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.