Contract tendering: Good, fast, cheap ~ choose two

After over nine months of mess, noise and upheaval, the block of flats where I live is now double-glazed courtesy of the local council. It’s been a mammoth project involving a number of  low-rise buildings in central London, just south of the Thames. The blocks have a  mix of council rented and privately leased flats and, all told, with its modest amounts of green space and good neighbours it’s very pleasant.

After nearly a year of living with scaffolding wrapped around the building the steel structure is being taken down and everyone can see the new white windows in all their glory. At last, I thought, it’s all over. Alas not. I had forgotten the visits by the contractors to carry out what is rather amusing called ‘snagging checks’.

After failing to make a previous agreed appointment, the on site contractors finally arrived last week to unstick the stuck windows and oil the unlockable locks. Given that the council has passed on at least some of the cost of the works to the tenants (it was Hobson’s choice) one might expect that the windows would be decent quality and designed to last for many many years like the robust building itself which is still perfectly solid and has been since 1927 . Not so. The units are shoddily made and have suffered a little at the hands of the fitters who, nice chaps that they were, clearly had daily targets to meet. Nevermind, they are double glazed units and a whole heap better that the draughty sash jobbies that were in before.

So then having had one snagging call, this morning three hi-viz jacket wearing, safety-hatted jolly nice chaps arrive to ‘make sure all is OK’. Three of them: A clerk of works, a fitter and a contractors rep (I think) consult the windows, nod and politely challenge my claim that the units are ‘a bit shoddy’ offering a ‘value for money’ defence. Fair enough. Five minutes later, they are on their way having ticked the boxes and wished me a happy Christmas. Done

Actually  no, not yet.

Twenty minutes later a knock at the door reveals yet another clerk of works, a very nice Scots chappie who is a freelance it turns out and who travels on on the train from Hertfordshire each day, just thought you’d like to know. “Come to check the windows”, he announces with some authority, cheerily waving his pad and sweeping past me en route to the glazing. Yes their fine, now I all we need is sign off…from another worker from the hi-viz hive.  Two ‘phone calls later, all is revealed: The work at my flat had already been signed off.

“So”, I ask politely, “how many contractors does it take to check a window?”  No conclusive response but I am assured it’s in everyone’s interests. ‘After all it’s public money’. Indeed. Public money paying for five people to check that the windows work ~ that it can be opened and closed easily and locked.

And this is where it all gets a bit tiresome. The job is obviously priced to ensure that everyone is happy, maybe apart from some of the tenants. And further more it seems to fit the contract tendering principle options of good, fast or cheap ~ choose one, two if you are lucky.

Oh yes and don’t get me started on the extractor fan they fitted (after drilling a serious hole through the kitchen wall) but were then not allowed to wire up. Because the flat is owned by a private leaseholder the council can fit the fan but not make it work. Brilliant.

So now when it gets too hot or smoky in the kitchen I have one simple solution. I must do my best to open the sticking window.

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Blogging on the hoof

How marvellous that the iPod phone/touch allows blogging while on the move via the WordPress app. Maybe now I can return to publishing my thoughts on all and nothing more regularly. Meanwhile thanks to all who have left or sent comments.
Now that I know the iApp works, the plan is to update the blog weekly again.
Hence please check back at the end of this week to see the latest ramblings.

Mange tout!

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For heaven’s sake, get a grip

I read this week of shenanigans in ‘the church’ that does little to provide faith-waiverers with any reason to be anything other than indifferent.U2

First up, something called Fresh Expressions ~ presumably some kind of ecumenical blue sky think-tank ~ has been creasing it’s cassocks to come up with new ways of attracting younger people to attend chruch. Among the suggestions was apparently one to recite psalms in a ‘beat poetry’ style to the accompaniment of African drums and, allegedly, asking God to look after the head of Google in daily prayers.

But best of all was the stunning proposal to perform ‘U2charists’, where the congregation sing songs by U2 in place of regular hymns. Classic. Bono may well be the campaigning friend to the world’s leaders and saviour of us all, but is he really inline for ‘the big job’?

Meanwhile an unholy ballyhoo has broken out in that desperately-in-need-of-a-refurb Mancunian suburb of Stockport. The local broom-riding collective ~ known as The Crystal Coven ~ has accused the local Catholic Diocese of ‘prejudice’ after it refused to rent the chruch hall, Our Lady’s Social Club, for a Halloween Witches’ Ball.

witchClearly there was concern about the sight of odd people parading round in out-moded, strange, ancient costumes, chanting mantras, casting spells and knocking back quite a lot of alcohol. However the witches no doubt said they were prepared to turn blind-eye to the goings on in the church next door. Ho hum.

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Having a laugh at the crematorium

Death affects us all in different ways.

The recent and sudden death of my father ~ a heart attack which precipitated a road traffic accident ~ was the last thing I thought I would have to deal with. But I did.

Among the words of comfort and consolation there are always platitudes, empty rhetoric and awkward comments from people who, despite the fact they have been to many funerals, are not socially equipped to deal with another person’s grief. Luckily, as I shifted from one foot to the other outsdie the crematorium trying desperately to assume my new role as official, if nominal, head of the family I wasn’t treated to my most loathed phrase: “Well he had a good innings…”. That in itself was a blessed relief, for me at least.

I find the whole issue of how we handle death interesting, possibly because of my day job ~ I work for a healthcare charity and see the terrible effects of many life-shortening diseases and the wonderful provision of (hugely underfunded) end-of-life and palliative care.

However when it comes to a parent or other loved one, things are always different. The protagonist in this tragedy is not some grieving third party who needs a reassuring smile or look of understanding, but the face in the mirror with the searching eyes and no answer.

The circumstances of my father’s death made the whole process surreal. An RTA after suffering ‘left vetricular failure’. My superbly organsied sister dealt with everything practical (I live 200 miles away) leaving me with the role of, well, first born and supporting role.

Which brings me to the funeral. I rather like the idea of happiness at funerals not sadness. Celebrate a life not mourn a death, that sort of thing. So it was with a little foreboding that I sat at the front listening to the vicar read from his notes, taken from my mother two days before (he never even met my father) and recount the believers mantra about ‘going to be with God’.

As an atheist, I tuned out and thought more about the man who raised me in real terms rather than the pomp of blind faith that acts, as far as I can see, to serve the living not the dead as they come to terms with their own mortality. My thoughts were all good and based on my 47 years of having dad around and, particularly, his great sense of humour. Which is why I found myself beginning to laugh out loud, breaking the solemnity of the moment as the curtains drew round the coffin.

That and the fact that I was recently told a story about a funeral where the chap who had passed away had specified the piece of music he wanted at this funeral. On the day, as the curtains started to close and the gathered mourners prepared to say their final goodbye the PA system blasted out Judy Garland joyously proclaiming: “I’m off to see the Wizard…”. Perfect.

Now in my head that’s what I heard as the curtains closed round my father’s coffin and, if I could have seen his face, I am sure he would have been laughing his head off too.

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The principal principle of politics – be selfish

I was recently afforded the privilege of hearing an address by a sometime front bencher at a small butHouse of Commons Chamber perfectly formed gathering of good souls who were seeking to become the business leaders of tomorrow. The strictly applied Chatham House rule prevents me from whispering whom the speaker may have been, but suffice to say it was someone who has retained some considerable credibilty in their time in the dirty, apparently fraudulent world of modern poilitics.

The topic of discussion was whether the speaker missed the cut-and-thrust of the political encounter. The response was at first considered, measured and predictable, but then morphed into an interesting insight into the darker depths of the poilitics of principles.

The speaker was an opponent of the invasion of Iraq and, in order to gain nod from the Speaker of the House to bring about a motion contrary to the Government’s preferred ‘tactical insurgence’, needed to gain a list of signatures of support. Hence during the days debating, he passed a piece of paper along the back benches watching it fill up as it travelled the line.

Half-way down it came to a longtime friend who read the paper, carefully folded it and placed it casually in his pocket much to the dismay of the orginator.

Once outside the chamber, our man swiftly approached his collaeague and implored him that if he valued his friendship as friend and colleague he would let him have the paper back. After a short pause the response from the Government loyalist was short and calculating: “I don’t and I won’t”.

The lesson learned: Principles are the first principal in politics.

Which is why the current debacle over MP’s expenses can be explained so easily: It’s merely a matter of placing oneself first, whatever the principle might be; And at whatever cost.

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Digital devil’s spawn a threat. What say you Voltaire?

Just as idle hands are said to find gainful Lucifarian employ and rock and roll was initially seen as the evil that would corrupt youDevilth (and maybe it did), in the mind’s of some, Beelzebub’s latest bedfellow is clearly the digital age. More specifically, social networking. Even more specifically, the horned cohort that is Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube et al.

I recently hosted a conference of adult volunteers of a national youth organisation where all the delegates were responsible  for promoting the organisation.

Once trained (by a highly experienced team of professionals) their working ‘tool kit’ to do the job effectively covers the disciplines of media, marketing, web, publications, photography and event management. Perhaps by design, necessity or fate, there was probably no one under the age of thirty and most would have been over forty years, some older. My point is that they were not ‘children of the digital age’ (unless you count Etch-A Sketch digital!).

Twitter logoAt the end of a fabulous day discussing the more current issues facing PR and marketing in the traditional sense, the discussion was opened up to new media, social networking and the opportunities/threats raised by the technology that gives us the freedom to explore the likes of Twitter, Facebook, AudioBoo, Bebo and MySpace as channels to our target publics.

It’s fair to say that a live demonstration of AudioBoo caused the most reaction. Within thirty seconds of recording a short interview I posted it ‘live’, with a picture of the interviewee and an automatically generated map of the location, broadcast to the world. The sense of wonderment, shock and awe was palpable as was the reality that access to instant global public broadcasting was not restricted to ‘sad geeks’, but to everyone.

The debate was divided and the eager adopters were wide-eyed and saw the potential to reach new and wider audiences through controlled use of the technology. Others were, possibly, gripped by fear as the fingers of digital doom tightened around them. “Heaven forbid that young people should get hold of this and give their versions of things without our approval” seemed to be the lament. Goodness me, they might not even be on message! Oh woe is the future. Had Chicken Lickin’ been there looking skywards, it would have been an even more delicious moment to savour!

I suspect that the realisation was not that the access to exercise such freedom of speech was possible but that it was so easy and, using a £30 a month iPhone, so cheap. The debate rumbled on right down to the bottom of the port decanter at dinner and long afterwards. What was encouraging was the talk about how the organisation could use the technology to gain advantage, much less about the threat. Clearly being aware of and understanding the potential was part of a quick-and-dirty risk assessment that would be discussed in more detail later.

A week later, one delegate, an information and security manager in his day-job commented, I suspect possibly a little tongue-in-cheek: “I regard Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the infernal herd as the Devil’s spawn and I’m trying to get it written into policy that any staff found using these sites at work is to have all their fingers amputated; however, I don’t think I’ll get that passed.”

It’s a fair point, (well, maybe not the amputation bit).  Organisations must protect their business and potentially the web is a huge threat to security and commercially sensitive information. That’s why businesses have IT departments and can impose massive controls over the access staff have to the wider online environment in the work place. Outside of work however, damage can still be done to a corporate body where no such restrictions apply, other than an employee risking dismissal for a professional breach of conduct.

Voltaire is, I think, attributed as saying: “I may not agree what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  In that context we enjoy the privilege of freedom of speech. We also enjoy the privilege of being able to sue the pants off those who libel, defame or slander us or our businesses. It’s why the devil also invented lawyers.

Being able to blog, Tweet and post embarrassing or whitleblowing videos on the web is merely exercising access to another channel of communication. The content is not exempt from the rules surrounding publishing material that might be challenged legally. It can be however a very powerful tool to make sure that there are checks and balances against too much ‘Big Brother-like control. Voltaire would have loved it, I am sure.

Like it or not, we must be open to the opportunities and threats of new media and at the very least engage with it. In that way it may be that future potential problems can be addressed early before they erupt to a much wider audience and the damage might be contained. By not scanning the communications channels there is more chance of being caught unaware.

The technology is not going to go away. You might think it’s a lottery but, as they say: “You’ve got to be in to win”. Oh yes and don’t forget: “Better the devil you know”.

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Polypill: profits before people?

Cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer in the western world.pills1

Office for National Statistics data show one in five men and around one in six women died from heart disease, including heart attacks, in 2005 in England and Wales.

Yet despite now having the technology to tackle it head on with the development of the ‘five-in-one’ polypill, there is little hope if it becoming widely available. Why? As so often, because of money.

The combined pill, developed in 2003, was offered to the NHS with a suggestion that it be prescribed for every man over 50 and every woman over 60 regardless of whether they were at risk of heart attack or not.

Six years later and there is still no sign of the polypill being put into mass production for the simple reason that the pharmaceutical companies will not make a profit from it because the drugs the polypill contains are out of patent. The magic cocktail of a statin (cholesterol), aspirin (blood clots) and a triumvirate of agents to counter hypertension (high blood pressure) are widely available and cheap. Hence no company will invest in the clinical trials quite rightly required before it can promoted.

According to august medical journal The Lancet early tests in India have gone well and the implication is that potentially thousands of lives currently at risk from heart attack here int he UK might be saved if the polypill were readily available.

In a society where preventative medicine is possible for a vast range of conditions and where clear, positive impacts can be reilsed on the quality and length of of life for thousands (millions?) of people, it is once again profit that wins the argument.

Let’s not forget that there are many people culpable of contributing to their own sorry cardiovascular condition because of their chosen lifestyle but over 30% of those who do suffer a heart attack have no associated risk factors. Education here is the key.  Well funded anti-smoking, healthy eating and exercise campaigns are already having an impact according to reports

It is also obvious that the longer we live the greater the strain we place on health and social social services, not forgetting the ever dwindling pension pot with the prospect of fewer people contributing to the funds than drawing on it. A cynic might suspect a conspiracy to deprive those with easily addressed health issues from access to preventative medicine in order to provide some seemingly natural balance.

Others may simply see it as another example of profit before people.

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