During the Post Office strike a few weeks ago I let off a rabble-rousing leftie rant about the abuse of workers rights. A comment from Irish-le-feaux reminded me there are other considerations and sometimes managers have to be allowed to manage. He was right of course, the problem is having the ability to manage is a prerequisite of being allowed to manage. And the core skills of management seem to have gone the same way as those of teaching, policing, journalism and so many other professions. That applies in business as well as the public sector.
My experience of working with the Post Office and other public service organisations is that management skills were never encouraged or developed and this is underlined by the lost disks fiasco at HM Revenue and Customs.
Managing is completely alien to the public servants mindset. Procrastination, delaying decisions, evading responsibility, shifting blame and bean counting are the things they do well. The rest they do not do at all. When in doubt, take refuge in bureaucracy.
In every Post Office, when I headed up the Information Technology project to automate Post Office counter trade, there was a book of ancient scriptures. I think it was called The Post Officers Guide and Handbook, something like that. In it one would find instructions on what to do in every possible situation from selling a stamp to instructions on how to assist in childbirth should a pregnant woman go into labour while queuing for her maternity allowance. (For the benefit of those humourless boy-scientists who are stalking my posts, what I just did is known as exaggerating for comic effect.)
In the book of scriptures, and similar ones in Tax Offices, Benefits Offices, and anywhere the public meets the government, every decision a public servant will face is made for them. Just follow procedure and youll be alright, is the message.
This probably explains the child benefit information shambles. A situation arose that was not covered in the book so nobody knew what to do.
Bureaucracy is one of the ten modern plagues to afflict the Nation of New Labour of course. Bureaucracy and obsession with procedure has escaped the public sector and now invades business and private life but the burgeoning of bureaucracy is entirely due to the failure of management and the rise of a culture of bean counting. Tony Blairs government style was commonly identified with control freakerey and an obsession with hiring consultants, in fact his approach to dealing with problems was based on techniques promulgated by his favourite consultancy firm McKinsey whose corporate motto is If it can be measured, it can be managed.
Management however is not about counting and measuring things, it is about dealing with those things that cannot be counted and measured. A famous management maxim from before the era of bean counters goes, managing people is like herding cats. It is true, but managers who cannot deal with people and all the quirks and eccentricities of human nature are doomed to fail. And managers who try to use bureaucratic procedures to reduce people to automations will not just fail, they will crash and burn.
On my last contract as a gainfully employed person I was working for a middle sized consultancy, Infact, on a huge technology project in Stockholm. We were expensive guys to employ, as well as our fees and the consultancies mark up, there was the question of five star hotels, meals in good restaurants, business class flights each week and all sorts of sundry expenses mostly called Ingrid. But Infact specialised in delivering solutions rather than procedures.
After a few months one of our Swedish colleagues, a devotee of modern management methods, decided to make a name for himself by asking what was the point of paying so much money for our services. What do you do that we cannot? he asked.
Andy, a non nonsense Scot looked at him and replied, We make decisions.
That is the difference between a manager and a bureaucrat.