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Date: 25/03/06

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

I've a big decision to take in the next few days.

I'm not used to big decisions. One of the reasons I joined the civil service fifteen years ago was to avoid the terrible job-jumping most people have to go through. I don't like that uncertainty; I like to know where my next pay cheque is coming from (and when). I've been unemployed: I don't like it at all. The poverty is bad enough, but when you're treated like something that you might tread in by the very people who are allegedly there to help you, it makes things much, much worse. So, I don't ever want to go there again.

I've always tried to avoid talking about my job here, partly out of fear of the reactions of my employer and colleagues, and partly because other people's work-talk simply isn't interesting to others: too many in-jokes or contexts which take so long to explain that your audience has long lost the plot (along with its will to live).

Sometimes, though, I feel I must. If this is my blog, and if this website is vanity publishing on a planetary scale, then I might as well avail myself of the facility.

OK, here's the story so far: for about twelve years, the Depratment's IT services have been partially outsourced to the private sector. This has comprised the development of new systems and the second- and third-line IT support arrangements.

The original holders of the contract were the lamentable EDS, but their performance was so bad that even the current Government of poltroons recognised that, when the contract came up for renewal in 2004, there was no way they could be allowed to hold on to it. So, in June 2004, the new contract was awarded to a consortium which comprised, among others, a firm of accountants. Not that it made a great deal of difference: most of the staff transferred from the one contract to the other. At times, it has seemed that only the letterhead changed.

Part of the new contract (one which we weren't told about at the time) included an expansion of the contractors' role into front-line IT support as well.

This is where I come in. Having started off as a lowly clerk, eventually scrabbling up to the next (Officer) grade after about seven years, I gradually moved sideways into IT, becoming a fully-trained IT Support Officer (or 'Local Administrator', as they were then called) in the Spring of 1999. And there, with minor excursions into other additional duties, I've been ever since.

Until now. The expansion of the contractor into first-line support has now been arranged; if one can use such an orderly expression as 'arranged' for the utter balls-up the Depratment has made of it. Having had nearly two years to get it sorted, they've tried to shove the whole thing through in a matter of about six months. The whole shooting match is due to come into effect from April 3.

Here's how it works at present: if any of our people have a problem, they e-mail or phone us to report it. In two-thirds of cases, me and my three colleagues can resolve the problem within a short time-scale, and the Help Desk doesn't get involved at all. If we can't resolve it, we then report it to them via a web interface. They then either resolve it without any further involement from us, or ask us to do something, or say "this is a known problem, and it'll all be sorted out when we switch from Windows NT to XP later this year" (yeah, right!).

Under the new system, users will have to call a Local Rate number and speak to someone at the Support Desk (which could be 150 miles or more distant) and try to explain to them what the problem is. We've all had experience of something like this in our private lives, haven't we? And it works superbly, doesn't it? Doesn't it!? I can't hear you!!

If the Support Desk can't resolve it themselves, they will either pass it on to specialist teams or pass it back down to what are termed 'User Support Teams' (USTs). These will be based through the office network, and will basically be dogsbodies; the foot-soldiers, if you like. In a way, they will do some of the jobs we do now, except that they will not be allowed to do anything other than what they are told to do by the Support Desk.

These USTs will no longer be employed directly by the Department; instead, they will be employees of the contractor. And herein lies my dilemma, dear reader.

Those of us who currently do the job have been given the opportunity of transferring to the contractor from April 1. Most of our terms and conditions of employment will, supposedly, be protected under law (the so-called TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings to the Private Sector) provisions). But, as I say, we would no longer be able to resolve problems ourselves, doing only as we are directed to do.

There will be some IT-related work staying within the Department. But here's where the picture gets well and truly vandalised. Back at the end of 2005, we were required to state our preference: stay or go. At that time, the understanding was that the whole of the IT work would be outsourced. On that basis, one of my colleagues ruled himself out of transferring at that early stage (another colleague is about to retire, so didn't give a shit anyway). Me and one other expressed a preference to transfer, but only because we understood the whole job was going, and that doing so was the only way we were going to find out any further details about what transferring would actually involve.

The contractor called us all to 'roadshows' in December, and then to one-to-one meetings in early February so that we could ask any questions we had. Note, this was the contractor's idea, not our current employer's.

My initial reaction was not to transfer, but after these discussions I moved the other way, thinking at the time that it was my only chance of not being shoved back into the mainstream of the Department's day-to-day work.

Then, in the second half of February, scarcely six weeks before we had to make a final, irrevocably-binding decision, the whole situation changed. Here's the main reason why:

The people in charge of the outsourcing project in the Department had kept as much information as possible from other interested parties, even from the contractors themselves. The reasons? I can only surmise, but knowing their modus operandi from past experience, I suspect a combination of internal politics and empire-building. When other, equally important, sections of the organisation managed to find out what was being planned, the sewage farm hit the windmill. This was particularly true in the case of the proposed handing over to the contractor of near-total control of secure access to the Department's systems. In this case, the people responsible for the security of our IT systems hit the bloody roof. You see, the web interface we use for allowing and denying access, for allocating and removing services, for general user administration, has no audit trail on it! The Audit section went ape-shit; their message could best be summed up in the words, "Over our dead bodies; or, for preference, over yours!".

The thing is, this is a substantial proportion of the work which we have been doing, and if it were to remain in-house, that meant there would still be IT-related work in the Department. Of a somewhat different nature, in that the problem-solving elements would no longer feature, but there all the same.

There are other considerations linked in with this. As the plans had to be changed at the last minute, it still hasn't been made clear exactly how much of this work is staying in-house, who will do it, where, and for how long. High-level meetings are taking place on a daily basis to try to thrash this all out. All the same, I and similarly-placed colleagues throughout this Empire Of The Senseless have to make a far-reaching, career-affecting, irreversible decision by the end of next Friday (March 31)!

How the hell are we supposed to be able to do this when important decisions have yet to be made at the very top; when important information is withheld not only from us but from our managers; and when we've been treated with such contempt?

This is why it's so difficult. You see, I am against outsourcing not only on the basis of bitter experience of having to deal with the consequent disruption and falling quality of service which inevitably results (and our end-users are really in for a bad case of culture shock once it all kicks in), but also on the grounds of principle. But the cavalier way in which the top echelons of the Department have behaved towards us in recent months is enough to push me into the private sector. Even more galling is this; the senior management of the organisation apparently issued a message saying that they valued us too much to want to lose us. The message never reached us.

And yet...I've grown too fond of stability of employment, having suffered the opposite in those years when I was supposed to have been making my way in the world. Although I would retain most of my terms and conditions on transfer, I would also retain the disadvantages of it, e.g., a shit salary. I could, should I choose, transfer over fully into the company itself; but, for all the prospect of better pay, that would also mean that they could, to a large extent, do what they liked with me, e.g., make me redundant. And there we are again.

So, in the next five days, I face having to choose, on the basis of partial information, whether to move to the comparative uncertainty of a new employer in the private sector, although with a job which in my view is of lower status than what I do now; or to stay in the Depratment, carry on doing the more administrative aspects of the job (which I quite enjoy), but face the possibility of redeployment into front-line services in either a few months or a couple of years.

I'm not ambitious. I never really have been. I'm not thrusting, dynamic, go-getting, and all the other clichés of this piratical age. Those of you who embody one or other of these alleged virtues will say that my decision is what (in another awful modern barbarism) is termed a 'no-brainer'. Go! But, it's not so simple when you're sitting inside it.

Decisions. I hate them. And yet, decide I must.

I will. I just don't know which way yet.

Can I come back to you on this? An arrow to click on to take you to a follow-up item