Thursday, November 26, 2009

Running An Internal Meeting

Most public servants have to attend numerous meetings that only involve members of their own Division, Branch or Section. It is essential to have as many of these meetings as possible so that the business of government can run suitably slowly. There will usually be at least one of each of these meetings in every month; however, experienced public servants can usually schedule at least two section meetings each month, if not weekly section meetings. The longer these meetings can go for, the better, as this takes people away from communications with the outside world and gives them less time to work on their projects.

Such meetings are superficially for the purpose of making sure that people know what is going within the Division, Section or Branch. This is potentially dangerous if taken seriously, as you really don’t want people to know what you are, or are not, working on. However, a good public servant can use them achieve exactly the opposite. When you do have to speak, make sure your skills are such that you can talk for at least ten minutes without telling anyone anything they don’t already know. If you are a beginner and not confident in your ability in this area, it is best just to say that everything is on track. Then you can sit back and watch the masters work their magic. If these meetings are run well, they can last for up to half a day and end being an endurance test for all involved. Below are some tips to help extend the life of these meetings as much as possible.

A good internal meeting should be dreaded by everyone involved who does not see it as an opportunity for procrastination and obstruction. Those sincere and proactive government employees who feel an urge to ‘make things happen’ need to be ground down and reduced quivering messes as soon as possible.

Let everybody have a say

There are loads of people in government, and the corporate world, who love the sound of their own voice and who will be happy to crap on to anyone who will listen. It is important to let these people have an agenda item, as this will fill everyone else with dread even before the meeting has begun. In addition to this, there are large numbers of extremely insecure people who feel that when they have the chance to speak about their project, they need to explain everything that has happened, will happened, and is likely to happen. And I mean everything. These people could test the patience of the Dalai Lama. When this happens every month, it turns a meeting into a sort of ‘show and tell’ session, similar to what used to happen when you were at primary school.

Organise a presentation

Having an external person coming in to give a presentation at the end of the meeting will add to the endurance required to successfully survive an internal meeting. Find an ‘expert’ in a field (preferably a boffin) who wants to come and talk about their project. This is apparently an attempt to broaden the knowledge of those present; however, what it really does is raise levels of boredom to almost painful levels as the expert gets into the practical details of their project. They do their best to explain the mysteries of their research to people who have no interest, don’t give a shit, and basically, would rather subject themselves to physical torture rather than listen to the drivel that is occurring.

Ask a question that you know will result in a long and confusing response

Where, despite your efforts, it appears that a meeting is running too smoothly, you should have some back-up plans ready. One of the best ones of these is to have some questions prepared for those people you know like to hear the sound of their own voice., or are insecure enough not to be satisfied until they have told you everything they think you might, possibly, want to know. This takes the responsibility of extending the meeting away from you, and on to the responder. If you do this before it is your turn to speak you can take valuable time up, increase people’s levels of boredom, and so further reduce the amount of attention they are likely to pay to your own long and rambling explanation of the status of your projects.

Spread confusion

This is something that you will be able to do with more effectiveness, the higher up the ladder you reach within government. For instance, if you have become a Branch Manager you will be able to use branch meetings to hold the floor, using your time and influence to talk about business planning matters, accommodation issues, and bore people with what you heard at the Divisional Manager’s Meeting. This is where the Director telling you what happened at the Corporate Executive Meeting earlier on that week, in turn, bored you. Most of what you have to say will be of very little relevance to most of the staff and will be repetition for your Section Manager’s, who you have already met with. Talking about the problems being wrestled with by senior management will also give you the opportunity to let incomplete information out that can then be taken out of context, providing fodder for all the Drama Queens, who can then go out and start their campaigns to spread tension and innuendo.

Chair the meeting

Where possible, see if you can have a go at chairing meetings. This puts you in control of the agenda and timelines, and can let you practice your procrastination and obstruction methods on internal employees before you take them out to use on external clients. A good Chair will be able to give the most boring and tedious people the longest opportunity to speak, and while this can be a trial for the Chair, it is essential practice for when you get to positions of seniority. It also gives you the chance to see how long you can make the tortuous meeting last (keep a record and try to beat it the next time you take charge). One last point is that you can ensure that those annoying and enthusiastic staff members that cause so much trouble for everyone else by ignoring the five paradigms, all have an agenda item and therefore have to come along. You will be able to take great joy from the grimaces and tortured looks on their faces as they contemplate the next couple of hours of unmitigated boredom.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Creating a 5-year strategic plan

Every government department needs a five-year plan, whether they realise this or not. Many departments even get their act together to actually produce such a plan. The process usually follows a path similar to this:

Step 1

The executive management team get together when the realisation dawns that the department or branch has been doing the same thing for many years, and they are now so far behind everyone else in their area that they are almost completely irrelevant and in danger of becoming a joke. Worse than this, the department may be disbanded, and it is the management level people that would be most at risk of losing their jobs. Something must be done to regain the illusion of usefulness and relevance.

Step 2

Firstly, the staff members have to be kept in the dark about the need for a new plan. This ignores the fact that the staff have been muttering and grumbling about the lack of direction for years and pleading for a new strategy. However, involving the staff is to be avoided at all costs as it will only complicate the process through the involvement of too many people, or worse still, it will attract numerous sensible and practical ideas that necessitate decisions to be made and actions to be undertaken.

Step 3 (Meeting 1)

The management team must meet behind closed doors to discuss the future direction. These discussions must follow the pattern of such documents, so the first step is to define the Vision and Mission Statement. A great deal of time is spent on this task as these set the scene for the whole strategic plan. The Vision is usually a one or two line statement that encompasses the dreams of the organisation. It should be noted that these dreams cannot relate to wishes of permanent anonymity and increased funding as this is a public statement. In normal circumstances, the first two hours of a three-hour meeting are taken up creating and refining the Vision. In fact this usually involves lots of arguing over the precise wording, as personal preferences in language and grammar take over and the meeting degenerates into an argument about whether the word ‘provides’ or the word ‘presents’ is a better option.

An experienced procrastinator can ensure that the whole meeting can be taken up by this debate without a definite resolution. However, a great deal of skill is required for this and it should not be attempted by beginners in procrastination. A tip for beginners is to initially stir the waters by bringing up a deeply philosophical question such as, ‘At its core, what exactly is the purpose behind coming up with a vision? And what is the difference between the Vision and Mission Statement anyway?’ It is guaranteed that most people in the room, if not all, will not really know the answer and are just following the standard headings without question. Some will attempt to answer, and in the process derail the meeting and demonstrate their own lack of knowledge, tailing off into silence as they realise the hole they’re digging. Hopefully by then it will be too late and numerous arguments will have broken out about what the differences actually are.

Step 4 (Meeting 2)

Repeat the previous meeting, but this time relating to the Mission Statement. Cast doubts on the progress made at the previous meeting and re-open the battles that were apparently resolved concerning the Vision. These battles are never really resolved, as an experienced public servant knows the value of holding a grudge for long periods of time (see Advanced Bureaucracy section for more about grudges).

Step 5 (Meeting 3)

This meeting will move on from the debacle of trying to define the Vision and Mission Statement, leaving them poorly worded and open to ridicule, preferable meaningless. Now it will be time to agree on the Objectives and Desired Outcomes. It goes without saying that the same confusion about the meanings of these two terms will cause this meeting to degenerate in the same way as the previous meetings. What is a ‘Desired Outcome? What is an Objective? Surely the Outcomes you are working towards are the same as the Objectives…aren’t they? Say no more.

Step 6 (Meeting 4)

As with all good 5-step plans there is a sixth step. If there is any will left to continue this process, and in reality it has often disappeared by this stage, it is now time to look at Actions and Responsibilities. However, in all likelihood what happens is that the procrastinators have successfully ground their colleagues into the dust and they are only able to come up with vague general statements about intent, with no substance. Where responsibilities are assigned, the vague nature of the actions are such that nobody knows what they mean and nothing will happen.

And there you have the generic government strategic plan.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You Can't Polish A Turd

You can’t polish a turd! This is an old saying that anybody considering a career in government should familiarise themselves with. Don’t misunderstand me, the public service is a fine occupation for the young person wondering what to do with their lives, and wondering how best they may be able to serve their fellow human-beings. However, some things, like turds, are simply not capable of being polished, or made to look or smell any better than they already do, however bad that may be. This is a fine metaphor to use when talking about government process.

There are systems in place that have been there for years that really stink. Even a cursory glance will reveal that they work about as well as a rusted old museum exhibit. But, and this is the crucial point for any person wishing to work in government, it is futile to try and clean them up or make them run more smoothly. Many a poor, delusional individual has brought out the oil and the rust remover, confident that they can clean it up, and then transform it into a gleaming, well oiled example of modern mechanical engineering. They usually end up wandering the corridors muttering to themselves in corners, occasionally bursting into tears, and looking that like the weight of the world has been dropped upon their shoulders. One look at the government machine shows that it is still there clanking along, still covered in rust, still looking like the hundred-year old dinosaur that it is. It also sucks out part of the personality of anyone who tries to tamper with it, leaving them chained to it, unable to escape from its dark clutches. This is the fate of those who do not heed the information in this book. They will end up with their soul trapped within the machinery of government, unable to improve it, and unable to escape to another job. You don’t want to end up like this.

Changing how government works is like trying to stop the tide coming in. The machine will suck you in, chew you up, and spit you out. As long as you understand this, you are well on your way to a successful and rewarding career. This book will provide you with the necessary arsenal of weapons that will enable you to establish a position, defend it, and gradually increase your area of influence within the system.

You will learn, among other things, about the five paradigms of government, the people you will need to deal with on a daily basis and the mysteries of dealing with boards and senior bureaucrats. In addition to this there will be tips on how to enjoy your day within such an environment, some helpful little mantras to keep your motivation going on those dull days, and also some valuable information on the effective use of jargon.

This book will be of use to public servants, those dealing with the public service, and members of the public who are interested in how the wheels of government turn (and why they turn so slowly). It will cast a light upon the dark corners of government that are rarely exposed to public view, and reveal the common tactics that public servants can use to procrastinate and delay making any decisions. It will also show aspiring public servants what sort of skills they need to rise through the ranks of government.

So, if you are considering a career in the public service, or have recently embarked on such a career, this is the book for you; its principles apply to all levels of government. If you think that you may soon need to apply to the government for an approval of some description, then this is also the book for you. If you are merely an interested spectator and wish to know how your taxes are spent, then this is the site for you.