So I’m down to my last month of corporate life in its current incarnation. And in reflective mood. There is a saying that it’s the things you don’t do – rather than the things you do – that you regret in life. Looking back at the last twenty years of my working life does not necessarily bear that out.
I greedily seized hold of every opportunity that came my way – often to the disbenefit of my family – but I told myself that it was them I was really working for. An ambitious man’s capacity for self-deception is really quite impressive. In all this relentless pursuit of opportunity I hoped my family would benefit but I never knew for sure.
Of course the wheels have now fallen off the career wagon. Right off. No minor bearing issue. Or uneven wear sortable by a bit of tweaking with the tracking. Nope. There are sparks flying out from the axle as we veer towards the buffers.
Regret has always struck me as about the most useless states of mind to find oneself in. But there’s nothing like a period of enforced reflection to cause regrets to bubble up to the surface – each perfectly preserved memory like one of those bog bodies only waiting for some animating spark to bring it gasping back to life.
I particularly regret not listening more to the experience of my older colleagues when I first started out in my career in public service. Here were men and women whose knowledge had been hard-won in the aftermath of the war. They had seen Suez, the Sixties and all that those inflection points in our history had brought with them. I should have paid much more attention to the wisdom around me.
One of my favourite films is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. If you haven’t seen it I would thoroughly recommend it. It deals, in part, with this territory. I watched it again recently and was struck by a character expressing the same sort of regret. I suppose it’s a universal experience for all of us when we reach a certain age.
Of course we used to formalise the transfer of knowledge between generations through apprenticeships and articles. When you completed those you had a thorough command of the basics of your chosen trade or profession. We had something similar in my part of the public service.
Fusty old notions of public service and its ethos are now thoroughly old-fashioned. The spending cuts are culling out institutional knowledge and experience. The flash fires are too numerous, the crises too frequent now for anything other than a race to the bottom line to ensure costs match available resources.
A careful redesign of public service delivery is the last thing on anyone’s mind now. I’m reminded of another film I saw again recently after a gap of almost two decades: The Charge of the Light Brigade. It is a political film and very much of its time. But at the end there’s the famous charge.
As the wonderfully turned out cavalry gallop down the valley towards the Russian guns the messenger realises they’re charging the wrong target. He’s killed before he can do anything about it. Yes, in those days they really did shoot the messenger – don’t mention that too loudly in case it becomes official policy. The rest, as they say, is history.
As I stand on the threshold of yet another week I have a sense of momentum galloping away with me. I have a sense now that it’s the same right across our public services. Our political leaders have exhorted us all to do our bit in the war on the deficit and have us all hurtling towards the guns of deficit reduction. And I suspect each has their own prepared explanation for how any of the disasters yet to come are the fault of others including the evil bureaucrats who have their boots on the throat of innovation.
Memories acquired in this war will make for chilling stories around the water coolers for public servants in 10 or 20 years time. I hope at that stage young public servants will be wiser than I was and listen to what our survivors have to say.
Public servants everywhere will particularly enjoy the familiar discussion between the top brass as to who’s to blame at the end of this clip – it’s around the 8 minute mark.