Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 17/07/04

"I Am Not A Pen-Pusher, I Am A Human Being"

Sometimes, I get genuinely angry. Not just the anger which can be carefully manufactured and called upon in aid of the need to write pieces on this page, but a true, burning anger. The trouble is that, in such circumstances, it is difficult to type accurately, but I'll have a go...

On Monday last week Gordon Brown, Her Majesty's Chancellor Of The Exchequer and One-Eyed-Jack-In-Office, announced that he intended to axe the jobs of over 100 000 civil servants over the next four years. This was a substantial increase on the number he had previously stated in his Budget back in the Spring of the year, which was bad enough in all conscience.

As before, there had been no warning to, or consultation with, the very people who are most directly affected by this policy. Moreover, Brown delivered the news with all the solemnity and gravitas of a fairground huckster. He was quite plainly enjoying himself hugely. So were the ya-yas (so called on account of their brays of approval) on the Government back-benches, who could scarcely contain their glee.

There was a time when one could still expect better of the Labour Party. No longer. It has been transformed under its current (for want of a better term) leadership into a me-too, free-marketeering (*) mob. The 'end of ideology' in the party has been marked by a similar extinction of any notion of principle or purpose in it as well.

So we come to the pretty pass whereby a Labour government, without any qualms, can delight in creating unemployment in the very sector which it used to regard as sacrosanct.

The media's response was thoroughly predictable. I watched the early evening news on five on Monday. The reporter used the same old clichés which are trotted out any time the civil service is mentioned; terms like "faceless bureaucrats" and "pen-pushers" tumbled torrentially from his mouth. We also had the stock shots we've all come to know and love (not!) of a rear view of a man in a pin-stripe suit and a bowler hat, carrying (of course) a furled black umbrella. Our tame hack also seemed to be enjoying himself hugely as he lovingly rehearsed the Government's own arguments.

But then, what better could we expect? five's news programmes are provided by Sky News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, that master peddler of the simplistic to simpletons. And yet, the other broadcasters were scarcely any better. Although I didn't see it, I'm told that BBC News used much the same imagery (although in their case, it seems, they had animated graphics of men in pin-stripes and bowlers, between which Brown and Tory leader Michael Howard strode like the Burke and Hare of modern administration).

One does not expect the Great British Newspaper to be unbiased, however, and it is only fair to say in their defence that they did not let their fine old traditions down. What was particularly galling (at least to me, as a regular reader of some years' standing) was the attitude taken by a supposedly-liberal newspaper such as The Guardian. It, too, had joined the ranks of the cheerleaders for Gordon Scissorhands. Polly Toynbee contributed a column which was egregiously ingratiating even by her high standards. No mention was made of the people who would lose their jobs; only praise for the Chancellor's "shrewdness" in "shooting the Tories' fox", in that slashing the public sector was one of the few policies with which the Conservative Party could still truly tempt that small minority of the electorate in that small number of constituencies whose results determine all our destinies in the cock-eyed electoral system we suffer with.

In the same newspaper Will Hutton, überbrain of that strain of thinking which believes that globalised capital is the ultimate good, and only needs a bit of presentational tweaking to make it something akin to an eternal truth; he too avoided any mention of the grubby business of throwing dedicated people out of work, concentrating instead on telling us how there needs to be a revolution in management techniques to ensure that the cuts can be shoved through with the maximum of ruthless efficiency.

The Guardian did allow someone to write an article (tucked away in one of its supplements) bemoaning not only the proposed cuts but the general attitude underlying them. That someone was the former head of the department I work for, who himself had been responsible for some howlers in his time (including the signing over of a huge building maintenance contract to a company based in a Caribbean tax-dodge paradise); but his defence of us was as welcome as it was rare this week.

The letters pages, too, have been dominated by the same stereotypical vision of "pen-pushers". By implication and direct statement alike, we are unnecessary encumbrances to the land; talentless obfuscators whose only purpose is to place needless obstructions on the highway to The Golden Future Of Untrammelled Freedom. If we got rid of them, the argument runs, then no-one would have to wait for hospital treatment and our pensioners could afford champagne every day of the week.

Well, hold on there a moment, you slash-and-burners! Do you ever pause to think? And if you do, do you ever pause to think about how it is possible for public services to be provided?

One of the ways in which Brown has sought to sell these cuts to the public is by claiming that the people whose jobs are deemed expendable are merely "support staff", "back-room personnel", and the money saved by not having to pay them anymore would be used to increase the resources available to "front-line services".

This is a false division. How are the "front-line services" to be provided if there is a shortage of people working behind the scenes to ensure that the people on "the front-line" (curious how often military metaphors and images are invoked where they are totally inappropriate) can actually provide the service?

I work in an office which has a combination of the two. There are those (the majority) who have direct dealings with the public (or 'customers', as we must now call them), and there are those who provide the wherewithal for them to do so. Our colleagues know that, without the people who distribute the stuff that comes in, arrange necessary supplies, and try to ensure that the IT and telephone systems are running, they couldn't do their jobs properly if at all. We (there! I've finally openly declared my interest) are as essential as they are in running public services.

So, if over 100 000 support staff are to go, where is the support for all this expansion to come from? Two likely answers are already apparent from recent experiences. The first is to replace in-house staff with private contractors. That this is invariably less satisfactory in terms of quality and more expensive than using in-house resources has been borne out by review after review; but so long as it doesn't appear on the bottom line of the balance sheet, then it doesn't matter too much. The second is the replacement of experienced staff by a constant turnover of temporary workers, all on short-term contracts and, as full workers' rights need not be accorded them in the areas which might conceivably cost money, this too will look good in the accounts. In neither case could it be claimed by anyone with more than a nodding acquaintance with reality that this will provide the same quality or depth of service which is already being provided by staff who look on serving the public as their career; yet political expediency will undoubtedly triumph yet again, and the pieces will have to picked up long after our current generation of rulers are safely beyond the reach of censure.

I am not saying that there is no scope for better use of resources in the public services, however. The trouble is that those areas where the most footling and wasteful activities are carried out are the least likely to be pruned back; indeed, their activities are far more certain to expand. I refer, of course, to Management.

The greatest proportionate increase in activity in most civil service departments in recent years has been as a direct and inevitable consequence of the mania for 'targets' and 'performance indicators' resulting from senior figures in Government having been taken in by that modern-day equivalent of the quack doctor, the 'management consultant'. They it is who have advocated the whole culture of piddling micro-management which has had the effect of ME on public organisations. The 'customer' (a word they force us to use, however ludicrous it appears in context - one is not, for example, a 'customer' for Birmingham New Street railway station; when buying a ticket to travel there, one doesn't intend buying the bloody thing) must be shown that we are 'achieving', whatever it is we are supposed to achieve (apart from keeping MBA holders in the style to which they are now accustomed).

All these 'targets' and 'indicators' must be measured, of course, which means that records must be kept. The practical upshot of this, as any teacher or police officer might readily attest, is that an increasing amount of time is spent filling in forms (either in paper or electronic form) to account for what we do and how long it takes us to do it. I should hardly need to draw a flowchart or devise a PowerPoint™ slideshow to demonstrate that the amount of time spent doing this, and the amount of time spent analysing the results, takes up large chunks of time and energy which could (should) be spent doing the work being recorded and pored over by the haruspexes of business administration.

In order to keep these pointless processes under control, more managers are required. Thus there has been a near-exponential growth in the number of management positions created in the last decade or so. This sector expands with every reorganisation (equally frequent in recent times), and results in the inevitable percentage decrease in the number of people actually carrying out the work which the organisation is there supposedly to do.

Unfortunately, I see no signs of this tendency even slowing down, let alone being reversed. And so we are likely to end up with more and more managers, managing fewer and fewer actual 'workers', especially as those remaining staff, 'front-line' and 'support' alike, are likely to be first against the wall the next time a desperate and ambitious politician feels the need to pander to the prejudices of that small section of our society which believes that high-quality public services can be got on the cheap, and by hiving them off to whatever private company can most effectively grease its way into the Government's affections. And if that means that tens of thousands of people who, despite the low pay and the ever-increasing pressures, have committed themselves to serving the public; people who have never worn a pin-striped suit other than at a wedding or funeral; people who would laugh out loud at the sight of anyone wearing a bowler hat; if it means that these people (and their families) are deemed expendable, then who cares? Except, of course, those dependent upon the services we provide when they find that those services are not as easy to obtain and not as effective as they used to be.

By which time it will be far too late.

(* When I ran this piece through the spell-checker, it suggested changing 'marketeer' to 'racketeer'. How perceptive...)