The census – £480 million wasted?

This year’s census is stirring up plenty of debate over whether it’s an idea that has had its time. Having listened to the arguments, I’m joining those who think the whole operation has had its day.

Thirty years ago, I was one of the census administrators. I had a patch of homes where I was responsible for dropping off the forms, and then collecting them a few days later. I had to check they had in large part been filled in, and warn those who refused to oblige, that they were laying themselves open for prosecution. I still remember the big blue plastic folders that we were issued with to carry the forms with; and the welcome cheque at the end.

But back then, there was no internet, few companies or public bodies stored information on computer systems, and so the whole exercise seemed to have a value. Today, it is easy to find out how many bedrooms and bathrooms there are in pretty much every house, doing a search of estate agents’ details on the internet. Or by using Google Earth. Databases within the NHS and Department of Education will tell us how many kids there are of what ages, so new schools can be planned.

And that makes the eye-watering cost of the census, at £480 million, an expensive waste of time.

I listened to a census official on the radio arguing in its defence, that it represented a cost of just 90p per person, per year; and that the information was useful for 10 years. He then had to admit that the information was only a snapshot, and not a very accurate one. According to his counterpart, several thousand respondents to the last census listed their religion as Jeddae.

We’re increasingly fed up with being asked for information about ourselves, from all manner of organisations interested in collecting it. And we have a Data Protection organisation that is supposed to hold such repositories to account. Surely there must be a logical, safe way to pull together all this information without relying on asking reluctant householders to fill in another form?

So, let’s get rid of the census and save £480 million – that would buy a few new schools. And even without the 2021 census, I’m sure they will still work out how to make a fresh series of “Who do you think you are” in decades to come.


Chiltern – a tweeting modern railway

Three cheers for Chiltern Railways, for working out that they need to harness social networking and new ways of communicating – as well as traditional ways of networking – in order to stay in touch with their customers.

At a business networking meeting in Wycombe, I met Chad Collins, general manager (south) at the railway company, which runs trains out of Marylebone to Banbury and Birmingham. Perhaps because they are owned by German Railways, rather than a British operator, Chiltern seems to understand that it needs to serve and talk with its community, as a way to create happier customers and grow its business long term.

Chad mentioned that, as part of its franchise commitment, Chiltern Railways is duty bound to hold a regular series of “meet the manager” sessions at stations along the line. But there’s an obvious flaw with this; close to half of people arriving at a station are rushing to catch a train, and have no interest in missing it, in order to gripe about overflowing litter bins or poorly lit carparks.

Instead, some bright spark at Chiltern came up with “tweet the manager” – and apparently, this session brought substantially more interaction with customers than standing on a windy platform for three hours.
The only challenge, said Chad, was answering questions in 140 characters or less.

Chiltern’s approach is in distinct contrast to First Great Western, who still haven’t bothered to get in touch – see Nov 11 entry below.

Education is failing employers and students, everywhere

Look down this blog and you’ll find an entertaining video accompanying comments about the inadequacy of the British education system.

But it seems we are no worse than anywhere else – education systems everywhere are failing to serve business and the students it claims to help. Last night Vineet Nayar, chief executive of global IT services company HCL Technologies was speaking on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line. Interviewer Stephanie Flanders said he had been quoted having a go at the US education system, but Nayar pointed out it was a global problem:

“My comment was about graduates all across the world, whether it is Indian, Chinese, UK or the Americans – the curriculum in schools and colleges today is not apt, it is actually obselete compared to what we need in a job. Therefore at HCL, we end up training every single employee for six months before he is employable and deployed into a project. That’s a colossal global waste. And my comment is whether it is a US education, or Indian or Chinese education, we have to do something about changing that, so that the graduates when they come out, are employable day one rather than day six months.”

If you fancy listening to more, it’s on the BBC Iplayer here. So if you are a teenager, why waste time on further education?

Nayar also had a tilt at another area of waste he sees: the British “old boy’s club” which means government contracts are still awarded to a small coterie of incumbents. His company, he insists, could provide an equivalent service for less, a mantra that fits perfectly with the current government’s views. He’s waiting for their call, apparently.

Catch him on video here.

Online or on the high street – which do you prefer?

Will the battle for the consumer be on the high street, or on the web? According to two stories of executive moves yesterday, the vote looks to be going with online growth.

First up was news that Marks & Spencer has poached Laura Wade-Gery from Tesco, to mastermind the growth of its online sales channel. This is one lady in demand, apparently Tesco only promoted her a month ago – let’s hope she delivers for Marks. The M&S online commitment is clear, and the company has indicated it wants to move away from using Amazon, as it does currently, to provide infrastructure support, and develop its own independent web platform.

Meanwhile, Best Buy UK, which has long been planning its expansion into the British electricals market, has lost two directors, following the recent departure chief executive Scott Wheway out of the door. Kevin Styles, who joined as marketing director almost two years ago, is off; as is commercial director Harry Parmar.

The Best Buy strategy of opening some big box stores around the UK has had an inauspicious start. The company has fallen behind its own stated aims for store openings with suggestions it was simply not able to flex to the realities of leasing retail space in the UK. Those stores that are open do look and feel great, according to reports – it’s just most of us have yet to go near one.

But the question is, do we really want a nice store to buy electricals? Sour memories of Dixons staff trying to hard sell me a warranty I didn’t need still temper my desire to visit a store, and online shopping for core products means an easy way to compare prices and specifications – as well as enjoying reviews from other consumers. You can’t help thinking it would have been easier for Best Buy to grow their online business in the UK, ahead of trying to build a physical chain.

And visiting an electrical goods shop can still be disappointing. Last week I tried to find a retail outlet where I could check out an Ipad and a Samsung tablet side by side, but failed and gave up. Even John Lewis apologetically told me that, while they stock Ipads, the Samsung remains an online only item for the next few weeks. Down the road, Carphone had a finger smeared Samsung to try, but no Ipad.

It’s curious to view the contrasting strategies of these two outfits. M&S clearly views online as its next big expansion area, probably thanks to watching companies such as John Lewis make such a big and successful push in this direction. Research I undertook recently, demonstrated just how many retailers are taking the web much more seriously than they did two or three years ago. Britain is one of the leading countries for the adoption of online retailing, thanks to a reliable, cheap delivery infrastructure and high computer use; other markets will follow, and can emulate the model. While there is a significant upfront cost developing a good web platform, ultimately the business can grow with lower variable overheads than traditional store-based retailing.

And while clothing is apparently one item folk still like to touch and try on before they buy, the success of online-only clothing retailer Asos shows what can be achieved with the right infrastructure of handling returns and providing appropriate sizing information. M&S look to be heading in the right direction.

Getting all emotional over trains

As a regular user of Marylebone station in west London, I watched bemused as train operator Deutsche Bahn introduced a new service from Marylebone to north Wales. Among the suburban trains taking commuters to Wycombe, Amersham and Banbury were occasionally assembled a motley collection of old Inter City railway carriages and big diesel power cars – which over time were painted in the silver livery of Wrexham & Shropshire.

The biggest mystery was who would want to take a train that wended its way in an excessively slow four hours or so, via the Midlands to Telford and Wrexham in north Wales – or else wanted to take this slow way to London.

Last week came the answer – not many people. The service was axed, having cost its backers a small fortune in three years of operation. They did all they could to attract customers, with reasonable prices and a service that scored top marks in satisfaction surveys, and a buffet car that apparently served a wonderful menu with a style other train operators have long forgotten. But through last year poor usage meant they dropped from five to four trains a day, then to three, in a bid to stem the losses.

There were a number of other factors which helped the service fail, including restrictive conditions that prevented it competing with other train operators; it stopped at Wolverhampton, for example, but was not allowed to pick up passengers wanting to go to London. For more on the dysfunctional way our railways are run, and its impact on Wrexham & Shropshire, read the Daily Mail correspondent’s eulogy here.

But the funny thing is, we now have north Wales politicians calling for the service to be reinstated, and a 5,000 strong petition from users has been collected in support of their calls. I can’t imagine that would have happened, had this service been provided by a coach operator.