Confessions of a Modern Bureaucrat

Confessions of a Modern Bureaucrat. By an anonymous, former Policy & Performance Officer.

I spent 10 years of my life writing. I wrote neighbourhood plans, partnership strategies, the Local Area Agreement, stretch targets, the Sustainable Community Strategy, sub regional infrastructure plans, funding bids, monitoring documents, the Council Plan and service plans. These documents describe the performance of local government and its partners.

I have a confession to make. Much of it was made up. It was fudged, spun, copied and pasted, cobbled together and attractively formatted.

I told lies in themes, lies in groups, lies in pairs, strategic lies, operational lies, cross cutting lies. I wrote hundreds of pages of nonsense. Some of it was my own, but most of it was collated from my colleagues across the organisation and brought together into a single document. As a policy, partnerships and performance officer in local government, this was my speciality and my profession.

Why did I do it? I did this because it was my job. My manager told me it was to “to get the best for the local area” and that “you have to play the game”. When I attempted to reveal the absurdity of the situation I was criticised for not being in the real world. I quickly learned that in the real world, data is cleansed, re-presented and re-formatted until it tells an acceptable and neat story.

My can do attitude was rewarded with promotion in the hierarchy and respect from my colleagues. Stretching the truth was seen as harmless and normal. Our behaviour was rational. We told lies in order to:

  • Get funding
  • Keep councillors happy
  • Keep management team happy
  • Impress government departments
  • Get a good inspection rating
  • Compete with other organisations in our region

The purpose of our behaviour was to maximise the chances of looking good and to minimize the chance of upsetting or embarrassing important people in the hierarchy.

Am I exaggerating? My use of the word ‘lying’ is intentionally provocative but if not lying, we certainly weren’t confident that what we were writing represented reality. We made huge assumptions about the link between the data we collected and the experience of the service user or citizen. We made similarly outrageous assumptions about the impact of our interventions on local socio-economic data. …

Reports were BS:

Projects were rarely abandoned, mistakes rarely made and uncertainty was never expressed. Nothing ever happened by chance, no issue was complex, little understood or messy. Our projects were almost always on track and we apparently had complete control of the future. We even knew the outcome of our work before we started it. Everything was robust, nothing flimsy. …

The purpose of collecting and reporting data was to comply, not to learn. Compliance was systemic and learning was optional and ad hoc. …

You want the truth?

The alternative to lying up the hierarchy is simple. Take the hierarchy to see the truth.

We should have taken our managers, chief executives, politicians, civil servants and funders to see what was actually going on. We should have persuaded them to sit on council receptions for days at a time, to listen to hours of phone calls from the public and to understand service users in their own contexts. Only then would they begin to understand the true performance of the organisation. Performance officers do not need to spend whole days tinkering with text and formatting reports, mediating reality into something palatable.

There is no need for an expensive bureaucracy between the decision makers and the truth. Confronting the brutal facts is free. … At the bottom of the hierarchy, where the end-user touches it, you find out the truth.