Once upon a time, there was a wee girl who lived in a beautiful part of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

The school she went to was in a lovely new building that overlooked a sea loch near an old village.

The wee girl was very interested in writing.  One day her teacher asked everyone in her class to do a writing project.  She asked her mum and dad for ideas and decided to write a ‘blog’ about her school dinners.

With some help from her dad she started the blog, thinking that her family and maybe the children she went to school with might be interested in it.  Because it was about food she also asked anyone who read it to give some money to a charity that provided school dinners for children in poor countries.

It was a clever idea.  She took a photo of her school dinner each day, gave it a score on something she invented called a Food-o-meter and said what she thought about the food.

Of course, she didn’t like some of what she had to eat, even though she could choose from different things.  But children are like that everywhere.  And sometimes she said things like ‘Lunch was really nice today’ and ‘The fajita was lovely.’

Then some funny things started to happen.

Children from other countries began to send her photos of their own school dinners.  She put them on her blog and said what she thought about the photos.

More and more people started to look at what she wrote and eventually she was asked with her dad to visit a famous chef who was talking about school dinners.

The next day something terrible happened.

A newspaper from a big city wrote about her visit to the famous chef.  They had a headline that said ‘Time to fire the dinner ladies,’ something the wee girl and her dad had never said and was a very lazy and stupid thing to write.

Her school had been happy when she started the blog but now of course the poor dinner ladies were upset and afraid for their jobs.

The council, who ran the school she went to, wasn’t as clever as it could have been and said she couldn’t take photos of her dinners any more.  She was called out of a lesson to be told this, which wasn’t perhaps the most sensible thing to do, because children don’t like that and it might have been a good idea to tell her dad first.

Well, you wouldn’t believe the fuss it all caused.

The TV, radio and other newspapers all found out what was going on.  Suddenly what had happened was news throughout the world.  Millions of people looked at her blog and thousands tweeted about it.  People started to say that the ban on her taking photos was silly.

Within a day the council had to change its mind and said she could still take photos.  Unfortunately, by then people had started to write all sorts of unkind things about them.  Some puppets from Glasgow even sung a song about the council!

An important man from the council called the ‘leader’ said he would meet the wee girl and her dad and ‘seek her continued engagement,’ which was a strange thing to say to a wee girl.

Children, fairy tales are funny things.  They teach you lessons, if you think about them, but they don’t always have happy endings.  This fairy tale hasn’t ended yet.  What do you think its lessons will be?  Do you think it will have a happy ending for anyone and if so, who?

Also worth reading – Adrian Short’s more technical analysis of the council’s original press release on this subject (now disappeared from their web site)

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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.


A Tweet brought me a link today to the HR Zone web site and an article called Does management by metrics work?  It begins

On the frame of my kitchen door are marks of the heights of my children, and now grandchildren, with names and dates written down over the course of years…

Unfortunately I can’t tell you how it goes on.  It’s described as a blog post.  But the web site concerned only lets you read its blogs if you register (without cost, to be fair) and I don’t like that principle.

So I don’t know what author John Pope thinks.

But since the HR Zone is about, er HR, and since I know what I think, I’ll finish his article for him.  And you don’t have to register to have the benefit of my views.

On the frame of John Pope’s kitchen door are marks of the heights of his children, and now grandchildren, with names and dates written down over the course of years.

How he uses this information I don’t know.  But like I guess most families we did the same.

  • It was fun for our three girls
  • We all shared a sense of pride in seeing how fast they were growing up
  • It was very visible – we could all see it all the time
  • It was an economical use of resources – no computer or software needed, not even a book to record the data in, just a pencil and a wall (and a tape measure if you wanted to make checking the height into a pain-free arithmetic lesson).

What we didn’t do was

  • Use the information as a measure of each daughter’s performance in growing, which at least we as parents knew was due to a whole range of factors entirely outside their control
  • Punish them if they didn’t grow between measurements – “You’ve only grown 2 cm in the last quarter Sophie.  No pet guinea pig until you do much better”
  • Set up a database on our home computer to analyse progress
  • Set them growth targets
  • Make the exercise competitive – “Your sister’s grown 4cm in the last six months when you’ve only grown 2.  If you don’t catch up she’ll get your sweeties”
  • Even less did we dispose of any daughter who wasn’t growing for a while by ‘letting them go’, offering them for fostering or adoption.

Yet these are the things, in effect, that many organisations do who’ve adopted the performance management approach to their staff.

You know it won’t work with your children, why would it work with your employees?

[Since I don’t like blogs that want you to register before you can read them I’m – exceptionally – not including a link to the HR Zone.  But you can doubtless find it if you want.]


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.


It’s extraordinary how one situation can throw light on another in ways completely unintended.

I’ve had more than one go at the ineffably feeble Directgov web site (starting with Government web sites can be bad for your health).  Despite a review by Martha Lane Fox announced a year ago it still exists.  Moreover to show government is up to speed with all this newfangled technology it has a Twitter feed which advertises itself as

Information and practical advice about public services.

Wonderful.

What better place to counter the much-publicised use of social media by rioters in London and other English cities over the last three days, 6 – 8 August?

Here’s the “information and practical advice” the Directgov Twitter feed has offered an eager citizenry over the last five days.

5 August

  • A Tweet that says A map showing publicly-owned property has been published. These include pubs, an airport and four football stadiums http://bit.ly/asset_map [five days later there’s probably slightly less publicly-owned property in London than the government’s map plotted, although that’s by the by]

Silence until

9 August

(after three days of disturbances), then in quick succession

1121 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on duty tonight in London, says PM

1122 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on duty tonight in London, says PM #londonriots

1126 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on the streets of London tonight, says PM #londonriots

Do you see what’s happening?

The answer is, they haven’t got a clue.

To spell it out.

  • Three days of major public disturbance pass and not a word.  This at a time when Twitter is humming with tens of thousands of Tweets (good, bad, ugly, fearful and totally bemused) about the situation
  • On day 4 a message appears about the number of police officers who will be on duty in London that night
  • One minute later someone realises that there’s something called hashtags and that’s how you get attention on Twitter.  So out comes Tweet reissue No. 1 with a hashtag
  • Four minutes later someone (the same alert public servant?) realises that “on duty” may sound a bit weak (on duty behind desks?) and that the extra officers will actually be on the streets.  So Tweet reissue No.2 emerges with amended wording.

By the way you probably won’t find the first two Tweets on the subject because they’ve been deleted from the Directgov Twitter stream.  But not before they were sitting in my timeline and those of the other 19,362 benighted souls who follow Directgov.

How’s that review going, Martha?


Q: Why is so much of the time of probation officers [up to 75%] spent carrying out admin and other tasks rather than seeing offenders?

A (Committee chair Sir Alan Beith): It was micro-management.  It was box ticking.  It was all the things we’ve come to associate with a target culture and which really do need to be changed.

R4 Today programme  27 July 2011

Three cheers for the House of Commons Justice Committee and their report published yesterday on the probation service in England and Wales.  A thorough examination of a challenging subject.

Some of their conclusions are worth quoting

  • It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders…
  • probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS (National Offenders’ Management Service) to provide trusts with greater autonomy…
  • It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly…
  • Trusts…need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year…
  • There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority…
  • The creation of NOMS…has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders…
  • sentencers’ hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions…
  • The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers…

There’s much more but this will do to set the context for the point that regular readers would expect HelpGov to make.

Once you get over the jargon that all areas of work spawn you realise that “end to end offender management” is just another system and needs to be treated as such, so that there is a common and correct understanding of

  • what the system is
  • the processes it uses
  • communication within the system
  • culture and trust
  • consistency vs discretion
  • and the other essential attributes of a system.

The Justice Committee’s report is good on the diagnosis of the problems.  In many respects its prescription provides the basis for a cure of the ills it describes.  Let’s hope the government’s demands for a commissioner-provider split in delivery doesn’t thwart the intention.  And that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t get distracted by louder voices and other priorities.


I was challenged a while ago to blog about this subject (see footnote).  On the basis that the longer any such list the less chance of it being read, here are my top ten lessons from failed projects, learnt from bitter experience.  I draw a veil over the projects I have been involved with or, more often, observed that make up the bitter experience.

  1.  Make sure you know what you want to achieve.  Only change your objectives with care (NATO intervention in Afghanistan?)
  2. Work out how much you can and should spend and keep very close tabs on it
  3. Every project has that bit that’s the muddle in the middle.  Recognise it when it happens and sort it
  4. In particular, recognise the tipping point when a decision needs to be made whether to continue or abandon.  Don’t let things get to a stage at which people say “Well, we’ve got no other choice now” (Edinburgh tram project?)
  5. Let your people work on new and innovative stuff but don’t let them grow commitment surreptitiously beyond the tipping point
  6. Question and challenge at every step but in a supportive way.  Get the culture right to allow question and challenge
  7. Use project management disciplines wisely but not slavishly.  Beware Greeks bearing gifts in the form of full-blown PRINCE2 (Projects In a Controlled Environment – a project management methodology originally developed by the UK Ministry of Defence, renowned for their world-class skills in this area)
  8. Identify all the important groups critical to the success of the project.  Get buy in from them and make sure you keep it
  9. Involve the people who are going to have to make the implemented project work.  They’re probably at or close to the frontline of your organisation and usually have the capability to subvert anything they don’t like
  10. If it doesn’t have a clear endpoint, it’s not a project.

This is Topic 8 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler, formerly of Local Government Improvement and Development