Sunday, 30 November 2008

Deadbeats and Deadlines

Working in the public service - some people would call that a contradiction in terms, and there are times I'm inclined to agree.

Time travels at a different pace in the world of government. The people at the top apparently don't have enough of it, the people at the bottom are flat out with menial and mind-numbing administrative tasks that no-one else can be bothered with, and there appears to be a swathe of middle-ranking people who, as far as I can see, spend their days drinking coffee and swanning about looking busy and important, but not actually doing much. Some jobs have an unreasonably frantic pace, while others could be done easily by a snail on Valium (often a fairly highly-paid snail on Valium...)

I've noticed that the seriously busy people tend to be too busy to tell the world that they're drowning in work. It's the ones with nothing to do who make the most noise.

There's one person I know whose voice rises about 20 decibels whenever a phone call is related to work. It's deafening. The bellowing actually drowns out the loud music I have coming through the earphones that I have jammed into my ears as a last resort to try and block it out. One or two of the tasks I have in my hideously unengaging paid employment demand concentration. When the Bellower is in full flight I can't hear the conversation of a colleague who might be standing right next to me. I've developed an almost Pavlovian response to the ringing of the Bellower's phone, and leap for my earphones whenever she picks up the handset. Ah, the joys of an open plan office.

The same Bellower can be heard from the other side of the room when engaged in work-related talk - or when explaining to new staff what her very busy and important role in the organisation is. I began to think perhaps she had a hearing problem. Maybe she was unaware of how loud she actually was. Maybe I was being mean and unfair. Then one day she took a call that she clearly didn't want anybody else to hear. She really should have continued to bellow in her usual way. I would've headed straight for the earphones and cranked up the volume. Instead, I found myself straining to hear her very interesting secret conversation, and marvelling at how quiet she could be. No, I'm not going to reveal what the conversation was about. I only managed to catch a few key words here and there, and had to fill in the gaps for myself, with wild imaginings and great leaps of logic. It's probably safe to assume that there weren't really any pole-dancers, gerbils or cans of whipped cream in that conversation.

And then there's the Princess. The Princess has a demanding job keeping track of a very important person. This makes her every bit as important as her boss. This is why it's imperative that she takes some time out every hour to abandon her ringing phone and stand outside smoking. Or doing her make-up. Or shopping while deadlines come and go, and other people answer her phone for her. And she has this really intense way of interacting over the most trivial things. She drops her chin and stares up through her lashes, a la Princess Di, and says things like 'I think I'll get a coffee now. I can tell I'm going to need one before I can [answer this ringing phone, do this report etc etc etc]'

Speaking of deadlines... as an ex-teacher I have a very healthy respect for deadlines. They actually mean something to me. I can't imagine blithely wandering off to class 10 minutes late while 25 or 30 adolescents run riot, and then not having any work for them to do because I was too busy talking on the phone to prepare a lesson. I can't imagine not getting exams marked in time to get reports written. I can't imagine turning up late to a parent teacher interview and not having my material ready.

Civilisation might not fall if a deadline is missed (well, I suppose it could, if it involved heads of governments and nuclear weapons and so on), but at the very least it appears unprofessional - and it decreases the turnaround time for the poor sucker who gets the work after you. It's unfair. When that poor sucker happens to be me, week after week, I get mad. There's no way my job really needs me to be at work for 10 or 11 hours in a day. But 11 hour days happen when little TGs (Tinpot Gods) think they are too important to have to bother with deadlines.

And the next time a certain TG scowls in horror, to see a minion of my lowly level in his office (at my manager's request, mind you), I may just go postal.

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