Prior to my recent retirement I became increasingly uneasy with local authority management. I was particularly appalled by the abuse of language which characterised my employers. In March an email from the head of human resources arrived in head teachers’ in-trays. It started thus:
‘Over the last few years we have delivered a more modern and efficient HR service by streamlining transactional and administrative work. This has allowed us to free up professional HR resources to support the achievement of the Council’s key change priorities. Our service is designed to support managers to handle people issues confidently with support provided that is tailored to specific issues.
‘As a result many managers are now successfully dealing with individual cases without HR intervention. However the significant budget savings now required to be made by our service mean that we must now focus on ensuring that more managers are capable to deal with simple and straightforward cases without direct HR intervention…’ etc. etc.
Ironically, that combination of Orwellian Newspeak and Mandelsonian spin came via the council’s communications team. The tone of the individual words (modern, efficient, successfully) is positive and optimistic. The meaning is entirely negative. I responded by emailing the author, with copies to my line manager, inviting him to advise me if the following was an accurate translation.
‘Over the last few years the Council’s HR service does less of what it once did. This has allowed the HR department to concentrate on implementing the Council’s current priority, the reduction in employee numbers and the HR issues which arise from that. As a result of our reduced service capacity, we now expect managers in the field themselves to carry out, without our support and assistance, tasks in respect of which we would formerly have given support and assistance.
‘As a result many managers in the field now have an increased workload and are dealing with individual cases without HR support. However the significant budget savings now required to be made by our service mean that we must now focus on reducing even further our service to managers in the field…’ etc. etc.
I received no reply. I have always been suspicious of human resources departments. The title implies several forms of resources, financial, property and estate, IT, logistical and so on. And then there are human resources. Human here implies no values. It does, of course, imply value. Every resource has a value, accountable in pounds and pence.
Perhaps it is inevitable that an organisation communicating such a bleak message will seek to camouflage the meaning. My own experience has always been to the contrary: if staff require to be given bad news, be up-front and straightforward. Tell the truth in clear, simple and easily grasped terms.
Clarity and simplicity are not however the hallmarks of local government-speak. A month later all my fellow employees received the following briefing, again from the self-styled communications team.
‘The Council is continuing to look at ways it can improve services and make significant savings through the ABM Programme.
‘The report to Council in December recommended that we continue discussions with the bidders in the Environmental Services and Integrated Facilities Management (IFM) workstreams, as their outline proposals had significant potential to deliver better services at reduced costs. Detailed proposals are expected in the summer.
‘The Corporate and Transactional Services (CaTS) workstream is working to slightly later timescales. Outline proposals were received from the three external bidders at the end of March and are currently being evaluated. An updated internal Public Service Comparator (PSC) proposal was also received on 1 April and this will be used to update the business case.’
To even begin to understand this required considerable understanding of several previous briefings. It is a highly technical description of complex financial processes, littered with acronyms and will leave even well-informed readers perplexed. For most members of staff it was gobbledegook.
Of course, such briefings serve a purpose. No-one can deny that staff were ‘informed’ of the council’s plans. Consultation had occurred.
The irony is that while the human resources behemoth trundled on, justifying its role in terms of ‘a more modern and efficient service’ which was ‘streamlining transactional and administrative work’, it had, in many contexts, been doing precisely the opposite.
A year ago my school recruited a new teacher. That teacher was coming to us after working at another of the council’s schools. On indicating to HR our proposed appointment, we received the following: ‘The nominated candidate form for the above preferred candidate has been received by the Recruitment Team. The following information and/or documentation is still required: (1) Criminal Conviction Form, (2) verified copy of documentary evidence of right to work in the UK, i.e. passport’.
‘This is absurd,’ I responded. ‘Teachers’ criminal convictions are automatically forwarded to the General Teaching Council. Once registered with the GTC no further paper checks should be necessary and, since the proposed candidate worked for the authority last year, the authority must know that the candidate has the right to work in the UK.’
How naïve I was. ‘All candidates require to be treated equally,’ I was told. If I’d to obtain this paperwork for any one candidate, equality meant I’d to do it for them all.
There are many reasons for a culture of rigid adherence to complex, and often purposeless, rules. One is to mystify the lay-person, to camouflage the organisation’s ultimate purposes. Another is to create a justification, centred around such seemingly worthwhile abstractions as equality or health and safety or risk assessment, for the bureaucratic caste which operates such procedures.
Whatever the reasons, the public sector requires to simplify its procedures, speak in plain English and spend less time and money on justifying its own arcane processes. The alternative is that the public sector’s enemies will wreak havoc. The casualties will not be the communications experts or the HR gurus but the essential services on the ground.
This article was originally published in Scottish review on 16 October 2011: http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexWood178.shtml