There’s an old song lyric

It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it


On that basis I guess you’d have to concede that Barack Obama is up there with the best.

Take a look (not the whole 1 hour and 5 minutes unless you’re a real enthusiast) at his 2012 State of the Union Address to Congress.

I guess most people in the UK saw the tiniest clip from his speech on the TV news last month.  What that wouldn’t have shown is his mastery of public communication – the words, the pace, the body language, the eye contact, the back-up facts on the related presentation, the ordinary Americans up there in the gallery as Michelle Obama’s guests – the works.

Of course it’s all geared towards this year’s presidential election.  But based on this performance, how could any sane citizen not rush to re-elect the man later this year?

Well, I guess the answer lies in who the Republicans eventually select to put up against him, not to mention how the US economy does over the next nine months or so.

But they say incumbent politicians lose elections, opponents don’t win them.  And on this performance you’d have to admit Obama’s got a damned good chance of serving a second term.

In none of this, you’ll notice, do I comment on the many facts favourable to Obama in his speech and the related presentation.  But hey, what do you expect, there’ll be plenty who do that and after all this is politics.


It’s good to know the spirit of compromise is alive and well in the town council that serves the attractive town of Bideford in North Devon (mission – the exciting to deliver the information you need about our decision making processes and support community participation in local democracy) supported by sundry national lobby groups with an axe to grind.

The issue that has occupied a good deal of the energy and time of the sixteen elected representatives of the good folk of Bideford is the earth-shattering question of whether their formal council meetings should start with a prayer or not.

This otherwise quaint custom became a matter of contention because a councillor who is an atheist objected to the routine blessing of the council’s deliberations by a man of the cloth (I’m not sure whether the body corporate of the council is advanced enough to admit a woman of the cloth).  He claimed to be ‘disadvantaged and embarrassed by the practice.’

The council have apparently discussed this burning topic three times without resolution and the upshot is that the National Secular Society has taken a case to the High Court in support of the councillor concerned.  To highlight the absurdity of the case the disadvantaged and embarrassed councillor is now an ex-councillor, presumably having resigned out of disgust or been rejected by his electors for the same reason.  Judgement in the case is currently reserved (lawyer speak for a decision is yet to be given).

On the BBC Today programme this week a spokesman for the NSS was countered by someone equally small-minded from the Christian Institute, so listeners could get a balanced view of this important issue.  For balanced read two lots of propaganda instead of one.

What better subject could there be for a rant as the HelpGov blog transforms itself into something a little more contentious and sheds the need to consider what potential clients think about it?

I think the rant’s already happened, but just to pile on the agony, doesn’t it make you despair?  Surely sixteen sensible adults could reach a compromise on something so fundamentally innocuous?

In the meantime the euro is collapsing, we seem to be creating a lost generation of unemployed young people, the world economy is probably moving into prolonged recession and the planet is arguably warming up to a point at which Bideford, for one, may well disappear under rising sea levels.

The only saving grace in the whole sorry tale is that town councils in England, while perhaps ‘supporting community participation in local democracy’ do…well not very much at all.  Their big brothers and sisters – the district, unitary and county councils are much more sensible.  I hope.

Clearing out the attic of my house the other day I came across an unusual newspaper cutting lining an old chest of drawers.  It was undated but obviously came from the 19th century.  Readers may be interested in it as a curious throw back to times past as it clearly bears little relationship to modern society.


In a move unprecedented since the introduction of the “Penny Post” by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli today responded to the Fenian Riots in our great northern cities by calling for the suspension of the now-familiar Royal Mail letter service.

Mr Disraeli told a crowded House of Commons that chief constables up and down the land were reporting that Fenian troublemakers were writing letters to each other to co-ordinate their nefarious activities.

“The problem,” he said “is that the service with its guarantee of same or next day delivery allows these Irish ‘gentlemen’ in one city to communicate almost instantly with those in other cities where there has been large scale immigration from Ireland. The problem has been exacerbated by the increasing number who are able to read and write and can afford the 1d postage stamp affixed to each letter.”

Reaction from other parts of society has been critical.

The secretary of the London Chamber of Commerce Mr Thomas Gradgrind said “This proposal does not seem to take account of the extent to which our great British industries rely upon swift communication with each other in order to progress the business of Empire.  This could be a major blow to many of our members.”  Private soundings taken by this newspaper from within government itself affirmed that the Board of Trade amongst others shares the Chamber’s concerns.

The editor of the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post asked “How are we to despatch our daily edition to country subscribers, many of them gentlemen of the cloth, in the event of a suspension of the postal service?”

And Lady Cynthia Garside, doyenne of London high society lamented “This will be an absolute disaster for the social life of the capital.  At present one can despatch a letter to any respectable member of society in the morning inviting them to supper that evening, confident that they will have responded by the luncheon hour affirming their attendance or not.”

It is not known at the time of writing if Mr Disraeli intends, in the argot of our military men, to “stick to his guns” or whether like the Grand Old Duke of York he intends to march back down the hill again, having ascended half way to the summit.

Well done UK council chief executives.

They’re having a summit in October to think about the future of the important services local authorities provide.  Their debate will be structured around five propositions you can find on the web site they’ve set up to prepare for the event.

One thing they didn’t anticipate (who did?) will surely inform their deliberations – the “riots”.

I was pondering this as I checked out their site and in particular their

Proposition 4 Public services in a networked world

Although they can’t have intended it, this is absolutely central to what happened in England (media, Twitterers, politicians, foreign commentators et al please note – England, and even then only parts of England, not UK).

Spurred by this thought I dropped a note on the web site concerned.  Being of an economical and sustainable cast of mind I thought an expanded version might have a wider interest.

My thoughts started with something I’ve already looked at on this blog – the performance of the UK government Directgov portal during the disturbances.  That led me to thinking about social media and four distinct groups.

Central government itself

Given my other blog post it probably needs least comment of all here.  My characterisation of it to the chief execs was

An apparent social media paralysis…Directgov, their web portal, and its Twitter feed remained supine over the first few days of the riots

Local authorities

My own trawls did not reveal any hugely systematic or proactive use of the web and social media by councils, councillors or council chief executives.  Was I reading the wrong sources (let me know)?  I found three honourable exceptions.

The leader of Lambeth council was out and about in Brixton the morning after their disturbance and blogged about what he saw.  It had the smack of authenticity about it rather than the dead hand of PR

I was astonished to find Ms Cupcake, owner of a bakery on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, out in Brixton this morning handing out brightly-coloured iced cakes. She told me this was no day to sell cakes, and she wanted to show the world the true face of Brixton –smiling, generous, and big-hearted.

The chief executive of Haringey wrote for his peers about his experience on the SOLACE web site and the Guardian’s Public leaders network gave it a wider audience.  A thoughtful piece that concluded

I would love to close with some coherent thoughts on how we move on from this but as I reflect on the events of the last few days both here and across the country – reading the reports of the damage to our street maintenance depot which was attacked last night – I find myself like many others wondering how we got to this point.

I watched for council Tweets on the situation but few crossed my path amidst the thousands tumbling out, initially tagged #londonriots then #ukriots (but see comment on “UK” above).  An ironic exception was the prolific Twitterer Ruth Hyde @relhyde, chief executive of Broxtowe Borough Council.  Ironic because they’ve had no reported troubles.  But they’re next door to Nottingham which did and she’s been keeping her followers up to date, most recently with

Riots updates with Police and partners. Great communication from Notts police, Nothing yet reported in Broxtowe.

Note the praise given to the police.  She’s also been assiduous in re-tweeting their messages.  She gets the point in a way that many don’t – to the point, a conversational tone, up to date and frequent (but not excessive) Tweeting, informal and friendly.  A great example.  You feel there’s a real person there not the junior member of a comms team.  She deserves more followers (so get on over there and sign up) .

Rioters and would-be rioters

This is the group that’s had all the publicity.  Not only their use of social media including Twitter and Blackberry messaging to co-ordinate (co-ordinate probably pitches it too high) their activities but also their Tweets and videos showing the results.  So social media is immediately cast as the villian of the piece and bizarrely, for this particular business user, the Blackberry with its secure encrypted messaging in particular becomes a “problem”.

Community response

This for me has been the most inspiring use of social media in the current disturbances.  Just as baddies can use it to communicate so can goodies.  Hashtags like #riotcleanup and #riotwombles (love that) came out of nowhere and residents appeared on the streets almost instantly with brooms and dustpans to tidy up their own communities (although a big plus to many councils who were also mobilising their own resources for rapid clean ups).  And elsewhere in cyberspace you could hardly blink before people had web sites up gathering photos of probable looters (innocent until proven guilty of course) for identifying and reporting to the police.  This looked like the big society in action, although it has to be said without any credit due to the only begetter of the idea.

Which of these groups made most effective use of social media?  You’d have to say central government was pathetic, councils good in parts but, sadly, the baddies were expert.  The good news is that the positive community response was probably more expert (certainly more educated).

Nothing here about the police use (and monitoring, which we’ll probably never find out about in detail) of social media.  That’s another story and someone else will need to tell it.

Two weeks after the council elections in England 100s of new councillors will be getting to grips with  what they’ve let themselves in for.

As potential candidates, some may have been to an event encouraging people to stand for election.  Many will have been briefed by their party and its existing councillors.  Some will still be in recovery mode from the glib assurance of a party official that “It’s just to make sure we’re on the ballot paper.  We haven’t got a chance of winning in that ward”.  A tiny minority will have convinced themselves that they’re embarking on a crusade to clean the whole sorry mess up without realising yet that there isn’t actually a whole sorry mess there.

All will be receiving some sort of induction, more or less thorough, more or less baffling.  All will find local government finance challenging.  All will be suffering from information overload.  And all will struggle with the jargon.

That jargon will undoubtedly include reference to governance, partnership, stakeholders, engagement and much else of a similar nature

It will contrast starkly with what they came into local government to achieve and what they’ve been told by voters on the doorstep.

Back before the recession the Local Government Association commissioned research on what determines the reputation of a council.  Their consultants, Ipsos-MORI, came up with 12 actions that were critical to ensuring a council’s reputation

  • adopt a highly visible, strongly branded council cleaning operation
  • set up one phone number for the public to report local environmental problems
  • know your grot spots – and deal with them
  • aim to remove abandoned cars and fly-tipping within 24 hours
  • win a Green Flag award for at least one park
  • ensure no gaps or overlap in council cleaning and maintenance contracts
  • educate and enforce to protect the environment
  • manage the media effectively to promote and defend the council
  • provide an A-Z guide to council services
  • publish a regular council magazine or newspaper to inform residents (this one will have taken a bit of a knock under the current Whitehall regime)
  • ensure the council brand is consistently linked to services
  • good internal communications – make sure staff and members are informed.

The LGA have developed and refined their recommendations on reputation since then but it would be interesting to know whether several years on, in the recession and with radically reduced resources, these are still the key factors that drive what people think of their council.

What better way to find out than the feedback that newly elected councillors received during their election campaigns?

In the absence of national collation of that sort of information, I asked a chief executive what issues her new members had picked up on the doorstep recently.  Across all parties they said

  • potholes
  • unkempt verges
  • parking on pavements
  • high council house rent increases
  • worries about future cuts.

It’s easy to discern the similarities with the LGA’s list together with an overlay for obvious reasons of financial concerns.  Not much about that jargon from the higher realms of democratic theory.

The chief executive cited above is Ruth Hyde of Broxtowe Borough Council.  She’s one of the small minority of local authority CEs who use Twitter.  Her Tweets are well worth following if you want to see what a council chief executive’s job is all about.  And at present you can find updates on Broxtowe’s induction programme for new councillors – at @Relhyde

Like many bloggers and tweeters whose thoughts I’ve seen these last few days I have mixed feelings about royalty.  Ask my kids, who experienced dad opting out yesterday and then creeping in to watch the actual ceremony.

But many people clearly do have positive feelings about the institution and the grand state events related to it.

Positive feelings impact on wellbeing and wellbeing is supposed to be the new measure of how we’re doing as a nation and a society.

Health professionals recognised the importance of wider social, environmental and economic wellbeing to health a long time ago.  Our last (UK) Labour government, and in my neck of the woods the devolved Scottish Government,  both accepted the notion and our current UK coalition has gone as far as to ask the Office for National Statistics to come up with a measurement of it to supplement if not replace the blunter measurement in money terms of gross national product.

Wellbeing related directly to the big state/royal events can also give rise to other positive feelings.  Witness my neighbours, who held a royal wedding day garden party (thanks Ruth, thanks Andy).  A sunny day, a great atmosphere, white wine on the lawn, a chance to catch up with the neighbours and a consensus that we live in “one of the friendliest streets in the city”.  Perhaps not the big society in action but a nice small society.

So neither the notion of wellbeing nor its practice seem to be much in dispute.

I then move to the fact that at least three Scottish councils declined to give their staff the day off for the royal wedding.

Reading the media reports of their decision it’s clear that their motivation seemed to be financial rather than political.  Indeed, the leader of the one party in Scotland that might have the greatest cause to feel indifferent to a British royal wedding, the SNP, accepted his invitation as first minister to attend the wedding with his wife.  Good for him.

This comment is not about naming and shaming and anyone interested in the three councils can easily find them online.

But in general terms, their reasoning tends towards the curmudgeonly and doesn’t seem to be wholly supported by their arithmetic.

For example, one says a fixed public holiday plus an extra day’s leave for staff would cost them £300,000.  Their revenue budget for 2011/12 is a whisker under £599 million.  So that extra day would cost them 0.05% of that budget.  In my experience the education department of a medium sized council can blink and lose or gain a mere £300,000 through some unforeseen circumstance.

Another council, much smaller with a budget of about £112 million, says a public holiday would cost it about £375,000 in lost productivity, 0.3% of their total budget.  Again, even in these hard times a variance (as the accountants call it) that is quite manageable.

Balanced against these notional savings would have been the positive wellbeing arising from a more generous attitude to their staff.  It seems a tiny price to pay.

I wonder how many of those staff anyhow spent at least some of the day clustered around a TV in a staff room or with the radio quietly on in an office.

Apologies are not quite the sentiment, but I’m sorry if I’ve missed any other UK councils who counted yesterday as a normal working day.

Nothing approaching an obituary has featured in this blog in the year since I started it, let alone one of someone I hadn’t heard of until last weekend.

The Saturday Financial Times brought Lampl to my attention but a quick Google search threw up any number of other references confirming what the FT said.  Some are listed at the end of this post.

Frank Lampl’s background led him to suffer at the hands of the two great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century.

As a Jew born in pre-war Czechoslovakia he was deported with his family to Auschwitz and then Dachau where he became one of the thousands of slave labourers employed in German industry.  He was the only member of his family to survive the holocaust.

Returning to Czechoslovakia after the war he was dismissed by the communist regime from his studies because of his class background – his family had been landowners and their land was confiscated.  In 1950 he was arrested as a bourgeois undesirable and spent several years doing hard labour.

When he was released he worked as a labourer in the construction industry and eventually became the director of a state construction company.

When the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring he and his wife left for the UK carrying just a single suitcase.

In London he learned English and obtained a job, again in the construction industry.  Within a decade he was heading the international operations of Bovis, saw the company through a period of major growth, became its chairman, and even after its takeover by Australian company Lend Lease remained as life president until his death.

There’s much more to his life than this brief prėcis.  But what fascinated me were some of the things he said.

(After working as a site labourer in the 1950s) That kind of experience is a great advantage, particularly in construction because it helps you understand what motivates people.  If you come through the ranks … you have a much better feel for what’s happening on site

Building a career is an interesting thing.  I always tell ambitious young people to be careful how they treat their colleagues …If your subordinate does not like you, you won’t succeed.  Most success depends on colleagues, on the team …People at the top can have large egos, but you must never say ‘I’: it’s always ‘we’

was brought up to believe that the most important thing is your reputation. If you lose it, it’s hard to get back.  And I believe that this is true for companies, just as it is for individuals

Scanning some of the things said about him (see the references below) it is clear this was an exceptional man in an industry not known in the wider world for its inspirational leaders.  Many could learn from his story and his beliefs.

Some online references to Frank Lampl obituary (includes many appreciative comments from their readers)

Construction Enquirer article

Daily Telegraph obituary 

Financial Times obituary 

Wikipedia article