Archive for March 2011

The indispensable few

March 31, 2011

The indispensables ones aren't always highlighted in gold

Everywhere I have been in my local government odyssey there have been some constants. Bad catering, poor heating systems and numerous complicated templates are just an example of the commonality possessed across the local government sector.

Another, often unsung, constant is the presence of one person who knows everyone and everything about the team, and often the council, you’re working in.

I call these people the indispensable few.

The indispensable few don’t occupy senior roles within the authority.

Some will be PAs (long established as the most powerful position in any organisation) but more often than not the indispensable colleague is just an ‘ordinary’ member of the team, an ‘ordinary’ officer or a service manager, usually of a small service.

This person will have a set role to perform but will be found helping anyone and everyone achieve their goals. They will be a source of news and information but won’t be gossipers in the traditional sense of the word. They’ll know what’s going on but have a clear idea of what can be shared, to who and when. They will often be taken into the confidence of half the organisation; and never let anyone down.

The individual in question is the person we turn to when we need advice and aren’t ready to go up the chain to our manager etc.

They’ll know who to call and where information can be found.

In summary, the indispensable few act as the grease that helps the council operate smoothly. Without them I’m pretty sure the council would not function nearly as well.


In the name of Duty

March 30, 2011

Life is no computer game

Eric Pickles has not always been our favourite person. However, for every piece of bluster and unwarranted attack, there are also flashes of genius.

One of these flashes of genius appeared a few weeks ago when Mr Pickles released a full lust of the statutory duties faced by local authorities and invited us, the informed members of the public, to nominate duties to remove.

We are not, and have never claimed to be, local government experts but in our role as ordinary officers we thought it might be fun to have a read through the duties and identify those we thought were silly, amusing or just worth a quick comment.

Do enjoy our musings below and then if you feel up to it please feel free to pull out the ones you like from the DCLG website and add them in the comments.

DCLG_067 Involve local representatives

Isn’t this what we do when we work with any Councillor?

DCLG_066 Best value duty

I could put this here for ideological reasons and an in-depth criticism of Best Value, CPA, CAA etc.  But no, for me it’s just the name.  I like the idea of a duty that is just best value.  It is like we’ve gone into a supermarket and gone to the discount aisle and got the economic version of duties.  Do we get two for the price of one?


Productivity in the Public Sector, or value?

March 29, 2011

Are we productive or valuable?

We continue our week with a brilliant guest post which hit our inbox.  If you have something about local government you’d like to share with the world e-mail it to us at, but not until you’ve enjoyed this.

One of the most corrosive “narratives” around at the moment in the media, and amongst the commentariat, is that the public sector is unproductive.

The private sector creates jobs, promotes growth, and pumps needed cash into the economy. The public sector is parasitical, taking a cut of the economic wealth of the nation and siphoning it off to support a never-ending tide of bureaucrats and middle-managers, none of whom are involved in front-line service delivery – yet who are adept at feathering their own nests.

A lot of commentators are keen to argue that such people are inherently unproductive. They are the antithesis of entrepreneurs – dynamic go-getters with the will to succeed and the knowledge that if they fail, the buck stops with them. And they’re the polar opposite of the chief executives of big corporations – who stand and fall by the support of their stakeholders, who have the freedom to take their money out and invest elsewhere if they’re unhappy with the direction of the company in which they have a stake.

Simplification? Quite possibly. But it’s a compelling argument if the only public services you see day-to-day are rubbish collection and street lighting. And it’s an argument born of enraged impotence – firstly, at the injustice of a world where the richest spoils go to those who do the least to earn them, and secondly, at the utter unaccountability of these pen-pushers in their non-jobs – even though, as the refrain often goes, “we pay their wages!” (more…)

Why I didn’t march

March 28, 2011

How they do it elsewhere

Before I start this piece I should make something clear:

This blog does not have a collective position on anything and the following piece reflects just one persons view (i.e. mine).

This past week saw a twitter hash tag circulating in advance of Saturday’s anti-cuts march. The hash tag was something like #whyiammarching and was chock full of ordinary public sector workers expressing why they would be giving up their Saturday to march through the streets of London.

Anyone who read those tweets could not fail to sense the sincerity of those who protested this weekend. These weren’t rabble rousers or people simply out to protect their own interests. On the contrary these were, and still are, committed public servants out to protect the services, and service users, they care about.

A typical tweet read:

  • AIR is marching because art education is a right not a privilege
  • Because I believe in healthcare, education and employment for all
  • Gratitude: In my 20’s homeless and adrift. I remember it now, homed, grounded, psychotherapist. Helped to this place
  • Have already seen clients who will have significant rent shortfalls due to housing benefit cuts which may result in eviction

And rather less sympathetically:

  • The cuts are wrong and will hit the vulnerable and leave the rich to do what the f**k they want

It is hard to read these without feeling a twinge of guilt about not going. The following tweet emphasises that point:

  • Because moaning isn’t good enough

This blog has done its fair share of moaning (although on reading back through it not that much about the cuts) so why did I decide to stay at home?


Do as I say, not as I mean

March 25, 2011

Say it properly

After exclusively revealing some training notes from our secret senior managers training recently and getting away with it, I thought I’d share another memo which I’ve received.  These are designed to prepare me for life as a senior manager in the future, so I’ve been asked to memorise as much as possible and start using it on a regular basis.

Any of this sound familiar?


Today we are going to be looking at language: specifically that which you will need to know.  There needs to be a very clear divide between what you are saying and what you are meaning, so be sure to use the right words at the right time.  Simply go through the column on the right, select the appropriate situation and use the language on the left.

And if all else fails, pull out number one on our list…


Prince Harry (Otherwise known as PRINCE 2)

March 23, 2011

An improvement over PRINCE 1 (William)?

One of my welovelocalgovernment colleagues put up a blinding piece about stifling creativity in local government. Unfortunately, the areas he was criticising are nearly all areas I work in. Develop a pro-forma? Check. Created a Steering Group? Check. Filled in timesheets? Check. Introduce Project Management software? Half-check. Been on PRINCE 2 training? Aha, success! One piece of creativity destruction that I have managed to avoid!

But, if I’m honest this simply isn’t success on my behalf.

I’ve never been on PRINCE 2 training because my authority wouldn’t pay for it; I wanted to go but just wasn’t allowed.

To use my colleague’s framework; I wanted to stifle my creativity but wasn’t allowed to reach my full stifling potential.

So, assuming that the central argument was more or less correct, why was I so keen to go on this piece of training and develop the PRINCE 2 skills?

(It is probably worth explaining here that PRINCE 2 is a methodology for managing projects. It stands for Projects in Controlled Environments and was specifically designed for use in the public sector. It is widely used throughout local authorities in the UK)

A simple argument would be that I wanted to make myself more employable. That is part of it but I think that probably misses the central point of why it would make me more employable:

I wanted to be PRINCE 2 qualified because everyone else in local government was getting the qualification and everyone is using it. PRINCE 2 has become ubiquitous across local government and those without it are, in many roles, often seen as behind the times.

In one of my previous authorities you couldn’t move without running up against someone who was PRINCE 2 qualified. From the admin assistants to those who put together Government bids to people managing small projects in the council to scrutiny officers (who ‘managed’ scrutiny reviews) to those building whole schools the one thing that united them was a PRINCE 2 qualification.

Some authorities sent their whole management team on courses (anywhere between £750 and £2,000 per person) and declared boldly that they were ‘PRINCE 2’ authorities and were going to run their management teams with just exception reporting, Gantt charts, well kept risk registers and updated PiDs. (if this is verbal garbage then I can only apologise: Google is probably the answer)

So why PRINCE 2?


Why a bleeding stump might be a good thing

March 22, 2011

Is this too gruesome for a family blog?

Two weeks ago Eric Pickles launched into one of his ‘astonishing attacks’ on local government that on further inspection consists of a good sound bite for the papers within a more general speech. Too much detail to back up his claims would make it easier for others to disagree and as we’ve argued that’s not Mr Pickle’s role in the DCLG.

Anyway, in this speech Mr Pickles said:

But unlike Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband is too weak to take on his unions and his militant council leaders.

He won’t stand up to his councillors and their “bleeding stump” strategy.

A man who can’t even lead his party, can’t expect to lead his country.

So the ‘bleeding stump’ of the weekend’s press was merely an attack on Ed Miliband. Which is fine but not really the place for this blog.

However, it got me thinking: might the ‘bleeding stump’ policy actually be a good thing?

Please, before throwing your latest supply of Eric Pickle’s pies in the direction of WLLG towers, do hear me out.

My assumption is that a ‘bleeding stump’ strategy is actually a ‘decision’ strategy. Local authorities who follow this approach make (possibly rational) decisions about whether or not they can support all their services, prioritising those that they want to continue with and regrettably closing those which they can no longer support.


Anti Social Behaviour

March 21, 2011


“If I had a pound for every time I had to remind you to do something I’d be a rich woman.”  So says Mrs Localgov, arguably not without justification.  Well, if I had a penny for every time I came across someone who had first had experience of being blocked from using one of the most powerful engagement tools then I could ignore my ‘fat cat pension’ and retire today.

Yes, I’m talking about social media and local government’s seeming inability or unwillingness to release the hounds and see what happens.  As anyone who has seen the simply excellent Socialnomics video will know, social media and digital engagement is not something which is going away any time soon, and in fact will probably continue to become a more prevalent part of our residents lives as time goes on.

Why is it that councils are so against adding social media tools to the toolkits they have?  Why is it that they are happy to let staff engage in just about every other way, but as soon as the word ‘social’ is thrown into the mix they revert to risk aversion mode?  Here are some of the more common excuses thrown at local officers, with a few thoughts of our own in answer.

Not all local residents have the internet

True.  Unarguable, irrefutable; this fact is usually the first point of defence when digital engagement is suggested.  Many people don’t have a computer, and even some of those who do, do not have access to the internet.

However, this number is going down.  It’ll never go down to zero, but as time goes on it is certainly sinking as fast as the confidence of an England cricketer.  Broadband access is increasing across the country thanks to government pushes and private sector investment, and there are a number of schemes set up to bring computers to the public.  Most libraries have computers, many council buildings have a terminal available and there are even payphones which allow you to have a browse.

But the biggest thing which is bringing the web to the people is the humble mobile.  Smartphones are fast becoming ubiquitous, and are often seen as an essential item by those who traditionally are seen as on or below the poverty line.  Just about every new phone released has access to the internet as a core function, so within a few years just about everyone with a mobile will have access to the internet wherever they are.

It’s against our IT policy

Having had to argue this one out myself, I will bet money that it’s a load of rubbish.

If you take the time to go through your own IT policy you will usually find something along the lines of “thou shalt not use any IT equipment for anything other than work use”.  Understandable (if constantly abused), this rule is not unusual and not something which should be argued against.

But we are not using social networking sites for non-work related purposes here.  We are using a tool to engage and communicate with the public, which of course is work use.  Just because the word ‘social’ is in the name of the tool does not mean that it’s a laugh a minute play-fest.  Let me use the right tool for my job!

People will spend all day mucking about on Facebook

I’m sure exactly the same thing was said when the argument was made to introduce the telephone to people’s desks.  Then again when e-mail was mooted.  Then again when broadband access to the net came up.

I refuse to believe that any of us have never sent a personal or non-work related e-mail from our work addresses.  E-mail loops were and are a huge distraction at times.

So what?

Are we really expecting every officer to spend every second from start to finish concentrating solely on spreadsheets, project plans and reports?  A lofty target perhaps, but unrealistic.  We all spend a little time a day talking about what we saw on the TV last night, the football, a movie or a night out.  We show pictures of our kids latest exploits, and just have a good old gossip.  And do you know what?  The jobs still get done.

I find that those who are more relaxed about this are also those who end up working above the call of duty regularly, putting the extra hours in when needed, offering the extra support and standing up to be counted.  If they spend ten minutes looking at photos of a relative in Australia and updating their status, they will probably be likely to more than make this up in their own time.

And if it is becoming a problem it is far more simple to prove and deal with than just about any other form of time wasting.  How do you track and record the timewasting of someone who takes half an hour to make every cup of tea, who spends an hour a day distracting people with gossip, who takes days to read a report?  How much easier it is if this is done online: a simple report from IT as to what websites they are visiting and how long they are spending on them is easy and effective; and requires no more technology than is already in place.

People don’t want to use social networks to engage with public services

How do you know?  Social networks have only been around for a handful of years – Facebook turns five this year – and it’s relatively recently that we have started to use them professionally.  Saying that people don’t want to engage with us online is like saying that West Ham will be relegated after losing the first game of the season.  It might happen, but just because they lose one game doesn’t mean they’ll lose the rest.

Likewise, just because people to date haven’t en masse engaged with every local authority online doesn’t mean that they won’t in future.  I have started signing online petitions, joining lobbying groups and sharing local information online; the more I do, the more I do.

And there are plenty of examples of public sector organisations who have done this incredibly successfully, from Newcastle to Bristol to Coventry; funny how these get ignored…

It takes ages – we haven’t got the resources

Yes and no.  To do it properly takes officer time, and to respond to everything can increase this amount of time by a fair bit.

But shouldn’t we be trying to do this anyway?  If a member of the public raises something at a meeting, we should be dealing with it.  If they call us, we should be dealing with it.  If they e-mail us, we should be dealing with it.  Are we saying that we aren’t going to engage in social media in case people tell us about our services and want us to do something about them?

A little bit of time taken to deal with issues early can save a fortune later on down the line; every bit of information we can gather to help us save time and money should be gathered.  We can’t afford not to.

At the end of the day, there will always be reasons not to do something; but with social media and digital engagement there are far more and bigger reasons to get on the train than not to.

And for those who’ve not seen it and have a minute or two spare, take a look at this:

Just not thinking it through

March 18, 2011

Just trying to do my job...

I heard a story the other day that literally made me want to punch a wall. If ever evidence of the failures of the public sector were needed this is it.

I was spending some time with staff who work for a tele-care service. This service is designed for elderly and otherwise vulnerable people. Each one is given an emergency alarm and if they have a fall they can simply press the button and be able to speak to someone in the council’s call centre, no matter where they are in their home.

If the person who falls is in need of some assistance the tele-care service send round a member of staff with a key to get in and provide assistance. If the case is more serious and an ambulance is needed then the tele-care service call the ambulance and then get round to the house to let the ambulance in.

The staff who provide this service work on a 24 hour rota and are often called upon at any time of day or night.

This is where the problem sets in: The staff often find it difficult to park in the streets of this windy town centre and therefore often need to leave their cars in spaces for which they do not have a permit. Not a problem you might think as these staff are responding to urgent requests from members of the public. Well, you’d be wrong.

The jobsworths of the parking department (in fairness it is not necessarily the poor enforcement staff who are just following orders) refuse to give these staff members exemptions for when they are on duty and are more than happy to hand out parking fines for the staff responsible.

In another touch of bureaucratic cruelty the staff members are then left responsible for the parking fines themselves as council policy is not to refund any parking fines. So, staff who are doing their job and meeting an urgent need not only get the indignity of receiving a parking fine but are also made to pay for their own ticket.

This has got to stop: surely it is not beyond the wit of the council to give these staff a permit for the evening which tells the enforcement staff not to ticket them, surely! And if the car is dangerous the permit could even have a contact number on so that could be resolved too. It beggars belief that problems like this are still unsorted.

Come on Local Government; sometimes, you make it just too easy for Eric Pickles and co.