Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Making Accidents Happen

Perhaps my favourite non-fiction book (classing poetry as fiction) is "Normal Accidents" by American sociologist Charles Perrow. Most sociologists seem to write a kind of priestly jargon ideal for excluding the 99.9% of the world who haven't got the faintest what they're on about, but some American academics (I well remember J.K. Galbraith) write English that is both cultured and accessible. Charles Perrow is one.

He analyses the causes of major high-tech accidents and finds certain themes. The more complex the technology, and the faster it operates, the more likely are "unexpected interactions", things coming together that aren't supposed to. This could be as unsubtle as two wires rubbing together when the wiring diagram would give you no warning they might meet. It could be a cleaner's shirt catching on a lever and pulling it (which caused a major incident in a nuclear power station). People tend to react to perceived risk in such systems by adding safety devices, but these add to the complexity of the system and can cause accidents. He quotes a classic example of a state-of-the-art American cargo ship on to which automatic sprinklers were introduced, set to turn on if there was a fire. The ring round the nozzle of one sprinkler was the wrong metal. Over a period this corroded and resulted in the sprinkler turning on, which caused a flood, which caused an electrical fault, which caused a fire which eventually caused the ship to be abandoned.

I found this fascinating, but even more fascinating to me is the human psychology that causes or worsens an accident by misunderstanding the situation. Of course, people are sometimes faced by dangerous situations where the information they receive is not enough and they have to guess. I don't mean that: I mean when the information is quite good enough for a correct interpretation, but that doesn't happen. That seems to take place for a number of reasons deep-seated in human nature.

We are very good at interpreting situations - patterning, if you like - but once we've achieved an interpretation, we're very reluctant to abandon it. Thus an experienced (American coastguard) captain interprets the lights of a ship coming the other way as the lights of a ship going the same way but very slowly. The initial mistake is easily made - but as the pointers pile up that he's got it wrong, he fails to reconsider. In this case other crew members did interpret it rightly but feared to question the dictatorial captain's judgement. That could be compared to the Piper Alpha disaster, where the rig was not closed down because the manager on the site was supposed to get authorisation from Aberdeen and he couldn't raise them. Structures of authority, rules and systems meant to deal with relatively ordinary matters are clearly inadequate for major emergencies, yet people stick to them. We can trust machines too much: the machine is telling me X, so it must be so (even if all sorts of evidence points the other way). That was at the heart of the failure to understand the nature of the problem at Three Mile Island sooner. Some people, of course, panic while others remain rational even when very scared, and this seems to be mostly a matter of body chemistry (though training, of course, can help if it's just a matter of applying a routine emergency response, not of making desperately hard decisions). Finally, we struggle to believe that something is happening if it's beyond our experience: "It's never happened, so it won't happen". Since outside the military and emergency services, it's extremely unlikely that a person in charge has experienced, say, a major fire at work, this makes a nonsense of preparation.

So much more I could write on this. Any comments?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: The Agile Workers (3)

FROM: Hilary Hannah, Human Resources Excellence Consultant

TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Assistant Chief Executive and Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

cc: Eustace Ojukwu, Human Resources Excellence Consultant

Kenneth: I attach the full report on TESV's piloting of an aspirational head:seat ratio within OCC's Agile Working Strategy. The summary report is as follows (please let me know if you'd like to raise any points before it goes to Ed and Cllr Wayneflete).

Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision has achieved the aspirational target of 1 seat to 2.51 heads within a challenging timescale. The actual ratio at the time of writing is 1:2.56. This demonstrates that the target is achievable across the Council. The achievement deserves congratulation.

However, the anticipated efficiency economies have not been achieved: in fact, only 9.6% of the anticipated saving has been achieved. While power costs are down thanks to officers working from home and relying on home power supplies, none of the extra space vacated has generated income. To put it bluntly, other organisations don't want to be housed in County Hall. One VCS chief executive said his customers finding the organisation at County Hall would be "a lingering death" and then corrected himself to "not necessarily lingering". Unfortunately this response is not untypical and all possible out-stations had already been closed, generating extra mileage expenses as officers had to travel to distant centres.

Other difficulties include feedback by Callboysandgirls Call Centre that there has been a 72% increase in phones not being answered and low use of home computers and mobile devices because of Council security requirements. In particular, conversion of devices is taking an average five weeks two days and employees are showing marked reluctance to delete their existing home internet security in favour of the MaxiPlus Platinum Plated Worldwide Security package.

Feedback from employees is mixed. Many enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to work from home more, but in some cases have been frustrated by internet security issues. A significant minority find the lack of a personal space at work disorienting. There have also been some problems, which are being investigated, of disability access issues being unresolved.

It is too early to tell whether the changeover has led to increased efficiency in TESV.

Hilary Hannah
Eustace Ojukwu.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob

TO; Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager

Neil: I'm not happy about this report. It needs some polishing before it goes to Ed and Bill Waynflete. Could you drop in asap for a brief discussion and then liaise with Hilary and Eustace?

FROM: Eustace Ojukwu
TO: Neil Balderson

Hi! Here's the revised version.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob

TO: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive

Ed: Here's the report from the HR consultants on our Agile Workers step change. The summary is as follows:

Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision has achieved the aspirational target of 1 seat to 2.51 heads within a challenging timescale. The actual ratio at the time of writing is 1:2.53. All employees are to be congratulated.

Savings of £539,000 pa can be projected if the savings pathway of the first months is projected till the year end. Energy costs are down and space within County Hall has been freed up. All working from home and in transit has been brought in line with Council security requirements and there have been no breeches.

A clear majority of TESV employees have welcomed the opportunity to become Agile and work more from home. A problem in a small number of cases of access difficulties to flexible working work stations has been addressed.

The transformation is on course to deliver greater efficiency and customer responsiveness.

Eustace Ojukwu
Hilary Hannah, Human Resources Excellence Consultants

FROM: Cllr Bill Wayneflete, Leader of the Council

TO; Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive

Ed: Thanks for the report on Agile Working. I'd like to raise two points.

First, unless our employees are trouserless, it should be "breaches", not "breeches".

Second, how does this Agile Workers thing tally with us doubling the charge to use the gym?


Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: The Agile Workers (2)

Odanglesex County Council wants agile, flexible workers and has set a target head:seat ratio. How are they getting on?

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Assistant Chief Executive and Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: Hamish Carpenter, TransformationalExcellence Manager

Hamish - could you drop into my office at 3:30 to discuss our response to the Intelligent Procurement draft?

FROM: Hamish Carpenter

TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob

Kenneth: slight problem. I'm working from home to help reach our flexible working target. I could only drop into your office if I left immediately to catch the train.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob

TO: Hamish Carpenter

Great. Really appreciate it. See you.

FROM: Melina Dunkley, Human Resources Excellence Advisor

TO: Dale Brashcon, Senior Transformational Excellence Champion

Dale: My fly-on-the-wall monitoring of your unit's flexible working performance raised just a few issues, as follows:

(1): High proportion of phones not being answered (61%). When phones not the employee's own were picked up, the employee often did not know whose phone it was and was not au fait with that officer's business.
(2): Competition over storage spaces has left Scott Fitzwilliam, who was on leave during the changeover, without any personal space and he is currently sharing Reema Narlikar's personal space.
(3): One keyboard with broken legs and a deficient tab key has been migrating around the room for three weeks as anyone finding him/herself in front of it is moving it to whatever work station is unoccupied.
(4): Set-up times are mostly within HR's target, but vary considerably. Some tasks are common - for example, entering the digits necessary to activate the phone, adjusting the chair, computer set-up and repositioning any hard copy resources needed from storage to desk; but some are not essential. Henry Donaldson has the longest average set-up in your unit, at 10:16, and a significant element in this at 1:52 is locating his photos of his wife and children in his briefcase and transferring them to the desk.

ED'S JOB - the Chief Executive's blog

Hi! It's me again!

We all have dear loved ones we like to keep in mind. If you don't, well, I expect you've got a cat or a hyacinth. I've got a husband, three children, a dog, a cat, an aged mother and a tortoise, but I haven't got a hyacinth.

Life isn't just about work. We need to reserve a space for personal relations, as I do.

However, when we're working towards the marvellous, lean, proactive, holistic future we all see for Odanglesex County Council, we do all need to keep our minds on the job. That's why I'm sure you'll understand the new rule banning all personal photos from County Hall. However, I know some people may find this hard and I do feel for them, so the attached instructions will enable you to print off pictures of the Chairman of the Council, the Leader or myself and place them in the frames we're providing and these will be a permanent feature of your workstations.

I'm really looking forward to getting mine! Cheerio.

The third and last episode of Agile Workers will see a much-anticipated report written for Councillor Wayneflete...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


No, not signs of the end of the world, though that is an idea. A business opportunity has so far been ignored there. Let's see...WARNING: WORLD ENDING. To the point if a bit uninspired. BEWARE OF DISINTEGRATING PLANETS. Practical and helpful but a bit long. THREE LANES REDUCING TO NONE (OK if there are three lanes. THINK HELP!! Short, punchy, but what use is thinking it? A14 CLOSED BECAUSE OF APOCALYPSE. What about the A120? And is Apocalypse that hard rock band from Banbury?

No, that wasn't what I meant. Yesterday I walked a footpath over a golf course which was marked both ends with notices saying "BEWARE OF FLYING GOLF BALLS". Quite. They're difficult to control and it's very easy to fall off. Stick to planes.

OK, that was perverse. But what about the road sign I saw a few days back: red triangle and black exclamation mark (so, warning sign in the UK). It said, "THINK!" That was it. No indication of what I was supposed to think about. Global warming? The meaning of life? Risky investments? What jacket to wear tomorrow? The road gave no clue: there was a bit of a bend, but nothing unusual.

THINK! Well, I am thinking. I just haven't reached a conclusion.

By the way: UK visits to this site are running at just under twice US visits, which dropped a bit. For a long time, France and Germany were neck and neck, slugging it out (loyal to history, then) with Russia and Ukraine vying with them from time to time; but now France has shot way ahead and is closing on the USA, which is obviously faltering through cheese deprivation. Welcome to newcomers from South (Africa and Korea). I'd love to hear from any of you, here or on simon@ss93.wanadoo.co.uk.

Next post will continue the adventure of Agile Working in Odanglesex.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: The Agile Workers (1)

FROM: Simeon Lascelles, Director of Spatial Exploration and Direction Management
TO: All Directors

cc: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive



A recent study by Gomez Pertwee Associates shows that the seat/head ratio in local government can be reduced to 1:2.93 recurring without impacting on service delivery. We currently stand at 1:1.41. Ed has asked me to task you all with producing business plans by the month end to reduce your head/seat ratios to at least 1:2.43 recurring. Cllr Wayneflete is showing a personal interest in this issue.

I attach a presentation by Gert Offenbach of Gomez Pertwee to a recent seminar in Bruges. Conor (on Human Resources Development's contribution) and I will be happy to field any queries as appropriate.


FROM: Magog Jones, Director of Transportation and Settlement
TO: Simeon Lascelles

Simeon, could we have that presentation in English, please? My Serbo-Croat is a bit rusty.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Assistant Chief Executive and Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

TO: All Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

These are interesting times - exciting times, indeed, and I know you all share my excitement at the opportunity to beacon our enthusiasm for agile working in TESV so that our transformational pilot can be showcased across OCC and the public services commissioning community worldwide as a directional excellence exemplar.

We all know that agile workers are the future. We need to bring the future forward to the present. This is not just about Flexible Working, important though that is. Instead of the static employee tied to a one to one relationship with an inflexible workspace, we can embrace innovatory work delivery modes such as working from home, maximising use of agile equipment such as the Blackberry and Smartphone and flexible workspace management within office usage parameters.

Yesterday at the Heads of Units meeting we looked at some of the ways we can leap ahead on agile working and I am confident that this Directorate is not only going to meet the corporate target of 1:2.43 recurring with all mileposts, but exceed it. We've therefore agreed for TESV a target of 1:2.51 and I'm looking forward to meeting with Simeon and his team on Friday to materialise specifics.

FROM: Magog Jones

TO: Alex Knollys, Head of Transportational Direction Management


As your lot are on the road most of the time, and when they're not, don't need to sit at desks much, and I've checked with Spatial Exploration that for the purposes of the dreaded ratio, vehicle seats don't count, you've no need to worry because you've hit the target already.

(Now how is the authority's seat reduction strategy going to work out in practice? All will in due course be revealed...)

Friday, 20 January 2012


This week for the first time in my life I went to an auction (in Colchester). It was fun - the weird variety of stuff being auctioned, the pleasant and helpful staff of Reeman Dansie, the mixture of often eccentric-looking people there to bid, the excitement when bids competed - including the two things I bid for, both metalwork of artistic value (got one). It would be fun to go even if you weren't bidding.

They get through an extraordinary number of items in the time. The auctioneers could double as horse-race commentators. The one minus? That items were often combined into large lots so that one or two things of real interest would have to be taken with numbers of bulky and unattractive items which presumably someone wanted and would tend to push up the price as well as make you think twice about transport and storage.

Noneless, I think I'll go again.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Equality of Outcome and of Opportunity

These two terms are much bandied about. The first demands some questions, particularly, "Equality of what outcome?". It often refers to wealth or income (which are not the same), but also to health and other measures of a good life. Absolute equality of outcome would require that if you and I were born on the same day, we would die on the same day with the same amount in our bank balances. That's a reductio ad absurdum: obviously if you aim at equality of outcome, you try to reduce income differentials and things like big differences in life expectancy between different parts of the country (or world?). You'll never eliminate the differences.

It would have surprised early American politicians like Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln that many Americans today assume that any move towards greater equality of outcome must be at the expense of freedom. To shift the burden of taxes away from low-income people towards high-income people, for example, does not diminish freedom. To give someone who would have died through poverty the chance to live through medical treatment is to increase freedom. Whether the measures needed to reduce inequality of outcome would damage the economy to the disbenefit of all, is a question of economic management and not of freedom.

Despite these questions, equality of outcome, once you've clarified what the outcome is, should be easy to measure, and we do it all the time. Go to a government statistics site and you can see how much average incomes in the South-east of England are higher than in the North-east, or how much longer people can expect to live in London than in Glasgow. In the UK, differentials of income and wealth have been increasing for some thirty years (the gap between rich and poor getting proportionately larger) while reducing health inequalities has proved hard and often unrewarding work. Of course, the simplest, quickest, most reliable way of reducing health inequalities between social classes or localities would be to go and make life really miserable for the rich people, but this has not yet been attempted.

Now to come clean. I've chosen not to be particularly up-front about either my religious or my political commitments on this blog, since the very subjects would turn some people off, and knowing the name of my commitment would turn others off, whereas we might otherwise have communicated. But here goes on one of those points: I'm a Liberal in terms of political philosophy and heart, and a Liberal Democrat member. WARNING: this does not mean what it means either in the US, or in Australia, or in most of continental Europe (not quite). "Liberal" in the US means what we would call "left-wing". In Australia it's the name of the main right-wing party. In much of continental Europe, it indicates support for unrestricted capitalism and individualism, plus civil rights. Here it indicates a commitment to individual freedom (but how that's understood is a big issue), to empowering individuals and communities, and to a concept of individual self-realisation through community and relationships. Of course, some people would disagree with that. Socialist, Conservative and Nationalist aren't easy to define, either.

Some people on the right of the UK Liberal Democrats state that Liberals believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. This is stated as if it was incontrovertible fact on the website of the right-Liberal think-tank "Reform".

Well, historically Liberals fought discrimination and barriers that debarred some people from some opportunities, for example Catholics from Oxford and Cambridge or low-income people from voting. They believed that if these barriers were removed, a more equal society would result. There were plenty of barriers and perks to fight, so the focus was not on inequality that survived removing discrimination. By the late 19th century, though, many Liberals were pointing out the dangers of widening inequality of outcome, and the Liberal government of 1905-14 introduced the first national measures of social insurance.

I pointed out some queries and difficulties around the concept of equality of outcome, but those around the concept of equality of opportunity are far, far, greater.

The concept works very well when applied to clearly defined and limited circumstances, for example in working out whether illegal discrimination has taken place. Ravinder, who is ethnic Indian, and Paul, who is ethnic white UK, have applied for the same job. Ravinder had better qualifications, wrote a clearer and more comprehensive application, and wasn't recorded as making any mistakes at interview. Some jotted notes from the interview show Paul slipped up on important points, and yet he got the job. An industrial tribunal would almost certainly find illegal discrimination had occurred on grounds of race (or maybe gender if Ravinder is female: the name is unisex). What we're doing here is taking the two applicants as they were at the start of the application process and comparing fate with demonstrable strengths.

But equality of opportunity as preached in politics wouldn't start there. If one of these people had gained an advantage from living in a prosperous area with good schools, and the other lived in a depressed area with poor schools, for example, that would be inequality of opportunity. But if you include that, why not the quality of parental care or even the advantages and disadvantages conferred by your genes? If we take measures to counteract the disadvantage Ravinder experiences through being blind or dyslexic, it is a disputable decision to leave aside less clearcut disadvantages experienced by Paul: perhaps he thinks rather slowly or struggles with abstract concepts. In practice we may resolve this by a practical test of whether the disadvantage could be overcome so the person could do a good job. If we want to take action to reduce the disadvantage Ravinder suffered through having poor parents and living in Salford, what about the disadvantage Paul suffered through having parents who were uncaring or locked in battle in Surrey? It's pretty obvious that such a start will have made it harder for him to take full advantage of opportunities offered.

In other words, it seems to me that equality of opportunity is a useful concept applied in a limited way, but as a political ideal, slips through your fingers. While equality of outcome as an ideal ignores the impact of free decisions (for example, some people are prepared to make big sacrifices to be rich and others aren't; I may freely choose to eat some unhealthy food because I enjoy it), ignoring it or abandoning it leads to widening inequalities which make equality of opportunity in any sense harder to achieve and lead to more divided, disorderly, unsafe societies.

Liberals (UK meaning) have historically been more concerned with inequalities of power than of wealth, while socialists have been the other way around; but great inequalities of wealth increase inequalities of power. Similarly, trying to reduce inequalities of wealth by planning and command without involving local communities increases inequalities of power and often thereby of wealth.

There is of course a third equality, of esteem (which I think is what "created equal" means). But if you appear to be poor, are you treated with the same esteem by most people as if you appear to be rich? Try it.

Monday, 16 January 2012

A Yacht for Liz

Hold the page! I was going to post about equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity, having failed to put this subject to rhyme and include it on my poetry blog (http://simonsworlds13.wordpress.com), but that will now be my next post here followed, probably, by an appearance of Agile Workers on The Odanglesex Chronicles.

What has changed these well-laid plans?

Michael Gove has proposed UK taxpayers fund a new royal yacht as a gift for Queen Elizabeth II to mark her diamond jubilee.

Explanation for non-Brits: Michael Gove is the Secretary of State for Education in our coalition government. Elizabeth II is our monarch in our constitutional monarchy, which has evolved gradually from a constitutional monarchy in which royal and parliamentary power tussled, to one in which the monarch is a figurehead.

Further explanation for non-Brits: public expenditure is being cut year on year over what now seems bound to be at least a seven-year period. Gove is a Conservative: his Liberal Democrat coalition partners have reportedly expressed their reservations and the Labour opposition have been critical, althoughn the quote doesn't come from their struggling leader.

Well, in the total scheme of things, sixty million pounds plus is small beer. Gove says the diamond jubilee is a "momentous occasion" and argues that paying for a new royal yacht (there hasn't been one since 1997) would be a mark of respect for the queen.

Well...as a history graduate I have some practice in judging whether something is a momentous occasion. The end of the Second World War was a momentous occasion. So was the creation of the internet, the end of South African apartheid and the coming of majority rule, the agreement of an international climate change deal (however weak) and the economic crash of 2008. All those were momentous. The royal diamond jubilee is not momentous.

I do respect Elizabeth Windsor. She's done a very difficult job well for a very long time and being constantly in the public view, with no escape unlike politicians and even pop stars, must be extremely stressful. However, I respect a lot of people and they don't get yachts for it. Very few of them could afford the upkeep. Gove suggests the yacht would be a "longer lasting legacy" than street parties and the like. Well, yes, because a party is over in less than a day; but yachts of this sort don't last a lifetime. If the money is available, what about an arts centre or some homeless people's hostels? Or the sort of yacht kids from poor families could learn sea skills on?

Friday, 13 January 2012

The causes of wars

It's possible to get really deep on this subject. I'm going to get really superficial. However, anyone who comments is welcome to make it deeper and I'll join you.

If you're in any way religious, you'll be familiar with people saying religion is bad because it causes wars. Well, yes, it does cause some wars. Anything about which people feel passionately is likely to cause some conflicts. It also stops or prevents some wars.

As a History graduate who's maintained my interest in the subject, I've come across huge numbers of wars going from ancient Egypt and Babylon to modern America, Russia and China. If I try to categorise the main causes of those wars (and of course there will be some disputable cases), it appears to me the main cause of wars is land - disputes over ownership of or greed for land. If I set out a table of the causes from the commonest down, it goes like this:

1: Land
2: Other resources (gold, oil, control of a vital trade route etc)
3: Political advantage (for example, a tottering regime may start a war in the hope that victory may rescue its political fortunes back home, and in a society where victorious generals often achieve political power at home, such as ancient Rome, ambitious generals may start wars. This could also be applied to situations where a neighbouring country is harbouring rebels or dissidents who are a threat to the regime and to the situation not uncommon up to the 18th century where there is a disputed succession to the throne of country A: perhaps Smith gets the upper hand but neighbouring country B supports Jones, that leads to war and then maybe country C supports Smith)
4: National pride and status (we like to hear our armies have been victorious; the land we're conquering may be useless, but it makes the empire look bigger on maps - would also cover wars caused by insults)
5: Revenge
6: Religion and other issues of belief
7: Giving the army something to do, since bored generals and bored common soldiers can both be dangerous in states without a strong tradition of the military staying out of politics.

I considered a category of "flexing muscles", where a strong country is showing off its power to others, but it seemed to me the motive then is probably 2, 3 or 4, depending on what the weaker countries are supposed to do when they've seen that power demonstrated.

I've excluded civil wars from that, and belief (but not necessarily religious belief) would be a stronger factor in many of those. However, many civil wars are arguably class wars (not in a Marxist sense necessarily), which comes down to a dispute over resources, whether wealth or power.

Of course those pursuing wars (whether aggressors or victims or 6/6 cases) generally invoke religion in their support. Even the officially atheist Soviet Union encouraged a revival of Orthodox religion in the Second World War bcause it was seen as strengthening people's will to resist and it put the war in the context of other Russian struggles against invaders of different beliefs. That does not make religion the cause of the war, and since the 20th century many of the voices raised against wars have come from religious groups.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

North-east Poland

It's a while since I've posted about favourite places. Here's one a bit further afield (for me - not for the Ukrainians reading this blog).

Last year but one I went to Poland for the first time in my life. My main aim was to see new birds, and for that the outstanding area was the north-east corner of the country, but I wanted to spread my wings wider - so I sought to book with a nature tour provider for the first week to visit the Bielowieza Forest and the Biebrza Marshes before heading south to Krakow, with a bit of looking around Warsaw and Krakow, and visiting Auschwitz. Maybe I'll blog on that last thing some other time.

Anyway, my first tour provider let me down at the last minute and I'd already booked flights. Another Polish tour provider (step up Waldemar!) didn't have a tour for those dates but happened to be free and we agreed he'd do a one-to-one tour at still a very reasonable price. He's brilliant and I'll be happy to respond to anyone wanting nature tours in that area and give his contact details.

For the birders, well, I added five birds to my life-list, not easy in Europe nowadays - White-backed Woodpecker, Pygmy Owl, Great Snipe, River Warbler, Aquatic Warbler. I did even better with butterflies and dragonflies. Enough of that.

Warsaw was a busy European city. As we drove east things still looked quite familiar. As far east as the River Bug there are still people wearing Nike gear jogging with I-pods.

The far north-east was something else - another country, almost another continent, and Waldemar said it seemed like that to him too. As we drove into Bielowieza village along a dusty road, little knots of people turned to look at us. There were old women in head-scarves everywhere. The buildings were nearly all wooden, old and full of character. The churches were very, very different from the modern Catholic churches I'd seen on the way: in fact, most of the people in this area are Orthodox. It was clear that the place was poor, but a decent, resilient poverty, not the poverty of glazed eyes. As for my eyes, I think they must often have been wide. The whole place was so strange to me, and I've been in Africa and the Balkans. But it was fascinating strange, not worrying strange.

The forest was magic - a huge expanse of forest that had been forest since the ice-age receded, with a good variety of trees many of them emerging from, or standing by, shallow water, so to an Englishman it was like thick fen. It would be good just to stand in the forest, not in the silence but the birdsong - though the mosquitoes would be a problem!

When we left, it was for the massive expanse of the Biebrza Marshes, wetland far more expansive than anything else until you're in the former Soviet Union. This was less remote and was dotted with farms and villages, but it was still magic because of the extraordinary numbers, vitality and variety of bird and insect life.

It's a marvellous area and I hope to go back.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Vital Statistics (3)

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Assistant Chief Executive and Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
TO: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
cc: Conor O'Connor, Director of Human Resources Development


Transportation and Settlement are arguing, perhaps a little combatively, that our new Statistical Unit overlaps with the Statistical Services and Processes function currently placed in that directorate under Neville Potts. It is clear that our statistical work needs direction management and a coherent approach to deliver the Council's objectives.

Would you agree that the following would be the best way of resolving this little problem?

* A new post of Head of Statistical Strategy and Numerological Transformation be created on K2(P2), one grade above Margot Outforle's current post and two above Neville Potts', the position to be advertised internally;
* The current posts held by Margot and Neville to be abolished and a post of Assistant Head to be created at K2(P1);
* The two units be combined under the leadership of the new Head of SS and NT with the loss of one K2(MO3);
* The new unit to be placed in the Chief Executive's unit and to be line managed by myself in my role as Assistant Chief Executive and not as Director of TE&SV?

FROM: Edelbertha Spengler
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob

Kenneth: Conor thinks we could shave off a K2(M4) as well. Otherwise, fine.

FROM: Conor O'Connor
TO: Edelbertha Spengler

Ed: Sorry you couldn't get back in time from the Local Government Excellence in Transformation Awards ceremony because of choppy water in the Solent. Just to let you know that the panel offered the post of Head of Statistical Strategy and Numerological Transformation to Margot Outforle and she has accepted. Neville Potts has turned down the Assistant post and is taking voluntary redundancy: we will need to reinstate the process to appoint to that post.

There wasn't much between the two of them on written applications or interview, but Margot won heads down on the presentational task. As you'll recall, it was to present a report on "Odanglesex in 2030: a Statistical Approach". Margot's demonstration of the implications of a continued increase at the current rate of golf courses was very well received. Neville, by contrast, lost marks by discounting statistics from Spamby Island on the grounds that climate change would have resulted in its disappearance by 2030, since Councillor Sillitoe-Heald pointed out that our official position is that climate change is a statistical blip; and his projection of the numbers of Bangladeshis leaving Wenham to settle in Odanglesex was vigorously disputed by Councillor Broadthwaite in terms he really had no answer to.

Councillor Broadthwaite was also concerned that Neville's calculation of his likelihood of being a car thief came out at 2.25%, 0.55% higher than the result from Scunthorpeshire.

FROM: Edelbertha Spengler
TO: Margot Outforle

Margot - congrats on your new job! Could you do a guest blog next week - perhaps with some interesting statistics that would be meaningful to most of our employees? Say anything you like, starting with how excited you are to be taking on your new responsibilities.


Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Vital Statistics (2)

The story so far: Councillor Broadthwaite has been enormously impressed by the Statistical Unit in Scunthorpeshire County Council and has persuaded Kenneth Spotlessnob to set one up in Odanglesex.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

TO: Silesia Jones, Equality Consultant

Silesia - I see you got the same e-mail I did from someone called Margot Outforle, Head of the Statistical Unit. Did you know we had a Statistical Unit? Seems it's in Neil's empire. I'll ask Kenneth, but wondered if you were more in the know. Seeing that you and I already do a lot of statistical work, as do some members of my team such as Mike Hicks, I'm puzzled Kenneth thought this necessary. Also puzzled by her statistics. Seems very likely that the high proportion of deaths in Moat ward, Oldchester is down to the fact there's an acute hospital there. Not that hospitals kill people, of course, not most of the time.

FROM: Neville Potts, Statistical Processes and Services Manager

TO: Margot Outforle, Head of Statistical Unit


Don Warne copied me an e-mail copied to him by Dan Ahmed about meetings of a Statistical Priority Directional Signposting Working Group which it appears you lead. Can I check the accuracy of the following:

(1): You're Head of the Statistical Unit in Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision;
(2): This unit's remit covers all the Council's work;
(3): The purpose of the Working Group is to set priorities for all the Council's statistical work;
(4): The Working Group has held three meetings and is about to hold a fourth;
(5): The Statistical Unit in Transportation and Settlement, which I head, and which was given responsibility for cross-council statistical work in September 2009, has not been informed of or invited to the meetings?

FROM: Margot Outforle

TO: Neville Potts


Sorry about the delay. Can you make the Working Group meeting tomorrow at 2:30 in ES12A? Delighted if you can come.

To be continued and concluded...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles - Vital Statistics (1)

Councillor Broadthwaite: "Ah, Kenneth. I want to talk to you about my visit to Scunthorpeshire. They have some absolutely amazing stuff there."

Kenneth Spotlessnob: "Oh, right. What's that, councillor?"

Cllr Broadthwaite: "Fantastic security-controlled car-park, for a start. But they've got a Statistical Unit that can do just amazing things - makes us look like cavemen. And cavewomen, of course."

Kenneth Spotlessnob: "Oh, right. Like what?"

Cllr Broadthwaite: "Councillor Butterfield, I suppose."

Kenneth Spotlessnob: "No, excuse me, I was unclear. I meant to ask what statistical functions they could do."

Cllr Broadthwaite: "Ah. Well, for a start, they showed me how they could feed a lot of information about me into the computer and out came a prediction in less than a minute of how likely I was to be a car thief!"

Kenneth Spotlessnob: "Gosh. How likely are you?"

Cllr Broadthwaite: "Only 1.7% with some twiddly bits."

Kenneth Spotlessnob: "Parameters of significance."

Cllr Broadthwaite: "It was very reassuring, I can tell you. Now just imagine if we could do that for every resident of Odanglesex, not only for being a car thief, but being a good parent, needing home helps, reading dirty books, voting Conservative...and other stuff too. Why don't we have a unit like that?"

Kenneth Spotlessnob: "Interesting."

Cllr Broadthwaite: "I'm going to speak to Bill Wayneflete about it."

Kenneth Spotlessnob: "By all means, councillor, but I can take action on this with your approval."

Cllr Broadthwaite: "Excellent. Fancy a beer?"

So the Statistical Unit is created. In Part 2 we will see the consequences...

Tuesday, 3 January 2012


If Dubya didn't call them missspokes, he should have done. Please note this is about missspokes and not misspokes.

They occur in all walks of life (drives of life in America, where they don't walk; cycles of life in Amsterdam). Classics like the sign at the English church, "Preachers for July will be nailed to the church door" and the sign by the railway crossing "Beware of trains going both ways at once" lighten life. On a slightly more mundane level, poor grammar results in signs like this in a bird hide in Somerset: "The benches in this hide are not fixed to the floor to allow better access for wheelchairs" (you might have thought that was the reason, but actually they're fixed to the floor to stop people stealing them); or the following expression of distrust at a car park in Norfolk Police: "Do not leave valuables in your car. Police make regular visits".

I'd like to highlight some political bloopers and misunderstandings from my own experience in local politics in London, some as good as the candidate somewhere who proclaimed, "Vote for my opponent and you'll get a pig in a poke. Vote for me and you'll get the real article!"

The scene is a tense council debate on a Conservative motion on the Council's sex education policy, which the Conservative group had decided (not unanimously, I suspect) was "promoting homosexuality", which was illegal (promoting it, I mean). The actual policy just said something like "recognising alternative orientations and choices". A populist Conservative female councillor is leading the attack (I will be quite vague about this because I know that, greatly to her credit, she told this story against herself to a Young Conservative group later). She proclaims: "What these people do in the privacy of their own homes is up to them, but (dramatic pause) I DON'T WANT IT SHOVED DOWN MY THROAT!" Cue mass collapse. The presiding Deputy Mayor, a white-haired stalwart of the old Labour Party, is unable to maintain gravity or indeed his posture and comes up with the markings on the mayoral dais etched on his reddened face.

Now myself, speaking on a discussion on plans for a new shopping centre and a proposed underpass: "We must make it safe for muggers!"

Or a Labour councillor casting doubt on a Liberal councillor's concerns about a patch of land in his ward that had become a magnet for defecating dogs: "We must closely examine the source of the problem!"

Finally, not a miss-statement but a lesson in not making assumptions about people, or rather, since that's unavoidable, maintaining a healthy caution about the assumptions.

It's a European Parliament election, an event which in Britain usually creates the frenetic interest characteristic of slow readings of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I'm canvassing door to door and doing what I usually do when encountering "Don't know"s - asking if there's anything that they're concerned about. The door is answered by a middle-aged white woman. She didn't know there was an election. I try the question about her concerns.

"YES!" she says. "All these illegal immigrants!" (I make some tentative guesses at this point). "They're all flooding in through other countries and my son in law says these Italian and Greek and Spanish police are all corrupt!" Slightly confused, I suggest that corruption does sometimes occur in our own police. "MY SON IN LAW'S A POLICE OFFICER!" she says. Aaaargh. But she's still expanding on her concerns about border controls. A young Black man appears at her shoulder, obviously about to leave. He looks at my Liberal badge, gives me a thumbs up and a word of support, and leaves.

"That's my son in law," the woman says.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Some are more equal than others

FROM: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director Of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


Could your people cast an eye over this excerpt from a speech by the Secretary of State and see if there's anything we need to do?

"...and another thing. It's about time we stopped poncing around burbling on about equality and human rights. People in the Isle of Brent aren't bothered about that highfaluting nonsense any more than they are in Heckmondwike. Get the streets cleaned. Get the milk put out. Put vandals in prison. Those are the things that count. If I find any local authority wasting money on political correctness like equality monitoring I'll bloody have them tarred and feathered, and if my colleague Ken Priestley hasn't announced that last bit yet, he will".

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager

Neil: Please look into this asap for Ed.

FROM: Neil Balderson
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob
cc: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager


Street cleaning is a district responsibility and milk transit pathways sit in the private sector. Imprisoning vandals is a matter for the police and the courts. So I think we're all right on this one. but I'll check with Hamish we're not doing anything the Secretary of State could judge to be politically correct.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Neil Balderson

Or politically incorrect.

FROM: Silesia Jones, Equality Consultant
TO: Neil Balderson; Hamish Carpenter


"Politically correct" is not a precise term. I certainly cannot reassure you that we aren't doing anything towards equality or human rights: for example, Councillor Wayneflete recently approved the reversal of a decision not to grant-aid the Isle of Brent Domestic Abuse Crisis Centre after lobbying by the Right Hon Fred Lardly, PC, MP, and also wrote a supportive foreword to our Equality Action Plan.

Fred Lardly's remarks should be put in the context of his speech four days earlier to a meeting of university vice chancellors:

"...now if you think that standing up for fair treatment for everyone irrespective of whether they're black, white, yellow or bloody purple with orange bits is a luxury that we can do without in hard times - think again. It's essential to the Big Society, civilisation and business efficiency, and that means knowing what's actually going on, so you'd better be able to tell me, or my friend Liz Fluffstone will be round."

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Edelbertha Spengler


I've made exhaustive enquiries concerning your query about the implications of Fred Lardly's speech, and there does not appear to be anything we need to do, especially in the light of his remarks in the House last night about "letting local authorities get on with the job and not interfering, not like that other bloody lot".