July 2012

As British readers will know, a London police officer – PC Simon Harwood – has just been found not guilty by a jury of manslaughter.

The incident that led to his trial received wide publicity at the time in 2009.

There is a widespread disturbance in the City of London against the G20 summit.  In one spot demonstrators stand a few yards from a police cordon. A middle aged man wanders into the space. He is, it turns out, Ian Tomlinson, an innocent newspaper seller on his way back to the hostel he lives in.

Someone filming on their phone catches the incident.

A man in riot gear emerges from the group of policeman without apparent warning. He strikes Tomlinson from behind on the legs, then pushes him forward. Tomlinson falls to the ground and is left there by the officer, who returns to the group he emerged from. Someone from the crowd comes out to help the man to his feet. Within hours he has died.

Two legal processes later return apparently conflicting verdicts. A jury at a coroner’s inquest said the man died by unlawful killing. The trial of PC Harwood finds him not guilty.

After the acquittal it is revealed that PC Harwood has a record of complaints against him, some involving the sort of behaviour described here. Most complaints remain allegations but curiously at one stage in his career he resigns as a police officer then is immediately engaged as a civilian employee by the same force. Later he becomes a police officer with a neighbouring force and transfers back as an officer to his original employer, the Metropolitan Police.

In a different time and a different place I was a member of another jury.

It was a simple, some might say routine, case.

A young male driver was accused of two alternative counts of, in effect, causing or contributing to the death of a woman in another car.

His car and the other vehicle collided at a junction where a number of accidents had occurred. He was driving too fast and crashed into the other vehicle. A middle-aged woman in the other car, the mother of some of the other passengers, died.

During the trial the young man’s lawyer painted a picture of a single aberration by an otherwise serious young man who was a student at a critical stage of his studies. A guilty verdict, especially on the more serious charge, could have a serious impact on his future.  His girlfriend, who was a passenger in his car, testified on his behalf.

The family of the dead woman attended the two days of the trial and were visible to the jury.  Not surprisingly, they looked distraught at various stages of the proceedings – the description of the accident (some of them had been in it), the expert witness who had calculated the excessive speed of the other car, the defence lawyer’s characterisation of his client.

We were told by the judge that we could return a guilty or not guilty verdict on either charge. After an hour or two’s deliberation we gave the young man the benefit of the doubt and found him guilty of the lesser charge. The legalities of it slip my mind now but our verdict was akin to saying he was guilty of careless driving but not much more.

When the verdict was announced the young man was required to return later with his driving licence (which he should have had with him) for sentencing. The jury was also required to attend. The family of the dead woman were, again, in the public gallery.

Before the sentence was given, it was revealed that the guilty man had previous offences for dangerous driving and speeding.

If that moment could have been frozen in time it would have shown

  • gasps and looks of disbelief on the faces of the family of the dead woman in the public gallery
  • one of the women in the group, probably a daughter or daughter-in-law, crying into a handkerchief
  • another looking accusingly at the jury as if to say we had betrayed them
  • a collective feeling of unease amongst the jurors
  • a blank look on the defendant’s face
  • the judge looking at his papers: he must have seen this many times before.

As one of the jurors I shared that collective unease.  I still feel it. I wonder how the jury in the Simon Harwood case are feeling.

Under the hashtag #Ilovemyjob one of the great local government tweeps I follow wrote last week

Just spent an hour talking with 12 Albanian Mayors about the local committee structure in Sutton.

This is the sort of random information Twitter throws at you every day. Thanks for it to @GlenOcsko.

Although I have no proof I’m 99% sure of what was going on here.

For many years the UK government and/or European Commission have sponsored people from former communist countries that might be EU member candidates to come on study visits to the likes of Britain and other long-standing EU members to see how democracy can work.

In my day, it was the swathe of Eastern European countries which are now EU members.

A typical trip might be organised by a UK university politics department and feature briefing sessions with academics and visits to two or three local authorities to meet local politicians and council staff, much as I suspect the twelve Albanian mayors were doing in Sutton.

You might not think it an exciting way to spend a week. But for many of the delegates on these trips struggling to come to terms with the upheaval and turmoil in their own countries, this was the first time they had ventured west of the old iron curtain. They were often shabbily dressed by our standards and uneasy at the resources we seemed to have as well as the general UK standard of living around them.

Most did not speak English and there sometimes seemed to be a clear hierarchy within their group although their interpreter was the key delegate if you were to get anything of value across to them.

At the time I was working for a large, mainly rural, council. I particularly remember a group of Bulgarians and the effort I’d gone (pre-Google Translate and Babelfish) to source a grammatically-correct slide to front my presentation that said ‘Welcome to XYZ Council!’ in Bulgarian.

My presentation, filtered through their interpreter’s efforts, seemed to go down as well as an account of multi-member wards and the differences between central and area committees could.

Inviting questions, I sat down to polite smiles and a silence that was eventually broken by a question from the delegate I had identified as the main man in the group, an academic at some institute for government. The interpreter translated

He says who has the executive authority in your villages?

Even now the words ‘knock me down’ and ‘feather’ come to mind.

I won’t bother to explain why. Those in the know will understand precisely the difficulties of where you start to answer such a question in the British context. If you’re not in the know ask yourself the same question – ‘Who has the executive authority in your village or suburb?’ Just doesn’t make sense in the UK does it?

Well, the Bulgarians are safely inside the EU now and no doubt the Albanians are hoping to be in the future (dim and distant I would have thought). I wonder if they asked any interesting questions in Sutton?

I’ve resisted the temptation to blog about the big issues pro-and-con raised by Donald Trump’s Menie Links golf course in Aberdeenshire. Others have done it bigger (which is appropriate for a larger-than-life character like The Donald) and better than I can.

I did have a pop a while ago at Trump’s environmental concerns about an offshore wind farm that, if it’s ever built,  just might be visible (with binoculars) from the higher points of his golf course.

Now I see he’s in trouble with the local council planners over the sign you see here (I’ve taken it from the Aberdeen Evening Express web site without asking, naughty boy that I am.  I’ll remove it if they object, and trek out to take one of my own if necessary – I hope for his sake he’s not using G4S for his security staff these days).

The sign is instructive for a number of reasons.

First, although he was given planning permission for a sign 3.27 metres long it’s actually 6 metres in length. But what’s an 83% disparity between friends?  After all it’s only as if The Shard in London was 132 habitable floors high instead of 72.

Then there’s the question of the design, which presumably conforms to some corporate house style knocked up in Manhattan, or more likely Florida.

It’s in shiny black stuff with gold lettering and trim. Of course it is, that spells ‘class’ doesn’t it?

The material might be granite or it might be that waterproof plastic stuff they line shower cubicles with. Never mind that the North East of Scotland does a nice line in granite of its own, with some wonderful grey and pink stone easily available.

Local material might also have dictated a more genuinely classier shape than the rectangle-with-curly-bits-on-the-top that I lack the technical vocabulary to describe.

The curly bits allow space for a presumably faux coat of arms in gold to be inserted above the legend ‘Trump International Golf Links.’ Again, more class. Perhaps the Lord Lyon King of Arms could confirm whether the design has been registered.

Not being a typographer, I don’t know what the typeface used on the sign is. Like the shape of the sign it’s also curly. If it’s choice was ever brainstormed in some design studio I assume their flip chart would have been full of words like ‘hand-written’, ‘quill’, ‘bygone age’, ‘upscale’ and, oh yes, ‘classy.’

Underneath the name of the course is written the word ‘SCOTLAND’ just in case you thought you were in downtown Buenos Aires or Disney World. It’s in capitals of course so you GET THE POINT.

The whole thing is mounted on two rectangular poles, again shiny black. Other mountings are available, like the vernacular dry stane dykes (dry stone walls) that are traditional in the area and are used to great effect in many local signs.

But maybe Trump’s people think a vernacular is some kind of railway you build up the side of a world heritage mountain, improving it no end of course.

I could have taken Mr T to several undertakers in the area that have very similar signs, and to the same effect.

PS Glancing at the photo I’ve just realised that superficially the sign looks like a grand piano dumped down in the middle of nowhere. Seems appropriate.

Ahh, money!

Lovely money.  Lolly, bunce, spondulicks, quids, bucks…

As many names for it as the Eskimos are said to have for snow or, to lower the tone, slang words we use for our own human sexual organs.

And for the same reasons.

They’re all things that are really important (yes, them too).

But money’s different from the others in one critical respect.

As the song from the musical Cabaret has it

Money makes the world go round

It makes the world go round.

It’s literally the currency that keeps the economy of the world moving.

We all like it and studies have shown that whatever we’re paid most people would like a bit more, roughly 10% more in fact, that being the amount people tend to think they’re underpaid for the work they do.

Most of us provide a product or service for that work.

Those products or services are incredibly diverse – from potatoes in umpteen different varieties, through fast food, vehicles as different as Mini Coopers, Rolls Royces and JCB diggers, to physiotherapy, dentistry…you get the point.

But there’s one trade where the product is money itself – banking.

And I think that’s one of the many problems with banking.

The product – money – they deal in is also the product they (the bankers) pay themselves.  How easy it is to cream off a bit more of the vast sums of money flowing through the system, a slightly higher commission here, a bit more bonus there.  No-one will notice, surely?

It’s not like that for anyone else.

If you work on an assembly line of the company that makes Mini Coopers, or even manage it, you don’t want to be paid in cars, you don’t want your bonus to be half-a-Mini this year, 65%-of-a-Mini next year if profits go up.

If you flip burgers for a living you certainly don’t want to be confronted with 120 meal deals at the end of the month with your pay slip.

(Gratuitous old joke – Q: What do you say to a graduate of XYZ [insert your favourite] University?  A: Big Mac and fries, please)

So just as we have to put up with being paid in their product – money – I propose that bankers should be paid in units of the products and services we produce.  After all, each of those products and services has a market value.

I wouldn’t be too mean about it.  I’d let them choose the product or service they want to receive their remuneration in.  Having determined an employee’s salary and bonus the bank would then transfer to the individual that amount by value of the product/service concerned.

You can imagine the scene on the trading floor of the casinos that pass for investment banks.

‘Yay! That deal with the Kazakhstan derivatives went through.’

‘OK, what did you get?’

‘Two IKEA kitchens.  Woot!  Woot!’

‘Big deal.  The scam with the Mexican trade got me 50k.’


‘Yes, 50k pairs of M&S briefs.’


‘Er, swap you a cupboard for 500 pairs of knickers?’

And so on…

The system would also have the merit that it would be more difficult to cream off that little extra of the product (money) we give them to invest for us.

Wealth adviser (sic) to client – ‘Um, our commission’s gone up this quarter.  That’ll be another £350.’

Client – ‘That’s fine.  How do you want it? Eighty-five sacks of potatoes or two-thirds of my ride-on mower?’

I think this could be a goer.

Brilliant idea ©HelpGov 2012

It’s a drama a minute isn’t it?  I refer to the UK coalition, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats bound together in government, they hope, for five years.  The latest make-or-break, maybe, is the reform of the House of Lords.

Just after the UK general election in May 2010 I blogged a list of ten tips for a successful coalition offered by Jack (now Lord) McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland.

For those outwith Scotland, it’s helpful to know that our own devolved parliament was designed with a system of proportional representation to ensure no one political party could ever have a simple majority (the sceptics said ‘designed by the Westminster Labour government to ensure that the SNP could never have a simple majority’ – they do now, but that’s another story) and adversaries would have to compromise to make it work.

Unlike Westminster, the parliamentary chamber is semi-circular and so less adversarial – no forbidden lines at a sword’s length to stay behind and no baying like animals at each other across the divide.

And none of the archaic practices of Westminster that traditionalists love but which often seem to hinder efficient and effective government – MSPs vote by pressing a button (shock, horror) and seem to manage perfectly well without crowding into a lobby like sheep to be counted with the result announced by tellers with the cry ‘The ayes have it.’

So the Scottish experience, and McConnell’s, who led a Labour/Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood, might have something to teach a parliament struggling to govern through coalition for the first time in generations.

These are McConnell’s ten tips repeated, with my comments and outsider’s score out of ten for how they’re doing so far

  1. Leaders must have personal trust – Cameron and Clegg made a good start but seem a lot tetchier with each other now (Clegg’s body language sat next to the PM in parliament is instructive) although there’s no obvious briefing against each other, unlike the dearly departed Tony and Gordon SCORE 7/10
  2. Agree a clear policy programme and priorities and stick to it – I’d love to see a serious analysis of progress on the coalition’s programme for government (I certainly don’t have the resources to do it) but pending that the picture seems a mixed one.  Notwithstanding points 3. 5. and 6. below there seem to have been occasions (Michael Gove’s school exam reforms?) that are not only off-programme but also seem to have been a surprise to others in the coalition.  And although the coalition’s agreed programme has a very clear proposal for House of Lords reform (p.27) now push has come to shove lots of stroppy Tory backbenchers want to treat that as an optional extra to be discarded SCORE 6/10
  3. As in any successful relationship, compromise is necessary – sometimes challenging, many Conservative MPs especially don’t quite seem to have got the point SCORE 5/10
  4. Every partnership has disagreements so it is important that there is a clear dispute resolution mechanism in place, one that is understood and accepted by both sides – not sure about this.  Is this what Cameron/Clegg/Osborne and Alexander do?  Any Westminster insiders care to make a judgement? SCORE 6/10?
  5. Governments need to be flexible, to respond to new opportunities as well as unexpected events – a tricky one.  Where Labour (and others) claim lack of flexibility in economic matters the coalition seems to be holding their agreed line and lack of flexibility doesn’t seem to be an issue between the two parties SCORE 5½/10?
  6. Use the agreed programme as a guide, not a straitjacket – see 5.
  7. Sometimes coalition partners need to go their separate ways – and they have on occasion, but it needs to be without surprising your partner SCORE 6/10
  8. People leave a political party in a coalition for all sorts of reasons and a partnership must be robust enough to cope with that – not a big issue yet as no major defections to other parties UNSCORED
  9. All for one and one for all. A coalition government must have collective responsibility and ministers across the political divide must accept this discipline – they say all political animals are either herbivores or carnivores.  My impression is that the Conservatives have a few carnivore ministers who would really like to tuck into a Lib Dem or two.  Their back benchers are worse SCORE 7/10
  10. Finally, never forget the electorate.  SCORE – NOT POSSIBLE UNTIL THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION

Looking at this I’m surprised some of my scores are as high as they are.  Perhaps thinking seriously about each of McConnell’s tips forces me to discard much of the media froth that surrounds politics and is constantly looking for failure and negativity.

After two years of coalition government I think I’d like to add another tip to Jack McConnell’s list

Ensure you have a political system that enables and supports coalition working

In this case the system is the Westminster parliamentary system and I’m afraid it has been found seriously wanting SCORE 4/10.

What do you think?

I expressed scepticism recently about the UK government’s civil service reforms.  I mentioned that the name of the new(ish) head of the civil service, Sir Robert Kerslake, was not surprisingly associated with them.  New brooms always like to sweep clean.

Now I see Sir Bob is associated, again not unreasonably, with the UK Civil Service Awards 2012.

Only trouble, Sir Bob, is that staff awards are rarely a good idea.

I know if you happened to see this and could be bothered to respond (although why should you?) you’d give me all the reasons why I’m wrong.

Trouble is, I’ve heard them all before and I’m still not convinced.

You can find out why in my post last year on “And the winner is…” – are awards ceremonies a waste of time?

I gave many reasons why these sorts of things are not a good idea but perhaps most fundamental was my conclusion that

The big problem with these awards is [that]…an organisation is a system and how people perform in it depends largely on how senior people manage and improve the system.

Let’s just have a look at these current awards to see how they match up.

The first thing to say is that the government/civil service senior management have such confidence in their own staff that they’ve outsourced the whole awards process to a company called Dods, ‘a political information, publishing, events and communications business operating in both the UK and Europe.’

Moreover, it won’t cost you or me a penny as ‘All costs of running the event will be covered by Dods…through advertising and sponsorship from outside the Civil Service’ (Civil Service Awards FAQ).

You can call that canny or you can call it cheap.

The awards web site shows they are run in association with consultants Ernst & Young and a company called Huawei (‘a leading global ICT solutions provider’).  Other companies sponsor individual awards.  It is of course conceivable that some of them may be interested in getting business from the government.  Curiously, they are also run ‘in partnership’ with the National Audit Office, i.e. another bit of the civil service.  Whether there is a transfer of money from NAO to help fund the awards is not clear.

There are thirteen categories of awards, for both teams and individuals.  It would be tedious to plod through all of them but let’s just say most of them are seen in one guise or another in most public sector awards competitions including – operational excellence, change management, achieving better for less, and professional (professional what?) of the year.  Strangely this last category is the only one not open to nominees in the Senior Civil Service.

Each category, of course, has criteria attached to it.  Here are some of them.  You may notice some old friends from the textbook of management jargon

  • Strong and successful communication has been delivered in an innovative way and successfully engaged customers
  • Best practice application of expert project management skills and techniques
  • Evidence of sustainability, transparency and control in procurement practice
  • Improving results by placing robust evidence and analysis at the heart of the decision–making process
  • Engaging people and developing their own and others capabilities.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the whole process ‘engages’ civil servants this year.

The Office for National Statistics says there were 498,000 civil servants in 2011.  According to the awards web site, they attract ‘upwards of 800 nominations every year.’  OK, some are for teams and some for individuals.  But that’s one nomination for every 622 civil servants.

Hardly a ringing endorsement is it?

But don’t worry.  There’s an awards ceremony in November at which some guest minister (it was the prime minister last year), Sir Bob, other senior civil servants, the sponsors and some of the finalists will feel good about it all.

Recorded by the BBC at the Farnborough Air Show, an exhibitor explains his company’s product

This is next generation of systems to provide kind of the high-end situation awareness for pilots.  It starts with the central computer right here which really has the computer capacity of a laptop but it’s really no bigger than a smart phone.  That system is fully integrated with the soldier worn display which is again a nice, if you look here is a very thin wear right on your wrist touch screen gives the person off the aircraft situational awareness kind of the bird ‘s eye view of where they are, where the target is, where the friendlies are and where the bad guys are.  The beauty of this is that we’re really leveraging off of existing commercial technology, making it applicable for military use.  So that soldiers when they go back into the field they don’t go back in time   They can operate with systems and solutions that they‘re very comfortable with in everyday use.  That’s the big deal about this.

So now you know.

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