A Smithsonian of Ballpoint Pens

January 3, 2011

Having just spent a hour or so cleaning under my daughters bed (a bi-termly task I appear to have acquired in the domestic planned maintenance schedule) I have cause to wonder on the collective noun for a Biros.  I have no idea why they appear to want to accumulate so many of these writing instruments, trophies I assume.  There is a selection of secret diaries and woodlouse homes to keep the pens company, a couple of sweet wrappers, one slipper, odd socks and endless reading books but its the pens that make me wonder.  The range, age and style is sufficient to populate a large museum, hence my title suggestion.  If not this then every member of the Chinese population is missing at least one scribing tool.  Six and eight year olds continue to both amaze and baffle me in equal measure

Suggestions welcome here.

Have a happy and tidy 2011


Options for Englands National Parks

January 3, 2011

It is disappointing to read the solutions offered by the English National Parks to the challenges set out in both the CSR and DEFRA’s subsequent settlement.  Rather than look at reengineering their businesses they are simply salami slicing the whole.  A job here, opening hours there, charges at this place and run this with volunteers (we hope).


There appears to be no long hard look at the whole business, the back office, options for shared services etc.  I understand that a small special purpose local authority would not want to join forces with neighbouring leviathans of unitary authorities, especially as they spent the best part of 40 years getting away from them.  As the much smaller partner in any shared service they would have to play entirely by big boys rules but they could get together and look at share services across English NPAs.


Modern business systems mean that they could share a whole raft of services whilst still retaining local delivery and governance,


There are 10 National Park Authorities in England.  That means there are 10 HR departments, 10 Finance departments, 10 IT departments, 10 Fleet Managers, 10 procurement systems, 10 PR and communications teams, 10 commercial, information and retail departments


In the search for delivered value business has moved to shared services, group together with similar organisations to buy services, use outsourcing to get better value, use group buying all the time.  Quality, value, whole life cost and price are all very important.  Even the outsourcers outsource!


As “National” parks it might seam sensible to some share some “national” arrangements that could and would deliver significant benefits and efficiencies.


If resources are well provided and procured through share national arrangements these can then be government, directed and delivered locally, in local colours, for local beneficiaries.


This is all made more frustrating by one Chief Executive stating that despite the changes being made business would continue as usual and there would be no variance in the services provided.  Everybody wants to hear this but very few will believe it.  At best this Park Boss looks naive.


The changes that The Coalition have made will have a profound effect across all of English society.  In areas such as National Parks, nature conservation, landscape protection and outdoor recreation the impact will be profound.  As with all government policy change, the key to success is to embrace it and get ahead.  The history books are littered with the corpses of local authorities and their residents who tried to buck central government.  The old urban metropolitan authorities such as the socialist republic of South Yorkshire fell to the reformation of Thatcher and the shire counties lost out to the zeal of Blair.


National Park Authorities are an interesting group of special purpose local authorities.  Created with an in-built tension between a National title and almost entirely local governance they have struggled to deliver on their implied promise from day one.  That promise is mixed up with our collective values about the brand National Park.  Its one of those ubiquitous global names like the Coke, The Pope and Al Qaeda!  When we plan to visit a National Park we expect to find beauty, space, recreation, clean air, clean water, full car parks, other visitors, somewhere to stay, to eat, to spend.  We also find a couple of other things in UK parks that we may not find in other countries; working landscapes and living communities.


These spaces are governed by two sets of local political governance.  The normal county, district or unitary authorities that individually will not cover the whole geographic park but will provide the usual services of education, highways, social welfare, housing leisure, etc.  These traditional authorities are complemented by the National Park Authority.  A single issues, special purpose authority responsible only for protecting the special characteristics of the park as described by their own enabling legislation.


The Parks are all small, in public body terms, around 200 people with a budget of £10 -15 Million.  They compete with each other, The National Trust and the normal local authorities for air space in the locality.  They cooperate with all the above and others on specific projects and in their own little ponds they are big fish.  The issue they now face is now do small special purpose public bodies continue to do the good work they have a hard won reputation for, when they are not core government business and have limited ability to respond to customer needs.


The Big Society agenda is not really a help, as The Parks have been using the BS approach for as long as I have known them.  Their undoubted success in delivering projects through partnerships stands as a long term case study of how having little but big ambitions can achieve massive results in the public sector.


The issue today is about representation and spanning the geographical and intellectual divides that keep these powerhouse’s of local innovation in check.  Delivering the goods on a local level has not protected their resource base.  The Parks attempts at banding together have been worthy but not successful. ENPAA the English Parks joint advocacy body does good work but in the same small pond that The Parks occupy.  The NGO sector will value what they do, as will DEFRA, when it suits them but they have not demonstrated any real understanding of how the game has changed or the modern delivery systems that are available.


It is time for the English National Parks to look at the solutions that are out there to join together and reduce the cost of support functions, which I turn will keep the customer focused elements available to meet the needs of the visitors, residents and business of the 10 great landscapes of England.


The future is complex as well as complicated.  The thinking that is needed to work through the options will needed to be both deep and diverse.  The solutions will be disruptive.  Business cannot be as usual.  All that I have learnt in the last six moths convinces me that The Coalition are very committed to significant change in how the UK goes about its daily life.  The big players in this, large local authorities, central government, the NDPB’s are all grabbing the reality with both hands and making it work as best they can.


The small guys and that’s the National parks are still looking a bit dazed and hoping they can stay under the radar (its worked in the past).  This time its probably a high risk strategy if all that embodied innovation is not to be lost.  Defence, especially long term defence is exhausting, its better to use the your energy to be creative, build wider alliances and move forward.


The future is bright if change is your business.



What’s winding me up this week.

February 27, 2010


Oh shit, a whole week and I am not cross about anything.

That cannot be right?

If anything it’s the opposite, and a great opposite at that.  I am both happy to be around, lots of laughs and really impressed by the talent that I know.

Gosh there are so many clever and talented people in the world.

Okay here is the rant.  If these talented people create great businesses, develop killer strategies, conduct complex ensembles of multi disciplinary groups to make the most fantastic sense then why can we not make progress on the big issues, climate change, access to education, poverty, democracy, the usual list of stuff?

This week I read somewhere, I think in a work of fiction, the line:

“if Islam is such a great idea why cannot it embrace democracy in a recognisable format?”

That should get people thinking, it did me.  I apply my usual woolly liberal thinking that says that there are many version of democracy, everyone has aright to a voice, its not just about what we in the Christian west think, and on and on.

I have to say that I have not found an answer, there appears be a huge amount of contradiction in everything I read.  I am sure there are many, in fact I know there are many, fundamentalist Christians who have problems with free speech and free actions, actually there are many liberals who rotated the few extra degrees round to authoritarianism when they see flagrant indifference (!) to their lifestyle views.

So how do we move forward.  I have no idea but we must keep plugging away at the issues and find a solution.

I am typing this in the foyer of The Engine Group, surround by the members of some sort of youth forum. They are all of a buzz to be meeting in a funky place to debate the issues of their lives with some talented people. It reminds me of the buzz I found in a Channel Four debate in the basement screening room where they wanted to find out what young and young at heart people wanted from their media rich lives.

Loads of energy, wanting and waiting to be asked to contribute, struggling with all the hurdles the pragmatist , experience heads around theme placed in the way of the “why can’t we do that?” moments in their version of the future.

These people have the solutions and we must find away to make them real.  Generally the people with the ideas don’t have the money to make them live.  That’s our job.  Back the talent, open the door and our minds.

Get on and change.


Nudge, Nudge – lets have fun

February 21, 2010

I have wittered on about this many time before but I will make the point again and I hate to side with one David Cameron.  But he has signed Richard Thaler, co author of Nudge, onto his policy team.  That in my book is a smart move.  Theler along with fellow academic Cass Sunstein have been championing the cause of fun carrot over stick for some time. His goal is to regulate peoples behaviour without regulation.  In a recent interview on the Today Program he sited the example of the litter bin that makes great noises when people drop litter in it.  The noise is some much fun that people go and scavenge for other peoples litter just for the fun of hearing the noise.  The Fun Project explores a wide variety of ideas to get citizens to do good things for fun rather than because they have too.

My personal favourite is the staircase piano, the healthy alternative to escalators.  Yes, I know it would not work in every location but it would work in many and is better than another obesity preacher in our lives.

It is obvious to most that any activity that is fun and /or profitable will normally be a success.  If one wishes to be successful with activities that are neither than some for of regulatory stick is normally needed.  Hence the wide range of financial incentives dreamt up by policy makers to encourage all participants in society to travel down the road less easy.

And yes we will always have taxation and fines for not behaving but this should not be the first choice when looking to modify behaviour.  Pay as you throw may work to encourage domestic recycling and having an Environment Agency with real teeth to keep business in line is essential but the best and cheapest way to see lasting change is to make it beneficial and better still enjoyable.  It’s a no brainer, I should know I have very little brain left and I can work it out.

So how do we move my beloved Labour Party and its faltering hand of government away from its default Nanny State, regulate first think about the electorate second position?  God only knows, pointing out the bleeding obvious is a good start.

Living in the UK mostly an enjoyable experience.  Most people stay because its not that bad and the effort of moving is greater than the annoyance of staying.  There area few Hedgies who are considering setting up a week day home in Switzerland, most it would appear come back to London for the weekend as it is my understanding that there is a strictly enforced maximum time limit on smiling in most Swiss Cantons. Just in case a smile might progress to a laugh and disturb the tranquillity of the dullest nation on earth. A few plumbers who like cheap booze, fags and sunshine drawn to Spain but in general we all stay in Blighty because we want too.  Almost anybody could get on a ferry or train and get across the channel to start a new life in Europe or further a field.

So its not than bad here, sorry red tops it really isn’t.  Lets keep it that way and start to overtly preach fun, enjoyment, smiling, get on with people and do a good think because it feels great not because you were told too.

I was very old last week, its an annual occurrence and M took me a way for the weekend to the big smoke, no not Tisbury (Wiltshire joke) London.  Had a great week end seeing friends, catching up talking rubbish and just chilling.  E & H went to have weekends tormenting multiple dogs at their cousins and we took the train up to town. All very grown up, well at my age I suspect I should at least try it.

Stayed at The Waldorf Hilton on Aldwych, wandered around Covent Garden, saw Warhorse, brilliant, more later and had fun.  Came back feeling fantastic, Thanks M a great birthday treat.

Warhorse is just fantastic.  What is it that theatre people do in staging a performance.  The New Theatre in Drury lane is new and quite small as such the audience are up close with the actors and the show.  In our case we had people running over our feet.

I knew that this was going to be an emotional experience after all we are talking about a play that features horses and the First World War, blubbing was to be expected.  The thing is it got me before it had even started. The first act is the birth of the foal, the development of the characters and the start of the War.  The staging is incredible, very minimal but very effective the puppets are life like and I cannot beginning to understand the dedication  to the art that the puppeteers have.  Their evocation of everything equine is unreal.  If you are a horse person you will know the shiver that ripples across a horses flesh when it is touched by a human hand.  This is perfectly recreated by three puppeteers and a collecting of aluminium tubes and bike pars.  The swishing of the tail, the flicking of ears all brought together in such a way that these inanimate baskets become living breathing animals in front of you.

At the interval M and looked at each other and she said and thought the same word, harrowing.  The sound of the auction, the conversational asides all spark memories of my youth and markets in Pershore, Evesham and Worcester.  Standing with my Grandfather whose dress was aped perfectly by the actors, right down to the market day shirts and caps.

The second act seeing the battle field and trenches from the German perspective and the stage fills with more horses.  The hope of short war that was found in act one has gone and the solders on both side are into the long slog of trench warfare looking for anything to add colour or compassion to the daily slaughter. The horses provide both sides of the equation with perfect pitch

By the end there are only losers, it’s the degree of loose that varies rather than any sense of victory.  Standing ovations for all were the order of the day.

A great show with nothing to pull it down.  The West End had a very successful year in 2009 if the quality of all the productions is a high as this it is no wonder.  If you want to see Warhorse, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, then book now for the summer as that’s how long the wait is.  I left the theatre exhausted emotionally but having had a truly affecting live experience.

I had fun, it was profitable for many.  Tick the box marked successful.


Radio 4 in the Fog

January 30, 2010

Just a quick thought on electric cars and noise.  I am listening to a great podcast “An aside with Joe” on Sidepodcast.com.  Joe Seward, a brilliantly well informed F1 journo, has been discussing a possible electric car race in Paris in 2010 and talked about the need to add sound effects to electric cars as people do not see them and get knocked over.  All very funny idea but its true.

A week or so ago I took the dog out for an early evening walk.  Its dark and foggy and we were wandering through our unlit village to be met by one of the strangest sights of my life.

Drifting through the fog were 2 bright lights and Radio 4.  A very strange and mysterious UFO for rural Wiltshire.  The truth was that this was a Prius on battery power. Not a sound other than the radio, no visual warning as the fog hid the car behind the lights.

So I feel noise is a good thing.  Nominations please.  I reckon Lakme by Delibes would be brilliant.  The sound of that coming through the fog would have spooked both me and the dog.


Snow Wow!

January 15, 2010

Its been snowing (long pause) and we have all turned into headless chickens. Well maybe not all but anybody with the word editor or reporter in their job title. I am not going to join the chorus of those who ring their hands and complain about what happens. Yes we are always surprised when it snows, because it doesn’t that often and it hasn’t much since the advent of the internet, Twitter and 24 hour TV news. Not to mention dammed fool bloggers.
We spent last weekend sliding down a hill on shiny pieces of plastic. It was great fun, everybody enjoyed it, without exception and that is something to be celebrated. What else have you done lately that has had 100% support from all your friends and family. No one stood around being a grump, no one complained about being included, excluded, warm, cold, a victim or whatever. Every body screamed like a girl and smiled like a nutter. And all for free. Old Nitram sacks from the shed and coal sacks from the log store was all it need for 6 hours of uncomplicated fun. Not a battery to go flat in sight, no remote controls to fight over, just a hill, some snow, a few plastic bags and a flask of hot chocolate. Hell some times I love climate change.
Today I was a victim, quite a happy victim in many ways, of snow related transportus interuptus. I arrived at Waterloo a bit hung over after a late night with a bunch of other middle aged dads let loose in the big smoke, too discover that there were no trains going anywhere. Some very polite station information staff said that I would very lucky to get anywhere this morning and plan to be in Waterloo for a while. Good, honest advice gave me time to camp out I the café near one of the few plugs and work through the morning before moving up to Kings Cross to see if the train I am sitting on is running.
Plugs, we need more of them, that have electricity in them. There is some nanny state type out there telling people to switch off the power to their plugs in case they get sued for providing dodgy power.
Can I say I love the Chair of the Health and Safety Executive. I salute you Judith Hackitt for taking to task all the nonsense spouted by news papers and small minded health and safety officers. Look up her “putting the record straight “blog on the HSE website.
Oh yes plugs. Can we have some more in coffee shops and cafes etc. I love the idea and reality of sitting in some eatery tapping away on my Mac while I drink a decent coffee. But even this Mac will not run all day on one battery. If you want our money for the coffee and cakes then let us plug in. They do on this train and that means I get off charged not flat.
Being a northern train bound for Edinburgh it’s a bit tougher that the softie southern locos in Waterloo and with a bit of rethinking we are bound for the very wonderful Darlington! I say that despite the fact that I am a Darlington virgin. The point is in the face of disaster I have had a very productive day. Lots of stuff done, reports written, briefings issued etc. None of this would have happened in any considered way if the trains had been running. I would have rushed from one meeting to the next, talking lots and achieving less.
So lets have some more snow. The preferred slot is Friday afternoon to allow accumulation and freezing on the hill hear the Adventure Forest. We can fine tune our sack sliding all weekend and go back to work on Monday with a big smile on our face and a few bruises on our arses.
One question on scrotal harmonics. Is it me or do you also suffer from this issue when sliding head first down a hill on your stomach? With both the kids sitting on top me, in the position its possible to get a hell of a speed up. At “terminal velocity” one gets the strangest pain from that part of the body as the combination of bumps and speeds sets up a very strange harmonic on my ball sack! Is it just me? Probably.


I have been very slow to realise how often I am wrong

December 10, 2009

I am very slow to get things. It’s a me thing, not a dad thing. In the last few months have learnt a few really important lessons. I am wrong about lots of things (not everything) and I am finding anybody who cannot admit that about themselves very, very annoying. So what? You say.
I have spent most of my working life in the public sector. Mostly having fun and trying to do my bit to get it to work better. To have a focus on leading the way, serving the customer, user, tax payer, what ever the appropriate label is at the time. Making a difference, helping people to enjoy their lives, get more out of what’s on their doorstep, feel and be part of a community, etc. All the apple pie stuff. Pretty much without exception I thought I was in the right place doing the right thing.
Over the last eight years the lack of the public sectors ability to change and actually DO all the above has frustrated me and on occasions made me very cross. Sorry if I was ever unreasonably cross at you, it wasn’t personal but it does happen.
There are lots of perfectly reasonable people in the public sector, many work very hard doing some pretty difficult jobs, most of which we wouldn’t want done by anybody else. That means you have to really want to be a social worker because you will never be well paid or celebrated, that’s just the way it is. The same applies to the basic back office paper pusher that make civil society function. Planners are celebrated by those who hate wind farms when they stop them and reviled by those who see the need at the same time. It’s a tough job and I doubt if there is a planner in the world who has not been on the end of a political lobby over almost every decision they make.
Its no fun, its not right but it is the cost of having some sort of functioning local democracy. We must never ignore it and always try to improve it.
For every hard working person here are 20 in employment “alpha state”, on auto pilot just getting to the end of the day to go and live the rest of their lives. Is that bad, no, there are even more flipping burgers and stacking shelves, driving vans, picking mail order items in a vast shed or answering the phone in an anonymous box, both in some middle earth, peri-urban ghost land.
What’s my point? Simple climate change, sustainable communities, real social justice will not be delivered by the public sector. As government department manger said recently “I head up sustainable procurement and I have 3 staff to help me. On the other side of the office is the sustainable policy team, there 40 of them. In government we can right policy but only you, the private sector, can deliver it”
So governments of all shapes and sizes, national, international and I hope local are in Copenhagen. There are a few reps from industry but not enough. It is those in the private sector who make, sell and sustain all things that we use that will solve all the above. We as consumers will influence them, as will regulators. Am I getting old or has the frequency of that word use in the lexicon increased in the last 20 years? But it will be possible to be in business and not change for at least anther 20 years. Probably not big business and defiantly not if you are a government contractor (the will be lots more of those as we search for even greater efficiencies) but there are many small and medium size enterprises across the northern hemisphere who have a poor safety record after 50 years of trying to kill fewer people at work.
I an amazing conversation this morning where we agreed that 30 years ago the cost of 15 deaths on a major construction project was an above he item. Today even talking about it over coffee would have serious career limiting effects in most companies.
Sustainability is not there yet but it is within reach. For me 2010 has to be less think and less blog and lots more DO. If you are looking for a new years resolution forget going to he gym or loosing weight, accept the fact that the collect of parts in the shed will never become the 1968 Triumph Bonneville or boat-tail Alfa spider of your dreams. Instead decide to do lots of little things, tidy out the shed, switch of the light, take the train, walk, ride the bike you found at the back of the shed (it just needs the tyres pumping up). For me its to get my business to put the same time and thought into environmental action as we do into safety. We believe in zero harm to people, mostly staff but anyone else we come across, mostly at work but we like people to come to office with all there fingers, no back injury, from 2010 we need to believe in zero environmental harm. Not only must we believe and practice 360 degree zero harm but so must our contractors.
That’s a big DO, should keep me out of trouble for a while.
Lessons learnt in 2009.
• I am wrong, so often its fun, so are you, admit it, its very empowering.
• Business will get us out of the hole we are in not government. Big or small they are better talkers than actors.
• Go hug a social worker, they won’t that you and they may prosecute you but why not try.
• Gotta Do not think.
What have you learnt?