You have to feel sorry for the ScotRail employee responsible for their Twitter feed @ScotRail.

Since 7 a.m. this morning (I write this at 8.45 a.m.) he/she has tweeted eleven times, seven in response to complaints made online.

But the two tweets that caught my eye give information about changes to (no let’s speak plainly – problems with) a couple of train services this morning, useful in the circumstances I suppose, but not as useful as if they’d been able to run the trains as promised.

Please be advised that the 08.39 Edinburgh/Fife Circle will run as 2 carriages due to set availability. Apologies for any inconvenience.

Please be advised the 07:45 Falkirk Grahamston – Glasgow Qn St will run as 3 carriages due to unit availability.

I bring these tweets to your avid attention as a small example of official (I suppose a privatised train company running services with a public subsidy can count as official) use of language.

Note that one train has carriages, a concept I am familiar with, the other has sets, something I’m less clear about although I had one when I was a child.

Note that one set (oops, sorry lot) of passengers get an apology (lucky old Fife circlers), the others from sunny Falkirk just get the information sans apology.

Well, I suppose this is trivia, and at least any passengers on these lines who follow @ScotRail know where they stand – probably literally given their shrunken trains.

The slightly bigger question is where do these carriages and ‘sets’ go? Have they wandered south to bail out First rail franchises in England?  Are they lost in a siding somewhere?  Did the crew set off without checking the coupling, leaving their respective carriages and sets, Thomas the Tank Engine-like, sobbing on lonely platforms at Falkirk Grahamstown and Edinburgh Waverley?  Or are they just broke, and if so how and why?  I think we, or at least the poor old commuters involved, should be told.

Oh, last thought ScotRail. Try to communicate in the slightly simpler language that Twitter so clearly, and briefly, needs. The words ‘Please be advised’ in these messages are not needed. ‘Sorry’ sounds more human than ‘apologies.’

Best of all, of course, do something to make sure your trains run as promised.

Footnote 12 June 2012

Today’s ScotRail tweet reads

Please be advised the 07:20 Dundee – Edinburgh will run as 4 carriages due to availability.

Difficult to know what this adds to yesterday’s moan, except that ScotRail clearly suffer the disadvantage of not reading and taking note of the HelpGov blog.  I might dip into this more regularly (at least offline, you’ll be pleased to know) to see whether they continue to lose carriages.  What’s the betting that six months from now I’ll be able to update this post but with new examples?


I see there’s a wee (very wee) spat on the BBC web site today about the number of apprenticeships the Scottish Government has or hasn’t helped create.  I have no way of judging the claims (Labour) and counter-claims (SNP) but do wish the government rebuttal could have been couched in terms other than the fact that they are

committed to maximising the employability of young people

I think ‘committed to maximising employability’ means helping them get work. Why can’t the combined tribes of politicos and spokespeople use plain language?

It’s extraordinary how one situation can throw light on another in ways completely unintended.

I’ve had more than one go at the ineffably feeble Directgov web site (starting with Government web sites can be bad for your health).  Despite a review by Martha Lane Fox announced a year ago it still exists.  Moreover to show government is up to speed with all this newfangled technology it has a Twitter feed which advertises itself as

Information and practical advice about public services.


What better place to counter the much-publicised use of social media by rioters in London and other English cities over the last three days, 6 – 8 August?

Here’s the “information and practical advice” the Directgov Twitter feed has offered an eager citizenry over the last five days.

5 August

  • A Tweet that says A map showing publicly-owned property has been published. These include pubs, an airport and four football stadiums [five days later there’s probably slightly less publicly-owned property in London than the government’s map plotted, although that’s by the by]

Silence until

9 August

(after three days of disturbances), then in quick succession

1121 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on duty tonight in London, says PM

1122 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on duty tonight in London, says PM #londonriots

1126 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on the streets of London tonight, says PM #londonriots

Do you see what’s happening?

The answer is, they haven’t got a clue.

To spell it out.

  • Three days of major public disturbance pass and not a word.  This at a time when Twitter is humming with tens of thousands of Tweets (good, bad, ugly, fearful and totally bemused) about the situation
  • On day 4 a message appears about the number of police officers who will be on duty in London that night
  • One minute later someone realises that there’s something called hashtags and that’s how you get attention on Twitter.  So out comes Tweet reissue No. 1 with a hashtag
  • Four minutes later someone (the same alert public servant?) realises that “on duty” may sound a bit weak (on duty behind desks?) and that the extra officers will actually be on the streets.  So Tweet reissue No.2 emerges with amended wording.

By the way you probably won’t find the first two Tweets on the subject because they’ve been deleted from the Directgov Twitter stream.  But not before they were sitting in my timeline and those of the other 19,362 benighted souls who follow Directgov.

How’s that review going, Martha?

Q: Why is so much of the time of probation officers [up to 75%] spent carrying out admin and other tasks rather than seeing offenders?

A (Committee chair Sir Alan Beith): It was micro-management.  It was box ticking.  It was all the things we’ve come to associate with a target culture and which really do need to be changed.

R4 Today programme  27 July 2011

Three cheers for the House of Commons Justice Committee and their report published yesterday on the probation service in England and Wales.  A thorough examination of a challenging subject.

Some of their conclusions are worth quoting

  • It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders…
  • probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS (National Offenders’ Management Service) to provide trusts with greater autonomy…
  • It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly…
  • Trusts…need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year…
  • There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority…
  • The creation of NOMS…has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders…
  • sentencers’ hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions…
  • The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers…

There’s much more but this will do to set the context for the point that regular readers would expect HelpGov to make.

Once you get over the jargon that all areas of work spawn you realise that “end to end offender management” is just another system and needs to be treated as such, so that there is a common and correct understanding of

  • what the system is
  • the processes it uses
  • communication within the system
  • culture and trust
  • consistency vs discretion
  • and the other essential attributes of a system.

The Justice Committee’s report is good on the diagnosis of the problems.  In many respects its prescription provides the basis for a cure of the ills it describes.  Let’s hope the government’s demands for a commissioner-provider split in delivery doesn’t thwart the intention.  And that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t get distracted by louder voices and other priorities.

[Non-UK readers: Vauxhall = GM]

Tale No. 1 – several years ago

A while ago I attended an inspirational talk by the then local Vauxhall dealer who applied systems thinking in her business.  She walked onto the stage carrying a large holdall.

“We’re going to start with a bit of exercise,” she said.  “I’ve got some balls in here.  I’m going to pass  some down to you and I’d like you to just throw them around the room to each other.”

She took out a tennis ball and lobbed it into the audience then followed with a ping pong ball, a child’s football, a soft woolly ball and a few others.  Soon the hall was like a Wimbledon warm-up, balls being thrown everywhere, general amusement at poor passes, creative lobs and so on.

“Stop now,” she said and took out the largest, heaviest size of 10-pin bowl from the holdall.  “Who wants me to throw this at them?”

There was silence.

“Well,” she said “what if these balls were customers?  Because this is what we do to them – pass them from pillar to post.  It’s great fun.  And how would you deal with this heavy customer?”

It was an effective demonstration of the traditional way in which companies (and public agencies) treat customers.  She then went on, of course, to show the better way her company tried to practice.

Tale No. 2 – yesterday

I attempted to check if my car’s service at my current Vauxhall dealer had been completed, a phone call from them having been promised but not received by 4.50 p.m. (earlier in the day they had laboriously taken three separate phone numbers from me “so we can phone you when it’s ready”).  This is what happened.

Dial number.  Long wait

Dealer reception (DR): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: Service reception please

Line cuts to upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover extolling virtues of used car deals, urging me to contact “the sales team”.  A long wait

Mystery voice (MV) (accompanied by loud scratchy sounds):  Mmmmph, chrccctch, I mmmmph, cchhhrrrg…

Me: Is that service reception?

MV: Mmmmph, chrccctch, mmmmph…

Me: This is a really bad line.  I’m afraid I can’t hear you properly

MV (irritated): Mmmmph, chrccctch, I’m a customer chrccctch I’m waiting to speak to someone

Me: Me too.  What a cock up.  I’ll put the phone down and dial again

Dial number again.  Another long wait

DR: XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: I was just trying to get through to service reception and I seemed to get another customer who was waiting too

DR:  Oh.  I’ll put you through now

Line cuts to same upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover etc etc.  Another long wait

DR (again): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: You were putting me through to service reception but I’ve come back to you

DR: Oh, I don’t know how I keep losing you.  I’ll try again

More annoying music and sales pitch.  Service reception eventually answer phone and claim they’re “just working on the paperwork” and my car’s ready for collection.


I don’t need to labour the difference between these two tales.  Suffice it say that I bought a Vauxhall from the previous dealer solely on the strength of what she’d said in her presentation.  The sales process was immaculate, no hassle, complete honesty about my trade-in, none of that edginess car sales people usually induce.  On the one occasion there was a significant problem with my new car they couldn’t sort the service manager came out with me for a test drive to see if he could detect the problem.  He couldn’t but said to call him directly if it recurred and he’d ensure it was dealt with straight away.  I believed him.

A couple of years later this dealer gave up their franchise.  Their approach didn’t fit the GM model and its bureaucracy – now go back and re-read Tale No. 2 for the current situation.

On the usual issue for this blog of “So what’s this got to do with the public sector?” I’d invite any public servants to draw their own conclusions.  When I worked in councils I certainly picked up the phone more than once to receive the frustrated cry “You’re the 3rd, 4th, 5th…person I’ve been passed on to.”  Oh, and by the way, a call centre isn’t the answer – not unless you get your processes, and your culture, right (back to Tale No. 2 again).

Check out the comments on this post – many thoughtful contributions from the Local Government Improvement and Development web site are gathered together under the comment in my name

I’m getting fed up with dodgy research by private companies that draws unwarranted conclusions about the public sector from poor data.

An obscure column in the business pages of the Saturday Scotsman newspaper drew my attention to “research” by a company called which purported to show that

Poor perception of public sector workers puts small businesses off employing them offers a “free, impartial energy brokerage service…focus[sing] on helping  business customers get the best gas and electricity contracts” receiving “a small commission payment when a customer chooses to switch or apply for a product through us”.  An interesting definition of impartiality but we’ll let that go.

Why they should waste their time hammering the poor old public sector workers being made redundant in their 1000s just now only they know.

They make their claims on the basis of

a poll, undertaken online with 240 key owners and financial decision makers of businesses with between 1 and 50 employees during January 2011.

The “findings” include

only 2% of SME employers would actively seek to recruit public sector workers

almost a quarter of small businesses (23%) would only consider a public sector worker if it was a role that they couldn’t otherwise fill – one in ten (12%) wouldn’t be prepared to employ a public sector worker at all

55% of SME owners believe that public sector workers have unrealistic expectations about pay, holidays and employment terms while just 11% consider public sector workers to be as productive as private sector employees

only 6% of private sector employers agree that public sector workers would fit in well in their company.

They have not published detailed results so we know nothing else about how the survey was carried out

  • how they chose the sample – whether it was random (and therefore some statistical reliability could be assigned to the results), what sectors of the economy it covered (hairdressers and florists might have a different view and level of understanding than accountants and management consultants), and whether the respondents were all clients
  • why it was of 240 businesses, an unusual number to survey and a very small sample for statistically reliable conclusions to be drawn from the results.  Latest government figures show that there are 1,187,275 enterprises employing 1-49 people.  240 is a sample of 0.019% of the total
  • what questions people were asked and the options they were given to answer them (their press release mentions some but it’s not clear if they are all the questions asked and options given)
  • why they’ve confined the survey to businesses employing 1-50 people.  They use the acronym “SME” in their press release, incidentally without explaining what it means.  The official definition of an SME (small and medium sized-enterprise) is 0-249 employees
  • the sizes of the businesses who responded.  A 1-person business might tend to have a different view from one employing 50 people
  • where in the UK the sample came from.  There could be significantly different views amongst small businesses in different regions
  • it’s not clear who was actually surveyed – the phrase “key owners and financial decision makers” has little meaning for a very small enterprise and the difference between a key owner and any other sort of  owner eludes me
  • the research credentials of those undertaking the survey are not known.  No independent research organisation is mentioned in the press release that forms the only source of information about the survey, although two members of staff of a public relations company are.

Some wider questions are also relevant

  • have any of the respondents actually worked in the public sector?
  • do they have any employees or close relatives who have?
  • when they completed the survey were they even considering what the public sector encompasses – not pen-pushing bureaucrats but teachers, firefighters, nurses, social workers, soldiers, customs’ officers, prison warders, librarians, judges…?

I’m not knocking small enterprises – I run one – just this survey, its opaqueness and its unwarranted conclusions.

As to what the results of the survey actually mean, consider just one conclusion

almost a quarter of small businesses (23%) would only consider a public sector worker if it was a role that they couldn’t otherwise fill – one in ten (12%) wouldn’t be prepared to employ a public sector worker at all.


To put it another way 67% (two-thirds) of the small businesses surveyed either would consider a public sector worker regardless of the role they are filling or have no view on the subject.  And the 33% who wouldn’t are only 80 out of 240, or if you prefer 80 of the total stock of 1,187,275 UK businesses of this size.  Incidentally, don’t you love that one in ten (12%)? Something wrong there I think.

Put like this the headline “Poor perception of public sector workers puts small businesses off employing them” isn’t quite so impressive.

Note also how in the presentation of their conclusions a sample of “240 key owners and financial decision makers” become “SME employers… small businesses…SME owners.. [and finally] private sector employers”.  These are not the same things.

In a related blog, the company claims

The government may need to rethink their employment strategies in light of the research.

I think not.

In short this is not serious research but a PR puff designed to draw attention to  The shame of it, as with all endeavours of this sort, is that myths about public sector workers are perpetuated and extended and real people – redundant workers looking for a new job – can be seriously damaged.

Footnote – the survey bears an uncanny resemblance to a publication by another company in 2010, again PR puff dressed up as serious research

Prompted by a Tweet on the challenge of staffing an exhibition stand, I posted a while back on Stuff they never tell you. I used the public sector example of working with politicians.  People seemed to like it so it got me thinking about other things they don’t tell you at work.

Here’s my top ten.  Feel free to add your own.  Just press Leave a comment if you’re on the home page or Leave a reply if you’ve dived into this post directly.

  1. When the boss says “My door is always open” he doesn’t mean it
  2. The caretaker is one of the most important people in the building
  3. In the lift (elevator) when you say “I’ve been here two years and I still haven’t seen the b****y director” the elderly gent in the corner is him
  4. You may have thought you worked hard at college but it’s never as tiring as paid work
  5. The happiest people can be the most unlikely and there is no correlation to what they earn
  6. Both the best and the worst things are invisible
  7. Strength is not the same as power
  8. At some time you will forget your password
  9. No one retires and sighs “Aaahh, I wish I’d spent more time in the office”
  10. The good old days were not.  They were always worse.