Friday, 5 January 2007

Just a cog in the machine

I think I may have come across the epitome of Labour’s belief in command and control. It is also the most egregious example of government waste so far. The Taxpayers Alliance are going to have a field day with this one. The next Bumper Book of Government Waste is going to have a special chapter just for this.

The Times reports that £7 million has been spent conducting a time-and-motion study, the upshot of which is that staff at National Insurance are being told not only what they may and what they may not put on their desks, but what must sit where. The “Lean” programme by logistics consultants Unipart actually sets out where a civil servant should position their phones, their mouse and even their pens to provide for optimal efficiency in desk usage.

The idea that we are all identical and that the Government knows best what we need and how we should go about leading our lives is rooted at the heart of the socialist idea of progress (Liberal progressives, by comparison, believe that progress is good but should be allowed to advance naturally rather than being driven by a controlling mind – the state; ‘conservative progressive’ is an oxymoron).

I have never been an advocate of the “clear desk policy” (as you can see!) and firmly believe that a man’s desk is his kingdom (and “The king is emperor in his kingdom”, as the French could have told us 600 years ago). In fact, a messy desk may represent a representation of the mind of its owner:

People spread stuff over their desks not because they are too lazy to file it, but because the paper serves as a physical representation of what is going on in their heads—“a temporary holding pattern for ideas and inputs which they cannot yet categorise or even decide how they might use”, as [Alison Kidd, a psychologist] puts it. The clutter cannot be filed because it has not been categorised. By the time the worker's ideas have taken form, and the clutter could be categorised, it has served its purpose and can therefore be binned. Filing it is a waste of time. (In praise of clutter, The Economist, 19 Dec. 2002)

More to the point, it is one small way that an individual can express their freedom in the workplace. Not all workplaces are dark, satanic mills, but many (and Whitehall in particular) try to impose a rigid uniformity on their employees. A few “inactive” tea cups and a photograph of one’s children are not clutter; they are a workers cry that "I am not a number, I am a free man!".

The Lean Programme appears to be a terribly misjudged attempt to achieve a notional productivity rise at the expense of worker’s freedom. It is a sad statement of the mindset of Labour ministers. It is also a pointless waste of our taxes; at a time when the Government is complaining that Freedom of Information legislation is too expensive and are trying to save £12 million by curbing our right to hold ministers to account, I for one can think of better ways to spend that money.


Ian said...

Agreed 100%. Excellent post - when it comes to the end of 2007 I really hope that that'll still be in the top 5 jaw-droppingly stupidest things to come out of our crazy Government in the year - but some how I actually fucking doubt it...

SELECT Privacy

Jock Coats said...

I have never been an advocate of the “clear desk policy” (as you can see!)

Hah! Compared with mine I thought that was a photo of a "post-Lean" desk in the Department of Administrative Affairs.

A Prospector said...

I AM the Alison Kidd mentioned!

Whilst I agree that there's something slightly sinister about governments ruling over people's personal items on their desks, I do want to clarify the logic of my original paper. I was making a distinction between (i) knowledge work where the purpose is to interpret the information which crosses your desk to generate creative and diverse outputs and messiness reflects the creation of new connections and models and (ii) procedural work where it is vital that the outputs are consistent, regardless of who is processing them. In the latter case, the paper on the desk represents the business process and messy desks (say in an insurance company or Income tax office) suggest a poor process.

Filing is a critical element of any paper-based business process. Losing, or worse still disorganising, paper records can spell business disaster.

I spell it out a bit more clearly here:

It sounds like you ARE a knowledge worker so you can continue to revel in your messy desk - as I do!

Tom Papworth said...

Googling one’s name again, Alison? ;o)

You are right to draw my attention to the details of your paper, of course. I am not suggesting that one should not file information logically. I am indeed a knowledge worker, but nonetheless I am guilty of allowing non-creative information (such as bank statements) to pile up. I suspect the reason for this is not because I want to be able to reach for them easily but because I consider that kind of information of so little value that I cannot be bothered to devote the time to store them (until my desk starts to groan!).

Dictating to staff where they may place paperclips, however, or asking them whether their banana is active, is just crazy. What little it adds to an orderly office will not compensate for the damage it will do to morale.