In which I wrestle with the meaning of redundancy …

redundant adjective 1 not or no longer needed or useful … 2 Brit. (of a person) no longer employed because there is no more work available.  (Compact OED for Students – with thanks to the RPS kids)

I am a great believer in first principles. Or to put it another way, as a colleague did, I can get a bit anal about the meaning of words. Meaning is important though and searching for (and using) the right word to convey exactly what you want to say is a great pleasure to me. And an excellent displacement activity.

Several conversations this week prompted me to think again about the meaning of being redundant. That’s why I went back to the OED. It seems to me that many public sector workers are losing their jobs without being redundant in the proper sense of the word.

Sounds insane? Bear with me. And I should say right at the off this is not a political commentary coming up.

The first conversation I had was with a guy from a garage who gave me a lift to the station when my car was in for a service. He told me his wife was worried about losing her job as a care assistant in a local hospital. Rumours were rife and facts scarce.

The second conversation was one I overheard on the train. Three women around me at the table seats were talking about their and their families’ lives. It turned out that one of them had been made redundant from the company for which the other two still worked. They reported bleak prospects. The council with which their company did most business had told them that the volume of work coming their way would be falling off. A lot.

It turned out their former colleague had been told by her manager that ‘all bets were off’ until the ‘bloody rsc had been sorted out.’ I’m pretty sure she meant the CSR rather than the internationally renowned theatre company because she then said some colourful things about politicians. Paraphrasing her ever so slightly she seemed to be of the view that politicians are inclined to lack candour when seeking one’s vote.

It was obvious from their conversation that the work they were doing was at the ‘customer interface’. It involved poo, wee, physical labour and devotion. (Although I’m sure they wouldn’t use that last word.) Ordinary people doing extraordinary work.

My final conversation was with a ‘redundant’ colleague who was being given so much work it was crowding out their ability to spend time thinking about and working at their future. The situation immediately reminded me of a comment from CivilServiceFatCat on an earlier post. They said,

We’ve just been told that we won’t necessarily have to leave on the day we’re fired as we might be needed to stay on for a bit to finish off work. Why, prey, would anyone wish to do that when they’ve just had the door slammed in their face after perhaps many years of underpaid service in (or so they thought), exchange for job security and a decent pension? And I always thought being redundant meant you weren’t needed. Silly me.

Putting all these prompts together I came to the following conclusion.

Not one of these people was redundant. No really. Not one.

It’s just that government, on behalf of the electorate, has decided it can no longer afford to pay for what these people do. That’s something different.

The need for the things that each of these people do will still exist when the money currently paying for it gets turned off. To return to the OED it is not that they are no longer needed or that the work they do is no longer available. They are needed and the work is still there.

The challenge facing the government and organisations who will have to implement the outcomes of the CSR is how to respond to the inevitable fury that service cuts will produce. I commented on the excellent FlipChartFairyTales blog that, in my experience the public expect Waitrose public services on a Poundland budget. They believe this is possible if only public money was better spent.

That’s not surprising given the emphasis put on stories of public sector waste and extravagance. But we in public service know that almost £90 billion of public expenditure cuts from a national budget of around £650 billion will not be delivered by cutting waste and extravagance. And even when that £90 billion is gone the demand for many of the things it funded, things that lots of people will not want to do without, will remain. Demand failure on this scale will create, it’s safe to say, a lot of unhappiness.

So what’s the practical use of all this reflection you may well be asking. After all I’m still being fired. Two things cheer me up. First, I feel better – marginally – being fired because politicians don’t want to pay for what I do. It’s not such an assault on my sense of self-worth.

The second cheering thought is that, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ Given that both demand and need will continue for lots of the things that government will stop paying for there must be scope for a new type of public service delivery vehicle to be created.  No, I’m not talking about a better van for street scene teams.

I’m talking about enterprises with far fewer suits – like the old me – at their top. Ones that are leaner, more responsive to what customers want and ones in which employees who know and understand the business have a proper say in how those businesses are run. And a stake in their success. The news about Suffolk County Council’s plans for becoming an ‘enabling council’ reported in Guardian Society could actually be more of an opportunity than a threat.

Maybe. There’s still the problem of how these new enterprises will generate an income stream. That I haven’t cracked yet. But I suspect anyone who does is likely to do very well in the environment ahead.

Without the huge jolt of being told to get my coat I don’t think I’d have been capable of writing these last few paragraphs even just a few months ago. But can I translate any of this philosophising into a livelihood when I’m shoved out the door? I’ll let you know.

About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
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3 Responses to In which I wrestle with the meaning of redundancy …

  1. brightandsmiley says:

    Enabling – is the action of the verb so to really appreciate the implications of this word you have to go back to the verb ‘enable’.

    1. To invest with legal status 2. To authorize, sanction, empower; to give legal power or license to. 3. To give power to (a person); to strengthen, make adequate or proficient. 4. To impart to (a person or agent) power necessary or adequate for a given object; to make competent or capable. 5. To supply with the requisite means or opportunities to an end or for an object. 6. To regard as qualified or competent. 7. To make possible or easy; also to give effectiveness to (an action).

    As someone else who also loves language, there are many ‘interesting’ words in this definition.
    PS. Definition obtained from OED online, a subscription I can currently access for free courtesy of my local library service.

    • Dear brightandsmiley thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment.

      You are right to unpick ‘enabling’ and all its meanings. It’s sometimes hard at the minute to work out what some terms actually mean. I used to work with someone who said that to properly understand what a word or concept meant you had to define its opposite. They said if you couldn’t do that then the word or concept was probably no more than management guff.

      Needless to say they were great fun at strategy and organisational development meetings where the low-hanging fruit dangled against the blue sky of our thinking.

      Not sure what the opposite of an ‘enabling council’ is.

  2. brightandsmiley says:

    I’ve no idea what the opposite is either, scary thought that. However, as you’ve so eloquently pointed, out the impact of all these words is going to be very real for so many people in the public sector and society at large. Right now I would far rather have a crystal ball than a blue sky. Keep up the blogging RPS.

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