innovation



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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For those not in the know that’s the name of a blog that charts both the vagaries and wonder of local government in the UK.  You’ll always find a link to it on the right hand side of the HelpGov home page but if in doubt click here.

HelpGov has a special reason to like We ♥ local government today because they’ve just included us in a list of their own favourite blogs that also deal one way or the other with local government.

They are wise indeed because this is what they say about the HelpGov blog:

Helpgov’s helpful blog

Why? Because we love the style of the blog and the writing of the author, Roger White. It’s a mix of serious posts, helpful suggestions and serious dissection of published nonsense.

One to read: Check out this post about the employability of former local government workers.

I’m flattered.  Thanks people, whoever you are (as local government employees they sensibly choose to remain anonymous).  They in turn are well worth a read if you haven’t checked them out yet.

Postscript 27 June 2012 – I hope it’s not the curse of HelpGov but sadly We ♥ local government announced today that it will no longer be active.  Perhaps that’s why they were doing a round up of their favourite blogs yesterday.  In all seriousness, I think they’ve just found the amount of work needed to blog every day (and I might add in such an entertaining and thought-provoking way) too much effort for a small team also in full-time employment.  I hope they leave their blog online as a valuable archive of what the major and current issues concerning local government in the UK in 2009-2012.  Thanks, guys.


A while ago I blogged on Computers may rule but we still need people.

It was a short post responding to a statement by an IT whizz that

We are at a very interesting point in terms of the products we can make…Anything we can imagine we can build, we are no longer really limited by the technology

I listed some of the things that a supposed new computer might do including

strok[ing] the hand of an elderly dying woman in a council care home and assur[ing] her that her absent daughter loves her.

but what I was really saying was that these were some of the fantastic things our public sector staff do and a machine could never replace.

Today the wonderful world of the web brings me news of engineer-artist Dan Chen’s idea for an End Of Life Care Machine –

Watch it with grim horror.  I’m sure Dan’s making an ironic point about the care of the dying in society, but you never know…

Thanks to FastCompany for alerting me to this.


I voted today in a referendum organised by our local council (Aberdeen City) to help determine the future of a green space in the heart of our city – Union Terrace Gardens.

Anyone in the North East of Scotland will know what this is all about but for anyone else here is a brief summary.

A local businessman has offered £50 million to transform these Victorian gardens into a new civic space that will include various facilities, link parts of the city centre currently separated by the gardens (they are in a deep valley), and hide an unsightly dual carriageway road and railway that run alongside the gardens.  A preferred option has been chosen after a period of public consultation.  It is currently estimated that this would cost up to £140 million, the remainder coming from an anonymous donation of £5 million, £15 million from the private sector, and up to £70 million from a TIF (see below).

The proposal has sparked major local controversy, with strong lobbies both in favour of the scheme and of retaining the gardens.

In one way, the issue is fundamentally simple – keep or redevelop the gardens.

But as so often happens with these things there are innumerable complications lurking in the wings, from what could be described as opposing political ideologies for the future of the city through what the council has or hasn’t done with this major civic asset over the years, to concerns about the TIF – and much more besides.

This is not the place to reprise all the arguments.  A Google search on ‘Union Terrace Gardens’ today threw up 1,940,000 hits and anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the controversy can immerse themselves for ever in everything to do with the subject.

Anyhow, all this is a preamble to saying I have voted, reluctantly, against the proposal.

Reluctantly because I think it is magnificent that someone is willing to donate £50 million to help ensure the future of the city they were born and brought up in.

Reluctantly because the heart of any city needs constant rejuvenation and the gardens in particular need a lot of TLC.

But I just can’t see it working, from the design chosen to the money needed to make it work.  I’ve seen too many architects’ drawings over the years that turned out to be triumphs of optimism over reality.

Well, voting closes on 1 March and who am I tell fellow Aberdonians how to cast their ballot?

I do know that come 2 March a significant proportion of the population of this city will see the result – whatever it is – as either a tragedy or a triumph.

TIF – tax increment funding scheme

TLC – tender loving care


I don’t normally do commercials on this blog – except for myself of course.  But this is one such.

Scots and those quick off the mark for a Ryanair or easyJet flight from points south (no that’s not the commercial, other airlines are available – BA, bmi, FlyBe or, if you’ve got the price of a small mortgage, Eastern Airways) should get themselves to the wonderful city of Aberdeen, on which the sun always shines in September, for ScotGovCamp on the 24th.

I’m hacked off I can’t manage it (family commitments) because I went to last year’s event and thought it was great.  So great I blogged about it (where you can see what a govcamp is if the idea’s new to you).

Since ScotGovCamp 2010 I’ve discovered a lot in the world of government and social media.

  • I know in some detail what’s happening in Syria because of the brave souls there who get video clips out showing their government’s repression
  • I followed the good, the bad and the ugly of the English riots including the wonderful #riotwombles who were on the streets with brushes and shovels the day after cleaning up their communities
  • I suddenly realised that police forces (mostly in England it has to be said) are waaaay ahead of most of the rest of the public sector in using social media.  If you don’t believe me check out @hotelalpha9 (including his anti-grafitti video on YouTube – he’s apparently just nabbed his suspect), and our own @DCCTayside
  • I started following an increasing number of council chief executives who Tweet (again, mostly if not wholly English – where are you Scottish CEs?).

On the other hand

  • Where are the innovative Scottish public sector apps for all those ipads, androids and other fancy stuff my kids can’t live without?
  • Why does the oh-so-dire UK government DirectGov web site still stagger on, notwithstanding the best efforts of Martha Lane Fox et al?
  • Why does the home page of my local council web site under the heading Self-service access invite me to “Book it” and for community use of schools then takes me (today) to a page that tells me no public applications will issued (sic) nor accepted until 2 May 2011 and allows no online booking.  Misleading or what?  Grrr!

So ScotGovCamp’s got plenty to get to grips with.  You can book online (it’s free) here.  Do it.  And enjoy!


One of my interests is how information is displayed.

It sounds a dry topic but it’s fundamental to how we can understand all the data the world is awash with and which grows at a furious pace.  A Tweet today from Jonathan Joyce (@BrianBBrian) took me to an infographic answering the question How Much Information will Human Beings Create & Store This Year?

The answer (wait for it) is 1.8 zettabytes.  And if you tell me you know how much that is you’re a better man than me, Gunga Din.  Kilobytes are history, I’ve got used to megabytes (ten a penny), felt at the cutting edge when I first acquired a computer with gigabytes of memory and now boast an external hard drive with a capacity of 1 terrabyte that cost me all of £60.

The infographic article I mention helpfully explains

 1.8 zettabytes of data…would require 57.5 billion 32 GB iPads to store. How much is that?  About $34.4 trillion worth.  That’s equivalent to the GDP of the United States, Japan, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy combined.

In other words, it’s a lot.

The infographic concept is an interesting one that’s getting applied in all sorts of ways, mainly on the web but spilling over into print media too.

In some ways it’s no more than the old idea of a diagram to explain data, something that’s been with us for centuries but limited until recently by the technology to manipulate and portray information, a technology that involved pens, ink, paper, drawing boards and a limited range of literal physical tools.

Now huge amounts of data can be combined, analysed and given visual expression, often with government data already in the public domain and using free software on the web.  If you haven’t heard the word mashup in this context you will.

It’s exciting but it’s also challenging.

That’s why I accepted an invitation from the British Urban and Regional Information Systems Association to contribute a brief article on the subject to  their latest newsletter.

I called it Data visualisation – back to basics.  Amongst other things it points out that things have changed in this area of work with

  • free web based visualisation software
  • open data – http://www.data.gov.uk alone includes 6,900+ data sets
  • creative graphic designers who previously showed little interest in this work and didn’t have the tools to realise their creativity
  • proliferation of new media
  • full colour printing as cheap as black and white.

I give examples of both traditional and more modern presentations of data that are both fundamentally flawed and conclude that we still need a balanced range of skills to understand, distil and present information

  • topic experts
  • statisticians
  • graphic designers
  • artists
  • software developers
  • webmasters, and
  • writers of plain English.

Check out the full article on my HelpGov company web site.


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?

Firefighting

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.

COST TO THE PUBLIC PURSE

  • 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.”

COST TO THE PUBLIC PURSE

  • 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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