Elderly manMany years ago I got into a spat with a director of social work in Scotland about the cut-off age for a council’s older people’s strategy.

She was adamant that it had to be for everyone aged over 50. I demurred. ‘It’s too young,’ I piped up from the sidelines – but to no effect.

Today I saw an older people’s forum advertised in leafy Buckinghamshire, 500 miles and one Act of devolution away from where I live – again for anyone aged over 50.

It seems that the definition of older as 50-plus is near universal, at least in the UK and amongst those who purport to promote the interests of and support older people.

But most people are

  • living longer
  • staying healthier longer
  • retiring later, currently 65 (for men – women are ‘catching up’) and rising.

So how come this obsession with older = 50, fifteen years before most people retire? Can anyone enlighten me?

This is a serious question. Does the cut-off have any standing in law? Is there scientific or medical evidence that this is the age at which people really do become ‘older’? Or is the assumption just a lazy carry-over from the past that is never reviewed?

Answers on a (virtual) post card to the HelpGov blog please.


If you were to choose a day for Scotland to become independent, what would it be?

How about 1st January of the earliest year possible after the referendum, say 2016?

What better day could there be? Hogmanay has become the Scottish annual celebration par excellence, known throughout the world. In the depths of winter it is heavy with symbolism. Traditionally, the back door is opened to let out the old year, the front door to usher in the new. The first visitor over the threshold brings gifts bestowing good fortune on the household for the new year – coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky.

Down the road in Stonehaven from where I live there’s even a spectacular Hogmanay fireball ceremony to help drive winter away and encourage the life-giving sun to come again, that and the chance to sink a dram or two.

Balls! Fireballs, that is.

It’s wonderful.

So, new year, new nation. What could be better?

Er, no.

Not if the SNP has its way. Press leaks over the weekend suggest that their forthcoming independence referendum white paper will propose a different date.

24th March 2016.

This date, famed throughout the world like Hogmanay (not), is the day our forward-looking government has chosen for a symbolic new start that will reap all the promises of the future, if we only vote Yes in the referendum.

Why 24th March? Well, Scots may (may) know. No-one else will. It’s the date the Crowns of Scotland and England were united. In 1603.

That’s right. 1603.

So trapped in the past is this political party that they choose a date that looks backward 413 years.

But never mind. On current SNP plans Scotland will still keep the English pound sterling. And the English monarch.

Confused? I am. That’s why I put independence in inverted commas in the title to this post.

Perhaps next week’s Scottish government white paper will allay my concerns. It’s apparently 670 pages long. Now that’s what I call an easy read.

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.

…who asked me to join their LinkedIn network

Dear X

Thank you for the e-mail asking me to connect with you on LinkedIn.

You didn’t include a personal message with your request so I’m not quite sure why you want to add me to your network.

I remember you left the council I worked for in, was it 2008? Crikey, that’s five years ago and I haven’t heard from you until now.

You’ve gone on to greater things since then, the parliamentary seat, party spokesperson on (let me be coy) Topic Y, probably much more I’ve not noticed. Good for you. All that stuff in the council must have been helpful – the single-minded pursuit of your own area of responsibility, the loyal support of officers who promoted your agenda and, let’s be frank, the war of attrition with your party colleagues.

As for me, I took a voluntary package to leave – no hard feelings, it was time for a change – and as my LinkedIn profile says I’ve morphed into a creative writing student. Well, between studies at the moment, but with one or two pieces published, like my story in the New Writing Scotland anthology, although I don’t expect that’s your sort of thing.

Truth is, apart from the creative writing, I’m sort of retired as far as paid work’s concerned.

So I’m not quite sure what sort of business it is we might do together through LinkedIn, unless you’re looking for some creative writing to support your political activities, heaven forfend.

I noticed, perhaps you did too, that I live in the area you represent in parliament, so the only other thing I have that might be of interest to you is … no, it couldn’t be, I was going to say an occasional vote.

Oh well, in the best traditions of the public service, this has been a rather more long-winded way of saying something quite simple, no thanks, or as LinkedIn rather unkindly puts it ‘Ignore request.’

All the best.

Yours sincerely


I’ve taken to posting the occasional blog entry about Singapore, entries that might confuse regular HelpGov readers. After all, as the header says, HelpGov is about trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff. Why would I be interested in this small, far-away island state?

The truth is, I feel quite sentimental about the place.

I was part of a large tribe of children – mainly British, but also Australians and New Zealanders – who spent part of their childhood in the country when their fathers served in the various Commonwealth armed forces based there right up until the 1980s.

Singapore Orchard Road 1960

Singapore Orchard Road 1960

Our time in Singapore was idyllic. We led a largely open air life in shorts and flip-flops. We swam in mostly European-only pools and in the warm sea. If our parents weren’t looking we ate exotic spicy foods from street vendors and cooled off with brightly-coloured, sweet ‘ice balls.’ We soaked up the tropical climate and the sights, sounds and smells of cultures a million miles removed from the drab greyness of our own countries. And almost universally, our mothers had a female servant, an amah, to take the drudgery out of domestic work.

So it’s not surprising that we mostly feel good about our time there. If you don’t believe me just Google ‘far east britbrats’ (what we tend to call ourselves).

What we don’t remember – by and large – is the downside.

The fact that what we enjoyed was a by-product of Empire, an empire dead or dying by the time we got there.

The fact that our comfort and delight in the place was built on the availability of cheap labour.

The fact that for at least part of the period there were still open drains discharging into the filthy Singapore River, that most Singaporeans lived in poverty with a life expectancy way below ours, that many children wore no shoes, that it was not uncommon for Europeans to say things like ‘Get the boy to do it’ when referring to a waiter or male servant.

All that makes the achievement of the country since those days the more remarkable.

An island with no natural resources has been transformed into a modern state with an income per head significantly exceeding that of the old colonial master. Singaporeans, rightly, compare themselves to other ‘first world’ countries. There is an elected parliament and a properly-constituted judicial system. The country ranks fifth on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index – higher than the UK, Australia or Canada. And for fans of HelpGov’s more traditional subject matter, the head of the Singapore civil service was invited last year to contribute to The Guardian’s Global Public Leaders Series.

So bearing in mind my own background and what the country has achieved, I’m reluctant as a foreigner, an ang moh* to boot, to criticise Singapore. It somehow seems impertinent.

But my browsing on the web has brought me up against a less congenial side of the country, for example the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang and the apparently esoteric subject of a government population white paper.

I would be less than honest with myself if I didn’t share my thoughts on other aspects of that less congenial side so, seeking the forgiveness of Singaporeans in advance, I will do that in my next post on Singapore.

* Ang moh or  红毛 – a Chinese term for Westerners, often derogatory, but I’ll live with that.

Phew! Talk about being caught out – see my post yesterday about the graffiti appearing on municipal buildings in Aberdeen overnight.

Caught out because I seem to have missed a whole political sub-text to these scribbles.

I taxed the mystery graffttist with lacking education because of their mis-spelling of ‘Wield’ as ‘Weild.’ A Facebook friend tells me:

methinks they have, in part, found education in the pages of graphic novels such as ‘V for Vendetta’…it’s also a film. Anarchists recently used main character ‘V’s mask. Lots of quotes in Olde English and refs to Guy Fawkes.

Ahh, now I get it, sort of.

The mystery was further alleviated by today’s local Press and Journal newspaper, which explains the Marischal College reference could be to a letter distributed anonymously to farmers during the Swing Riots in England in 1830 – they were mechanising their farms and making labourers redundant:

Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions. Ye have not done as ye ought.

This is either exciting or scary or pathetic stuff according to your point of view.

At the pathetic end of the scale I think our local protester has somewhat misunderstood the role of councillors as ‘weilders’ [sic] of power and blackguard enemies of the people.

Councillors did not send our armed forces to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Councillors did not manipulate financial markets on a massive scale to cause the current economic crisis. And they are scarcely responsible for climate change.

On the other hand, if the graffitist is concerned about the mechanisation of council work it’s a lost battle. Quill pens and ledgers were replaced by computers a long time ago.

The other tit-bit in today’s Press and Journal was that similar graffiti have appeared on the Aberdeen University campus.

So are you drawing the conclusion I am?

Yep, could be a student. Perhaps the combined resources of city-centre CCTV footage, Police Scotland and University security staff will deliver the answer soon. But they’d better get a move on because the young people will  all disappear on their summer hols soon.

To be continued (maybe) …

Footnote: never thought I’d add ‘anarchy’ to my list of tags but I have.

Update 14 November 2013 I was taken to task by someone commenting on this post for saying that the Marischal College graffitist ‘could be a student.’ The local media reported today that someone has pleaded guilty to vandalising the College and other buildings. He is … a student. The council says it cost them £10,000 to remove the offending words. Social reports are awaited before sentencing.

I noticed today that Police Scotland are looking for the idiot who scrawled this graffito (HelpGov is nothing if not grammatically correct) on the façade of Aberdeen City Council’s headquarters, the wonderful and newly-restored Marischal College.

The ‘Ye’ bit suggests the perpetrator aspires to at least some learning and that the admonition may be a quotation from somewhere historical. But a Google search, while throwing up various biblical possibilities, didn’t recognise the actual words.

Given that this is Scotland and there’s an independence referendum next year (you hadn’t heard?) I toyed with the scribbler having a national or nationalistic purpose. Notice I don’t say which nation, so no rude comments please. They’ll only be blocked.

There are also numerous local possibilities about his concerns ranging from a new ring road to the state of our main shopping street to a disputed roundabout to new bus lane cameras to…

Perhaps The Idiot might like to submit the answer. I’ll be happy to publish it complete with his name.

To my surprise, my tweet on the subject was almost instantly re-tweeted by an English council chief executive (thanks @Relhyde) and that presumed fellow-feeling got me thinking about what it is that councils have not yet done as they ought.

Here’s my top list of things councils have not yet done as they ought.

  • Ye have not yet kept all the people happy all the time
  • Ye have not yet proven that democracy is not merely a good system of government but, yea, it is perfect
  • Ye have not yet squared every problem that doth present itself as a circle
  • Ye have not yet overcome an ever decreasing treasury in order to meet all demands upon your services
  • Ye have not yet insinuated yourself into the mind of every citizen that doth own a dog in order that canine defecation in your public places is entirely unknown
  • Ye have not yet conducted all your affairs in a state of complete harmony, unlike every other public institution in this United Kingdom of ours
  • Ye have not yet understood that ye are simultaneously too large and too small, too rich and too poor, and too arrogant and too supine
  • Ye have not yet reversed climate change, increased the longevity of your citizens’ lives, eliminated social exclusion nor solved any of the other small issues that are entirely reasonably laid at your door

Footnote: I have just read that another scrawl appeared in the same hand overnight on the nearby Council Town House – Weilders [sic] of Power Beware. Well that blows my theory about the perpetrator ‘s education.