'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
Inside The Machine
Who are all these zombies and why aren't there any plants round here? Catherine Keller reveals the strange netherworld at the indifferent heart of a London borough council.
I have never had an office job. I have never worked for local government. Not until now anyway. But I had my ideas about what to expect, you know, all those micro-politics, repressed passions, identikit-personalities, etc. But there are other things about my particular office that I am not prescient enough to have predicted. For example, there are no plants! I have explored all four floors of the building, casting a curious eye over peoples' desks, and been amazed to find that far from the usual cluttered masses of family pictures, trinkets (sorry I believe they're called 'executive toys'), half-dead spider plants, etc. only three desks - that's three out of about two hundred have any form of adornment. None, not a single one, has a plant. Despite only having been in the job a few weeks, my healthy cynicism has caused me to build up a kind of obsession with this lack of plant-life.
What does it say about a workplace, and it's employees, that there are no plants? I think I know what it says, and I'm pretty sure I don't want it to apply to me. So I was determined to break the pattern. I checked my contract and the council guidelines to see if there was some rule about not having plants - sympathy for hey fever suffers, a corporate fear of organic life(?!) - nothing.
So, one lunch hour I went out and bought a plant, and put it on my desk. No-one has commented. Not a peep. I don't mind if they complain even. But say something! One desk out of two hundred with a plant and no-one has anything to say!
Then, slowly, the truth dawned. I am not working with people who are tuned in to the idea that our everyday actions mean something. Something political. It doesn't strike them as unusual, or rebellious, or anything, that only one person out of two hundred has bought a plant. I can see them going - 'oh yeah a plant', just like they probably go, 'oh yeah an election, oh yeah New Labour sucks, oh yeah people are making profit from selling water, oh yeah there's genocide in the world.' Oh yeah. Oh well.
Local Education Authorities (LEA's) used to be populated by people who were into politics. Admittedly some of them were political careerists trying to make it to national government, but many of them were local people who cared passionately about local politics, usually with a union background. Nowadays, LEA's are full of apolitical robots who don't even realise that there are any politics to the job because one of the most pervasive, pernicious, subtly evil things that the Blair government has done is to take political awareness out of arenas that not only are political by definition, but need to be. I am surrounded by people who see no further than making sure we hit targets, steer clear of any negative press, and, worst of all, where at all possible, try to get someone else to pay for our local children's education. Honestly, the days of local authority politics are dead and gone - drowned in a sea of pseudo-philosophical words such as 'inclusion'. Inclusion is an overly pc way of saying 'budget saving', with the added bonus that it connotes humanist aspirations towards 'rights for all'. Only 'rights for all' doesn't work, when nobody wants the thing you're offering the rights to.
It is not about giving parents the right to keep their children in mainstream schools, it is about putting all sorts of children, even those for whom it is really not suitable, into the cheapest schools. It is about creating such inconceivably large amounts of paperwork, that even the most knowledgeable parent cannot get straight answers as to their legal rights. But as long as we can keep the cog turning, as long as we keep repeating the government line and flagging up the right to appeal, we can keep the most troublesome cases trapped in a debilitating system of falsely reassuring bureaucracy until... until what exactly, until they gently wither away? Until they give up? Until they move borough and they're someone else's problem? Until that child turns seventeen and has no right to education any longer?
Sadly, the only thing LEA's do respond to is the threat of press coverage. A rumour on the air-conditioned breeze that some local hack is going to drum up a few choice criticisms in the ol' times new roman and 'ping' up comes the very school place a parent has been fighting for two years. Yet another example of the litigious times in which we live.
Suffice to say, I am doing 'well' at work. I know how to hold it down. I know how to work to my own agenda without anyone noticing. If I stick at it I could be heading the department in five to ten years. (Oooo- exciting! Not.) The prospect makes me feel as if under the influence of some strange drug, I bought an over-priced bungalow up a boring cul-de-sac and promised to live in it forever. I'd have to close off a part of myself that I happen to feel is one of the best parts of me. So I'll choose to keep this little escapade into local government a fairly short one, because the truth is, these days, in order to work for local government you have to be pro government policy, or better still, a-political, and the likelihood of me being either of those things is non-existent.
There is however an advantage to knowing how these systems work in all their boring, target-hitting, line-towing, responsibility-avoiding, glory. And that is that I am better equipped to find the weak points in the cogs, the holes in the system where the flotsam and jetsam can gradually seep in. I don't expect local councils to ever again attract employees who are into politics, I don't expect them to be run on a non-competitive, non-profit-making basis, but at least some of us may emerge from them with more tools to fight with. Look out for us, we're the ones with the plants.