Archive for January, 2013

How We All Love Management Speak


Touching Base

You must all work as a team,
The managers constantly say,
Let our upward trends
Signpost us on our way.

It must all be process driven,
Embedded in your team,
Think outside the box,
Facilitate funding streams.

You must all test for soundness
And work in partnership,
Normalise your outcomes,
Empower the citizenship.

We need to start a dialogue
To discuss our trajectory,
Escalate your feedback,
Become a visionary.

You must exceed your targets
Eight days of every week,
Incentivise your capacity
Procure the outcomes we seek.

Pass me the Ibuprofen
Before my head collapses,
I do my job much better
When I’m left to my own devices.

They can’t allow that of course,
That denies them leverage,
You have to be coterminous
In assigning brokerage.

If you can’t be clear, be quiet
Is all I have to say,
You can stick holistic governance
From the start and close of play.

Hell, now I’ve caught the infection,
I upscale blue sky think,
Is there any cure for this?
God, I need a drink.


Public services are not businesses


The fact that an NHS Trust can go into administration should tell you all you need to know about why it’s wrong to run public services as businesses. Administration costs money. A lot of money. Money that, in times of austerity could be better spent elsewhere. On patients, for example. Now how’s that for a radical idea?

Do we ever learn from history?


“[In a period where] human equality became technically possible…practices which had long been abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years – imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations – not only become common again, but were tolerated by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive”

Believe it or not, that was written by George Orwell over 60 years ago in his novel “Nineteen Eighty Four”.
Plus ca change indeed.

Does Lady Thatcher deserve a state funeral?


I believe it’s been decided that Lady Thatcher is to receive a state funeral when she finally shuffles off. My first reaction was disbelief: what has done to deserve such an honour? I suppose you could argue that Prime Ministers are more deserving of one as they have at least been elected, in contrast to the royals. The last Prime Minister to be so honoured was Churchill, which is not surprising given his role as leader during WW2 when the country faced a very real threat to its existence. But Mrs Thatcher? I hardly think they’re in the same league.

She was and remains a very divisive figure. She is responsible for introducing the economic policies that impoverished large parts of the country and led to the mess we are in now. She began the process of dismantling the public sector, undermining workers’ rights, impoverishing the poor and making the rich richer still, the list is endless. Does such a person deserve a state funeral? I think not.

Is the chief executive of Stoke City Council worth a pay rise?


I hear a rumour that that Stoke City Council’s chief executive may be about to get a pay rise. He has, apparently, had a review and believes he is worth it. I stress this is just a rumour, but if true, it is deeply offensive and an insult to both council staff and to the people of this city.

In a time of unprecedented cuts to public services, and where council staff have had a pay freeze for three (soon to be four) years, is such a rise appropriate? Especially in such a deprived city? That, to use a modern phrase, has to be a no-brainer.

If this turns out to be true, the chief should lead by example and refuse it. In fact, he should go further, and take a pay cut. After all, he is on more than £220,000 with pay and benefits, so it’s not as if he can’t afford it. For him to accept a pay rise, it will make the council look even worse than it did in the recent BBC documentary, and bolster the impression that they are out of touch.

How consultants ruined a good Benefits service


Once upon a time, there was a local council benefits service that had a serious backlog of work. Claims took several months to sort, and claimants were understandably angry. There were insufficient staff to deal with the work, and they were demoralised and unappreciated. Eventually, new money was found, more staff recruited and better training provided. Gradually, the backlog was cleared and the department went from being one of the worst in the country to one of the best.

This ticked along well for the next few years. This council went through several chief executives during this time, and in 2010, another one was appointed. He came from another council and prior to that, the private sector. As usual, he had his own ideas about how to run things, so he ordered yet another “restructure” of the council to fit in with them. This chief had friends called Vanguard, and they prided themselves on going into organisations and improving the “customer experience”, using what they grandly called “the systems thinking ethos”. He used them wherever he worked, and this council was no exception. The benefits manager decided to ingratiate herself with the new regime and volunteered benefits for an “intervention”. Staff weren’t worried as the service had a four star rating.

The logical thing, you would think, would have been to look at the existing (successful) system and suggest improvements. But no, Vanguard thought they knew better and had a more brutal solution: scrap the old system en bloc and restart with a blank sheet of paper. Re-invent the wheel, re-discover fire, that’s what it felt like to the staff: their years of hard work and achievement flushed away like so much refuse. It counted for nothing.

For example, under the “old” way, documents given in by a claimant in support of their claim, were scanned onto computer. This meant a staff member could view it on any council PC with the correct software. And what was the new improved method? Nothing was scanned, paper documents were taken and their receipt logged on a spreadsheet. Thus, if a benefit assessor wanted to view the document, they had to phone the back office and request that someone else waded through the mass of paper to find it! Not surprisingly, the incidences of documents going missing increased sharply.

Vanguard’s main idea was instead of assessments being done in the back office, they would be done while the claimant was visiting the front office counter. This meant that most assessors had to be redeployed to front counters, first at the main one stop shop, and then in an increasing number of local housing offices. Now, in theory, this is no bad thing, as it meant that claimants would not have to travel so far to get their claim sorted: local bus fares are not cheap.

It was clear (except to management) that this new way would require more assessment staff, but Vanguard thought it needed less.

In the derided “old” way of working, an assessor in the back office could easily deal with at least 20 pieces of work in a day, which would be a mixture of claims, responses and simpler things like rent increases. Working on the front line, an assessor would be very unlikely to match this performance. Most of the work would be claims or changes of address etc, and even the simplest claims (say a pensioner on pension credit (guarantee) claiming council tax benefit only) can typically take around 30 minutes to complete. Most claims are more complex than that, so take far longer to sort. Assessors had the discretion to take the claim and process it next time they were in the back office.

Vanguard made great play of their ethos being “bottom up”, namely that the improvements would be suggested and delivered by front line staff, i.e. assessors. In this council, this is not how it played out in practice. Management decided early on what they wanted and consistently refused to listen to anything to the contrary. Assessment officers did the work and were thus in the best position to know what worked and what did not. Contrast this with the managers. Most of them had either never assessed or had not done so for several years.

All this went on for months, then for one, then two, years. And very quickly, the department returned to backlog. Management remained in denial about this for several months, until finally, even they had to accept what had been clear to everyone else for months. They even finally accepted some of the changes made had been mistakes (e.g. not scanning documents), but it was too late by then.

Not surprisingly, staff morale sank to an all time low during this time. Under the initial Vanguard proposals, 10 assessor jobs were to be deleted. Six staff were allowed to take voluntary redundancy, then the manager realised this had been a mistake so no more were allowed to leave. Despite this loss of staff, more local centres were opened up to the new way, so assessment staff were spread very thinly indeed.

It was clear from the start that the face to face way of working did not suit everyone. Some staff thrived on it, and were keen advocates of the new way. Many staff, however, were not keen at all. Initially the manager said this would not be a problem as there would always be plenty of back office jobs for such people to do. This did not last long, however. It very quickly changed so that everyone would have to work that way, or else. Several staff in particular had issues over it. Management were aware of this throughout, and although they made great play of trying to be “supportive”, staff concerned felt bullied into doing something they did not want to do. Not surprisingly, stress and sickness levels increased, and this writer knows of several staff who could only cope with it with anti-depressants.

Set all this against the wider picture of severe government cuts and the recession. This council had to endure multi-million pound cuts for several years in a row, with several hundred jobs being lost each time. At the same time, the corporate culture of the council had changed for the worse, with an authoritarian and bullying management style taking root and thriving. It’s no surprise that staff felt scared for their jobs, and management played on this: play ball or your job will be at risk.

I’d like to say this story could be one where everyone lived happily ever after, but that seems more and more unlikely. Two and a half years after Vanguard, several more experienced staff have left the department. The workload hasn’t reduced of course, and seems unlikely to do so. And the managers responsible for the mess are still in post. Across the council, despite high unemployment in its area, staff have been queueing up to leave. To anyone with eyes to see, this suggests that something is seriously wrong with this council.

The benefits service is a vital one, helping as it does people in financial difficulties. Yet the council took a successful service and destroyed it. Worse still, this destruction cost several million pounds of tax payers’ money. In this writer’s opinion, this represents a massive failure by the council. It has failed its staff, and it has failed the people it is supposed to serve. From the chief executive down, the management should be hanging their heads in shame.

Stop attacking your staff: a reply to the Council Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council


There was a meeting of the local Labour Party this evening, called by the council leader, all about the budget and the way forward. I was going to attend, but was unable to so I sent him an email instead:

I had intended to come to yesterday’s meeting, but I had a prior appointment. I see from your mail that you are interested in members’ views about the budget and the way forward. Well, below are my views, though you will probably find them unpalatable.

I’m aware that the council faces an unprecedented cut in its budget from central government. However, the way those cuts are implemented lies with you. Council staff are hard-working and have made sacrifices in recent years, with a three year pay freeze (equivalent to a pay cut of 14%) and covering for the many staff who have been made redundant. The council should be a good place to work, yet I understand that recent interest in voluntary redundancy has been massively over-subscribed. So, despite the poor state of the jobs market, staff are queuing up to leave! This should suggest to anyone with eyes to see that there is something seriously wrong, yet it is not addressed. And now I understand that you are insisting on attacking the terms and conditions of staff. Your proposal to sack everyone and re-employ them on less favourable contracts is an absolute disgrace. I’m aware that further cuts have to be made, but why the insistence on the attack on staff, even where alternatives have been suggested. It is the sort of stunt I would expect from a Tory council. Party member or not, it is not one I can vote for.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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