September 2011

This blog is a one-person effort so if the one person’s otherwise engaged  the rate of production slows down.

For ten days this month I was away from the desk delivering D3 to her new university course in North Wales and then going on for a few days in the South West of England.  A lot of perhaps not very sustainable driving but also some great things seen and done.  For example

  • the varying fortunes of the string of towns along the North and mid-Wales coasts, with some looking very neglected while others had a positive sparkle about them (I didn’t realise Bangor had such a splendidly restored Victorian pier)
  • the strength of the Welsh language, not only in the north but down as far as Carmarthen and the excellent nearby National Botanical Garden.  It was great to hear it in everyday use
  • the seaside home of the old (young actually) reprobate Dylan Thomas at Laugharne.  I was amused by two contrasting items of information in the same room – a local newspaper of the time noting that “Mr Thomas died of an unexplained brain disease in New York recently” while an actor on a tape told us “Dylan’s last known words were ‘Eighteen straight whiskies on the trot.  A record’”
  • a brief visit to use the internet in Cornwall Council’s Wadebridge library – bright, obviously well cared-for, and helpful staff
  • a visit to a friend near Bristol whose almost-village tranquillity is threatened by a giant development that would swallow up a golf course and other open land and dump a football stadium in the middle of it
  • two wonderful days at the Eden project and lost gardens of Heligan, both inspired/developed by the amazing Tim Smit.  I suspect he’s a man who’s not easy for officialdom to deal with but he sure gets stuff done.

As I worked my way through this list I realised that it’s not just self-indulgent reminiscence.  In fitting with the theme of this blog you can see the hand, nearly always positive, of public agencies in almost everything I saw and enjoyed.  Well done government at all levels – EU (significant funder of the Eden project), Welsh assembly, councils and town and parish councils.

Footnote 14 October 2011 – I was saddened to see that the Poetry Archive web site claims Dylan Thomas’ last words were in fact “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.”  Much more prosaic.

There’s a great post today on this subject on the We Love Local Government blog – Local Government Oscars.  WLLG are broadly in favour of them but unpick the pros and cons with their characteristic deft touch.

Every industry, part of the public sector, sport, public authority and leisure pursuit seems to have them.  And if you think the UK’s awash with them just google USA public agency award ceremony and see what comes up.

I’m a bit ambivalent about them.

The best can provide great recognition of an organisation’s achievements with a boost to morale, public perception, peer recognition, even staff recruitment.

After using the EFQM excellence model for several years West Lothian Council won the UK Council of the Year Award in 2006.  You knew it wasn’t a flash in the pan.  They’d worked hard at it.  When you visited there was a buzz about the place.  You could see the unease in the eyes of (some) other council chiefs when their then CE Alex Linkston spoke at COSLA events.

On the other hand, when Bumbleshire Council’s north area waste management team gets a commended certificate in the sludge removal awards of the year from a field of two entrants the earth won’t move in quite the same way.  People aren’t daft and they can spot what really counts.

The ones that really worry me are the internal awards.

They typically have categories like

  • Efficiency and innovation
  • Customer first
  • Going green
  • Learner of the year
  • Unsung hero (all individual awards)
  • Top team.

(This is a real example.  You’ll have to search hard to find the public agency concerned)

Within one organisation – let’s call it a system – individuals and teams are being picked out as better than their colleagues.  The process usually relies on nominations.  Be you ever so brilliant, if no one nominates you you’re not in the running.   And what does something like “learner of the year” mean?  Better than every other learner in the whole organisation?  On what grounds?  And at the end of the day, so what?  Do the 99.9% of people in these organisations who don’t get an award really believe that the 0.1% who do are better than them?

The big problem with these awards is hinted at by my use of the word “system” above.  An organisation is a system and how people perform in it depends largely on how senior people manage and improve the system.  Don’t agree with me?  Check out a book I’ve mentioned before, Alfie Kohn’s now classic Punished by Rewards.  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

PS Literally while I was writing this an item popped up on the web from the Taxpayers’ Alliance – yes, them – Council spending on awards ceremonies revealed.  I don’t like them and their take on public services but given the coincidence of timing it would seem odd to ignore their “research” (their word).  Their concern seems to be that councils spend some of their budgets (a minuscule proportion) on awards ceremonies, a different beef from mine altogether.

I was saddened to discover a new report that needs, more than most, to practice what it preaches, the Scottish Government’s Principles of Inclusive Communication: An information and self-assessment tool for public authorities.

Alas, it doesn’t.

It’s written by

members from the Independent Living in Scotland Programme partnership, Disabled People’s Organisations and other representatives from the public sector and third sector, in co-production with the Improvement Service

That mouthful may be a clue why what should be a winning race horse looks distinctly like a camel.

First, the title, which neither explains what the report is about and is full of jargon like principle, inclusive, self-assessment and tool.  Further unnecessary jargon is scattered throughout the report.

Second, it addresses its audience inconsistently, mostly in the third person (“it”, “they”) and only  occasionally in the much more direct and effective second person (“you”).

Third, it uses too many words.  The statement ‘To ensure you can provide communication accessible services, it is good practice to allow time to arrange different formats or communication support depending on the needs of your audience’ appears in a list of good practice examples.  All the words in my italics are redundant.  There are many other examples.

Fourth, some statements are just plain wrong.  Quality service delivery is not ‘when the service provider and person who uses the service understand each other, and the person who is using the service is able to express their needs and choices effectively’.  Quality service delivery is when a good service is provided.

Fifth, typos have escaped any proof reading that has been done – for example, ‘one system will not meet the needs of the all the people who use services’.

Lastly for the purposes of this post, although there are other comments that could be made, the ten performance indicators appended to the report merit a small essay in themselves.  Suffice it to say here that many only record levels of activity and some are contradictory, for example expecting an improvement every year in a visible and public commitment of support by senior managers.

Lurking at the heart of the report are six excellent albeit poorly-expressed principles and some valuable good practice examples – which should have  more prominence than they do.  Unfortunately all its other limitations are likely to mean the leaders and senior managers it is aimed at will pass it straight to the equalities officer and (in councils) the social work service.

A not untypical report produced by a committee and a missed opportunity.

In my recent post on How to spot dodgy research about the public sector I mentioned publicity about potential procurement savings published by a company called Opera Solutions (OS) “to which I shall probably return”.  Well this is it – the return.

I’m uncharacteristically cross with myself because I’ve established a modest track record in commenting on stuff like this (see the footnote to the post mentioned above) but this is one I missed first time round.  Still, a reprise of what others have already said and a few additional comments are not out of order.

The first hit today on Google about this so-called “research” takes you to a press notice by the UK government department of communities and local government (DCLG) back on 17 June.  Headlined Shining a light on council spending could save up to £450 per household it’s worth quoting

…cutting edge analysis of council spending data by procurement experts Opera Solutions has revealed that greater transparency coupled with improved analysis is the key to unlocking massive savings by driving down costs…The report argues that Local Government, by adopting new processes and making better use of spending analysis, could replicate these kind of savings across a wide range of back office functions, with no impact on quality of service and reduce spending by up to £10 billion a year. 

And secretary of state Eric Pickles added approvingly

“Let there be no doubt whatsoever – today’s figures show that there is significant scope for councils to make taxpayers’ money work even harder. We’ve always said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the availability of financial data has helped identify numerous ways that councils can reduce expenditure while offering the same or better services to residents”

The nature of Opera Solutions’ cutting edge analysis was exposed by Ben Goldacre in The Guardian newspaper.  He said

Every now and then, the government will push a report that’s so assinine, and so thin, you have to check it’s not a spoof.

Goldacre went on to explain

The meat of it, the analysis, is presented in a single three-line table. Opera took the recently released local government spending data for three councils, and decided how much it reckoned could be saved by bulk purchasing.

[Opera Solutions] did its estimates on three areas: for energy bills (a £7m spend), and solicitors fees (£6m), it thought councils could save just 10%. The third category – mobile phone bills – were tiny in comparison (just £600,000) but here, and here alone, Opera reckons councils can save 20%, by getting people on better tariffs.

He then did a hatchet job on the whole, my word, sham.  I won’t steal his thunder but click through and read what he says.  It exemplifies precisely the ten infallible signs of dodgy research I posted recently.

Predictably, the Daily Mail had already waded in uncritically to condemn the alleged waste by “clueless councils”.  But others, like the PublicNet web site, acknowledged Opera Solutions’ work wasn’t all it seemed.  They admitted

Publicnet is among a number of media organisations that published this story in good faith.

And on the WhatDoTheyKnow web site you can find a number of items relating to Freedom of Information requests to the DCLG from one Edward Rudolf.  The DCLG seem to be finding excuses to not answer his questions but he has a keenly forensic approach to the subject and you can sense he’s not going to give up.  I don’t know him but more power to his elbow.

I’m not sure what I can add to all this but here are a few tit bits.

  • For a company seeking publicity about their work, Opera Solutions are remarkably coy about letting people see their “research”.  On their web site you’ll find you have to give your contact details to access what they optimistically call one of their White Papers.  Ironic in light of  Eric Pickles’ statement that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.  Somehow Ben Goldacre managed to open up access to the report on the OS web site so despite their coyness you can find the whole six page magnum opus here (but don’t hold your breath).
  • Also of passing interest on the OS web site is their characterisation of this PR-dressed-up-as-research as “Prepared for the Government of the United Kingdom”.  Sounds impressive doesn’t it?  I’ve prepared many things for the Government of the United Kingdom.  They never asked for them and, unlike the OS effort, I doubt if they took any notice of them.  Let’s hope Edward Rudolf’s FOI requests tease out whether this work was commissioned or unsolicited.
  • A general lesson for all of us from this unfinished saga is a reminder of how major parts of the media publish PR guff as news without engaging their brains to analyse the latest press release that suits their prejudices or fills a last minute space.

As I’ve said before, the sadness of this sort of stuff is that mud sticks.  Once again people without full access to the facts will find yet another reason to believe the public sector in general and local government in particular needs a good shaking up.

PS – this doesn’t purport to tell the whole story on this subject.  There is a lot more out there in cyberspace including a critique by local government lawyers of the OS publication, as well as a small admission by them that their claimed savings for local government were “extrapolated” [and some]

Regular readers will know I’ve criticised dodgy research about the public sector on a number of occasions*.  Recent publicity about potential procurement savings published by a company called Opera Solutions, to which I shall probably return [I did], prompts me to share the 10 infallible signs of dodgy research, of which there seems to be an increasing amount.

  1. It’s carried out by an organisation hoping to sell something
  2. It says it’s based on a sample of public agencies/government departments/local authorities/NHS bodies/managers but it doesn’t tell you anything about the sample – how many, how they were chosen or their characteristics
  3. Where data is quoted the source is vague or unstated
  4. The organisation concerned wants you to contact them via a PR company
  5. As much money seems to have gone into the presentation and production of the report as the content
  6. The organisation has little or no track record of working with or for the public sector, or indeed has shown no previous interest in the sector
  7. They also have little or no track record of working in the UK
  8. You can find a press release about the research but the only way to get a copy of the research itself is to give your details through a web site
  9. A parliamentarian sympathetic to the interests of the organisation concerned almost immediately takes up its cause uncritically, quoting the conclusions as if they were proven facts
  10. If whatever the research promises (savings, improved service, greater efficiency) looks too good to be true it is.

Have you got any tell-tale signs of dodgy research about the public sector you’d like to share?  Let us know.

* See for example:

People seemed to enjoy a previous blog post on Ten things PowerPoint presenters shouldn’t say – but do.  So here’s the follow up, more dross and drivel they perpetrate.  All guaranteed genuine.

  1. I’ll just highlight the key words with the light pointer…it’s the red dot…eeerrm it’s just there…just, just above where it is now…no, there…it waggles around a bit but I’m sure you get the point
  2. Ooops, spot the deliberate mistake!  It should of course read public toilets with an “l”.  I did ask the PA to spellcheck it so I’ll be having words later
  3. It might be a bit rough and ready.  I’ve been rather busy and I threw it together a bit quickly last night
  4. Unfortunately the minister can’t be here so he’s asked me to read his slides for him
  6. Sorry, it’ll just take a few minutes to change over to my Apple.  I didn’t realise people still used PCs
  7. I didn’t realise the text would be a bit tricky to read on that colour background
  8. Oh, it seems to have fallen off the edge of the slide there.  Well what it should say is…
  9. The yellow line on the graph hasn’t really shown up on the screen but it shows the increase in the number of applications over the last five years
  10. Ah, that’s supposed to show an updated summary of the consultation response. Damn, I’ve used an earlier draft.  If you bear with me I’ll just get the updated version from the desktop
  11. I’ll just leave the last slide up while I take some questions…what, the screensaver?…oh, that’s my wedding photo, er…

Finally, the PowerPoint horror to end all PowerPoint horrors, the Afghanistan conflict explained

My thanks to correspondents on this blog and on the LGID communities of practice web site whose comments and suggestions I have used as inspiration – Nigel Blake, Annika Coughlin, Tim Games, Tom Gorman, Liz Grieve, Jon King, David McLean,Vijay Patel, Alistair Tait and David Trim.  Anyone serious about this subject could also join SAPP – the Swiss Anti-PowerPoint Party.

Footnote 9 September 2011: Tweet from Australian blogger and Tweeter Craig Thomler @craigthomler at the Australian Marketing Institute Government Marketing and Communications Conference 2011 – “My key learnings from #amigov2011 – the more stylish the slides, the less engaging the presentation. Personal experiences work best.”

I don’t normally do commercials on this blog – except for myself of course.  But this is one such.

Scots and those quick off the mark for a Ryanair or easyJet flight from points south (no that’s not the commercial, other airlines are available – BA, bmi, FlyBe or, if you’ve got the price of a small mortgage, Eastern Airways) should get themselves to the wonderful city of Aberdeen, on which the sun always shines in September, for ScotGovCamp on the 24th.

I’m hacked off I can’t manage it (family commitments) because I went to last year’s event and thought it was great.  So great I blogged about it (where you can see what a govcamp is if the idea’s new to you).

Since ScotGovCamp 2010 I’ve discovered a lot in the world of government and social media.

  • I know in some detail what’s happening in Syria because of the brave souls there who get video clips out showing their government’s repression
  • I followed the good, the bad and the ugly of the English riots including the wonderful #riotwombles who were on the streets with brushes and shovels the day after cleaning up their communities
  • I suddenly realised that police forces (mostly in England it has to be said) are waaaay ahead of most of the rest of the public sector in using social media.  If you don’t believe me check out @hotelalpha9 (including his anti-grafitti video on YouTube – he’s apparently just nabbed his suspect), and our own @DCCTayside
  • I started following an increasing number of council chief executives who Tweet (again, mostly if not wholly English – where are you Scottish CEs?).

On the other hand

  • Where are the innovative Scottish public sector apps for all those ipads, androids and other fancy stuff my kids can’t live without?
  • Why does the oh-so-dire UK government DirectGov web site still stagger on, notwithstanding the best efforts of Martha Lane Fox et al?
  • Why does the home page of my local council web site under the heading Self-service access invite me to “Book it” and for community use of schools then takes me (today) to a page that tells me no public applications will issued (sic) nor accepted until 2 May 2011 and allows no online booking.  Misleading or what?  Grrr!

So ScotGovCamp’s got plenty to get to grips with.  You can book online (it’s free) here.  Do it.  And enjoy!