Human Nature…..

I had my faith in human nature boosted last week. I was in London with my wife for a 10 day stay at our son’s and had to negotiate the tube on a busy Saturday with two cases and a laptop bag. At King’s Cross tube, distracted, tired or just plain stupid I put the laptop bag down on a platform bench while we waited for the next Piccadilly Line train. You’ve guessed. The train came. Two people and two cases boarded, but the laptop bag did not.

I realised my mistake in about 30 seconds. Got off at the first stop and returned to Kings Cross in about five minutes. The bag of course was not where I left it. I made my way to the station supervisor’s office where I was told that if it had been handed to or picked up by an underground employee it would be in his office. It wasn’t there. It might turn up in the next week. Sometimes people took a while to hand stuff in. He suggested I might speak to the Transport Police on the main station concourse given the contents of the bag – a laptop of course, but also my passport and driving licence and a few other items of note.

While I was with the police I received a text on my mobile and to cut a long story short it was a guy called Boris. At least that’s what he said his name was. He had my bag. The police dictated my responses. Boris wanted to meet at another north London tube station. The police said I should expect a demand for a hefty wedge of cash but added that they thought he was genuine as he’d given me an address that checked out and we had his mobile number which they could trace. I met him. He was. I have my bag and all its contents. He got a small reward by way of a thank you. He works in healthcare.

Faith in human nature restored! The sad thing is that as we chatted Boris indicated that he had decided to call me direct because he was an Eastern European. He anticipated a long engagement with the police while they tracked me down to corroborate that nothing was missing. He didn’t want to lose his afternoon. Maybe this was based on a previous bad experience, or maybe just the fear of one? His parting words – “You see not all Easter Europeans are ********s (expletive deleted). Mixed emotions. Pleased to have my stupidity countered by Boris’s honesty and helpfulness. Disappointed that his experience of the UK and its population has on occasion been less than positive I fear.


Double edged sword…

It is reasonably clear that the UK government is in some disarray. There is no Conservative majority in Parliament, so the government depends on the votes of its Northern Irish allies. The cabinet is divided, the party too. And Brexit dominates the agenda in the House, in government and in the media.

There is a benefit/dis-benefit from this. Delete as applicable. The wobbly government and the Brexit obsession means that little is likely to be forthcoming in terms of education or social legislation. The double-edged sword is that there are most certainly some things that need to be addressed.

At the same time any new legislative requirements placed on hard pressed local authorities, schools and other agencies would be challenging, even if in principle the new law did in fact facilitate improvement. Are we saved by Brexit from new law to implement and fund? Or suffering because things in need of attention are not receiving it? You decide.

Rich and poor….

I must say that the press report at the weekend about the salaries of academy trust principals and chief executives in England did take me a little by surprise. I knew there had been some “wage inflation” since the bad old days of LEA control – they weren’t that bad – but not to the extent reported in some trusts.

I suspect that more than a few hard pressed headteachers outside this gilded group read the item with dismay. The idea that a public servant, as at the end of the day that is what these colleagues are, should be remunerated at the levels reported (and don’t forget the BMWs thrown into the package in one case at least) does seem to suggest that those in power in some MATs have, in simple terms, lost the plot.

While many state schools struggle to balance the books, and provide adequate resources and facilities for teaching and learning these levels of remuneration are just plain wrong.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have just stepped down as Chief Executive of a local authority. A job in which I was well paid, but at nothing like the levels reported at the weekend for MAT chief execs responsible for a group of schools maybe measured in a few tens of institutions.

As a council Chief Executive I was ultimately responsible for a raft of public services from the bins to social work and everything in between, including the performance of a significant number of schools. (Note to reader – in Scotland there are no academies in the English sense of the term and state schools remain, for the time being, under the control of their Local Authority). The pay was realistic, not excessive, and could be justified in terms of the demands and expectations of the job and the differential with those working in many varied roles across a 5000 strong organisation. In any case it was set nationally and not by my council so my ability to influence the rate of pay was nil.

The other (always used) comparator this weekend was the pay of the PM.

Isn’t it about time this nonsense was debunked? If package rather than pay was counted it might look rather different – accommodation at Number 10, and at Chequers, transport and travel, personal security, a fair whack of subsistence thrown in (that’s food and drink by the way translated from local government speak). I don’t know what rent free accommodation in a substantial central London property is worth, suffice to say a lot….and as an MP the former PM is entitled to a pension if they leave Parliament.

In any case the idea that the job of PM can be a benchmark for anything else is in my view just nonsense.

Senior leaders in public service are always on thin ice when they discuss pay. But in real terms if the rate for the job is not in balance with the demands of the job we will not recruit or retain the talent that public services need. My question here is whether in setting remuneration as high as it appears to have been in some English academy trusts has that balance been lost?

In this case those who are really paying the price are of course the learners in whose classrooms this money is not being spent.

Transport in the North………

Last week “The Economist” magazine carried a piece about investment in transport infrastructure across the English regions. A small graphic showing capital investment in infrastructure placed Yorkshire and Humber at the bottom of the regional league table. London (of course) topped the table by a country mile with estimated expenditure at a little under £2000 per head of the region’s population. In Yorkshire and Humber it was put at less than £250 per head.

As we endure the pleasures of bus based Pacer trains from the 1980s, under investment on the East Coast Main Line, congestion on the M62, A64 and A19 and the absence of a modern mass transit system in Leeds, I am sure we all take comfort in the benefits of the new Elizabeth Line at £15bn and a new trains programme for Thameslink valued at £6.5bn. Let’s not mention Crossrail and maybe even Crossrail 2 to come or the dubious benefits of HS2 to the north and north east.

Government announcements in July ended hopes of transport investment in south Wales, the East Midlands and the North in favour of London – “the highest priority”.

The productivity benefits of investing in modern transport infrastructure cannot be denied. That after all is the basis of the investment in London and the south east, but it is negligent almost beyond belief to ignore the  pressing and significant needs of the regions, and the North in particular, to such an extent, and to forego the social and economic harvest that investment in the North would bring.

Who do we need to recruit?

Charles Wilson of Penna wrote an interesting piece in a supplement that came with the MJ last week. The article was about  embracing digital in the public sector. He gave 7 reasons why it’s hard to attract digital talent into the public sector, one of which struck me as having a much wider relevance when thinking about the future shape of the workforce in local government – it was out of date recruitment processes and means of engaging staff.

The proposition was that the sector needs to recognise that much of its work in the digital space is project based or time limited and therefore it needs to be more willing to hire contractors and interim managers rather that thinking of permanent appointment as the standard approach.

I would take that observation and extend it well beyond the realm of IT and digital. I think that there are in fact many areas of operation with local government where the recruitment of the right people on a permanent basis is hard and where the need for a permanent appointment is not in fact essential, although we usually think it is. Clearly any time limited activity would be prime for this approach, but what is time limited? Why not extend fixed term commissions to management roles in general? That way we might have more success in matching skills and experience to current need and be more able to replace outmoded skills and approaches more quickly.

While I would never advocate the excesses of zero hours contracts in public services I do think there is scope to see more flexible public sector workforce models involving several forms of staff engagement  as benefitting both the organisation and the service user/funder.





Leaving Angus Council….

Well, the end is nigh as they say, and as far as writing things here in the role of Chief Executive of Angus Council is concerned it has in fact now arrived. This will be my last posting here in that role. My official last day with the council is 31st May, but with some of my 2017 leave allocation remaining I will exit stage left a little over a week from now on the 23rd of this month.

My six years in Angus have flown by – although at times I confess it did feel as if time was moving exceeding slow, as it sometimes does. Some meetings are just meant to test us!

The council has changed a fair bit over the six years since 2011 as we made the best we could of increasingly difficult circumstances for local government and public services in general. If anyone out there thinks I have done a reasonable job as Chief Executive in the face of those pressures it is largely down to the hard work and dedication of the Angus Council team, and the credit is theirs.

I am off to pastures new – “retirement plus” as it is called these days. The plus for me will entail, all being well, a few minor roles in other people’s shows to keep me off the streets and out of trouble. More of that will feature here in June and beyond. And there will certainly be a lot more time for family, grandchildren and of course motor cycle racing with David, ITFC and cricket…. amongst other things.

Thank you for looking at these posts over the years. There will be more from me in the future, but for now goodbye and good luck!


There’s an election ….. Pt 2

This afternoon we had a small get together in the Canmore Room in Forfar to say thank you and farewell to current councillors not seeking re-election on 4th May.

The council term is nearly over and like me you are probably asking where did those 5 years go?

Officers and members work closely together and in many ways running the council is a truly a team effort. This is far more the case than most members of the public realise.

In my experience council officers have great respect for those who put their heads above the parapet to stand for election and then commit to a role as an elected member – often on top of a busy family or working life – often both.

As the council term comes to an end it’s only right that the service given to our community by departing councillors is recognised. That’s why we organised the event this afternoon, in particular so that senior officers and colleagues in Committee Services, who work closely with councillors, could say thank you to members for their very real assistance and support over the last 5 years.

The last term has been one of the toughest I have known in my almost 40 year career. And there have also been personal losses for us all to come to terms with.

In particular I am thinking of the death of Provost Oswald last year. Helen gave so much to our communities in Angus and to this council that it is hard to quantify. The numbers attending her funeral service were a clear testament to the high esteem in which she was held. I was so pleased that her husband Ed was able to join us in at the event.

For the last 2 council terms we have provided departing councillors with a certificate recording their service to the community. It’s always seemed slightly wrong to me that those who give so much to our community walk away with not even so much as a piece of paper that confirms that yes, they were once part of something, and made a difference.

In ascending order of years served those leaving Angus Council and not seeking re-election are –

Cllr Martyn Geddes           5 years of service

Cllr Jim Houston                  5 years of service

Cllr Ewan Smith                  5 years of service

Cllr Mairi Evans MSP           10 years of service

Cllr David May                    10 years of service

Cllr Margaret Thomson      10 years of service

Cllr Paul Valentine             10 years of service

Cllr Iain Gaul                        14 years of service

Cllr Rob Murray                    22 years of service

My thanks, those of my colleagues, and of the people of Angus go to them all.