Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! I thought I should say that and keep the Odanglesex Chronicles for tomorrow. Unfortunately it seems the Australians have jumped the gun and inaugurated 2012 before the fabric of being was ready and the Japanese retaliated. The whole world will never all be in the same year again (but was it ever?).

It might seem that one of the best reasons for celebrating the end of 2011 and the start of 2012 is that 2011 (apologies to my most sensitive readers) has been a bit of a bummer. The world economy has lurched from crisis to crisis, with the continent I'm associated with (however hard the Brits tried to separate themselves by melting the sea-ice at the end of the last ice-age to flood the North Sea and English Channel)in the worst crisis. After irresponsible bankers caused a world recession, the governments of at least two European countries have effectively been turned over to - the bankers.

But...while the Arab Spring will lead to massive disappointments, as all true revolutions do, it's been an extraordinary demonstration of the power of hope and love over brute power and greed; and not all the gains will prove illusory. Even the Occupy movement (which unlike protesters in Tahrir Square seems not to be focused on specific changes) is a healthy reaction to the undermining of democracy and community.

Hope. Then act.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Standing on Ceremony

People are often impatient of ceremony. I was when I was young, although I could see the beauty in some ceremonies and a half-hidden meaning in some. Ceremony seemed to get in the way of thought and so often to reinforce the status quo in ways you couldn't question rationally, only ridicule - and that was a great time for satire in the UK.

I still feel moved to remind myself (and others) that something isn't true or valuable because it's wrapped in ancient or impressive ceremony. Ceremony does not make a royal wedding either important beyond the couple, or loving between them. The Nazis deliberately built up a great edifice of impressive ceremony, some of it visually very clever, artistic and effective. Something can be great ceremony, something can be impressive art, and still be evil.

There are two dangers in ceremony. One is that wrong can be wrapped in gold and music and marching till it is accepted by people who might have rejected it. The other is that it is treated as magic. In rejecting so much ceremony, Puritans and Quakers (who differed on so many other things) shared a perception that these things could get in the way of truth.

When a priest raises a chalice with wine, when set words are spoken over a grave, when traditional things are done reverently before a marriage or a battle, do we think the words or the ceremonial acts themselves change anything? Traditionally many people have thought just that. If the right words were not spoken, if the right sacrifice was not made, the enterprise would not prosper and perhaps even the winter would not end. The fate of the dead person's soul would be different. I think one of the several reasons why people reject religion is that they associate it with this claim of effective magic. I reject this magic entirely. But I do not reject the ceremony.

Clearly people educated to believe in certain ceremonies will be affected one way by a ceremony done properly in the traditional manner, and another way by it going wrong. In the second case, for example, the soldier may be more inclined to perceive defeat coming and to run, making defeat more likely and reinforcing belief in the magic of the ceremony. I believe the impact of ceremony can go beyond that.

Ceremony is poetry - sometimes ossified, sometimes in a strange language people struggle now to understand, but still poetry. Ceremony can represent something powerfully beyond words and engage emotions which might otherwise fester and bubble under the surface. Have you watched while a priest threw a handful of soil on a coffin? Stood a moment in silent respect? Wondered why things as everyday as bread and wine could take on huge significance for Christians? Clasped hands at one moment and not another? Sacrificed a small coin into the sea or a river? Sung a song supporters of the same football club sang generations back? All these are ways of saying something, of symbolising something. The soil on the coffin symbolises our dependence on the soil, our bodies' identity with it, that we come from it and go into it. The football song symbolises unity in a common cause, common across time as well as numbers.

Sometimes ceremony becomes too ornate, too dominated by gold and jewels and long processions, just as some poets lose their way in their own clever and creative talent. At the root, though, there should be meaning - meaning we could not so effectively encompass in logic, but that does not make it illogical.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Blogging in the half-light

A while back I posted "Blogging in the Dark", talking about the information I could get on visits to the blog and the questions it raised but didn't answer. For example, I was intrigued and slightly puzzled by acquiring a Russian and a Latvian readership and encouraged the Russians and Latvians to talk back. They didn't, but I do have a theory about the Latvians: suddenly all at once I had 26 hits from Latvia and thereafter only one repeated, so I wonder if this might have been a computer-savvy English-language class looking through English-language blogs. The Russians, though, gradually increased until they overtook the USA into second place (the UK being unsurprisingly first).

Then, dramatically, the Americans hit back. The Russo-American space race was nothing to the SibatheHat blog race. A sudden surge in American hits coincided with sudden interest in a very early posting I'd thought had vanished without trace, "The dangers of being customer-centred". I was very pleased by this as I felt I'd been saying something important there. Soon hits from the US were running at about 2/3 of the total and after they'd looked at the customer-centred thing and the two posts on happiness as an aim of government policy, all six most viewed posts were episodes of The Odanglesex Chronicles, my lampoon of English local government. The conclusion is unavoidable that this has found interest in the US somewhere - but why? I'd be fascinated to know.

At the same time a level of two or three German hits per week trebled and France came from nowhere(well, France was in France all along, but you know what I mean) to overtake Russia for third place. Interesting and a bit mysterious too.

One reason why this all remains a mystery is that unlike on my poetry blog (, and please do visit that too) hardly anyone is commenting. Please do (by clicking on "comments"): I'd love to get some discussion going.

Just a birdwatching note while I'm about it: my yearlist is now on 211 without being a twitcher or leaving Britain (Glossy Ibis and Great Grey Shrike at Fingringhoe, TICK); there was a White Wagtail feeding in the next street along four days ago; and while good numbers of many winter visitors in Essex hadn't been matched by winter thrush numbers, especially Redwings, suddenly along the Colne valley on Christmas Eve there were lots. Birder folklore might suggest this was one of those movements ahead of hard weather, but the meteorologists said no and they were right.

Back to the Odanglesex Chronicles soon. I think they'll be struggling with Agile Working soon, but maybe first, an ukase from the Secretary of State...

Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles - A Good Performance (2)

The story so far: the Council has promulgated a profile for performance review with set percentages for each category, any departure from this profile to be approved at senior level. It has also created a "Best Person of the Year" award and ceremony: both of these are presented as responses to a staff survey finding that people want more recognition for good performance.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager


I'm applying for the performance profile to be varied for my team. It really would hit me in the guts for any of my people to be judged "failing", as basically they're all up to the job and working hard. You'll be aware that the team has had a number of major successes this year and I fill in the case for a variation in the attached submission. I also attach the rating I believe would be appropriate if variation is approved.

FROM: Neil Balderson
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Sammi Parrot, Maurice Maina


Thanks for submitting your requests for EDPE variations. As the robustness of the model depends on maintaining the highest standards, it has unfortunately not been possible for Kenneth, Conor and myself to approve any variations. Where you submitted assessments based on the hoped-for variation, these have all been downgraded to fit the profile. I know you'll be disappointed by this, but I know you and your team members will understand the reasons.

Best wishes

FROM: Dale Brashcon, Transformational Excellence Champion
TO: All Transformational Excellence

GOOD NEWS! You've probably seen the announcement on the Extranet or the latest Ed's Job, but if not, THE DETAILS OF THE BEST PERSON OF THE YEAR AWARD ARE OUT!!! Except, of course, the names of the winners! That we only find out on the night. I know just how excited everyone has been about this and it's obvious from the nominations received that this is really going with a swing. Thanks to all those who nominated colleagues, and special thanks to those who nominated me (ONLY JOKING!!)

If you've read the Extranet you'll know that we've been really lucky to get Ned Pratt OBE to compere and present the awards. Ned will be known to all of you as Odanglesex's premier comedian, the star of "Carry on up the Rear Passage, Gunga Din", "Pratting About" and many other excellent shows.

I hope to see you all on the night. If you're not there, I know where you live (ONLY JOKING!!)

Kenneth wants a really good turnout from TESV. Remember, there are cakes and soft drinks.

The blog of Chief Executive Edelbertha Spengler


There's really only one thing I can talk about this week - the wonderful night we all had at the Best Person of the Year celebration. I'm sure you'll all agree that Ned Pratt, who was so kind to agree to run the show, was outstanding and I have to admit I was in stitches at times, though I couldn't quite understand the joke about someone called Lord Pond.

The cakes and pop went like, well, hot cakes, and Minnie in my office had to nip out to Tesco's for replacements.

Well, if by any chance you were unable to attend, here are the results. Congratulations to everyone who was nominated and to those who nominated them.

BEST GUARDIAN ANGEL: Bartholomew Addison, Financial Resources
BEST INNOVATOR: Kerry-Anne Porritt, Older People and Recycling
MOST IMPROVED: Satish Chatterparjee, Transportation and Settlement

AND THE OVERALL WINNER, BEST PERSON OF THE YEAR: Henry Donaldson, Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision.

MANY CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! Your book vouchers are in the post (sorry they weren't ready on the night).

Now just think, everybody - next year THIS COULD BE YOU!

FROM: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


Just a little blip, but it could be embarrassing, so better make sure UNISON don't hear about it. Did you realise that Henry Donaldson in Hamish's team is Best Person of the Year and has just been adjudged in EDPE to be failing?


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Hamish Carpenter

Hamish: We need to have a word about the debacle concerning Henry Donaldson. I hope tomorrow at 4 is suitable for you. Emma Carver from HR will be present. We will be reviewing criteria for EDPE assessment and appropriate implementation pathways.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Ed's Christmas Message

ED's JOB: The blog of Chief Executive Edelbertha Spengler

Wow, only two days to the REALLY BIG DAY - Christmas!

At home we've been hyperactively getting everything ready, the presents, the wrapping paper, the cellotape (desperate last-minute trip for that), the turkey, the pudding, the tree, the car window de-icer, the battle plan for refuse and recycling arrangements. Just remember to check out what the changed timetable is for collections in your area.

My twelve-year-old is a bit hooked on glace cherries, so I'm having to take steps to limit the supply this Christmas or she could be sick again.

It's a bit like that about the Council's budget. Some restrictions are necessary and even some compulsory redundancies. Today those of you who that applies to will be getting the notification. I'm really grateful to them for all the work they've done, whatever it was. My eldest son tells me Christmas is really an ancient midwinter festival when people got rid of all their accumulated fat and vegetables and nuts and celebrated the end of the old year and the start of s new and exciting one, so for all of you experiencing change, IT CAN BE EXCITING!



Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Good Performance (1)

FROM: Conor O'Connor, Director of Human Resources Development
TO: All Directors; Chief Executive


The proposal for an Excellent Performance Delivery Environment (EPDE)I put before CRB has been approved. To summarise:
* All employees will be graded from A - E by their line managers as part of the annual My Performance process. Grades will be reviewed and approved or amended by Team Leaders.
* To prevent grade inflation, managers will adhere to the following performance profile as closely as possible: A: 15%; B: 25%; C: 25%; D: 20%; E: 15%.
* The thumbnail definition of the categories is as follows: A: outstanding, innovative achiever; B: high achiever within normal parameters; C: meets requirements of job; D: meets requirements of job with some areas for improvement; E: failing and in need of remedial action.
* Categories A and B will receive income augmentation in line with annexe 3A.
* There will be an appeals procedure: details will follow.

This will sharpen up our performance and ensure that we both encourage the high-fliers and weed out the underperformers.


The blog of Chief Executive Edelbertha Spengler

Hi! I think I've mentioned this before, but I'm a great fan of Queen's Sticks Wielders women's hockey team. Last season was really depressing and we got relegated to Division 2. This season, though, we're going great guns and have won four out of six matches, one of the others being drawn.

What made the difference? A real determination to concentrate on performance and raise the team performance level! And it was a real team effort.

Although performance levels at Odanglesex County Council are pretty much through the roof, we can't afford to rest on our laurels. We only beat Scunthorpeshire by one point in the Local Goverment Chronicle poll last year, and they're making big efforts. We must achieve continuous improvement. That's why I could so easily relate to the finding in the Employee Survey which said that 71% of you thought we could do more to reward good performance.

We've taken that VERY seriously and done two things in response. One is to introduce a Good Performance system which will identify the best performers and reward them. Your directors will be speaking to you about that very soon. The other is to launch a BEST PEOPLE OF THE YEAR award scheme in which all of you will be able to nominate fellow-employees (you can't nominate yourself, sorry) for recognition of their outstanding service and they will receive awards at an annual ceremony hosted by a major Odanglesex public figure. Councillor Wayneflete and I will judge the nominations together with Conor O'Connor and we're really looking forward to it!

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


Does this new performance reward system really mean I have to assess one of my people as failing?

FROM: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager

TO: All Transformational Excellence managers

Kenneth's had a number of queries about EPDE. They come down to the same thing - the degree of flexibility in the recommended profile. In order to ensure a robust performance structure, departures from the profile must be minor and exceptional. Appeals will be dealt with by Kenneth. I hope that clarifies the position.

To be continued...

Monday, 19 December 2011

In memoriam Vaclav Havel, 1936 - 2011

I speak in celebration of all those who freely enter danger and deprivation to fight for freedom, all those who challenge lies and oppression, all those who refuse to allow their thoughts, their words and their loves to be controlled by abused power, who though they may give ground, never give way.

I speak for those who love freedom and do not confuse it with the oppression of poor by rich or the reduction of all life to money.

I speak for those who know true freedom cannot be won by denying it to others.

Vaclav Havel was a great man and a great example.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A Terrible Accident

Today I was going out birdwatching on coastal marshes in Essex (Old Hall Marshes in fact). It was a cold and windy winter day, so I decided to take not only a thermos of coffee but also one of hot chicken soup. I put the coffee powder in one thermos and had both flasks ready while the water boiled and the soup heated up. The soup won the race. I poured it into the thermos containing the coffee powder.

Now I know that some of the followers of this blog are of an adventurous character in matters culinary. They may be moved to try this new combination. To them I have one word of advice - DON'T. OK, that's probably two words.

Oh well, it was an enjoyable day's birding. I chose to keep a day list in my head and so the first bird I saw (Jackdaw) was 1 and so on. Amazingly, Black-headed Gull came in at 38. Hardly less surprising, Meadow Pipit was 41 and Starling 42.

So really the day balances out - White-fronted and Barnacle Geese on one hand, coffee-flavoured chicken soup on the other.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Thousand Miles (2)

FROM: Kelly Pattrick, PA to Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

Kenneth wanted to be assured that your claim for 49 miles for the round trip from County Hall to and from Little Pilesbury is correct. The AA route planner says 45 miles.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter
TO: Kelly Pattrick

Kelly: Bodger's Lane was blocked by a fallen tree. The best alternative route through the Dirksedges took an extra four miles.


FROM: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer
TO: Bunny Hare, Financial Processes Consultant (claims)


I submitted my mileage claim for the second quarter of the year nearly four months ago and it hasn't appeared even in the pay statement that's just arrived. Sorry to push, but what's happening?


FROM: Bunny Hare
TO: Reema Narlikar


Sorry, it hasn't been approved by Kenneth yet. He has quite a backlog.


FROM: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


Just to assure you that following the informal word you had with me about the large amount of time Directors are having to devote to checking mileage claims, I'm putting to CLB that claims under 500 miles be self-assessed and thereafter by line managers only.


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Thousand Miles (1)

FROM: Grant Coutts, Director of Financial Process and Resources
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Kenneth: I attach a copy of the quarterly analysis of mileage expenses by directorate. While the overall trend for the Council is directionally benevolent, your directorate's mileage is increasing. One employee in your directorate claimed for more than a thousand miles in the last quarter.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Grant Coutts

Grant: Many thanks for this. Who was it and what was the precise figure?

FROM: Tracey Love, Financial Processes Officer (claims)
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Kenneth: Grant asked me to supply details as above. It was Chalmers Butt, District Community Development Outreach Officer. He claimed for 1071 miles.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Danni Worrall, Senior Strategic Visioner

Danni: See the above. Please get a grip on Chalmers' expenses.

FROM: Danni Worrall
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob

Kenneth: Chalmers was appointed six months ago to a new post, if you remember. It involves going round all the districts and many of the meetings are in village halls and so on. He really does need this mileage.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Danni Worral

Danni: Thanks for this. Nonetheless, try to control his mileage. This is a corporate priority.


FROM: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
TO: All directors

Colleagues: Some of the trends in mileage claims are not as we would wish. Moreover, where the trend is benign, it is generally well short of our milestones. Consequently, as you are aware, at the last CMB meeting we agreed the following changes which should be conveyed to your staff.

All journeys which generate an entitlement to a mileage claim must be approved at least a week in advance by the line manager and by the relevant director.

If the line manager is the relevant director, approval must be in place also from the assistant director. If the potential claimant is the director, (s)he may approve his/her own expenses subject to normal controls (you can leave that bit out when you cascade).

All claims must be approved and countersigned by the director.

Thanks and have a good weekend


FROM: Kelly Pattrick, PA to Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob

Kenneth: When I sent out the mileage e-mail to all Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision, was I supposed to leave out that bit about directors' expenses and Ed's comment in brackets?



Sunday, 11 December 2011


This will be a familiar experience to those who still buy a newspaper (you know, one of those flat, rustly hard-copy things). You get it in your hands and curiosity drives you to check out the headlines or the front-page picture.

If you have a walk with the thing, as I do now, speculation is given more time to flourish while you have limited opportunities to read if you don't want to have an intimate encounter with a lamp-post.

This is not on the level of the tabloid which once headlined STRIP CLUBS SHOCK: MAGISTRATES MAY ACT ON INDECENT SHOWS (what roles would they be acting?, but I did speculate on the "Observer"'s "BLUNKETT IN SECRET MURDOCH PAYOUT OVER NEWS OF THE WORLD PHONE HACKING CLAIMS". Had David Blunkett when Home Secretary ordered Rupert Murdoch's phone to be hacked? Surely not - the Murdoch press was a New Labout friend then.

As for "ANGRY CLEGG TURNS FIRE ON CAMERON OVER EUROPE VETO", I was merely speculating how this would play in the Far East: "ANGLY CREGG TURNS FIRE ON CAMELON OVER EULOPE VETO". A camelon, of course, is a temperamental beast of burden used by King Arthur and his knights. Hmm, his first years at Eton may have been very much like that.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Lord Pond

FROM: William Wayneflete, Leader of the Council

TO: All Odanglesex County Council

I thought I should let you know that I have been informed that an exhaustive routine check of our records has revealed that the convicted necromancer "Lord" David Pond, a cat-herd, was once a member of this council, elected for the Graveigh division. An intensive and rigorous investigation is now taking place into whether he was ever, as he has claimed on television, leader of this council.

Any enquiries from the media should be referred to External Communications. If, as may occasionally be the case, you should enter a hostelry and be asked about "Dave Pond", the line to take is that you have never heard of him.

Many thanks for your support.

Bill Wayneflete


Edelbertha Spengler's blog


Yesterday my eight-year-old left the back gate open and Rupert the Tortoise escaped. We were just in time to stop him getting on a bus. I don't know about you, but I hate telling the children off. However, I did feel I had to lay down the law a bit about gates.

In the same way, I thought it'd be timely to remind you about security at County Hall and particularly access issues. After all, as a nerve centre of government, we would be an obvious target for terrorists or "Occupy" protesters, and a thief seeing all the publicity bandied about on the amount of money we spend might try to gain entry to see if any of it was lying around!

I need to remind myself about this just as much as anyone else. Only about four years ago, I distinctly remember being  greeted in the Roman atrium by a short, fat man who embraced me and said he had just found out that I was a woman, but never mind, I still had a job. Naturally I assumed he was a leading member of the council. I now realise this may have been incorrect and I should have asked to see his I.D.. Please do the same for anyone you don't recognise, unless, of course, they have a badge saying VALUED CUSTOMER.


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
TO: Kelly Pattrick, PA to Kenneth Spotlessnob


I'm just updating my gifts and favours register entry. Could you check for me with Internal Governance Excellence whether Lord Pond giving me an ice lolly constituted a gift which should be declared?


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Market and the Ballot (2)

As I suggested two days ago, the Market is great for reflecting individual choice in the present. It can be distorted by advertising campaigns - people buying a particular car or drink or footwear because they've bought the message that it'll make them young and popular and sexy and trendy, perhaps, when in fact it can't deliver most of these things - but customer pressures do quite often go against what the producers or retailers might like.

The question of what should be left to individual choice can usually be settled through John Stuart Mill's test. Does your choice hurt someone else (or, we might now add, for example drive a species extinct)? Some things cannot be settled by a series of separate individual choices: in my post on the dangers of being customer-centred, I gave an example of a controversy over proposals to cut down some trees in a public park. It is not possible for all the different users to have what they want, so a much-despised thing called politics intervenes to make a collective decision. As I suggested in that post, a danger of a zealous market approach to public services and decisions is that it undermines the understanding of community decision-making and co-operation and creates the expectation that individuals should always be able to get what they want; and when they don't, they turn against politics and democracy. Our species developed as a social animal making collective decisions: it's an essential part of being human.

Where an individual choice can be made without harming others though, as in a frail old person deciding to spend on making her garden accessible rather than on improvements within the house, it's of course far better than professionals deciding for her.

I am not usually one for conspiracy theories (they have abounded through history and very few of the alleged conspiracies have gained any support from evidence subsequently coming to light), I do suspect that behind the populist campaigns of the Murdoch press, for example, is a wish to denigrate public service, politics and democracy, not to bring in dictatorships, but to make people happy to see collective democratic decision-making replaced wherever possible by the market.

So would there be a problem? In some areas, yes - as if we can't understand the processes of debate and compromise that lead to a decision on that public park or library, we may end up with no public parks or libraries, only charged-for services far more accessible to the rich than the poor.

A few years back, two radical right Conservative writers embarked on a  series of articles on land and housing policy. They actually came up with some good points, such as that German local authorities' greater powers to raise local income from business led to more balanced decisions on building proposals; but in advocating the abolition of land planning, they proposed, in some detail, that government should not intervene in issues of wildlife habitat protection. If enough people wanted some marshes preserved for wildlife, they said, they could join the RSPB or whatever, pay subscriptions and donate, and their economic power would be measured against that of the developer.  Now this proposal was mad for several reasons, but I want to concentrate on one. Whereas in democracy everyone has one vote, to influence public decisions, in a free market power equates to spending power. A million people of modest means could support an organisation trying to establish or preserve a nature reserve and be "outvoted" by one billionaire or by a corporation made rich by consumers who would never have been consulted on the nature reserve and might be horrified at its destruction. The extreme pro-market approach is simply grossly inegalitarian: it assumes that the more money you have, the more power you should have in a straightforward relation: a hundred times the money,  a hundred times the power.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Market and the Ballot: (1)

Over the last thirty years or so, in Britain and many other countries, the areas of life controlled by market processes have expanded at the expense of those controlled by government. In many cases, of course, the governments were not democratic - East European Communist regimes or African or Latin American military dictatorships, and the replacement of these regimes has been accompanied by marketisation of many areas of life, especially in Eastern Europe.

I want to concentrate on the existing democracies and to point out some of the dangers and losses along with the undoubted benefits of the triumph of the market.

Anyone who saw the old Soviet regime with open eyes, for example, would know how an absence of market mechanisms can distort and deaden so many areas of life. The shops do not stock what people want and they have no great incentive to attract customers or to sell. The customer does not matter - only what the state says the customer should want. Even in mixed-economy, democratic Finland in the 1970s the effects of the combination of a state monopoly on the sale of alcohol with planning policies that deliberately held down the number of bars and other alcohol consumption outlets below demand, were to disadvantage small producers, reduce choice and the quality of advice and leave bars with so much demand that they could afford to offer a bad service and be rude to customers because they would still make a profit.

The market is very good at reflecting customer choice where customers or families can make individual choices and where they are well-enough-informed to do so. This has been extended into some areas of public service, for example the "personalisation" of social care in the UK. In principle, people who need help such as frail old people, instead of being offered types of help they may not want, get a budget and can spend it as they like. There are risks, particularly with vulnerable people lacking good advice, but basically this is a liberal and empowering measure. Even where services are hard to break down to an individual choice - it would be impossibly inefficient for each household to make a free choice of their refuse collector - an element of competition can be healthy, with local authority providers competing with the private sector, social enterprises and one another. The benefit here is not an extension of personal choice, but a likelihood of better value for money.

In some areas, though, the market does not work well. Consumers may not be well-informed enough to make a good choice. For example, energy provision in the UK is theoretically a free market with competing providers, but the deals are so complicated and so often look good but on exhaustive study are bad, and the companies make it so hard to swap, that there is virtually no real competition and the vast majority of people are on deals substantially worse than they could get. This may well be through collusion, and in theory at least, action by a regulator could force changes which made the competition real. But the point is worth noting - that an unregulated market does not necessarily work for the best for consumers. This may be because take-overs and aggressive business tactics result in monopoly, which the state can and often does ban. But monopoly does not necessarily mean providers understand less about customer desires than in a competitive market. Let's compare rail travel or policing with credit cards or car insurance.

Policing is a state monopoly (though I could see that changing, with state-given powers for private security forces). The police do not suffer economic pain through loss of customers if their performance is poor or their actions unpopular. But people who are dissatisfied often complain - to the police, to the media, to their elected representatives. As the police know they need the support of the community to be effective, such pressures have an impact. and the police generally know lots about what people want of them. Some rail travellers have choice if a car journey would be a credible alternative, or a flight, or a bus journey: but in the UK, many commuters have no real choice. The car journey is too stressful, too comparatively unsafe, too difficult when it comes to parking, to be attractive, the buses are too slow and the airports too far from home or place of work. So people who feel aggrieved by changes in the timetable or by cancelled services complain or even campaign. Consequently, if the rail companies don't know what people want, it's a deliberate act.

By contrast, what do you do if you find a better deal on your car insurance (a genuinely competitive market), or you're unhappy about some inefficiency at your credit card provider? You switch. There is no point in telling the company you're leaving what turned you off. You just switch. Companies may try to test customer preference through surveys, but very few people respond, and the findings are unlikely to reveal, for example, that while a change in a  service is popular with 65% of customers, 20% disliked it enough to leave - so the company will be reassured and will not consider offering two options to satisfy both groups.

Where services are provided on by local authorities, there is another thing you can do. Your experience of the service can influence your vote. Many other things influence voting behaviour, of course, but it's a safe bet that a new administration that makes services better stands a better chance of re-election than one that doesn't.

Markets also famously think short. Depletion of non-renewable resources, for example, does not have much impact on the markets until the crunch is very near. Where confidence is the issue, as with loans, ridiculously excessive confidence can drive towards a sudden collapse as in 1929 and 2008 - and then lack of confidence can be just as illogical. Markets also think narrow. If a company can save modest amounts of money by making 30% of its staff redundant, and the consequent loss of money through lost business is less than the gain through reducing the wage and energy bills, it will almost certainly make the change. The state, and through it, all taxpayers, pick up the bill in increased benefits take-up, health problems and so on. It is possible for government to disincentivise such choices, but business will use its influence effectively.

When I return to this, I'll look at situations where collective democratic choice implemented by bureaucracies is directly in competition with an atomised market approach and at how marketisation sits with the cocept of community.

Was that heavy? OK - to my post on the winter ale festival, I add high praise of Shalford's Levelly Black and Allgates' Caskablanca.

And I leave you with another learned presentation on words. Cats are kept in a cattery; bats in a battery; apes in an apiary; nurses in a nursery; and alligators in an allegory.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Harwich Winter Ale Festival

And so walking home along Marine Parade on a windy night after a trip to the tenth Harwich Winter Ale Festival on Kingsway - but well worth it! The variety is incredible and the atmosphere friendly. Mauldon's Blackberry Porter was incredible (in a nice way) and Oakham's Citra very refreshing. I wonder if astrophsicists can advise me whether my request for half a Black Hole was feasible?

Some years ago I was helping at this event and an Italian lady approached, said she had never tried British real ale but wanted to, and asked what I would recommend, requesting that I chose something local. What a responsibility! I went for Crouch Vale's Amarillo as being tasty, Essex and not as wildly different from a good lager as, say, a weighty porter might have been. She liked it.

Nina Jørgensen: Mexican drug war book

Nina Jørgensen: Mexican drug war book

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Branding the Directorate (2)

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
TO: Dale Brashcon, Transformational Excellence Champion


The word for the entries to brand the Directorate is quality rather than quantity. Six entries was a bit low. Could you present the whole thing in an upbeat, positive way in line with our core values? You know the result, of course.


By the way - can we meet with Neil at four to discuss an implementation trajectory for my learning experiences from North Korea? I'd value your input.

FROM: Dale Brashcon
TO: All Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

I'm sure you were all drumming your fingers waiting for the announcement that's had us all excited - the result of our competition to brand the Directorate! Well, this is it. We experienced a massive surge in entries after my little note of encouragement - a 100% increase, in fact. We knew how keen you all were on this!

Judging the entries was really exciting, but frustrating too as only one could win. Congratulations to everybody, but especially to Scott Gerald Fitzwilliam, Management Trainee, FOR THE WINNING ENTRY:

Collaborative, Responsive, Agile, Proactive! I'm sure you'll all agree that's us to a T! This should go on all our outgoing e-mail traffic and I attach a guide explaining how to add it just under the text.

FROM: Scott Fitzwilliam, Management Trainee
TO: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer

REE! HELP!! I just meant to send that to you. Come and comfort me, PLEASE!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Another Word Rant

This time another word whose use makes me almost laugh and cry - expatriate. Maybe it's that I've been an expatriate myself, in Kenya and Finland. The word means someone living outside their fatherland (patria), or as we would say, mother-country.

It's one word, and the EX means outside (as in exoskeleton, external) and not former as in "she hadn't reckoned on meeting her ex there". So it should not be abbreviated to "ex-pat", as newspapers often do: that must surely mean "someone who used to be Irish". Worse - I've seen it printed in official places as "expatriot", which would have to mean either something outside a patriot, or, more plausibly, someone who used to love their country but now doesn't.

Expatriotism is the last infirmity of noble mind??

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Branding the Directorate

From: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

To: All Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

I was delighted that so many colleagues from Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision took part in the recent competition to suggest values for the Council that could be summarised in seven words for our branding. It was really exciting to be on the panel with Ed and Councillor Wayneflete and see so many excellent ideas! Unfortunately the winning entry was not from TESV, but I'm sure you'll agree that the suggestion by Bill Sidebottom, Acting Assistant Director of Transportation and Settlement, was brilliant and captured the values of this vibrant and exciting organisation. So I'm sure you were thrillled when it came up on your screens when you turned on your computers: Passionate, Innovative, Strategic, Sensitive, Organised, Factually Founded!

Now our next exciting step change transformation journey is to choose a similar message for our directorate! Suggestions to Kelly Pattrick in my office please, by the end of the month. Let's do better than the other lots and get our essential message, direction and culture into just four words. If teams want to hold brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas, just contact Neil Balderson to gain approval for booking accomodation.

Looking forward to all the wonderful ideas!




Hello campers! As you all know, Kenneth is out in North Korea putting the exciting final touches to the Lord Pond Leadership Values and Benefits Awards Scheme. When he comes back, of course, he'll be full of ideas from his learning experiences, but in the meantime, he's asked me to put a little extra fizz into our Directorate branding brainstorming. We've actually had only three suggestions for the four words and one of those had only two words in it. I'm absolutely sure everyone at this exciting, transformational time is bubbling over with ideas about our excellence journey, so JUST STICK THEM IN AN E-MAIL AND SEND THEM TO KELLY OR ME!! Come on, don't be shy!!



Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Happiness is not a cigar called Hamlet - 2

I promised I'd return to the subject of happiness in government policy.

The UK government has just published a well-being index which has been widely but inaccurately described as a measure of happiness. This is overtly and laudably aimed at supplementing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of how we're doing.

There is no serious doubt that GDP should not stand alone. For example, it measures present levels of economic activity only - so rapid use of non-renewable resources actually improves the score until we reach the point that even the markets get scared and recession results. Moreover, it counts economic activity rather than sufficiency of desirable things. Imagine you own a bit of land with plum and apple trees. You pick and eat your own plums and apples, so you don't lack fruit, but as no transaction is involved, nothing is contributed to GDP. But if you sold your plums and apples to person B and then bought other fruit from person C, that would contribute to GDP. Finally, it's increasingly clear that high growth does not necessarily bring greater happiness.

Even in the late 1950s, when it was easier to assume that a society at peace and growing wealthier was improving, when Prime MinisterHarold Macmillan declared "You've never had it so good", this was criticised for being too materialistic.

There are some problems, though. I think we can dismiss quickly the objection that such an index is merely an attempt to divert attention from the bad state of the economy. If Cameron could make people forget the economy that easily, he'd be delighted! Since growth in GDP can bring wealth to a very few and very little to the rest, while measures like the Government's index give equal importance to everyone (or everyone who can be located), the left should think twice before dismissing the idea. The argument that a well-being index is Orwellian shoudl be balanced against the existing tendency to refer to GDP only. Is it liberating to treat us as cogs in a production machine?

However, for a start, the concepts are imprecise. What exactly is happiness - or well-being? I honestly find it hard to say if I'm happy, and well-being implies that someone else (like the government) is deciding for me what is good for me and what constitutes mental as well as physical well-being. Moreover, to what extent is happiness - or contentment or well-being as defined by the government - something we should be aiming at as a good in its own right? Remember in my first post on this subject that contented slave society? And what about a society basking in its well-being and happily ignoring signs of impending environmental catastrophe which an unhappier soceity might act to prevent?

The index measures a number of things including physical health and good working conditions, so calling it a happiness index is misleading. However, happiness is one of the things measured. This is a list of

factors to form the "Emoptional Health Index" within the total measure:

  • Smiling or laughter
  • Being treated with respect
  • Enjoyment
  • Happiness
  • Worry
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Stress
  • Learning or doing something interesting
  • Depression.
I actually do think this is useful, but all of these are disputable.  Here's Fred. He smiles and laughs a lot at other people's misfortunes. He's treated with respect because he's very big and strong, and consequently he doesn't need to be angry often. He enjoys violent computer games and driving very fast and finds these interesting. He has no worries and little stress and feels happy. His partner died recently but he doesn't feel sad about that at all and isn't depressed.

OK, that's an individual and in reality a community containing Fred would contain some quite unhappy people. But the point is that contentment can be reached in ways many of us would consider unsustainable. After all, perhaps Fred is not an individual but a rich and powerful nation!

Sadness and anger can be healthy reactions. How easy it would be to govern and hoodwink a society without anger! Creativity, love and beauty often come out of sadness, stress, even anger. That is part of being fully human.So there is a little truth in the argument about diverting attention from unwelcome truths - not just from the lack of growth in the economy, but from evils we should be aware of and fighting. The Roman plebs were kept happy through "panem et circenses".

Finally, while the index will contain a lot of useful information, it might be better not to create a single figure for a factitious single measure. It would be bound to mislead (politicians as well as everyone else) and would depend heavily on what questions were asked and what weight was given to different factors. The kind of information that would be really useful would be that work-related stress was increasing or that more retired people felt they were doing something interesting in the North than in the South. You can base action on those.


Sunday, 20 November 2011


Now here is a thoroughly conservative post. I want to fight in the last ditch to rescue the word "refute".

All right - words change meanings. "Nice" once meant "precise", as in the fossilised phrase "a nice distinction". "Horrid" once meant "hairy, prickly". A "revolution" was once a cyclical movement, in politics as it still is in mechanics.

I still want to stop the word "refute" losing its old meaning.

The established meaning is to prove something false. It's being weakened radically to mean "strongly deny", almost certainly because it sounds too much like "rebut", which does mean deny. Well, if "refute" loses its original meaning, we still have "disprove", though that sounds weaker even if the meaning is the same. But the problem is that "refute" continues in its old, strong meaning in a number of contexts. To refute a proposition in science or mathematics is to prove conclusively and for all time that it can't be correct. The proposition that the sun revolves around the earth has been refuted. The contrary proposition was rebutted, not refuted, by the Catholic Church. In chess, to refute a move is to devise a response so devastating that the best chess players, having studied all the possible lines that could follow, conclude that no-one should ever make that move again. Moreover, a "refutation" still seems to mean a proof of falsehood, not just a rebuttal.

"The minister refuted suggestions that his remarks were meant to undermine the Prime Minister". No he didn't - he rebutted them. How could he refute such suggestions anyway? It's not provable or disprovable.

On another note (semi-deliberate pun), I've just listened once more to Nielsen's Fourth Symphony. It draws out my soul on a string. It is brilliant and moving. Too many people aren't aware of Nielsen's music. Another fight I'm a foot-soldier in...

Friday, 18 November 2011

In Praise of Real Ale

Subtle, diverse, refreshing, tasty if a little unpredictable, offered in thousands of varieties from hundreds of makers - not wine but British-style real ale. For years it has been the lazy default assumption of journalists and others that traditional real ale was in decline or narrowing to a niche market of discerning well-off middle-aged to elderly middle-class men in places like Shrewsbury and Eastbourne. The opposite is happening: its use is increasing against the trend for most drinks and pub services, supermarkets are now well-stocked with a good range of bottled real ales and the trend is extending to new groups of people, especially young people and women. The one domestic market it will never reach is people who seek oblivion through premium lager.

Real Ale has two weaknesses. One is because of that very variety: fifty or sixty years ago, strong regional breweries dominated trade plus a few nationals. The choice of real ales in nearly all pubs was limited even over a whole year, but a few names kept cropping up. Now the market is split between a huge number of competing beers which pop up all over the country, the only nationally familiar one is Greene King IPA and a drinker unfamiliar with the varieties may be put off by the range of unfamiliar names and instead of experimenmting or asking the bar person for guidance, opt for something really familiar like Foster's or (mea maxima culpa for even mentioning the stuff) Heineken. The other concerns quality. Because real ale is a live product, it can go off and keeping it is a little more demanding than keeping those mass-produced lagers. Consequently, quality can vary, though in many pubs it's uniformly high.

There is also that tired slur about "warm beer", beloved not only of some (but by no means all) Australians and Americans, but also of those far too numerous English (I except the Scots and Welsh) who like to join in sneering at themselves. "Warm" can only mean at or above room temperature. If you get served real ale like that, send it right back. It should be cool. It should not, however, be ice-cold. An ice-cold drink anaethesthetises the taste-buds. Real ales are almost all tasty, so you don't want to zonk out the taste-buds. On the other hand, presented with an American Budweiser, for example, zonking out the taste-buds is the best thing you can do. In fairness to Aussies and Good Ol' Boys, of course, in hot countries ice-cold anything not poisonous is attractive.

Let me tell two true stories.

The scene is a busy real-ale pub in Northumberland about fifteen years ago. Two thirtyish women approach the bar in high spirits, clearly looking forward to having a drink together. As they get nearer to the bar, however, those confident smiles are replaced by signs of uncertainty. They stop dead. They look at one another for guidance.

"What shall we have?" asks one, eying the impressive array of about seven real ales and four lagers.

"Er...lager," the other replies. "A lager, please."

Scene Two is in a small real-ale pub in Essex this year. Most of the clientele in this particular pub are, say, 40+. In walk two studenty young people - an attractive, slightly punky girl and a slightly geeky-looking lad. They share a word as they view the choices.

"What'll you have?" asks the barmaid. The expected answer for many years would have been something like "one Stella and one vodka-and-lime."

"Two milds, please" the lad replies. The barmaid is surprised and checks the order. That's what they want. The mild is Oscar Wilde Mild, a recent winner of the Campaign for Real Ale's Champion Beer of Britain award.

Now just let me dream a moment about Nelson's Revenge, Doom Bar, Reverend James, The Black Douglas, Landlord, 6X, Late Red, Mersea Mud, Workie Ticket...

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Waxing poetic

Just a reminder that over on my other blog there is poetry and discussion of poetry. 20 hits so far today and I'm keen to increase the hits. If you're a bit scared of poetry, don't be: I promise to answer any questions and value any comments. Today's post was a short poem called "If" and the previous one a poem about Tollesbury Pier in Essex.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Happiness is not a cigar called Hamlet

There used to be clever and amusing TV adverts with the punchline "Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet". They stopped way back. Maybe now they sponsor Shakespeare plays in return for product placement. Was that guy in Denmark always called Hamlet?

Happiness goes in and out of politics. In the early 19th century Jeremy Bentham, many of whose ideas presaged scientific totalitarianism, said the aim of government should be "The greatest happiness of the greatest number". This is more or less accepted by a lot of people, and the old objection that you can't measure happiness has to some extent been answered by pollsters who can ask people how happy they are and count the results. It has strengths: if the whole population is miserable, one would expect a government to try to do something about it, and a focus on happiness prevents a narrow focus on, for example, economic growth or national aggrandisement. However, Bentham's formula implies that if we could make the great majority of people happy by unlimited oppression of a minority, we should do it. As a "deep Green" I don't think values should be based purely on human happiness, ignoring other life-forms (though I recognise political reality, that in human society human interests will come first and others may be decisive if the human interest debate is evenly balanced) and as a Christian I don't accept that the main human goal should be happiness, but awareness and love - still more difficult things to measure.

Consider this question I put to a friend who has deep moral convictions which seem to exist separated from his political philosophy. Imagine a society with slavery. The free exist happily without bad consciences on the proceeds of the slaves' work and the slaves, not realising they could be free or scared at the prospect of freedom, are content being slaves. Into this society comes someone preaching against slavery. Do you support or suppress him or her?

When I continue this post I'll talk about the British Government's "wellbeing index" which has been laughed at, preached against and praised as setting up happiness as a government goal.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Norfolk Coast

Another place to celebrate - the North Norfolk coast. I'm just back from three days there: it's almost a manageable day trip from Harwich. I go there mainly because it's an outstanding area for birdwatching, especially in autumn (not just for the Brits - there were Lithuanians visiting a reserve when I was there), but it appeals to me in other ways too.

The coast is open and bleak. If you stand on this coast and look north, there is no land between you and the Arctic. At a place like Deepdale Marsh, looking out to Scolt Head, the expanse of saltmarsh is so great you might imagine you were seeing halfway to the Arctic. In September to November it's full of the urgency of migrating birds, huge flocks of winter thrushes, starlings, skylarks; skeins of hinking and chattering geese; lone harriers and peregrines.

The villages, though, are full of quirky variety, no two old buildings the same or even very similar, brick and flint mixed in walls. Nowadays a lot of the small shops cater to visitors (delicatessens, mini art galleries, binocular and telescope shops), but they have variety too; and the pubs are superb, real ale havens and each with its own personality.

The coast is marked by many Second World War fortifications. When Britain expected invasion from Germany, both the British and the German high commands identified two likely locations for invasion, one Norfolk to north Suffolk and the other Sussex. The British fortified both strongly but thought Norfolk the most likely because of the open country behind the coast. After the war they discovered that the German plans had been made for Sussex because it offered a shorter sea crossing. The fortlets I knew as a kid as "pill-boxes" are now preserved as archaeological resources.

To change the subject briefly: in the Morrison's supermarket yesterday - 12 November - the staff were wearing "Happy Christmas" sweatshirts! Have I missed something?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: the Water Safety Partnership

FROM: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager


Here's my report on our annual review of the Odanglesex Water Safety Partnership for transmission to Kenneth.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Kenneth: here are the reports from Reema and Mike. All straightforward, I think.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
TO: Neil Balderson, Transformational Excellence Senior Manager

Neil: I need more information on the Water Safety Partnership from Reema. Please transmit.

FROM: Neil Balderson, Transformational Excellence Senior Manager
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

Hamish: Kenneth needs more info on this report.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer

Reema: Sorry, Can you flesh out your report on this a bit, please? Kenneth wants more information.

FROM: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

More information on WHAT?

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer

Sorry - no idea. He didn't say.

FROM: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob
cc: Neil Balderson, Hamish Carpenter

Kenneth: I gather you need more information. I've included all the minutes and the Police, Coastguard and Fire/Rescue summaries.

FROM: Kelly Pattrick, PA to Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Reema Narlikar

Rema: Kenneth hasn't got the time to read all this. Can you summarise?

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Neil Balderson, Transformational Excellence Senior Manager

Neil: Councillor Greer wants to know if it's safe to drink water. Can you get Reema Narlikar to draft a reply for my signature using this Partnership information she has?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Europe and Australia

Someone said yesterday,

"Dou you know, you could plonk down the whole of Europe in Australia."

Yes, but SHOULD we?

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Dirty Word Politics

Overheard from local TV news, an item about an NHS (public sector) hospital which had run into a lot of criticism, including from local members of parliament: an MP saying, "This is NOT about politics, it's about patient care." Presumably the senior doctors, who had hit back at the criticism, had accused her of "playing politics".

Now politics, as I argued in my posting on the pitfalls of being customer-centred, is the process by which any open society resolves disputes. You don't do it by diktat of the King or the President-for-Life, or by flipping a coin, or by selling the decision to the highest bidder. You do it by a process of debate and a decision by someone who can be called to account. There are many blots and weaknesses in the process, but the alternatives are not attractive and bad politics does not damn politics any more than bad football damns football or bad soup damns soup.

So did the MP think the care of hospital patients was outside politics? Seems to me if politicians behaved as if such a thing was nothing to do with them, we wouldn't be pleased. "Playing politics", however, refers to irresponsible politics for short-term party or personal gain, which is a bad thing and should be punished by criticism and by voters' votes - though in my experience any politician who raises something uncomfortable for the people in power gets accused of playing politics, just as media are when wrongdoing is exposed.

Earlier today I visited a website where there was discussion of the punishment of a politician who'd been convicted of falsely claiming expenses (those who share my background will know it was Lord Reservoir). He came in for a lot of understandable stick. But one commenter said all politicians were crooked. Now you may find this hard to accept, but that isn't true. At the very least, some politicians are more honest than others. If you react to corruption or other obvious wrongs by saying "they're all the same", that excuses the corrupt and cynical of all political punishment. If you are cynical and venal, you do something wrong and people don't blame you any more than all the other politicians, how can the system be made cleaner? If people react by saying, "I won't vote any more," that suits the exploiters fine.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Councillor Wayneflete's Volunteering (2)

FROM: Melissa Gurney, External Communications Facilitation Consultant

TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

cc: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

     William Wayneflete, Leader of the Council

The volunteering with Kiddiz Kingdom went fantastically! Councillor Wayneflete wanted everyone involved to know how pleased he was. I've spoken to the man from the Odsex News and he's promised not to use the one where the little kid threw the ice cream and it stuck on Bill's golf club tie. They're using one of him with the wheelbarrow and the one with him shaking hands with Charles Glover, the guy who runs KK.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

TO: Dale Brashcon, Transformational Excellence Champion


A potential problem. When I helped with Bill Wayneflete's volunteering as a means of publicising what we're doing to support the voluntary sector, I was not aware you'd deleted the part-time post of Volunteering Officer which supported volunteering by our employees and by the Odanglesex population in general. The opposition could suggest this is inconsistent.

FROM: Dale Brashcon, Transformational Excellence Champion
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
cc: Melissa Gurney, External Communications Facilitation Consultant


I'm afraid Kenneth is not very pleased about the debacle over Kiddiz Kingdom. First of all, the ON did use the photo with ice-cream all over Councillor Waynflete after all. More seriously, were we not aware that Charles Glover was about to be charged with fraud? What do we chair the Police Consultative Forum for? The ON ran the fraud story on its front page with the photo of Councillor Wayneflete shaking hands with Mr Glover. It also ran the wheelbarrow picture in its captions competition with the header, "What's he got in the wheelbarrow?". As you recommended Kiddiz Kingdom, Kenneth would like you to speak to Councillor Wayneflete and see what damage can be repaired.


Monday, 31 October 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Councillor Waynflete's Volunteering (1)

Kenneth Spotlessnob: Hamish, can I have a moment?

Hamish Carpenter: Certainly.

Kenneth Spotlessnob: It's about the Odanglesex Volunteering Strategy. Councillor Waynflete wants to support it by volunteering for a half-day. Dale thought you'd be the person to suggest some possible opportunities. It must be local, of course, and not too controversial. External Comms will handle the publicity. Can I leave that with you? It needs to happen in the next two weeks.

Hamish Carpenter: OK, I'll see what Julie or Mike have to suggest.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Directror of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Kenneth: Julie and Mike have come up with some suggestions and Reema added a couple. The timescale is a bit tight for the voluntary sector, of course, but how about:

Odanglesex Wildlife Trust: digging out a pond in Nuteley Wood
Great Age Odanglesex: storytelling to residents of Oakleve Close
Friends of the Soke of Odanglesex Railway: painting and decorating Odways Station
Kiddiz Kingdom: Tidying garden and play area at Kiddiz Palace
Sticklehampton Youth Club and Sticklehampton with Claymoor Parish Council: litter pick on High Street.


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

Hamish: Thanks. OWT are out because of the argument over the development on McGonagall's Swamp. Great Age likewise because Bill is a bit sensitive about his age and doesn't want to be photographed with a lot of old people. I tried the railway one on him and he pointed out that it could seem to be taking sides on transportation options in a way unhelpful to the bus operators or the new road campaigners who represent, of course, some important business interests. He'd love to do the youth club one if it weren't joint with the parish council. Of course you know the chair of that one is Councillor Bruce-Roberts, who he feels might make political capital out of it. So it had better be Kiddiz Kingdom. Can you forward a choice of dates? Melissa will sort out the photos.



Saturday, 29 October 2011

Favourite Season

Autumn is definitely here. The leaves are turned to incredible variety of colour, many one unique to that plant, so you could just show me dogwood or spindle, say, just the colour, and I'd have a good chance of guessing it. Anywhere near woods there's an indefinable scent of rotting, but not at all unpleasant. Summer birds have nearly all left and the first winter ones are coming in.

Autumn's my favourite season. I think ultimately it's not the colours of the leaves or the snese of completion, of fruiting, but the sense of change, the urgency of arriving winter thrushes and geese, the hint of winter. For two and a half years I was outside this, more completely than you can be if you never leave a city, because I was just about on the equator, in Kenya. There were rainly seasons and dry, but I missed the temperate seasons. It helped me to realise how deeply embedded they are in the culture of people from temperate or actic zones.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


It sounds new, exciting, modern, sexy, doesn't it? If hot-desking sounds like something in "The Secretary", it's not by chance. The word "hot" carries the meaning of sexy and also of exciting, active, new. So it must be good. What is it, actually?

It's the practice in offices of not reserving a space for an individual, but providing a number of identical work-stations and leaving their occupation to first come, first served. So not wildly modern, exciting or sexy - but it's one of those things that ambitious managers pretty much have to believe in and spout enthusiastically about if they want to get on. But is it a good idea?

It can be. There's nothing at all new about the idea that if staff spend most of their time away from the office, it's inefficient to provide them all with desk space and they had best make do with what they can get on their infrequent visits to the office. That makes huge sense, and because of flexible working, the amount of time office-based staff spend away from the office is probably increasing - though as some technology like that for telephone conferencing reduces the need to travel to meetings, some trends are going the other way.

But what about staff who actually spend most of their time in the office? I had recent experience of a switch from open-plan with individual work-places to hot-desking, and it was clear there are disadvantages the senior managers ignore (because they don't hot-desk).

It seems to me the main advantages are as follows. It saves space (but many organisations are shedding staff but can't reduce their premises size, so the pressure on space is often reducing). How much space it saves depends on how many long periods people spend away from the office. It encourages people to get rid of unnecessary hard copy stuff and do more things electronically (though of course that's risky if the systems go down, as ours seemed to about once every two months, sometimes for two days or more). It helps people to get to know a wider range of colleagues well, because you're sitting next to different people day after day: this I think is important and it can generate a sort of freshness. Finally, it means that you cannot be stuck permanently next to someone whose constant chat, eating habits or whatever drive you up the wall.

And the disadvantages? There is generally extreme pressure on storage space, so that useful stuff you kept by your desk and could access immediately gets thrown away or put where it takes some time to recover. You tend to lose some of the strong team spirit of a small team when you're not actually next to those colleagues: this applies only to small teams. Setting up to be ready to work takes longer as you have to fetch the things you need (or hump them around with you all the time): in my case, in order to set up my phone to receive my calls, I had to key in fourteen digits, and it was easy to forget to do it at all!. There is a risk that some people will arrive for work and find no places: this is quite likely when there's a team meeting that day. In a fixed-place office, if a phone rings at an empty place, you know who the caller is wanting, you tend to know a fair bit about that neighbour's work, and you answer it, leaving a message for your colleague. With hot-desking, you often have no idea who was at that place, it may be someone whose work is a mystery to you, and from what I saw, people generally let that phone ring. You lose the sense of responsibility for your own space, so that people are less likely to clean it and much less likely to report faults like a broken keyboard part or chair since you don't have to go to that place next day. Again, I base this comment on experience. It can be quite dificult perpetually adjusting things like chair height and angle to fit what's healthy and comfortable for you - not a problem for short stints, but potentially a serious issue for long stints. It makes life more difficult for people with particular requirements because of an impairment or indeed unusual height. I it reduces the extent to which people can personalise their work-space. I'm sure some managers see this as a plus: I see it as a minus because I think people at work are individual human beings who will produce the best work when that individuality and humanity is respected. Finally, "good employers" are theoretically on the ball helping people with mental health problems in work, but what is the impact of losing your safe space?

Personally, I found the shifting around had its fun side and I like a change of scene (though desk space A to desk space D is a pretty small change of scene), but I hated losing the pictures I had by my desk and I found the constant adjusting, searching, unloading a nuisance. I'm told some of these issues are much less of a problem when there are people responsible for the good condition of the work-places, but how many managers cutting expenditure and keen to promote hot-desking will provide for that?

This is not a diatribe against the idea, but a suggestion that the real benefits and disbenefits should be weighed up rationally.

Back to satire and humour soon...

Monday, 24 October 2011

French culture

The most famous French novel is called "Looking for a Lost Aunt" and the most famous French painting is "Eating Grass".

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Great Bastard Reintroduction Programme

Once, the English Great Bastard in all his magnificence roamed the land, twirling his moustaches, adjusting his top hat, making his characteristic and evocative cackling call after tying some beautiful maiden to a railway line or robbing the nest of some honest yeoman. There was, in fact, nothing more redolent of traditional England than this magnificent beast in all his glory.

No more. Hunted to extinction by tax inspectors and angry fathers, the Great Bastard breathed his last just as he was being immortalised in film by the Ealing Wildlife Studios. Some allege that his demise was brought about not only by shooting and trapping, but also by competition with the non-indigenous Little Bastard (Otis Archerensis) which has proved better able to adapt to new ecological niches such as merchant banking, tabloid journalism, football and romantic novel-writing.

Be that as it may, a small group of dedicated naturists is making a sustained attempt to reintroduce the Great Bastard to his former haunts in the so-called Clublands. The importation of juvenile Bastards from Russia has not been without difficulties (it was recently necessary to shoot a Fox) but the programme directors are determined that the Great Bastard will breed, stalk and cackle once more in England's green and pleasant land. Donations to the Great Bastard Reintroduction Programme, c/o Gran Cayman Tears, Bahamas.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Blogging in the dark

Blogging is not quite like leaving little notes around town and then taking a bus out - or singing out of a toilet cubicle knowing other patrons might hear you. Blog hosts provide some statistics. These are interesting and sometimes rather odd.

My other blog ( for poetry) got a record 23 hits yesterday, distributed around different posts (in other words, the 23 didn't all look at the same things) and only three so far today. Wordpress doesn't show you where these people are, but blogspot gives you a neat little map. That quite a lot of hits on this site are from the UK is no surprise: I'm from there myself and some of the posts will make most sense to Brits. That a number are from the U.S. is no surprise either as I advertised the blogs on a LinkedIn group with very many Americans. Some hits from India and Pakistan make sense because of conversations I've had including around poetry blogs. But what about the Russians and Latvians? I'm curious about you. Advance and identify! I'd love to find out more.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Oysters and Cats

Just enjoyed a superb bottled real ale, the local Mersea Island Brewery's Island Oysters, dark, tasty and creamy. Then snoozed on the sofa with the cat on top of me. Hard work, this...

PS - re my post on Liam Fox: we now learn he WAS warned about friend Werrity, repeatedly. Did the warnings not then go up to the Prime Minister?

The Odanglesex Chronicles: the packages of work (2)

FROM: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Ken: Can you update me on progress with the Odanglesex Craft Olympiad? Cllr Waynflete was asking. Today, please.


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
To: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager


You'll see from the above we need to update Ed on the Odanglesex Craft Olympiad. Please draft to me by 2:30.


FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


It's with you since last Thursday for approval of thedraft package - unless you've sent it to Vanessa?


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager


Forget about the packaging. Please rework this package by 2:45 and I'll present it to Ed. You can resolve any rough ends with Vanessa later.


Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: the packages of work (1)

From: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
To: All Transformational Excellence

I thought our away-half-day where I explained our new mode of working in Transformational Excellence was a really encouraging, lively occasion. It's good to see so many people with a positive outlook. I was especially impressed that when I asked for any questions about our new made of working with packages of work, no-one had a question. Well done!

Of course all the process requirements and standards are on the Infranet in the Transformational Excellence (Process) folder, passworded according to Directorate procedures, but I thought I'd just run through the main points.

In order to ensure that we're focused on the needs of our customers, which in our case are other parts of the Council, we no longer do work without a request being filed. This must be approved at Director level in the requesting unit and transmitted through Kelly Pattrick in my office to me for approval and allocation to a human resource. On receiving the request, the human resource must measure, milepost and categorise the package of work, identifying which of our corporate priorities it meets. The request must then be packaged according to the standard procedures and must be conveyed back through Kelly to me for transmission to the requestor. The requestor should then sign to confirm acceptance of the package, which is conveyed by the same route back to the human resource. At this point the work can begin. It is really important that none of these stages are evaded or short-circuited.

I have had a couple of queries about this process. One concerns situations where the requestor and the human resource do not agree the package. In order to ensure a robust paper trail, the above procedures must be followed: so the requestor will resubmit an amended request through the correct channels, the human resource (which may or may not be the one originally identified) will develop a package and so on. Meeting face to face to sort the matter out may seem attractive, but believe me, it only complicates things.

The other concerns situations where someone in Transformational Excellence actually originates the idea for the package. It is still necessary to find a requestor and proceed as above.

Of course, as I explained at the away-half-day, it will no longer be possible to have ongoing commitments and permanent specialisms, as these stand in the way of a flexible, responsive, fit-for-the-21st-century service.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence
TO: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager

Neil: Councillor Pannona Willis is concerned that our packaging procedures may increase our carbon footprint. Will they? Please draft a reply for my approval.


Saturday, 15 October 2011

Liam Fox

Apologies to the non-Brits following this blog, unless they're interested in UK politics. This is a posting about the hot news in the UK political scene, the resignation of the Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox. He was a big figure in the government not only because Defence is a big job, but also because he was effectively the leader of the right-wing Conservatives.

An old and close friend of his, Adam Werrity, had accompanied him on a whole lot of official visits and also unofficial visits where he met important people abroad. This guy had no position in the government or the Conservative Party and had not been security-checked, but he descibed himself on headed notepaper as an adviser to Fox. He'd collected a lot of money for Fox's political campaigns and favourite pressure-groups and a reasonable guess was that he was looking for favours back. Not surprising that Liam Fox resigned. He's being replaced by a less controversial figure, Phil Hammond, who despite being a Conservative and a businessman, took great care when new in office as Transport minister to be even-handed about a high-profile, big-impact strike at British Airways, saying in effect that both sides needed to get down at a table and talk and give ground.

Now here's my particular comment. What about the Ministry of Defence civil servants and the secret intelligence people? Did none of them say, "Who is this guy? He's picking up sensitive information, even if he's not in on the closed session meetings, and he might be a security risk. Secretary of State, this can't go on!"? Are they so complacent or so cowed that they didn't sound a warning in a year and a half? If so, something is badly wrong. Or did they sound a warning and it was ignored, which would be much more serious not only for Fox but for Cameron?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Meanwhile, my other hat

For those who like poetry or are willing to try it, my other blog ( has recent posts including "Be quiet, or I will hit you with a poem" asking what puts people off poetry, an ironic poem about anthropologists (The Anthropologist), a poem or song celebrating British Real Ale (Joe Keenan) and a short, very Gothic poem (Crossing). There is also a poem puzzling over the sign THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. What is the door alarmed about?

Those who know me may be interested that I'm getting on with writing a fantasy novel, "The Case of the Broken Spectacles": the first draft is more than half finished. I'm also writing up an account of walking the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way in the Scottish Highlands this summer, finishing one long-distance trail and straight on to the other, with a view to using it as raw material for a couple of magazine articles.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Not good form

My former boss e-mailed me, much amused. When I was leaving the county council, there were long and slightly peculiar e-forms to be filled in, one of which was recording that all sorts of permissions and accesses had been closed, that I'd returned keys, pass and uniform (they never gave me a uniform, but nice thought) and so on. I thought it looked like a table in Microsoft Word, something I'd often constructed by way of work, so I idly checked to see if it could be amended. It could! So I added another row for ticking off, "Cancellation of licence to kill". He hadn't noticed it until re-reading...

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Hamford Water

Doing more birdwatching, mainly in Essex where I live, since I suddenly had more time. Today from Beaumont Quay (an old smuggling quay) along the sea-wall alongside the mudflats of Hamford Water and The Wade to Thorpe-Le-Soken and a pint in a pub before returning mainly the way I came.

On the outward journey the tide was very high and waders clung to almost swamped small islands. On the way back the tide was receding and muddy areas expanding. I'd seen nothing spectacular, though a late Wheatear and Sandwich Tern, summer visitors hanging on, were welcome. Then a Short-eared Owl exploded from rank grass a couple of feet from me. It didn't seem much worried as it circled inland and back close past me to settle on low saltmarsh vegetation, staring at me with its yellow-fringed eyes. This is always an exciting bird. A good view like this allows you to see the beautiful chequering of the back and wings - buff, darker reddish-brown, amber almost orange, white. Large brown bird is a very, very rough description.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Disturbing Birds

Notice by a bird hide on a small County Durham (North-east England) nature reserve:

Now some might take this as sound advice to young men at a party, but I think it's a warning to visitors to the nature reserve that if they encounter a bird which is behaving in an odd manner, for example dancing about or advancing in a threatening manner while making a strange and unpleasant sound, especially if the bird is very big - retreat.

I love double meaning signs: from collections I remember "BEWARE OF TRAINS GOING BOTH WAYS AT ONCE" (at a level crossing, also in County Durham) and a sign at a church, "PREACHERS FOR JULY WILL BE NAILED TO THE CHURCH DOOR." I think there's a close connection between picking up this kind of hilarious ambiguity (as opposed to boringly registering only the sensible interpretation) and poetry, and also to being politically subversive and radical (UK meaning not US). Who could take seriously being one of two "Outward-facing Partnership Officers" (Essex County Council)? Lots of people.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Favourite places: Cape Clear Island, County Cork

I love small islands. They often have spectacular scenery, and the ones in the right places get plenty of seabirds and vagrants (mostly birds, but a few dragonflies and humans), but the appeal is deeper than that. The sea is all around. It's easy to walk from one side to the other. You can walk all round the coast and come back to where you started. People are generally friendly and as a stranger, you soon start recognising people. Human-made things often merge into natural things, whether it's a wooden boat slowly sinking into mud or a stone watch-tower becoming yet another weird rock formation.

I still don't feel I've expressed it. Maybe the combination of the very specific and individual (on the island) with the universality, the hint of God and death and rebirth, of the sea?

Cape Clear has all that and more. Most non-Irish people don't know where it is. I ask if they've heard of the Fastnet Rock. They have, even if they didn't realise it was in Ireland. So OK, you're in South-west Ireland. Start at Skibbereen, whose local paper, the Skibbereen Eagle, once sternly warned the Tsar that it had its eye on him over his persecution of minorities. From Skibbereen a narrowing peninsula extends to Baltimore (not that one, the original) a small town or large village with a lot of yachting. From there the line of the sandstone peninsula points straight out to Sherkin Island, then to Cape Clear Island and finally to the Fastnet Rock and its lighthouse. Next stop the Americas.

The boat trip isn't long, but the local people traditionally spoke of going to the mainland as "going to Ireland". Gaelic is spoken, though perhaps not quite as much in reality as for government inspectors. Once in the full main pub I got into a vigorous debate with a fellow-birder from Dublin who objected to his taxes going on supporting the Gaelic language. I argued that the death of a language was a terrible thing. At a pause in the debate we suddenly realised that all other conversation had stopped and everyone was listening to us.

When I first stayed on the island, the population was about 300, but later it increased with prosperous Irish dropouts seeking tranquility and even returners from further: one morning I was heading out to a seabird-watching point by a small track and passed a woman in a long,loose skirt and shawl with a scarf around her head. She was picking blackberries. I wished her good day. She responded in an American accent.

On a small island, the weather becomes immensely important. You check it first thing. Storms on the island are beautiful, and safe enough if you're not at sea since there are no trees to speak of.

The place is changing: Private notices and barbed wire sprang up where there were only drystone walls before: the natives blamed the incomers and others blamed Irish law on landowners' liability for trespassers' injuries. The famous shopkeeper Paddy Burke is dead. Maybe even you can no longer buy cornflakes, petrol and a Guinness in the same place. But the cliffs are the same and O'Driscoll's Tower, perched on a now inaccessible rock, will still be beaten by salt spray.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Transformational Milepost

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: All Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

I'm delighted to be able to tell you that we've completed the sixth step change on our transformational journey to an excellent, fit-for-the-21st century, lean, responsive, proactive, place-changing, pace-setting, customer-centric perpetually transformational organisation.Many thanks to Kevin, who rehung the paintings.I'm sure you'll all be excited that we're now ready for our next challenge.

You'll remember that the fifth step change involved the paperless office (except mine, of course, because Councillor Broadthwaite and other members prefer to engage with hard copy). The seventh step change on which I want you to join me is our exciting journey to the paperless toilet! Our milepost is that from 16th December all paper supply will cease and paper supply mechanisms will be withdrawn. Instead there is a wide range of virtual tools to choose from and HR are providing training courses on these which I hope you'll all go on.

Dale Brashcon is leading on this exciting journey and questions on points of detail should be addressed to him.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Dale Brashcon, Transformational Excellence Champion

Dale: Councillor Broadthwaite has pointed out that there is no paper in the male toilets in the members' area. Please sort this out and report back to him.


Monday, 3 October 2011

Mood Music

And so to Chelmsford. Until two weeks ago I worked there, but now my visits will be infrequent as there are other large towns nearer to me. Today, though, my car was in for MOT and service in Hatfield Peverel not far from Chelmsford and it made sense to carry on for shopping and other stuff.

I'm not a great lover of piped music (except bagpipes, of course). I don't have any choice over what's played and often it's far too loud to ignore and, moreover, rubbish. I remember Christmas shopping and being driven from three stores in succession by good impressions of scraping a saucepan at ear-splitting volume. Today, though, it was quite discreet, not too loud. In Wilkinson's a bad singer was offering me something beautifeeyul. Only in the American South would natural pronunciation be anything like this, and this wasn't a Dixie accent. A good singer can extend a sound without turning one syllable into three.

On for a pub lunch (The Ship - recommended). Here the singer had quite a good voice and I became a bit puzzled trying to follow the words of the song. I think she was either telling me to "get a haircut" (she would not be alone in this advice, but I resent it: it suggests the army, and from what sounded like a young woman, a bottle blonde dressing up as a Sergeant-major and yelling orders at me (no thanks); or she was requesting, "get a handcuff". Puzzling if it was the latter, as I'd think one handcuff would be useless - a bit like advertising "Breast enlargement - two for the price of one!" At any rate, a less discouraging message than "get a haircut".

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


From time to time I'm going to post communications received under a freedom of information request from the local authority of the relatively little-known English shire county of Odanglesex. Here's the first by way of introduction.

FROM: Mandy Messenger, External Communications
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


We've got a proper Wikipedia entry at last instead of that one that said we were abolished by Alfred the Great! Ed wants you to run an eye over it to check it's OK. By midday tomorrow please. Relevant bits follow.


Odanglesex, commonly abbreviated Odsex, is an English shire county in the South Midlands region. The county town is Phlock and the largest settlement, Mudford, has city status. The population at the last census was 1,999,999....

The council is controlled by the Independent Conservatives, with the True Conservatives as the official opposition. The Leader of the Council is Councillor Waynefete and the Chief Executive is Edelbertha Strangler. Since 2008 the council has been noted for a number of innovative projects such as the personalisation of refuse disposal and the Bank of Odangles...

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: Hamish Carpenter, Senior Strategic Vision Manager

Hamish: please check above by five.


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: Hamish Carpenter, Senior Strategic Vision Manager

Hamish: Councillor Wayneflete has pointed out that his name is misspelt in our Wikipedia entry. Ed is also, I believe, less than pleased that her surname is wrongly stated as Strangler instead of Spengler. I have told both of them that you were responsible for checking.


Monday, 26 September 2011

The dangers of being customer-centred

Who could argue with it? Public services and agencies should be customer-centred. It's constantly repeated and has become an article of faith - which usually means (outside religion at least) that it's wrong.

The urge to be customer-centred is partly a reaction from the old attitude that people receiving public services should be grateful for what they got, whether it was a pension or a planning decision. But that attitude is just about dead in most parts of the public sector (not, perhaps in welfare benefits or health) and the can be few people who haven't got stories about arrogance and lack of concern for customers in large private companies.

Nonetheless, surely it's good to see things from the point of view of the customer and try to give them what they want if resources permit? Not always. Being more customer-centred would certainly be healthy in the NHS, where centrally-imposed targets ruled until recently and few managers were much bothered about whether patients were happy or miserable, engaged or bored, or felt they were not treated as human beings. But secondary health services are one of the public services that can largely be reduced to an agency interacting with a "customer". Some can't.

Although a sophisticated understanding of who are a council's or the police's "customers" is possible - it can include a whole community plus others who pass through or work in a place - customer language persistently beckons people towards seeing public service as being like buying cheese in a supermarket or insurance on the internet. But if I choose to buy Lancashire cheese, the effect on someone else's desire to buy Cheshire is imperceptible. Some public services, like personal care for old and frail or disabled people, can be seen this way. There are pitfalls, especially around vulnerable people making informed choices, but they're capable of being overcome. Other public services and decisions are quite different.

Take two examples.

Social workers are trying to help the Jones family, who have multiple problems and are struggling hard to stay together and bring up their children. At the same time, neighbours are complaining about anti-social behaviour by the children, the police suspect the adults of fly-tipping, and one of the social workers notices something which could raise concerns about whether the adults are abusing their children. Who are the customers? Action that is in the interests of one customer and pleases him/her may be against the will and interests of others. This is not an academic question as I strongly suspect that in some recent cases of child murder, too strong a focus on the parents as customers was one of the reasons why the signs of danger to the children were discounted.

The local park, which had got a bit dilapidated, is being improved. Some people want some trees removed, and argue:
(1): It would give people a beautiful view down to the lake;
(2): There is some danger from falling branches;
(3): It would improve conditions for mountain-biking and tobogganing.

Others disagree and the following arguments are put by different people:
(1): The trees are beautiful;
(2): The trees sustain wildlife and are of more biodiversity value than open grass;
(3): Kids like them and an element of danger is a natural part of growing up.

No solution can be found which satisfies all the "customers". Someone will have to make a controversial decision. Moreover, should we consider as "customers" the future generations who will be affected by the decision - or the wildlife, whose value and interests may not be adequately represented by whether people think it cuddly?

We could hold a meeting of all interested parties and take a vote - or say that politicians are elected precisely to take tough decisions like this, and having lobbied them, we'll wait for their decision. Both of these are called "politics", which is how we resolve conflicts in an open society. But the constant talk of markets and customers in public affairs obscures this and creates an impression that public affairs, like the insurance market, is a matter of people serving your wishes in return for your money, and if you don't get what you want, they've failed. But as I've shown, in public decision-making this is not always possible. We are in danger of losing an understanding of how to resolve conflicts collectively by debate and democratic decision, and an acceptance that a fair process may lead to an outcome you don't like. That undermines democracy itself.

Let me finally refer to a big report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission called "Hidden in plain sight - an inquiry into disability-related harassment". It quotes two cases where a vulnerable disabled adult was seen to have an association with a teenage child who had his own problems - including a history of violence. Agencies aware of the matter looked at it purely as a child protection issue. The child beat up and murdered the adult. Public workers were no doubt determined to be customer-centred about the child.

So, OK - be customer-centred; but always ask at least, "Who are the customers? Have I included all the people who may be affected? Are there legitimate conflicts involved?". And remember education and nature aren't cheese.