It’s good to know the spirit of compromise is alive and well in the town council that serves the attractive town of Bideford in North Devon (mission – the exciting to deliver the information you need about our decision making processes and support community participation in local democracy) supported by sundry national lobby groups with an axe to grind.

The issue that has occupied a good deal of the energy and time of the sixteen elected representatives of the good folk of Bideford is the earth-shattering question of whether their formal council meetings should start with a prayer or not.

This otherwise quaint custom became a matter of contention because a councillor who is an atheist objected to the routine blessing of the council’s deliberations by a man of the cloth (I’m not sure whether the body corporate of the council is advanced enough to admit a woman of the cloth).  He claimed to be ‘disadvantaged and embarrassed by the practice.’

The council have apparently discussed this burning topic three times without resolution and the upshot is that the National Secular Society has taken a case to the High Court in support of the councillor concerned.  To highlight the absurdity of the case the disadvantaged and embarrassed councillor is now an ex-councillor, presumably having resigned out of disgust or been rejected by his electors for the same reason.  Judgement in the case is currently reserved (lawyer speak for a decision is yet to be given).

On the BBC Today programme this week a spokesman for the NSS was countered by someone equally small-minded from the Christian Institute, so listeners could get a balanced view of this important issue.  For balanced read two lots of propaganda instead of one.

What better subject could there be for a rant as the HelpGov blog transforms itself into something a little more contentious and sheds the need to consider what potential clients think about it?

I think the rant’s already happened, but just to pile on the agony, doesn’t it make you despair?  Surely sixteen sensible adults could reach a compromise on something so fundamentally innocuous?

In the meantime the euro is collapsing, we seem to be creating a lost generation of unemployed young people, the world economy is probably moving into prolonged recession and the planet is arguably warming up to a point at which Bideford, for one, may well disappear under rising sea levels.

The only saving grace in the whole sorry tale is that town councils in England, while perhaps ‘supporting community participation in local democracy’ do…well not very much at all.  Their big brothers and sisters – the district, unitary and county councils are much more sensible.  I hope.

I can write this because D2* was a meat eater until she turned ten then, prompted by a cousin but with a good deal of serious thought, became a vegetarian.  Last year she spent a semester – that’s right, she’s a student – in Canada and returned a vegan.  She will forgive me if I use her as a hook for this Blog Action Day 2011 post (you can also find other contributors’ efforts through the Twitter hashtag #BAD11).

Having a vegetarian and then a vegan in the family has been a challenge that’s expanded my culinary repertoire in ways I didn’t expect and led to some interesting incidents over the years.

Here are the upsides and downsides from this amateur foodie of the three ways of eating (and cooking).

Meat (and fish) eater

Looking good

  • Why not?  Humans are naturally omnivores – this is arguably our most ‘balanced’ diet
  • Widest range of taste sensations – nothing beats the smell and taste of sizzling bacon
  • It doesn’t mean only eat meat and fish – you can tuck into those wonderful veggies and fruit too
  • Least hassle – you can find something to eat wherever you go

Not so hot

  • Watch out for the more processed products – the cured meats, sausages and patés.  Some unhealthy stuff may lurk in there
  • Most likely to plunder the planet for all that protein – whether it’s feeding the domesticated beasts before we eat them or hunting the wild ones almost to extinction
  • Most expensive – in money for us, in cost for the environment


Looking good

  • Animals don’t get bumped off directly to feed you
  • Some wonderful vegetarian recipes and restaurants out there
  • Cheaper – meat and fish are expensive
  • If you’re ethically minded you’ll feel better for that reason alone
  • Less chance of putting on weight from all that animal protein and fat

Not so hot

  • Friends – get used to meat eaters sniping at your diet.  Decide whether it’s something you’re going to debate or not
  • Be aware the concept of food without animal products is barely understood in some countries.  Chances are that in Spain ‘Ensalada mixta, por favour. Pero no carne o pescado’  (‘Mixed salad please.  But no meat or fish in it’) will still arrive with a glob of tinned tuna on top
  • Watch out for the vitamins and other good stuff like iron in meat and fish and make sure you still get them through your choice of vegetables and fruit.  Top up with dietary supplements if necessary


Looking good

  • Arguably the most ethical diet – dairy products may not kill animals directly but there’s a whole industry out there where they get bumped off as a direct result and often live in confined un-natural conditions
  • Some unexpectedly great cake recipes
  • Plus – the other benefits of being a veggie

Not so hot

  • Hard work. Goodbye all animal products.  Goodbye honey.  Goodbye leather belts and shoes
  • Get ready to search for substitutes for things like eggs to make those wonderful cakes rise
  • People – if your carnivorous friends had a go at you because you were veggie, stand by for the mickey taking when you go vegan
  • Eating out – in many countries get ready to negotiate around the one vegetarian dish on the menu to get the cheese taken out.  Resign yourself to more risotto than you’ve ever eaten before
  • If you thought being a vegetarian needed attention to a balanced diet and the possible need for dietary supplements, don’t forget being a vegan is even more challenging.

PS – D2 has just told me that she became vegan exactly a year ago today, Blog Action Day.

* – regular readers will know that D1, D2 and D3 are my three daughters

This post is my response to Blog Action Day 2011 on the subject of Food.  Regular readers wondering what it’s got to do with helping the public sector improve its performance will be disappointed.  But I  did warn them when I started the HelpGov blog that there’d be the occasional random post

Part 4 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  It follows the separate topics dealt with in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Four random but related frustrations of dealing with and working in the public sector in the UK that should stop.  What are yours?


How we love it.  It’s what managers thrive on.  That knackered-at-the-end-of-the-day feeling, the slump into the armchair, the glass of something alcoholic to relax.  The question from the partner, “How was today, dear?”  “God,” you say, “it was hell.  Problems just came at me from left right and centre.  But do you know what?  I ran around all day like an idiot and by the time I left I’d sorted them all.”  I ran around all day like an idiot.  You certainly did my man (it usually is a male).  Like an idiot.

If it’s firefighting you want take a lesson from the fire and rescue service.  Devote your energy to fire prevention, to making sure problems don’t happen, not letting them happen and then fighting them.

Pouring cold water on new ideas

In my neck of the woods, more thoughtful Scots say it’s the bane of their country.

In central Scotland, where my partner hails from, it finds expression in the cliché “Aye, I kennt his faither” trans. “I knew his father.  He was just a miner/postman/labourer.  How dare the son get above his station in life by showing some ambition and trying to improve himself”.

I think it’s a UK-wide disease.  Not just the public sector (although that for sure) but the rest of the economy and society more generally.

For every entrepreneur (traditional, social or public sector) there are 10 naysayers who’ll tell you why you can’t do it.  Why it won’t work.  They should check out the great systems thinker Russell Ackoff who has some pertinent quotes on the subject.

Excessive bureaucracy

The litmus test at work for me is the answer to the question How do you get leave approved round here? If the answer’s

  • get your leave form out
  • write in the days you want off
  • do the sum to show how many days you’ll have left this year
  • initial your request
  • pass it to the boss’s secretary
  • she passes it to the boss
  • your boss initials the form and passes it back to the secretary
  • the secretary updates the team leave chart on the wall behind her desk and passes the form back to you
  • file your form back where it lives (This is important – in organisations like this your ability to request leave may be questioned if you lose the form – you see, you may be cheating)
  • update your paper diary

you are in bureaucracy hell.  Get out!

Getting small things wrong – because small things add up to big things

Two current public sector examples from my private life, featuring my second and third daughters (D2 and D3).

D2 was due to appear recently as a witness in a court case.  She travelled back from uni to stay overnight and attend court.  On arrival at court and after checking (“It’s not on today”) an official discovered the case had been deferred to autumn, over a year after the alleged minor offence she witnessed.

No one had told the witnesses but they said she could claim expenses.  They mailed her a claim form.  She claimed travel and subsistence.  Three/four weeks later a cheque arrived for travel costs only.  No subsistence and no explanation.  Current state of play – pondering whether it’s worth the hassle of getting the subsistence.


  • Staff time at court to establish case deferred and when to – 10/15 minutes
  • Cost of sending out claim form, processing returned claim, raising and posting cheque – £50? (some considerable time ago I remember reading the real cost of  even a standard letter cost a company about £10)
  • Potential cost of round 2 (the subsistence element of the claim) – another £50?
  • Wasted cost of travel and subsistence (which will have to be claimed again in autumn) – c. £20
  • Add in similar costs for other witnesses in the case.

D3, living in Scotland, may attend a university outwith Scotland next year.  The Scottish Government will give a loan for fees incurred elsewhere in EU.  D3 finds web site to establish ground rules.  There’s a note that the deadline for applications has passed but the online form still works so nothing ventured nothing gained she completes the form and presses the Send button.  The completed form is accepted.  Two weeks later a snail mail letter arrives saying “Sorry.  Form on web site was last year’s.  This year’s process isn’t opened yet.”


  • Staff time to intercept the mistakenly submitted application and generate a presumably standard response to it – 15/20 minutes?
  • Cost of sending letter – £10+? (see above)
  • Multiplied by the number of times potential students make the same mistake per year – 10?  100? 1000?

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.

Top 10s are usually made up of things people like – music, restaurants, movies, whatever.

Web searches are different.

People search for nasty stuff as well as good things (it doesn’t of course make them nasty people, that’s a different subject).

But at least Nos. 7 – 10 in my web search Top 10 were things, people or topics I could relate to positively.

The Eaga Showersmart – a FREE device sent to every household in the UK claiming to save energy when you shower – is different.

Some of the phrases people searched for to find out about the Showersmart suggest I’m not alone in feeling less than positive about this…thing.

unsolicited eaga showersmart

eaga showersmart unsolicited mailing, and

how does an eaga showersmart actually work?

I blogged three times about this pointless product – first under the title How not to save the planet at public expense, then The right way to save the planet (my proposal for an infinitely superior product called the Desprat BathDumb), then finally under the obscure heading Mythical things and iguanas (not obscure when you read it and coincidentally the only one of the posts featuring in this select Top 10 making a direct allusion to music – Dory Previn fans will know what I mean).

And now six months after Eaga made me cross with the dreaded Showersmart, and in a maybe prescient move, “giant building company” Carillion is bidding to take them over.  Good luck guys.

Tomorrow – into the top half of this particular chart countdown with a heart-warming tale of positive psychological reinforcement.

Having just blogged on Taiwan’s musical garbage trucks it looks as if I’m about to get mired in muck.

Today’s online Guardian newspaper quotes Communities Secretary of State Eric Pickles on the link between council tax and waste collection (they do get up to exciting stuff these Westminster politicians, don’t they?)

We need to remember that rubbish is the most visible and most frontline service of all in return for what they now pay – the best part of £120 a month in council tax.

If we don’t sort it out I think the cause of localism will be set back by a generation by creating an army of residents who view their council with resentment rather than respect. There is genuine anger that over the last decade council taxes have doubled and bin collections have halved.

Whoa Eric, chill out, how magnificently can you miss several points at once?

  1. Council tax is not a fee paid for the delivery of personal services to the individual tax payer.  It is a general tax that funds all the legitimate purposes of local government, just as income tax funds all the legitimate purposes of central government.  This sort of stuff feeds people’s mis-apprehension about this fact
  2. Halved bin collections are not a symptom of declining service, as you well know.  They are a direct response to the sustainability agenda and are invariably associated with recycling collections
  3. The cause of localism is more likely to be set back by UK politicians dabbling in the detail of local services than in the holding to account of local politicians by their electorate.

That’s it.

This post is tagged England. As UK readers will know Eric Pickles’ remit for local government does not extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In my last post I mentioned an older rant about an unsolicited device that arrived through the mail purporting to help save the planet by reducing the consumption of water in my shower.

It had occurred to me that most of my stories about the private sector included a wee homily about their relevance for the public sector but the shower device story hadn’t.  I said I’d rectify that, so here goes.

Once upon a time, and it was a while ago, the NHS in part of this United Kingdom of ours decided that too many children had bad teeth (“dental caries” as the experts say).

Pondering the causes of this they decided part of the problem was that parents did not get their toddlers into the habit of brushing their teeth.  So along with a lot of other activity (workshops, postcards et al) they decided to distribute free packs of starter toothbrushes and toothpaste that would be given to parents when they had contact with the health service.

This is what happened in one area.

The manager responsible for health improvement was sitting innocently at her desk when there was a phone call from the office caretaker.

“I’m down at the loading bay,” he said “and a pallet’s just arrived for you.”

Curious at a “pallet” arriving for her that she had not been told about, she set off for the office basement to find said pallet and the caretaker saying “It can’t stay here.  There isn’t room.”

Together, they opened one corner of the shrink wrap around the pallet to find that it was full of cartons containing small toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.  Further examination revealed a letter that said more information was on the way.

It was.  A letter arrived describing the campaign I outline above.

Caretakers are usually right but the manager craved his indulgence to keep the pallet in the basement until she could work out what to do with it.

The only answer she could think of was to divide the contents into bite-sized (sorry) chunks and distribute them throughout the area to the staff who were going to have to ensure they got to the parents of young children – public health co-ordinators, health visitors, clinics, dentists and so on.

This really only shifted the problem on as most of her colleagues also lacked storage space.  But at least they’d only have to deal with smaller parts of the overall consignment until they’d been trained and familiarised with the programme.

To cut a long story short, the brushes and tubes of toothpaste were eventually passed into the not always grateful hands of parents.

Feedback about the success of the programme started to trickle back.  The conclusions were what any parent of a small child will recognise.

  • The toothbrushes were all one type and size – not all the children could cope with them (if in doubt about this check in your local pharmacy for the packs they sell with three types of “brush” for different stages of infant development)
  • The toothpaste was all one flavour – lots of the children didn’t like it (what you might call the mint vs. strawberry dilemma).

Lots of the brushes and tubes were never used.

This is exactly like my shower attachment.

  • Someone assumed they knew what I wanted – I wasn’t asked
  • It arrived out of the blue
  • It didn’t work for me (wrong fitting).

So as I’ve said many times before there is no essential difference between work in the public and private sectors of the economy.  It’s good to know they both have the same lessons to learn.