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.


This is a reprint of my article of the same name that the Guardian Public Leaders Network were kind enough to publish earlier this week. It had a good response – on the Network itself, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Many of people’s suggestions will be added to the complete Jargon Bin over the next week or so. Even more suggestions will be appreciated.  Enjoy.

I do it. You do it. All public servants do it.

I’ll rephrase that. Our ongoing public service career path progression necessitates the utilisation of sector-specific linguistic shorthand.

Jargon. Don’t you love it?

I love it so much I collect it. It’s not hard. It pours out of the public sector every day – from politicians, leaders, managers, professionals, even communications staff. In publications, committee reports, press releases, statements written and spoken, on the telly and on the radio, and all over the web.

Here’s just a small part of the dictionary of jargon I maintain. First the jargon and then what it actually means.

ability spectrum
as in “the lower end of the ability spectrum”, or less able people

bronze commander
how the police describe someone in charge on the ground

carriageway defects
known to most of us as road faults

drawdown
as in “commence drawdown” – how the military describe leaving Afghanistan

early years practitioners
workers who look after young children

flatlining
not growing, sometimes found with its friend the ‘double dip’

going forward
what simple folk call “in future”

hypothecation
pledging money by law to a specific purpose (I can’t resist John Prescott’s “speed cameras paid for themselves because we brought hypothecation and you might understand that …”)

integer
also known as a number

JSA
job seekers’ allowance. Acceptable in a technical discussion but not in a radio interview

key
just means important

lacking
as in my dictionary is lacking an example starting with L. Surely erudite Guardian public leaders will flood me with examples …

mentee
a horrible word for someone who is mentored

notspot
the opposite of a hotspot – what most people call “no signal”

optimal
best. If it’s best, just say so

pre-trial confinement capability
how the Pentagon describes a remand prison

quintile
what smarty-pants statisticians call a fifth

redaction
removing or withholding sensitive or confidential material, or “censorship dressed up with a pretty ribbon”, as someone said

stakeholder engagement
also known as consultation

top slicing
removing part of something, usually a budget

upstream interventions
nothing to do with rivers, it simply means early actions

voids
as in “retail voids”, or empty shops.

womancession
a recession particularly affecting women

For X and Y, see L above

zero-sum
a situation in which the gain of one approach is exactly balanced by the loss of another. It is often used opaquely, as in “the relationship between platform and agile is not zero sum”

We all use jargon without thinking. It’s fine as a technical shortcut with colleagues. But please don’t use it when you communicate with other people. It often uses more words than needed, obscures meaning, leads to ambiguity and misunderstanding, patronises and annoys people, helps makes public service ineffective and doesn’t do your reputation any good.

OK? Has my evidential base been sufficient to engage with you as public sector stakeholders mindful of sector-wide reputational issues?


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?


You know it ain’t gonna work when people can’t express themselves clearly.

I’ve had a go more than once about the inability of senior people in the civil service to express themselves in plain English (for example, in the civil service competency framework).

Now another example comes from the very heart of how the government communicates – the government communication network.

They’re changing how they work. To a layman like me it looks like reorganisation and centralisation, no doubt to good purpose.

But the announcement of the change, in the name of civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake, continues the tradition in government of management gobbledygook, ironically this time since this is about and for people whose job is to communicate.

In a short statement of no more than 370 words, Sir Bob or whoever writes on his behalf perpetrates a number of verbal infelicities

  • new core competencies for government communicators
  • talent management
  • better integration of digital into everything we do
  • a beacon of best practice and innovation, focused on raising the quality of everything we do
  • a new governance structure, and our old friend
  • clear career paths.

So everything’s going to be better now.

This thankfully short missive ends with the message from the main man that

I am determined that we get this right and will be following developments closely.

No ‘Good luck,’ no ‘I know you’ll all do well.’ Just ‘I’ll be watching closely.’ That couldn’t possibly be read as a threat, could it?

Doubtless the annual performance review of Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communication will be covering the issue.


Thanks to Paul Summers for alerting me to The Best Employee Handbook Ever.

The succinct Nordstrom statement of what the American company expected from its employees puts to shame all those long-winded, turgid piles of guff shoveled in the direction of indifferent workers. I highlighted a British example recently – the UK Civil Service Competency Framework.

Job descriptions are much the same – expanding in length and incomprehensibility over the course of the years I was in gainful employment. And of course, no ‘JD’ is now complete without a matching and interminable ‘person spec.’

It all reminds me of the old Flanders and Swann song The Gas Man Cometh:

Oh, it all makes work for the working man to do! [for ‘working man’ substitute ‘HR professional of either gender’]

So how refreshing on a post-retirement ramble around the National Trust’s Flatford Mill property to come across their combined job description and recruitment advert:

Employees

Oh, and their cakes are delicious too.

Bonus point – thanks to the superb technical skill of the photographer you should also be able to see a ghostly image of the HelpGov guy lurking in the reflection behind this wonderful job ad


Civil service competency frameworkThere used to be a rather prissy middle-aged shop assistant in BBC TV’s Chewin’ the Fat who would listen patiently to two other characters talking pretentious nonsense until a gap in their conversation, when she would sniff the air disdainfully and utter the immortal words ‘I smell shite.’

I’ve just caught up with the Civil Service Competency Framework 2012-2017 and I smell – well, pretentious nonsense.

The idea is simple and makes sense: a guide for civil servants which tells them what they should be good at and how they should behave.

Have I expressed that clearly? I hope so, and I hope the great Sir Ernest Gowers, author of The Complete Plain Words, would agree.

I suspect the authors of the new ‘competency framework’ – ‘Civil Service Human Resources’ – have not read Gowers.

He wrote his book to ‘help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade’ and quoted Victorian poet Matthew Arnold – ‘Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can.’

Let’s test the ‘framework’ against what Gowers called ‘this golden rule.’

First, different things are expected of different grades of civil servant. Fair enough. I would expect more of Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service (salary £200,000 ) than an administrative assistant (otherwise known as a ‘Level 1 AA,’  starting salary £12,000).

Let’s take the lowest salary level. Up to fifty-one separate behaviours are expected of an administrative assistant including:

  • Learn new procedures, seek to exploit new technologies and help colleagues to do the same
  • Make and record effective decisions following the appropriate decision making criteria, framework or guidance [I think it means decision-making]
  • React constructively to developmental feedback and make changes as a result
  • Understand the relevant terms and conditions, including deliverables of relevant contracts
  • 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
  • Remain focused on delivery
  • Participate in quality assurance of products or services.

Even if something sensible lurks behind each of these requirements, this is no more than bureaucratic jargon – management-speak..

In case people don’t get the point (quite likely given some of the language), each behaviour is accompanied by an example of opposite, ineffective behaviour. So not only should civil servants ‘remain focused on delivery,’ they should not ‘be easily discouraged or distracted.’

And up to fifty-one behaviours? On top of whatever technical requirements the job has? What a wonderful industry of training and appraisal beckons for ‘human resources’ to develop, implement, monitor and review.

If this weren’t enough, the fifty-one behaviours are grouped into ten competencies, including ‘collaborating and partnering,’ ‘building capability for all,’ and ‘delivering at pace.’ The competences are then grouped into three ‘Clusters’ – setting direction, engaging people, and delivering results.

The framework places a similar but obviously more onerous range of requirements on each of the five salary grades above ‘Level 1.’

Among the choice language to explain all this are the following gems:

  • Competencies are intended to be discrete and cumulative
  • For all staff, [seeing the big picture] is about focusing your contribution on the activities which will meet Civil Service goals and deliver the greatest value
  • [Senior staff] will aim to maximise return while minimising risk and balancing social, political, financial, economic and environmental considerations to provide sustainable outcomes
  • [Leading and communicating is] about supporting principles of fairness of opportunity for all and a dedication to a diverse range of citizens
  • For all staff [building capability is] being open to learning, about keeping one’s own knowledge and skill set current and evolving
  • People who [deliver value for money] well base their decisions on evidenced information.

Inevitably, the framework is linked to the civil service’s ‘performance management system.’ I warned against performance management when I wrote about the 2012 Civil service reform plan. The competency framework does not lessen my concerns.

I hope what I write speaks for itself. In case it doesn’t I’ll spell it out: the competency framework is badly expressed and represents a wrong approach to managing the civil service.

In an epilogue to The Complete Plain Words, Sir Ernest Gowers quoted the 16th century English scholar Roger Ascham

He that will write well in any tongue, must follow this counsel of Aristotle, to speak as the common people do, to think as wise men do; and so should every man understand him, and the judgment of wise men allow him.

It’s a lesson ‘Civil Service Human Resources’ and their masters seem not to have learned.

My thanks to the excellent Dragon Fairy on Twitter who alerted me to this document.


When I worked for our local council I had a lot of contact with NHS colleagues, many of whom referred to our main hospital in the North East of Scotland as ‘the factory.’

The reason was clear.

It’s big, with major investment in recent years going into a new children’s hospital on the site and, currently, new A&E facilities. It’s also partly replaced the traditional lower tier of local community hospitals that most rural areas once had.

As a patient it can seem impersonal – buildings of different ages linked by interminable corridors, at the right time of day what seem like crowds of staff, patients and visitors surging back and forth, navigation by coloured lines painted on floors or walls, a shopping parade at the main entrance, in places a shabby and unkempt look that at best leads you to hope the money’s going into improved medical practice, the proliferation of ‘information’ that on other occasions I’ve called the NHS’s ‘disease of poster-itis and advanced leaflet syndrome.’ And don’t mention the car parking.

The counter to this moan of course is the service it provides, and on three recent occasions – a diagnose of a neurological problem, the emergency admission of a family member with appendicitis, and an A&E visit of another family member with a broken wrist – I’ve had reason to be grateful for the service the hospital provides.

The use by NHS managers of the slightly disparaging term ‘factory’ went along with a drive to get minor surgery and diagnostic procedures devolved to more local facilities – the community hospitals that remained and GP surgeries, where necessary upgraded.

The irony of this otherwise worthwhile aim is that it has actually led at the lowest level to a concentration of facilities, the de-personalisation of services, and the creation of what you might call mini-factories.

The fate of my own local GP surgery, once known to all and sundry as ‘Dr X’s practice’ is a case in point, Dr X being a much-respected middle-aged woman known for both her sympathy and wisdom.

Her surgery and another over a mile away in the city have been combined in a new building into a much larger practice.

The practice doesn’t have its own web site and two of the four links about it on the NHS Grampian web site are broken. The other two take you to an outdated page about the construction of the building (two years ago) and a general page about ‘how to get involved’ in the NHS.

According to other web sites (Aberdeen City Council and Grampian CareData) either seven or eight GPs practice there. I thought I’d seen nine listed a while ago but I could be wrong. It is not clear who is in charge:  my assumption is that all the medics are now NHS employees. There is a ‘practice manager’ who I would guess is an administrator and manages ancillary staff but certainly won’t be telling the doctors what to do.

This is how the average contact works.

  • Phone the practice’s 0845 number
  • Select option from list given by recorded voice
  • Wait an indeterminate time while music plays
  • Make request of person answering – for non-urgent appointments with both a GP and a nurse I have been offered dates a fortnight away, ‘nothing earlier is available although you could try phoning to see if there’s a cancellation.’ The standard appointment is seven minutes long but if you make a case for a specific purpose you may be offered a ’20 minute appointment’
  • On arrival wait at reception area with c. 20 seats, listening perhaps to the local commercial radio station which no one has been asked if they want streamed into the building. If desperate browse the available leaflets (see ‘advanced leaflet syndrome’ above)
  • If you’re lucky the GP/nurse will come to get you for your appointment, otherwise a voice on an intercom will direct you to the appropriate room

Now, I may be naïve about why this has to happen. And I’m not having a go at the people who work in this system or at the quality of medical care (eventually) available. But tell me, has the service got better and is this anything other than another factory?