by Chris Johnson

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I guess it all started about 4 years ago. Out with the old, in with the new, and everyone with mixed feelings about what might happen...

But perhaps I am getting a little ahead of myself.

I‘d better introduce myself first. I‘m Chris, known to the internet world as Chika, also known to the world of the Borough of Hemhem as "that sodding nuisance that Joe Cooper got in to write that stupid system of theirs". Well, that‘s the cleaned up version. You see, I have been working in the Hemhem Housing Department for most of my working life to date, and up until Joe-boy‘s departure I was one of a three-man team... sorry, three-human-of-male-gender non-sexually-oriented-group... that kept the department going.

Not that it was a really cushy job. Three people handling programming, technical support, operations, administration, analysis, installation and tea making is quite a stretch as anyone in the real IT world would probably agree. However we probably wouldn‘t be here if Joe-boy had not been tied up securely in the original computerisation of this department, though the computer section of his youth is far removed from what it is today. It seems like a lifetime now since we wheeled out the last PDP-11 and the LA consoles, en-route to Dodgy Bob‘s, handed the cheque over to Joe-boy and booted the Unix boxes, although in fact it was only eight years ago! Ah, RSTS/E... they knew how to write an OS back then! No messing around with PC‘s, no Gatesware getting in the way, no screens of death, just good old dumb terminals. (But Chris, they were so old fashioned! — I‘ll save that argument for later...)

So all seemed well until someone came up with the term "Integrated People All Queing". At least that is how I saw the name "IPAQ" since what they wanted to do was merge the front end of the Housing service with everything else in a "one-stop shop". Actually, if you dug into the whole mess, what they were actually doing was looking for ways to kill off a few hundred jobs, so you can imagine how relieved many of us were when the ruling party self destructed in acrimonious disagreement and the opposition halted the whole project. It gave us a few years saving grace at least. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if we had only known what was to come, we would have packed it all in right there and then. You see, come the next council election, the party that had instigated IPAQ got back in. It wasn‘t too long afterward that the first rumblings of change were noticed heading inward.

It was all started when Joe-boy suddenly ceased his usual phrenetic rush (he gave meaning to the words hands-on, since he seemed to have a hand in everything! Maybe he was related to that Hindu god with all the extra hands... a scary thought indeed!) We came upon him in one of our rare organised meetings, and rather than the usual merry banter followed by business as usual, he morosely went through all the changes to come, including his upcoming payoff. Now bear in mind that Joe-boy was not just a housing manager, he had a hand (there‘s that thought again!) in housing policy all over the country, so to get pushed out was quite a heave. However it was quite obvious to all that he was a goner when the new corporate map was laid before us. In those days we got to see things like that before nearly everyone, so we could only guess what the response would be once word got out.

About ten years before this event, the union had used the Social Services Department to flood out a meeting involving the voluntary change to a housing association which had been proposed by the council and the housing corporate management. They had reasoned that because the government of the day had a real downer on council housing, if the department were to survive and even start growing again, it had to shift out of the council and into this strange quango. Nobody was happy with it, but the folk in housing (well, most of them) were more interested in preserving the department in any way possible than political brownie points. The view was that if we did it at that point under our own terms, we would be better off than we would be if the government imposed it on us. The trouble was that the union was under the impression that the government would be voted out at the next election and all would be hunky-dory, so why bother? They paraded their views around the council and the various tenant groups, while we went by the book. Silly us! The final vote came down to a meeting which was supposed to be for housing related staff only, but suddenly someone swung it so that a multitude of SS folk could also move in, and the vote went against us. The following general election saw the Tories hold on to power which meant that the union argument went down the toilet, but the damage was done and the housing and SS departments never again saw eye to eye. So you could imagine our response when Joe-boy informed us that the new structure meant that housing and SS were to "merge".

Actually, the word "merge" is defined in the dictionary as "to cause to be absorbed, especially in gradual stages" or "to combine or unite: merging two sets of data". That doesn‘t seem too bad except for one major problem; the brains behind the merger. But I‘ll come back to that.

The problem was this. Our wonderful new government, the new, brighter, less-corrupt party, had come up with a new slogan. "Best value" was its name. What this implied was that all councils had to provide the best value service for the money it was charging, and more importantly it had to prove it. Now you have to remember that all politicians have very short attention spans, so when they were told that they had to provide proof, they lost the plot at the point where the various folk went into detail about exactly how this was to happen. Hemhem was a prime example. "All it means is change", think they, "and we have this old IPAQ thing that got chucked out a few years ago... YES! It can be done!"

In other words, to prove that they were going to provide best value, they adopted an old, discredited plan, tarted it up a little, then triumphantly cried out that they were on a winner. The biggest problem was that they approached it from entirely the wrong angle. When policy is being decided, the average politician looks at it this way:-

  • Always consider the bottom line figure. It doesn‘t matter that the solution will eventually cost you megebeans if you make sure that you pay very little for it in the first place.
  • If it doesn‘t work, appoint a "project manager".
  • If it still doesn‘t work, blame the "project manager".
  • Never let lack of knowledge stand in the way of a brilliant idea.
  • If the solution is unpleasant, let someone else do it. Never endanger your standing, you might pay for it at the next election.

I digress though. Joe-boy turns up for his farewell do then disappears into the mists of time while many folk dance upon his memory. Never mind that he always stood up for his workers, he was management, so he was the enemy. Sad, deluded fools.

The day after Joe-boy‘s departure, we the management were gathered into a room. In walks the new broom, one Dougie Antfarm. OK, that wasn‘t his real name, but if you believe that I really worked for a council called Hemhem under someone called Joe-boy, then you have probably missed the irony of this story altogether!

He sits down, introduces himself, outlines his purpose, then at the behest of some of his political buddies treats us to a long harangue about how shockingly bad the department was. No excuses, no pack-drill, we were a bunch of shoddy timewasters and he was going to shape us up. A fine way to endear himself to his staff! From that day until these meetings were summarily ended, he never turned up to a meeting on time.

Oddly, we found out after the event a little more about Dougie. His previous home had been at Coughly Council, and when we made contact with them, the person at the other end cried; "Poor you! We are still sorting out the mess he made here!" Basically, Dougie had made his career by jumping from council to council, chopping people out wholesale, then just as services were about to collapse, he would move on. He was also a consummate politician, in that he could worm his way out of any given problem, and was also known for keeping toadies as close as possible. In our case he came in as an SS director that had already decimated his section and was now cocking a beady eye at us.

As of that day, Housing was no more. We had "merged" into the new "Community Department", along with SS. At least that was what we thought, or shall we say that is what Dougie told us. It wouldn‘t be the first time that Dougie adapted the truth, nor the last. (Effectively, this so-called "merger" turned out to be little more than a hostile takeover by SS, though any mention of this immediately brought out the thought police!)

Actually, Dougie had been given quite a bit of power. The council had originally set up four groups, each headed by an Executive, under the Chief Executive (a weasly man who had his head so far up the political ruling anus that his hair was brown!) Each Executive would not be given a permanent portfolio, but rather would be rotated at will so that they could not gain the kind of power that Joe-boy had (the politicians were afraid of Joe-boy and the other Directors since they exercised real power and took no shit...) However Dougie was in a unique position. The government, in its "wisdom" had made the post of "Director of Social Services" a mandatory one, hence why Joe-boy had left and power had been given to Dougie. This meant that moving Dougie away from his post would be difficult at best.

Dougie also had another motive. The budgets handled by Housing were big. Let‘s face it, a council makes money from its housing stock, and Dougie had an impoverished SS section with much to do, so grabbing Housing would solve all his problems, or so he thought. Then he came up against ”ringfencing. As anyone with proper training in Housing could tell you, the subject of social housing is a touchy business, and the budgets given to sections and departments for this task are set up so that you have to present yourself as a housing cost to be able to spend it. Curses, foiled again!

Finally we found out the master plan. 30% of us folk would be facing redundancy, starting at the top. A consultancy had told us that our management structure was far too top heavy (too many chiefs, etc.) A chill went through the council, as long standing section heads and assistant directors started calculating their payoffs. The first level was already done, although some thought was given by pundits as to why the four original Executives had suddenly been joined by a fifth. Pay attention here, you should start to see a pattern emerging.

At first, not much changed. Dougie was not IT inclined so he gave us over to Joe-boy‘s number two, who pretty much continued as Joe-boy himself did. However all would change for the worse when level two came crumbling down. Joe-boy‘s sidekicks, who had all been dedicated housing professionals, were now being asked to do jobs that spanned the entire cluster, and this meant heavy overworking. Understandably, they all took the money and ran, which meant that again we had been left without a top dog. Enter Sadie Belgium, the hatchet-man‘s chief toadie. She had benefitted from the benevolant hand of Dougie by jumping clean across the pay scale from PO3 to PO7 in the same review that cut all the old housing supremos, despite the rules saying that you couldn‘t assimilate upwards.

Simple Sadie enters our story in a meeting that was conducted between us IT bods and her with a few hangers on. Blow me, but she starts off doing an exact copy of Dougie‘s opening blows which had made him so popular on his first day! Of course, this time we are ready and battle is joined. It was at this point that we find that Simple Sadie has no proper IT experience except for a brief time setting up a helldesk. Dougie has put a pleb in charge of the second biggest IT operation in the council, and she is now presuming to give us a third degree! Well, we three merry lads of the Computer Services section take this on board quickly and switch to super-jargon mode! By the end, Simple has to concede that we know what we are doing, sets up a job schedule and departs hastily for her cosy office back at the Toilet, the name given to the Watsitworth Centre, a converted school that holds the SS.

But then meetings seem to have become a way of life now. It was bad before, it is worse now, with some idiot management wobblebottom setting up meeting after meeting to discuss this, that and the... well maybe not the other, but then chances are that they would probably never do the other unless they had first set up project meetings with the wife, discussing length, size, duration and the overall fringe benefits weeks in advance, and the thought of a pregnancy resulting from it, the repercussions, the fallouts and the successive pre-natal meetings would boggle the mind! However sometimes a meeting can have serious effects. Take, for example, our first constructive meeting with Dougie on the subject of IT.

I missed this meeting, which was a shame since it sounded like a good one, and for once Dougie wasn‘t the guilty party. The problem was that he had been receiving lots of complaints about our system from a number of parties and he was understandably concerned. It all came to a head so we called a meeting to explain what was going on. The meeting, however, was hijacked by the complaining parties, notably one of the ex-Joe-boy set whom I shall refer to as Billy. Billy had sent a number of complaints in because he was not getting what he believed to be a good service. However, once in the meeting and with all under way, my colleague, Derek, asked Billy to repeat his complaints to the meeting, which he did. Somewhat sheepishly. You see, although he had been complaining good and loud to his own section, the other section heads, even to Dougie himself, he had never addressed his complaints to the Computer Services section. Why? Well, mostly because he had been given adequate reasons as to why his demands were not met. Indeed his demands were verging on the unreasonable, and the reasons, when repeated in the meeting for all to hear, made sense even to Dougie. Result, Billy slunk away to his hole in the wall, only to emerge again to get his payoff. The moral is this: if you are going to suck botty by slurring another section, make sure that the story you give cannot come back on you to bite you on the situpon.

Day followed day and meeting followed meeting. I had already found that I was seemingly on the chopping block, despite the fact that the level I was on had yet to be reviewed. This was probably down to another meeting that I got involved in that turned into a lynching for me. It was ostensibly a brainstorming session to find ways of solving an intractible interface fault between a system that I had originally written and a bought in package used by another part of the council. Specifically, it was to do with data manipulation. What happened was that I was being ”asked to make changes to a specific data set by hand before submission to this other system. I refused. If that data had been incorrectly edited, I could be stung for the damage, and as a programmer I would automatically come under suspicion from auditors. No way I was going down that path, since that way lay ruination! But that did not stop a notable group of finance section folk from ambushing me in that meeting, though I did not back down from my position and would file an official complaint first thing when I returned to my office. I forwarded the complaint to Simple, Simple‘s boss (who didn‘t like Simple), to Dougie, to the Weasel, to the union... and it was sat upon. Since the complaint only amassed to two pages, I can only assume that the complaint was sat upon for political reasons. Probably because the chief instigator, Robin Colinson or somesuch, was high in favour and my name was mud. But then Robin, bless his heart, was the one doing much of the slinging anyhow, so my probably best course may have been to duck, had I the chance.

What was noticeable was that with Simple‘s reign commencing, our standing was going down faster than a PC running Windows. Suddenly we couldn‘t fix anything because our budgets had been taken off us, we couldn‘t write anything unless Simple approved it, we couldn‘t move unless Simple coughed and we were kept in the dark on all issues. And like mushrooms, we were also fed on shit. Or at least two of us were. I wasn‘t even getting fed.

Simple had decided that I was getting the chop, so she relinquished my reigns and generally ignored me. There I was, twiddling my thumbs and trying to make it through the day. When something important came up, I had to find my own way. When I later questioned Simple about this, her response was "well, I only took over your management in July". She later expanded this to take the other two in, despite the fact that she had initially tried to dictate our work plan (as I mentioned before), and she eventually put the project manager for the new system in place so that she didn‘t have to directly interact with us anymore. One might believe that Simple was scared of us! Trouble was that Malcolm was an even worse doof than Simple, in that his previous job was a bean counter in the finance regions of the council.

So let us peruse the structure we are left with here. An idiot, leading a moron, in charge of three people with no decision power. Ahead of us we have the best part of 200 PC‘s, a brace of Novell and Unix servers and an antiquated housing system to look after. We need to put in a new housing system, comply with any number of performance indicators and targets and take on the "e-Government" strategy amongst all the jobs to do. And I‘m for the chop. It‘s at this point that I find out how.

Two posts are created in the new structure. Both are almost identical to our old jobs, but with a few tweaks to make sure that the people in the posts are kept firmly under Simple‘s thumb. Then we wait. The rules of assimilation are that anyone that has a similar post to the one on offer is automatically considered. However, Clive decides to make it official by submitting a claim form. He‘s got kids and a mortgage, after all! Derek and I decide not to bother since we would still get put forward. Trouble was that I didn‘t get put forward. Simple‘s excuse? "I thought you were a redeployee!" Bull, I know exactly what she thought. Otherwise she wouldn‘t have let slip "Chris should be sorting himself out now, he is leaving soon" or somesuch to Derek months before the actual review took place. So when I call the union on to her, she lies her way out of it, sends me a form and tells me to fill it in, then cries convincingly when I fail the competitive interview, despite Derek trying his utmost to get the redundancy deal. Where am I supposed to have failed? Well, I‘ll get back to that...

Of course, Simple‘s gripe against the housing folk is a long standing one. She isn‘t particularly liked by anyone other than Dougie and a number of lesser toadies. The bods at central IT (sorry, it‘s Icy Tea now!) can‘t stand the woman, and told of a tale of Simple asking for a service that she couldn‘t pay for, but insisted that she should have it, but couldn‘t pay for it, but insisted that she should have it, but couldn‘t pay for... Anyhow, the tale went something like this.

Some years before our current tale, there had been a bomb scare. Nothing desperate, the county had been bombed extensively during WWII and unexploded bombs were still a necessary evil, especially in areas that had been left otherwise untouched since the 1940‘s. In this case, it was uncovered in a built up area that had some building work being done to extend a private estate, and in such matters Joe-boy and his number two were assigned to deal with such matters, along with Simple. Now Simple was relatively new to Hemhem at the time, and duly turned up with a toadie and a laptop and was merrily tapping away while Joe-boy and aide were busily organising services, evacuation and so forth. So it was that Joe-boy comes upon Simple in full tap and enquires "Who the fornication are you?" The upshot was that Joe-boy told Simple that if she wasn‘t going to do anything practical, then she should bundle her laptop up and retreat in short, jerky motions. Or words to that effect. Away runs Simple, tail wedged between her ample hamhocks, chip in shoulder ZIF socket and revenge taking root in her bloodpump (heart? Doubtful...)

Simple never actually revenged herself directly on Joe-boy, but one suspects that some of her actions after that may have been the result of that fateful event.

That thing I mentioned a couple of times in the previous diatribe? You know, the hint about how I failed my interview? There is one more piece to the puzzle. Some weeks before the interview took place, we were all treated to a lecture about equalities. In fact, the lecture was pretty good as it dealt with themes such as discrimination, victimisation and so forth. Very interesting stuff, especially as all three of us had felt victimised by Simple and her cronies. However it was notable to see that none of the managers got involved in these lectures. Indeed the lecturer nearly quit after the appalling way the management treated her during her first visit, and the acrimony increased until the whole thing was cancelled. Strange to relate that the reason for these lectures had been down to a member of staff taking offence at another member of staff making alleged racist remarks. That staff person was fired and summarily rehired after a tribunal ruled that the council itself was in error because they had never given any instruction about equalities to its staff. Trouble is that this let that modern day thought policeman "political correctness" in by the back door.

You see, because the management never took the course, they presumed to know it all. As a result, they made all sorts of half-assed decisions about seminars for certain minorities never dreaming that what they were doing was exactly the kind of segregation that had been the cause of the racism in the first place! What was worse, when certain staff objected, they were called racists. My sin? When asked my opinion of users, my response was "a user is a user". In other words, I don‘t care what race, sex, colour or creed they are, they all have the same right to services. However because I didn‘t explain my response clearly enough and with all the correct buzzwords, I was booted out. But then, Derek made the same mistake.

You see, Derek didn‘t really want the job. He did not apply for it, he made no effort in the interview, but he got it. I made the effort, tried my best, and didn‘t get it. Go fig! Actually, what I see is that Hemhem is going down the same slippery slope as many of the so called "loony left" councils of the 1970‘s and 1980‘s. Morale is so low now that a frown is seen as a good sign. All the expertise that Hemhem once boasted has gone. Our proud record of service and our debt-recovery record are a thing of the past. All because politicians wanted to play God.

As for the future, Derek & Clive are looking for new jobs, and are doing comedy gigs on the side. Apparently Clive has a lovely leg for the role. Simple is renting her cranial cavity out at weekends as an aircraft hangar and Dougie moved on, having destroyed Hemhem and a couple of other boroughs before moving on to bigger things. Word has it that he might be looking at a ministerial post, which is making some of the cabinet nervous as they think he might be considering a merger between the Exchequer and Lottery Services (if you match six numbers on your P60, you could win this fabulous prize!) Joe-boy is enjoying the good life on his sizeable payoff while a number of ex-employees are relaxing now and having a good chortle at the expense of those that stayed behind.

That 30% staffing cut I mentioned? Failed miserably. When Hemhem discovered what Dougie had done, they ended up having to hire extra folk in to fill the gaps. There has been no overall reduction in staff at all. Even Malcolm is crapping building materials at my impending departure, despite (as I told him) the fact that if he needs my expertise so much, then how is it that I have become redundant? The merger? Well, it has become all too apparent to most that it was merely a hostile takeover by SS of housing. Dougie got around the ringfence by inserting the word "Housing" at strategic points in various SS contracts, and suddenly all the housing budgets have started to go bye-bye. All the new posts have, with a few exceptions (well, I never laid claim to SS having the monopoly on bottom-feeders, now did I?) have gone to SS applicants.

Those that read this might recognise the situation. Certainly I am not going to name the real names here of the guilty or the innocent, but leave it to you to apply this story to your own situation, a problem that is engulfing the councils all over the country. Or, to use a popular corruption of a recent slogan introduced by Hemhem...

SHIt‘s happening in Hemhem!

Read the new missive! If you thought that the idiocy of Hemhem Council could not be continued beyond the grave, then click here for Hemhemballs II - The Programmer Strikes Back!
©2001 Chris Johnson

PDP-11 and RSTS/E is a trademark of Digital Equipment Co., part of HP/Compaq

All characters in this document have had their names changed in the interest of saving my butt legally and getting a few cheap laughs in places. Anyhow the events within this document actually happened but anyone who knows or can work out for themselves who the actual folk are, keep it to yourselves since I'm not interested in appearing in court to protect myself from this bunch of slimeballs. Well, it's all true except for the bit at the end which is merely a result of some cosmic crystal ball gazing and some extrapolation of events to date.

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