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November 29, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In


Putting the "Pub" into Public Administration

No, I’m not going to show you the slides from my summer vacation! What I am going to do in this article is share a few public administration-related anecdotes from a delightful trip to Scotland and Northern England in the company of newly retired colleagues from county governments in the United Kingdom.

We talked public administration, American and British politics, kilts, haggis, football (or as Americans call it, soccer) and cricket. Both my British friends and I tried to overcome the fact that we are "Étwo peoples separated by a common language," as George Bernard Shaw once said. However, in the course of two weeks in Scotland and Northern England, there were some public administration incidents that stood out as bizarre, if not of value to the readers of HR Doctor articles.

The first appeared in the lead section of The Times of London. Apparently, there is a law in the United Kingdom similar to HIPAA that has the intended purpose of protecting the privacy of people from such things as the disclosure of medical information. The Times was lamenting a new policy of the Church of England which now prohibits members of the clergy from using the full names of parishioners for whom they invite the congregation to pray.

The fear is that when you announce from the pulpit, as has been the custom for centuries, that Mr. John Smith, pardon me, "Smythe" or Mrs. Jane Smythe, is ill and the congregation should pray for the member’s recovery, the fear is that this will lead to lawsuits by the hordes of plaintiff’s lawyers. Henceforth, God will be asked for intervention and healing based only on last names. The Times lamented that this was perhaps the greatest victory yet for the "compensation culture."

Past HR Doctor articles have also lamented the fact that we in the United States, as well as elsewhere in the world, seem to live more in fear of the acceptance of responsibility than in the pursuit of that responsibility. We wish to be portrayed as victims, and we have developed a culture of entitlement. Unfortunately, and obviously, this phenomenon has not been limited by the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean or by the prayers of the faithful in church.

There was also a discussion of the pending crisis of baby boomer retirement when a population bubble brings the time closer for a huge part of the population to receive pensions rather than salaries. The discussion centered on how few Brits (as well as Yanks) have done any proper financial planning. The lack of planning may be deliberate when it comes to the spontaneity of a night out with friends. However, if the subject is something more long lasting like, "What kind of life will you lead when you are unable to work anymore?" planning should replace the "chaos theory" in our lives.

One commentator noted that a person may have to work until age 86, yes I said "86," in order to develop a nest egg suitable enough to provide two-thirds of pre-retirement income. This discussion is every bit as relevant to our lack of financial planning and retirement education as it is to the situation that many of my British friends will crash into as they look toward their pensions.

A final interesting issue the HR Doctor encountered concerned an outdoor privy. Two of my friends, Keith and Marilyn Handley, used a retirement lump sum payout to buy an 18th century fishing cottage in the very picturesque resort community of Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea coast.

The 200Ð300 year old cottages in this community once housed the people who made their living from the insatiable British appetite for fish! However, it now houses vacationers from all over the world who will rent a holiday cottage such as the Handley’s Burnharbour Cottage for a week or a weekend to relax. These cottages were built before electricity and before indoor plumbing. Some of them came with an outdoor privy.

Although there is now indoor plumbing and electricity, the Handleys found that their ancient and venerable outhouse needed to be torn down to give way to a more useful and less noxious function, such as a breakfast patio. Here the fun began.

The United Kingdom is also the home of many regulators and land-use planners Ð sound familiar? The Handleys duly applied for the necessary permits to tear down the privy and paid the necessary fees for permit review. Even though the regulators ultimately supported the application, others raised a stink (if you pardon the expression) about how the outdoor privy was a historical artifact to a bygone era and should not be touched, it should be preserved and "saved."

This particular privy, by all accounts, was not of any unique historical interest. For example, I doubt that the Prince of Wales ever set foot (or, for that matter, any other body part) into the privy. It was simply an extremely old and extremely smelly mini-building falling apart. The story of the Handley’s privy and its ultimate fate aroused great passion to the point where the story was picked up by press from all over Britain and Canada.

The saga of the privy ended successfully for the Handleys, even if not too successfully for the privy. In fact, we had a lovely breakfast on the brick patio. I even sat in a chair which formally served another purpose when the privy stood. The peculiar passions of a wonderful nation of gardeners, bird watchers, walkers (i.e., wanderers) and artifact protectors clashed in this example with government regulators.

I got to take away very fond memories of Robin Hood’s Bay including the repeated blunt trauma injury of banging my head into doorways made for people apparently under three feet tall who inhabited these old fishing cottages hundreds of years ago.

Traveling for fun or for personal or professional development is greatly enhanced by the chance to visit with colleagues in public administration in other countries. It is an approach to travel that I cannot recommend highly enough. So, if you are an engineer, a law enforcement executive, health professional, financial executive, elected official or any other person in public service in the United States, when you pick a travel destination, take the opportunity to write a letter in advance to your counterpart in the jurisdiction you intend to visit. Suggest that you have high tea together or just a drop in visit to say hello. You can never tell where that effort on your part will lead and how much fun you will have in ways you might never have expected before.

Thanks to Keith and Marilyn Handley, formerly of Bradford Council (and the British HR Dog, Ben) and Alwyn and Margaret Rhea, formerly of Worcestershire Council, the HR Doctor can now understand the scoring of a cricket match as well as the proper way to eat the Scottish "delicacy" of haggis. Thanks to them also, the HR Doctor was reminded that it’s a small public administration world after all.

Travel safely, and enjoy the planet!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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