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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

March 28, 2006


In common with many others, our County Council is being hit by strikes at the moment (over pensions), and I must say it's a bit of a blast from the past to have this sort of thing going on. My wife reports that the cleaners at her school are also up in arms because the company they were working for sold out, and the new owners have cut the hours (2.5 hours instead of 4) but are demanding the same amount of work.

In other words, they're trying to increase profits by exploiting their workers, and no doubt expecting to win tenders by bidding low. In my dreams, the cleaning staff would revolt, either making sure the contract was lost through poor performance (but this obviously doesn't happen as often as it should), or would resign en masse. Of course, this kind of thing almost never happens these days, which is another thing we can thank Mrs T for.

I have a history of activism, not out of any particular ideological stance, but because I'm made angry by exploitation and/or incompetence, unfairness, and plain old evil. I certainly torpedoed one of my careers by being a vocal opponent of poor management practice and deeply unfair situations.

There was a kind of madness inflicted the civil service department for which I worked. It involved counting post, which was their only way of measuring performance. As an officer, you counted the amount of post you had, with a second count of the amount over 14 days, and a third count of the amount over 2 months old. Over 14 days - in the mists of time - was considered Bad. Over two months was The End Of The World. Of course, in reality, you were lucky to get a zero count of over 2 months, and lots of over 14 days was standard.

Sound familiar? Sound like every other single target driven management practice in the history of the world? And what do employees know that managers can't quite get into their thick skulls? Targets don't work. Targets become the sole focus, and the quality of the work, the service to the public, and the efficiency of the operation as a whole goes down the toilet.

I stepped back from out-and-out activism at one point, but I quietly resisted the Counting Culture, as we shall call it. I never rushed anything. I took my time working cases and worked them properly so that there was no comeback. Everyone else continued to focus on the Count, which meant they stormed through their in-trays "getting rid" of stuff as quickly as possible.

A small example. Say you have a customer who is claiming a refund, and you need some information about, say, 18 months ago. At least 50% of the time it was probably possible to find this information out for yourself. You could look back through the file; or you could get off your arse and look through some other documents. But most people, in working the case, would send off a memo, and put the file away, flagged (in their dreams) to be looked at again in the magic 14 days.

What happened in reality, the file sat there for 14 days while the memo sat on someone else's desk for up to 2 months. 14 days later, the originator of the memo would send a reminder, which would also sit on someone's desk, and so on. In other words, a simple piece of information would generate - on average - three unnecessary pieces of work (the memo and the reminders) - which would in turn generate 3 replies (so we've added 6 to the original single Counted item, because nobody ever remembered that they'd already replied), not to mention the probably angry letter or phone call(s) from the customer who was waiting for a refund, or whatever. You get the picture.

The working method, then, created a burgeoning of work because of the focus on Counting. Setting targets actually multiplied the work six-fold.

On the other hand, I would look back through the file, find what I needed, work the case properly, and put it away for good. I came under pressure to work "as fast" as everybody else, but over time my in-tray miraculously got smaller and smaller. Fewer reminders, fewer replies. Instead of getting, say, 30 new pieces of work per day, I might get 10 or 15.

The culmination of all this came a few months before I left forever. It was the Counting Time and there was General Panic as it dawned on the managers that the situation was worse than ever before. Instead of revealing to the higher-ups how bad things were, two of the middle managers plotted together to go through people's work and actually throw things away. Into the Confidential Waste. I'm sure the reasoning was along the lines that inter-office reminders were simply reminders about something that hadn't been dealt with yet. So they threw away two sacks of the stuff. I must say, I can't blame them.

But ever since, I've not believed a single targeting statistic or other productivity measure. Because, as Dr House says, everybody lies. It's not rocket science, and yet our management class - from ministers on down - persist in these idiotic targets and measures, because for some reason they think it's easier than doing it properly.

It's not.


  • Mo '75 to that.

    When I worked in the civil service I did a stint in the benefit office. At that time I had absolutely no ambition as far as career or achievement went (not much change now really except that I have dependants). However, I always did things properly.

    There were always problem claimants. I don't mean the violent or the unwell. I mean those importing credits from the commonwealth or the EU under a reciprocal arrangement, those people who changed their names by deed poll, those people who had no national insurance credits because their employer had stolen their deductions, people who worked part time and were honest about their earnings, the poor girl who had been registered as male by mistake at the DHSS in Blackpool and since then had suffered an utter nightmare whenever she had any dealings with anyone official.

    They were the sort of cases I got lumbered with in the office. Not because people disliked me, but because, like you, I'd take the trouble to get to the bottom of things and actually sort them out once and for all, rather than just flag them up as problematic and avoid the flack by fobbing people off.

    Ultimately I did myself a favour by doing this because I think some of the people I worked with valued my efforts and I was allowed to get promoted out of it which is how I accidentally got involved with computers.

    I didn't really mind because, again probably like you, I like to do things properly, and to some extent I regarded it as paying my dues.

    It was only later that I learned that there is an entire office culture of dishonesty and making your back like that of a duck deflecting water, and, I guess, making sure you're under the noses of the Great and Good when things are looking rosy so you get rewarded by association.

    You know, this is why the world is so crap, isn't it? There are just not enough people who give a flying fuck enough to fix things. They just wipe the dust off, put a new coat of paint on, and hope the rust doesn't show through until somebody else is responsible.

    Sad indeed.

    By Blogger SimonHolyHoses, at 1:34 am  

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