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Doing it by the numbers

February 2, 2016

 

If you’d been around in 1752 it’s likely you would have come across the phrase “Give us our eleven days”.

 

This was shouted during the so-called Calendar Riots when Britain changed over from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, bringing us into line with most of Europe.

 

You can read up on the whole thing yourself if you’re minded, but suffice to say the changes simply standardised matters by keeping certain dates in place. The eleven days were only lost on paper and life otherwise went on, regardless of a different way of measuring things.

 

As much as we 21st century sophisticates may chuckle over the irrational behaviour of our forebears, it’s fair to say we’re just as capable of doing a Chicken-Licken impersonation when confronted by reports of falling skies.

 

Back in the mid-1990’s, embattled Prime Minister John Major hit upon the novel proposition of improving public services by continually measuring them and then publishing the findings.

 

The arbitrary imposition of performance indicators enabled Whitehall to exert a dead-hand influence over locally provided services and yet still appear in step with popular feeling.

 

This bean-counting ethos was subsequently embraced by New Labour and despite warnings that you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it every twenty minutes, the public sector quickly adapted to a measurable environment whereby league tables instead of local input would determine the priorities.

 

What we came to call the “improvement agenda” was meant to raise standards. You can argue as to how that worked out but how many of us today are still influenced by personal experience as opposed to annual reports?

 

Even so, the glasnost system persists, meaning mostly that we’re fed a steady diet of shock-horror stuff about “failing services”.

 

That’s because the practice of paying scrupulous attention to missed targets is now the domain of press and politicians who readily highlight any apparent shortcomings.

 

Last week the Welsh Government published a colour coded assessment of schools performance. It’s the second year that the traffic light system has been in existence, yet you get an idea of the media’s mind-set in that the item was reported on a national news site under the heading “Wales Politics” rather than “Education”.

 

Maybe there’s a nice irony in a top-down system of checks initially introduced as a means of monitoring school performance getting translated into a verdict on the government’s education record, but that’s not the point.

 

I learned long ago that the best way to beat the system is to use it up to the hilt. I’m sure there are others out there equally adept at hitting the reset button. Clocks can be stopped, re-started and targets made achievable.

 

Some play the game, some don’t - and if you think such iniquities only happen in the public sector, then let me just say “exhaust emissions”.

 

The thing to remember about the numbers game is that you can lose even when you think you’re ahead. The only people who ever win are the auditors.

 

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The problem with power

 

Additional powers granted to the Welsh government are likely to be "problematic", according to academics. In fact, reports suggest legal tussles between Cardiff Bay and Westminster are inevitable as Wales gets more say over energy, transport and elections.

 

The "clunky and short-sighted" provisions in the draft Wales Bill which would require key decisions made here to have prior Westminster approval or else get vetoed are causing understandable angst.

 

Yet it’s worth noting another trend that could end up marginalising Cardiff Bay.

 

City Deals are the latest fad in UK government economic thinking. Swansea and Cardiff are already seeking to cash in on these serious money alternatives to dwindling Assembly support.

 

The catch though is that these packages come with strings – and it’s the Treasury, not Cathays Park, that gets to pull them for several years.

 

I just wonder if this is another potentially problematic issue for devolution in future.

 

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Backing the BID is no-brainer

 

I’m a reasonably easy-going chap. Ask anyone. But I found myself getting badly irritated with an associate who was rubbishing the work done by Swansea Business Improvement District (BID).

 

Now I’ll admit to being biased in that I played a small part in getting the scheme its initial backing. Nonetheless, and as I’ve written before, the BID has been a self-evident success in promoting the city centre and its trading community.

 

There’s been plenty written about the initiative in the last few days so I won’t add to it here.

 

All I’ll say is that attitudes changed significantly when I reminded my colleague of a night out in Swansea and that the nice lady in the hi-vis jacket who helped him into his cab and then gave the driver directions was part of the taxi warden service provided through BID funding.

 

I have withheld names to protect the identity of the brainless.

 

 

 

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