Friday, 29 June 2012

Man was born free, but everywhere he is chained to a mobile phone

Mobile phones (cell phones in the U.S.) are one of the inventions that have changed our lives profoundly. They work in sync with the internet, e-mail, kindle and others to pass information (or misinformation) faster and easier. The phone itself, of course, can now be a camera or a mini-computer.

The benefits, even to those who use them conservatively, are enormous. They've saved many lives, especially of climbers and hill-walkers lost, trapped or injured alone (if they had network coverage, of course). People threatened by would-be robbers or rapists have been able to phone the police. Less dramatically, how helpful it is when delayed on the way to a meeting some way away to be able to phone the person you're supposed to be meeting and not only explain you'll be late, but check whether, say, they can see you an hour later or whether you might as well turn around and rearrange. Last week I set off to visit a nature reserve some way from my home, one I'd not visited before. On the way I realised that while I'd brought maps, I'd left the notebook with directions at home. I found the place - but how welcome it would have been to have been able to use my phone, which in fact is basic, to visit the website and record the directions plus their phone number!

But... Here is a true story.

I was in a queue to be served at a Subway. The person two in front of me gave his order and moved on. The large woman in front of me took a step or two forward and stopped. She was having a conversation on her phone, one of those long ones where the speaker complains over and over again to a third party about someone else's unhelpfulness. The staff member (in my experience Subway staff in the U.K. are remarkably polite, which may be company policy or may be because they seem to have employed a lot of Africans) asked if he could help her. She completely ignored him. Thinking she might not have heard him because of her conversation, and not wanting to push in front of her if she did want to be served, I spoke to her and asked if she was wanting to be served.

"No, I'm waiting for someone," she said resentfully, returning to her conversation to remark in a very loud voice, "Some people are so rude!"

"Yes, they are," I said, but left it at that and gave the staff member my order.

Now I could not help thinking:
I suspect no-one else in the shop wanted to hear her loud complaints, but in fact everyone could;
If she was waiting for someone who was being served, she had no need to go into the queue;
To be treated as if you don't exist is very upsetting to nearly all people and that was precisely what she did to the staff member.

The story highlights a few points - for example, that people on mobile phones often seem to be completely unaware - or uncaring - that lots of other people have no choice but to hear them; that people getting into such a conversation often become oblivious to what's happening round them. That can be a danger to them: I've seen people deep in a conversation stepping into the road without looking or barging into people - though many seem to have a sixth sense to avoid this.

This isn't to say that people should never have such conversations. Maybe before long we'll have technology that could make such conversations silent to outsiders as texting is, but for now, that's not possible. I remember on a railway platform listening (as I had to unless I walked a long way away, which might have been conspicuous) to a young guy who had just come out of prison and was having a painful conversation with his girlfriend. I don't know the rights and wrongs, but she was clearly in repeated attack mode and he was trying to calm her down and find common ground. It was very obvious that the whole thing was very painful to him, but clearly he needed to have that conversation and compared to that, others' wish not to hear it should take second place.

Using a phone while driving - unless it's hands-free - is hugely dangerous but most often kills other people, not you. Fortunately it's illegal in the U.K., but people still do it. Even hands-free has been shown to make as much difference to attention and reaction times as drinking over the U.K. alcohol limit.

So there are dangers, but there's a subtler problem. Do we really want to be able to access everything immediately? If something happens that you want to describe to a friend or loved one, in most cases, would it be worse for waiting a few hours, during which you could consider it? When do we learn through silence, calm, contemplation, if there are stimuli begging us for attention all the time? When do we think?

Apparently most people in the U.K. would be seriously worried if separated from their mobile phones. That bothers me! I struggle to understand how one could get so dependent on being constantly contactable and constantly able to make contact. Me, I enjoy times when I'm not contactable and can't or won't make contact with others!

There is obviously an age factor here, but I'm reassured to find some young people who also want to treat the phone as a convenience but not a master. All is not lost. And by the way - if you've been trying to phone me, it's switched off.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles - The Away Day (6)

Neil Balderson, with a grave visage, opened the envelope and read out the group's task:


You are officers of East Sessex County Council, which 22 months ago responded to a worsening economic landscape in East Sessex as a result of the international downturn by offering help to local businesses through the innovative creation of a Bank of East Sessex. The Bank was scoped to deliver user-friendly loans to SMEs which were unable to access traditional sources of finance due to an adverse lending environment. It was managed through an arms-length instrument and seedcorned with £3.6 million from East Sessex County Council reserves, though it was envisaged that 50% plus of the funding would come from private enterprise including the county's trading partners in North Korea.

Performance of the Bank failed to correspond to the envisaged parameters. Private sector support was disappointing and promised funds from North Korea were repeatedly delayed, reportedly due to piratical activity off Somalia. The twelve-month review revealed that loans had been made to only four entrepreneurs, one of whom absconded, one became insolvent six weeks after receiving the loan and one of which, whose business plan concerned the creation of an Anglo-North Korean cultural and security community, had reported no activity. The fourth, which was coincidentally headed by the Leader of the Council's godson, had successfully achieved take-off. This business involved the offering of high-interest loans to persons unable to access traditional sources of finance. The money loaned was connected by a causal paper trail to the Bank of East Sessex.

Foyurteen months after its launch, ESCC announced it was withdrawing its support and the bank was wound up.

A new Leader of the Council is anxious to revive the scheme under another name and an officer scope and image group has been formed preparatory to the formation of a task and finish group. Your task is to scope an approach to the re-launch."

As Neil Balderson had read this, his face had begun to enter a rare phase many of the others had never seen. He looked troubled. The slightest of signs in his reading voice pointed the same way. Reema and Gwilym were exchanging glances and shifting about restlessly.

"Well, that's an interesting one," Neil said.

"Yes - very interesting," Gwilym said enthusiastically.

"Judging by that fascinating brief, we're not allowed to say the whole idea is rubbish and we shouldn't touch it with a barge-pole," Henry offered.

"Henry - we're supposed to be positive. This is a blue-skies-thinking perspective and you're supposed to be an achieving go-getter, remember?" Neil replied. Henry subsided, muttering about blue skies and bloody thunderstorms. "O.K. - Facilitator, would you care to run an initial scoping exercise over the issues?" he continued. Gwilym gulped and read desperately - but not for long.

"The story we need to present is of an innovative innovation - I mean, initiative - with high points and low points. In aiming high for outstanding excellence through the re-badging and revival of the scheme, we should learn from the apparent low points and ensure that the high points are more aggressively communicated," he offered.

"So what are the high points?" Reema asked. There was an awkward silence.

"Surely the stategic analysis is correct - that small enterprises in Odanglesex need additional sources of funding?" Neil asked - and received some signs of assent.

"But it didn't work," Reema objected. Neil looked unhappy but it was Lucy who intervened.

"Reema, you're concentrating on the negative aspects. O.K., performance didn't reach expected levels, but there are a number of positives. For example, one successful business was launched using Bank of Odan... I mean, East Sessex funding."

"And that was a loan shark," Henry interjected. Neil shifted in his chair.

"Colleagues - it's very easy to pick holes in a high-risk innovative transformational initiative which ran into difficulties. But Lucy's right. We need to find and stress the positives." Until now Julie had been silent, but now she intervened:

"One: the failure rate of the enterprises funded was only 50%. One succeeded and one's still pending. Two: one loan itself created more liquidity through a multiplier effect. Three: any future bank of East Sessex will be able to draw on the expertise accumulated. Four: if the two failures hadn't been funded by this bank, they might have got funded by someone else who would have lost money. Five: don't I recall the scheme being praised by the Prime Minister?" Neil had perked up and took the opportunity to remind the others that they needed to present something new, not merely justify the original plan.

"So what will be new?" he concluded.

"Have economic conditions changed?" Gwilym queried. Reema replied that the latest survey of Odanglesex businesses showed 68% found getting loans difficult compared to 77% last year and 74% the year before.

"Good - so the situation has eased. That makes success for new enterprises more likely," Lucy concluded.

"Banks aren't very popular right now," Gwilym said.

"Fair point. So we don't call it a bank. What about a co-operative community lending vehicle?" Julie suggested.

"What about the North Korean business?" Reema asked. "Is it a no-no or could it be revived?"

"Brilliant! We could contribute an Odanglesex element to the international anti-piracy force in the Indian Ocean!" Gwilym suggested. "Then perhaps the North Korean funds would come through." Julie seemed uncertain about this, perhaps wondering if this would end as a request to Odanglesex Police, but Lucy was supportive and Neil downright enthusiastic. Gwilym's expression suggested he had meant it as a joke. Turning from trying to convey silent messages to the disapproving Reema and Henry, he found himself making eye contact with a familiar face. Kenneth Spotlessnob had arrived and was standing by their table listening.

It would soon be time for the groups to report in plenary session.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Can representatives think? (2)

Back to the subject of what should direct the votes of MPs and other elected representatives. In the first post I argued that an election manifesto should be a serious commitment, but that there were very good reasons why the commitment could not be absolute. I also pointed out that while people criticised MPs for not doing what their electorate wanted, the same people valued decisiveness and knowing what they wanted in prospective governments and leaders.

The late 18th century politician, political philosopher and reformer Edmund Burke took a stand on MP's independence from direction by their voters, arguing that he owed his voters his considered opinion, not his vote. They turned him out at the next election, but at that time, and into the late 20th century, many voters would have accepted that while on certain high-profile issues, they themselves could make a good judgement, on most they didn't have the information or wisdom and MPs might - so they would vote for someone who seemed to share their values and approach rather than seeking precise agreement on policies. I remember a more recent politician, the Liberal MP John Pardoe, answering a question on the popularity of capital punishment and his own opposition to it by saying that his voters knew they weren't going to get that policy from him, so if they voted for him, it was on other grounds.

Increasingly, though, people have access to masses of information. They're also used to being able to buy what they want on Amazon or in the supermarket and it's easy for this to determine how they see politics - not just a choice between Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative, or between four or five individuals standing for office, but shopping from a detailed and specific menu. The availability of information is empowering, but the shopping analogy is dangerous when applied to politics, which concerns collective decisions on common issues (so you can't always get what you want) and where issues are interconnected in ways that may not be obvious.

In Burke's time, though, party ties in Britain were very weak, especially in the Whig Party, which was a very loose alliance of factions with no central control. A thoughtful MP like Burke really could follow his conscience or his judgement unless the personal interests of his patron were endangered - and richer men than Burke had not even that limit to consider.

That is not a credible way of running a modern government: it doesn't work anywhere. Back in days when the British Liberal Party had no local councillors in most areas, the idea was popular amongst those Liberals that councillors should be free of party discipline and follow their individual judgements all the time. This was never an idea that survived long once they had a group of elected councillors, because a group that behaved with no coherence would be torn apart. A group actually running a local authority needs to behave with some consistency so managers and others can make plans and we don't end up with popular decisions in one field of work that make nonsense of other decisions in a related field. An elected group can debate things and make a collective decision, taking into account what it knows of wider opinion, but once that group decision is made, those who lost the vote should vote with their colleagues except in rare and limited circumstances - ot otherwise there's chaos.

Most British people view a general election mainly as an exercise in electing a government and do expect the government to have some direction and coherence - which requires some party discipline, though the discipline can either be top-down (do what the leader says) or bottom-up (that's the decision the conference or the group of MPs reached). However, MPs who vote with party discipline against strong local views on something are often punished. If they weren't, people would certainly feel disempowered and ignored. So is Burke still right or not?

I don't think there's a simple answer. Most Liberal Democrat local council groups allow some flexibility for councillors pressing local issues where arguments for the priority to be given to road safety measures on one road, for example, aren't strategic issues. It gets more difficult when a ruling group has taken hard decisons on a schools reorganisation which must involve some schools closing, but everywhere a school is threatened, the closure is unpopular. If every closure were voted on individually with everyone voting freely, there would be no reorganisation with disastrous effects if school rolls were falling. So it may be necessary for a representative to make the case of his voters, do what (s)he can behind the scenes, but accept the final decision.

There is also the competing factor of issues of conscience. I find these hard to define, since to me all political issues are moral issues and all are practical issues, but it seems reasonable to accept there will be a few issues where individuals have deeply-felt beliefs which cut across party boundaries and where it's unreasonable to expect them to be bound by party discipline. However, that may well lead them into votes which go against what most of their voters want!

To sum up: I think people want politicians who:

Trouble is, you can't have more than one of those - unless you can go along with a messy compromise of bits of each.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: The Away Day (5)

Reema found herself on a table with Hamish Carpenter, Henry Donaldson,Gwilym Roberts, Lucy Marlowe and Neil Balderson. She guessed Neil would be chair - he was the most senior person present and never off-message whatever the message was. He looked like a greyhound waiting to chase the fake hare, but he did not suggest any activity.

"Let's check our roles and stickers," she suggested.They looked around one another and checked. Neil was indeed chair. Gwilym Roberts was facilitator, perhaps on the grounds that idleness made openings for dry wit, so it was best to keep him busy. Henry Donaldson, the longest-serving officer there, was newcomer. Hamish Carpenter was the consultant, a role that Reema hoped might prove a bit subversive. Newcomer Lucy Marlowe was the subject expert and she herself was deputising for her director - not that she could imagine Kenneth Spotlessnob doing that in reality.

Gwilym, now in his facilitator role, went through the stickers and their meaning:

"Henry - red means achieving go-getter." Henry looked gloomy.
"Hamish - yellow means leader and motivator." A hint of a smile escaped Hamish's face.
"Neil - purple means excellence beacon." Neil beamed.
"Reema - green means holistic networker." Reema made a face which Neil frowned at.
"Lucy - yellow means leader and motivator. Two of those, then. We'll be well led." Lucy gave him a cold look.
"And finally, myself - excellence beacon." He tried a bit to hard to avoid expression of tone or face.

"We've not got a strategic visioner. Shouldn't we have one?" Lucy asked. "Neil?" Neil looked momentarily puzzled, then authoritative.

"I'll go and check," he said, sweeping off. After a quick word with Kelly Pattrick he swept back. "Yes, well spotted, Lucy. Check those stickers again, please, Gwilym." The result was the same.

"Why don't we just count one of the yellows or purples as a - what was it for strategic visioner - blue?" asked Hamish. Neil was horrified.

"Those stickers were carefully calibrated against personal profiles, including the results of psychological and aptitude tests!" he insisted. "We'll need to swap someone with another table."

"Slave trading," said Gwilym under his breath to Henry. "My cook for your dancer." Henry looked gloomier. Lucy leapt up and started running round other tables interrupting their discussions. At length she came back followed by Julie Poniatowski, a secondee from Odanglesex Police's Intelligence Unit. Julie bore a blue sticker.

"I'd better go, then," said Hamish. "Nothing personal, except it is personal between Julie and my son, at least it was until...hrmmm...nothing personal." And so it was resolved and the team was ready for its tasks.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Can representatives think? (1)

Many though the faults of MPs and other elected representatives are, I'm not going to join in the easy flow of contempt for them. Would those who have nothing but contempt for them and for politics in general please propose their alternative way of resolving common issues? There are other ways, of course - dictatorship, for example, or a marketisation of everything that means if A is fifty times richer than B, he's fifty times more powerful.

No, I want to discuss what degree of independence MPs and other representatives should have - and if their independence is limited, by what.

I was moved to this by learning that polls show the British electorate think (1), that MPs should always vote in keeping with the majority view of the people (not sure if this means in the whole country - probably in their constituency only) and (2) that if an MP is elected as a member of a party on a manifesto, he or she should stick to the manifesto commitments 100%.

These two ideas are clearly contradictory. A manifesto is bound to contain some ideas which don't command majority support. A party that only put forward commitments it was sure would enjoy such support would be cowardly and likely to be blown here and there by shifts in public opinion. Actually, there's evidence that English people at least, whatever they say to pollsters, prefer would-be Prime Ministers and governments that know their own mind to ones that seem not to, even if the former stand for some things those voters don't like. Mrs Thatcher benefited from this and her Tory successors lost support through appearing as reactive populists. A national manifesto commitment may command majority support in the country as a whole, but not in our MP's constituency.

Even if they weren't contradictory, I'd suggest the ideas are misconceived. A party in opposition can put forward policies that appear to be practical according to the best analysis and information available to them at the time. Coming into government, they can find, for example, that confidential information paints a different picture, or the situation can have changed drastically, for example if an apparently healthy economic situation has turned into disaster; or civil servants or other advisors or voluntary organisations can put forward compelling arguments why, to achieve their goals, these are the wrong policies. All that without the possibility of facing a need for coalition with partners whose aims are largely different, or that the promises weren't entirely sincere in the first place!

Insincere promises get politics and politicians a bad name. But there are honest reasons why a manifesto commitment cannot or should not always be implemented, though these situations should be relatively rare. So what is a "pledge", like the U.K. Liberal Democrats' pledge on student funding? Since anyone who knows something about practical politics knows a manifesto commitment should represent a sincere intention but cannot be 100% solid, if a small minority of manifesto commitments are picked out to be pledges, I can only imagine this is suposed to mean these promises alone are sacrosanct - so to make such a commitment knowing there is perhaps a 10% chance it may have to be broken is a bad mistake. To pursue the example, the Liberal Democrats, my party, knew it was very unlikely they would be able to govern alone or even as the biggest party short of a majority. What actually happened, that circumstances meant there was very little alternative to a coalition, could be no great surprise. For me, the dropping of that policy as part of the give and take of compromise in a coalition was understandable, but it raises the question of whether a "pledge" is just overblown language for an intention.

What about MPs voting with their consciences, or with a collective party decision, and against the wishes of their electorate? I'll look at that in the follow-up post, probably after I return to the tale of Odanglesex County Council and the Away Day.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: The Away Day (4)

"Right, everyone!" Kelly Pattrick shouted crisply, activating a powerpoint presentation. "Dale's set the scene and now it's time for some activity! Has everyone got a coloured sticker?" Various voices confirmed this. "Has everyone put their initials on the task chart over there?" The response was more confused. A few people shouted that they had. A few shouted "No!". Most looked confused and some guilty.

"It isn't clear what it means," Mike Finnegan complained.

"Ah, but you could have asked," Dale Brashcon commented. Mike looked cross but kept quiet. "Today is all about reaching out and taking risks!" Dale continued. "Kelly?"

"Now listen carefully, because I'm going to explain what the stickers and the chart mean," Kelly declaimed. "The stickers are red, blue, green, yellow and purple. All of these indicate roles we want you to play. There they are on the screen:

RED: Achieving go-getter
BLUE: Strategic visioner
GREEN: Holistic networker
YELLOW: Leader and motivator
PURPLE: Excellence beacon.

Everyone now know what they're supposed to be?"

"What about BORING BUREAUCRAT, PROCESS-OBSESSED ROBOT, PERPETUAL GRUMBLER and OTHER PEOPLE'S WORK NICKER?" Gwilym Roberts said under his breath. Kelly did not hear this, but she did see Reema Narlikar turn her head to give Gwilym a smile. Kelly did not smile: it was not the right point in the script.

"Now for the chart," Kelly announced - and the screen did her bidding. "Down that axis - a number of situations you'll be asked to solve in your team. As you see, they're called THE FLOOD, NEGATIVITY, THE AWARD, MODERNISATION, CHANGE and THE BUSINESS CASE. Along the other axis are roles you can take in the team - chair, facilitator, consultant, subject expert, newcomer, deputising for director. Where there's room for more than one person in one role that's reflected in the columns. Now put your initials in one of the vacant boxes and then - here's the slide - go to the tables numbered for your situation where you'll find briefings on the situation." This created a great surge towards the chart and a long, disorganised queue. Sally Berg, in a wheelchair, did not move. Dale bustled up to her and asked if he could help.

No," she replied, because I'm not going to get through that crowd. Also I won't be able to reach the chart to write on it." With Dale's promise that he would bring the chart to her as soon as possible, she stayed put.

The crowd was beginning to filter back and find the right tables. Neil Balderson, watching, was disappointed that they did not seem to be getting stuck into understanding the situations. This kind of exercise really divided the sheep from the goats.

"Kelly," said Hamish Carpenter, "there's no further information on the tables. The bits of paper are evaluation forms." But reacting decisively to unexpected problems was something the organisers believed in. The briefings were found in a box. Soon three people were rushing around between the tables handing them out.

The morning collaborative activity was about to begin in earnest.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Monarchy - who needs it?

I pause in the account of the strange goings-on at the Odanglesex County Council Outdoor Activity Centre for a nude flash. Sorry, no, a post on monarchy, brought about by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II in the U.K..

My problem is that U.K. and non-U.K. visitors to this site will see this very differently. My guess is that the jubilee would have merited a brief mention on Indian or U.S. T.V. news (former colonies, after all) with a chance to watch more on some minority channel, and not that for the French, the Germans, the Japanese or the Mexicans. Here in the U.K. it was wall to wall.

The pageantry is impressive, a magnificent huge dance; the colours blaze out. The crowds seemed to be enjoying themselves even in cold, damp weather that our ancestors would have taken to indicate God's displeasure. What I caught of the commentary was embarrassing if one's mental facilities, particularly the critical and analytical ones, were turned on.

The point was fairly made that the Jubilee, representing 60 years on the throne, was a rare event - only one female monarch before had lasted that long, though that fact sounded a bit like one of those peculiar statistics dredged up by the backup to commentators during quiet passages in a cricket test or a golf competition ("Now what about this? Stroganoff has never before scored three or more under par in a round in a competitive match in Scotland when it was raining!") But it was also said several times to be an historic occasion. Now as a History graduate with a continuing interest in the subject I know a bit about historic occasions and events. They're ones people in the future judge to be very important, so they're still being discussed and taught about hundreds of years later. Things are important because they affect the lives of a lot of people. For example, the invention of the printing press was an historic event. So was the climactic last day of the struggle for air superiority over southern England in 1940 known as the Battle of Britain. So was the unification of the Chinese kingdoms and Luther's nailing his 95 theses to the church wall. I'd suggest the Diamond Jubilee is not an historic event because it will change nothing of consequence; neither will the precise length of Queen Elizabeth II's reign affect many lives much outside the royal family.

It was claimed that the queen was Britain, which would be dangerous if it were to be taken seriously, and that we Britons were unified in her - but how? For what purpose? Creating what action? The great majority of Britons were unified in 1939-45 by a difficult and dangerous task and an external threat, though not a few were outside that unity (Fascist sympathisers, criminals exploiting the absence of the younger, fitter policemen and the wish to find a way round rationing, suffering people who considered any peace better than the bombing, idealistic pacifists) but that unity was against something and for something and there were practical and urgent reasons to co-operate. The unity of celebrations like the one just gone seems to me to be no more than a warm feeling, though to give her credit, Elizabeth II has always made an effort to encourage us to be inclusive, tolerant and to some extent internationalist.

She's done a pretty good job, an alienating and troublesome job despite the perks, but I want to think about the monarchy in general, not one monarch. What are the arguments for it? These perhaps:

*The royal family has a lot of experience in the job
*It's healthy to separate the quasi-religious function of emblem of the nation from practical political power because ruthless political leaders as Presidents can exploit the feeling that they represent some kind of mystic national identity to overcome opposition
*In the British system, even in a republican version, the President would not have anything like the power of the Prime Minister and would probably be a rather colourless figure, perhaps a semi-retired politician not quite successful enough to make prime minister
*It represents a lot of history
*People like to look up to a royal, even a minor royal opening some event that would run very well without them.

And the arguments against? Perhaps these:
*It's far more expensive than an Irish, German or Indian-style presidency
*Being a member of the royal family for life does some strange things to people and it may be better to have a president who was a normal person living a fairly normal life for most of his or her life
*Our monarchs have become understandably so cautious about the slightest intervention in actual politics that the role of the head of state as a kind of umpire, helping to facilitate some order after a chaotic election result or government breakdown, challenging an overweening prime minister so that at least Parliament gives proper consideration to his or her proposals in the light of full information (as didn't happen over the Iraq war) and making occasional verbal interventions when the constitution or basic values of the country seem to be at risk, has been lost. Irish and German presidents, for example, can fulfil this function because they are elected, and it's healthy for democracy.
*Through no fault of the monarch, the monarchy stands at the apex of a system of honours, distinctions, gradations and instinctive inequality (though the Scandinavian monarchies seem to have cut this link).

There is much more that could be said. Any views?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: The Away Day (3)

THE STORY SO FAR: Kenneth Spotlessnob has decided Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision needs an away-day and Dale Brashcon is organising it. Staff arriving find the main entrance to the Outdoor Activity Centre locked and finding the side entrance is a test of their initiative. Inside, everything buzzes, especially Dale Brashcon, as the set hour approaches...but some puzzling wallcharts have attracted young Scott Fitzwilliam's attention. What can they mean?

There was a disturbance among the coffee cups and nervous conversation. Lucy Marlowe, who had joined OCC only five months before but was widely rumoured to be a high riser, was dashing round with a clipboard and a supply of little sticky coloured dots - red, blue, yellow, green, purple - one of which she attached to the most suitable surface on each participant. If she could not get at the front of the person, it went on the back. Lucy looked delighted to be doing something decisive and important. Dale Brashcon grinned as she stuck a purple dot on him and a man who everyone had assumed was from the I.T. semi-detached project took a photo.

The clock on the wall - a rare sight for many since OCC had removed all office clocks in a ruthless, smoothly-executed overnight putsch - jerked towards 9:00. There was a sudden, very loud SMACK. People and coffee-cups jumped. A few looked round to see if an illegal assault had occurred. It had not. Dale Brashcon had leapt athletically on to the stage and had clapped his hands for attention.He stood in front of purple and gold curtains with the air of a circus-owner.

"Colleagues - fellow-enthusiasts - it's great to have you all here! It's great you could all make it. As I was going around I could sense a really great atmosphere and I'm sure we're all going to have a really great day. Now I know you're all raring to go, but of course we do need to the usual bit..." he declared. Kelly Pattrick, simpering like a bridesmaid who'd just seen something wrong in another bridesmaid's dress, was ready to run through information about fire-alarms, toilets and mobile phones. "Great! Thanks, Kelly," Dale resumed. "I just want to remind you all what we're here for and what brings us together." He pulled a cord.

A number of people were trying to do something about the coffee they had spilt on themselves or others when Dale had clapped his hands, but the rest witnessed an unexpected piece of theatre. The curtains slid back smoothly and a very large picture began to come into view. The left-hand curtain snagged and halted. Dale stood as if frozen. An elderly man, bald and red-faced, appeared from the wings and freed the curtain. The revelation was complete. The crowd was staring at a very large map of Odanglesex with the OCC strategic priorities inscribed around the margin.

"That, boys and girls, is what we're all here for!" Dale proclaimed. Our vision is to make Odanglesex the best county in England!"

"Not in Wales, note," said Gwilym Roberts under his breath.

"Odanglesex in Wales?" what a horrible idea!" Scott whispered.

"That was my opinion too," Gwilym replied.

Dale had paused for his audience to take in the dramatic display; but now he began to talk. He wanted to point out that the A13 trunk dualling would improve communications between the North-West and the South-East of the county. He wanted to point out the cluster of institutions of further and higher learning. A dotted red line showed the path of the Olympic torch, and Hamish Carpenter, having a restless, statistically-inclined mind, wondered if there was a negative correlation between the route of the torch and areas of high deprivation. Dale was talking about transport problems for agricultural businesses, about compulsory sports for NEETs (unemployed youth), about flood protection, about affordable housing and about the encoragement of excellence through provision of unaffordable housing.

Kelly Pattrick looked at her watch. She made a gesture. She coughed.

"So those are our strategic priorities we're going to advance through today's exciting co-operative working!" Dale announced, and jumped down from the stage leaving Kelly in temporary command.