Thursday, 15 April 2010

What happens when an irresistible force meets an impenetrable Body?

Sir Humphrey: "Well briefly, Sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary, I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are 10 Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretary are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing 2 Parliamentary Under Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary."
Jim Hacker: "Do they all type?"
Sir Humphrey: None of us can type Minister, Mrs McKay types, she's the secretary.

In his column entitled "Simple questions tend to produce simplistic answers", Peter Body, writing in tonight's JEP attempts to make John Henwood look rather foolish.

In Monday's JEP we had one of the most respected of their number relate in detail his sad tale of trying to find out where, in his words, 'the money, our money, goes'. He was, of course, referring to the growth in States spending and specifically the increase in the number of administrators and non-front-line staff. This is a hoary old chestnut. Business leaders have stopped criticising spending money on essential employees, such as nurses, policemen and doctors, because the argument was simply untenable. So they had to switch emphasis to 'non-essential' staff, otherwise known as administrators or pen pushers, as the cause of untold waste of taxpayers' money.

He points out that with regard to teachers:

It's obviously perfectly possible to find out how many teachers there are - the writer didn't need to invoke the Code of Practice on Access to States Information because the figures are published regularly. So it's also easy to find out how many non-teachers are employed by Education simply by deducting the number of teachers from the department's total headcount.

Peter Body chides John Henwood for not realising that departments need other employees apart from front-line staff, and for being rather silly.

Doesn't he not know that there are laboratories that have to be manned, patients that have to be fed, patients that also have to be moved from their ward to an operating theatre or even another hospital, the staff have to be managed and paid.

But it is perfectly plain that was not the sense of John Henwood's critique, and it certainly was not the basis for mine. I began with a quotation from "Yes Minister":

Sir Humphrey: In fact, there are only 342 administrative staff at the hospital. The other 170 are porters, cleaners, laundry workers, cooks, etc.
Jim Hacker: And medical staff?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, none of them.

There is a clear distinction in the writers of "Yes Minister", as seen in that extract, between support staff and administrators. It was written by people who had an "insiders point of view". It is a clear satire on reality, but it would not be funny if it did not have a basis in truth, and it makes a clear, and very funny comment, noting a difference between administrative staff and support staff. Peter Body must be about the only person who is unable to see this, or make this distinction - or, presumably, laugh at the joke. I can imagine him watching "Yes Minister", growing steadily redder in the face, with steam hissing out of his ears, as he groans about the simplistic scripts unfolding before his eyes.

I wish they'd replace the picture of him in the JEP with one of him smiling, but perhaps there is not that much for a businessman of his calibre to smile about, especially when he so busy setting up "straw men" to attack.

If he really wants to know how administration expands, either viewing "Yes Minister", or reading "Parkinson's Law" by by C. Northcote Parkinson would be a good starting place. Here is a scenario taken from "Parkinson's Law". It is a simplification, but it makes the point, which in the book, is also backed by a good many statistics. But perhaps it would be too much for some businessmen to read.

The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates

To comprehend Factor I, we must picture a civil servant called A who finds himself overworked. Whether this overwork is real or imaginary is immaterial; but we should observe, in passing, that A's sensation (or illusion) might easily result from his own decreasing energy-a normal symptom of middle-age. For this real or imagined overwork there are, broadly speaking, three possible remedies

(1) He may resign.

(2) He may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B.

(3) He may demand the assistance of two subordinates, to be called C and D.

There is probably no instance in civil service history of A choosing any but the third alternative. By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to W's vacancy when W (at long last) retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence; and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both.

It is essential to realise, at this point, that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible. Why? Because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status which has been refused in the first instance to B; a status the more emphasised if C is A's only possible successor. Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being kept in order by fear of the other's promotion. When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will) A will, with the concurrence of C, advise the appointment of two assistants to help C. But he can then avert internal friction only by advising the appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G and H, the promotion of A is now practically certain.

The Law of Multiplication of Work

Seven officials are now doing what one did before. This is where Factor II comes into operation. For these seven make so much work for each other that all are fully occupied and A is actually working harder than ever. An incoming document may well come before each of them in turn. Official E decides that it falls within the province of F, who places a draft reply before C, who amends it drastically before consulting D, who asks G to deal with it. But G goes on leave at this point, handing the file over to H, who drafts a minute, which is signed by D and returned to C, who revises his draft accordingly and lays the new version before A.

What does A do? He would have every excuse for signing the thing unread, for he has many other matters on his mind. Knowing now that he is to succeed W next year, he has to decide whether C or D should succeed to his own office. He had to agree to G going on leave, although not yet strictly entitled to it. He is worried whether H should not have gone instead, for reasons of health. He has looked pale recently-partly but not solely because of his domestic troubles. Then there is the business of F's special increment of salary for the period of the conference, and E's application for transfer to the Ministry of Pensions. A has heard that D is in love with a married typist and that G and F are no longer on speaking terms-no one seems to know why. So A might be tempted to sign C's draft and have done with it.

But A is a conscientious man. Beset as he is with problems created by his colleagues for themselves and for him-created by the mere fact of these officials' existence-he is not the man to shirk his duty. He reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by the able (if quarrelsome) F. He corrects the English-none of these young men can write grammatically-and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C to H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best. And it is late in the evening before A finally quits his office and begins the return journey to Ealing. The last of the office lights are being turned off in the gathering dusk which marks the end of another day's administrative toil. Among the last to leave, A reflects, with bowed shoulders and a wry smile, that late hours, like grey hairs, are among the penalties of success.


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