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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


Keen readers of HelpGov will have noticed that for some time the subject of the Scottish independence referendum has made occasional appearances on these pages. A few weeks ago I decided that the subject, and my views on it, did not sit easily with the day-to-day business of this blog. If nothing else, people’s ‘Likes’ and the page view statistics told me that.

So I’ve hived off any future comment on the subject to a new, I hope short-life, blog I’ve called No Thanks! (there you go, that tells you what I think about the subject).

Especially if you’re reading this from the UK, there is an overlap of interest in the sense that the independence debate is most definitely about trying to make sense of government, indeed profoundly so. I hope you feel able to dip into No Thanks!  and enjoy what you see there. Other points of view, as they say, are available.


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?