Politicians



constance

 

At the top of this page you’ll see the tag

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.


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?


The Scottish independence referendum is bringing to prominence a whole new area of special use of language. Here are some words I’m getting fed up with.

Afraid – see ‘Feart’

Bias – allegation made, usually without any firm evidence, about the news coverage of the BBC in the belief that ‘No’ campaigners are given an easy ride and ‘Yes’ campaigners are unfairly given a hard time. The allegation often means no more than the views of a favoured politician are subjected to legitimate challenge. The same accusation is also made about Scottish TV and (sometimes with more justification) about the printed media, Scottish and English.

Bullying – any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence by UK politicians, even if backed up by evidence and even if the politicians concerned are Scottish.

Feart – Scots for ‘afraid.’ Glib characterisation by many who want independence about those who don’t, whatever their reasons.

Negative – any reason given against independence.

Project Fear – ‘Yes’ code for ‘No’ campaign, whatever arguments it advances.

Scaremongering – another code word for any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence even if backed up by evidence, although not confined to statements by UK politicians.

Unionist – literally, a definition of anyone who wants to maintain the union (any sort of union) of the UK. Often used to imply a right wing or reactionary viewpoint because of its association with the ‘Conservative and Unionist’ party, much less so by any association with Ulster Unionism.

Westminster – as in ‘parties’ or ‘government.’  Shorthand for United Kingdom parties or government. Used to imply a whole range of characteristics – indifference, irrelevance, hostility, distance, separation and otherness – although ‘Westminster’ government is also UK and therefore Scottish government.  Sometimes shortened to ‘WM.’

Other contributions by sharp-eyed readers to the lexicon are welcome and will be added with due acknowledgement. Comments that do no  more than point out that I have a particular point of view are likely to remain unpublished, especially if abusive.


If you were to choose a day for Scotland to become independent, what would it be?

How about 1st January of the earliest year possible after the referendum, say 2016?

What better day could there be? Hogmanay has become the Scottish annual celebration par excellence, known throughout the world. In the depths of winter it is heavy with symbolism. Traditionally, the back door is opened to let out the old year, the front door to usher in the new. The first visitor over the threshold brings gifts bestowing good fortune on the household for the new year – coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky.

Down the road in Stonehaven from where I live there’s even a spectacular Hogmanay fireball ceremony to help drive winter away and encourage the life-giving sun to come again, that and the chance to sink a dram or two.

Balls! Fireballs, that is.

It’s wonderful.

So, new year, new nation. What could be better?

Er, no.

Not if the SNP has its way. Press leaks over the weekend suggest that their forthcoming independence referendum white paper will propose a different date.

24th March 2016.

This date, famed throughout the world like Hogmanay (not), is the day our forward-looking government has chosen for a symbolic new start that will reap all the promises of the future, if we only vote Yes in the referendum.

Why 24th March? Well, Scots may (may) know. No-one else will. It’s the date the Crowns of Scotland and England were united. In 1603.

That’s right. 1603.

So trapped in the past is this political party that they choose a date that looks backward 413 years.

But never mind. On current SNP plans Scotland will still keep the English pound sterling. And the English monarch.

Confused? I am. That’s why I put independence in inverted commas in the title to this post.

Perhaps next week’s Scottish government white paper will allay my concerns. It’s apparently 670 pages long. Now that’s what I call an easy read.


…who asked me to join their LinkedIn network

Dear X

Thank you for the e-mail asking me to connect with you on LinkedIn.

You didn’t include a personal message with your request so I’m not quite sure why you want to add me to your network.

I remember you left the council I worked for in, was it 2008? Crikey, that’s five years ago and I haven’t heard from you until now.

You’ve gone on to greater things since then, the parliamentary seat, party spokesperson on (let me be coy) Topic Y, probably much more I’ve not noticed. Good for you. All that stuff in the council must have been helpful – the single-minded pursuit of your own area of responsibility, the loyal support of officers who promoted your agenda and, let’s be frank, the war of attrition with your party colleagues.

As for me, I took a voluntary package to leave – no hard feelings, it was time for a change – and as my LinkedIn profile says I’ve morphed into a creative writing student. Well, between studies at the moment, but with one or two pieces published, like my story in the New Writing Scotland anthology, although I don’t expect that’s your sort of thing.

Truth is, apart from the creative writing, I’m sort of retired as far as paid work’s concerned.

So I’m not quite sure what sort of business it is we might do together through LinkedIn, unless you’re looking for some creative writing to support your political activities, heaven forfend.

I noticed, perhaps you did too, that I live in the area you represent in parliament, so the only other thing I have that might be of interest to you is … no, it couldn’t be, I was going to say an occasional vote.

Oh well, in the best traditions of the public service, this has been a rather more long-winded way of saying something quite simple, no thanks, or as LinkedIn rather unkindly puts it ‘Ignore request.’

All the best.

Yours sincerely

THE HELPGOV GUY


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.

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