Phew! Talk about being caught out – see my post yesterday about the graffiti appearing on municipal buildings in Aberdeen overnight.

Caught out because I seem to have missed a whole political sub-text to these scribbles.

I taxed the mystery graffttist with lacking education because of their mis-spelling of ‘Wield’ as ‘Weild.’ A Facebook friend tells me:

methinks they have, in part, found education in the pages of graphic novels such as ‘V for Vendetta’…it’s also a film. Anarchists recently used main character ‘V’s mask. Lots of quotes in Olde English and refs to Guy Fawkes.

Ahh, now I get it, sort of.

The mystery was further alleviated by today’s local Press and Journal newspaper, which explains the Marischal College reference could be to a letter distributed anonymously to farmers during the Swing Riots in England in 1830 – they were mechanising their farms and making labourers redundant:

Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions. Ye have not done as ye ought.

This is either exciting or scary or pathetic stuff according to your point of view.

At the pathetic end of the scale I think our local protester has somewhat misunderstood the role of councillors as ‘weilders’ [sic] of power and blackguard enemies of the people.

Councillors did not send our armed forces to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Councillors did not manipulate financial markets on a massive scale to cause the current economic crisis. And they are scarcely responsible for climate change.

On the other hand, if the graffitist is concerned about the mechanisation of council work it’s a lost battle. Quill pens and ledgers were replaced by computers a long time ago.

The other tit-bit in today’s Press and Journal was that similar graffiti have appeared on the Aberdeen University campus.

So are you drawing the conclusion I am?

Yep, could be a student. Perhaps the combined resources of city-centre CCTV footage, Police Scotland and University security staff will deliver the answer soon. But they’d better get a move on because the young people will  all disappear on their summer hols soon.

To be continued (maybe) …

Footnote: never thought I’d add ‘anarchy’ to my list of tags but I have.

Update 14 November 2013 I was taken to task by someone commenting on this post for saying that the Marischal College graffitist ‘could be a student.’ The local media reported today that someone has pleaded guilty to vandalising the College and other buildings. He is … a student. The council says it cost them £10,000 to remove the offending words. Social reports are awaited before sentencing.


I noticed today that Police Scotland are looking for the idiot who scrawled this graffito (HelpGov is nothing if not grammatically correct) on the façade of Aberdeen City Council’s headquarters, the wonderful and newly-restored Marischal College.

The ‘Ye’ bit suggests the perpetrator aspires to at least some learning and that the admonition may be a quotation from somewhere historical. But a Google search, while throwing up various biblical possibilities, didn’t recognise the actual words.

Given that this is Scotland and there’s an independence referendum next year (you hadn’t heard?) I toyed with the scribbler having a national or nationalistic purpose. Notice I don’t say which nation, so no rude comments please. They’ll only be blocked.

There are also numerous local possibilities about his concerns ranging from a new ring road to the state of our main shopping street to a disputed roundabout to new bus lane cameras to…

Perhaps The Idiot might like to submit the answer. I’ll be happy to publish it complete with his name.

To my surprise, my tweet on the subject was almost instantly re-tweeted by an English council chief executive (thanks @Relhyde) and that presumed fellow-feeling got me thinking about what it is that councils have not yet done as they ought.

Here’s my top list of things councils have not yet done as they ought.

  • Ye have not yet kept all the people happy all the time
  • Ye have not yet proven that democracy is not merely a good system of government but, yea, it is perfect
  • Ye have not yet squared every problem that doth present itself as a circle
  • Ye have not yet overcome an ever decreasing treasury in order to meet all demands upon your services
  • Ye have not yet insinuated yourself into the mind of every citizen that doth own a dog in order that canine defecation in your public places is entirely unknown
  • Ye have not yet conducted all your affairs in a state of complete harmony, unlike every other public institution in this United Kingdom of ours
  • Ye have not yet understood that ye are simultaneously too large and too small, too rich and too poor, and too arrogant and too supine
  • Ye have not yet reversed climate change, increased the longevity of your citizens’ lives, eliminated social exclusion nor solved any of the other small issues that are entirely reasonably laid at your door

Footnote: I have just read that another scrawl appeared in the same hand overnight on the nearby Council Town House – Weilders [sic] of Power Beware. Well that blows my theory about the perpetrator ‘s education.

There was an interesting if tetchy exchange between UK Government minister and Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps and Clive Betts, Labour MP and chair of the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday (10 January).

The Committee has just published a comprehensive and thorough report on the future role of councillors which says amongst much else that remuneration and support for local government councillors should be increased. People are reluctant to stand as councillors because the compensation is so low and the average age of councillors is now sixty.

In his loaded contribution to a patchy discussion Shapps described councillors as ‘volunteers’ five times.

…councillors are brilliant volunteers for their community…councillors shouldn’t be on paid terms and conditions…on the basis that they’re volunteers and volunteers aren’t usually paid…volunteering for your community and being involved in the neighbourhood you live in is I think a very important role for people…on the same basis of Clive Betts’ argument you would start to pay volunteerss in every different walk of life…like Scout leaders.

They say everyone writes the history that suits their purpose but this is pernicious nonsense, and Shapps should know it.

The equation of councillors with Scout leaders (and any other sort of volunteer) is complete bilge. Councillors have a role defined in statute, are democratically elected to public office, nearly all spend a lot of time doing the work often at unsocial hours, and are responsible, even in these straitened times, for major spending of public money. They are subject to a whole raft of requirements unlike volunteers. Anyone heard of a Scout leader who publishes their financial interests in a statutory register?

If councillors are volunteers then so are MPs, 100 of whom have just told polling organisation YouGov that on average they deserve a pay increase of 32%! Apparently Conservative MPs thought they were most deserving of more money. Nice money if you can get it guys.

The Shapps rewriting of history – and law – just doesn’t stack up. I hope Conservative councillors up and down the land are having a quiet word in his shell-like ear.

Today is Blog Action Day and HelpGov is taking part for the third year running.

As a believer in the just-in-time philosophy as a way to do work I have followed my traditional course of only thinking about what I’d write at the last minute.

And not for the first time I had my Eureka moment in the shower this morning as BBC radio news reported that UK prime minister David Cameron and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond were meeting today to agree the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence.

Those of you who’ve dipped in to the HelpGov blog before may have picked up that I have a view on the subject. But that’s not for now.

And the ‘We’ of this post are not Dave and Alex.

The point is that they are both elected leaders in a democratic system and they both have a mandate from the electorate to pursue certain policies.

In both cases you could argue it’s an imperfect mandate – electoral turnout, proportion of the population who voted for their party, for Cameron the indeterminate result of the last UK general election and the resulting coalition.

But who said it was perfect?

Not Winston Churchill, who famously wrote

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Or even British novelist E M Forster, who wrote a book of essays called Two Cheers for Democracy.

The United States constitution famously begins

We the People

Of course it could have gone on to say ‘We the People, in all our messy, fractious, indifferent and sometimes hostile ways…’

But as a justification for political action democracy is as good as it gets for me.

That’s why Norway was able to separate from Sweden without a war. Why the Czech and Slovak Republics formed themselves from the former Czechoslovakia peacefully. Why Quebec decided that, on balance, it wanted to remain part of Canada.

And why in those countries the results of the political decisions were accepted by the vast majority of the people concerned.

It’s the power of the democratic ‘We.’

The same will be true when Scotland holds its referendum on independence in 2014 – whatever the result.

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.


Under the hashtag #Ilovemyjob one of the great local government tweeps I follow wrote last week

Just spent an hour talking with 12 Albanian Mayors about the local committee structure in Sutton.

This is the sort of random information Twitter throws at you every day. Thanks for it to @GlenOcsko.

Although I have no proof I’m 99% sure of what was going on here.

For many years the UK government and/or European Commission have sponsored people from former communist countries that might be EU member candidates to come on study visits to the likes of Britain and other long-standing EU members to see how democracy can work.

In my day, it was the swathe of Eastern European countries which are now EU members.

A typical trip might be organised by a UK university politics department and feature briefing sessions with academics and visits to two or three local authorities to meet local politicians and council staff, much as I suspect the twelve Albanian mayors were doing in Sutton.

You might not think it an exciting way to spend a week. But for many of the delegates on these trips struggling to come to terms with the upheaval and turmoil in their own countries, this was the first time they had ventured west of the old iron curtain. They were often shabbily dressed by our standards and uneasy at the resources we seemed to have as well as the general UK standard of living around them.

Most did not speak English and there sometimes seemed to be a clear hierarchy within their group although their interpreter was the key delegate if you were to get anything of value across to them.

At the time I was working for a large, mainly rural, council. I particularly remember a group of Bulgarians and the effort I’d gone (pre-Google Translate and Babelfish) to source a grammatically-correct slide to front my presentation that said ‘Welcome to XYZ Council!’ in Bulgarian.

My presentation, filtered through their interpreter’s efforts, seemed to go down as well as an account of multi-member wards and the differences between central and area committees could.

Inviting questions, I sat down to polite smiles and a silence that was eventually broken by a question from the delegate I had identified as the main man in the group, an academic at some institute for government. The interpreter translated

He says who has the executive authority in your villages?

Even now the words ‘knock me down’ and ‘feather’ come to mind.

I won’t bother to explain why. Those in the know will understand precisely the difficulties of where you start to answer such a question in the British context. If you’re not in the know ask yourself the same question – ‘Who has the executive authority in your village or suburb?’ Just doesn’t make sense in the UK does it?

Well, the Bulgarians are safely inside the EU now and no doubt the Albanians are hoping to be in the future (dim and distant I would have thought). I wonder if they asked any interesting questions in Sutton?

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?