I had a history picture book when I was a child. It was filled with tales of derring-do and blind courage (and stupidity) in the face of overwhelming odds. In it Beornoth was slaughtered on a point of honour by the Vikings at the Battle of Maldon, the boy stood on a deck that was smouldering picturesquely rather than actually burning and the stout-hearted Roman soldier stood at his guard post as Vesuvius rained ash and rock on the Roman civilians running past him. I think there were some violinists too playing as the icy North Atlantic lapped at their feet.
So I have long been in awe, if not in fact a connoisseur, of pointless adherence to rules and regulations in the face of disaster. Perhaps that explains my until now long and moderately successful career as a pen-pushing bureaucrat.
But even I am now beginning to flag.
One of the weird things about being a manager in a business that’s going out of business is still having managerial responsibilities. So while I am being gently ushered to the door I am still fretting over whether my little gang all have their coats, gloves and scarves. More accurately I’m worried about how they’re doing, are they making the most of the support on offer and are we doing enough to help? Of course I’m fretting for me too on all those fronts.
As we edge closer to the exit some of my colleagues have sorted out jobs for themselves. So people are leaving and leaving ‘dos’ are starting to pop up in diaries. One big conundrum is what sort of card to get. ‘In deepest sympathy’, would be fitting in a lot of circumstances. For some though, ‘Congratulations on your happy event’, seems closer to the mark. Usually though it’s the ubiquitous and highly inaccurate, ‘Sorry that you’re leaving’. Rather more truthful to say, ‘Sorry that we’re leaving you’, surely?
Perhaps there’s a market for amusing cards to celebrate a colleague’s redundancy. In fact thinking about it there’s probably someone somewhere already working on this. Just think, 650,000 redundancies in the public sector and say £1.49 a card. That’s a lot of money even on tight margins. If you do take this idea up don’t forget you heard it here first.
The goodbye events that give me most pleasure are the ones where people are obviously now delighted to be aiming for something new or different. I only hope I show a fraction of the courage and good humour that I’ve seen from these folks.
But let’s get back to my theme. Barking adherence to process in the teeth of chaos.
Two happenings over the last few days prompted me to reflect on this.
The first was a message from a colleague asking me to provide some performance assessment markings for my team. I had to check that this wasn’t a bizarre practical joke. But no, I was being asked in all seriousness. Now I hope that I am not a fellow who is easily wracked by angst but at this request I got a bit grumpy.
‘Forsooth,’ I said. ‘I do not think this is a good idea or worthwhile use of our time.’
Actually I didn’t quite say that. (At least not in the first draft of my response.) But after a period of mature reflection we agreed to ‘park’ this request awaiting further instruction.
But in all this I had a sudden flashback to my childhood reading. I suddenly heard Captain Scott interrupting Oates on his way out of the tent with, ‘And when you’re back I really think we should discuss your performance during the last review period. And have a think about your development needs too, old chap.’
The second prompt was a checklist I was sent to work through with a colleague who is leaving us to take up a new job. It’s not that I object to a process, I love process, but seeing the necessary steps of a colleague’s departure reduced to a series of ticklist questions seemed so impersonal. So cold. A career of many years brought to a stop by a series of administrative dottings of ‘i’ and crossings of ‘t’. I suppose it’s the contrast between the mundane nature of this process and the profundity of the change it represents.
We are at the front end of the public sector redundancy wave and numbers are still just about manageable at a personal and humane level. I wonder though if this will still be possible as the volumes of redundancies increase. What we are talking about in the CSR are mass redundancies from many organisations. And these are organisations unused to managing workforce changes at this level and, as they get smaller will struggle for capacity to do the cuts and manage the business.
Maybe it’s wise then to have a checklist. It’s impossible to know now who, at the last, will be making who redundant. So any help at that stage is probably a good idea.
Strangely my book did not have any stories of brave public servants rescuing innocents from disaster. But many of the public servants I’ve known over my career have made significant positive differences to real peoples’ lives. Going in day after day to work in situations where despair would be a quite understandable reaction takes a different form of courage but it is, in its own quiet way, heroic in that understated British way.
650,000 job losses are too huge to understand except through getting to grips with the particular. To many we are all nothing but bureaucrats and the sooner we’re doing ‘proper’ jobs the better. I wonder though how long that attitude will hold up. Not long after it became clear that I would be made redundant I had to explain this turn of events to a meeting of senior local politicians. They seemed genuinely shocked.
‘But we didn’t mean people like you,’ one said to me afterwards in a half-apology. And I think that’s one of the big problems coming over the horizon with the CSR. Cuts will move from the theoretical to the actual. Everyone doing their bit to pay down the deficit as an unchallengeable proposition becomes the wrath inducing withdrawal of child benefit where one person in a household earns over £44,ooo a year.
At a local level this wrath at the loss of things that matter to people will be replicated many times over. Any experienced public servant could tell you, if you asked them, that taking 25, 30 or even 40% out of local public services can not be done by efficiencies. But, of course, there may not be many of us left around to ask.
Now, where’s that checklist …