Sunday , September 26 2021
Home / Tim Ambler /Let’s Get a Life While We Still Can

Let’s Get a Life While We Still Can

Summary:
39 Victoria Street SW1  “Humphrey.” “Yes, Minister?” “This Freedom Day thingy on July 19th has worked out very well.” “If you say so, Minister.” “Well, the doom-mongers were saying it would lead to another lockdown but cases are running at over 25,000 a day and nobody gives a damn. Freedom from fear, that’s what it is.” “We certainly have less to worry about.  The NHS is under less pressure, those of us who matter have all been double-jabbed and the young people catching it are out of work anyway.” “Well really it’s turned out to be freedom from work, for our staff anyway. That’s what I need to discuss with you, Humphrey.  As part of my keep-fit regime, I use the stairs instead of the ministers-only private lift and the thing is….the place is empty. There’s no one here.” “It is indeed the

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39 Victoria Street 

SW1 

 

“Humphrey.” 

“Yes, Minister?” 

“This Freedom Day thingy on July 19th has worked out very well.” 

“If you say so, Minister.” 

“Well, the doom-mongers were saying it would lead to another lockdown but cases are running at over 25,000 a day and nobody gives a damn. Freedom from fear, that’s what it is.” 

“We certainly have less to worry about.  The NHS is under less pressure, those of us who matter have all been double-jabbed and the young people catching it are out of work anyway.” 

“Well really it’s turned out to be freedom from work, for our staff anyway. That’s what I need to discuss with you, Humphrey.  As part of my keep-fit regime, I use the stairs instead of the ministers-only private lift and the thing is….the place is empty. There’s no one here.” 

“It is indeed the case that work post-pandemic will not resemble the drudgery of the past. I thought the General Secretary of my own union, the First Division Association, put it very well when he said ‘These new working arrangements will bring employees greater flexibility and work-life balance and reduce costs for employers.’ We civil servants are ever the vanguard of change and I am proud that our people are leading the way. I am only here today, in all truth, because I heard you were making one of your periodic visits to the office.” 

“Humphrey, it is August, the Queen is at Balmoral and there’s not much point in being in Whitehall if there is no one to talk, I mean work, with. But you guys have already had multiple holidays and you should be slaving away at your desks doing whatever it is you do. I cannot understand how you can supervise your people, if you cannot see them.” 

“Our people, as you put it, lead the world in moral rectitude.  If they tell me they are working at home, then I can be sure they are both working and at home.” 

“Well the PM thinks they should be back in their offices and we should dock their pay if they don’t show up. I agreed with him and I’m sorry he backtracked on the idea. It was only the London weighting he was talking about. Why should we pay the London weighting to people sitting at home in the countryside?” 

“Minister, should I get our lawyer to explain that London weighting is to meet market salaries because our jobs are in London, not our people?” 

“Spare me lawyers, Humphrey. I get quite enough from them in the House of Commons. The other idea was to withhold promotion from the stay-at-homers. I’m told that, in the Treasury, only 10% of the staff are showing up.” 

“I fear that concept is little better, Minister.  Promotion has nothing to do with merit or performance; it is what happens after you have had your job for four years and someone above you has also had his or her job for four years.  You both move up.” 

“What’s magic about four years?” 

“About 20 years ago, ministers and the Civil Service Management Board decided civil servants could not be sacked for failing to achieve what no one knew they were supposed to achieve. In 2004 they decided effectiveness would suffer if individuals stayed too long in their post or turnover was too fast. The four-year posting norm was adopted. ” 

“I can’t say that has made any difference.  The jobsworths stay on and ministers are described as bullies if they get cross when things don’t get done. A friend told me he was recruited from a senior position in the private sector to bring modern methods to a civil service department. He resigned soon after because, whenever he told one of his managers that something needed doing promptly, the manager immediately took some more of his annual leave.” 

“There are always a few bad apples, Minister, but I can say, hand on heart, that I’m proud of our team.”  

“We have good people, certainly, but they do live in another world.  It’s a social world, Humphrey, not a world of work in the way the private sector, or the NHS come to that, understands the word ‘work’. They spend so much time in meetings discussing what they will do, they have no time left actually to do it. They are just ingratiating themselves with the civil service social network, so they can get promotion, and clock up a big enough inflation-proofed pension pot.  Then they can retire early and take private sector positions where they can exploit those social network connections. Did you know, Humphrey, that less than 20% of civil servants stay on to retirement age and many get full pensions at 50?” 

“As a 49 year-old, that had not escaped my attention but before I leave, we should return to the issue of whether our staff now need all the office space we have available.” 

“Your union friend said we should make savings from this stay home situation so we could sell these offices for a start.” 

“We could but, would that be wise? The Treasury would cut our budget and we’d be no better off.” 

“When they were all here, they raced from meeting to meeting. They did not really need desks of their own.  There once was a time when they spent much time answering correspondence from MPs and the general public.  But now we have got that digitised and the letters are all produced by AI.” 

“Are you telling me that all those letters you make me sign every day have not been composed by our team at all?” 

“Yes, Minister.  You may have noticed that they are all mellifluously phrased but devoid of any substance. We expect MPs will stop bothering us with their own, or their constituents’, issues once they recognise that it is just a machine batting their balls back to them.” 

“You are certainly strengthening my view that we have to see this organisation as a digitally supported society, not a workforce with defined outputs. Talking shops – that’s what we are. I believe we have more quangos than any other Whitehall department. No one would accuse Public Health England of having output of any kind.” 

“Indeed, Minister, the pandemic has certainly accelerated the shift to online shopping and working at home but it is not the cause of it.  The breakthrough for us was the launch of systems like Zoom and Teams.  If the only reasons for commuting to the office were meetings and socialising, the discovery one could do those just as well whilst still wearing one’s pyjama bottoms, was revolutionary. We’ve been told not to use Zoom because the Chinese listen in on that.” 

“They are not going to learn anything from that and no doubt they can listen in to Teams too. Of course, with a lot of Covid still about and poor ventilation in our meeting rooms, we need our people to be ultra-cautious, don’t we, Humphrey?” 

“Your tongue, Minister, appears to be lodged firmly in your cheek but I have to concede. We face a national reluctance to work and our civil service may be at the forefront of this too. The word ‘work’ has had the r removed and an e added to the end. According to the latest statistics, for every two unemployed, there is nearly one unfilled vacancy and the figure is rising.” 

“The young are certainly a worry.  They refuse to have jabs but insist on attending mass gatherings. Taking tests or proving vaccinations denies their civil liberties. We conducted those specially authorised events in order to collect and publish the data.  We needed the results to plan for ending restrictions.  We may have collected the data but I’ve not seen anything published. So we are none the wiser?” 

“We’ve had no one in the office to collate the findings, still less publish them.” 

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. The scientists tell us the end of the world is at hand so we should all get a life whilst we still can.”

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Tim Ambler
Tim Ambler (born 1937) is a British organizational theorist, author and academic on the field of Marketing effectiveness. Ambler featured on Marketing's list of the 100 most powerful figures in the industry. He is cited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of the top 50 marketing experts in the world

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