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.

It’s a drama a minute isn’t it?  I refer to the UK coalition, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats bound together in government, they hope, for five years.  The latest make-or-break, maybe, is the reform of the House of Lords.

Just after the UK general election in May 2010 I blogged a list of ten tips for a successful coalition offered by Jack (now Lord) McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland.

For those outwith Scotland, it’s helpful to know that our own devolved parliament was designed with a system of proportional representation to ensure no one political party could ever have a simple majority (the sceptics said ‘designed by the Westminster Labour government to ensure that the SNP could never have a simple majority’ – they do now, but that’s another story) and adversaries would have to compromise to make it work.

Unlike Westminster, the parliamentary chamber is semi-circular and so less adversarial – no forbidden lines at a sword’s length to stay behind and no baying like animals at each other across the divide.

And none of the archaic practices of Westminster that traditionalists love but which often seem to hinder efficient and effective government – MSPs vote by pressing a button (shock, horror) and seem to manage perfectly well without crowding into a lobby like sheep to be counted with the result announced by tellers with the cry ‘The ayes have it.’

So the Scottish experience, and McConnell’s, who led a Labour/Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood, might have something to teach a parliament struggling to govern through coalition for the first time in generations.

These are McConnell’s ten tips repeated, with my comments and outsider’s score out of ten for how they’re doing so far

  1. Leaders must have personal trust – Cameron and Clegg made a good start but seem a lot tetchier with each other now (Clegg’s body language sat next to the PM in parliament is instructive) although there’s no obvious briefing against each other, unlike the dearly departed Tony and Gordon SCORE 7/10
  2. Agree a clear policy programme and priorities and stick to it – I’d love to see a serious analysis of progress on the coalition’s programme for government (I certainly don’t have the resources to do it) but pending that the picture seems a mixed one.  Notwithstanding points 3. 5. and 6. below there seem to have been occasions (Michael Gove’s school exam reforms?) that are not only off-programme but also seem to have been a surprise to others in the coalition.  And although the coalition’s agreed programme has a very clear proposal for House of Lords reform (p.27) now push has come to shove lots of stroppy Tory backbenchers want to treat that as an optional extra to be discarded SCORE 6/10
  3. As in any successful relationship, compromise is necessary – sometimes challenging, many Conservative MPs especially don’t quite seem to have got the point SCORE 5/10
  4. Every partnership has disagreements so it is important that there is a clear dispute resolution mechanism in place, one that is understood and accepted by both sides – not sure about this.  Is this what Cameron/Clegg/Osborne and Alexander do?  Any Westminster insiders care to make a judgement? SCORE 6/10?
  5. Governments need to be flexible, to respond to new opportunities as well as unexpected events – a tricky one.  Where Labour (and others) claim lack of flexibility in economic matters the coalition seems to be holding their agreed line and lack of flexibility doesn’t seem to be an issue between the two parties SCORE 5½/10?
  6. Use the agreed programme as a guide, not a straitjacket – see 5.
  7. Sometimes coalition partners need to go their separate ways – and they have on occasion, but it needs to be without surprising your partner SCORE 6/10
  8. People leave a political party in a coalition for all sorts of reasons and a partnership must be robust enough to cope with that – not a big issue yet as no major defections to other parties UNSCORED
  9. All for one and one for all. A coalition government must have collective responsibility and ministers across the political divide must accept this discipline – they say all political animals are either herbivores or carnivores.  My impression is that the Conservatives have a few carnivore ministers who would really like to tuck into a Lib Dem or two.  Their back benchers are worse SCORE 7/10
  10. Finally, never forget the electorate.  SCORE – NOT POSSIBLE UNTIL THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION

Looking at this I’m surprised some of my scores are as high as they are.  Perhaps thinking seriously about each of McConnell’s tips forces me to discard much of the media froth that surrounds politics and is constantly looking for failure and negativity.

After two years of coalition government I think I’d like to add another tip to Jack McConnell’s list

Ensure you have a political system that enables and supports coalition working

In this case the system is the Westminster parliamentary system and I’m afraid it has been found seriously wanting SCORE 4/10.

What do you think?

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

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.

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

Not so long ago I was walking home with my partner just after 11 p.m. one Friday from a pleasant visit to the cinema in a well-off medium sized UK city that shall remain nameless, although my experience will be recognised by readers across these British Isles.

The main drag is a wide and even architecturally distinguished street and was busy with mainly young people out for the evening.

In sequence  as it happened we

  • had to step round a mixed male-female group probably in their 20s engaged in a loud and apparently alcohol-fuelled conversation where the adjective “fucking” (sorry, but if I hear this frequently in the streets at all hours why shouldn’t you have to face it in the privacy of your own web browser?) floated out above the general hubbub
  • swerved to avoid a splash of vomit by a shop door
  • ditto a broken bottle next to (not in) a waste bin
  • got bumped by a youth proceeding in a stagger with his pals along the pavement (“Sorry love” he called over his shoulder to my slightly shaken partner)
  • passed a small group of uneasy looking pensioners waiting in a bus shelter trying to appear inconspicuous , and
  • spotted a middle-aged man urinating against a wall in a side street.

That probably not untypical experience came to mind when I read a report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary called Antisocial Behaviour – stop the rot.

My experience was trivial compared with some of the behaviour that the report rightly calls this blight on people’s lives.

The main thrust is that the police response to this sort of stuff, already mixed at best, is what gets cut in hard times but mustn’t be.

Coming at it (obviously) from a police perspective the report identifies three things that work:

  1. briefings on anti-social behaviour for all staff likely to deal with the issue (including neighbourhood, response and CID officers)
  2. tacking what is happening locally using data and intelligence
  3. problem-solving capacity in neighbourhood policing teams.

And it says two things tend not to work:

  1. graded police response systems that prioritise calls for attendance or non-attendance
  2. lengthy partnership processes.

There’s an interesting diagram in the report showing the relationship between harm and frequency of different sorts of anti-social behaviour (you may need to click on it to read the small print).

Just think of the partnership aspects of some of these.  Apart from the police they can involve

  • intimidation – registered social landlords (RSLs)
  • race hate – local authority, RSLs (again), Equalities and Human Rights Commission
  • noisy neighbour – local authority: environmental health, social services
  • drunk – licensing board, NHS, ambulance service
  • teens – education service, social services
  • vandalism and litter – local authority: environmental services
  • abandoned vehicles – Highways Agency, local authority: transportation, environmental services.

The list is partial.  And all of course potentially involve other players in the criminal justice system.

The report says there are some worrying indications that some partnerships are much less effective than accepted wisdom would have it citing:

  • significantly variable standards of service, with some delivering only marginal benefits
  • some are focussed on working together, not working for the public
  • some focus on strategy rather than delivery
  • many interventions take significant amounts of time to be delivered
  • an escalation of interventions, coupled with a culture of meetings, means that some problems are not gripped and as a result victimisation continues
  • the focus in many is on the strategy and process rather than the victim’s experience
  • there is little in the way of testing the value for money in approaches undertaken.

HMIC inevitably link this to community safety partnerships but to this old hand all these characteristics ring true of much partnership working across the public sector.

The report concludes that there are two alternative approaches to this blight.  One it characterises as damage limitation, which would include better partnerhip working.

The other it describes as

an early intervention strategy, similar to those in health and education sectors. It will require reform of police availability and a refocusing on what causes harm in communities, rather than what is or is not a “crime”, or what can be managed out of police systems.

To me that sounds like a need for even more effective partnership working, and not only across the public sector – not to mention trying to get to the root causes of the various behaviours.  Big society and localism, here we come.

Footnote: quote from Sir Denis O’Connor chief inspector of constabulary on BBC TV today – “Parts of town centres are now being left in the evening as surrendered territory”