UK readers will have noticed a juror in England has been in trouble for exchanging messages on Facebook with a defendant in a criminal trial.

Hot on the heels of this news comes a timely piece from BBC journalist Marie Jackson – Facebook: Five things to avoid.

Her list includes

  • Don’t make friends with people you shouldn’t
  • Don’t moan about your boss/customers/constituents
  • Don’t upload dodgy photos
  • Don’t enjoy your sick leave too much
  • Don’t spill secrets.

Quite a proportion of her examples involve the public sector one way or another – not only the criminal trial mentioned above but a prison officer, politicians of all main UK parties, the head of MI6, and members of the armed forces.

Of course, indiscretion is nothing new.  I remember in my youth being gently chided by the director of the local authority department I worked in for some unkind reference to management in a union newsletter I edited, forgetting that senior managers were members of the same union.  Indeed they might share my concerns and it didn’t help if I implied they had the leadership qualities of Genghis Khan.  It was all the more embarrassing because in truth they didn’t and I had meant to sound off about some national pay issue.

I hope I learnt from that episode.  Unfortunately, the forum for learning from indiscretions these days is not a cosy one-to-one with an older and wiser colleague but the worldwide exposure of the web, enhanced by instant media interest.


[Non-UK readers: Vauxhall = GM]

Tale No. 1 – several years ago

A while ago I attended an inspirational talk by the then local Vauxhall dealer who applied systems thinking in her business.  She walked onto the stage carrying a large holdall.

“We’re going to start with a bit of exercise,” she said.  “I’ve got some balls in here.  I’m going to pass  some down to you and I’d like you to just throw them around the room to each other.”

She took out a tennis ball and lobbed it into the audience then followed with a ping pong ball, a child’s football, a soft woolly ball and a few others.  Soon the hall was like a Wimbledon warm-up, balls being thrown everywhere, general amusement at poor passes, creative lobs and so on.

“Stop now,” she said and took out the largest, heaviest size of 10-pin bowl from the holdall.  “Who wants me to throw this at them?”

There was silence.

“Well,” she said “what if these balls were customers?  Because this is what we do to them – pass them from pillar to post.  It’s great fun.  And how would you deal with this heavy customer?”

It was an effective demonstration of the traditional way in which companies (and public agencies) treat customers.  She then went on, of course, to show the better way her company tried to practice.

Tale No. 2 – yesterday

I attempted to check if my car’s service at my current Vauxhall dealer had been completed, a phone call from them having been promised but not received by 4.50 p.m. (earlier in the day they had laboriously taken three separate phone numbers from me “so we can phone you when it’s ready”).  This is what happened.

Dial number.  Long wait

Dealer reception (DR): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: Service reception please

Line cuts to upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover extolling virtues of used car deals, urging me to contact “the sales team”.  A long wait

Mystery voice (MV) (accompanied by loud scratchy sounds):  Mmmmph, chrccctch, I mmmmph, cchhhrrrg…

Me: Is that service reception?

MV: Mmmmph, chrccctch, mmmmph…

Me: This is a really bad line.  I’m afraid I can’t hear you properly

MV (irritated): Mmmmph, chrccctch, I’m a customer chrccctch I’m waiting to speak to someone

Me: Me too.  What a cock up.  I’ll put the phone down and dial again

Dial number again.  Another long wait

DR: XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: I was just trying to get through to service reception and I seemed to get another customer who was waiting too

DR:  Oh.  I’ll put you through now

Line cuts to same upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover etc etc.  Another long wait

DR (again): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: You were putting me through to service reception but I’ve come back to you

DR: Oh, I don’t know how I keep losing you.  I’ll try again

More annoying music and sales pitch.  Service reception eventually answer phone and claim they’re “just working on the paperwork” and my car’s ready for collection.


I don’t need to labour the difference between these two tales.  Suffice it say that I bought a Vauxhall from the previous dealer solely on the strength of what she’d said in her presentation.  The sales process was immaculate, no hassle, complete honesty about my trade-in, none of that edginess car sales people usually induce.  On the one occasion there was a significant problem with my new car they couldn’t sort the service manager came out with me for a test drive to see if he could detect the problem.  He couldn’t but said to call him directly if it recurred and he’d ensure it was dealt with straight away.  I believed him.

A couple of years later this dealer gave up their franchise.  Their approach didn’t fit the GM model and its bureaucracy – now go back and re-read Tale No. 2 for the current situation.

On the usual issue for this blog of “So what’s this got to do with the public sector?” I’d invite any public servants to draw their own conclusions.  When I worked in councils I certainly picked up the phone more than once to receive the frustrated cry “You’re the 3rd, 4th, 5th…person I’ve been passed on to.”  Oh, and by the way, a call centre isn’t the answer – not unless you get your processes, and your culture, right (back to Tale No. 2 again).

…but it pours.

If there’s one thing that’s almost as bad as the faux survey carried out by PR people for companies seeking to generate publicity (see my post on Public sector workers unemployable – shock, horror), it’s the research carried out by think tanks seeking, er, to generate publicity.

This last week brings the latest example to knock the public sector, from the Policy Exchange (“David Cameron’s favourite think tank”) – Public and private sector terms, conditions and the issue of fairness.

This effort was widely reported in the media over the weekend.  Google News lists 142 articles so far.

The premise of the research is that

public sector pay is higher and continued to grow faster than private sector pay during 2010 and that significant reforms will need to be made to limit job losses in the public sector and to achieve equity and fairness in the labour market.

As with many of these things the conclusions and the inevitable recommendations (end national strike balloting in the public sector; replace the two-year pay freeze with a paybill freeze; reform public sector pensions) are reached after a cursory trot around a complex series of data sets.

Without spending a lot of time on the detail and seeking the views of those better qualified than me in the field of labour market statistics, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of providing a reasoned critique of this work on the day (as I write) that this came to my attention thanks to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

In the meantime, of course, 142 – as we know thanks to Google – mainly UK media outlets have summarised and punted the findings in a mainly uncritical way, with the main countervailing viewpoint coming from the TUC who are just about as objective as the Policy Exchange, but in another direction.

And it’s out there in the public consciousness.  That vague feeling that yet again the public sector has been proven to be (choose your adjectives) bloated, inefficient, out of touch, unsustainable, etc. etc.

It’s a shame because reform, in all sorts of things, is needed in the public sector.

It’s just that a first examination of this particular work doesn’t provide the conclusive evidence that would lead to the particular proposals the Policy Exchange comes up with.

For example

  • Much of the analysis is based on a remuneration premium the authors claim public sector workers enjoy compared with the private sector.  Put simply this is a higher pay rate per hour for similar work
  • The main comparisons are made for 2009 and 2010 when the gap in pay rates between the two sectors is said to have widened for all levels of pay (except interestingly at the highest managerial level where the private sector has the edge)
  • Tucked away towards the end of the publication, and uncommented on for this purpose, is a table showing longer term trends in the public/private sector pay relationship between 1997 and 2010 demonstrating that between 1997 and 2003/04 the private sector enjoyed the pay premium.  This is followed by the authors’ own projections which show that if the current public sector pay freeze is maintained the current public sector premium will decrease and give way (or return) to a private sector premium by 2016/17, i.e. in five years time.  Which suggests there is some truth in my own conclusion that public and private sector pay relativities are both cyclical but at different times (see for example my earlier post on New year, hard times – public sector pay revisited)
  • In order to make sense (or not) of the analysis, you’ll need without much help from the authors to get to grips with some subtle statistical definitions like median gross, mean, median, hourly median, nominal change, and 10th, 25th, 90th etc. percentile
  • You’ll also have to take on trust that when they compare particular categories of worker in the two sectors, for example, housekeepers and related occupations, therapists, and security managers they are comparing apples with apples and not apples with pears
  • Interestingly, taking the comparability of these occupations at face value the evidence is not always as conclusive as the authors suggest.  For example, the median annual pay for sports and leisure attendants in 2010 was all of £162  more in the public sector, a whopping 1.6%, while the median pay of electronics engineers was actually a modest £3,500 or 8% higher in the private sector. Am I getting my percentages confused here or are they?
  • Some of the occupations exemplified do not allow easy comparison.  For example, how many policemen (sergeant or below) (sic) are employed in the private sector?

Was there ever a think tank with a political or ideological affiliation that found evidence to contradict its fundamental beliefs?  There was a reason that Private Eye many years ago dubbed the first ever Prime Ministerial think tank, “Ted Heath’s wank tank”.  Crude but telling.

No wait.  Don’t go away.  It’s not the end of this blog.  More about saying goodbye generally.

You see, I was challenged (see footnote) to write about Leaving or seeing a colleague leave public service due to the cuts.

I don’t want to get too personal about this.  This is not about Fred or Sue or even me.  It’s about all the reluctant goodbyes I’ve seen over the years – remember, there’s the cuts today but there’ve been cuts on other occasions as older readers who lived through the Thatcher years will remember.

There’s a way to go and a way to let them go.

So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned.  All are based on what I’ve have seen or experienced.

Employers and managers

Have the guts to speak to them personally.  Don’t let them know by letter or even worse e-mail.

Don’t call them in and start your We’ve got to let you go speech with “This is going to be a difficult meeting for me.”

Don’t say “They’ve screwed enough out of this organisation.  There’ll be no farewell gifts.”

Once you’ve been persuaded that it’s appropriate to mark their departure with a modest presentation don’t give them all the same inappropriate farewell gift of an alarm clock.  (Both this and the previous point happened to colleagues of mine in a London Borough)

Do something – whatever it is – to make your reluctant leavers at least feel you’ve done what you had to as decently and ethically as possible.

Don’t ask them back to do voluntary work (as an English police force just has by asking redundant officers to sign up as special constables).

Reluctant leavers

It’s not you.  It’s the system.  And even if you feel you’ve been picked on who’s the better person for it – you or them?

Don’t lose your dignity and self-respect.  You will get through it.

If you’re given more than one option think the pros and cons of each through carefully.  The first you think of taking may not be the best.

If there’s any support going from your employer take it, whether it’s a brought-forward pre-retirement course, outplacement support or anything else.

Maybe most difficult of all, but get over it.  After you’ve ranted and raved (in private) lock any remaining bile in a small box in your brain and bring it out sparingly until it disappears for ever.

This is Topic 7 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development. 

Someone challenged me to write about why partnerships that public agencies enter into fail (see footnote).  It was only too easy to work up a long list of reasons but here it is – messy, overlapping and lacking in rigour.  Just like many partnerships.


  • Lack of leadership – no champion at political, board or management committee level who understands (or cares) how partnerships succeed
  • Lack of genuine commitment – “We’ll join so we’re not left out”, “The chair’s had her arm twisted” etc.  See also Going though the motions…
  • Unwillingness to compromise – missing the point completely of working together with other organisations and groups
  • Lack of budget – which reduces any partnership to no more than a talking shop
  • Lack of devolved responsibility/complex decision making structures – the partner that has to refer everything back for a decision; the partnership that cannot delegate within its own structures
  • Lack of dedicated staff – when everyone involved is also doing their day job and no one is wholly associated with the work of the partnership
  • Poor governance – lack of openness, poorly documented discussions and decisions, lack of budgetary control, poor or no ground rules for making decisions, no accountability back to partners
  • Going through the motions in response to some external demand – usually from central government, and usually because a partnership is required to access money (often a modest amount)
  • Central government hasn’t got its act together – different sponsoring departments give different messages to their agencies about the importance of a partnership
  • Different partners speak different languages – their jargon, acronyms and assumed understanding.  Councils talk of “members”, the police of “gold, silver and bronze command”, the NHS of “PAFs”
  • Different cultures – from the emergency services where command and control and uniforms are the norm and everyone’s instincts are to address more senior colleagues as “sir/ma’am” to the raffish informality of some local government professions and charities where everyone is on first name terms
  • Different processes and procedures – different or no plans and planning cycles, different financial rules, different ways of measuring and improving performance
  • One partner too dominant – when some partners say of another “Well, it’s really their partnership isn’t it?”
  • Arrogance – “We know best”, sometimes hidden beneath a veneer of hypocrisy which is however only too visible to other partners
  • Lack of equality in the partnership – partners bring different levels of understanding and scale to the table.  But if some are seen as less than equal (“Just a small charity, only an unelected community rep…”) they’ll behave exactly as they’re treated
  • Unclear objectives – the idea that We ought to do it and It’s a good idea but with no clear sense of Why
  • Timing – not knowing when to start or when to stop.  Either can be done too soon, too late or never
  • The partnership is too big or too small – too big and it’s an all-singing all-dancing conference unable to take decisions, too small and important potential partners are excluded
  • Unrealistic high expectations – not an error it has to be said made by those with experience of partnership working
  • Lack of trust – well with all the other reasons for failure it’s not surprising is it?

The good news is that every reason for failure can be rewritten as a reason for success – leadership, genuine commitment, willingness to compromise and so on.  And even if your partnership is in danger of failing you can tackle the reasons for its lack of success.

Why do you think partnerships fail?

This is Topic 6 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development. Ingrid suggested as a title Collaboration blockers – what stops or slows successful collaboration which is what this is about but with a snappier title

Prompted by a Tweet on the challenge of staffing an exhibition stand, I posted a while back on Stuff they never tell you. I used the public sector example of working with politicians.  People seemed to like it so it got me thinking about other things they don’t tell you at work.

Here’s my top ten.  Feel free to add your own.  Just press Leave a comment if you’re on the home page or Leave a reply if you’ve dived into this post directly.

  1. When the boss says “My door is always open” he doesn’t mean it
  2. The caretaker is one of the most important people in the building
  3. In the lift (elevator) when you say “I’ve been here two years and I still haven’t seen the b****y director” the elderly gent in the corner is him
  4. You may have thought you worked hard at college but it’s never as tiring as paid work
  5. The happiest people can be the most unlikely and there is no correlation to what they earn
  6. Both the best and the worst things are invisible
  7. Strength is not the same as power
  8. At some time you will forget your password
  9. No one retires and sighs “Aaahh, I wish I’d spent more time in the office”
  10. The good old days were not.  They were always worse.

I heard the other day about a council that has a no bad news policy.

The idea sounded intriguing if not challenging in these straitened times when there’s so much, er, bad news for councils.

It led me to pondering the question of who should speak truth to power.

In any organisation that’s got its culture* right it shouldn’t be a problem.  The wisdom of its leaders will make them want to seek the truth no matter what it is, who knows it or how uncomfortable it is.  Only by knowing the truth can wrong things be stopped and problems dealt with.

How many organisations (public, private or voluntary sectors) are like this?  Not I suspect one with a no bad news policy.

Who in those organisations, and in the no bad news council, speaks truth to power?


1. * – my definition of culture?  Nothing high falutin’.  Simply the answer to the question How do you do things around here?

2. “The phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ goes back to 1955, when the American Friends Service Committee published Speak Truth to Power, a pamphlet that proposed a new approach to the Cold War” – Glossary of Quaker Terms and Phrases