Archive for July 2010

It’ll be a short meeting

July 29, 2010

I got a request from my manager last Wednesday.  “Can you attend a meeting with me on Friday?” they said, “I know it’s short notice but it should be interesting.”  “Sure,” says I, “I’ll accept the invite now and look at my workload a bit as it’s full on right now.”

They didn’t tell me the meeting would last seven hours.

Yes it was interesting, and yes it was relevant, but seven hours?!  That’s as long as it took to command the sea to “teem with living creatures”, and birds to fly across the heavens (assuming that you believe the Old Testament and accept that God only worked a standard 9-5 with union agreed hour lunch break).

The first half of the day was very interesting, with the facilitator/trainer discussing change management, conflict resolution theory and drawing some very interesting diagrams that all seemed to start with a triangle.  We looked at the project they are planning, along with the resources available and the outcomes required.  However, the afternoon was a bit of a ramble and discussion, with participants all seeming to be looking at the negatives and trimming back the scope of their project rather than looking at positives and how to achieve the most they can.

To top off this long, long session during which I found myself drifting off on more than one occasion, at the very end of the day my manager asked a question regarding the minimum amount of time the trainer would expect to see spent on taking our project through their process.  They let us know that usually it takes about six months, but that a seriously cut down, minimum version of the process could be delivered with 22 days of focused work.

We don’t have 22 days of focused work available.

So, after seven hours of seven people’s time, a seven second question and answer means £700 of facilitation was for nought.  Well, not exactly worthless, it helped us think through a lot of things, but we ended up back where we started from, only a lot more tired.

The next time my manager asks me if I can attend a meeting at short notice I’m checking the duration.

Big Society according to MJ

July 28, 2010

His answer might just surprise you...

As my fellow blogger previously mentioned, some fads come and go and some stick around for a while.  Fad or not, participatory budgeting is one of those projects which the previous government championed and encouraged which may not be continued in the future despite it being Big Society in action.

However, on a small scale it is happening all over the place, and thanks to the wonders of Twitter I stumbled across this link earlier this week:

If you can’t be bothered to click on that and have a look, it briefly covers someones experience at a public meeting where residents voted for projects to see which ones would be funded.  Acrobats, tanned sailors and bumbling fools all apparently turned up, and all received unofficial reviews and some money from the audience.

One line in there however stood out:

“And I wondered how we would cope with decisions more complex than allocating £2000 here and £3000 there? I’m quite happy telling the government how not to run the country, but am I capable of coming up with a workable alternative?”

The ‘workable alternative’ point is one which most people don’t even think about, and actually mirrors Big Society somewhat in my mind.  It’s easy for a member of the public, an organisation or a politician to say to a Local Authority that they aren’t doing well enough and need to do more/better, but when asked exactly how they freeze up.  It’s the specifics that aren’t considered in the criticism stage – they might say “coordinate better”, but how to do that is another matter.

People want someone else to take up the reins and come up with the answers rather than taking some ownership of the issues themselves – maybe Michael Jackson had it right when he said he wanted to ask the man in the mirror…

Making Maths Sexy

July 22, 2010

Like most of the rest of the public sector, we are having to make some pretty hefty cuts in the short, medium and long term futures.  Some, such as Councillors giving up sandwiches at meetings, are small but make a big difference (apparently the money saved will keep free swimming lessons in the borough going for at least the next three months).  Others are going to be much bigger, with no tangible positive benefits that would excite anyone with less than an unhealthy obsession with balance sheets.

Thanks in no small part to the drive towards Big Society we are required to involve local people in deciding which cuts should be made, which in and of itself makes sense.  I’m not going into the merits of involving unqualified and un-knowledgeable random people off the street when it comes to some making some technical and difficult decisions based on complex data, that’s for another day.

What I am going to address is something I was told in a meeting last week – we have to make it sexy.  We can’t make any of it sound boring, otherwise people won’t engage, so let’s break out the Sky News big book of superlatives and start making fiscal discussions more interesting than Big Brother.  For those of you who find Big Brother interesting, swap that with test cricket – I’ve yet to find someone who finds both of these things compulsive viewing.

Where do we start with this?!  Taking a workshop entitled “Partnership principles in the changing context” and making that not only into something that people will understand but would be interested in is next to impossible.  It also needs to reflect what is really being discussed, so my personal preference of “what’s going on?” was dismissed as summarily as football managers in Spain; apparently it’s about more than that.

I agree that we shouldn’t just aim for the lowest common denominator for the major thrust of our involvement activities, these are complicated issues and to make an informed decision you need to be, well, informed.  It’s not good enough just picking a random service that you know nothing about and saying get rid of it, you might as well draw lots for that.  I can see a Local Authority tombola being set up right now…

Equally I get seriously frustrated when people think informing people equals giving them loads of data and statistics.  Just because I show a room full of residents a handful of charts, some budget projections and a RAG report does not necessarily give them the information they need in order to feel informed.

They also need to understand limitations and have their expectations managed.  It’s no good making people feel fully in control of which services are going to be cut if they are not in fact in control.  This is seriously disempowering, and causes real long-term harm to trust and future engagement activities.

I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this, but I guess neither is anyone else.  Some people will find this whole process interesting and will get on board no matter how badly it’s dressed up, others wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole no matter what incentives were offered.  We want people to be informed, engaged and ready to make decisions, especially when it’s about a hard to grasp subject with big consequences.  However, we don’t want them so engaged that should we not take their advice they don’t get too upset and do something about it that makes our lives difficult.

I’d say something about wanting to have our cake and eat it too, but that’s not a phrase I understand.  Who buys a cake with no intention of eating it…

E-mail: The great blight on productivity

July 21, 2010

I received an entertaining e-mail from a colleague at another local authority this morning and thought I must share:

The council in question had decided that they had a problem with there being too much e-mail.

As the council said:

Recognising this, our senior management team asked the ???? communications network to consider ways of reducing email traffic.  In response, the network members have developed an email protocol, that has been endorsed by SMT, which all staff are requested to follow

Then followed their most amusing e-mail protocol which I reproduce in all it’s bureaucratic glory… Enjoy:

E-mail protocol

  • Phone someone or go to talk to them rather than use email.
  • Open your Outlook box a couple of times a day rather than leave it open all day.
  • Do not set up your email so that an automated receipt is requested.  If you need an acknowledgement, put that in the body of your email.
  • Use the ‘reply to all’ button only in exceptional circumstances.
  • Only copy (cc) an email to those who need to see it.
  • Send meeting invitations using your Outlook calendar.
  • Put the subject matter of your email in the ‘subject’ line and state what action is required eg
    • For action please by…
    • For information
    • Response requested by…
    • Papers for [title] meeting on [date]
    • Good news…
  • If it’s just a quick message, put the whole thing in the subject box.
  • Keep emails brief, clear, accurate and appropriate to your audience.
  • Delete any unnecessary content when you are replying to a ‘string’ of emails.  This is especially important if there is sensitive content involved.
  • Cut down on attachments.  If possible, send a link to a document or just copy the relevant part into the body of the email.
  • Assume that tasks requested through email will be carried out – there is no need for an acknowledgement email.
  • Take responsibility for keeping group email lists up to date.
  • Set up your Out of Office message when relevant and switch it off on your return.
  • Ask to be left off circular emails that you don’t need to see. 
  • Before you press the send button, pause and double check that:
    • you’ve listed the right recipients
    • the message is clear
    • you’ve added any necessary attachments.
  • Finally, avoid printing emails.  If you need to keep an email, store it on your computer.
  • Let us forget for a moment that they had a task group (or communication network) write this or that sometimes getting up and speaking to someone can waste monumental amounts of time the thing that really gets me about this is that they did it in the first place. It’s still ridiculous.

    A better e-mail (and yes the protocol was both an e-mail circulated to a group mailing list and didn’t have a clear title with action required in it) would have said the following:

    ‘You’re a highly paid member of staff tasked with doing a complicated job. Please be sensible about how you use your e-mail and try not to waste too much of your or other people’s time.’

    But that wouldn’t require a taskgroup or a senior manager signed off protocol so where would we be then?


    Survival of the dimmest

    July 20, 2010

    We all know that money is tight.  My borough has all but decided that they are going to join the ever growing band of boroughs (sounds like an ill-fated HBO special) who will no longer be hiring many new staff externally.  In effect, they are closing the doors; if you are in you can stay in, but new vacancies will stay internal unless exceptional circumstances dictate otherwise.

    If you are internal already this is great news.  People retire, people die, people move on one way or another all the time, so you will have a better than ever chance of getting new opportunities and potentially promotions.  I’m led to believe this may also extend to other Council’s, i.e. you can move about within the sector fairly easily.  Not so good if you want to get into that exclusive club however.

    This might at first sound like a good idea to cut costs and eliminate unnecessary posts, but the merest moments thought highlights some key faults with this approach.  As I said above, if you are good at your job you will be able to progress.  If you are excellent at your job you may even leave the sector entirely to venture into the brave new world of the private sector.

    If you are mediocre at your job, you won’t.

    Surely this will leave us with fewer and fewer excellent members of staff, resulting in declining standards and morale whilst the shining stars go off and make their fortunes?

    Recruitment to local authorities needs to be better managed, that is for certain.  There are too many people doing too many pointless jobs or doing worthwhile jobs poorly.  By not allowing new blood to infuse the system these wastrels, vagabonds and n’er do wells will continue to exist without being brought to the attention of the efficiency police (they have an annoying tendency to be able to do ‘just enough’), and they will continue to draw their bloated wage packet for performing adequately when a new person might be able to excel.

    We should be making local authorities an employer of choice rather than a fall back for those who see it as an easy touch.  Let the talent in and cut the deadwood out.

    Local authorities and health scrutiny

    July 18, 2010

    When Labour came to power in 1997 they were pretty certain that local government was broken. Old men sat in committees which nominally ran the departments they presided over. The system didn’t provide real leadership and becuase everyone on the committee was sort of tied to every decision didn’t really lead to any opposition or challenge within the council.

    I was a young man when this syetm was in place so have no idea whether it was succesful or not. It strikes me a recipe for disaster but over time the one thing I’ve learnt is that people make systems work for them so it is entirely possible that the committee system actually functioned quite succesfully in it’s day.

    Anyway, I digress: In replacement of this system the Labour Government brought in the leader and cabinet system with one councillor ‘in charge’ of each portfolio (they formed the cabinet which made collective decisions) and the rest of the councillors forming backbench scrutiny committees designed to provide opposition and challenge to the Cabinet.

    After ten years of this system being in place it is still probably too soon to judge whether this model will be a success. However, I can state one thing without doubt; at the moment the scrutiny function in local authorities is weak. And it is weak over an area where they have direct influence and collegial relations with the main players. It is weak in an area which directly effects their chance of re-election and on issues that most councillors have a working knowledge of.

    In my humble opinion the succesful monitoring of the health spending of GPs is well beyond their abilities right now. (Indeed, health scrutiny has been going on for three years and has so far been singularly unimpressive).

    So when the Liberal Democrats proudly pointed out that they had made the Tories shift ground on this policy by agreeing to health scrutiny all we can conclude is that it is the most pyrric and hollow of victories.

    However, as mentioned above humans have the tendency to ignore the system and rise to the occassion and so I say to all councillors out there: now is your chance. This is a big challenge and a huge responsibility; are you up to it?

    Even if they are it’s still a huge Tory gamble!


    A quickie…

    July 16, 2010

    I just saw this excellent cartoon on the public strategist blog

    An excellent cartoon from

    An excellent cartoon from

    It amused me.