It doesn’t take a genius to realise that, this note apart, the HelpGov blog hasn’t been updated since July 2015. The reasons are set out, obscurely, on the About page. I’m not likely to write many more, if any, new posts but will leave the blog on WordPress as long as they’re willing to tolerate it. Let’s say it’s a sort-of archive of the work issues that interested me for many years.

On the basis that popularity = interest, I include a list below of the ten most viewed posts/pages on the blog. Some were at the fringes of what HelpGov was originally meant to be about. The list is in order of popularity: the first post on the list had more views than the other nine combined, which may tell you something about my readers and the state of the UK civil service at the time the post was written.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

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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 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.


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 HelpGov blog has been a bit quiet recently as I’ve got distracted by other things. But as I write, it has just been viewed 40,000 times. So now seems as good a time as any to share my most-read posts with an eager world. Some may surprise you: some certainly surprised me.

None of my recent rants about arguably the most important current issue facing the UK – the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum – appear in my top ten. Sadly for an indifferent readership, I cannot promise I won’t write again about that subject again. I’m currently mulling over an effort on the positive case for Scotland staying in the UK. It may appear soon. In the meantime, enjoy the HelpGov top ten countdown …

No. 1 The new Civil Service Competency Framework. I smell…

What I smelt last year was either pretentious nonsense or (excuse me) shite, depending on how delicate my sensibilities were at the time. Lots of people – presumably many of them civil servants – seemed to agree and still do, judging by the number of continuing page views.

No. 2 Ten things PowerPoint presenters shouldn’t say – but do

… or at least did in 2010, from the pathetic ‘Where do I put the memory stick in?’ to ‘It’s all in the hand-out anyhow.’  Has anything changed?

No. 3 [An old] top 10 countdown: and the all-time No. 1 is…

A bit of a cheat this one since it was reporting a much earlier summary of HelpGov’s most popular page views. The No.1 at the time was an article about, wait for it, wheelie bins, a phrase huge numbers of web users used to search for at the time. If you’re a serious wheelie bin aficionado don’t click through to check this one out. You will be disappointed.

No. 4 101 uses …

No, not of a dead cat (very old book) but of Post-it notes. I ran out of puff at No. 12. Perhaps I should re-visit this classic office tool. All ideas for Nos. 13-101 will be gratefully received.

No. 5 Government web sites can be bad for your health

Well, they could be at the time and some still are. This was a rant at the dire DirectGov site, which after the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition came into power was replaced by the excellent www.gov.uk portal – simple, friendly and efficient. Which only goes to show that Messrs Cameron and Clegg hang on every word HelpGov utters. So there.

No. 6 The jargon bin

My continuing attempt to document how mainly public sector organisations and people feel they have to speak and write in order to sound, well, long-winded and pompous, from the euphemism of the ‘ability spectrum’ to the economists’ horror of ‘zero sum’ and all alphabetical points in between. So if as a cohort you’re into optimal end-games and want to stay ahead of the curve, do visit this curated collection. And let me know of any other nonsense you come across.

No. 7 The Singapore legal system and the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang

Not quite HelpGov’s standard fare but I’ve had a long time interest in the wonderfully-successful but not quite democratic Republic of Singapore, where I lived for three years in my youth. This is a report of an alleged sex abuse case that wasn’t quite what it seemed at the time – or quite what the government of the country wanted its people to believe. I guess lots of the readers of this were from Singapore. They certainly won’t have read some of the detail in their own (government-owned) press.

No. 8 Civil Service reform

I wrote this about nine months before my blast at the UK civil service competency framework – see No. 1 above. I was sceptical – still am – about the then-proposed performance management and appraisal system for civil servants. The competency framework, and the popularity of what I said about it, makes me think I was justified in my scepticism. Any civil servants (or ex-civil servants if you were in the ‘bottom 10%’) out there who think I was right?

No. 9 UK government uses social media to help quell riots: Directgov strikes again

You can see I didn’t like the old Directgov web site (see also No. 5 above). As the government’s then main web site its response to the riots in various English cities in August 2011 was … pathetic. I also highlighted the government’s inept use of Twitter on the same subject. Let’s hope things are better next time there’s an emergency that social media could help inform.

No. 10 New York Public Library Rules OK…

I suspect that like ‘wheelie bins’ (see No. 3 above) this is a post that got lots of views because of its title rather than its content. If you really needed practical information about the wonderful New York public library this, sadly, was not the place to come. It didn’t do much more than record a campaign to stop big budget cuts to the library and, at the margins, try to give the campaign a little extra publicity. I never did check what happened but I’m sure big cuts were made as they seem to have been made to libraries throughout the UK too. So easy to cut library budgets, isn’t it? After all, librarians by and large aren’t militant protesters. And sadly the temper of the times seems to be against spending public money that doesn’t immediately produce measurable outcomes … now there’s one for the jargon bin.

Note: given the passage of time not all the links in each of the ten posts will work. Never mind, you’ll still get the drift of what I was on about.

 


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.