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Trying to make sense of government…

In order to make sense of government, or anything, you have to be able to understand it. That starts with clear language and thought, not for reasons of pedantry but because without them you will not be understood.

Regular readers will know, and newcomers may have spotted, that this blog has a whole page on one aspect of clear communication, the Jargon Bin. But there’s a lot more to communicating clearly and occasionally I’ve had a go at wider aspects of what some call gobbledygook. My blast at the UK Civil Service Competency Framework was such an example and found particular favour: indeed it’s the most read post of all time on this blog. Tucked away at the end of it you’ll find a reference to the late, great Sir Ernest Gowers who said almost everything a public servant needs to know about what he called plain words.

Occasionally I spot other documents that exemplify some of the key (oops) aspects of gobbledygook. Yesterday the Scottish government issued a press release that does just that. It’s worth quoting in full.

Education Secretary: Tackling educational inequity in everyone’s interests.

Nothing is off the table in developing evidence-based work to tackle educational inequality, Education Secretary Angela Constance has said.

However, qualified, well-trained teachers and improved information for parents will be key to those efforts.‪

Ms Constance made her call during a speech at the University of Glasgow’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, during which she also said:

  • Scotland’s education system must be fair and provide excellence to every child irrespective of their background or circumstances
  • Every school and every local authority must own its attainment gap and take action
  • All teachers must play their part in raising attainment, including understanding more about how poverty affects children’s lives
  • Parental involvement and interaction in their child’s education is key and any barriers that prevent that must be overcome
  • A National Improvement Framework, following best practice from high-performing systems around the world, will be established to gather data that shows not just what is working in Scotland, but why, for whom and in what circumstances.

Ms Constance said:

“If we are to want for every child what we want for our own children, we need an education system that is fair and which provides excellence to every child irrespective of their background or circumstances.

“So let me be clear, in pursuing a shared ambition to ensure that education delivers every child the best opportunities to excel, nothing is off the table. Let me equally be clear that the teachers at that table will be fully-qualified and well-trained – and they must be joined by parents who feel fully-engaged and well-informed about how they and their children are being supported to realise their aspirations.

“In the six months since I was appointed Education Secretary, I have seen so many excellent examples of work in our schools, at a time when we have record exam results and a drop in those leaving school with no or few qualifications, record numbers of school leavers securing positive destinations and record proportions of Scots from the most deprived areas entering higher education. But we know that we can and must do more.

“It will never be acceptable for poverty to be an excuse for failure. Parents, teachers, academics, local and central government – all owe it to the children of Scotland – to rise to the challenge of inequalities that persists within our education system.

“We can and must no longer settle for good enough. We must aim high.”

Professor Christopher Chapman, Chair in Educational Policy and Practice and Director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, said:

“I very much welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s focus on raising the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is a priority for this centre. We shall endeavour to use our expertise in theory-driven, applied research to support reform efforts and promote a rethinking of roles and responsibilities that generates improvement in classrooms, schools and across the wider system.”

I don’t intend to embark in a full textual analysis of what is wrong with this press release. Indeed, after several readings I’m still not sure precisely what it’s about, although perhaps her use of the dread word ‘framework’ is a distant clue. To add another metaphor to Ms Constance’s ‘table’ from which nothing is excluded, most aspects of education apart from the kitchen sink seem to get a mention. Those who want to will find irony in the fact that a minister responsible for education has allowed her civil servants to write such tosh for her, and to wrap it around the otherwise impeccable sentiment ‘…let me be clear.’

Masochists who dip into my No thanks! blog will know I have views on Scottish independence/separation. Angela Constance is an SNP politician. Sadly she and her civil servants prove that in this respect at least they are no better than many of the unreformed perpetrators of gobbledygook who lurk in government throughout the English-speaking world.

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Two things made me take up my (electronic) pen today.

First, on BBC TV yesterday the wonderful Martha Lane Fox gave the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture.

The BBC web site summarise what it was all about

She will challenge us all – leaders, legislators, and users – to understand the internet more deeply and to be curious and critical in our digital lives in order to tackle the most complex issues facing our society.

It reminded me that not long after I started the HelpGov blog I responded to a consultation she organised as the government’s then digital champion on the future of the old (and appalling) UK government web sites. Her efforts led to the formation of the GOV.UK team and something of a transformation in the UK government’s web presence.

Second, and much more prosaically, I’ve just renewed my vehicle tax online. As a once-upon-a-time advocate of process maps I thought I’d compare the pre-web and GOV.UK processes of this onerous task. As you’ll see they’re not strictly process maps, but you’ll get the point.

pay tax

There are/were other ways to fulfil the same task but this is the way I used to do it and did it today.

As I said, it’s prosaic, isn’t it? It’s even more prosaic than my steps suggest because the web site is just about one of the easiest I’ve used, with my payment accepted with less information than most commercial sites and an e-mail already received confirming all the details and that I’m now taxed for another twelve months.

The impressive thing is that the change not only focusses on my needs as a taxpayer but also must save major costs in staff time and printing.

And it’s not only the transaction that’s been made easier. If I want to check any question about taxing my car, or indeed any other aspect of government from policies to the availability of data it’s easy to find on GOV.UK.

I’m almost ashamed at both my cynicism when I wrote to Baroness Lane Fox in 2010 and my misunderstanding of what she was about.

Only one thing wrong. The amount of tax I’m paying is outrageous. But I can’t blame Martha or the GOV.UK team for that.

If you work in the public sector, how does your organisation’s web site match up to the GOV.UK standards?


Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. This post would not seem to fit easily into the main business of HelpGov’s helpful blog but I have nowhere else to publish it. Our awareness of the holocaust is at least reflected in the many acts of commemoration of it by local authorities and government in the United Kingdom. 

In Krakow I met a student from the GDR.

‘You should go there,’ he said. ‘You know, work parties from the GDR helped to restore it. We had a crazy professor who took us to do that. At the end when the Poles gave a dinner to thank us he said how lucky they were to have this wonderful anti-fascist memorial.’

I had already decided to go.

By the standards of its day, the train from Krakow was modern, electrified and busy. I changed at a suburban station before Katowice. There was a silence, broken only by the wheeze of a small steam locomotive at a far platform, the branch line for Oświęcim. There were two, maybe three, wooden carriages, old enough to have separate compartments. I was alone in mine. A whistle blew and the engine groaned into action to the hiss of steam and sulphuric reek of coal smoke. The carriage creaked as it rocked gently sideways, the rails below sounding a slow clickety-click, clickety-click. A flat featureless plain passed slowly outside.

Oświęcim was the end of the line. No more than four or five locals got off the train, slamming carriage doors behind them. A small town with a modern concrete station, larger than such a sleepy place needed, anticipating visitors who were not here today. In the forecourt, an arrow helpfully directed me in Polish and German to ‘Oświęcim/Auschwitz.’

Even in 1970 photographs had made me familiar with the main entrance gate, the curved ironwork overhead spelling out the famous lie, ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ Rows of two-storey red brick barrack blocks receded beyond the gate, administrative buildings for an industrial operation – the efficient murder of millions of people.

Beyond them again lay the foundations of demolished huts, the cramped quarters of prisoners kept alive, at least for a time, until they could work no longer in adjoining factories.

And further over, the long railway sidings where other trains had arrived, victims offloaded from cattle trucks from all over Nazi-occupied Europe once the mass murder started. Some siphoned off for slave labour, some for the gas chambers.

Back in the barracks, whole floors had been arranged to show the brute scale of the operation. A room with a mountain of suitcases. Another with a hill of shoes. A tumbling glacier of spectacles. Prosthetic limbs piled high. On the long walls, thousands of photos of prisoners in rows, each with a simple black frame enclosing a blank-eyed man woman or child in striped uniform staring at the camera, a name and prisoner number underneath. Occasionally, maybe no more than every thousand photos, a small posy of dried flowers, a ribbon or note pushed between frame and wall. In a separate building a crematorium, steel ovens side by side as if in some hellish bakery, doors left open, each with a metal stretcher visible inside. No personal mementos here but large bouquets and wreaths of flowers and shiny green leaves, a brightly-coloured commemorative sash around each proclaiming which delegation, which fraternal group of socialist visitors, had left their temporary mark.

The whole place was silent. If there were other visitors I failed to see them in my introspection.

At the entrance there was a small shop, a limited range of books, most in Polish, some translated into other languages. I bought a small paperback – FROM THE HISTORY OF KL – AUSCHWITZ Vol. 1, published in Poland in 1967. For years I scarcely looked at it, eventually lending it to my daughters when they studied the history of Nazi Germany and themselves visited Auschwitz with their school. The book is in front of me now. Its flimsy pages and cramped text suggest meticulous research. It sets Auschwitz in the context of what it calls ‘Hitler’s programme of the extermination of the Nations.’ It lists ‘Poles, Russians, Czechs, Frenchmen,’ and many others. It details how Soviet army prisoners held in the camp were treated. ‘Prisoners in Auschwitz,’ it says, ‘belonged to various race groups … arrested regardless of religious denomination.’ It mentions Jewish prisoners but not the peculiar cruelty that attended the attempts of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews. It is as if there were no holocaust. It is a small reminder of how history can be written to tell lies and of the importance of remembering the truth.


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.


In my last brief post on the HelpGov blog nearly three months ago I forswore the mention here of Scotland’s independence referendum. Well, as will be obvious to all but the most news-averse reader ‘indyref’ as it became universally dubbed on Twitter has been and gone. I got the result I wanted (see the blog formerly known as No Thanks! but now renamed The Nation says No Thanks!) and my mind is relatively clear to return to the meat of public service issues.

Now there’s a slight cheat here because the subject of this first-post-for-three-months arises directly from said referendum I said I’d forswear.

Regardless of the result one of the features that everyone must have noticed was the high participation in the Yes and No campaigns and the high turnout: 85% of the electorate voted. There was also a burst of voter registration in the period running up to the deadline as these figures for Scotland show

  • Registered electorate 2012 – 4,060,000
  • Registered electorate 2014 – 4,280,000

Some of those on the new register were the 16 and 17 year olds who could vote for the first time. But many were older people who registered to vote for the first time, or at least the first time for many years.

And that’s the trigger for this post.

A number of councils have said they will use the new up to date and expanded registers to find residents who owe them money, in particular council tax and the long-gone poll tax. The charge seems to have been led by the last council I worked for, Aberdeenshire.

Instant outrage has followed.

A typical example was a local spokesperson for a group called Women for Independence, who is quoted in today’s Press and Journal as saying

The reason many people, particularly from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds, stayed off the register was because of a suspicion that they would be targeted by councils for debts arising from the now-scrapped poll tax. Not only is this targeting the poorest but smacks of retribution for those people daring to find a voice in our democratic process.

The outrage is of course complete tosh although less polite words are available.

The facts are

  • it is entirely legitimate for a council to seek to recover debts owed to it, whether for the poll tax, council tax or any other reasons
  • those other reasons for debt range from business owners who disappear leaving business rates unpaid to housing tenants who do a flit owing rent
  • debts owed to a council are in effect debts owed to all of us as citizens
  • councils have always used as many sources of information as they efficiently can to recover debts
  • people who decline to pay their debts to a council do so for many reasons. A past political act in relation to the poll tax may be one but a not insubstantial proportion are people who won’t pay rather than can’t
  • poor people don’t have to pay all their debts off in one go but can come to an arrangement to pay in manageable instalments
  • no evidence has been presented to say that new entrants on the electoral register in 2014 are either so poor they cannot pay their debts or are more likely to owe their council money than any other electors
  • old debt is not somehow forgivable because it is old. The only criterion that should be used to write it off is an excessive cost of collection.

I am pleased councils are using every feasible means to collect unpaid debts. More power to their elbow.


Keen readers of HelpGov will have noticed that for some time the subject of the Scottish independence referendum has made occasional appearances on these pages. A few weeks ago I decided that the subject, and my views on it, did not sit easily with the day-to-day business of this blog. If nothing else, people’s ‘Likes’ and the page view statistics told me that.

So I’ve hived off any future comment on the subject to a new, I hope short-life, blog I’ve called No Thanks! (there you go, that tells you what I think about the subject).

Especially if you’re reading this from the UK, there is an overlap of interest in the sense that the independence debate is most definitely about trying to make sense of government, indeed profoundly so. I hope you feel able to dip into No Thanks!  and enjoy what you see there. Other points of view, as they say, are available.


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.

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