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.

Saturday, 24 September 2011


Before I get down to this, I've had feedback people can't see how to comment on the blog. You click on the bit that says "0 comments", or "237 comments" as appropriate.

Well, I went back to my Cambridge  college, King's, for an "informal lunch" today. Great to be back. My memories of Cambridge are positive and I'm glad I was at Kings. There was no-one from my year, though, and very few who arrived in the sixties at all. Maybe the spaced-out flower-boomers, or whatever they're called now, haven't made it through to 2011?

Fascinating conversation with one guy (Hi, Bart!) but no real opportunity to chat informally with a number of people. Coffee afterwards away from the tables would have done the trick. Still, seeking my bus-stop afterwards, after a visit to Whittards for special tea and a pint, I saw the two women who were opposite us. Turned out they'd been interested in our conversation about Poland because one of them was Polish!

My next blog will be on that holy grail of public agencies right now, being customer centred - and how it can undermine democracy and kill people.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Big Society

Odd, isn't it, that David Cameron's "The Big Society" means a small state and Lyndon Johnson's "The Great Society" meant a big one? The phrases are so vague, of course, they could mean almost anything, but to be fair to both politicians, if you try to find more specific alternatives they tend to be a mouthful. For Cameron, too, the phrase implied a rejection of his Conservative predecessor Margaret Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society" - though to be fair to her, which I find difficult, part of what she was saying was, I suppose, that making "society" responsible for things was often a cheap way of avoiding personal responsibility.

Unlike many people broadly on the left, I think Cameron really meant what he said about the Big Society, though he hadn't fully thought it through. I think he really wants (or at least, wanted) an explosion of individual and community action in place of passive acceptance of the way things are, the dictates of the state and even of big business. I'd totally go along with that. However, such a growth of community action does not necessarily mean a contraction of the state. Community groups may take over some state functions, but they may also campaign for the state to take on new responsibilities where the job is too big for community action. That has been the Chicago experience with community organisers.

The genuine Big Society idea, though, was dangerously mixed with two different agendas - the wish to transfer as many as possible public services into the hands of the voluntary or private sectors and the need to cut public expenditure to reduce the deficit. Community action and charities providing publicly-funded services are totally different things. The kind of charities that win sizeable public contracts rarely use many volunteers to deliver the services, and national charities are likely to be LESS close to local communities than the local council is. Moreover, local authorities, police and NHS trusts all make quite extensive use of volunteers, and may shed volunteers if they hand over services. As for the cuts agenda, there ARE cases of voluntary organisations and community groups achieving desirable aims massively cheaper than traditional public services, but this is a matter not of paring a few costs when a service is outsourced, but of rethinking radically how to achieve the desired outcomes. A programme in that direction called "Total Place" was pushed in the last days of the old government and did turn up some spectacular examples of how things could be done much cheaper and differently, but setting up such things takes time. The push for cuts tomorrow has sidelined the Total Place concept in favour of old-fashioned programmes of cutting what we can (often grants to voluntary organisations or long-term work that would bring in big benefits but not tomorrow). The savings achieved by outsourcing services more or less as they stand will be modest and the successful bidders will rarely be close-to-the-ground local voluntary groups, who in fact are feeling the pinch.

If "civil society" and local activism did enlarge, they would grow and gain power not only at the expense of tha state, but also at the expense of the private for-profit sector, as we see with local campaigns against, for example, Tescos.

It's all a huge pity because the basic idea was right and was not, I'm convinced, a cynical ploy; but in the hands of central-action-oriented civil servants, it soon became largely code for outsourcing.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Plugging Places: the Bawdsey/Ramsholt peninsula, Suffolk, England

I'm going to pick a favourite place or area from time to time and say why I like it. This time - an out-of-the-way corner of coastal Suffolk. The A12 runs like a spine along East Suffolk, from Ipswich towards Norwich and Great Yarmouth, with fairly easy trips off it to Aldeburgh (art), Minsmere (birds) and Lowestoft (traditional seaside stuff) - and the railway follows a similar course -but although the Bawdsey/Ramsholt area is near to Ipswich and even Harwich as the crow flies, we aren't crows and the Deben estuary gets in the way. To arrive from nearly anywhere you need to go round Woodbridge and take quite a long trip seawards.

So the area isn't crowded. The beaches are shingle. But it has the character of an island, quirky, special, running to its own rhythms. The open East coast scenery is beautiful if (and) sometimes bleak. It's a great area for birds (easpecially autumn migrants) and other wildlife such as butterflies, and it has some excellent pubs of which the Sorrel Horse is probably the best, though at the Swan you have good acomodation and Indian meals, and at the Ramsholt Arms an estuary-side location and good beer variety, if not really a proper pub atmosphere weekends. There's history too: Bawdsey was the number one location for the development of radar, without which the history of the Second World War would have been very different. Martello towers from the Napoleaonic Wars and "pillboxes" from the Second World War point out that this has been a possible invasion area since Celtic times.

The villages contain some interesting buildings (Bawdsey especially) but aren't picture postcard pretty. Back towards Woodbridge is more good birding (and UFO-chasing) territory with Hollesley Common and Rendlesham Forest: the latter has signs to a UFO trail, though I doubt if any UFO pilot would understand them, and if (s)he did, might ignore them. Towards Woodbridge also is much older history than 1939, the early Saxon royal burial site and museum at Sutton Hoo (Hoo may well refer to Long-eared Owls, so back to birds again).

It's all worth a day trip, but even more worth staying a couple of nights.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Picking up injuries

Why do footballers keep picking up injuries? Why don't they leave them where they find them?

Monday, 5 September 2011


To most people who come across the word "agenda" at all, it's a programme for a meeting, a list of items to be discussed, perhaps with some explanation. In the wider world, the word is used a bit more loosely - but at least "She's got her own agenda" means she has quite clear plans and priorities which aren't those of the other people working for the cause or the project.

Now, in the U.K. at least, government has been infected by agendas. The previous government (New Labour) had "the modernisation agenda" for public (mainly local authority) services, combining two vague words to produce something that was supposed to be a touchstone of whether you were "on message". Now for public services we have "the transformation agenda". Note how vague the words "modernisation" and "transformation" are. There is specific meaning in, for example, "the anti-poverty agenda" or "the terrorism prevention agenda", but modernisation tells you nothing about the nature of the proposed change except that it's supposed to be more in line with the modern world than the curent way of doing things. Transformation is any big change from one state to another, for example from being an efficient, honest organisation to an inefficient, corrupt one. By and large, you are not supposed to ask what these things mean. No-one will be able to give you the agenda they're talking about. When people in authority constantly repeat such vague phrases, there are three possible explanations:
(1): they don't have a clear idea themselves what it means
(2): they have a clear idea but are worried about the consequences of sharing it
(3): actually it's just a case of poor communication and the idea is both well-thought-out and widely acceptable enough to thrive.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

Words, worlds and dreams

This is my argumentative and humorous blog! I also have one for imaginative writing, mainly poetry: Please visit that too.