improvement



For a long time I’ve wanted an excuse as a (very) ex-town planner to write about completely useless additions to our public spaces. I came across one on the web today – a ‘black blob’ glass entrance to the great city of Manchester’s central library. You can read all about it here, where the author points out that it cost £3.5 million, has virtually no function, and has to have the word ENTRANCE written in large letters above so people know what it is.

This municipal folly brought to mind one of my home city Aberdeen’s own follies – ‘improvements’ to the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC), shown in this photo, and made some time ago.

aecc3

A bit of history for non-Aberdonians. You’ll know the city is the ‘offshore oil capital of Europe,’ and a power of good that industry has done for the city and whole area. Shortly after the industry took root its first trade show was held – in tents on a site that turned muddy when it rained. There was widespread agreement that this was a nonsense and the aforementioned AECC was built. Not an architectural masterpiece but it fulfilled a function. Time moved on, it became a little long in the tooth and it was renovated and extended.

Many of the renovations no sensible person could argue with – more exhibition space, better facilities in the permanent building shown in the photo, and an office block that included rented space.

Also part of the changes were the additions shown on the right hand side of the photo, the tower and covered arch.

Here a little explanation is needed.

The main entrance to the centre is under the letters ‘AECC’ you can just about see centre-left on the photo. Vehicles can draw up in front of that area, and there’s a covered walkway to the entrance and reception area beyond. All very sensible.

You can also just see the day-to-day car park for the centre off to the right of the photo, beyond the arch and tower (there are larger car parking areas further away for when there’s a major event on).

First, the tower. When it was built it was heralded as an observation tower and tourist attraction. Visitors would be able to ascend in a lift and see out over the city from the deck at the top. Given the location of the AECC on the city’s northern fringe, I’m not sure you’d get much of a view of the city, although beyond the exhibition halls and tarmacced area around the centre there is an attractive coastline. But, and I need to emphasise this THE TOWER HAS NEVER BEEN OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. The initial reason given, if my memory is correct, was fear of terrorist attacks happening around the time of construction. But they faded and it never opened. The tower’s only use to my knowledge has been for an advertisement that ran up it for a local commercial radio station but long removed.

Now the real cracker, the arch. Entrance to the arch from the outside is at its right hand side, near the tower. Go inside and you are confronted with an escalator. The escalator takes you up, there’s a short walk then another escalator takes you down … to the main entrance and reception area. Apart from looking a bit better than a row of office windows, the arch HAS NO FUNCTION WHATSOEVER. Although I haven’t visited the centre for a while I have never seen anyone use this way in to the centre. Why would you when it just makes your walk to the reception area from the car park twice as long?

Anyhow, the whole nonsense might became a small foot note to local history in a few years’ time as a new exhibition centre is planned in a more sensible location near the city’s airport. Let’s hope that one respects the old architectural dictum that form should follow function.

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I was intrigued by an article on Why performance rankings in the civil service are discriminatory that appeared on The Guardian’s web site yesterday, by Sue Ferns, director of communications and research at the Prospect trade union.

The gist of her article can be summarised in two sentences

When the government introduced a new performance management system in the civil service that forced managers to identify 10% of their staff as the lowest performers, my union, Prospect, said the consequences would be dire … Managers are being forced to name their worst performers, and it’s often black and minority ethnic, disabled and older staff.

She gives examples, based on answers to parliamentary written questions from various departments and agencies:

  • in the Department for Communities and Local Government 19% of staff rated as under-performing are from ethnic minorities (they use that horrible acronym BME – black and minority ethnic) compared to the 10.1% of civil servants in the department who declare their ethnicity as BME
  • in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 8.8% of employees declare they are disabled but account for 30% of poor performers
  • 9% of staff across all departments and agencies surveyed are under 30, but they account for 27% of top performers overall and 43% in the Treasury Solicitor’s department.

For the purposes of these comments I will assume these figures are accurate, in which case Ms Ferns has cause for complaint. Let’s take two bites at why this might be the case.

First, let’s assume that what is going on does, more or less, measure the ‘performance’ of employees (you’ll see later that I put the word in inverted commas for a reason).

If that’s the case, Ferns does correctly identify a potentially fundamental issue with the civil service performance management system – institutional discrimination. And if the new civil service chief executive John Manzoni takes the organisation’s own core values seriously – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – he needs, to be blunt, to pull his finger out quickly to find out what’s going on and eliminate any discrimination that is confirmed.

In the meantime, I have a small suggestion for what part of the problem might be. My guess is that ethnic minority and disabled employees are concentrated in the lower pay bands. That might be worthy of attention itself but I suspect the performance management system bears more heavily on them than on more senior people. The system is based on evaluating people’s performance against the civil service competency framework. No harm in having competent employees of course. But even the lowest paid administrative assistants (salary c. £12,000 per year) are expected to perform against up to 51 competencies, including

  • exploit new technologies and help colleagues to do the same
  • challenge others appropriately where they see wastage
  • take ownership of issues, focus on providing the right solution and keep customers and delivery partners up to date with progress
  • participate in quality assurance of products or services.

That’s right. For junior employees on £12,000 a year. Not realistic.

I have written about this system previously. I’m not sure where older workers might fit in the pay hierarchy but my guess is that they will have been around for some time and, if I were them, I would find it quite challenging to adapt to the bureaucracy and jargon of this framework.

Second, however, I have a more fundamental cause for complaint about what’s going on here, one that Sue Ferns does not touch on. She says her trade union does

…not oppose fair systems of performance management that support people to develop and progress in their careers. And evidence from other sectors of the economy show this can be done.

This is where I’d part company from Prospect.

‘Performance management’ and ‘performance appraisal’ are pernicious ways to manage employees. I set out my reasons for saying this when I wrote about Civil service reform. I concluded

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.

So the ‘performance’ of those ‘bottom 10%’ of civil servants is substantially the responsibility of their more senior managers. To stigmatise them as under-performing is a condemnation of civil service managers and leaders. If that’s too radical a conclusion, anyone interested might also ponder the arithmetic fallacy behind ranking people into percentage bands I describe.

I don’t know whether Prospect seriously believe in performance management of employees. I can understand, sadly, why they might feel tactically they have no option to do the best they can for their members in the given context. But in not condemning the very principles of performance management in the civil service they miss a big trick.


I started drafting this post as a follow up to my recent comment on All change at the top of the UK civil service. It was going to be an analysis of some minor points and discrepancies in the details released yesterday about this new job. But as I looked at that detail I thought ‘No, there’s something bigger here.’ Something bigger that makes me think this is a potential cock-up in the making.

Where to start?

First, what is a CE (chief executive)? Common parlance would assume it’s the leader at the top of an organisation, responsible to a board or a committee in the private and voluntary sectors, to politicians in the public sector.

Not so in the UK civil service. This ‘chief executive’ will

  • be accountable ultimately to the Prime Minister
  • work day to day to the Minister for the Cabinet Office
  • work day to day on efficiency issues to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and
  • in management terms report to the Cabinet Secretary, who is the Head of the Civil Service.

Some of this complexity is inherent in politically-accountable organisations, some is not. The polite phrase for this used to be matrix management. The Scots call it a guddle.

When you dive into the detail of the job description, you find that the chief executive only has ‘executive control’ (what I guess I’d call line management) over

the commercial, supplier management, digital, property, HR, project management, shared services and civil service reform functions.

Essential as these are, they’re what I’d call support functions. Apart from that, the job description features words like ‘support the Cabinet Secretary’, ‘attend as an observer’, and ‘play a key role … in corporate leadership’ (all my emphases). This is not CE territory.

Perhaps the truest indicator of role and status in an organisation is salary. Wouldn’t you expect a chief executive to have the highest salary in an organisation? The clue’s in the word ‘chief.’ Where they don’t, at least in the public sector, problems ensue. Ask any hospital chief executive trying to manage medical consultants. Ask any traditionally-constituted local authority education department manager what it’s like dealing with a head teacher who earns more than you, whatever your job title.

The civil service chief executive will have an annual salary of £180,000 – £200,000 although ‘more may be available for an exceptional candidate, subject to approval’. Helpfully, the UK government – and praise to them for this – publishes the salaries of all ‘high earner’ civil servants. The most recent figures available are for October 2013. Then, the cabinet secretary was on a salary scale of £235,000 – £239,999, although at the time he wasn’t head of the civil service as well. So his salary may be more now. In one sense, fair enough. He will be the CE’s line manager.

But cast your eye over the rest of the list. Of a total of 171 senior civil servants, 51 or 30% will earn at least as much as the CE, and some more. Since the post is responsible for driving the government’s efficiency and reform programme the auguries are not good. Am I cynical in thinking that those more highly paid leaders, not least the powerful departmental permanent secretaries, will see the so-called CE as the cabinet secretary’s helper, to be propitiated for his/her boss’s sake, but to be kept at arm’s length when it comes to their own department and own ministers?

And what sort of paragon is to fill this post?

Here the information provided is ambiguous. The civil service’s own pack says

an outstanding individual who has a proven track record of running large complex, multiple-stakeholder organisations through a period of change and cost reduction … which would be likely to be in the private sector.

Their recruitment consultants, an American company called Korn/Ferry International, says

an outstanding individual who has a proven track record of running large complex, multiple-stakeholder organisations in the private sector.

I guess you can take your pick or give Korn/Ferry a call to see which version is right. In any event the aspiration is clear – someone who is or is likely to be from the private sector.

That’s fine, and I wouldn’t exclude them, as I wouldn’t exclude an outstanding candidate whose experience is wholly or mainly in the public or voluntary sectors. But a word of warning to whoever insisted on this requirement (Conservative Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude?). The public sector is littered with failed appointments from the private sector. For obvious reasons. The political environment is very different from that of a major private sector company. Some can make the leap. Many cannot. Candidates are warned.

The other aspect I’d worry about if I were recruiting for this post is the salary. You may think it’s fat-cat generous. But it looks pretty modest by private sector standards and certainly isn’t going to attract someone with ‘a proven track record of running large complex, multiple-stakeholder organisations in the private sector’ – unless they’re into charity work.

Finally, a word of caution on Korn/Ferry. I have no reason to doubt their professional competence. But if you look at their current portfolio of 55 opportunities you will find that most are private sector, only two say they are in the UK, and only one – this post – is a government job. I hope for the sake of candidates and the civil service they are aware of all the complexities the new chief executive will encounter.

Footnote. The links to online material about this post will doubtless not work after it has been filled. I have saved the civil service’s own ‘spec’ for the post as well as Korn/Ferry’s web site page about it.


UK prime minister David Cameron’s reshuffle of his Conservative ministers this week was preceded, as these things are, by a swirl of rumour. One odd, in the circumstances, claim was that the head of the civil service – Sir Robert Kerslake – was to be ‘sacked.’ Odd because he’s a civil servant not a politician so why would his position be part of a cabinet reshuffle? As with some of the other claims and counter-claims this turned out to be not strictly true but it reminded me that I’ve blogged before about initiatives he has been associated with

There’s an interesting, indeed excellent analysis of what’s actually happening to Sir Robert and the post he occupies on the Public Finance web site – Wanted: a real civil service CEO. I won’t attempt to repeat or plagiarise it but just want to highlight a few points.

First, I hadn’t realised that when he became head of the civil service Sir Robert retained his previous post of permanent secretary in the department of communities and local government. This information, new to me, adds another criticism to my earlier comments.  How was someone expected to lead the transformation of the entire civil service while keeping up his previous, already onerous, job? It’s a nonsense and spells out a real lack of commitment and understanding by the politicians of the bigger task.

Second, if this weren’t enough, the new arrangements post-Kerslake introduce further ambiguity and lack of role clarity if Public Finance is to be believed. The current Cabinet Secretary maintains his role and … you’ve guessed it, also becomes head of the civil service. Same problem as above. To make it worse a new civil service chief executive post is also to be created. Public Finance mounts a rational criticism of this arrangement, to which I would add more intemperately ‘For heaven’s sake , don’t these people ever learn?’

Third, don’t the two changes since 2012, when Kerslake was appointed to the ‘head’ job, just exemplify that old curse of bureaucracies? If in doubt, reorganise. Again, I’m tempted to conclude, don’t they ever learn?

Lastly, as the French don’t say, cherchez le politicien. As Public Finance explains

with an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased.

So there you have it. All the elements that bedevil the public sector – wrong-headed reform badly expressed, ambiguity and conflict, a probably unrealistic demand by politicians for rapid transformation, reform undone and done again, the lessons of the past not learnt.

I almost feel sorry for Sir Bob. As I say, don’t they ever learn?


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.


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.

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