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?


For anyone who hasn’t seen it Bella Caledonia is a web site that says it’s ‘an online magazine (launched in 2007) exploring ideas of independence, self-determination and autonomy.’ Whatever it was in 2007 it’s gone beyond exploration to being a sort of up-market intellectual cheer leader for the Scottish independence ‘Yes’ campaign.

They make great play of the high quality of debate about Independence, although they claim in a recent article (Doubt? by their editor Mike Small) that ‘the No campaign has a track record of constant disengagement.’ So, the high quality of debate is on their side only. Still, as they say,

just about everywhere you go, everyone’s talking about the same thing: the referendum, our collective future.

Or trying to. I tried to comment on this article when it appeared. My comment was held ‘awaiting moderation’ for a few hours while other, later comments were published. When I checked about ten hours after submitting it, my comment had disappeared. It has to be said that ALL the comments they published supported their point of view. But if one attempt to comment that didn’t fit their world view has disappeared, perhaps others have too.

Here is my unpublished comment in full:

Bella Caledonia consistently praises the quality of the independence debate from the ‘Yes’ side and consistently denigrates the quality from the ‘No’ side. The one thing I’d agree with about this post is the challenge of conducting a ‘nuanced complex argument’ on Twitter. So perhaps in this less-constrained space Bella could hitch her skirts up and answer a question I asked a couple of weeks ago on Twitter.

In a response to someone else on or before 23 April (I don’t have access to that discussion now) @bellacaledonia used the phrase ‘hate apologist.’ I asked:

‘Perhaps you could clarify what a “Hate Apologist” is? Or is it just a new term of abuse?’

You did not answer and when you posted a flattering reference the next day to an article in The Scotsman about Noam Chomsky’s view on Scottish independence as an example of the quality of debate I asked:

Hello, is that the @bellacaledonia who didn’t answer my query the other day about what they meant by “Hate apologist”? #qualityofdebate’.

The Twitter incarnation of the lovely Bella then replied:

@rogerlwhite zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’

And I couldn’t resist commenting:

@bellacaledonia Exactly my point #qualityofdebate So what *is* a hate apologist? If you use unexplained terms you really should explain them’ [perhaps not the most elegant way to express my point but I’m sure you see what I mean].

So, third time lucky from me to Bella – what is a ‘hate apologist’? I genuinely don’t know and would love it if you could maintain what you perceive to be the high quality of debate by telling me. Otherwise I’m afraid it will be zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz from me.

Is that negative or, heaven forefend, abusive? I was merely trying to get Bella Caledonia to say what they meant by ‘Hate apologist,’ because I didn’t have a clue, and still don’t.

You see, it’s not good enough to say how high the quality of debate on a subject is then go around calling people ‘hate apologists’ and not explain what you mean.

Meantime, here is the language used in some of the comments they have published on their ‘Doubt?’ article

  • the tame jock journalists and the lamentable bbc…
  • the amoral, policy free, running on empty machine, that is Scottish Labour
  • the feartie mongers of Better Together
  • pure mischief making [an article by composer James MacMillan referred to in discussion]
  • [David] Torrance [a ‘No’ supporter] is an agitator … a devious manipulating bar steward.

High quality debate? You decide.


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.

 


Anyone reading this blog over the last few months will detect a trend – I’ve been writing more and more about this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

I swithered before I started doing this in a blog I describe as ‘…trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff.’ My personal views on the subject are a tad removed from many of the subjects I’ve posted over the last few years about improving public services.

Maybe I could justify my ‘#indyref’ posts as ‘other stuff.’ But what could be more closely related to the subject of ‘government’ than how a people chooses to govern itself?

It won’t take anyone long to realise that I’m a ‘No,’ or perhaps a ‘Better Together’, person and I’ve tried on a number of occasions to write coherently on where I stand about Scottish independence. My reasons for being against independence are, I believe, positive but I’ve struggled to articulate them without getting bogged down in detail.

Tom Morton

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Shetland Library

So I was grateful to Tom Morton for writing Nationalism: a dangerous delusion on his ‘Tom Morton’s beatcroft’ blog. For anyone furth of Scotland, Tom is a journalist and broadcasts on BBC Radio Scotland, currently on Morton through Midnight. You can catch him, of course, on i-Player. I don’t always agree with his choice of music and I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of what he says about the Labour party. But I do like the main thrust of what he says about independence and how he says it. And I do agree with his final conclusion

it’s a thoroughly Scottish ‘no’ from me. No to separatism. No to division. And an end to this monumental and corrupting distraction from the central moral and political issues we face.

I thank him for putting into words what I haven’t been able to and urge you to look at what else he says.


The Scottish independence referendum is bringing to prominence a whole new area of special use of language. Here are some words I’m getting fed up with.

Afraid – see ‘Feart’

Bias – allegation made, usually without any firm evidence, about the news coverage of the BBC in the belief that ‘No’ campaigners are given an easy ride and ‘Yes’ campaigners are unfairly given a hard time. The allegation often means no more than the views of a favoured politician are subjected to legitimate challenge. The same accusation is also made about Scottish TV and (sometimes with more justification) about the printed media, Scottish and English.

Bullying – any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence by UK politicians, even if backed up by evidence and even if the politicians concerned are Scottish.

Feart – Scots for ‘afraid.’ Glib characterisation by many who want independence about those who don’t, whatever their reasons.

Negative – any reason given against independence.

Project Fear – ‘Yes’ code for ‘No’ campaign, whatever arguments it advances.

Scaremongering – another code word for any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence even if backed up by evidence, although not confined to statements by UK politicians.

Unionist – literally, a definition of anyone who wants to maintain the union (any sort of union) of the UK. Often used to imply a right wing or reactionary viewpoint because of its association with the ‘Conservative and Unionist’ party, much less so by any association with Ulster Unionism.

Westminster – as in ‘parties’ or ‘government.’  Shorthand for United Kingdom parties or government. Used to imply a whole range of characteristics – indifference, irrelevance, hostility, distance, separation and otherness – although ‘Westminster’ government is also UK and therefore Scottish government.  Sometimes shortened to ‘WM.’

Other contributions by sharp-eyed readers to the lexicon are welcome and will be added with due acknowledgement. Comments that do no  more than point out that I have a particular point of view are likely to remain unpublished, especially if abusive.


Carney speechThe Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, met First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday and spoke at a Scottish Council Development and Industry meeting about the economics of currency unions. He stressed he was talking ‘technically’ but what he said has led to much discussion in the media. The risks and challenges of a shared currency if Scotland votes for independence have been at the forefront of comment.

One conclusion widely drawn is that the Yes campaign and/or the Scottish National Party need a ‘Plan B’ if a currency union with the rest of the UK proves impossible to negotiate. Politicians are naturally reluctant to consider Plan Bs as it casts doubt on their Plan As. There was a good example on a recent BBC Question Time programme when John Swinney refused to answer a ‘what if’ question – ‘What if you don’t win the referendum?’

Those wanting to retain the Union in one form or another should also be thinking about some Plan Bs. In their case it’s the answer to the question ‘What further devolution would you propose if you win the referendum?’ It seems clear that many people in Scotland want more powers for the Scottish Parliament if there’s a ‘No’ vote – see for example the analysis by What Scotland Thinks.

Who should be doing this thinking and setting out their Plan Bs? I think not the Yes and Better Together (No) campaigns. They are both alliances of political and other groups who have different views on many subjects. The SNP and Scottish Greens for, example, don’t agree on the currency question. It’s the main political parties – the SNP on the one side, the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems on the other, in some combination – who should be developing some options.

And if I were to add a special plea for those who want to keep the Union it would be not to make your response a pragmatic one just to satisfy the Scots. Go back to some first principles about what sort of United Kingdom you want, and apply your prescription to all four countries. That sort of reform is much needed … assuming the UK stays as one.