Out of office

The desk drawers are empty. The recycling bin is full. The last email has been sent. The coffee mug has been washed and put away. The farewells have been said. Time to move on.

I am not going very far, just from one government department to another. A couple of hundred yards as the crow flies, a five minute stroll through the streets of Westminster. It couldn’t be simpler. Could it?

It’s all a bit of an eye opener. There is one civil service supporting one government. But just now it doesn’t much feel like it.

I am not losing my job, but I will get a P45, as I move from one payroll to another. I have an old email address and I have a new email address, but there is no connection between them. I have some files created and accumulated in the old job which might be helpful in the new, but they will become inaccessible unless I move them, and there is no easy way to move them. Each department has an intranet and a directory, but neither is visible from the other.

I don’t know how many civil servants move between departments in the course of a year. Probably not many as a proportion of the total. Optimising systems for those who stay rather than those who move may be practical and pragmatic. But every one of those small barriers is a part of a bigger barrier.

Sending me a P45 may only be a curious by-product of an arcane piece of HMRC bookkeeping, but the message is no less clear for being unintended: there is not one civil service but many, not a continent but an archipelago.

Does any of that matter? The Civil Service Reform Plan suggests that it does:

Overall, the culture and behaviours of the Civil Service must become pacier, more flexible, focused on outcomes and results rather than process. It must encourage innovation and challenge the status quo, and reward those who identify and act to eradicate waste. Achieving this change in any organisation is difficult, but it is especially difficult in one that is dispersed and organised into separate departments and agencies

Other governments seem to manage this slightly better. I can work out who does what in the Australian government far more easily than in my own, though I am an outsider to the former and supposedly an insider in the latter.

All too often the boring things get left until last, or just don’t get done at all, for no better or worse reason than that they are boring. I am not looking for one huge and monolithic system, carefully designed to be as consistently useless to as many people as possible. But a bit of shared information, a recognition that identities persist when their owners move around and some federation of infrastructure would all help make more tangible the ephemeral goal of joined up government.

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