You have to feel sorry for the ScotRail employee responsible for their Twitter feed @ScotRail.

Since 7 a.m. this morning (I write this at 8.45 a.m.) he/she has tweeted eleven times, seven in response to complaints made online.

But the two tweets that caught my eye give information about changes to (no let’s speak plainly – problems with) a couple of train services this morning, useful in the circumstances I suppose, but not as useful as if they’d been able to run the trains as promised.

Please be advised that the 08.39 Edinburgh/Fife Circle will run as 2 carriages due to set availability. Apologies for any inconvenience.

Please be advised the 07:45 Falkirk Grahamston – Glasgow Qn St will run as 3 carriages due to unit availability.

I bring these tweets to your avid attention as a small example of official (I suppose a privatised train company running services with a public subsidy can count as official) use of language.

Note that one train has carriages, a concept I am familiar with, the other has sets, something I’m less clear about although I had one when I was a child.

Note that one set (oops, sorry lot) of passengers get an apology (lucky old Fife circlers), the others from sunny Falkirk just get the information sans apology.

Well, I suppose this is trivia, and at least any passengers on these lines who follow @ScotRail know where they stand – probably literally given their shrunken trains.

The slightly bigger question is where do these carriages and ‘sets’ go? Have they wandered south to bail out First rail franchises in England?  Are they lost in a siding somewhere?  Did the crew set off without checking the coupling, leaving their respective carriages and sets, Thomas the Tank Engine-like, sobbing on lonely platforms at Falkirk Grahamstown and Edinburgh Waverley?  Or are they just broke, and if so how and why?  I think we, or at least the poor old commuters involved, should be told.

Oh, last thought ScotRail. Try to communicate in the slightly simpler language that Twitter so clearly, and briefly, needs. The words ‘Please be advised’ in these messages are not needed. ‘Sorry’ sounds more human than ‘apologies.’

Best of all, of course, do something to make sure your trains run as promised.

Footnote 12 June 2012

Today’s ScotRail tweet reads

Please be advised the 07:20 Dundee – Edinburgh will run as 4 carriages due to availability.

Difficult to know what this adds to yesterday’s moan, except that ScotRail clearly suffer the disadvantage of not reading and taking note of the HelpGov blog.  I might dip into this more regularly (at least offline, you’ll be pleased to know) to see whether they continue to lose carriages.  What’s the betting that six months from now I’ll be able to update this post but with new examples?


I see there’s a wee (very wee) spat on the BBC web site today about the number of apprenticeships the Scottish Government has or hasn’t helped create.  I have no way of judging the claims (Labour) and counter-claims (SNP) but do wish the government rebuttal could have been couched in terms other than the fact that they are

committed to maximising the employability of young people

I think ‘committed to maximising employability’ means helping them get work. Why can’t the combined tribes of politicos and spokespeople use plain language?

Q: Why is so much of the time of probation officers [up to 75%] spent carrying out admin and other tasks rather than seeing offenders?

A (Committee chair Sir Alan Beith): It was micro-management.  It was box ticking.  It was all the things we’ve come to associate with a target culture and which really do need to be changed.

R4 Today programme  27 July 2011

Three cheers for the House of Commons Justice Committee and their report published yesterday on the probation service in England and Wales.  A thorough examination of a challenging subject.

Some of their conclusions are worth quoting

  • It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders…
  • probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS (National Offenders’ Management Service) to provide trusts with greater autonomy…
  • It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly…
  • Trusts…need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year…
  • There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority…
  • The creation of NOMS…has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders…
  • sentencers’ hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions…
  • The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers…

There’s much more but this will do to set the context for the point that regular readers would expect HelpGov to make.

Once you get over the jargon that all areas of work spawn you realise that “end to end offender management” is just another system and needs to be treated as such, so that there is a common and correct understanding of

  • what the system is
  • the processes it uses
  • communication within the system
  • culture and trust
  • consistency vs discretion
  • and the other essential attributes of a system.

The Justice Committee’s report is good on the diagnosis of the problems.  In many respects its prescription provides the basis for a cure of the ills it describes.  Let’s hope the government’s demands for a commissioner-provider split in delivery doesn’t thwart the intention.  And that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t get distracted by louder voices and other priorities.

[Non-UK readers: Vauxhall = GM]

Tale No. 1 – several years ago

A while ago I attended an inspirational talk by the then local Vauxhall dealer who applied systems thinking in her business.  She walked onto the stage carrying a large holdall.

“We’re going to start with a bit of exercise,” she said.  “I’ve got some balls in here.  I’m going to pass  some down to you and I’d like you to just throw them around the room to each other.”

She took out a tennis ball and lobbed it into the audience then followed with a ping pong ball, a child’s football, a soft woolly ball and a few others.  Soon the hall was like a Wimbledon warm-up, balls being thrown everywhere, general amusement at poor passes, creative lobs and so on.

“Stop now,” she said and took out the largest, heaviest size of 10-pin bowl from the holdall.  “Who wants me to throw this at them?”

There was silence.

“Well,” she said “what if these balls were customers?  Because this is what we do to them – pass them from pillar to post.  It’s great fun.  And how would you deal with this heavy customer?”

It was an effective demonstration of the traditional way in which companies (and public agencies) treat customers.  She then went on, of course, to show the better way her company tried to practice.

Tale No. 2 – yesterday

I attempted to check if my car’s service at my current Vauxhall dealer had been completed, a phone call from them having been promised but not received by 4.50 p.m. (earlier in the day they had laboriously taken three separate phone numbers from me “so we can phone you when it’s ready”).  This is what happened.

Dial number.  Long wait

Dealer reception (DR): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: Service reception please

Line cuts to upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover extolling virtues of used car deals, urging me to contact “the sales team”.  A long wait

Mystery voice (MV) (accompanied by loud scratchy sounds):  Mmmmph, chrccctch, I mmmmph, cchhhrrrg…

Me: Is that service reception?

MV: Mmmmph, chrccctch, mmmmph…

Me: This is a really bad line.  I’m afraid I can’t hear you properly

MV (irritated): Mmmmph, chrccctch, I’m a customer chrccctch I’m waiting to speak to someone

Me: Me too.  What a cock up.  I’ll put the phone down and dial again

Dial number again.  Another long wait

DR: XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: I was just trying to get through to service reception and I seemed to get another customer who was waiting too

DR:  Oh.  I’ll put you through now

Line cuts to same upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover etc etc.  Another long wait

DR (again): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: You were putting me through to service reception but I’ve come back to you

DR: Oh, I don’t know how I keep losing you.  I’ll try again

More annoying music and sales pitch.  Service reception eventually answer phone and claim they’re “just working on the paperwork” and my car’s ready for collection.


I don’t need to labour the difference between these two tales.  Suffice it say that I bought a Vauxhall from the previous dealer solely on the strength of what she’d said in her presentation.  The sales process was immaculate, no hassle, complete honesty about my trade-in, none of that edginess car sales people usually induce.  On the one occasion there was a significant problem with my new car they couldn’t sort the service manager came out with me for a test drive to see if he could detect the problem.  He couldn’t but said to call him directly if it recurred and he’d ensure it was dealt with straight away.  I believed him.

A couple of years later this dealer gave up their franchise.  Their approach didn’t fit the GM model and its bureaucracy – now go back and re-read Tale No. 2 for the current situation.

On the usual issue for this blog of “So what’s this got to do with the public sector?” I’d invite any public servants to draw their own conclusions.  When I worked in councils I certainly picked up the phone more than once to receive the frustrated cry “You’re the 3rd, 4th, 5th…person I’ve been passed on to.”  Oh, and by the way, a call centre isn’t the answer – not unless you get your processes, and your culture, right (back to Tale No. 2 again).

Someone challenged me to write about why partnerships that public agencies enter into fail (see footnote).  It was only too easy to work up a long list of reasons but here it is – messy, overlapping and lacking in rigour.  Just like many partnerships.


  • Lack of leadership – no champion at political, board or management committee level who understands (or cares) how partnerships succeed
  • Lack of genuine commitment – “We’ll join so we’re not left out”, “The chair’s had her arm twisted” etc.  See also Going though the motions…
  • Unwillingness to compromise – missing the point completely of working together with other organisations and groups
  • Lack of budget – which reduces any partnership to no more than a talking shop
  • Lack of devolved responsibility/complex decision making structures – the partner that has to refer everything back for a decision; the partnership that cannot delegate within its own structures
  • Lack of dedicated staff – when everyone involved is also doing their day job and no one is wholly associated with the work of the partnership
  • Poor governance – lack of openness, poorly documented discussions and decisions, lack of budgetary control, poor or no ground rules for making decisions, no accountability back to partners
  • Going through the motions in response to some external demand – usually from central government, and usually because a partnership is required to access money (often a modest amount)
  • Central government hasn’t got its act together – different sponsoring departments give different messages to their agencies about the importance of a partnership
  • Different partners speak different languages – their jargon, acronyms and assumed understanding.  Councils talk of “members”, the police of “gold, silver and bronze command”, the NHS of “PAFs”
  • Different cultures – from the emergency services where command and control and uniforms are the norm and everyone’s instincts are to address more senior colleagues as “sir/ma’am” to the raffish informality of some local government professions and charities where everyone is on first name terms
  • Different processes and procedures – different or no plans and planning cycles, different financial rules, different ways of measuring and improving performance
  • One partner too dominant – when some partners say of another “Well, it’s really their partnership isn’t it?”
  • Arrogance – “We know best”, sometimes hidden beneath a veneer of hypocrisy which is however only too visible to other partners
  • Lack of equality in the partnership – partners bring different levels of understanding and scale to the table.  But if some are seen as less than equal (“Just a small charity, only an unelected community rep…”) they’ll behave exactly as they’re treated
  • Unclear objectives – the idea that We ought to do it and It’s a good idea but with no clear sense of Why
  • Timing – not knowing when to start or when to stop.  Either can be done too soon, too late or never
  • The partnership is too big or too small – too big and it’s an all-singing all-dancing conference unable to take decisions, too small and important potential partners are excluded
  • Unrealistic high expectations – not an error it has to be said made by those with experience of partnership working
  • Lack of trust – well with all the other reasons for failure it’s not surprising is it?

The good news is that every reason for failure can be rewritten as a reason for success – leadership, genuine commitment, willingness to compromise and so on.  And even if your partnership is in danger of failing you can tackle the reasons for its lack of success.

Why do you think partnerships fail?

This is Topic 6 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development. Ingrid suggested as a title Collaboration blockers – what stops or slows successful collaboration which is what this is about but with a snappier title

You can’t.

You can only apply for a part-completed application form to be sent to you snail mail for final completion.

Fair enough.  Security and all that.

This is how it “works”.

Well over a week ago I completed the initial application form.  The IPS (Identity and Passpoprt Service) web site says

we will aim to despatch the pre-printed application form to you within 24 hours.

A 10-figure reference number to view on screen is generated when you submit your application.  But the system doesn’t send an e-mail confirming your application has been received or what to do if you have an enquiry.  So you have no independent proof of successful receipt by the IPS of your details.

I hadn’t received my pre-printed application form today so I went on to the web site to see if I could check progress.

Again, you can’t – or at least if you can it’s not obvious.

You can retrieve a previously submitted form with a password and your reference number.  But only for 72 hours after submission.

An additional niggle (not a problem for me but might be for some).  The web site says the IPS paper form that will be despatched is currently unable to accept an e-mail contact address longer than 30 characters.  Thank God I’m not extremelyfrustratedcitizen@btinternet.com.  (The address is invented.  It shouldn’t work.  Unless someone has called themselves that.  Which they might have been tempted to.)

The only way I can think of seeing if there’s still something in the system for me is by trying to submit a new application.  Surely it’ll warn me that I already have an application pending?  It doesn’t.  So now I have two applications in for a new passport.  Or one.  Or none.

We shall see.

Update 24 March – two part-completed passport forms have now been received.  So clearly no internal cross-checks in  their software.

I wouldn’t have blogged this if I hadn’t received a Tweet from fellow blogger Paul Clarke today about what he called a truly dreadful government transaction.  But that was about a DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority) form so there’s obviously no connection is there?  No, obviously.

Part 4 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  It follows the separate topics dealt with in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Four random but related frustrations of dealing with and working in the public sector in the UK that should stop.  What are yours?


How we love it.  It’s what managers thrive on.  That knackered-at-the-end-of-the-day feeling, the slump into the armchair, the glass of something alcoholic to relax.  The question from the partner, “How was today, dear?”  “God,” you say, “it was hell.  Problems just came at me from left right and centre.  But do you know what?  I ran around all day like an idiot and by the time I left I’d sorted them all.”  I ran around all day like an idiot.  You certainly did my man (it usually is a male).  Like an idiot.

If it’s firefighting you want take a lesson from the fire and rescue service.  Devote your energy to fire prevention, to making sure problems don’t happen, not letting them happen and then fighting them.

Pouring cold water on new ideas

In my neck of the woods, more thoughtful Scots say it’s the bane of their country.

In central Scotland, where my partner hails from, it finds expression in the cliché “Aye, I kennt his faither” trans. “I knew his father.  He was just a miner/postman/labourer.  How dare the son get above his station in life by showing some ambition and trying to improve himself”.

I think it’s a UK-wide disease.  Not just the public sector (although that for sure) but the rest of the economy and society more generally.

For every entrepreneur (traditional, social or public sector) there are 10 naysayers who’ll tell you why you can’t do it.  Why it won’t work.  They should check out the great systems thinker Russell Ackoff who has some pertinent quotes on the subject.

Excessive bureaucracy

The litmus test at work for me is the answer to the question How do you get leave approved round here? If the answer’s

  • get your leave form out
  • write in the days you want off
  • do the sum to show how many days you’ll have left this year
  • initial your request
  • pass it to the boss’s secretary
  • she passes it to the boss
  • your boss initials the form and passes it back to the secretary
  • the secretary updates the team leave chart on the wall behind her desk and passes the form back to you
  • file your form back where it lives (This is important – in organisations like this your ability to request leave may be questioned if you lose the form – you see, you may be cheating)
  • update your paper diary

you are in bureaucracy hell.  Get out!

Getting small things wrong – because small things add up to big things

Two current public sector examples from my private life, featuring my second and third daughters (D2 and D3).

D2 was due to appear recently as a witness in a court case.  She travelled back from uni to stay overnight and attend court.  On arrival at court and after checking (“It’s not on today”) an official discovered the case had been deferred to autumn, over a year after the alleged minor offence she witnessed.

No one had told the witnesses but they said she could claim expenses.  They mailed her a claim form.  She claimed travel and subsistence.  Three/four weeks later a cheque arrived for travel costs only.  No subsistence and no explanation.  Current state of play – pondering whether it’s worth the hassle of getting the subsistence.


  • Staff time at court to establish case deferred and when to – 10/15 minutes
  • Cost of sending out claim form, processing returned claim, raising and posting cheque – £50? (some considerable time ago I remember reading the real cost of  even a standard letter cost a company about £10)
  • Potential cost of round 2 (the subsistence element of the claim) – another £50?
  • Wasted cost of travel and subsistence (which will have to be claimed again in autumn) – c. £20
  • Add in similar costs for other witnesses in the case.

D3, living in Scotland, may attend a university outwith Scotland next year.  The Scottish Government will give a loan for fees incurred elsewhere in EU.  D3 finds web site to establish ground rules.  There’s a note that the deadline for applications has passed but the online form still works so nothing ventured nothing gained she completes the form and presses the Send button.  The completed form is accepted.  Two weeks later a snail mail letter arrives saying “Sorry.  Form on web site was last year’s.  This year’s process isn’t opened yet.”


  • Staff time to intercept the mistakenly submitted application and generate a presumably standard response to it – 15/20 minutes?
  • Cost of sending letter – £10+? (see above)
  • Multiplied by the number of times potential students make the same mistake per year – 10?  100? 1000?

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