June 2012

For those not in the know that’s the name of a blog that charts both the vagaries and wonder of local government in the UK.  You’ll always find a link to it on the right hand side of the HelpGov home page but if in doubt click here.

HelpGov has a special reason to like We ♥ local government today because they’ve just included us in a list of their own favourite blogs that also deal one way or the other with local government.

They are wise indeed because this is what they say about the HelpGov blog:

Helpgov’s helpful blog

Why? Because we love the style of the blog and the writing of the author, Roger White. It’s a mix of serious posts, helpful suggestions and serious dissection of published nonsense.

One to read: Check out this post about the employability of former local government workers.

I’m flattered.  Thanks people, whoever you are (as local government employees they sensibly choose to remain anonymous).  They in turn are well worth a read if you haven’t checked them out yet.

Postscript 27 June 2012 – I hope it’s not the curse of HelpGov but sadly We ♥ local government announced today that it will no longer be active.  Perhaps that’s why they were doing a round up of their favourite blogs yesterday.  In all seriousness, I think they’ve just found the amount of work needed to blog every day (and I might add in such an entertaining and thought-provoking way) too much effort for a small team also in full-time employment.  I hope they leave their blog online as a valuable archive of what the major and current issues concerning local government in the UK in 2009-2012.  Thanks, guys.

I noticed on my WordPress dashboard today that someone had dipped into this blog to look at my post on civil service reform.

A couple of clicks and, knock me over with a feather, I found the avid follower was one John Seddon, proponent of the ‘Vanguard method’ of systems thinking.  He or his webbie-person have listed my post (approvingly) on a page on his web site entitled The Lean Toolhead Collection.  This is flagged up slightly misleadingly on the home page of his web site as

John Seddon has written extensively on the damage caused by Lean toolheads, these articles are now collected together for the first time

Yes, the page does include seven articles by the great man himself but also ten items by other people including my by now blessed post on civil service reform, not quite correctly under the sub-heading ‘In the press,’ and without any acknowledgement that it appeared on the HelpGov blog.

At the bottom of the page is the statement ‘Copyright 2012.’  Well, the Seddon articles may be his copyright but the item on civil service reform is mine.

If I sound less than wholly enthusiastic about this unexpected and unsought endorsement it’s because I happen to think Seddon is not wholly a good thing.

He has some great ideas but the adjectives ‘acerbic’ and ‘combative’ understate his essential character.

I experienced this twice.

The first was when I worked for a council.  He bid for some work we had available, didn’t get it, and within a year had characterised us on his web site as amongst those ‘toolheads,’ his favourite put down for anyone who adopts a version of lean thinking of which he doesn’t approve.  This was despite the fact that at this early stage we had published no results of what we were doing and his characterisation was wrong in a number of key respects.

The second was when I was in business for a while and had the temerity to suggest (helpfully I thought) that his company’s habit of using their Twitter feed to release all their tweets for the week on a Sunday morning in one go probably limited their impact.  Within a day or two I had been comprehensively trashed on Twitter and told I fundamentally misunderstood the concept of work ‘flow.’

Well, I’m no longer in a position to turn down any contracts he bids for or in turn bid against him for work, so I’m presumably of less interest to him now.  Except he does seem to like that blog post I wrote…thanks, John.

For reasons you might guess, I’m not desperately keen to provide a link to Seddon’s web site but I’m sure you can find it if you want.

Blog spam is mostly like e-mail spam, offering me projects and services I don’t need or trying to entice me onto dodgy web sites that I assume will test my anti-virus software to the limits.

But perversely I do quite like the unwanted messages that are so inept or bizarre they deserve some special award for creativity.

Here’s a selection of the latest that HelpGov has received.  Sadly, they have gone the way of all the other rubbish an active blog attracts, what in my youth we used to call ‘File WPB’ (Waste Paper Basket):

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All I can say is ‘Hey dudes, im thanking you for amazed me on all your awesome crap.’

while ago I mentioned this blog would gradually change into a more open, free-flowing account on anything that interested me about the public sector.  I should have added ‘and beyond’.  On this the longest day of the year I am posting the account I kept of my day.  I’ve edited a few personal details out.  I know that for a blog it’s far too long.  But today I don’t care.

Woke at 6.10 a.m.  Decided to take the road less travelled on these occasions – to wake up and get up.  The road more travelled of course is to roll over, close eyes and go back to sleep.  Instead I resolved to start and maintain an extended diary entry on ‘the longest day.’

So far – 35 minutes – it has been one of unremitting greyness and gloom.  Greyness outside where the weather looks set to fulfil the forecast made of it yesterday – cloud followed later by rain.  At the moment the sky is just filled with high, uniform grey cloud, not a break in it anywhere.

Switched the radio on at 6.20 a.m. and the greyness continued on Radio 4 – the Today programme with John Humphries and Jim Naughtie.

Some investment adviser was talking about a ‘fire sale’ (‘It’s not quite that yet’) of assets by banks in the hardest-hit Eurozone countries.  It seems they are ‘restructuring’ their businesses to dispose of ‘equity shares in a wide range of companies’ as well as ‘portfolios of debt.’  Oh God, the number of times I’ve wanted to buy a portfolio of debt.  How much better it would make me feel.  ‘Who’s buying them?’ asked the journalist.  The phrase ‘private equity’ was mentioned.

Yesterday it was revealed that a millionaire comedian (yes, they exist), Jimmy Carr, who would be described in the language of the times as ‘edgy’ and who has a baby face and strange starey eyes (many find him funny, I find him mainly cruel) placed his earnings in a ‘tax efficient’ scheme in the Channel Islands called ‘K2’ (the scheme not the island).

There were cries of outrage led it seems by the presumably less tax-efficient prime minister.  Political jumping up and down all round, supporting, condemning, accusing.  I assume Mr Carr will be getting additional and specific doses of heckling these next few months and will no doubt work out appropriate humorous and cutting put downs.

Carr announced that his aim was to pay as little tax as possible.  Fair enough, I shall make it my aim to laugh as little as possible at his anyhow mostly unfunny humour.  There was a brief shot on the TV news last night of his house, a large brick affair with a paved front drive and gates.  Clearly not all the money has gone to the Channel Islands. [Update p.m. – Carr now says he’s discontinued using the K2 scheme.  He didn’t say when.]

Meanwhile back at Radio 4, the ‘banks’ item was followed by sport and some talk about a racehorse by its trainer, one of the inevitable Irishman they always seem to wheel out when there is a horse race that is said to be of some note.  It is what is called Ladies’ Day at Ascot today so this apparently matters.  There was mention of England (that is England as in the organisation that runs the national football team) being fined £4,000 by something  called EUFA for a ‘pitch invasion’  or perhaps it was an attempted invasion, by ‘fans’ in the current European Cup competition.

In the run up to the 6.30 a.m news, the programme provided an update on the UK national ‘strike’ of doctors today (I write the word in inverted commas because they say it is not a strike, they will still attend to patients who are ill).  Their first national industrial action in 40 years they (or their trade union, the mis-leadingly named British Medical Association) state in mitigation.

The radio gave us the essential details.  A GP earning £120,000 – it seems they can – currently retires at 60 on a pension of £48,000 with a lump sum of £140,000.  They are objecting to proposals to move them to the lesser pension terms and conditions that many other public sector workers have had to accept.  It must be difficult for them to get any public sympathy for their desperate plight.

Perhaps Jimmy Carr will lampoon the medics on TV for their greed.

All terribly important and as ephemeral as the blink of an eyelid.  The news followed at 6.30 a.m. and apart from the items already noted that preceded the news and may have been summarised again none of it gladdened my heart so much that I could remember it half an hour later.

So far all is silence in the house.  I have switched the radio off.  I can hear the tick of a small clock in front of me on the windowsill but that is all.  The one cat in the house lay in her basket, looked at me, yawned when I approached her, rolled on one side to exposes her giblets for stroking, purred, and watched me indifferently as I walked away.

I shall now stop writing to commence the essential tasks of any day – switch my internet browser on, check the half dozen sites I do every day, and then go for a shower.  I may even enjoy some more unremitting gloom from the radio.

8 a.m. The Radio 4 news, complete with unremitting gloom …

  • Doctors’ industrial action
  • Education Secretary of State Michael Gove’s (educated at the private Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen) proposal to reintroduce O Levels in England
  • Invitation by HMG to ruler of Burma to visit the UK as both ‘reward and incentive’
  • Continuing attempts of Egyptian military to thwart people’s desire for democracy (Why?  Well, inter alia they run a number of profit-making companies) by postponing announcement of the result of the presidential election.  Since it was a run-off between an ex-general/Mubarak henchman and a Muslim Brother not much progressive change either way can be expected
  • Civil servant suggests public sector cuts could continue for ten years – shock, horror, yawn
  • Greek political crisis and attempts by their government to get conditions attached to their international loans alleviated
  • Spanish inability to sell bonds on the markets…next Euro government needing a ‘bail out’?
  • 0800 telephone numbers and ‘scandal’ that insurance cos. etc. only allow new customers to use these free numbers.

8.50 a.m. Last night (said Radio 4) was the summer solstice at 23:09 precisely.  I went into the garden at  midnight to see if I could get a photo of the light.  100% cloud cover.  Not possible.

10 a.m. Now fiddling around wasting time on the web…

12.10 p.m.– alerted by a tweet, watching the wonderful videos created by Matt Harding on the ‘Where the hell is Matt?’ web site.  Still grey outside but no rain yet.

2 p.m. to our local Parish Church for the funeral of our late neighbour x aged 89.  She and her husband moved out 4/5 years ago to a modern flat that would be easier for both of them, especially him: he pre-deceased her by 2/3 years.  A lovely woman remembered simply and beautifully in a service led by the retiring minister.

Came back to realise I was just in time to see the address by Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the Houses of Parliament on the BBC Parliamentary channel.  I nearly wrote ‘martyr’ because that’s what she could have been – 24 years mostly under house arrest in her own country isolated from her husband and two sons, her husband Michael Aris, an Oxford academic who died while she was  under arrest (she refused to go back to see him when he was dying because of her fear that she would not be allowed back into her country).  Known, understandably because of her great dignity, as ‘the lady.’

The BBC, who so comprehensively botched and trivialised the Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant, set precisely the right tone for this event.

The front row of senior Commons parliamentarians (and it seemed ex-PMs) comprised – Cameron, Milliband E, Cherie Blair (presumably for Tony, absent no doubt earning money), Gordon Brown (understandable) but also Sarah B.  Why her?  When ASSK was chatting to others nearby, she took a pic of her with what looked like a mobile phone camera.  Crass or what?  On the basis of the two Bs being there or represented I would have thought John Major might have been afforded the same privilege.  But no.  Perhaps he was tucked away somewhere else.

10.45 p.m. Just finished watching on BBC4 the wonderful Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Orchestra perform an open air concert in Stirling where ‘La sistema’ seems to be transforming the lives of many of the children on the Raploch estate.  And so, as the great Pepys wrote, to bed.

I haven’t seen much coverage of the UK government’s Civil Service Reform Plan in the media these last couple of days (it was published yesterday).  It seems to have got lost amidst much more interesting stuff like Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assenge suddenly finding he has a deep affinity with Ecuador and some team winning a football match.

The plan comes from Cabinet Minister Francis Maude, who seems a decent sort of chap – mostly, notwithstanding the occasional clanger about using domestic garages for the storage of UK petroleum reserves, and civil service head Sir Robert Kerslake, who’s ex-local government.  So that’s OK isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

What’s it all about?  In his foreword, in big letters and right at the beginning so it must be uppermost in his mind, Maude says

Some months back I visited a large HMRC operation near Newcastle. The work staff were doing there was neither highly paid nor glamorous, but nonetheless was really important. They had committed to driving up their productivity and performance through the adoption of lean continuous improvement. This is a very demanding methodology, and requires the complete commitment of staff to a rigorous daily collective self-evaluation and to constantly searching for ways to do things better and quicker.

So there you go.  It’s about ‘lean continuous improvement,’ a phrase that suggests he or those advising him haven’t quite grasped the true meaning of how to improve organisations, but we’ll let that go.

Here’s what a word cloud of the text says it’s about, if you believe how often people use words tells you what they really mean (click the cloud to see a larger version)

Apart from obvious words like ‘Government,’ ‘Civil Service’ and so on, you’ll see lots of references to ‘policy…delivery…change…performance’  and other stalwarts of management-speak.  But where are ‘lean’ and ‘continuous improvement’?  Nowhere, although just tucked away towards the top left you’ll see the innocuous ‘improve.’

No doubt interested parties – trade unions, Taxpayers’ Alliance et al – will say what they think about all the other issues the proposals raise.  But I want to concentrate on one fundamental point related to the issue of improvement.

Chapter 5 of the plan is about

Creating a modern employment offer [sic] for staff that encourages and rewards a productive, professional and engaged workforce.

Action 17 says this will include

Regular and rigorous performance appraisal for all staff, recognising good performance and taking action where performance is poor

and (pp.28-29)

 an…appraisal system which will identify the top 25% and the bottom 10%. The bottom 10% will need to undertake performance monitoring and improvement planning… For all staff that remain bottom performers without improvement and are still not meeting the required standards, a decision will quickly be taken over whether they should be exited from the organization.

So it took a while to get there but here you have it – the bottom 10% incapable of improving will be ‘exited.’

Dress it up how you will this is no more than the hard-nosed, kick-arse school of American management espoused by the likes of Jack Welch, erstwhile boss of General Electric.  That was his style – identify the bottom 10% each year and sack them.

There are fundamental objections to this approach anyhow, but even more so if you say you believe in ‘lean continuous improvement.’   The truth is that how people perform at work is substantially the result of the system (some say as much as 90%+).  Managers (leaders if you will) are responsible for how the system works and they recruit staff, decide what work they do and how, train them, promote them, manage and support them…and so on.

There’s also the little matter of what you might call the arithmetic fallacy.  Let’s say you can objectively identify that ‘bottom’ 10%.  They then fall into the danger zone.  But consider the appraisal scores of two teams, each of twenty staff

Team member

Team A

Team B

No. 1



No. 2



No. 3



No. 4



No. 5



No. 6



No. 7



No. 8



No. 9



No. 10



No. 11



No. 12



No. 13



No. 14



No. 15



No. 16



No. 17



No. 18



No. 19



No. 20



All members of Team B are ‘worse’ than any member of Team A yet under the Maude-Kerslake proposal Nos. 19 and 20 in both teams will be subject to ‘performance monitoring and improvement planning’ and if they don’t improve will be out on their lugs.

Makes sense doesn’t it?

I may return to other aspects of this wonderful document

Great headline in my local paper today, the esteemed Aberdeen Press and Journal:

Study shows risk of dying doubles.

So that would be doubled from 100% would it?

The text of the article compounds the error:

Scientists in the US found that “feeling lonely” almost doubled the risk of dying in a population of 1,600 older individuals.

Of course, what it really means is that at any given age loneliness can almost double the risk of dying.  At the end of the day the grim reaper gets us all.

It reminded me of a diagnosis I once had of a (not actually too serious) medical problem.  The first medic, a rather gloomy registrar volunteered ‘You have an irreversible degenerative disease, Mr White.’  When I retailed this to the head honcho, a neurologist, he added the helpful corrective – ‘Yes. We all have an irreversible degenerative disease.  It’s called life.  And what’s more it’s sexually transmitted.’

Once upon a time, there was a wee girl who lived in a beautiful part of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

The school she went to was in a lovely new building that overlooked a sea loch near an old village.

The wee girl was very interested in writing.  One day her teacher asked everyone in her class to do a writing project.  She asked her mum and dad for ideas and decided to write a ‘blog’ about her school dinners.

With some help from her dad she started the blog, thinking that her family and maybe the children she went to school with might be interested in it.  Because it was about food she also asked anyone who read it to give some money to a charity that provided school dinners for children in poor countries.

It was a clever idea.  She took a photo of her school dinner each day, gave it a score on something she invented called a Food-o-meter and said what she thought about the food.

Of course, she didn’t like some of what she had to eat, even though she could choose from different things.  But children are like that everywhere.  And sometimes she said things like ‘Lunch was really nice today’ and ‘The fajita was lovely.’

Then some funny things started to happen.

Children from other countries began to send her photos of their own school dinners.  She put them on her blog and said what she thought about the photos.

More and more people started to look at what she wrote and eventually she was asked with her dad to visit a famous chef who was talking about school dinners.

The next day something terrible happened.

A newspaper from a big city wrote about her visit to the famous chef.  They had a headline that said ‘Time to fire the dinner ladies,’ something the wee girl and her dad had never said and was a very lazy and stupid thing to write.

Her school had been happy when she started the blog but now of course the poor dinner ladies were upset and afraid for their jobs.

The council, who ran the school she went to, wasn’t as clever as it could have been and said she couldn’t take photos of her dinners any more.  She was called out of a lesson to be told this, which wasn’t perhaps the most sensible thing to do, because children don’t like that and it might have been a good idea to tell her dad first.

Well, you wouldn’t believe the fuss it all caused.

The TV, radio and other newspapers all found out what was going on.  Suddenly what had happened was news throughout the world.  Millions of people looked at her blog and thousands tweeted about it.  People started to say that the ban on her taking photos was silly.

Within a day the council had to change its mind and said she could still take photos.  Unfortunately, by then people had started to write all sorts of unkind things about them.  Some puppets from Glasgow even sung a song about the council!

An important man from the council called the ‘leader’ said he would meet the wee girl and her dad and ‘seek her continued engagement,’ which was a strange thing to say to a wee girl.

Children, fairy tales are funny things.  They teach you lessons, if you think about them, but they don’t always have happy endings.  This fairy tale hasn’t ended yet.  What do you think its lessons will be?  Do you think it will have a happy ending for anyone and if so, who?

Also worth reading – Adrian Short’s more technical analysis of the council’s original press release on this subject (now disappeared from their web site)

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