councils



I noticed today that Police Scotland are looking for the idiot who scrawled this graffito (HelpGov is nothing if not grammatically correct) on the façade of Aberdeen City Council’s headquarters, the wonderful and newly-restored Marischal College.

The ‘Ye’ bit suggests the perpetrator aspires to at least some learning and that the admonition may be a quotation from somewhere historical. But a Google search, while throwing up various biblical possibilities, didn’t recognise the actual words.

Given that this is Scotland and there’s an independence referendum next year (you hadn’t heard?) I toyed with the scribbler having a national or nationalistic purpose. Notice I don’t say which nation, so no rude comments please. They’ll only be blocked.

There are also numerous local possibilities about his concerns ranging from a new ring road to the state of our main shopping street to a disputed roundabout to new bus lane cameras to…

Perhaps The Idiot might like to submit the answer. I’ll be happy to publish it complete with his name.

To my surprise, my tweet on the subject was almost instantly re-tweeted by an English council chief executive (thanks @Relhyde) and that presumed fellow-feeling got me thinking about what it is that councils have not yet done as they ought.

Here’s my top list of things councils have not yet done as they ought.

  • Ye have not yet kept all the people happy all the time
  • Ye have not yet proven that democracy is not merely a good system of government but, yea, it is perfect
  • Ye have not yet squared every problem that doth present itself as a circle
  • Ye have not yet overcome an ever decreasing treasury in order to meet all demands upon your services
  • Ye have not yet insinuated yourself into the mind of every citizen that doth own a dog in order that canine defecation in your public places is entirely unknown
  • Ye have not yet conducted all your affairs in a state of complete harmony, unlike every other public institution in this United Kingdom of ours
  • Ye have not yet understood that ye are simultaneously too large and too small, too rich and too poor, and too arrogant and too supine
  • Ye have not yet reversed climate change, increased the longevity of your citizens’ lives, eliminated social exclusion nor solved any of the other small issues that are entirely reasonably laid at your door

Footnote: I have just read that another scrawl appeared in the same hand overnight on the nearby Council Town House – Weilders [sic] of Power Beware. Well that blows my theory about the perpetrator ‘s education.

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TeletubbiesIt’s always interesting when a human touch breaks through the corporate identity.

On a trip to Edinburgh yesterday, I saw two construction vehicles personalised by their respective employees.

The first was a private builder’s flatbed truck. On each of the upright corners of the grill behind the cab a Teletubbie had been impaled, one green, one purple. They looked as if they’d been retrieved from a skip and their limbs flopped around in the truck’s slipstream like miniature corpses. Not a positive image.

The other was a bit closer to home for me and altogether more subtle – a vehicle belonging to the council I used to work for. Most of their vehicles are painted white (it’s cheaper) and sport the council logo in blue. They’re usually well-maintained and look in good condition. This one was no exception. But printed in the corporate blue and apparently professionally in capitals below the window at the rear of the cab, were the words ‘IT’S NAE EASY.’

The message was given added meaning for me because the council’s slogan, short  version, is ‘the very best of Scotland.’ I know because I wrote it. OK, as specified by councillors, but I did write it (a councillor, now out of favour with the majority of his colleagues, suggested adding the ‘very’).

I just loved the conjunction of ‘It’s nae easy’ and ‘The very best’. What could be more true? Striving to be the best isn’t easy and whoever added this discreet adornment to this particular vehicle should be praised. I hope their wisdom is used in that council’s employee induction programme to get over the more profound truth.


Grounghog DayThree years ago I left the employ of the last council I worked for when I took their voluntary redundancy shilling, part of the first wave of post-recession downsizing.

Time I thought on a trip away last week to catch up with a senior ex-colleague, still in work albeit with another council. Over the lunchtime ‘mediterranean platter’ and the small talk about family (mine) and career (hers) I insinuated a work question

What are the current big issues in local government?

Well, I had to show willing didn’t I?

Here’s her list of current big issues:

  • Shared services
  • Outsourcing
  • Partnership working
  • Workforce planning.

And here was my list of big issues three years ago:

  • Shared services
  • Outsourcing
  • Partnership working
  • Workforce planning.

Just for an instant I had a Groundhog Day moment, the movie where time repeats itself for ever.

Could it be true? Sadly it was.

Of course (we were on to the baklava by now) there were some subtle differences as well as some similarities that we teased out.

On shared services, not much had changed, except it was still being touted as a panacea for many ills and still without convincing examples of its success despite major effort put into it in some places. Maybe there are readers out there in local government land who can put us right and come up with some good case studies. Maybe not.

The same script could hold true for outsourcing with some big potential contracts (sorry partnering) either not coming to fruition or not delivering the benefits claimed in advance.

Partnership working is still the challenge it always was, with my ex-colleague coming up with some cracking examples of inept loading of council agendas on to indifferent partners. And I know from my own observation that the specific case of Scottish community planning now faces more imbalance, with two of the statutory partners – police and fire & rescue – moving to national services as power is inexorably sucked towards the centre (the old LECs, local enterprise companies, had already gone that way).

Workforce planning seemed to have moved on a bit, at least in the sense that there was greater pressure to do it. We didn’t share notes on what it was like then and now but I hope it’s less of a nightmare than it was 4-5 years ago: the phrase ‘all-consuming industry’ would have summed it up as it was then.

Interestingly, neither of us mentioned budgetary pressures in our lists. Of course they’re still there, and more pressing than ever. And money is the root of much of the push to share, outsource and work better together. It’s also not unrelated to the need for better workforce planning.  But unlike the traditional parrot cry of ‘If only we had more resources’ good managers – and she is – tend to accept resource constraints and find other ways to maintain or even improve services.

One thing we didn’t share was my belief that politics, no that’s not right – democracy, drives much of the reluctance to work in some of the ways our little lists highlighted. It’s not a criticism, just a fact of life. We don’t see national politicians, so keen to force these nostrums on local authorities, rushing to do the same at their level – share services with other countries, outsource them to the Far East, or tackle workforce planning on a Europe-wide basis. As for partnership, hasn’t David Cameron just distanced himself a bit more from the EU?

So maybe it’s time to quietly abandon most of what’s on my ex-colleague’s list of issues and move on to other ways of doing the business. Anyone listening there?

It was a good lunch with pleasant company, even if the Greek coffee gave me the caffeine tingles for the rest of the afternoon.


A dump of snow, the schools close, outrage ensues. The media’s full of people complaining this is health and safety gone mad, the impact on business is unacceptable, teachers aren’t dedicated like they used to be, even – on the radio today – ‘teachers want to exchange the 3 Rs for a bit of R & R.’

An easy reaction but too glib. Here are nine reasons schools should close in bad weather

1. It’s all about the children

Schools are there for children and their education. They’re not like adults, able to take responsibility for their own safety. Even if their safety can be ensured in school they’ve still got to get there and back. Students may be 17 or 18 but they’re also as young as five – younger if the school includes a nursery.

2. Teachers can’t get in

If teachers have a class of 25 normally is it reasonable or effective for them to take, say, 50? If they teach English is it feasible to ask them to take a physics class? If they normally teach the 11 year olds can they cope with a class of five year olds, perhaps without a classroom assistant? The space may not be there to combine classes. And since it’s not always predictable which teachers will be able to get in, planning for how to combine classes may be impossible.

3. Other staff can’t get in

Those other staff can include technicians, essential to the running of some science/technical subjects, catering staff, even the janitor. Operating without them can make as much sense as asking the MD to pop down to the shop floor, sweep the snow from the delivery bay, switch the heating on and get the production line going with half the workers missing.

4. The school itself is unsafe

A roof has collapsed, snow has got in, the heating’s off, the water tank’s burst, the entrance is covered in ice.  OK, maybe some of it shouldn’t happen, but it can, even in the best maintained premises. And if the staff can’t get in maybe the gas engineer or water company can’t either.

5. Children can’t get in

A pretty obvious reason when children travel by car, public transport or school bus to school. The head teacher can command none of them to run a service.

6. Lunch can’t be provided

OK, so would you let the kids go without food? It may not only be the catering staff who can’t get in, suppliers might not be able to deliver food.

7. The logistics of part-opening don’t always make sense

Well, you might say, if they can’t cope with the younger ones, why not tell the older ones to get in? If some are revising for, or even taking exams, tell them they’ve got to get in but let the others stay at home. Ever heard of a logistical nightmare? Check some of the other reasons why school should close to see why part-opening may not be a good idea.

8. Schools are there to provide education, not a child sitting service

If they genuinely can’t provide an education when the weather is bad, all schools will be offering is a basic child minding service. The poor old schools get enough dumped on them in the way of solving society’s problems. Why should they take on an added burden of parental responsibility or help sort what is at best a temporary problem for (some) other employers whose staff have to take time off to look after their children?

9. The weather might not be bad now but it’s forecast to get dangerously worse

You look out the window, it’s not nice but the roads are passable. Why’s the school closing? Check the weather forecast. The head teacher will. And if it’s going to get a lot worse during the day it’s not a good idea to have a building full of children unable to get home mid-afternoon.

Sometimes schools just can’t overcome the impact of snow and ice. What they can do of course is make sure parents get good information as soon as possible about likely closures – online, text messages, local radio. Maybe the situation’s easier in those parts of the UK where Gove-ism hasn’t driven schools from the arms of the local authority and they can do a bit of co-ordination.

In Scotland many local authorities have great online information about school closures. Take a look at Aberdeenshire’s web site for example, where as I write 123 schools in their large rural area are closed or partly closed. The head teacher’s responsible for getting information about their school online and it’s updated all the time. And you can get the information on a map, by RSS feed, Twitter or subscribe for e-mail alerts. That’s what I call a good service.

Oh, and the same council (I used to work for them) instructs teachers who can’t get in to work to go to a more accessible school that’s open, if there’s one, failing which to work at home. So much for ‘R &R.’

Cross about the whole thing? Don’t worry, in a few days it’ll all be forgotten until the next spot of bad weather when the same old finger-pointing will start up all over again.


There was an interesting if tetchy exchange between UK Government minister and Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps and Clive Betts, Labour MP and chair of the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday (10 January).

The Committee has just published a comprehensive and thorough report on the future role of councillors which says amongst much else that remuneration and support for local government councillors should be increased. People are reluctant to stand as councillors because the compensation is so low and the average age of councillors is now sixty.

In his loaded contribution to a patchy discussion Shapps described councillors as ‘volunteers’ five times.

…councillors are brilliant volunteers for their community…councillors shouldn’t be on paid terms and conditions…on the basis that they’re volunteers and volunteers aren’t usually paid…volunteering for your community and being involved in the neighbourhood you live in is I think a very important role for people…on the same basis of Clive Betts’ argument you would start to pay volunteerss in every different walk of life…like Scout leaders.

They say everyone writes the history that suits their purpose but this is pernicious nonsense, and Shapps should know it.

The equation of councillors with Scout leaders (and any other sort of volunteer) is complete bilge. Councillors have a role defined in statute, are democratically elected to public office, nearly all spend a lot of time doing the work often at unsocial hours, and are responsible, even in these straitened times, for major spending of public money. They are subject to a whole raft of requirements unlike volunteers. Anyone heard of a Scout leader who publishes their financial interests in a statutory register?

If councillors are volunteers then so are MPs, 100 of whom have just told polling organisation YouGov that on average they deserve a pay increase of 32%! Apparently Conservative MPs thought they were most deserving of more money. Nice money if you can get it guys.

The Shapps rewriting of history – and law – just doesn’t stack up. I hope Conservative councillors up and down the land are having a quiet word in his shell-like ear.


I blogged recently on the Disney-esque signs that had appeared at the entrance to Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire golf course.  My spies passed the said entrance yesterday and lo and behold report they’ve disappeared.    Something about the fact that they were in breach of the planning permission perhaps, being a mere 83% larger than they should have been.  I hope so.

Incidentally, wonderful as the climate of North East Scotland can be (it’s a sort of contrary thing – when the weather elsewhere in the UK is rubbish it’s often good here, and vice versa) we are shrouded in intense low-lying cloud today.

I do hope the punters who’ve coughed up between £120, locals, and £150, visitors, for a weekday round today at introductory offer prices (code for it’ll cost more later) can see their balls, if you get my meaning.


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?

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