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 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 while ago I blogged on Computers may rule but we still need people.

It was a short post responding to a statement by an IT whizz that

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

I listed some of the things that a supposed new computer might do including

strok[ing] the hand of an elderly dying woman in a council care home and assur[ing] her that her absent daughter loves her.

but what I was really saying was that these were some of the fantastic things our public sector staff do and a machine could never replace.

Today the wonderful world of the web brings me news of engineer-artist Dan Chen’s idea for an End Of Life Care Machine –

Watch it with grim horror.  I’m sure Dan’s making an ironic point about the care of the dying in society, but you never know…

Thanks to FastCompany for alerting me to this.


Some years ago I was one of a group of town planners taken on a trip around Aberdeen’s Bon Accord shopping centre, then under construction.

Before the tour we had a briefing in the site office.

One of the many architects’ drawings on display showed the two-storey bridge that now connects the shopping centre with the John Lewis department store (shown to the right of this photo of the store).

The glassed-in sides of the bridge were alive with what can only be described as a hanging garden of Babylon of shrubs and plants, trailing over the entire façade of the bridge, providing wonderful cover and colour.

When we reached the nearly-completed bridge and without mentioning the drawing I asked the builders’ rep showing us round whether the bridge would be covered with greenery.

He said

God, no.  You couldn’t have all that vegetation hanging over the public highway.  It just wouldn’t be safe.

I tell this story to illustrate the universal truth that no construction project is ever completed to look like the informal drawings of it prepared at an early stage, usually when the project is being sold to someone – client, funders or planning authority.

The disconnect is greater when a design has been prepared for a competition when, inevitably, the effort and resources a designer puts into a proposal will match the chance of gaining the commission.

I thought it would be interesting to look at the drawings released of the proposed Union Terrace Gardens (UTG) replacement civic plaza in the light of this universal truth.

First, just orientate yourself with the overall sketch plan of the site (North is to the left of the diagram, roughly, and South to the right)

Now consider the view taken looking North West across the site that has been widely used in the media recently (and in my earlier post on UTG)

Observe the triangular area of what looks like about twenty trees to the left.  This is labelled ‘orchard’ on the overall sketch plan.  What sort of fruit trees will grow successfully in a wee triangle in the middle of this northern city with the good citizens (and dogs) of Aberdeen wandering all around and between them?

Note the high walkways over the site at both its southern and northern ends.  Consider the graffiti, skateboarding and drop-your-litter-over-the-side potential of these walkways.

Observe also the warm glow cast over the site, bathed in the intensity of a wonderful sunset somewhere to the North (ergo the image notionally at least must represent some time around the summer solstice).

Note the pedestrians strolling through the foreground casting long shadows to the South notwithstanding the fact that the sun seems to be almost below the horizon behind the tall buildings on Union Terrace.  Given the latitude of Aberdeen and its weather, speculate how many evenings a year the site will look anything like this.

Then take a closer look at the flower garden (also seen above) and the structure behind it.

Marvel at the intensity of colour achieved by the massed planting of flowers, an intensity I’ve yet to see in the city.

Note the steep slope of the sustainable grassed roof of the ‘cultural centre’ behind the flower garden.  See how people are strolling up this steep slope without any apparent restraint of a barrier on its edge.

More could be said about all this sort of detail but I think the point has been made.  With any design proposal be very careful how you read the first sketches, especially if they’ve been prepared to sell the concept.

What you can’t see on these drawings (although you can on the official web site) are all the other elements of the proposal.  It’s not really the purpose of this post to go beyond the points I’ve already made but I just note that there’s a 500-seat theatre tucked away underground, scarcely metres from Aberdeen’s HMT where last Saturday I saw an excellent National Theatre of Scotland production written by and starring a well-known TV star.  Even with this pedigree, the theatre can scarcely have been half-full and the top two tiers of seats were closed off.  Less than a mile away a private businessman is trying to restore the Tivoli theatre to theatrical use and ten minutes’ walk from the UTG site there’s the Arts Centre theatre.  I’m all in favour of culture but does Aberdeen need another sizeable theatre?


I voted today in a referendum organised by our local council (Aberdeen City) to help determine the future of a green space in the heart of our city – Union Terrace Gardens.

Anyone in the North East of Scotland will know what this is all about but for anyone else here is a brief summary.

A local businessman has offered £50 million to transform these Victorian gardens into a new civic space that will include various facilities, link parts of the city centre currently separated by the gardens (they are in a deep valley), and hide an unsightly dual carriageway road and railway that run alongside the gardens.  A preferred option has been chosen after a period of public consultation.  It is currently estimated that this would cost up to £140 million, the remainder coming from an anonymous donation of £5 million, £15 million from the private sector, and up to £70 million from a TIF (see below).

The proposal has sparked major local controversy, with strong lobbies both in favour of the scheme and of retaining the gardens.

In one way, the issue is fundamentally simple – keep or redevelop the gardens.

But as so often happens with these things there are innumerable complications lurking in the wings, from what could be described as opposing political ideologies for the future of the city through what the council has or hasn’t done with this major civic asset over the years, to concerns about the TIF – and much more besides.

This is not the place to reprise all the arguments.  A Google search on ‘Union Terrace Gardens’ today threw up 1,940,000 hits and anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the controversy can immerse themselves for ever in everything to do with the subject.

Anyhow, all this is a preamble to saying I have voted, reluctantly, against the proposal.

Reluctantly because I think it is magnificent that someone is willing to donate £50 million to help ensure the future of the city they were born and brought up in.

Reluctantly because the heart of any city needs constant rejuvenation and the gardens in particular need a lot of TLC.

But I just can’t see it working, from the design chosen to the money needed to make it work.  I’ve seen too many architects’ drawings over the years that turned out to be triumphs of optimism over reality.

Well, voting closes on 1 March and who am I tell fellow Aberdonians how to cast their ballot?

I do know that come 2 March a significant proportion of the population of this city will see the result – whatever it is – as either a tragedy or a triumph.

TIF – tax increment funding scheme

TLC – tender loving care


It seems everyone is trying to say something to mark the death of Steve Jobs of Apple.  None of them approach the power of the man’s own words in his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005.

My shortest post ever.


I don’t normally do commercials on this blog – except for myself of course.  But this is one such.

Scots and those quick off the mark for a Ryanair or easyJet flight from points south (no that’s not the commercial, other airlines are available – BA, bmi, FlyBe or, if you’ve got the price of a small mortgage, Eastern Airways) should get themselves to the wonderful city of Aberdeen, on which the sun always shines in September, for ScotGovCamp on the 24th.

I’m hacked off I can’t manage it (family commitments) because I went to last year’s event and thought it was great.  So great I blogged about it (where you can see what a govcamp is if the idea’s new to you).

Since ScotGovCamp 2010 I’ve discovered a lot in the world of government and social media.

  • I know in some detail what’s happening in Syria because of the brave souls there who get video clips out showing their government’s repression
  • I followed the good, the bad and the ugly of the English riots including the wonderful #riotwombles who were on the streets with brushes and shovels the day after cleaning up their communities
  • I suddenly realised that police forces (mostly in England it has to be said) are waaaay ahead of most of the rest of the public sector in using social media.  If you don’t believe me check out @hotelalpha9 (including his anti-grafitti video on YouTube – he’s apparently just nabbed his suspect), and our own @DCCTayside
  • I started following an increasing number of council chief executives who Tweet (again, mostly if not wholly English – where are you Scottish CEs?).

On the other hand

  • Where are the innovative Scottish public sector apps for all those ipads, androids and other fancy stuff my kids can’t live without?
  • Why does the oh-so-dire UK government DirectGov web site still stagger on, notwithstanding the best efforts of Martha Lane Fox et al?
  • Why does the home page of my local council web site under the heading Self-service access invite me to “Book it” and for community use of schools then takes me (today) to a page that tells me no public applications will issued (sic) nor accepted until 2 May 2011 and allows no online booking.  Misleading or what?  Grrr!

So ScotGovCamp’s got plenty to get to grips with.  You can book online (it’s free) here.  Do it.  And enjoy!