I finally got around to several things I have been putting off getting to grips with. There’s a point in the break-up of most relationships when you have to move beyond the emotional turbulence to deal with the practicalities.
So this morning has found me sitting on the floor sorting through ‘stuff’. Separating out the ‘what’s mine’ and the ‘what’s yours’ of the last 20 years of our relationship. I suspect though, from looking at the stuff so far, there’s an even bigger category of ‘what no one wants’.
There are forests of paper explaining how a myriad of initiatives would increase productivity, make staff happier, drive down costs, meet government policy objectives, turn us green, tune us up, turn us on, make us healthier, make us wealthier, better writers, better technicians, safer, wiser, bolder, more creative, outward looking, reflective and more presentable. And that’s just from the first cardboard box.
Much of this stuff reads like a self-help obsessive’s holiday reading list.
Did any of it really do me much good? Looking at my picture on the various identity cards I’ve had over the years has only helped a little in taking me back to the days in which I avidly consumed these directions from higher powers. The one certain conclusion I can draw from looking at my snaps is that I have a genius for finding probably the only foliage anywhere in a given building and get myself photographed in front of it.
My face has aged but the topiary emerging from my head remains evergreen.
The point of the sorting has been to create space in which I can get on with the next phase of my working life. The work clutter around the house has long been a source of irritation to Mrs RPS who is enthusiastic about the clear out. I can see her point.
But as I look through some of the pieces of paper I’m struck more than a little about what they say individually and collectively about the last 20 years in the public services. Many government departments used to have historians on the payroll. Not as odd as it sounds. They did what is now termed ‘knowledge management’ and made sure institutional memory survived particularly around the key issues of what happened and why.
Of course a career is much, much more than the sum of the individual pieces of paper I’m working my way through. But as I sorted I wondered what would become of the experience each of us soon to be redundant public servants carries with us. Very little value has been placed on that experience. In fact it has felt increasingly to me that folks like me have taken on the shape of the embarrassing uncle at family gatherings.
You surely know the one? He produces ‘hilarious’ asides during any religious service no matter if it’s a christening or a funeral. At parties he can be relied upon to serve up views as outrageous as his perma-tan and day-glo shirt. Only newcomers, partners or spouses of family members, find him remotely shocking. He’s been around so long everyone discounts what he says.
As I have trekked around various meetings during the twilight time of my notice period I’ve had an ever-increasing sense that uncle-like my continued presence is a bit embarrassing. People are polite, of course, but redundancy carries a slight whiff of pestilence along with it that may be catching. It alters how people see you and cannot help but affect how they think about you.
For some this is clearly tougher to bear particularly given the speed and the indiscriminate nature of the cutting that’s now happening. Highly successful individuals who, until a few months ago, would have been nailed on for further success in their organisations suddenly find themselves on the way out of the door.
For them what is happening is profoundly shocking and very harmful to their sense of self-worth. I talked with an old colleague and friend who is in the same boat as me. We’re of an age and had broadly similar career trajectories. He’s one of the brightest, most compassionate and engaging people I’ve come across. As we caught up I was shocked at the extent to which – admittedly in his darkest moments – his confidence had been eroded. Yet he had successfully pulled off some of the hardest assignments around. What he knows about achieving excellence should be bottled and sold. But here we both were contemplating an immediate future without work.
The sheer waste of human knowledge and talent that I’m seeing is profoundly depressing. And sadly a lot of it is irreplaceable and will only be reacquired by years of effort. The impact of all of this on the lives of real people in the real world seems finally to be worrying some in government.
Today’s episode from the excellent Diary of a civil servant set out the growing division between realists and fantasists in government. The author sets out what both sides believe.
The fantasists believe that frontline services need not be affected, as long as managers do their jobs, trim their bloated budgets and become more efficient. They think there is still enough money, it just needs to be spent wisely. Fantasists ignore reports that many police, nurses, social workers and teachers will have to go. If they hear of such plans, they ask officials to check: surely there is a mistake or this is being whipped up by local Labour cronies for political gain? They believe that the government is taking measures to assist hard-working families financially and that many people will be better off. Fantasists are strangely popular. They make everyone feel happier about their work and are relied on for their positive strategic vision.
The realists are concerned about the long-term effects on society after levers of support have been withdrawn from the most vulnerable. They worry about what our towns will look and feel like after local authorities have ceased to operate their basic management functions.
All my experience tells me nothing about what the outcome of the Coalition’s Great Leap Forward will be. Thatcherism looks tame now. John Major and back to basics – a pastoral idyll. New Labour and the death of the economic cycle – a breeze.
Perhaps experience is over-rated. Particularly if it inhibits your ability to ‘think the unthinkable’.
I wonder what box two of my sorting will bring …