Saving the world through typing


As you read this lots of keen, dedicated young men and women are improving the world through typing.

They think it will. If they didn’t, typing as a job would be silly wouldn’t it? The job of “typist” disappeared along with switchboard operator and lift attendant, not in the public sector though.

There are lots of these people in the public sector, furiously engaged with the act of not only typing but “making links” and “demonstrating”. For example there was once something called a “duty of Best Value” which created a duty of public sector authorities to demonstrate that they secured best value for the public pound in how they ran their services.

How do you demonstrate? You show. You show big documents full of facts, events and judgements knitted together with links. The links being what was required to show. So for example if we had to show we engaged with the public we had to gather a whole load of anecdata and make links between it and what we wanted it to show.

In new plans or strategies, nobody would decide what needed to happen, other than a few headline priorities decided by a senior manager. Instead a fill-in-the-blanks plan would be sent around and people would say what they were already doing. The assumption was, and was often stated out loud, “of course we’re already doing a lot of this stuff, it’ll just be a matter of capturing it.”. Not in a cynical way, but positively enthusiastic, anxious to show how good they were doing.

Sometimes the stuff “already being done” was itself some other plan or strategy created the same way, so a second newer pretend document would be created by referring to the first older pretend document. Without reality touching the sides.

I have spent weeks and weeks of my life in meeting rooms making links between documents. Here are 3 different ways.

1.  The Cut-Up

Words are physically cut from a document and arranged in different orders on tables, under newer but equally pretend headings. It always reminded me of making a blackmailers letter using pieces cut from a newspaper. “We know what you do at lunchtimes” .

2. The Babel fish

You would sit with a whole document at your desk and read it whilst typing the newer one, in the eye goes the old one, out the hands comes the new one. Hand crafted artisan policy making. Like mama used to make in the old country.

3. The Bring-and-buy

Remember Blue Peter bring and buy sales where money was raised for a good cause like 80’s Ethiopians? People hosted sales, putting up trestle tables in leisure centres or church halls and other people brought old stuff to sell. It was like that, an announced call for evidence to be brought and collected but in this case it isn’t for a good cause. The tat being collected was even worse than old Atari games cartridges, it was good news and hyperbole, results of external inspections and sometimes new initiatives that were the same as the old ones but with a lick of new paint. Often recycled a couple of times, some things reared their head time and again acquiring a mock fan-base who would jeer every time the cliches made an appearance. To give an example they were so mundane it would be like someone writing “breathing” on a daily To-Do list.
The furious typist would plead for information on whatever it was they were concocting and people would email it in out of the goodness of their heart, it would be collected until the spreadsheet was groaning with detritus that in the right hands could be spun into the purest gold.

This stuff doesn’t happen by itself. It is crafted. You cant just leap onto this, oh no. It is a task that has it’s own guild virtually, and the people doing it respect their work and think it good work. They know its not perfect but at heart they are convinced that somehow this activity goads the organisation into doing new and improved things. That documents being compared with other documents, gap analysis being done on the difference, action plans to remedy the gap, that all this typing is worthwhile.

I know this as a fact because Reader, I was one.

I was like the carpenter that is unknowingly lovingly crafting the joist for the hangman’s gallows or the tobacco executive who doesn’t know he’s been selling cancer to children.

It didn’t take long to find out that it was silly and wrong but it took ages to work out why. I didn’t know I was working in a command and control organisation. I had no idea that what I was doing was based on a model or on certain assumptions. That’s double loop learning and I had certainly never heard of that either.

The systems thinking lesson

The use of policy is at the heart of a command and control public sector organisation, as there is a belief that policy once written is implemented. Therefore it is terribly important, because like the three wishes granted by a magical genie you have to choose your words carefully because they will be granted!  Should you type “empower” or “encourage“?  “Disadvantaged families” or “troubled communities“?  It matters if you think you are knitting the future .

This belief is founded on the thinking that organisations are like machines. Issue a command and it will be carried out. Organisations are then designed to achieve this ideal, staff are unwittingly dragooned into working under a system of Management By Objectives (MBO).where the purpose is to implement policy objectives, literally purpose derived from policy as opposed to reality.

In this mechanistic worldview stating and setting policy is only part of the command structure but it occupies enormous amounts of time, staring at pieces of paper written by policy officers is a key task of the public sector manager.

This is why the typists continue. They think the words they are typing will set direction. It is a vital task, as without it there would be [shudder] a policy vacuum . In a way they are right, there would be. If everyone is looking inwards and upwards for purpose and direction, they are automatically creating a vacuum waiting to be filled, like an explosion. But nature abhors a vacuum, so nature creates policy.

If people stopped looking inwards and upwards for direction and purpose, where else should they turn their gaze?
Outwards to the customers and downwards to the staff dealing with them. And that requires a lot less typing.

Coming next! How you can spot fake work by the amount of typing being done. And lot lots more!

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