21 August 2012

Dear Tyler

Thank you for calling me today from the security department of my Windows computer. I hadn’t realised that the computer had a security department tucked away inside, let alone a human being able to address me by my own name.

I jest of course.  I know you’ve got other people there because I can hear them in the background and, indeed, I think some of them have called me in the past.  So I guess you work in a call centre, probably somewhere in South East Asia judging by your accent.

I have had more or less friendly conversations with many of your colleagues, or perhaps they are competitors.  Who knows.  There seem to be a heck of a lot of you and you all tell me that my computer has a security problem.

Since you all know my name and that I use a computer with Windows I have tried asking on previous occasions which of my two computers has the problem, what you believe its brand name to be, and whether you are employed by Microsoft itself or their appointed agents.  Curiously, at this point, the line usually goes dead.

I do hope you weren’t phoning about the same, forgive me, scam that one of my friends fell for when someone called him about the security problem his computer also had.  That other person took him through a long routine online that ended with him saying, I may have the detail wrong, ‘And if your screen shows the number 2789.54 you have a security breach that our software can resolve.’

My friend was so impressed with the diagnosis that he subscribed to three years’ worth of protection from the problem.  Pity he read later that the same sequence of steps on any computer would result in the same number.  Sort of magic, isn’t it?

Anyhow, my apologies for putting the phone down on you so quickly and abruptly.  I expect all this has made me more cynical than I should be.  Feel free to call again and we can compare notes about the weather in Scotland and Manila, or wherever you’re based.  I don’t expect you get much light relief.  It must be a hell of a way to earn a living.

Yours sincerely

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I expressed scepticism recently about the UK government’s civil service reforms.  I mentioned that the name of the new(ish) head of the civil service, Sir Robert Kerslake, was not surprisingly associated with them.  New brooms always like to sweep clean.

Now I see Sir Bob is associated, again not unreasonably, with the UK Civil Service Awards 2012.

Only trouble, Sir Bob, is that staff awards are rarely a good idea.

I know if you happened to see this and could be bothered to respond (although why should you?) you’d give me all the reasons why I’m wrong.

Trouble is, I’ve heard them all before and I’m still not convinced.

You can find out why in my post last year on “And the winner is…” – are awards ceremonies a waste of time?

I gave many reasons why these sorts of things are not a good idea but perhaps most fundamental was my conclusion that

The big problem with these awards is [that]…an organisation is a system and how people perform in it depends largely on how senior people manage and improve the system.

Let’s just have a look at these current awards to see how they match up.

The first thing to say is that the government/civil service senior management have such confidence in their own staff that they’ve outsourced the whole awards process to a company called Dods, ‘a political information, publishing, events and communications business operating in both the UK and Europe.’

Moreover, it won’t cost you or me a penny as ‘All costs of running the event will be covered by Dods…through advertising and sponsorship from outside the Civil Service’ (Civil Service Awards FAQ).

You can call that canny or you can call it cheap.

The awards web site shows they are run in association with consultants Ernst & Young and a company called Huawei (‘a leading global ICT solutions provider’).  Other companies sponsor individual awards.  It is of course conceivable that some of them may be interested in getting business from the government.  Curiously, they are also run ‘in partnership’ with the National Audit Office, i.e. another bit of the civil service.  Whether there is a transfer of money from NAO to help fund the awards is not clear.

There are thirteen categories of awards, for both teams and individuals.  It would be tedious to plod through all of them but let’s just say most of them are seen in one guise or another in most public sector awards competitions including – operational excellence, change management, achieving better for less, and professional (professional what?) of the year.  Strangely this last category is the only one not open to nominees in the Senior Civil Service.

Each category, of course, has criteria attached to it.  Here are some of them.  You may notice some old friends from the textbook of management jargon

  • Strong and successful communication has been delivered in an innovative way and successfully engaged customers
  • Best practice application of expert project management skills and techniques
  • Evidence of sustainability, transparency and control in procurement practice
  • Improving results by placing robust evidence and analysis at the heart of the decision–making process
  • Engaging people and developing their own and others capabilities.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the whole process ‘engages’ civil servants this year.

The Office for National Statistics says there were 498,000 civil servants in 2011.  According to the awards web site, they attract ‘upwards of 800 nominations every year.’  OK, some are for teams and some for individuals.  But that’s one nomination for every 622 civil servants.

Hardly a ringing endorsement is it?

But don’t worry.  There’s an awards ceremony in November at which some guest minister (it was the prime minister last year), Sir Bob, other senior civil servants, the sponsors and some of the finalists will feel good about it all.


A couple of  weeks ago in Crail, Fife on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  The High Street is en fete as part of the excellent East Neuk Festival.

Just before the turn of the road north a large sand sculpture is being constructed by two professional sand sculptors.

A middle class, middle aged male, probably English, in a pink shirt is explaining some detail to a young teenage girl, one of two with him, his daughters presumably.

Ten/fifteen minutes later I am outside a fruit and veg shop that has made-up punnets of strawberries set up outside, £2 each.  The Englishman and daughters arrive.  One daughter selects a box of strawberries and starts adding more from other punnets to it, as well as removing one or two from the container she doesn’t like the look of.  Father looks on approvingly.  By the time she takes it inside to pay, the fruit is well above the level of the container’s rim and about a 1/3 – 1/2 greater in quantity than the remaining, now diminished containers.

For some reason, this small vignette reminds me of the recent LIBOR furore.


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?


“We are at a very interesting point in terms of the products we can make…Anything we can imagine we can build, we are no longer really limited by the technology” – Justin Rattner,  chief technology officer Intel BBC web site

Intel’s new computer today…

  • …halted the traffic and jollied the year 1s and their mums along as they crossed the road to school for the first time
  • …paused sympathetically to allow the parents to gather their thoughts as they registered the death of their child
  • …spoke to the troubled teenager after the lesson to find out what was really bothering her
  • …spotted that the disabled driver was having problems getting out of the space and helped him manoeuvre his car
  • …stroked the hand of an elderly dying woman in a council care home and assured her that her absent daughter loved her.

Public servants do a million small acts of human kindness every day.


I was saddened to discover a new report that needs, more than most, to practice what it preaches, the Scottish Government’s Principles of Inclusive Communication: An information and self-assessment tool for public authorities.

Alas, it doesn’t.

It’s written by

members from the Independent Living in Scotland Programme partnership, Disabled People’s Organisations and other representatives from the public sector and third sector, in co-production with the Improvement Service

That mouthful may be a clue why what should be a winning race horse looks distinctly like a camel.

First, the title, which neither explains what the report is about and is full of jargon like principle, inclusive, self-assessment and tool.  Further unnecessary jargon is scattered throughout the report.

Second, it addresses its audience inconsistently, mostly in the third person (“it”, “they”) and only  occasionally in the much more direct and effective second person (“you”).

Third, it uses too many words.  The statement ‘To ensure you can provide communication accessible services, it is good practice to allow time to arrange different formats or communication support depending on the needs of your audience’ appears in a list of good practice examples.  All the words in my italics are redundant.  There are many other examples.

Fourth, some statements are just plain wrong.  Quality service delivery is not ‘when the service provider and person who uses the service understand each other, and the person who is using the service is able to express their needs and choices effectively’.  Quality service delivery is when a good service is provided.

Fifth, typos have escaped any proof reading that has been done – for example, ‘one system will not meet the needs of the all the people who use services’.

Lastly for the purposes of this post, although there are other comments that could be made, the ten performance indicators appended to the report merit a small essay in themselves.  Suffice it to say here that many only record levels of activity and some are contradictory, for example expecting an improvement every year in a visible and public commitment of support by senior managers.

Lurking at the heart of the report are six excellent albeit poorly-expressed principles and some valuable good practice examples – which should have  more prominence than they do.  Unfortunately all its other limitations are likely to mean the leaders and senior managers it is aimed at will pass it straight to the equalities officer and (in councils) the social work service.

A not untypical report produced by a committee and a missed opportunity.


“Is this adding cost to your business?”

This is what BBC journalist Dominic Laurie asked Santander UK chief executive Ana Botín on Radio 4 today about her bank’s move to bring back their retail call centres from India to Britain (500 jobs will be created).

The question is a naïve one.  I say the question, not the journalist – they ask these things to get a response, not because they necessarily believe in what the question implies.

It’s naïve because the cost of a call centre (or any other part of a business taken out of context) is no measure of the total cost of serving customers.  Consider the number of contacts to these places that represent failure demand – demand for service arising from something going wrong for the customer rather than right.  Eliminate that demand and you cut the costs of your call centres.

Add the naïve approach on costs to the geographical removal of an integral part of the process of serving customers to a location 1000s of miles away with a different culture and often to an “outsourced” organisation and you can have big problems.

Not surprisingly, Ms Botín cited customer feedback as the main reason to relocate Santander’s retail call centres to the UK.

This blog has recorded numerous examples over the last year or so of bad call/contact centre practice, for example

Luckily, taking customer/citizen contact centres out of the country is not by and large part of the agenda of the public sector in the UK, although the motivation is more often political than an understanding of customer needs.  And that’s not to say we don’t have bad public sector call centres in the UK as our own experience (and some of the examples above) tells us.

Footnote: according to The Independent newspaper today, telecomms company New Call Telecom said it was moving one of its call centres from India to Lancashire.  “New Call Telecom transferred its business to Mumbai three years ago, but increased costs [my emphasis] has prompted it to move to Burnley.”