Two things made me take up my (electronic) pen today.

First, on BBC TV yesterday the wonderful Martha Lane Fox gave the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture.

The BBC web site summarise what it was all about

She will challenge us all – leaders, legislators, and users – to understand the internet more deeply and to be curious and critical in our digital lives in order to tackle the most complex issues facing our society.

It reminded me that not long after I started the HelpGov blog I responded to a consultation she organised as the government’s then digital champion on the future of the old (and appalling) UK government web sites. Her efforts led to the formation of the GOV.UK team and something of a transformation in the UK government’s web presence.

Second, and much more prosaically, I’ve just renewed my vehicle tax online. As a once-upon-a-time advocate of process maps I thought I’d compare the pre-web and GOV.UK processes of this onerous task. As you’ll see they’re not strictly process maps, but you’ll get the point.

pay tax

There are/were other ways to fulfil the same task but this is the way I used to do it and did it today.

As I said, it’s prosaic, isn’t it? It’s even more prosaic than my steps suggest because the web site is just about one of the easiest I’ve used, with my payment accepted with less information than most commercial sites and an e-mail already received confirming all the details and that I’m now taxed for another twelve months.

The impressive thing is that the change not only focusses on my needs as a taxpayer but also must save major costs in staff time and printing.

And it’s not only the transaction that’s been made easier. If I want to check any question about taxing my car, or indeed any other aspect of government from policies to the availability of data it’s easy to find on GOV.UK.

I’m almost ashamed at both my cynicism when I wrote to Baroness Lane Fox in 2010 and my misunderstanding of what she was about.

Only one thing wrong. The amount of tax I’m paying is outrageous. But I can’t blame Martha or the GOV.UK team for that.

If you work in the public sector, how does your organisation’s web site match up to the GOV.UK standards?

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In my last brief post on the HelpGov blog nearly three months ago I forswore the mention here of Scotland’s independence referendum. Well, as will be obvious to all but the most news-averse reader ‘indyref’ as it became universally dubbed on Twitter has been and gone. I got the result I wanted (see the blog formerly known as No Thanks! but now renamed The Nation says No Thanks!) and my mind is relatively clear to return to the meat of public service issues.

Now there’s a slight cheat here because the subject of this first-post-for-three-months arises directly from said referendum I said I’d forswear.

Regardless of the result one of the features that everyone must have noticed was the high participation in the Yes and No campaigns and the high turnout: 85% of the electorate voted. There was also a burst of voter registration in the period running up to the deadline as these figures for Scotland show

  • Registered electorate 2012 – 4,060,000
  • Registered electorate 2014 – 4,280,000

Some of those on the new register were the 16 and 17 year olds who could vote for the first time. But many were older people who registered to vote for the first time, or at least the first time for many years.

And that’s the trigger for this post.

A number of councils have said they will use the new up to date and expanded registers to find residents who owe them money, in particular council tax and the long-gone poll tax. The charge seems to have been led by the last council I worked for, Aberdeenshire.

Instant outrage has followed.

A typical example was a local spokesperson for a group called Women for Independence, who is quoted in today’s Press and Journal as saying

The reason many people, particularly from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds, stayed off the register was because of a suspicion that they would be targeted by councils for debts arising from the now-scrapped poll tax. Not only is this targeting the poorest but smacks of retribution for those people daring to find a voice in our democratic process.

The outrage is of course complete tosh although less polite words are available.

The facts are

  • it is entirely legitimate for a council to seek to recover debts owed to it, whether for the poll tax, council tax or any other reasons
  • those other reasons for debt range from business owners who disappear leaving business rates unpaid to housing tenants who do a flit owing rent
  • debts owed to a council are in effect debts owed to all of us as citizens
  • councils have always used as many sources of information as they efficiently can to recover debts
  • people who decline to pay their debts to a council do so for many reasons. A past political act in relation to the poll tax may be one but a not insubstantial proportion are people who won’t pay rather than can’t
  • poor people don’t have to pay all their debts off in one go but can come to an arrangement to pay in manageable instalments
  • no evidence has been presented to say that new entrants on the electoral register in 2014 are either so poor they cannot pay their debts or are more likely to owe their council money than any other electors
  • old debt is not somehow forgivable because it is old. The only criterion that should be used to write it off is an excessive cost of collection.

I am pleased councils are using every feasible means to collect unpaid debts. More power to their elbow.


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?


Grounghog DayThree years ago I left the employ of the last council I worked for when I took their voluntary redundancy shilling, part of the first wave of post-recession downsizing.

Time I thought on a trip away last week to catch up with a senior ex-colleague, still in work albeit with another council. Over the lunchtime ‘mediterranean platter’ and the small talk about family (mine) and career (hers) I insinuated a work question

What are the current big issues in local government?

Well, I had to show willing didn’t I?

Here’s her list of current big issues:

  • Shared services
  • Outsourcing
  • Partnership working
  • Workforce planning.

And here was my list of big issues three years ago:

  • Shared services
  • Outsourcing
  • Partnership working
  • Workforce planning.

Just for an instant I had a Groundhog Day moment, the movie where time repeats itself for ever.

Could it be true? Sadly it was.

Of course (we were on to the baklava by now) there were some subtle differences as well as some similarities that we teased out.

On shared services, not much had changed, except it was still being touted as a panacea for many ills and still without convincing examples of its success despite major effort put into it in some places. Maybe there are readers out there in local government land who can put us right and come up with some good case studies. Maybe not.

The same script could hold true for outsourcing with some big potential contracts (sorry partnering) either not coming to fruition or not delivering the benefits claimed in advance.

Partnership working is still the challenge it always was, with my ex-colleague coming up with some cracking examples of inept loading of council agendas on to indifferent partners. And I know from my own observation that the specific case of Scottish community planning now faces more imbalance, with two of the statutory partners – police and fire & rescue – moving to national services as power is inexorably sucked towards the centre (the old LECs, local enterprise companies, had already gone that way).

Workforce planning seemed to have moved on a bit, at least in the sense that there was greater pressure to do it. We didn’t share notes on what it was like then and now but I hope it’s less of a nightmare than it was 4-5 years ago: the phrase ‘all-consuming industry’ would have summed it up as it was then.

Interestingly, neither of us mentioned budgetary pressures in our lists. Of course they’re still there, and more pressing than ever. And money is the root of much of the push to share, outsource and work better together. It’s also not unrelated to the need for better workforce planning.  But unlike the traditional parrot cry of ‘If only we had more resources’ good managers – and she is – tend to accept resource constraints and find other ways to maintain or even improve services.

One thing we didn’t share was my belief that politics, no that’s not right – democracy, drives much of the reluctance to work in some of the ways our little lists highlighted. It’s not a criticism, just a fact of life. We don’t see national politicians, so keen to force these nostrums on local authorities, rushing to do the same at their level – share services with other countries, outsource them to the Far East, or tackle workforce planning on a Europe-wide basis. As for partnership, hasn’t David Cameron just distanced himself a bit more from the EU?

So maybe it’s time to quietly abandon most of what’s on my ex-colleague’s list of issues and move on to other ways of doing the business. Anyone listening there?

It was a good lunch with pleasant company, even if the Greek coffee gave me the caffeine tingles for the rest of the afternoon.


A Tweet brought me a link today to the HR Zone web site and an article called Does management by metrics work?  It begins

On the frame of my kitchen door are marks of the heights of my children, and now grandchildren, with names and dates written down over the course of years…

Unfortunately I can’t tell you how it goes on.  It’s described as a blog post.  But the web site concerned only lets you read its blogs if you register (without cost, to be fair) and I don’t like that principle.

So I don’t know what author John Pope thinks.

But since the HR Zone is about, er HR, and since I know what I think, I’ll finish his article for him.  And you don’t have to register to have the benefit of my views.

On the frame of John Pope’s kitchen door are marks of the heights of his children, and now grandchildren, with names and dates written down over the course of years.

How he uses this information I don’t know.  But like I guess most families we did the same.

  • It was fun for our three girls
  • We all shared a sense of pride in seeing how fast they were growing up
  • It was very visible – we could all see it all the time
  • It was an economical use of resources – no computer or software needed, not even a book to record the data in, just a pencil and a wall (and a tape measure if you wanted to make checking the height into a pain-free arithmetic lesson).

What we didn’t do was

  • Use the information as a measure of each daughter’s performance in growing, which at least we as parents knew was due to a whole range of factors entirely outside their control
  • Punish them if they didn’t grow between measurements – “You’ve only grown 2 cm in the last quarter Sophie.  No pet guinea pig until you do much better”
  • Set up a database on our home computer to analyse progress
  • Set them growth targets
  • Make the exercise competitive – “Your sister’s grown 4cm in the last six months when you’ve only grown 2.  If you don’t catch up she’ll get your sweeties”
  • Even less did we dispose of any daughter who wasn’t growing for a while by ‘letting them go’, offering them for fostering or adoption.

Yet these are the things, in effect, that many organisations do who’ve adopted the performance management approach to their staff.

You know it won’t work with your children, why would it work with your employees?

[Since I don’t like blogs that want you to register before you can read them I’m – exceptionally – not including a link to the HR Zone.  But you can doubtless find it if you want.]


In my recent post on How to spot dodgy research about the public sector I mentioned publicity about potential procurement savings published by a company called Opera Solutions (OS) “to which I shall probably return”.  Well this is it – the return.

I’m uncharacteristically cross with myself because I’ve established a modest track record in commenting on stuff like this (see the footnote to the post mentioned above) but this is one I missed first time round.  Still, a reprise of what others have already said and a few additional comments are not out of order.

The first hit today on Google about this so-called “research” takes you to a press notice by the UK government department of communities and local government (DCLG) back on 17 June.  Headlined Shining a light on council spending could save up to £450 per household it’s worth quoting

…cutting edge analysis of council spending data by procurement experts Opera Solutions has revealed that greater transparency coupled with improved analysis is the key to unlocking massive savings by driving down costs…The report argues that Local Government, by adopting new processes and making better use of spending analysis, could replicate these kind of savings across a wide range of back office functions, with no impact on quality of service and reduce spending by up to £10 billion a year. 

And secretary of state Eric Pickles added approvingly

“Let there be no doubt whatsoever – today’s figures show that there is significant scope for councils to make taxpayers’ money work even harder. We’ve always said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the availability of financial data has helped identify numerous ways that councils can reduce expenditure while offering the same or better services to residents”

The nature of Opera Solutions’ cutting edge analysis was exposed by Ben Goldacre in The Guardian newspaper.  He said

Every now and then, the government will push a report that’s so assinine, and so thin, you have to check it’s not a spoof.

Goldacre went on to explain

The meat of it, the analysis, is presented in a single three-line table. Opera took the recently released local government spending data for three councils, and decided how much it reckoned could be saved by bulk purchasing.

[Opera Solutions] did its estimates on three areas: for energy bills (a £7m spend), and solicitors fees (£6m), it thought councils could save just 10%. The third category – mobile phone bills – were tiny in comparison (just £600,000) but here, and here alone, Opera reckons councils can save 20%, by getting people on better tariffs.

He then did a hatchet job on the whole, my word, sham.  I won’t steal his thunder but click through and read what he says.  It exemplifies precisely the ten infallible signs of dodgy research I posted recently.

Predictably, the Daily Mail had already waded in uncritically to condemn the alleged waste by “clueless councils”.  But others, like the PublicNet web site, acknowledged Opera Solutions’ work wasn’t all it seemed.  They admitted

Publicnet is among a number of media organisations that published this story in good faith.

And on the WhatDoTheyKnow web site you can find a number of items relating to Freedom of Information requests to the DCLG from one Edward Rudolf.  The DCLG seem to be finding excuses to not answer his questions but he has a keenly forensic approach to the subject and you can sense he’s not going to give up.  I don’t know him but more power to his elbow.

I’m not sure what I can add to all this but here are a few tit bits.

  • For a company seeking publicity about their work, Opera Solutions are remarkably coy about letting people see their “research”.  On their web site you’ll find you have to give your contact details to access what they optimistically call one of their White Papers.  Ironic in light of  Eric Pickles’ statement that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.  Somehow Ben Goldacre managed to open up access to the report on the OS web site so despite their coyness you can find the whole six page magnum opus here (but don’t hold your breath).
  • Also of passing interest on the OS web site is their characterisation of this PR-dressed-up-as-research as “Prepared for the Government of the United Kingdom”.  Sounds impressive doesn’t it?  I’ve prepared many things for the Government of the United Kingdom.  They never asked for them and, unlike the OS effort, I doubt if they took any notice of them.  Let’s hope Edward Rudolf’s FOI requests tease out whether this work was commissioned or unsolicited.
  • A general lesson for all of us from this unfinished saga is a reminder of how major parts of the media publish PR guff as news without engaging their brains to analyse the latest press release that suits their prejudices or fills a last minute space.

As I’ve said before, the sadness of this sort of stuff is that mud sticks.  Once again people without full access to the facts will find yet another reason to believe the public sector in general and local government in particular needs a good shaking up.

PS – this doesn’t purport to tell the whole story on this subject.  There is a lot more out there in cyberspace including a critique by local government lawyers of the OS publication, as well as a small admission by them that their claimed savings for local government were “extrapolated” [and some]


Regular readers will know I’ve criticised dodgy research about the public sector on a number of occasions*.  Recent publicity about potential procurement savings published by a company called Opera Solutions, to which I shall probably return [I did], prompts me to share the 10 infallible signs of dodgy research, of which there seems to be an increasing amount.

  1. It’s carried out by an organisation hoping to sell something
  2. It says it’s based on a sample of public agencies/government departments/local authorities/NHS bodies/managers but it doesn’t tell you anything about the sample – how many, how they were chosen or their characteristics
  3. Where data is quoted the source is vague or unstated
  4. The organisation concerned wants you to contact them via a PR company
  5. As much money seems to have gone into the presentation and production of the report as the content
  6. The organisation has little or no track record of working with or for the public sector, or indeed has shown no previous interest in the sector
  7. They also have little or no track record of working in the UK
  8. You can find a press release about the research but the only way to get a copy of the research itself is to give your details through a web site
  9. A parliamentarian sympathetic to the interests of the organisation concerned almost immediately takes up its cause uncritically, quoting the conclusions as if they were proven facts
  10. If whatever the research promises (savings, improved service, greater efficiency) looks too good to be true it is.

Have you got any tell-tale signs of dodgy research about the public sector you’d like to share?  Let us know.

* See for example: