Picture credit: Fotoloia
The civil service doesn’t idle well.
Maintaining a state of constant activity is one of Whitehall’s more masochistic tendencies. Responding to a colleague’s ‘How are you?’ with anything other than a sigh, rolled eyes and ruefully chuckling about just how much you’ve got to do is a serious social faux pas. Go as far saying something like ‘Oh, pretty relaxed actually, thank you,’ and you’ll be met by an expression that briefly searches your eyes for a sarcastic glint, before taking on a moue of disgust, as if just noticing a dried glob of mayonnaise on your chin.
It has become an unquestioned truth that being a good official is the opposite of being a good actor. Young thespians are told: ‘Don’t just do something. Stand there.’ This is not a sentiment you hear in government.
This flavour of aimless restlessness is especially acute during purdah. The pre-election pause for breath should be a moment for civil servants to replenish a little energy before the frenzy that inevitably faces them this summer. After a political year resembling a comi-tragic opera where the masks keep falling to the floor, most people would forgive officials for grabbing this rare opportunity for recharging.
Unfortunately, the civil service finds kicking one’s heels a disconcerting prospect. With soft-pedalling out of the question, it is instead time to gear up for an unheralded festival of paper – the day one briefing pack.
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I had the dubious honour of joining a department’s briefing pack team in 2010. This posting fell at a point in my civil service career when I was too young and stupid to have decoded what ‘development opportunity’ really meant. 2010 was also a particularly juicy year for election prep, because it was the first poll in over a decade where the prospect of a new political administration had to be taken seriously.
The job of pulling together the day one pack for a new minister should be a straightforward one. A quick flick through the manifestos and past speeches, a five-page primer on what the department does and who is in it, and a list of phone numbers for senior officials. Items two and three should already be on the stocks, and item one the work of a week or so.
However, there are two major drawbacks to this breezy summary. Items two and three are never actually on the stocks, because no department has implemented a knowledge management system that didn’t require making explicit threats or bribes of staff to use it. More importantly, this small but perfectly formed package doesn’t create nearly enough work to share around. If one considers the length of time a minister is likely to devote to reading it, creating an up-to-date factual briefing on the department’s business is a matter of a day or two. This, clearly, won’t do.
Although the team’s task in 2010 was ostensibly to prepare for a new set of ministers, our real job was to occupy several hundred restless policy civil servants for 7 weeks. So, without really thinking about it, we elected to create the mother of all factual briefing packs. It remains the longest publication I’ve ever been involved in. The first draft ran to over 400 pages. We drained multiple printers. Still the department wrote. The file got too big to send on the email system. 500 pages. The one policy team who we failed to commission content from got very angry indeed, memorably describing their omission as a ‘putsch’ against them. 600 pages. A single paragraph of text received 18 comments. Still they wrote. It was too tempting an opportunity to pass up. 700 pages.
When the whistle finally blew, the whole lot was printed one last time and squashed into lever arch files. I took one home for posterity; it remains on a shelf as a trophy of pointless endeavour. The rest were presented to the private offices (who had sensibly spent most of the last six weeks watching cricket and sitting in parks), who took care of them with a bemused awe. In the first weeks of the new government, private secretaries politely told us the secretary of state had found several pages ‘very helpful’. Similar stories are told of departments that have attempted jazzy videos as an alternative to the waves of dead tree. Sometimes white lies have to be told.
The master file – a Microsoft Word document that probably cost well over a million pounds in officials’ time to produce – was never opened again. To reach the total cost of day one packs across every department and agency, multiply that figure by, what, 20? Or even 30 or 50? Meanwhile, while all this nonsense is going on, many thousands of civil servants are busy actually keeping services going.
So, if you’re in Whitehall and at a loose end this month, put the briefing pack down. If you must scratch the itch, go and see if your operational colleagues need a hand.
Or go on holiday. Your new minister will thank you for it.