It doesn’t take a genius to realise that, this note apart, the HelpGov blog hasn’t been updated since July 2015. The reasons are set out, obscurely, on the About page. I’m not likely to write many more, if any, new posts but will leave the blog on WordPress as long as they’re willing to tolerate it. Let’s say it’s a sort-of archive of the work issues that interested me for many years.

On the basis that popularity = interest, I include a list below of the ten most viewed posts/pages on the blog. Some were at the fringes of what HelpGov was originally meant to be about. The list is in order of popularity: the first post on the list had more views than the other nine combined, which may tell you something about my readers and the state of the UK civil service at the time the post was written.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

The HelpGov blog has been a bit quiet recently as I’ve got distracted by other things. But as I write, it has just been viewed 40,000 times. So now seems as good a time as any to share my most-read posts with an eager world. Some may surprise you: some certainly surprised me.

None of my recent rants about arguably the most important current issue facing the UK – the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum – appear in my top ten. Sadly for an indifferent readership, I cannot promise I won’t write again about that subject again. I’m currently mulling over an effort on the positive case for Scotland staying in the UK. It may appear soon. In the meantime, enjoy the HelpGov top ten countdown …

No. 1 The new Civil Service Competency Framework. I smell…

What I smelt last year was either pretentious nonsense or (excuse me) shite, depending on how delicate my sensibilities were at the time. Lots of people – presumably many of them civil servants – seemed to agree and still do, judging by the number of continuing page views.

No. 2 Ten things PowerPoint presenters shouldn’t say – but do

… or at least did in 2010, from the pathetic ‘Where do I put the memory stick in?’ to ‘It’s all in the hand-out anyhow.’  Has anything changed?

No. 3 [An old] top 10 countdown: and the all-time No. 1 is…

A bit of a cheat this one since it was reporting a much earlier summary of HelpGov’s most popular page views. The No.1 at the time was an article about, wait for it, wheelie bins, a phrase huge numbers of web users used to search for at the time. If you’re a serious wheelie bin aficionado don’t click through to check this one out. You will be disappointed.

No. 4 101 uses …

No, not of a dead cat (very old book) but of Post-it notes. I ran out of puff at No. 12. Perhaps I should re-visit this classic office tool. All ideas for Nos. 13-101 will be gratefully received.

No. 5 Government web sites can be bad for your health

Well, they could be at the time and some still are. This was a rant at the dire DirectGov site, which after the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition came into power was replaced by the excellent portal – simple, friendly and efficient. Which only goes to show that Messrs Cameron and Clegg hang on every word HelpGov utters. So there.

No. 6 The jargon bin

My continuing attempt to document how mainly public sector organisations and people feel they have to speak and write in order to sound, well, long-winded and pompous, from the euphemism of the ‘ability spectrum’ to the economists’ horror of ‘zero sum’ and all alphabetical points in between. So if as a cohort you’re into optimal end-games and want to stay ahead of the curve, do visit this curated collection. And let me know of any other nonsense you come across.

No. 7 The Singapore legal system and the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang

Not quite HelpGov’s standard fare but I’ve had a long time interest in the wonderfully-successful but not quite democratic Republic of Singapore, where I lived for three years in my youth. This is a report of an alleged sex abuse case that wasn’t quite what it seemed at the time – or quite what the government of the country wanted its people to believe. I guess lots of the readers of this were from Singapore. They certainly won’t have read some of the detail in their own (government-owned) press.

No. 8 Civil Service reform

I wrote this about nine months before my blast at the UK civil service competency framework – see No. 1 above. I was sceptical – still am – about the then-proposed performance management and appraisal system for civil servants. The competency framework, and the popularity of what I said about it, makes me think I was justified in my scepticism. Any civil servants (or ex-civil servants if you were in the ‘bottom 10%’) out there who think I was right?

No. 9 UK government uses social media to help quell riots: Directgov strikes again

You can see I didn’t like the old Directgov web site (see also No. 5 above). As the government’s then main web site its response to the riots in various English cities in August 2011 was … pathetic. I also highlighted the government’s inept use of Twitter on the same subject. Let’s hope things are better next time there’s an emergency that social media could help inform.

No. 10 New York Public Library Rules OK…

I suspect that like ‘wheelie bins’ (see No. 3 above) this is a post that got lots of views because of its title rather than its content. If you really needed practical information about the wonderful New York public library this, sadly, was not the place to come. It didn’t do much more than record a campaign to stop big budget cuts to the library and, at the margins, try to give the campaign a little extra publicity. I never did check what happened but I’m sure big cuts were made as they seem to have been made to libraries throughout the UK too. So easy to cut library budgets, isn’t it? After all, librarians by and large aren’t militant protesters. And sadly the temper of the times seems to be against spending public money that doesn’t immediately produce measurable outcomes … now there’s one for the jargon bin.

Note: given the passage of time not all the links in each of the ten posts will work. Never mind, you’ll still get the drift of what I was on about.


I’ve taken to posting the occasional blog entry about Singapore, entries that might confuse regular HelpGov readers. After all, as the header says, HelpGov is about trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff. Why would I be interested in this small, far-away island state?

The truth is, I feel quite sentimental about the place.

I was part of a large tribe of children – mainly British, but also Australians and New Zealanders – who spent part of their childhood in the country when their fathers served in the various Commonwealth armed forces based there right up until the 1980s.

Singapore Orchard Road 1960

Singapore Orchard Road 1960

Our time in Singapore was idyllic. We led a largely open air life in shorts and flip-flops. We swam in mostly European-only pools and in the warm sea. If our parents weren’t looking we ate exotic spicy foods from street vendors and cooled off with brightly-coloured, sweet ‘ice balls.’ We soaked up the tropical climate and the sights, sounds and smells of cultures a million miles removed from the drab greyness of our own countries. And almost universally, our mothers had a female servant, an amah, to take the drudgery out of domestic work.

So it’s not surprising that we mostly feel good about our time there. If you don’t believe me just Google ‘far east britbrats’ (what we tend to call ourselves).

What we don’t remember – by and large – is the downside.

The fact that what we enjoyed was a by-product of Empire, an empire dead or dying by the time we got there.

The fact that our comfort and delight in the place was built on the availability of cheap labour.

The fact that for at least part of the period there were still open drains discharging into the filthy Singapore River, that most Singaporeans lived in poverty with a life expectancy way below ours, that many children wore no shoes, that it was not uncommon for Europeans to say things like ‘Get the boy to do it’ when referring to a waiter or male servant.

All that makes the achievement of the country since those days the more remarkable.

An island with no natural resources has been transformed into a modern state with an income per head significantly exceeding that of the old colonial master. Singaporeans, rightly, compare themselves to other ‘first world’ countries. There is an elected parliament and a properly-constituted judicial system. The country ranks fifth on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index – higher than the UK, Australia or Canada. And for fans of HelpGov’s more traditional subject matter, the head of the Singapore civil service was invited last year to contribute to The Guardian’s Global Public Leaders Series.

So bearing in mind my own background and what the country has achieved, I’m reluctant as a foreigner, an ang moh* to boot, to criticise Singapore. It somehow seems impertinent.

But my browsing on the web has brought me up against a less congenial side of the country, for example the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang and the apparently esoteric subject of a government population white paper.

I would be less than honest with myself if I didn’t share my thoughts on other aspects of that less congenial side so, seeking the forgiveness of Singaporeans in advance, I will do that in my next post on Singapore.

* Ang moh or  红毛 – a Chinese term for Westerners, often derogatory, but I’ll live with that.

Tey Tsun Hang trial

The headline above from the Singapore Straits Times newspaper web site  may seem  obscure to many regular readers of the HelpGov blog. But it’s about government in the widest sense and I feel quite strongly about it.

I was alerted to it by comments on Facebook condemning both the alleged perpetrator and his victims in what was said to be a ‘sex-for-grades’ case.

On the face of it, this is the story of a 41 year-old male law professor who had sex with a 23 year-old female student, arguably a minor but salacious court case.

My initial thought was to respond to Singaporeans who commented approvingly of a guilty verdict along the lines of ‘What irks me is that the ladies always treated like they were guiltless’ and ‘Our chaps know the ladies are a contributing factor, no doubts about that.’ I was going to point out that perhaps there was an abuse here by someone who held disproportionate power over much younger students.

The way the poster of the link to the (government-owned) Straits Times had set this up meant I could not respond on his Facebook page.

A couple of clicks on Google and I was glad I didn’t because, lo and behold, as sometimes happens in that country there is an alternative narrative. It’s difficult to summarise all the in and outs of the story but they include

  • An academic who writes a book critical of the relationship between the Singapore government and the legal profession of the country
  • Failing to find a publisher in Singapore, he has it published in Hong Kong
  • The emergence shortly after of allegations that he had indeed traded ‘sex for grades’ with one or more students
  • Ambiguity about his university’s response to the allegations
  • Questioning by police that lands him in an ambulance trip to hospital
  • A trial procedure that on the face of it has a number of curious features about it.

Anyone interested in the story could do worse than read the Trial of Tsun Hang blog.

I don’t know enough to judge where the truth lies in all this but I’m glad I didn’t see the subject as merely a question of cross-cultural differences in the treatment of perpetrator and victim in sex abuse cases.

Singapore flagPopulation is an endlessly controversial topic for governments – its size, its composition, birth rates, migration. Populations sometimes expand rapidly, seemingly out of control. They sometimes seem bent on long term decline. Too many old people, not enough workers, not enough children. The list of concerns is endless.

So is the temptation for governments to try and determine or influence population numbers and composition. I have blogged on this subject before, noting some extreme measures, from the desperate attempts of Romania to increase its population to the similarly draconian measures of China to limit its.

These attempts are rarely successful and often incur bad unintended consequences.

The latest attempt to influence future population comes from the Government of Singapore. The country’s parliament has been considering a white paper on the subject and it has caused some local controversy.

The government says

Our population challenges are complex and multifaceted, and have far-reaching effects on our current and future generations. There are no simple solutions. We need to find a balance. If we do too little to address the demographic challenge, we risk becoming a steadily greying society, losing vitality and verve, with our young people leaving for opportunities elsewhere. But if we take in too many immigrants and foreign workers, we will weaken our national identity and sense of belonging, and feel crowded out of our own home (White Paper, executive summary).

Opponents are concerned at many aspects of the white paper, not least the government’s proposals for continuing large scale immigration.

The main response of the government so far, after debate in parliament, seems to be making a population figure of 6.9 million in 2030 a projection for infrastructure planning rather than a target.

So far, so wise. Achieving national targets for population numbers is one of the most ineffectual things governments can seek to do.

As you would expect from what is a wealthy first-world democracy (not a perfect one, but let the nation that is perfect cast the first stone), the government’s approach has been systematic and well-publicised.

And yet, and yet…a number of issues about what has happened niggle at my once-upon-a-time population forecaster’s brain.

Technically, the projections are not actually that transparent. I would expect to find a technical volume setting out how the projections were made, including all the assumptions about fertility, mortality and migration. It may exist but I cannot find it on the White Paper web site or in the publications list of the responsible government department, the National Population and Talent Division, Prime Minister’s Office. There are plenty of issues papers and occasional papers, but where are the projections used?

As an indication of the potential confusion around this technical point, different projections in the White Paper run to 2030 (Chart 1.3), 2050 (Chart 1.4) and 2060 (Chart 1.2).

None of this may be significant, but it does limit anyone’s ability to comment authoritatively on the figures.

There is an online summary of views expressed in the public consultation undertaken for the White Paper. It states

The many constructive and thoughtful suggestions reflect the significant public interest in population issues. There was a wide range of suggestions offering different — sometimes opposing — perspectives. While not every suggestion could be adopted, they were all taken into account as we sought to strike the right balance in our population policies to address our demographic challenge.

I am wary of this. It is a civil servant’s summary and I have perpetrated, sorry prepared, many of those myself. How much better it would have been to publish all written comments received and a verbatim transcript of public meetings. I know the temptation to apply a degree of editorial discretion in these exercises. The current protests in Singapore about the White Paper’s conclusions suggest that the optimism of the consultation summary may not be wholly justified.

The issue of immigration is a tricky one for Singapore. The White Paper says nothing about where the immigrants might come from except that ‘Most new immigrants share similar ethnic backgrounds as Singaporeans’ (para 2.30).

Will immigrants be sought from countries where those ethnic groups predominate – China, Malaysia/Indonesia, and India? Will a balance be maintained that reflects the current ethnic make up of the population? These are sensitive questions, but ones the government is silent on.

The White Paper rightly says that Singaporeans are increasingly well-educated and working more in professional, managerial, executive and technical jobs. So is the purpose of immigration to fill the jobs Singaporeans don’t want to do? Perhaps not a great incentive to offer new citizens.

There is another, longer-term problem about relying on immigration to keep an economy buoyant. Almost everywhere in Asia, from wealthy Japan to poor Bangladesh, fertility rates have fallen and more countries will experience the demographic challenge of advanced nations like Singapore – people live longer and have fewer children. Where then are those immigrants to come from?

There is major reliance in the White Paper on incentives to encourage Singaporeans to marry and have children. It lists a whole range of measures already in place. But these have not stopped marriage and fertility rates falling over many years. Like many others, the Singapore government perhaps has not realised how human behaviour, driven by many factors outside official control, can thwart political intentions.

One major concern is the forecast decline in the workforce. Maybe the government needs to think more radically about internal measures to slow that decline. There is reference to ‘helping’ older workers stay in the workforce. But what about actually raising the statutory age of retirement? People stay fitter longer nowadays and even with a later retirement age would have many more ‘silver’ years than their parents and grandparents did. Other countries are already going down this route.

There is much more that could be said about the White Paper and the problems it seeks to address. I may return to the subject but this post is long enough already and I wanted to comment while the subject is still a matter of public debate in Singapore.