Posts Tagged ‘Working Conditions’

A Hellish Morass of the Demoralised, Poorly-Paid and the Back-Stabbing: Life at the Bottom of the Civil Service

November 23, 2013

I’ve been doing a course run by one of the local further education colleges and held at one of Bristol’s museums these past two weeks, intended to give the unemployed some of the skills and qualifications to help them find work. It’s been fascinating meeting the other people on the course, and hearing their stories and views about employment and the Job Centre. They’re a very mixed group. Some are intellectual and academic, while others’ skills and experience lie in the practical, manual trades. Listening to them, it’s a complete mystery why some of them don’t have jobs. There are a few, who have been out of work for a couple of years, yet are clearly articulate, capable and willing. Several have been on other courses before. Several of them have suffered from bullying employers in what were blatantly cases of constructive dismissal. Many also have been badly treated by the Job Centre.

One of the gents on the course has worked at one time in the Civil Service. It is not a job to which he wishes to return. He stated that at the lowest levels – that of the AAs, it is extremely poorly-paid, and the other employees are personally treacherous in their desperation to move on. AA stands from ‘Administrative Assistants’. Their job is basically going round taking claimant’s files to those higher up the chain of command, to the AOs, who interview clients, and the EOs, HEOs and office managers making the decisions. They also deliver the mail. According to this fellow, the pay is below £7,000. As a result, many are forced to ask for advances on next month’s salary in order to make ends meet. What he found shocking is that they were so acculturated to this exploitative arrangement, that they accepted it as normal. He also was shocked and disgusted at the amount of back-stabbing he had encountered amongst them, as each one fought against the others to climb up the corporate ladder. From the way he describes it, it sounds very much like he was glad to leave the job. It sounds very much like Thomas Hobbes’ ‘war of each against all’, with personnel, who are very definitely nasty and brutish.

This is very different from the civil service AAs I met in my career over twenty years ago. I don’t know how much they were paid, but they were largely a very good-natured, cheerful bunch, who got on well together, while doing their jobs efficiently and conscientiously. That, however, was over two decades ago, and clearly years of re-structuring by Blair and now the Coalition has taken its toll.

I don’t think this fellow is alone in his feelings about working in the Civil Service either. I’ve met other civil servants, who were bitterly disgusted at their working conditions and the poor management from above. They too, wanted to get out of it.

Now this reflects very strongly on IDS’ claim to leadership quality. Ian Duncan Smith has made much of attending Sandhurst, even if there are considerable doubts about whether or not he actually graduated. He desperately wants the public to be impressed with his alleged leadership ability through his claimed rank in the army.

Well, the treatment of the employees in the civil service seems to disprove this.

It hardly needs to be said that the armed forces are tough environments. Discipline is rigorously enforced, frequently through lurid personal abuse screamed at you by the Sergeant Major. However, team work, and a paternalistic attitude by the commanding officers are also vitally important. Conservative opponents of Bush’s Neo-Con policies and the invasion of Iraq within the US military were highly critical of the extreme individualism and personal touchiness of the Neo-Con political advisers they were required to obey. They derisively referred to them as ‘chickenhawks’, because despite their belligerence and willingness to expend lives, they personally had never seen combat, and had frequently done their best to make sure they had avoided military service. They were also greatly unimpressed by the fact that only two of Bush’s army of advisers ever did team sports. The army, at least in the US, liked team sports because the survival and effectiveness of troopers in combat depends on their working well as a team, not as a group of individuals. In team sports, like American Football, no single player was more important, or immune to criticism for poor performance than the others. It didn’t matter if you were a great quarterback, if you dropped the ball, you could still expect to be bawled at by the coach, like anyone else, observed one female general. She stated that Bush’s Neo-Cons could never handle professional criticism as a result of their not playing such sports. When their judgements or decisions were criticised, they took immense umbrage as if it were an attack on them personally. Other officers have been critical of the way the armed forces has stressed individualism in its recruiting drive, and its apparent omission of how much teamwork and the active subordination of individual interests to that of the group plays in the forces as a whole. One senior officer in the US army voiced his low opinion of its recruiting slogan ‘Be an army of one’. He stated it was ridiculous, as the army was one of the biggest, least individual bureaucracies there was. Despite the horrors of war, it was the camaraderie that many soldiers found in the army and the solidarity they experienced with their fellow squaddies that they enjoyed, and which has been celebrated in literature, songs and poetry, like Kipling’s.

Good generals also frequently have a paternalistic attitude to the personnel under them. Nicholas Courtney, The actor, who played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart in Dr Who remarked in an interview that a good commander looks after his men. This was explain the Brigadier’s decisions in combating the various alien invasions and attempted coups by mad scientists, which plagued Earth regularly during his long career with the Doctor. Now these adventures were clearly fictional, but the ethos guiding the Brigadier’s treatment of the men and women under him in UNIT is real. General Sir Peter de la Billiere, who is very definitely an Eton-educated member of the establishment, states in his memoirs that he found out that one of the key leadership skills was looking after one’s troops. This didn’t mean being soft with them, but it did mean you took more care of them than you did yourself.

Almost none of this seems to be present in civil service that has been created and over which Ian Duncan Smith and his fellows preside. There clearly is no comradeship amongst people, who are all bitterly fighting each other for the merest chance of promotion. Neither can one see a paternalistic attitude amongst the senior staff and ministers, when they have increasingly inflated salaries while the people on the lowest rungs of their organisation are reduced to asking for advances to cover their inadequate pay. One can find accounts of great generals, who personally risked their careers to get their troops the equipment they needed despite the obstructions of the army bureaucracy. There’s a fictional description of such in Bulgakov’s The White Guard, set during the Russian Civil War in the 1920s. IDS certainly doesn’t seem to have fought to improve conditions for the civil servants under his management. Added to this, there is the personal cowardice of IDS himself. Like the Neo-Cons described and derided by traditional American Conservatives, IDS appears unable to take professional criticism and reacts badly when he meets it. He has repeatedly failed to meet opponents of his welfare reforms, and avoided answering questions by parliamentary committees. Once upon a time, generals led from the front. IDS, it appears, prefers to be well behind lines so he doesn’t have to take the flak dished out to his troops. And as we’ve seen, if he can’t legitimately get his way, then he reverts to bullying. No wonder he may have been returned to his unit.

This, then, is the state of the civil service under Ian Duncan Smith. It’s badly led, with no team spirit or esprit de corps, at least at its lowest levels. There it is a poisonous hell of back-stabbing by the desperate and demoralised, acculturated to poor treatment and poor pay. It’s little wonder that the civil servants in turn mistreat and abuse the job seekers and other benefit claimants. And all while IDS and his fellow ministers vote themselves increasingly bloated salaries. This constitutes the Tories’ ideas of leadership and ideal social conditions in modern Britain.

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Was Wissen Sie von England, Die Nur England Kennen?

November 21, 2013

This is my schoolboy German for ‘What do they know of England, who only England know?’

One of the major problems facing this country is the British refusal and apparently inability to learn other people’s languages. Having a second language can be immensely personally enriching, as it gives you a greater access to nations and cultures beyond your own. British visitors to the Continent, for example, can be pleasantly surprised and delighted by the way their stumbling attempts to speak the language of the country they’re visiting is appreciated by its people. Even if what you’re trying to say is halting and stumbling, the people you’re saying it to generally appreciate you’re making the effort, rather than arrogantly assuming that everyone speaks English. There have also been concerns for a long time that British industry is being held back by our collective reluctance to learn other tongues. Industrialists have long pointed out that if we want to sell our products to other nations, we have to persuade them to buy British in their own languages. And unfortunately, too few of us are studying another tongue.

This problem was being earnestly debated on breakfast television Tuesday or Wednesday morning. The Beeb were talking about the personal and professional advantages of speaking foreign tongues. One of their guests in this matter was a gentleman, one of those veritable ‘Briareus of tongues’, who could speak very many of them. In this case, the man could speak about eleven fluently. This is rather less than the eighteenth century Italian cardinal, who had mastered fifty, and who was therefore given the above nickname. Unfortunately, despite such multi-lingual experts as the Beeb’s guest a day or so ago, few people are following their example.

And it does shows, especially in some of the ideologues of the Right, who argue we should be following the employment practices of other nations, like the authors of Britannia Unchained. This bunch denounced British workers as lazy, and urged that the nation’s workforce copy those of the powerhouses of the developing world like China and India in working 19th century hours for miserable pay in the kind of conditions described and denounced by Charles Dickens and the other 19th century reformers. They are also doing the workers of the Developing World no service with their book either. Just as Britain and the rest of the Developed World has increased hours, so the working hours in India, China and the other developing nations have been massively extended. It’s a vicious circle, which seems to profit no-one except the multinational business elite now exploiting workers across the globe.

Of course, the author’s of Britannia Unchained seem unaware of this. If they are aware, they certainly don’t want you to be. And they also appear to be stunningly ignorant of business cultures much nearer home, like Germany.

In recent years the Germans have been doing their level best to challenge their image around the world. There has been a flow of steady articles and pieces in the German and foreign press challenging their image as the staunch incarnation of the Prussian virtues of hard-work and efficiency that created the Wirtschaftwunder. Rather than the dour, humourless drones slaving away all hours in the name of ruthless efficiency, the Germans are keen to point out that they do, in fact, enjoy a good joke. A few years ago there were adverts for Berlin, which boasted that it was the place where the art of living was practiced 24 hours a day, complete with a photo of a German rock star strumming out a mighty power chord on his electric guitar. The new Germany, the adverts said, stands for fun.

The punishing labour regimes of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships are similarly an image from the past that the Germans are increasingly challenging. Rather than spending their entire time grafting away at the workplace, German writers and commenters have pointed out that Germany has one of the shortest working weeks, and gives its workers longer holidays than many other countries. I can remember reading a piece by one German journalist in one of the British newspapers, which said that nothing contradicted the image of the hard-working German that the typical modern office in the Bundesrepublik. There, the staff quietly worked in comfort, with the coffee machine bubbling away to itself in a corner. And in such a relaxed, comfortable employment environment, it’s almost inevitable that someone would be going on about how lazy they all were. A few years ago, one of the German magazines ran a feature entitled ‘The German National Hobby: Krankfeiern‘, which I assume means ‘throwing a sickie’. The piece was accompanied by a photo showing an office worker crouched on a desk, surrounded by water, presumably to indicate the way German industry was being drowned by a flood of lazy workers, all skiving off work.

To Anglo-Saxon audiences, the idea that the Germans are all fun-loving with a relaxed attitude to work is almost comically bizarre. It runs directly counter to everything we know, or think we know, about the German character. After all, northern European nations are expected to be sober and hard-working, while it’s the Mediterranean south that’s all about fun and relaxation. It’s like the comment Badvoc made about the difference the Romans and ancient British in the 1980s Channel 4 comedy, Chelmsford 123: ‘We’re not like these hardworking Romans with their roads and efficiency. We have a more relaxed attitude to life. We say ‘manana!’ Yet, believe it or not, this was the German national image before the Prussian kings – one of whom had such a foul temper he was called ‘Die Bose Wetter von Hohenzollern’ took over the country. I was taught at school that in the 17th century the Germans were considered to be the most easy-going people in Europe. That was shattered by the rise of Prussia, the Napoleonic, Franco-Prussian Wars, and World Wars I and II. This has passed, on the Germans are going back to their national image in the 17th century, despite the horrors of the Gradgrinds of German industry.

So how does this new generation of relaxed funsters regard us across the North Sea? Well, as far as the work ethic is concerned, the attitude is now very much reversed, or so it seems. A few years ago a group of German financial workers and banking whizzkids from ‘Manhattan am Main’ were sent off to work in the company’s London branch. They were reported as making jokes about how, in England nothing worked properly. This seems to be pretty much a constant since Britain’s disastrous industrial performance in the 1970s. Unlike the 1970s, when we were the strike-ridden ‘sick man of Europe’, other jokes were about how hard we worked. We had, at least in the opinion of these employees, swapped places with their country as the nation, whose workers slave away driving themselves into the ground at work. Only without the efficiency and product quality.

All this appears to have been excluded from Britannia Unchained. After all, it would undermine their case if they compared us to the Germans, who now know how to combine a strong economy with a reputation for quality products and have a good time. After all, you can’t tell a country of miserable wage-slaves that they’re all skivers and malingers compared to their fun-loving EU counterparts across the Nordsee, regularly clocking with ruthless efficiency at a reasonable hour every day.

Way back in the 1980s Channel 4 briefly held won the rights to broadcast the cricket from the BBC, before they, in turn, were trumped by Murdoch and Sky. Their trailer for the test match season against the West Indies was, in its own small way, a work of art. It opened with pictures of sun-drenched beaches and tropic rainforests, while a female Caribbean face lilted the Kiplingesque lines ‘What do they know of England, who only England know?’ Hence the title of my piece. One of their innovations, I believe, was a female commentator, who had a West Indian accent. They take cricket extremely seriously over that side of the Atlantic. The University of the West Indies in Kingston has a department of Cricket Studies. One of the course’s professors appeared on TV over here a little while ago talking about how the West Indies team’s sporting excellence had boosted the region’s self-image and pride. And the quote used by the advert is still a very, very good question. Kipling himself held some extremely Right-wing views. In the 1920s he formed a group to fight the General Strike. This collapsed when their treasurer ran off with their funds. He wrote the poem with the lines ‘What should they know of England, who only England know?’ in response to riots in the north of England against working conditions there. Nevertheless, the question is a good one, and can be asked of the Right as well as the Left. ‘What do they know of England, who only England know?’ Going by the authors of Britannia Unchained, very little.