Thursday 28 April 2022

Agreeing with Dorries


This week brought a rather frightening occurrence – I found myself agreeing with something said by Nadine Dorries. They say that given an infinite number of chimpanzees with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite period of time, one of them will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, in the correct order, and duplicating every single one of the bard’s original spelling errors. (Mathematically speaking, the idea is wrong – infinity is so vast that we’d actually end up with an infinite number of perfect copies, but let’s not allow mathematical precision to spoil the flow.) The thing is, the perfect copy doesn’t have to be the infinitieth one; the power of randomness is such that it could equally be the first, which means that it doesn’t need an infinite period of time for even Dorries to say something sensible. It just feels that way sometimes. Mind you, given a choice between agreeing with Dorries or agreeing with Jake, it’s a tough call for many of us, although that didn’t prevent the PM from coming down firmly on the side of Jake.

It isn’t just me: both the columnist Simon Jenkins and many of the heads of the Civil Service have also found themselves obliged to agree with Dorries on this occasion, even if it’s a trend which won’t last. Jake is, of course, famed for being out of touch with reality, and it didn’t really need him to wander round the offices of civil servants leaving patronising and insulting notices on empty desks to demonstrate how removed he is from the real world in which most of us live. He manages that just by getting up in the morning. And I suppose, given the PM's history of sexism and misogyny, that it shouldn’t be a surprise that Johnson would support a fellow old-Etonian and Oxford graduate ahead of a mere woman, especially one from a working-class background. She, like the civil servants who have attracted the derision of Jake, is supposed to know her place, and her deviation from her usual position of providing adulation for the PM will not have been welcome.

The point she made, though, is a valid one. The issue we should be addressing is not whether civil servants are at their desks for the specified 37 hours per week, but what they do with their time and how productive they are. If the job gets done efficiently, why should we care where they do it? Whilst there are some roles, even within the civil service, where staff working together and talking directly to each other can spark innovation and efficiency, there are plenty of other, much more mechanistic, jobs where the opportunity to mingle round the coffee machine or the water cooler can actually damage overall productivity. And even those where it is of benefit don’t really require 5 precise days of 7 hours each to achieve the necessary effect.

So, are the civil servants working from home being productive or not? And if not, why not? We know that there are problems with backlogs at the DVLA and the Passport Office, and we know that both have got worse since the start of the pandemic (although neither were particularly famous for the speed of their response even before that). Is it because they are inherently inefficient or workshy, or is it because of a lack of resources (staff absences due to Covid have been high) or even a lack of systems to support homeworking? Are the rules about what staff can work on at home too restrictive, meaning that some particular tasks end up with a backlog? Could changes to rules, or better systems actually facilitate more efficient working? Despite Jake’s obsession with seeing offices full of people sitting at desks doing whatever it is that they do, we know that a combination of Covid, a war in Europe hitting energy costs and supplies, and the need to reduce our carbon usage all mean that working from home, where it can be managed, is to be preferred, and that’s without even beginning to consider issues such as work/life balance.

That’s not an analysis which Jake has done, of course – nor is it one he’s ever likely to do. He doesn’t need to when he ‘knows’ that state employees are inherently lazy and workshy and can only be managed by close direct supervision. Both he and Johnson share the ideological standpoint that everything the state does is essentially rubbish (the civil service can’t even organise decent parties – as some of the ministers defending the PM have pointed out, there were no outside caterers, no balloons or poppers, and people were wearing suits). For ideological Tories, delays at the DVLA and the Passport Office can only ever be down to the poor performance of individual civil servants, and the underlying assumption is always that employing fewer staff on minimum wage level salaries in companies owned by Tory donors will do a better job, presumably because the employers will be able to use bigger whips. The more one thinks about it, the more surprising it is that Dorries seems to have abandoned her party’s ideology and struck the nail on the head. It could just be the effect of that randomness mentioned earlier. Or maybe she just didn’t get the memo telling her what she’s supposed to believe. Perhaps the memo's author was working from home and wasn’t allowed to send the e-mail because of civil service rules.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Most people will agree that Nadine Dorries is of above average "thickness". However she is not so completely thick as to fail to recognise a complete and utter posturing buffoon when one prances by. JRM, once a fairly intelligent but eccentric cove,prone to entertaining his audiences by frequent use of arcane references and covoluted language has descended to complete parody. In a role with some responsibilities ( for what precisely ?) he is completely ill equipped as he cannot sort out wheat from chaff. Just another over rated plonker out of that inbred school of domineering fuckwits which the AngloBrit Establishment continues to foster. Dangerous, just like placing a deaf dumb and blind man at the controls of a jumbo jet. It may make him feel good but leaves the rest of us with a sense of trepidation