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.


A small minority of bloggers (some of them not much more than the spammers of the genre) block comments from readers.

The rest of us are gagging for them.

Comments show readers want to react to us.  They show we’re communicating.  They show someone’s looking at our blogs.

That’s why lots of us ask questions in our posts.  We hope they’ll prompt comments and even better a conversation.

Sometimes they do.  Sometimes they don’t.

I’m getting the readers (and in increasing numbers – thanks, folks) but maybe I haven’t quite mastered the art of writing to draw a response.

All ideas to help me get better at this are very welcome.

In the meantime, here are questions from five of my posts that haven’t prompted any comments in the hope that they will now.  You’ll have to click through to the related post to get the context.  And yes, comments are welcome.

  • QUESTION 1 What was the stuff at work you were never told that could have saved a lot of turmoil and made things easier as you moved on in your career?
  • QUESTION 2 Does anyone know of a better [the word was used ironically] generic conference keynote contributor than a minister of the crown?
  • QUESTION 3 Maybe there’s something in the idea of Taiwan’s musical garbage trucks that could be adapted to our particular circumstances…Any brainstormers out there with bright ideas?
  • QUESTION 4 What are the ideas whose time has come in local government?  And what would people’s list be of past local government ideas whose time came?
  • QUESTION 5 Measurement [of customer standards] can be a great thing but at the end of the day whose service do you value more – John Lewis or your bank?

No, no it’s not all rubbish.

But the title of this post is more likely to attract attention than waste collection and disposal which is what the No. 2 search bringing people to this blog is really all about.

In fact it’s a bit more specific than that.  This happy band of surfers searched for phrases like wheelie bin, wheely bin, wheelie bin wash, recycle wheelie bins and whellie bins (you’ll note the lack of consensus on how to spell wheelie in the wonderful anarchy that is the English language).

I’d like to think these searchers after truth were all interested in the same aspects of waste as me

  • the international innovation exemplified in my posts on Empty your bin, sir? (Ireland – pay a company to empty your bin) and Empty your own bin, sir? (Taiwan – their amazing musical garbage trucks)
  • the political dimension brought out in a subtly understated way by secretary of state Eric Pickles on Muck and nonsense (UK – he was having a go at the fact/claim that over the last decade council taxes have doubled and bin collections have halved).

Coming back to the subject I was surprised for a policy/performance/improvement wonk how often I’d mentioned the subject.

But Pickles was right on one aspect.

Waste collection is one of the most visible council services in the UK and one by which many people judge their council.

Back in 2008 market research company Ipsos MORI published a survey for the Local Government Association which identified the factors residents most associated with their local council’s reputation.  Seven out of twelve were to do to do with what they called Greener, cleaner, safer services (the others were all to do with communications).

So an efficient and effective waste collection service is important.

Tomorrow – the all-time No. 1 search term that brought people to this blog.  And a surprise (although not if you read these posts from the top down…).

Footnote: of course, wheelie bins are only one of the various receptacles we use to dispose of or recycle domestic waste.  The UK press recently highlighted one council, Newcastle-under-Lyme, that allegedly requires residents to use nine different containers to dispose of waste (the council web site mentions seven).  It’s apparently all too much for the residents to cope with, although I’ll bet most of them can work a TV remote control, a device requiring considerable more brain power in my view.

This post is Part 3 of a response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  If you don’t see it on this page, Part 1 is here and Part 2 here.

Coincidence is all.

In my snappily titled post Leadership is the key: redemption lessons expanded – No. 1 I mentioned a senior manager whose catch phrase was

I don’t care about processes.  I’m interested in outcomes.

Lo and behold.  As I check for the topics the aforementioned Ingrid K suggested bloggers like me might write about in 2011 I find

Why process still matters.  The importance of good governance in an outcomes based world.

And that’s all I need to set me off.

You won’t have known “my” senior manager and wild horses wouldn’t drag his name from me.

But I’ll bet you could name at least one boss you’ve had, may still do, who struts his stuff (it’s usually a male and they usually strut) shooting from the lip with this macho nonsense.

How do you always get an outcome?  Answer – by doing things in a series of steps one after the other.  That’s all a process is.  Getting the process right is essential to achieving a good outcome.

A small example.

I worked somewhere once where expensive consultants were brought in on a central government-funded programme to improve procurement.  They ran a workshop for admin staff responsible for placing orders with the in-house procurement team.  How did people place an order for a bog standard 5-wheel adjustable ergonomic office chair?

The expensive consultant explained the rudiments of process mapping.  Within a few minutes the road engineers had shown it took 8 actions in their department to order a chair, the social workers 13.  To put it another way, the social workers had to take 63% more actions than the road engineers to achieve the same end.

This is macho man(ager)’s cue to pile in with a cutting observation on trivial examples.

But hold on.

Work is by and large made up of routine activities carried out 10/100/1000 times a day/week/month.  They consume by far the greater part of an organisation’s resources.

If even a tenth could be carried out with 63% fewer actions the potential savings would be major.

Savings to help reduce budgets and improve customer service.  Keep the library open that might otherwise close.  Repair those potholes that feature in the local press every week.

Ingrid Koehler also links process with good governance.

Governance is often taken to mean the big stuff.  And so it should.  The probity and transparency with which councillors make decisions.  How big budgets are allocated and spent.

But if you accept the purpose of a council is to meet its customers’ needs (substitute citizens, taxpayers, residents, service users as your ideological preference dictates) then governance is also about ensuring as little resource as possible is used that does not add value for those customers.

Finally, Ingrid doesn’t just refer to outcomes but to an outcomes based world.

Oh, yes (sigh).  Outcomes are fundamental.  Of course.

However, too often central government tries to hold councils accountable for outcomes over which they have little or no control.

It’s OK for the proportion of domestic waste recycled but not for climate change.

It’s OK for the number of road accidents where highway design and traffic management is a root cause but not for the overall number of young people killed or injured in road accidents.

In other words, many of the issues that councils deal with are complex social problems with multiple and sometimes, if we are honest, unknown causes.  That sounds like another post.

But getting processes right is still fundamentally important.

One of my original aspirations on the HelpGov blog was to focus on innovation, something I fess up to not having achieved much – yet.

Back in April 2010 I blogged under the title Empty your bin, sir? about the oh so sexy subject of waste collection in Ireland and the model of paying one of two competing companies to collect your household waste, at least in rural Wicklow.

Now the BBC bring us a different model from the far side of the world – Taiwan’s musical garbage trucks.

Actually, the music isn’t really the point.  All it does is alert waiting citizens to the truck’s imminent arrival five nights a week (the truck on the BBC’s web site uses a touching version of Beethoven’s Für Elise for the purpose).

The eager inhabitants take their waste to the rear of the truck and hurl their blue regulation plastic bags into its churning interior (health and safety issue No. 1?).

Another vehicle follows for the recyclables – paper, plastic, metal, waste food etc., one category each night.

The waste food  goes to farmers to boil up for pig feed (health and safety hazard No. 2?).  This used to be called pig swill in the UK and was banned for fear of  spreading, I think, CJD.  I remember my two farming uncles had virtually a full set of cutlery retrieved from their swill that had been discarded by the careless catering establishments whose waste food they took away.

Somehow, I can’t see this working in the UK, even in densely populated cities.  We don’t have the same social discipline that would get someone from every household out on to the street at a set time five nights a week to chuck their waste into a passing truck.

Still, it might be a great way to meet the neighbours if people were willing.

And who knows, maybe there’s something in the idea that could be adapted to our peculiar circumstances.

After all, they say the concept of neighbourhood watch came from a brainstorm in the States into crime reduction (someone said “Make everyone a police officer”).  Any brainstormers out there with bright ideas?

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

For the first time I’m starting a blog post without knowing where it’s going.

When you read this I’ll be on a warm (I hope) Mediterranean island surrounded by water (salt) water, nor any drop to drink – at least from the sea.

I rashly promised several weeks ago to contribute to Blog Action Day 2010 whose theme this year is water.  You can read about it here.  As I write this 2,924 people in 120 countries have promised to blog about H2O today.  What are they going to write?  Profound worthy things?  Outraged concern at their fellow human beings deprived of the stuff?  Of the wars driven by it?  Of flooding and catastrophe?

Let’s just celebrate it briefly.  The cool, clean, clear life giving liquid it can be.

The beauty of it cascading down a waterfall.  The rainbow in the sky marking the supposed pot of gold.

How people have used and tamed it.

The dams that irrigate and provide sustainable power.

Our Victorian ancestors’ foresight in bringing clean water to our great cities like Glasgow, heroes like the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette building the sewers to take the dirty water away safely from London.  Eliminating cholera at almost a stroke.  Transforming the lives of ordinary people.   Amazing examples of municipal vision and enterprise.

A vision still to be delivered in so many parts of the world.

So get serious about this.  Sign the petition for an international water treaty to provide clean water everywhere.  Donate online to help.

And, perhaps more prosaically than the poet, let’s transform Coleridge’s couplet

Water, water, everywhere,

And all we need  to drink.

“Reality” TV is not always necessarily that real.  Even a casual viewer can spot how reality is squeezed into a formula. 

The objectionable teenagers sent to stay with the “strictest parents in the world” who always find redemption after a week having travelled a remarkably similar journey as the stroppy pair the week before, and the week before that and so on.  

The ritual humiliation of Alan Sugar’s would-be apprentices as he barks “You’re fired!” at the week’s victim (“It wasn’t me that did it, Sir Alan, honest”) across the board room table.

But sometimes a sort of truth shines through.

Undercover Boss on the UK’s Channel 4 is one of those series.  A few weeks ago the chief executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets learned (I’m sure he knew already) that there’s virtually nothing a local authority does that someone does not want, and will often fight hard to retain. 

You can be cynical about the motivation of the CEOs and the companies concerned, although they sometimes seem to be genuinely surprised and even moved by what they see at the sharp end of their business.

The aspect as enlightening as the bosses and their reactions is what their workers are like.

This week’s edition featured Colin Drummond of Viridor, a company big in the glamorous world of waste recycling.   Their people collect overflowing bins of rubbish, direct a reluctant public to the right skip at recycling centres, and sort noxious recycled materials by hand on never-ending conveyor belts.

In short, pretty basic work.

But in all that – literally – rubbish there are some great people doing great work.

The manager at a recycling centre constantly innovating to encourage customers to recycle more.

 The cheerful efficient agency worker with no job tenure on a sorting line.

 The depot hand who through his own choice took leave every time he had to go up to London for his cancer treatment.

It was a lovely example of the intrinsic motivation which comes from within ourselves that psychologists like Alfie Kohn talk about (see my earlier post on Time to sack public sector employees? – the answer’s No by the way).

Or as W Edwards Deming put it in a slightly old-fashioned way in his 14 points for management:

Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.

It’s not spoken about often enough.  Even less is it implemented by managers.  Undercover Boss at its best reminds us why it is so powerful.