July 2011

Q: Why is so much of the time of probation officers [up to 75%] spent carrying out admin and other tasks rather than seeing offenders?

A (Committee chair Sir Alan Beith): It was micro-management.  It was box ticking.  It was all the things we’ve come to associate with a target culture and which really do need to be changed.

R4 Today programme  27 July 2011

Three cheers for the House of Commons Justice Committee and their report published yesterday on the probation service in England and Wales.  A thorough examination of a challenging subject.

Some of their conclusions are worth quoting

  • It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders…
  • probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS (National Offenders’ Management Service) to provide trusts with greater autonomy…
  • It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly…
  • Trusts…need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year…
  • There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority…
  • The creation of NOMS…has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders…
  • sentencers’ hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions…
  • The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers…

There’s much more but this will do to set the context for the point that regular readers would expect HelpGov to make.

Once you get over the jargon that all areas of work spawn you realise that “end to end offender management” is just another system and needs to be treated as such, so that there is a common and correct understanding of

  • what the system is
  • the processes it uses
  • communication within the system
  • culture and trust
  • consistency vs discretion
  • and the other essential attributes of a system.

The Justice Committee’s report is good on the diagnosis of the problems.  In many respects its prescription provides the basis for a cure of the ills it describes.  Let’s hope the government’s demands for a commissioner-provider split in delivery doesn’t thwart the intention.  And that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t get distracted by louder voices and other priorities.

Well, that’s what it took to recharge the batteries in the Pyrenees – part of a long-held ambition to walk the Spanish side of the mountains from Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

I returned footsore but exhilarated, and who wouldn’t be by the scenery…

… think 10,000+ ft. altitude and check the trees to get the scale.

The mountain-with-cloud is one of the few parts of Andorra not devoted to removing money from visiting foreigners.  Thanks to a quirk of geography I also visited the town of Llivia, a pocket handkerchief-size piece of Spain surrounded completely by France (Catalan required to read their web site).  Eat your heart out Berwick-on-Tweed.

Casting my eye away from the walking towards the Spanish media I was surprised to see their national RTVE 24h news channel live coverage of our own sordid tales of media hacking and the accompanying resignations/arrests.  They even showed Rupert Murdoch being pied in the Commons Select Committee and Mrs M’s robust defence of the old fella.

One of the more obscure issues the whole News International affair throws up for me is the almost complete inversion at national level of the normal relationship between local politicians and local print media.

In my experience councillors (certainly those in a ruling group) often have a highly antagonistic view of their local morning and evening papers.  Many are convinced the local rag is out to get them, that this hostility is peculiar to them and is uniquely bad in their patch.  The truth of course is that this is what it’s like everywhere there’s a local daily paper.  The difference nationally is that the stakes are so much higher – the government of a whole country, the power to determine the major strategic expansion of a global media company.  The power (diminished in England now) to withhold a planning permission for a newspaper publisher isn’t quite the same thing.

“Is this adding cost to your business?”

This is what BBC journalist Dominic Laurie asked Santander UK chief executive Ana Botín on Radio 4 today about her bank’s move to bring back their retail call centres from India to Britain (500 jobs will be created).

The question is a naïve one.  I say the question, not the journalist – they ask these things to get a response, not because they necessarily believe in what the question implies.

It’s naïve because the cost of a call centre (or any other part of a business taken out of context) is no measure of the total cost of serving customers.  Consider the number of contacts to these places that represent failure demand – demand for service arising from something going wrong for the customer rather than right.  Eliminate that demand and you cut the costs of your call centres.

Add the naïve approach on costs to the geographical removal of an integral part of the process of serving customers to a location 1000s of miles away with a different culture and often to an “outsourced” organisation and you can have big problems.

Not surprisingly, Ms Botín cited customer feedback as the main reason to relocate Santander’s retail call centres to the UK.

This blog has recorded numerous examples over the last year or so of bad call/contact centre practice, for example

Luckily, taking customer/citizen contact centres out of the country is not by and large part of the agenda of the public sector in the UK, although the motivation is more often political than an understanding of customer needs.  And that’s not to say we don’t have bad public sector call centres in the UK as our own experience (and some of the examples above) tells us.

Footnote: according to The Independent newspaper today, telecomms company New Call Telecom said it was moving one of its call centres from India to Lancashire.  “New Call Telecom transferred its business to Mumbai three years ago, but increased costs [my emphasis] has prompted it to move to Burnley.”

I was challenged a while ago to blog about this subject (see footnote).  On the basis that the longer any such list the less chance of it being read, here are my top ten lessons from failed projects, learnt from bitter experience.  I draw a veil over the projects I have been involved with or, more often, observed that make up the bitter experience.

  1.  Make sure you know what you want to achieve.  Only change your objectives with care (NATO intervention in Afghanistan?)
  2. Work out how much you can and should spend and keep very close tabs on it
  3. Every project has that bit that’s the muddle in the middle.  Recognise it when it happens and sort it
  4. In particular, recognise the tipping point when a decision needs to be made whether to continue or abandon.  Don’t let things get to a stage at which people say “Well, we’ve got no other choice now” (Edinburgh tram project?)
  5. Let your people work on new and innovative stuff but don’t let them grow commitment surreptitiously beyond the tipping point
  6. Question and challenge at every step but in a supportive way.  Get the culture right to allow question and challenge
  7. Use project management disciplines wisely but not slavishly.  Beware Greeks bearing gifts in the form of full-blown PRINCE2 (Projects In a Controlled Environment – a project management methodology originally developed by the UK Ministry of Defence, renowned for their world-class skills in this area)
  8. Identify all the important groups critical to the success of the project.  Get buy in from them and make sure you keep it
  9. Involve the people who are going to have to make the implemented project work.  They’re probably at or close to the frontline of your organisation and usually have the capability to subvert anything they don’t like
  10. If it doesn’t have a clear endpoint, it’s not a project.

This is Topic 8 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler, formerly of Local Government Improvement and Development

One of my interests is how information is displayed.

It sounds a dry topic but it’s fundamental to how we can understand all the data the world is awash with and which grows at a furious pace.  A Tweet today from Jonathan Joyce (@BrianBBrian) took me to an infographic answering the question How Much Information will Human Beings Create & Store This Year?

The answer (wait for it) is 1.8 zettabytes.  And if you tell me you know how much that is you’re a better man than me, Gunga Din.  Kilobytes are history, I’ve got used to megabytes (ten a penny), felt at the cutting edge when I first acquired a computer with gigabytes of memory and now boast an external hard drive with a capacity of 1 terrabyte that cost me all of £60.

The infographic article I mention helpfully explains

 1.8 zettabytes of data…would require 57.5 billion 32 GB iPads to store. How much is that?  About $34.4 trillion worth.  That’s equivalent to the GDP of the United States, Japan, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy combined.

In other words, it’s a lot.

The infographic concept is an interesting one that’s getting applied in all sorts of ways, mainly on the web but spilling over into print media too.

In some ways it’s no more than the old idea of a diagram to explain data, something that’s been with us for centuries but limited until recently by the technology to manipulate and portray information, a technology that involved pens, ink, paper, drawing boards and a limited range of literal physical tools.

Now huge amounts of data can be combined, analysed and given visual expression, often with government data already in the public domain and using free software on the web.  If you haven’t heard the word mashup in this context you will.

It’s exciting but it’s also challenging.

That’s why I accepted an invitation from the British Urban and Regional Information Systems Association to contribute a brief article on the subject to  their latest newsletter.

I called it Data visualisation – back to basics.  Amongst other things it points out that things have changed in this area of work with

  • free web based visualisation software
  • open data – http://www.data.gov.uk alone includes 6,900+ data sets
  • creative graphic designers who previously showed little interest in this work and didn’t have the tools to realise their creativity
  • proliferation of new media
  • full colour printing as cheap as black and white.

I give examples of both traditional and more modern presentations of data that are both fundamentally flawed and conclude that we still need a balanced range of skills to understand, distil and present information

  • topic experts
  • statisticians
  • graphic designers
  • artists
  • software developers
  • webmasters, and
  • writers of plain English.

Check out the full article on my HelpGov company web site.