13 June 2010

Tories cut free school lunches for children from low income families

Michael Gove, Education Secretary, as decided to abolish free school meals for children from low income families. This means that those on the lowest incomes could face an annual bill equivalent to at least 2 weeks' income, per child.

I do wonder what schools are supposed to with those children (in particular those too young to understand why they cannot have a school dinner like their classmates) at lunchtime or when those children are too distracted by hunger in the afternoon to study? What about those schools in low income areas where a significant proportion of the pupils receive free school meals? Perhaps the school will have to close up their kitchen because it's not economical to run for such a small number of diners?

Free school meals for children of low income or destitute families started in the 1880s and became universal in 1944. I had them in the 1980s, without them lunch would have been nothing or just a packet of supermarket own brand crisps because we couldn't afford anything more.

I think we've got a strong chance, based on the Tory-LibDem alliance's actions so far, of a double dip recession and wouldn't completely rule out a bloody revolution.

I am reminded of something Andrew Marr said in his series "History of Modern Britain". He was talking about the impact of the Thatcher government of the early 1980s and raised the point that "Britain used to be a country proud that you didn't see beggars in the street, now you saw them everywhere."

12 June 2010

Performance Development Reviews

It's Performance Development Review (PDR) season at work. A lot of people have been complaining about our PDR system, largely because it is so time consuming and complex. The form itself is 20-30 A4 pages (depending how verbose you are in completing the sections) and takes several hours to complete. There's also a quite complex link to pay. Much of the complexity links to the fact that pay is centrally controlled. This got me to thinking about PDR systems, how they relate to pay and how the whole thing could be simplified. I'm assuming a total green field and the only restrictions are what is legal and achievable.

I should possibly say at this point that my job is busines analysis which is largely about redesigning and implementing business processes, and IT systems to support them.

First off the PDR form and how it is used. The form itself I see as being 2 pages, or rather two sides, of A4. It could even be set up as two tabs in a spreadsheet. If individuals want to attach extra sheets of narrative or detail that's up to them. Typically the only people who will see a form will be the person it refers to, their manager and their manager's manager. HR may, in response to a complaint or query or as part of a random or scheduled spot check/oversight, also see them but would not usually get involved.

Side one of the form has at the top the basic identity information of whose PDR it is (the direct), who their manager is and the relevant dates. Immediately below that are three boxes for objectives for the coming year, each person having one to three objectives for the year. I realize that that might seem like an incredibly small number but objectives should be broad and quite high level and, as Drucker said, a person can only concentrate on one thing at a time, may be two. If you come up with more than three goals then you're probably trying to stretch your direct report too thin, some of the goals are 'nice to haves' rather than 'important/essential' or some of the goals can be combined because you've gone too detailed and/or prescriptive. Next section is a box for detailing what development the direct should have over the coming year with an indication of how it will be delivered. Finally, three signature boxes. One each for the direct, the manager and the manager's manager agreeing the goals and development. The reason for bringing in the manager's manager is both as a check (is the manager setting the bar too low or too high, are they agreeing unreasonable development, do they seem to be favouring some directs over others or are they setting objectives that don't serve the organisation's goals) and because they should have a broader view, as they probably manage more teams, so can spot common trends and synergies.

Side 2 is virtually identical to side 1, although you'd probably lose the top section of who it's for and their manager's details. Now, instead of talking about what the direct will achieve and do you're talking about what the direct has achieved and done then giving a score. The sign off box is agreeing the score. Exactly what scoring system to use depends on local preferences but I'd suggest either a 1 to 5 (1= objective not achieved or achieved well below expected standard, 5 = objective achieved well above expected standard and 3 = objective achieved to expected standard or not achieved for reasons outside the directs control) or Red/Amber/Green (mapping to 1, 3 and 5 in the 1 to 5 scoring system, maybe add other colour for the "not achieved for reasons outside the directs control" situation). I do think the "not achieved for reasons outside the directs control" situation should be addressed. Reviews tend to be an annual thing and a year is a long time, things change. It could be that an objective that was very important last year became unimportant. Maybe a goal depended on something else, or someone else, which fell through. A couple of classic examples are: The direct had an objective of achieving a certification that required them to attend a course but cuts to the training budget meant they were unable to attend that course; In a consultancy organisation the direct had a goal of being fee earning for a certain proportion of the year but changes in the market meant that their particular skill set was needed less so they had to spend time retraining and fell short of their goal.

A lot of people talk, and write, about SMART objectives. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebased. Mark and Mike over on Manager Tools recommend just looking at M and T in their podcast on setting annual goals, I won't rehash the rationale here but I do recommend everyone listen to that podcast (and their other podcasts), a lot of my thinking that has lead me to this post has been influenced by their podcasts. Whilst I agree with the arguments for MT goals my experience tells me that the A needs to be added back in (so it's a MAT objective), too often an over confident direct or over ambitious manager will put in a goal that simply isn't achievable. The check is needed. The objectives should, of course, serve the objectives of the team. Usually a good objective will be something that can be stated in one or two short sentences. For example "Be fee earning for at least 75% of year.", "Generate an average of at least 10 sales leads each month. Convert at least one sales lead a month into a sale.", "At least 60% 'Good', 'Very Good' or 'Excellent' rating on customer satisfaction survey by end of year.", "Issue an average of 50 or more parking fixed penalty notices per day, to be measured fortnightly. No more than 5% successfully appealed.", "Gain PRINCE2 Practitioner certification within 3 months" &c. You'll notice that every one of those has something that can be measured (mostly a number but in one case it's a yes/no, you either do or don't get the certification) and a time scale. The direct has something clear to aim for and knows when it's due, they can also measure their progress towards their goal. At the end of the year the manager has something objective to measure the direct against, there is some wriggle room for humanity and taking account of circumstance of course.

But what do you do where there isn't a clear measure? This is addressed in the Manager Tools cast on goals, listen out for the story of "John and the Gate Guards". In summary, if you can't measure the outcome itself find a proxy. Two of the example objectives I mentioned above actually use proxies. The first is fairly obvious, "At least 60% 'Good', 'Very Good' or 'Excellent' rating on customer satisfaction survey by end of year.", what our objective here is is to have satisfied customers but satisfaction can't really be measured directly, there's no meter you attach to your customer that will tell you if they're satisfied or not. What you can do is survey your customers and get them to tell you how satisfied they feel. Whilst for an individual customer this might not be a good objective measure (some people are never satisfied, or maybe have unrealistic expectations, whilst others are too polite to say when they're not) by collating the results of many surveys you can get a meaningful average while the outliers cancel each other out (although you should probably still talk to them to address individual complaints and find out what went particularly well). The second is less obvious, it is "Issue an average of 50 or more parking fixed penalty notices per day, to be measured fortnightly. No more than 5% successfully appealed.", more specifically the second part. It's easy to measure how many fixed penalty notices ware issued in a day, just count the stubs. What you cannot measure is if they were legitimately issued or if the direct just stuck them on 100 random cars then spent the rest of the day in the pub. What you can measure is how many were appealed and how many of those appeals were upheld, this is a proxy for the legitimacy of the issuance.

Once you have the scores obviously you want to do something with them, usually pay progression or regression. Many employers, especially in times of recession, try to centralise control on pay levels. Big mistake. The main things this achieves is putting an administrative overhead on the centre, slows the performance management process and removes a big chunk of the responsibility to manage from managers. Control on an individual's pay should rest with their manager, with oversight by their manager's manager and a right of appeal to the centre.

This can be achieved by assigning each manager a budget for their directs' pay and make them responsible for assigning it appropriately within the law and procedures of the company. They can then incentivise good performance and correct poor performance through pay (although other methods should be exhausted first). If someone leaves their team this also provides them with the choice of refilling the post at the same rate of pay, filling it at a different rate of pay or deleting the post and using the money saved to increase the pay of the remaining staff in recognition of the extra work they're doing. There would have to be a way for managers to bid for a budget increase, more senior managers to claw back excess and directs to appeal any reduction in pay before it happens.

9 June 2010

Just emailed BBC Breakfast News this comment on their interview about public sector cuts this year:

One of your interviewees (I didn't catch her name) made a misleading statement. The government are not cutting £6bn this year, that was what they cut just before Whitsun. Total cuts this year are £60bn. The last cuts were just a taster.

Personally I agree with the other interviewee, now is a very very bad time for large cuts. Large cuts now are a recipe for disaster and a double dip recession. Small cuts are possible but we shouldn't be looking at large cuts this side of 2012. I'd look at cutting the JNC grades (very senior managers, mostly £100k+) in local government and equivalent in other bodies.

Interestingly, my suggestion of cutting senior managers is what Stephen Hughes (Chief Exec of Birmingham City Council) is apparently considering.

I also like the 'Total Place' proposal of the last government. Rationalise and link up public sector systems and bring them under a single management structure so the UK can leverage economies of scale to the greatest extent. Even something as simple as a single payroll system for the whole of the UK public sector would save incredible amounts and make enforcing equal pay legislation a breeze.

8 June 2010

Degradation of the 37 bus service

Just sent this to my local councillors:
Dear David Willis, Daphne Gaved and David Osborne,

I wish to express my concerns at recent changes in the number 37 bus service which runs along the Warwick and Stratford roads connecting Solihull and Birmingham centres. I am a frequent user of this service as I cannot drive and work in Birmingham City Centre. Additionally to get to most other areas (e.g. most of my immediate family live in or near to Sheldon) I have to take the 37 to either Solihull or Birmingham centre and catch a connecting service. For this reason I have a bus pass which I purchase via monthly direct debit.

Up until last year the vast majority of buses on this route (and virtually all at peak times) were run by Travel West Midlands (TWM), owned and operated by National Express. This was good as my bus pass can only be used on TWM. Over the past year more and more non-TWM buses ("Touchwood Connect" appears to be be the most common offender) and a commensurate reduction in TWM buses. I cannot use my pass on these buses. Whilst the service still runs frequently (they advertise every 1-7 minutes, 3-15 would be more accurate) I often have to wait 20 minutes or more for a bus on which I can use my pass on. This is less than ideal for getting to work.

I am frequently left with a choice of waiting for a bus I can use my pass on (so extending my commute), paying fare for a journey I've already paid for in my bus pass or considering upgrading to a much more expensive card hat is accepted on non-TWM buses and train/Metro services (which I very rarely need to use).

This reduction in service and utility of my pass makes the recently announced 10% price hike even more galling.

I have noted that other services do not seem to have seen similar changes. I also note that yourselves and John Hemming MP recently campaigned for the re-instating of a service covering some of the more affluent parts of Yardley, the 40/41 service.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Booth

Be interesting to see what if any response I get, given that Daphne at least knows I'm a Labour party member (it came up when she was stood on my doorstep one time).