The Bluh Lectures: January 2009 – ‘Excellence’

I prefer Radio 4’s annual Reith Lectures to Rod Bluh’s monthly mini-lectures…..but I’ll cheerfully listen to both and criticise the shit out of just one.

Rod’s ‘theme’ this year appears to be ‘excellence’, but don’t be fooled – what he really wants is your ‘quiet agreement’.

Dispensing quickly with New Year pleasantries Rod opens with:

“One of the key roles of government, local or national, is to address the concerns of those in real need, to provide means for helping people to help themselves, for giving opportunity to all. I embrace that challenge; serving others is one of the key roles of any leader. However, my concern is that this means Government services are skewed towards these individuals and that most people will not derive tangible benefits from the council.”

Is Rod saying that the council is fulfilling its duty of care to those in real need, but failing those of us who think we are receiving the ‘tangible benefits’ of our bins being emptied sensibly, working streetlights, clean pavements, swimming pools full of water, good schools and a working library service?  It does seem to be true that alternate weekly collections of domestic waste is unpopular and that councillors deliberately delayed axing a couple of libraries until the opening of the new Central library could be mined for every last nugget of positive PR, so perhaps Rod is quietly acknowledging that not everything in the Borough has been quite as successful as his micro-cabinet have previously claimed and, having stuck their collective necks out and bragged relentlessly about vision, success and delivery, it has become much harder for them to ‘improve’ on the near-perfect record they have so far awarded themselves.

Rod tells us that they’ve almost finished ticking the boxes of the 50 promises, (all ticked but not all delivered), and that they now need to provide a ‘New Vision for Swindon’.  (Forgive me if I gag at this point, but the phrase is like treacle. It’s sweet but too much of it will make you sick.)  I thought we already had a new vision for Swindon, and it’s name was ‘regeneration’ ?

ah, yes, here we are….

“First, excellence means we will strive to continue our programme of affordable capital investment in the borough. Since 2004 we have built or refurbished more than 14 schools with the council raising more than half the money to do this. We have started work to revitalise the town centre by signing two redevelopment agreements worth more than £5OOm at a time when other councils are seeing developers walk away.”   *(see note at foot of post)

….so it still is regeneration, but now it’s new and improved regeneration with added ‘excellence’ ? What bollocks.

And anyway, I don’t agree with Bluh –  ‘Excellence’ cannot be realised by continuing to do what you are already doing and simply re branding it as ‘excellence’.

A Tory run SBC might well have a good record of delivery when compared against the best efforts of the last administration, but it doesn’t matter how many regeneration deals are signed, they do not guarantee a developers future solvency, so although signing the deals might be a good first step, it is only the first step and not a measure of ‘excellence’ in itself.  I’m not trying to talk down the regeneration of the town centre, but on this my thinking is completely clear:

Shouldn’t municipal ‘Excellence’ begin with the clear notion that political exaggeration, gilding the lily, spin and never ending ‘Brilliant news!’ press releases are counter productive because they hide genuinely brilliant news behind the smoke created by sexing-up the merely mundane. Brilliance is just another boring word when it’s endlessly repeated, (see: vision and vibrant) and even excellence will become excruciatingly dull if it is claimed for everything from regeneration to reducing SBC sick levels.  It is okay, a good thing even, to admit to occasionally fudging something up completely and if the Borough’s councillors really want to be rewarded with the electorates recognition and respect, shouldn’t they first learn some humility and admit to themselves that not everything is a brilliant news item and not every story should be spun as if it is.   Not every day is going to be an excellent day, and not every cabinet decision is going to be the right one.  We expect even superman to make the odd mistake, but he is seen at his most human when he admits to them.

The above said, it’s Rod’s third and final point on excellence that leaves me scratching my thinning pate:

“Third, excellence means being ready to accept change. We like familiarity it is comforting and reassuring. Change, on the other hand, can be disruptive and bring huge threats, especially to those who have lost employment, or have lost access to shops or facilities that have formed part of their lives for many years”.

No, ‘excellence’ isn’t measured by a persons, or even a groups ability to accept change. This is a meaningless statement. Municipal ‘Excellence’ in the above scenarios will be measured by SBC’s ability to both understand the social and personal psychology of change and then applying the knowledge in a beneficial and intelligent manner.

Bluh continues:
“Uncertainty can fill us with dread. However, we must all learn to accept change and it’s not always a bad thing, it can just as easily mean things will get better.  Just as the council will have to adapt how it works, so I invite residents to support these changes.”

Well, Roderick… perhaps residents would find it much easier to accept your changes if Swindon Borough Council, and our councillors, learned how to better present their case for change, and be more willing to engage with residents as, and when, those residents vocalise their fears and try to explain why they feel threatened by change.  There is absolutely nothing ‘comforting and reassuring’ about an assemblage of councillors making decisions which can dramatically affect 180,000 lives in the borough, when those same councillors show little desire to discuss and explain their decisions with the very people they are elected to represent.  Minimal engagement is not excellence.

And onwards….
“It is too easy to look at all council decisions solely from a personal perspective: How does this affect me? If we are to achieve better services we all need to learn to look at change from the wider good: How does this affect the whole borough?”

Ah!, so we have arrived at the core theme of Bluh’s New Years lecture,   namely that we, or at least those of us that are inquisitive, question, discuss and often challenge Bluh’s politics, his ‘visionary’ presentation of change  should, in his opinion,  put up, shut up and simply accept his ‘will’ and his actions ‘for the greater good’.

There was a time when I’d have thought my perception of his meanings were  faulty, and that ‘Good Old Rod’ doesn’t actually mean what I think he means, but now I know there’s nothing wrong with my understanding of his words, he really does expect to to do and say as he likes absolutely free from public criticism….. a good example of an autocrat if every there was one and, as I appear to remain barred from responding through Rod’s Personal News Organ, The Swindon Pravdatiser, I’ll  blog this response knowing happily that Bluh’s ‘Comrade Editor’ at The Swindon Pravda can’t do his usual trick of adjusting critical words with a meat cleaver.

So, listen up Roderick…..

There is nothing wrong with challenging and discussing changes, especially if there is the slightest hint that some changes are being made just for the sake of it.  Worthwhile changes will survive politically and be supported socially when they have merit…provided the merits are adequately explained to both the fearful and the dissenting.

When the changers and reformers don’t and won’t discuss the why, how’s and wherefores of the changes they intend to implement, ‘excellence’ can never be achieved and a silk purse will not be spun into existence from a sows ear.  If residents form the impression that their concerns and fears are more irritating than of interest to the elected few, levels of fear, concern and anger in the population will rise.

Rods latest offering, along with a recent self-indulgent whine by Cllr Finuala Foley bear the same hallmarks as the ramblings of the facebrook group of hard done-by Virgin Atlantic trolley dollies who had a good public whinge about some of their passengers.

After Richard Branson sacked 13 of them, an airline spokesman said (of Facebook):

“…there is no justification for it to be used as a sounding board for staff of any company to criticise the very passengers who pay their salaries.”

I agree with him, and in a similar vein, I think Swindon’s political elite ought to think more carefully before publicly criticising those of the Borough’s 180,000 mostly ‘fare paying’ and voting ‘passengers’ who ‘dare’ to criticise him and his cronies who are, afterall, public servants.

Bluh’s gang know how to ‘talk the talk’, but Swindon is an industrial railway town which is possessed of an enduring and industrial grade of honesty and directness.  ‘The talk’ might get you the engine drivers job, but it won’t keep you on the footplate unless you can drive the train and chat to the fare paying passengers at the same time.

If the engine driver and his mate shun fare paying passengers, or tell them to shut up, they’ll be driving an increasingly empty train.  Only in rare and limited circumstances can a service provider dictate to the end users how they should think about and behave towards them.  Local government can’t, and shouldn’t try to.  Those that do seem intent on stacking kindling around their own feet, dousing themselves with paraffin and then, defying all logic, proceeding to play with matches.

One day I fully expect to see a political bonfire fuelled by Bluh’s vanity.

* Not long after this Bluh lecture was published in the Swindon Pravdatiser,  both the ‘Modus’ and ‘Muse’ developers did walk away from signed development agreements…..


Edit: 9th February 2012 – There is also a discussion topic about this blog posting on the Talkswindon Forum it has been running for three years and has been read nearly four thousand times.

Posted on
Thursday, January 29th, 2009
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