For a long time I’ve wanted an excuse as a (very) ex-town planner to write about completely useless additions to our public spaces. I came across one on the web today – a ‘black blob’ glass entrance to the great city of Manchester’s central library. You can read all about it here, where the author points out that it cost £3.5 million, has virtually no function, and has to have the word ENTRANCE written in large letters above so people know what it is.

This municipal folly brought to mind one of my home city Aberdeen’s own follies – ‘improvements’ to the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC), shown in this photo, and made some time ago.

aecc3

A bit of history for non-Aberdonians. You’ll know the city is the ‘offshore oil capital of Europe,’ and a power of good that industry has done for the city and whole area. Shortly after the industry took root its first trade show was held – in tents on a site that turned muddy when it rained. There was widespread agreement that this was a nonsense and the aforementioned AECC was built. Not an architectural masterpiece but it fulfilled a function. Time moved on, it became a little long in the tooth and it was renovated and extended.

Many of the renovations no sensible person could argue with – more exhibition space, better facilities in the permanent building shown in the photo, and an office block that included rented space.

Also part of the changes were the additions shown on the right hand side of the photo, the tower and covered arch.

Here a little explanation is needed.

The main entrance to the centre is under the letters ‘AECC’ you can just about see centre-left on the photo. Vehicles can draw up in front of that area, and there’s a covered walkway to the entrance and reception area beyond. All very sensible.

You can also just see the day-to-day car park for the centre off to the right of the photo, beyond the arch and tower (there are larger car parking areas further away for when there’s a major event on).

First, the tower. When it was built it was heralded as an observation tower and tourist attraction. Visitors would be able to ascend in a lift and see out over the city from the deck at the top. Given the location of the AECC on the city’s northern fringe, I’m not sure you’d get much of a view of the city, although beyond the exhibition halls and tarmacced area around the centre there is an attractive coastline. But, and I need to emphasise this THE TOWER HAS NEVER BEEN OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. The initial reason given, if my memory is correct, was fear of terrorist attacks happening around the time of construction. But they faded and it never opened. The tower’s only use to my knowledge has been for an advertisement that ran up it for a local commercial radio station but long removed.

Now the real cracker, the arch. Entrance to the arch from the outside is at its right hand side, near the tower. Go inside and you are confronted with an escalator. The escalator takes you up, there’s a short walk then another escalator takes you down … to the main entrance and reception area. Apart from looking a bit better than a row of office windows, the arch HAS NO FUNCTION WHATSOEVER. Although I haven’t visited the centre for a while I have never seen anyone use this way in to the centre. Why would you when it just makes your walk to the reception area from the car park twice as long?

Anyhow, the whole nonsense might became a small foot note to local history in a few years’ time as a new exhibition centre is planned in a more sensible location near the city’s airport. Let’s hope that one respects the old architectural dictum that form should follow function.

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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.


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?


Grounghog DayThree years ago I left the employ of the last council I worked for when I took their voluntary redundancy shilling, part of the first wave of post-recession downsizing.

Time I thought on a trip away last week to catch up with a senior ex-colleague, still in work albeit with another council. Over the lunchtime ‘mediterranean platter’ and the small talk about family (mine) and career (hers) I insinuated a work question

What are the current big issues in local government?

Well, I had to show willing didn’t I?

Here’s her list of current big issues:

  • Shared services
  • Outsourcing
  • Partnership working
  • Workforce planning.

And here was my list of big issues three years ago:

  • Shared services
  • Outsourcing
  • Partnership working
  • Workforce planning.

Just for an instant I had a Groundhog Day moment, the movie where time repeats itself for ever.

Could it be true? Sadly it was.

Of course (we were on to the baklava by now) there were some subtle differences as well as some similarities that we teased out.

On shared services, not much had changed, except it was still being touted as a panacea for many ills and still without convincing examples of its success despite major effort put into it in some places. Maybe there are readers out there in local government land who can put us right and come up with some good case studies. Maybe not.

The same script could hold true for outsourcing with some big potential contracts (sorry partnering) either not coming to fruition or not delivering the benefits claimed in advance.

Partnership working is still the challenge it always was, with my ex-colleague coming up with some cracking examples of inept loading of council agendas on to indifferent partners. And I know from my own observation that the specific case of Scottish community planning now faces more imbalance, with two of the statutory partners – police and fire & rescue – moving to national services as power is inexorably sucked towards the centre (the old LECs, local enterprise companies, had already gone that way).

Workforce planning seemed to have moved on a bit, at least in the sense that there was greater pressure to do it. We didn’t share notes on what it was like then and now but I hope it’s less of a nightmare than it was 4-5 years ago: the phrase ‘all-consuming industry’ would have summed it up as it was then.

Interestingly, neither of us mentioned budgetary pressures in our lists. Of course they’re still there, and more pressing than ever. And money is the root of much of the push to share, outsource and work better together. It’s also not unrelated to the need for better workforce planning.  But unlike the traditional parrot cry of ‘If only we had more resources’ good managers – and she is – tend to accept resource constraints and find other ways to maintain or even improve services.

One thing we didn’t share was my belief that politics, no that’s not right – democracy, drives much of the reluctance to work in some of the ways our little lists highlighted. It’s not a criticism, just a fact of life. We don’t see national politicians, so keen to force these nostrums on local authorities, rushing to do the same at their level – share services with other countries, outsource them to the Far East, or tackle workforce planning on a Europe-wide basis. As for partnership, hasn’t David Cameron just distanced himself a bit more from the EU?

So maybe it’s time to quietly abandon most of what’s on my ex-colleague’s list of issues and move on to other ways of doing the business. Anyone listening there?

It was a good lunch with pleasant company, even if the Greek coffee gave me the caffeine tingles for the rest of the afternoon.


If you’re what the GovLoop web site calls a ‘govvie’ (work it out) you could do worse than dip into their web site occasionally for a piece of cross-cultural enlightenment.

They’re an American outfit – but they let other folks on – with the aim

to inspire public sector professionals to better service by acting as the knowledge network for government.

A post called Why Are Many Government Officials Such Bad Leaders? by one of their 50,000+ members called Paul Wolf popped up yesterday. I was alerted to it by a tweet from Australian e-government (and much else) guru @craigthomler (such is the power of the web – Washington USA to Canberra Australia to Aberdeen Scotland in less than 24 hours).

The title of Wolf’s post tells you what it’s about. If you’re not familiar with American usage you needed to know that over there a ‘government official’ means an elected politician not an employee as it does in the UK.

But in terms of learning lessons, that’s OK since the American system of government means their politicians (or many of them) are much more hands-on than their UK cousins and in many respects act more like a CEO as far as federal, state and local government employees are concerned.

Wolf’s article compares what a private sector manager at a DuPont plant and an elected official, the governor of New York State, say about leadership.

Leader No. 1 says

  • as a leader you don’t and shouldn’t make all decisions
  • developing people by teaching them to make choices rather than just telling them what to do is critical for an organisation
  • be clear on expectations and provide people feedback on how they’re doing
  • give people flexibility to figure out the best way to achieve the results sought.

Leader No. 2

  • ‘is unbelievably involved in almost everything. On one level, it’s very impressive because he’s a machine in the way he works. But it’s also completely paralysing and debilitating because [you] can’t go to the bathroom without him giving the go-ahead’
  • assumes everything people does is wrong.

Can you guess which is which?

One of Wolf’s readers comments

I have to say I admire [Leader No. 2]…I saw close up the results he left behind. They were actually very impressive. He had been a no nonsense leader who did not accept excuses for substandard results. He had overturned a great many apple carts, exposing the rotten fruit that had been hidden, and broke more than a few rice bowls in the process…Most of the staff did not particularly like him and let us know that as soon as we took over. He wasn’t there to be liked.  He was there to get results, which he did…If you want an old fashioned kick ass, take names and get results actual leader who will leave [the organisation] better than he found it, stick with [Leader No. 2].

‘Old fashioned kick ass.’ Don’t you love it?

Well, if you haven’t guessed already or you have and want to read more, you’ll have to get on over to GovLoop. Wolf is asking for people’s views on what he says, so you can tell him how much better things are in the UK…maybe.


Not for the first time, a British politician has turned, without acknowledgement, to the good old US of A for an idea. In his speech to this year’s Labour party conference shadow chancellor Ed Balls said:

because we all know there can be no post-election spending spree, in our first year in government we will hold a zero-based spending review that will look at every pound spent by government: carefully looking at what the Government can and cannot afford, rooting out waste and boosting productivity.

My advice, Ed, is don’t do it. Sorry, I’ll put that more cogently. DON’T DO IT.

At its simplest, zero-based budgeting (ZBB) takes every line of a budget, asks what would be the consequences if it did not exist, and seeks a justification for any spend beyond that. If you’re not familiar with ZBB, Wikipedia actually has quite a good article on it.

ZBB has been around for decades. It started in the private sector, where it seems to have been used to examine relatively limited support functions in companies.

Once the academics and politicians got hold of it, however, it became a major endeavour in the public sector.

As a public sector manager, I experienced the joys of ZBB myself with the following results

  • The whole thing became a major industry. I and my colleagues spent endless, fruitless hours trying to align detailed budgets with programmes, objectives and policies
  • Neither the data for ZBB nor the software to manipulate it was available
  • The nature of public sector ‘budget lines’ meant one manager was forced to justify spend on a few thousand pounds, another on a million pounds. Both budgets received equal treatment in analysis
  • On the well-known principle that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, no manager came forward with any proposal significantly different from the position that current levels of spend on their budgets were absolutely essential
  • When the politicians got hold of ZBB data to help them make decisions they found it virtually useless and the next year’s budgets for that organisation were hardly different from the last

ZBB was never used again in that organisation, although every now and then proponents who hadn’t sweated blood over the previous exercise had to be taken quietly on one side to be told the truth about it.

I have no doubt any advocates of ZBB will be sharpening their keyboards even now to rebut my experience. My challenge to them is two-fold.

First, read the 1997 US General Accounting Office (GAO) report called Performance Budgeting. Past Initiatives Offer Insights for GPRA Implementation and its devastating insight on ZBB.

Second, show me where and how ZBB is used successfully in the public sector in the UK. Not just rumours that someone in Ontario or Western Australia has found it helpful, but actual documented proof about current successful use here.  I’ll eat my (virtual) hat if you can.

Here’s my prediction of what will happen if Balls holds his zero-based spending review if and when he’s chancellor in a future Labour government

  • There will be major upheaval in the civil service to support the exercise, distracting them from more pressing tasks
  • It will cost a lot, more than will be admitted
  • Consultants (oh yes, them) will probably be bought in to complete the exercise
  • Balls will have even fewer friends amongst his ministerial colleagues, who will all be rooting for their department in the review
  • The whole thing will make very little difference, if any, to future government spend and it will be quietly dropped in the next year.

My helpful tip for Ed would be to check out the GAO report I mention above. You don’t even have to go to Appendix V on ZBB (pp. 46-51). Page 6 has all you need to know:

The implicit presumptions of…ZBB — that systematic analysis of options could substitute for political judgment — ultimately proved unsustainable.

Enjoy!


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.