October 2012

Today is Blog Action Day and HelpGov is taking part for the third year running.

As a believer in the just-in-time philosophy as a way to do work I have followed my traditional course of only thinking about what I’d write at the last minute.

And not for the first time I had my Eureka moment in the shower this morning as BBC radio news reported that UK prime minister David Cameron and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond were meeting today to agree the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence.

Those of you who’ve dipped in to the HelpGov blog before may have picked up that I have a view on the subject. But that’s not for now.

And the ‘We’ of this post are not Dave and Alex.

The point is that they are both elected leaders in a democratic system and they both have a mandate from the electorate to pursue certain policies.

In both cases you could argue it’s an imperfect mandate – electoral turnout, proportion of the population who voted for their party, for Cameron the indeterminate result of the last UK general election and the resulting coalition.

But who said it was perfect?

Not Winston Churchill, who famously wrote

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Or even British novelist E M Forster, who wrote a book of essays called Two Cheers for Democracy.

The United States constitution famously begins

We the People

Of course it could have gone on to say ‘We the People, in all our messy, fractious, indifferent and sometimes hostile ways…’

But as a justification for political action democracy is as good as it gets for me.

That’s why Norway was able to separate from Sweden without a war. Why the Czech and Slovak Republics formed themselves from the former Czechoslovakia peacefully. Why Quebec decided that, on balance, it wanted to remain part of Canada.

And why in those countries the results of the political decisions were accepted by the vast majority of the people concerned.

It’s the power of the democratic ‘We.’

The same will be true when Scotland holds its referendum on independence in 2014 – whatever the result.

I nearly wrote this two days ago when Donald Trump issued his latest statement about the offshore wind turbines he believes will blight his new golf course at Menie in Aberdeenshire.

The not-always sensible gene in my brain told me ‘Wait a day or two otherwise you’ll write something you regret.’ It also saved me getting confused with another news story that day, headlined by The Scotsman as

Man who arrived in Scotland with rare fever transferred to London hospital.

Sadly, it wasn’t about the noisy Trump-et but a poor man who has since died of the rare disease he had.

It’s best to let Trump speak for himself. Here’s some of what he said.

  • Their [the RSPB’s] name should be changed to RSKB – “Royal Society for the Killing of Birds” to reflect their pro-wind turbine position
  • Military radar will be totally affected by these massive, ugly and inefficient turbines…..wind turbines compromise national security
  • They are doing it strictly because Alex Salmond wants them to, and Alex Salmond has a death wish for Scotland
  • The golf course I have built is already considered, perhaps, the best in the world
  • The hotel I am planning would likewise be far superior to any hotel in Scotland, England, Ireland and, hopefully, anywhere in Europe
  • Restaurants, hotels and stores are packed to the rafters because of the success of our great golf development
  • Alex Salmond, whose greatest contribution has been to let a Libyan terrorist go home to his friends after bombing Pan Am flight 103
  • Almost as importantly as the destruction of the Scottish environment and landscape, taxes will be raised massively for Scottish taxpayers to pay for Alex’s folly.

It’s difficult to know where to start in analysing this meretricious nonsense. Put at its simplest it re-tells the old, old story of Trump’s superiority in every way to anyone who might threaten his business.

So, the RSPB don’t exist to protect birds but the Donald does. He knows better than the UK military about radar and national security. His golf course and hotel will be the best in Scotland, the UK, Europe…the world. Restaurants, hotels and ‘stores’ in the North east are packed to the rafters already a few months after his golf course opened [They’re not]. Alex Salmond – who I hold no brief for – not only has a death wish for the country he so clearly loves above all else but his greatest achievement has been releasing a Libyan terrorist. And to pay for the one wind farm off Aberdeen that is the cause of Trump’s ill-temper, taxes [that the Scottish Parliament currently has no power to raise] will have to increase massively.

Perhaps the only other thing you need to know about Donald Trump is what I heard the director of the excellent documentary You’ve Been Trumped say when the film was premiered in Aberdeen

In three years [following Trump for the movie] I didn’t hear him say ‘Thank you’ once.

Not for the first time, a British politician has turned, without acknowledgement, to the good old US of A for an idea. In his speech to this year’s Labour party conference shadow chancellor Ed Balls said:

because we all know there can be no post-election spending spree, in our first year in government we will hold a zero-based spending review that will look at every pound spent by government: carefully looking at what the Government can and cannot afford, rooting out waste and boosting productivity.

My advice, Ed, is don’t do it. Sorry, I’ll put that more cogently. DON’T DO IT.

At its simplest, zero-based budgeting (ZBB) takes every line of a budget, asks what would be the consequences if it did not exist, and seeks a justification for any spend beyond that. If you’re not familiar with ZBB, Wikipedia actually has quite a good article on it.

ZBB has been around for decades. It started in the private sector, where it seems to have been used to examine relatively limited support functions in companies.

Once the academics and politicians got hold of it, however, it became a major endeavour in the public sector.

As a public sector manager, I experienced the joys of ZBB myself with the following results

  • The whole thing became a major industry. I and my colleagues spent endless, fruitless hours trying to align detailed budgets with programmes, objectives and policies
  • Neither the data for ZBB nor the software to manipulate it was available
  • The nature of public sector ‘budget lines’ meant one manager was forced to justify spend on a few thousand pounds, another on a million pounds. Both budgets received equal treatment in analysis
  • On the well-known principle that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, no manager came forward with any proposal significantly different from the position that current levels of spend on their budgets were absolutely essential
  • When the politicians got hold of ZBB data to help them make decisions they found it virtually useless and the next year’s budgets for that organisation were hardly different from the last

ZBB was never used again in that organisation, although every now and then proponents who hadn’t sweated blood over the previous exercise had to be taken quietly on one side to be told the truth about it.

I have no doubt any advocates of ZBB will be sharpening their keyboards even now to rebut my experience. My challenge to them is two-fold.

First, read the 1997 US General Accounting Office (GAO) report called Performance Budgeting. Past Initiatives Offer Insights for GPRA Implementation and its devastating insight on ZBB.

Second, show me where and how ZBB is used successfully in the public sector in the UK. Not just rumours that someone in Ontario or Western Australia has found it helpful, but actual documented proof about current successful use here.  I’ll eat my (virtual) hat if you can.

Here’s my prediction of what will happen if Balls holds his zero-based spending review if and when he’s chancellor in a future Labour government

  • There will be major upheaval in the civil service to support the exercise, distracting them from more pressing tasks
  • It will cost a lot, more than will be admitted
  • Consultants (oh yes, them) will probably be bought in to complete the exercise
  • Balls will have even fewer friends amongst his ministerial colleagues, who will all be rooting for their department in the review
  • The whole thing will make very little difference, if any, to future government spend and it will be quietly dropped in the next year.

My helpful tip for Ed would be to check out the GAO report I mention above. You don’t even have to go to Appendix V on ZBB (pp. 46-51). Page 6 has all you need to know:

The implicit presumptions of…ZBB — that systematic analysis of options could substitute for political judgment — ultimately proved unsustainable.


As a long-time conference survivor I’ve had more than one blast on this blog at these sometimes meaningless events, including my feelings about political keynote speakers – often sold as the main reason for your ‘essential’ (humph) attendance.

My e-mail this morning brings me an update from a young person just embarking on a public service career and attending their first big conference:

The Minister of XYZ was speaking. It was quite funny seeing everyone flapping about before he arrived then him turning up with a 10 strong entourage straight into the VIP room. Then ushered into the hall to give a 10 minute speech and then straight to his car and away. No looking at posters or speaking to delegates. It actually seems a bit pointless him coming because he doesn’t gain any insight about what’s happening at the conference.

Well, well…plus ça change etc. The politico concerned can tick off another point of engagement with the troops, the civil servants can hustle him off self-importantly to his next engagement, I can settle down to the latest episode of The Thick of It. After all fiction is more entertaining than real life, isn’t it?