After a wonderful week of goodbyes, this morning, I feel my ladybird has begun to peep its head out from the proverbial matchbox (see my leaving card above); to see a bigger world and a brighter future.

I’ve been working in or adjacent to government for nearly 15 years. And while Aristotle felt politics to be the highest of human endeavours, a quick scan through these quotes of his pretty much covers the many pitfalls.

Yesterday I crossed a new bridge to work – Waterloo instead of Westminster; and spent the afternoon at a ‘freshers fair’ watching excited new students sign up for everything from touch frisbee to Russian Club. My new university life came to life.

And today the sun is shining. It’s all change – but a good one I feel sure.

Dismal Science

I attended an event this week in a bizarre location – Sir John Soane’s museum. Sir John rose to prominence in the 19th Century as a visionary architect and collector of antiquities and art. Most famously he designed the beautiful vaulted ‘counting rooms’ (pictured) for The Bank of England, where the first paper money was printed to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. More of printing money anon.

Sir John also decided his children would be architects and his children’s children would be architects. Thereby the science of architecture would be brought to a peak of perfection within a matter of a few generation of Soanes. It didn’t quite work out that way. 

His son went to prison for fraud, had children with his inappropriate wife and then even more inappropriately had some with her sister. He also wrote a thinly disguised satirical attack on his father in a contemporary journal which on reading provoked his mother to take to her bed and expire. A lesson to us all – our children may achieve many things in life, but they are unlikely to do our bidding.

The conversation piece for the evening was what can business and policy makers do to help the UK economy grow by an extra 1%. On a £1 trillion annual UK turnover and with the power of compound interest, over time, that would make us all better off by an unfathomably large number of billions of pounds. Seems like a good idea. But ultimately I came away feeling 1) we don’t really know how to turn a macro idea into the micro reality 2) even if we did, what would ‘go under the wheels’ of ‘concentration’ and competitiveness in the process. 

I’m no socialist, but the words fairness or equality didn’t feature once, nor did wellbeing, happiness or sustainability. Of course economists will tell you they are all ‘priced in’ in the cash value we place on things. But all economists also know that much of what we value in social and cultural value is missed by the ‘dismal science’.

As I texted my other half on the way home:

All very worthy, abstract macro-economics and a list of things for government to do. When will these people learn that money ain’t the only measure that matters and government is clueless and incompetent in managing it anyway. Viva culture and social ties, they are our only and best hope.

Yesterday’s flattening of Japan under a wall of water shakes the myth of our invulnerability like a Tokyo office block. The smoke and the more lethal invisible cloud spreading from a crippled nuclear plant today serves as a reminder of our hubris. 

Humanity clings to the planet in interdependent and fragile ways. If we make our big choices for the future on 1%s of £trillions I fear we’re missing the point. Much like Sir John Soane’s project to perfect architecture – ‘events’ and what matters to real people have a habit of getting in the way of the best laid plans.

Truisms iv) Demos

Growing up in a safe, benign and predominantly urban country like the UK, means you miss out on a lot of the experiences which define life in other countries. We don’t really have natural disasters, extreme weather, earthquakes, civil war, endemic illness, extreme poverty, lawlessness, corruption, dictators, or sectarian governments. Very lucky us. We have comparatively big Government and we are comparatively happy with it.

But take a look around the world today – Egypt going from peaceful, hopeful mass demonstration to violent disorder, Australia bracing for a continent sized cyclone which would cover swathes of the USA and would obliterate the UK, France and Germany, Sudan seceeding from itself and the routine drip drip drip of deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq or any number of other countries you care to mention. Government or the lack of it has a hand or the responsibility in all of these.

I was reading to my daughter about Henry VIII and Tudor England this evening and explaining beheadings, religious persecutions and kingly philandering. I said people were poor, had few rights and had many arbitrary rules imposed upon them by church and state. I used the past tense but on reflection not much has changed in much of the world.

This makes me reflect on four of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms:

Abuse of power comes as no surprise

Government is a burden on the people

Grass roots agitation is the only hope

Imposing order is man’s vocation for chaos is hell

Number one, I fear, is a nailed on certainty. Even Platonic Philosopher Kings go bad without term limits. Chaos is a hot hell, but dictatorship is a cold one. I used to think Government was my friend, but having worked in it I’m not so sure. It’s more like HAL 9000 crossed with a particularly mindless golem – and that’s in a stable affluent parliamentary democracy not a kleptocracy, sectarian or police state. Grass roots agitation probably is the only hope for many. I’m lucky to live where I do, and a good five centuries after Henry VIII.

Corporate Punishment v) Bad Behaviour

All organisations struggle with performance management. But in my experience, none more so than long-service public bodies.

I found this particularly acute as a Senior Civil Servant in UK Government. The main issue is often not capability, or even performance per se, but attitudes and behaviours which bring everyone and everything down.

Perhaps frustrated ambition is a factor. Being constantly overlooked for promotion and not ‘progressing’ can sour anyone over time – not least as promotion is usually the only way to get a pay rise. There are also those with rose-tinted memories of happier times who lament what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the ever degrading psychological contract between employer and employee.

Tidying up the other day, I found this list of ‘frequently encountered behaviours’ from my time in central Government. I worked with other senior people and developed a handy guide to tackling each too. That helped. Or at least helped me remain sane.

Re-reading them I’m so glad to be out of that context:


The stereotypes below are behaviours that people can display and do not describe people themselves. Your own behaviour can elicit different reactions and you should be aware of the styles and behaviours you display before challenging them in others. People may adopt a mixture of these behaviours, switch or deploy several at once. Nevertheless, these stereotypes are based on real life situations people have described when managing the behaviour of civil servants.

1) AFFABLE – happily acknowledge shortcomings and performance issues, but either say that’s just the way they are and they can’t really change or say they might try to do something different but don’t follow through.

2) CHOOSY – enthusiastically focus on the list of things they have done, like to do or can do and make you feel guilty about challenging them on other aspects of the job or performance.

3) PLODDING/JOB’S WORTH – argue for narrow definitions of their role, justify performance on historic grounds – “I’ve always done it this way and no-one has complained”, may stress they work to live not live to work.

4) HYPOCHONDRIAC – focused only on themselves and their own workload, don’t recognise context or pressures others face, often refuse offers of help or resource as no-one else is sufficiently able or knowledgeable. (Often comes with Perfectionism as below)

5) HIJACKERS – often deployed by hoarders of information, relationships, skills, processes or technologies, hijacking is implicitly or explicitly threatening withdrawal of key ‘know-how’ with catastrophic consequences.

6) EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL – using emotions and sometimes tears to stop a discussion on performance and in extreme cases displaying their upset to colleagues and other team members to rebuke you.

7) SUMO WRESTLING – coming back at you hard, challenging or criticising your style or behaviour to try to knock you back and barge you out of the ring.

8 ) PERFECTIONISM – often backed by great delivery, but often at great cost either to the person or those around them, aggressive defensiveness about excessive, exclusive or obsessive focus on their own work.

9) PAIN IN THE @RSE – antagonistic, argumentative, dogged, ignoring your context and time pressures often ultra-critical of the organisation, people or processes.

10) STAR QUALITIES – listening, taking responsibility, offering to help, making suggestions for improvement and change, sharing pressures, offering to lead and deliver. Make time to recognise, nurture, support and reward any of these behaviours at all costs.