with no clear sense of Why
  • Timing – not knowing when to start or when to stop.  Either can be done too soon, too late or never
  • The partnership is too big or too small – too big and it’s an all-singing all-dancing conference unable to take decisions, too small and important potential partners are excluded
  • Unrealistic high expectations – not an error it has to be said made by those with experience of partnership working
  • Lack of trust – well with all the other reasons for failure it’s not surprising is it?

The good news is that every reason for failure can be rewritten as a reason for success – leadership, genuine commitment, willingness to compromise and so on.  And even if your partnership is in danger of failing you can tackle the reasons for its lack of success.

Why do you think partnerships fail?

This is Topic 6 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development. Ingrid suggested as a title Collaboration blockers – what stops or slows successful collaboration which is what this is about but with a snappier title

Prompted by a Tweet on the challenge of staffing an exhibition stand, I posted a while back on Stuff they never tell you. I used the public sector example of working with politicians.  People seemed to like it so it got me thinking about other things they don’t tell you at work.

Here’s my top ten.  Feel free to add your own.  Just press Leave a comment if you’re on the home page or Leave a reply if you’ve dived into this post directly.

  1. When the boss says “My door is always open” he doesn’t mean it
  2. The caretaker is one of the most important people in the building
  3. In the lift (elevator) when you say “I’ve been here two years and I still haven’t seen the b****y director” the elderly gent in the corner is him
  4. You may have thought you worked hard at college but it’s never as tiring as paid work
  5. The happiest people can be the most unlikely and there is no correlation to what they earn
  6. Both the best and the worst things are invisible
  7. Strength is not the same as power
  8. At some time you will forget your password
  9. No one retires and sighs “Aaahh, I wish I’d spent more time in the office”
  10. The good old days were not.  They were always worse.