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I’d almost forgotten this long-ago attempt to get into writing, but one summer when I was down from University, and had had no luck finding gainful employment, I interned for a (long-defunct) weekly music paper.  I seem to remember getting my travel expenses up to Town paid, and a minimal allowance for lunches, plus payment-per-line on record reviews.  The paper’s offices were a cramped suite up a narrow staircase in an old townhouse somewhere in central London, with desks jammed together in the middle of the limited floor space, and apart from me – the only female thing in the establishment – were inhabited by rather geeky, would-be-cool guys with unfashionably long hair who wore a dated uniform of jeans and freebie band/tour T-shirts.

I don’t even remember which day we went to press, but I do remember that on the day preceding press-day, I had the task, unwanted by anyone else, of ringing round a long list of local radio stations to ask for their most-rotated discs over the previous week, in order to compile a ‘radio playlist Top Twenty’.  In the days before computerised spreadsheets, it was a long-winded, tedious, and frankly rather pointless task.  I ran down the long list of radio station phone numbers and called one after another – “Hello?  It’s <paper name> here, ah, calling for your playlist Top Twenty?”

Sometimes the person at the other end just didn’t have time for me; sometimes they would rattle off a list of song titles so fast that, since I didn’t have shorthand, I didn’t have a hope in hell of keeping up.  I would scribble down initials and then have to go back over the lists after hanging up.  Sometimes I wouldn’t even know what the songs were.  By mid-afternoon I would have a deskful of lists, none of which was ever in complete agreement with any other, so that I had to work out the weighting for the final compilation – 20 points for a number 1 slot, 1 point for a number 20, add ’em all up and arrange numerically by cutting the totals list into single-song strips to reshuffle on desk until I had the final arrangement.  Copy down, type up, present to editor.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that since not every radio station responded, and since the chance of a given station responding on a particular day depended entirely on who was answering the phone that week, the playlist chart was hardly scientific or accurate.  After a while, I’d phone maybe half a dozen stations, with a good geographic spread (these were the days when local music scenes varied markedly from north to south) and then… well, basically make it up.

The guy who’d done the job previously, a curl-topped skinny drink of water whose name eludes me since he was mainly remarkable for his encyclopaedic knowledge of percussion instruments, gave me a cynical grin.  “Worked out how to do it, have you?”  His grin widened as I guiltily tried to spread out my few pieces of paper to conceal the acres of wooden desk-top.  “Don’t be daft, the boss’d far rather you got in well ahead of time than hold him up by making sure to include Radio Shetland and Isle of Wight Radio.  Finest journalistic tradition, that is, creating a story from a minimum of facts.  Hit your deadlines, that’s the thing.”

I was reminded of his cheerfully cavalier attitude when looking at the HSJ (Health Service Journal) Awards last week.  They, like my chart compilations, are all about making yourself look good:  organisations self-nominate for awards, and the judgment criteria seem have all the ethical clarity of those that contributed to my long-ago decisions about who was to get that no.1 playlist slot.  An acquaintance who works in events organisation tells me that these days, fan conventions are some of the biggest business in the ‘events’ world, contributing significantly to media companies’ income streams, but that trade-press beanfeasts are also highly profitable.  I bet.  George Julian has done a cracking job of looking at how well HSJ does out of its awards and how much taxpayers’ money gets diverted annually to EMAP publications: not for providing professional update information, but for organising a black-tie knees-up-cum-ego-massage-session.

HSJ is the publication that dubbed Sloven’s CEO, Katrina Percy, ‘NHS Chief Executive of the Year’ in November 2012, calling her an “outstanding leader with real drive and energy”, who demonstrated “a style of leadership that engenders self-motivation among staff.”  Ms. Percy’s award acceptance speech included the self-deprecating phrase, “We know that leadership directly impacts quality of care.”  Despite her leadership engendering a level of staff self-motivation at Slade House insufficient to prevent a learning-disabled patient with epilepsy from drowning in a hospital bath in July 2013; despite the fact that only yesterday Sloven was slapped down by the coroner in that case for trying to persuade him that the death was ‘natural’ and therefore the inquest didn’t need a jury; despite an arm’s-length list of other failures in Learning Disability provision in the last three years; despite all that – Sloven’s Learning Disability division is thinking of ‘reviewing its position to assess whether there is sufficient evidence of effective change to pull together a submission for the BMJ Awards this year’.

Hmmmn.  I’d say most recent evidence suggests not.

Although there is a case for recognising good practice, I don’t think that commercial awards are the way to go in public service.  People don’t need fancy dinners and the adulation or envy of people from up and down the land to feel that their work is recognised.  When I was working for a local council, a colleague in the Community Care Department, which organised things like day-care centres and meals-on-wheels, put in a submission for a Charter Mark, which in those days were, if I remember rightly, competitive awards.  She did most of the documentation in her spare time, and shot a little video of the service facilities and activities, complete with self-scripted voiceover, original soundtrack courtesy of an improvisational bass guitarist friend, and credits that were scrolled up a computer screen by dint of Sally crouching out-of-shot and pressing <line down> on the keyboard.  The Charter Mark team was much impressed with her enterprise and came and inspected the Department, which was eventually awarded a Charter Mark.  Sally and her colleagues were formally congratulated by the Chairman of the Council at a full Council meeting, and got to put the Charter Mark on their buildings, vehicles and stationery for the next three years.  They didn’t need a dinner in London to know and feel that their work was recognised and appreciated.

After a while, Charter Marks stopped being a competition and became a benchmark award – a guarantee that the service was up to the required standards.  Then, it seemed, they were quietly done away with.

It wasn’t until I did a bit of research on Friday that I learned that they still exist, but since 2008 are called Customer Service Excellence Awards.  Pfft.  Customer Service Excellence sounds like a Marks and Sparks aspiration, an award for retail and commercial kudos, not for public service.

However risible the Citizen’s Charter may have been, however box-ticking its mentality, I’d far rather have public-sector awards that evoke something of Magna Carta, government obligations, citizens’ rights, and public service, than ones that are predicated on generating revenue for media companies’ coffers.

That way, if it becomes manifestly evident that a Charter award was made on inadequate or spurious grounds, or was otherwise undeserved, maybe it could be removed, instead of allowing failing services to carry on using their ‘awards’ as PR patches for their tattered reputations.

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