Sunday, 8 February 2009

Not burning our money, part III

Bugger, bugger, bugger, poo bum. I spent at least half an hour extending my last post, only to have blogger eat my words. So instead of trying to add to that post again, I'll start with a clean slate.

In the last episodes of my exciting adventures in the public sector, I introduced the amazing characters of Fuckwit, Bozo and Bumbling. They were the troika from hell. The three horse-idiots of the apocalypse.

In this episode, I will try to describe how they turned a rather simple process - that of hiring contract or temporary staff - into a living hell for all concerned.

When I started, the process was pretty simple. We'd hire a contractor for the usual reasons - to cover someone taking a long period of leave, to provide skills we didn't have, or to work on projects when we were too flat out to do them ourselves. My boss would ask a simple set of questions:

  1. do we have money left in the budget?
  2. do we really need them?
  3. how much will they cost? (which also answered how long they would be with us for)
Provided I had the right answers, he'd sign the single bit of paper that I had with me that would approve hiring a contractor of my choice. The bit of paper would roughly state:

"I wish to hire a contractor from company A to perform task B for a period of C days/weeks/months. Their hourly/daily/weekly rate is $D, and they will costs $CxD all up, plus a contingency of 10 or 20%. "

And that was it. If it was below his delegation of $50,000, all I had to do once he signed it was to ring the agency of my choice (from a state government panel) and pick an appropriate person. I'd usually done that in advance of course - I knew that if the need was there, they'd be approved straight away by my boss. He trusted me enough to know that if I asked for something, I wasn't bullshitting him.

Then the clowns got involved in this process. And somewhere along the way, our group acquired a Resource Coordinator. The Big Boss of our group (which at the time of my departure, was around 1,000 staff) decided that because we were employing lots of contractors, we needed someone special to coordinate them all. So a Resource Coordinator was recruited from an employment agency, and that was that.

As soon as the Coordinator had found her seat, I was standing there with a request for a contractor. When I dealt directly with an agency, I would normally call my agency of choice and chat with them about the sort of person I wanted. After 10 minutes of to and fro, we'd agree on the requirements, and I would dash off an email to that effect, formalising the sort of person they were going to look for (a mate of mine in HR used to simply specify "blonde, with big tits").

The Coordinator was fresh from an agency, and that was the way she operated too. We chatted for 10 minutes, confirmed what I wanted, and then she picked up the phone and started calling agencies on the state contract panel.

By the time I had left the building, the Clowns had become involved. They told her off for being so presumptuous. By the time I returned to my desk in another building, there was a message from the Clowns stating that I had to supply a formal Position Description (PD) for this job.

That was news to all concerned. The Coordinator refused to write it point blank - it was not in her PD to write such things, and no one had mentioned it in her job interview. Things blew up, and were escalated up the management hierarchy. Managers in the chain of command were also confused, as they had never before seen a requirement to write a PD for contractors at this level.

After a bit of yelling, it transpired that the Clowns had simply decided that it was time for a change, so they had invented the requirement on the fly, but hadn't bothered to tell anyone that things had changed. It was a change known only to themselves. By using words such as "probity" and "corruption" and "excellence", they managed to cower all the managers who objected to it, and their requirement stayed.

So I wrote the PD. It ended up being three pages. Of that, 2.9 pages consisted of the usual rubbish about EEO, OH&S, ethical behaviour and so on, and my two line description of what I wanted. My description was so short, it was sent back because the Clowns had missed it. They thought I had sent them an empty PD. I had to explain to them that the skills I required could be listed in about 10 words, and that anything more was useless padding.

Since their entire lives and careers consisted of useless padding, this was something they found hard to accept, and they insisted that I add more words. I fought back, saying that was all it took to communicate my needs, and that I would not add frivolous requirements just because they wanted a PD that was 4 pages long instead of 3.

Eventually, they accepted my PD, and the Coordinator once again picked up the phone and started calling agencies.

After two phone calls, the Clowns were onto her again. She did not have approval to call any agencies. A Submission had to be written and approved before she could phone any agencies.

Again, this was news to all concerned. The usual process was this:

  1. size the task, estimate the number of days or weeks to complete it
  2. work out the skills required to perform the task
  3. call an agency and discuss the rates of people with the appropriate skills
  4. use those rates to work out a rough budget that you could then use when discussing the work with your boss.
My boss would never accept me asking for a contractor unless I had a good idea of what that contractor would cost - in advance. But here were the Clowns, telling me that I could not make a phone call to find out what the current market rate was, so how could I come up with a total cost?

This presented a chicken and egg conundrum that they had not expected. For once, the Clowns actually huddled for a few days and talked to each other in an effort to solve it.

Here is their solution - we were allowed to call agencies to sound out market rates, but only in an unofficial capacity. They were not even sure if we could call from a work telephone. Until we had approval in written form, we could make no official contact with an agency.

The first time I met this pair, I walked away thinking they were short a few roos in the top paddock. It was quickly becoming clear that they were short more than just a few.

So I unofficially sounded out an agency, got a rate I was comfortable with and wrote a submission stating that I wanted approval to get quotes from some agencies for a certain task.

The Clowns rejected it, because how could I possibly know that the agencies would be asking the rate that I had specified in my submission?

As you can imagine, I swore a lot when that happened. Although my boss had his office in the opposite corner of our floor, he (along with another 100 staff) could hear me venting at the Clowns. He walked over to see what the fuss was about (since I never lost it in the office), and before you knew it, he had picked up my phone, dialed a Clown and was swearing at him at the top of his lungs.

That made me feel better.

They accepted my submission.

Now I worked with about two dozen other managers who had to jump through the same hoops as me, and we all regularly communicated about how we were getting along. As soon as they knew I had successfully navigated the shoal of Clowns, they asked for a copy of my submission and PD so that they too could follow in my footsteps.

The Clowns of course immediately rejected all their submissions, because they were "not in the appropriate format". Questions were asked as to what the appropriate format was, since mine was the only one that had ever been produced up until that point, and it had passed muster. Since theirs were an exact copy of mine, how could their submissions not be in the "appropriate format"?

The response was that they were not happy with mine, it had only been passed under sufferance, and they were working on a new template. When pressed for when they would deliver it, they replied "in about 6 months".

Predictably, people exploded at that point.

So the Coordinator picked up the phone, now armed with a PD and approved submission (in an inappropriate but passable format) and started calling agencies.

The Clowns once again stepped in - only they were authorised to deal with agencies. Even though her PD stated that it was her job to deal with agencies, and there was nothing in the Clown's PD to indicate talking to agencies, they had decided on the spur of the moment that only they could do so.

The Coordinator blew up at this point, and stormed off to see our Big Boss. The Big Boss caved in to the noxious demands of the Clowns, so the Coordinator quit on the spot. As far as I know, that position was never re-advertised, and is still vacant to this day. She quit in such a towering rage, spewing so much invective in all directions, that the job has been cursed forever.

I would normally call three agencies and ask for 2-3 resumes from each - and no more.

The Clowns had different ideas.

There were forty agencies on the state contracts panel. They wanted to issue a formal tender, 30 pages in length, to all forty agencies, asking for an unlimited number of resumes that met my requirements.

I could immediately picture a stack of 400 resumes, from which I would have to find my contractor. It took me a week to talk some sense into them - 3 agencies, no more than 5 resumes each. The Clowns went pale at this idea - Bozo took another week to get written arse coverage that this idea would not land him in jail. He talked to our internal legal staff, then to lawyers at the Public Works Dept (who administer the contract panels) and finally the Attorney General's Department. He wanted each to give him written authority to proceed.

He was completely off his rocker.

Finally, the 30 page tenders went out, with my 3 page PD attached, with its two lines of appropriate information. The tenders were a waste of time, since the agencies had already completed much more onerous tenders to get onto the panel in the first place. Bozo was asking them to provide the same information again, and predictably, the agencies were not impressed. He saw no problem with asking them to waste hours pulling all that information together for a second time, and he also saw no problem with doing this every time we wanted to find a contractor!

The agencies of course all rang me straight away to ask, "What the fuck?", and I simply directed them to the appropriate two lines in the PD - which they had missed, since the only information relevant to them was buried in 33 pages of bumpf.

Bozo would not let me see even a single resume until all the agencies had replied. On the big day, he handed me a thin stack, and I went to work.

I was expecting 15 resumes, but he only gave me 10. On top of that, I had been chatting with the agencies, and they had all told me informally who the best people were. Their resumes were all missing.

When I asked Bozo about the missing resumes, he finally admitted that he had culled them himself. When I questioned the grounds for culling them, it turned out that he thought that they were "too technical".

Which of course is just the sort of people I was looking for. After threatening to tear his precious filing cabinet apart in a search for them, he relented and handed them over.

I stood in front of him, flicked through them and handed one back. "I want this person".

Bozo just looked at me with his mouth agape. After a few speechless seconds, he told me that I had to write a tender review package, which he then had to review and approve. Once the review package was approved, I could formally review the resumes with my panel.


Yes, I had to review them with two other people, to ensure probity.

So I wrote the review package, got it approved, and proceeded to fiddle with the weightings and essential and desirable criteria to cull all but three candidates. The review package consisted of a spreadsheet with multiple worksheets, each compiling and weighting and averaging certain criteria. By the time that was over, two of the prime contractors had a job elsewhere, so we only interviewed the third. They were acceptable, so I then told Bozo that I wanted that person.

Not so fast. I now had to formally document the findings of my review by writing a report, collect signatures from the other panel members on that report, have the report reviewed and approved, and write yet another submission to approve engaging that contractor.

Each step took a few days, since Bozo always found some reason for rejecting all paperwork on the first pass. He often rejected things twice. The first time, he would insist on a certain change, then he would insist that the change be reverted to the original, since he had changed his mind about that clause in the interim.

By the time my submission was approved, my contractor had a job elsewhere. So did all the others.

We had to start again - another round of resumes from the agencies. One agency spat the dummy, so we had to find another - and that required another submission to vary the initial submission so that we could deal with another agency.

The paperwork was starting to pile up at this point.

So were the complaints from the people who were relying on that contractor to do work for them. One really angry manager came over to call me all sorts of names, threatening to outsource the work that us "useless c&^ts" couldn't perform. I told him that I had no problem with him outsourcing the work - except that he would be forced to follow the processes laid down by the Clowns.

He laughed at that, so I took him through the 3 inch thick file on my desk that related to him, showing him every bit of paper I had produced and redrafted and had approved, plus all the emails that had flown back and forth, plus the file notes that I had made of phone conversations (and I never, ever made file notes until the Clowns made me decide now was the time to start).... and then I showed him the other stack of files that I was also dealing with, each of which had an angry customer like him on the end of it.... and at the end of it, the poor bastard was in tears. Tears of fury and disgust.

But we persevered, went though the whole thing again, and this time managed to nab about the 9th most suitable candidate, who turned out ok in the end.

The sad thing is, this is not the whole of it. I have left certain parts out, as I am too weary to document them. The Clowns made our lives a complete misery. You see, buried in parts of the public sector, there are people that care, and see it as their job to make a difference. You have managers in the health department who understand that their job is to make it easier for others to turn sick people into healthy people. In the education department, there are those who strive to assist others to teach children. In the RTA, there are those who want us to have a better road system.

And then there are the Clowns and their ilk. They manage to insinuate themselves into certain critical points where they can essentially bring an entire, multi-billion dollar agency to a grinding halt. And they are unmovable. They can take a simple, two hour exercise and turn it into something that ties up half a dozen managers for months. They regularly derail, disrupt and damage project after project, frustrating suppliers, contractors and employees in the process. I am sure they have also bankrupted plenty of businesses along the way.

They are psychopaths of the first order, but we don't see them as such because they are wearing grey cardigans and plain, polyester shirts with short sleeves. They tend to be grey, mousy little men who live with their mothers. Some are still virgins in their forties. They are sick, bent, twisted individuals who only have one passion in life, and that is in seeing other people suffer at their hands.

When Rudd told us last year that he was working the public service hard, I had a good long laugh. I remembered the Clowns, and all the unnecessary, useless work they made us do, which resulted in long hours for some of us as we battled to get things done. We'd think we had done what was required, only for them to make last minute changes, negating all our work and putting us back to square one. I believe Rudd had the public service doing the paper shuffling equivalent of digging holes and filling them in again - all very busy and time consuming, but not terribly productive.

I just know that if I see the Clowns again, I will shoot on sight.

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