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.

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.



There’s an election….

Well – the end is nigh as the placards say. On 31 May my time at Angus Council comes to an end. But between now and late May – a little over a month – there is the small matter of the Scottish Local Government Election. 

For the next 4 or 5 weeks my diary is dominated by matters related to the 4th May elections. As I have said in previous blog, the public is almost universally unaware of the large and complex operation, hidden from view, which delivers democracy in Scotland and the UK. In Angus 100s of people and a huge amount of effort is involved in preparing the 5 minute exposure to the process that the voter experiences, either at home completing a postal vote or the polling station.

The election of a new council and the hand over to a new Chief Executive is truly a watershed for the organisation with new leadership in both the political and officer spaces. With the revised management structure agreed by the council coming into place over the next few weeks the council is moving forward again, and the new cohort of elected members (almost certainly including some not so new!) will complete the transition.
If you are assisting with the election on the 4th at a polling station or at the count in Arbroath on the 5th of May, a big thank you from me in my role as Returning Officer. We couldn’t do it without you.

 As for the result….well, we shall see. We do know that several serving councillors are not seeking re-election so there will be a number of new faces, and the power of the ballot box to deliver the unexpected is fresh in our minds just now.

Whatever the outcome for individuals on the 4th I take my hat off to all those who put their heads above the parapet in 2012 to seek election to the council, and who have worked hard to serve our community in the 5 years since.

A lightness of touch …..

I have heard the phrase “a lightness of touch” used twice in the last few days.

The first occasion was on BBC radio when someone was describing what had led her to include a particular piece of music in her 8 records on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. A musician with lightness of touch.

The second occasion was in a conversation about our current crop of national political leaders. The point being made by the person who was speaking was that too many of them seem unable to portray anything other than “I am always right, the other side is always wrong, and I am going to win because of that … and I can shout louder than you”.   Shades of the playground. There was, my friend said, no lightness of touch.

But what about leaders in public services? There are times when clear and bold direction is needed, but I do believe that a lightness of touch will often achieve the outcomes being aspired to. For lightness of touch in leadership to succeed it must be rooted in trust. The trust and confidence of the leader in those supporting his or her role.

The need that leaders sometimes exhibit to be to the fore all the time, to be the person centre stage, the one doing most of the talking, in control may actually have the effect of weakening an organisation rather than making it stronger.

A strong organisation is one populated by empowered people who get on and do a good job without micro management from the top in the shadow of the great leader. Discuss, as the exam papers say.