"superior in their natural gifts on the average to the mass[es]"
July 23, 2013 3:45 AM   Subscribe

"In Victorian England, getting a job was all about who you knew, [but] Charles Trevelyan, the permanent secretary to the Treasury 1840-59, was horrified by the Barnacle types in the civil service, once describing a colleague, as a "gentleman who really could neither read nor write, he was almost an idiot"."
posted by marienbad (20 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Still plenty of civil service types who couldn't find their arse with both hands.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 4:04 AM on July 23, 2013


WHAT THE FUCK
posted by barnacles at 4:20 AM on July 23, 2013 [11 favorites]


...and in the private sector too. Nobody has a monopoly on idiocy. The Peter Principle is alive and well in every business I have ever been a part of.
posted by longbaugh at 4:23 AM on July 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


Google's vaunted hiring process was basically useless.
posted by empath at 4:26 AM on July 23, 2013 [11 favorites]


My limited experience suggests that UK civil service recruitment is relatively objective and not bad on diversity these days; the chief problem is at the top levels - a not unfamilliar pattern, but possibly buttressed in this case by the elite schemes which may take people straight from their Oxford History degree to leadership of a department a little too quickly and easily. Elitism of the achiever is one thing, armchair elitism something else.

That said, the very worst civil servants I've met in recent years were recycled private sector rejects, taken on at triple the normal salary of anyone who actually had a clue, in pursuit of bringing the values of capitalism into the bureaucracy (so, a success, I suppose).
posted by Segundus at 4:56 AM on July 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


It doesn't really pass the smell test to try to blame The Failure of Government on the odd incompetent low-level bureaucrat. As is plainly evident from current events, the problem is collusion at the top among the very rich. Not mismanagement but malmanagement.
posted by DU at 5:00 AM on July 23, 2013 [8 favorites]



Google's vaunted hiring process was basically useless.


From that link:

"Twice a year, anybody who has a manager is surveyed on the manager’s qualities. We call it an upward feedback survey. We collect data for everyone in the company who’s a manager on how well they’re doing on anywhere between 12 and 18 different factors. We then share that with the manager, and we track improvement across the whole company. Over the last three years, we’ve significantly improved the quality of people management at Google, measured by how happy people are with their managers."


...and then they don't tell us any of them. This is the kind of stuff that, if it works, would be immensely valuable to like, all the companies. It's a shame that they're keeping it internal.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:03 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


My experience in the public service has been kind of mixed. Like administrative and professoriate jobs in universities, you usually need someone on the inside to help guide you through the labyrinth of rules, regulations, expectations and other assorted hoops to jump through when you're first applying for a job. Having a relative, or a friend, or even a friend of a friend, makes these sorts of things easier to negotiate at the beginning.

But once you're in, there is an expectation of competency. There's zero tolerance for mistakes, because everything is basically subject to an access to information request. Senior officials are currently mimicking the "lean" operations push that the private sector experienced years ago. So bureaucrats are expected to do increasingly more work, in shorter time frames, often in a highly political environment, with numerous stakeholders, the press breathing down their necks if the file is a "hot" one, and with a 0% error rate.

And yet, having a network within the service can mean the difference between being constantly behind the eight ball as new decisions are made and the effects are felt down the chain of command, and being ahead of the game if you are privy to the news before others are.

So, it's wierd. The ideal public servant seems to be one who embodies both Trevelyan's and Barnacle's ideals - competent, but also connected. People who can't measure up to that get shunted off from office to office, until they shore up in some kind of administrative support position, often (oddly) a public facing one. So the public often talks to and hears from these sorts of people in their interactions with the service, and forms their opinions based on that. But that's not the view from the inside.
posted by LN at 6:09 AM on July 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ah, yes, Charles Trevalyn, quirky beuracracy reformer and architect of the Irish famine. Always wanted to spit on his grave.
posted by Diablevert at 6:29 AM on July 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


One thing that's often missed in these sorts of discussions is that in the public or semi-public sectors it takes a dedicated and disciplined manager to get rid of a poorly performing employee.

There is an enormous amount of paperwork to be done and a similarly enormous amount of process and policy that must be followed precisely and to the letter. And even in the most clear-cut scenarios it can take 2+ years from verbal warning to vacant seat.

If you do this process wrong or don't find the right justifications, the cascade effects of a bad firing (or a misfire -- trying but failing to get rid of someone) can be much worse for the org than simply letting the bad employee continue to suck on a salary and under-perform.

A competent manager can handle competent employees and keep them well fed with tasks, defend them from external hassles, and help them navigate their careers. It's much more challenging to deal with a bad employee in a way that works for the org as well as the employee. Even someone who is a bad fit for a job is still a human being and deserves to be treated like one.

You could easily be talking about a hundred hours or more of atypical extra work and headache just to deal with one bad employee and that's on top of managing the rest of the staff. Staff who not only have to do their own work but cover with the short-staffing effect of an underperformer.

Not every manager can successfully navigate that minefield. Which argues that maybe they shouldn't be in management, but then... how do you get rid of an inadequate manager? Their boss has to take action. And at that level, it gets even more difficult.

Just some thoughts about how this shit happens and can persist.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:37 AM on July 23, 2013 [9 favorites]


I think the Northcote-Trevelyan civil service reforms are one of the most important and under-appreciated parts of our history. They turned an incredibly corrupt, nepotistic and inefficent system into one of the most fair and efficient national administrations in the world, for over a century. That's an astonishing achievement, and one that in a world plagued with corruption, we desperately need to know how to replicate. Efficient national institutions are an important aspect of development.

Sadly in the UK there's been virtually a concerted effort to undermine the Northcote-Trevelyan principles and reintroduce more patronage. I think that's assisted by a pervasive faux-cynicism that all civil servants are inefficient bureaucrats, and all politics is corrupt. Actually some civil services are much more efficient than others, and some political systems are less corrupt than others: the assumption that they're all bad is a convenient cloak for letting them get worse.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:50 AM on July 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


My limited experience suggests that UK civil service recruitment is relatively objective and not bad on diversity these days; the chief problem is at the top levels - a not unfamilliar pattern, but possibly buttressed in this case by the elite schemes which may take people straight from their Oxford History degree to leadership of a department a little too quickly and easily. Elitism of the achiever is one thing, armchair elitism something else.

The problem is finding a way to block patronage. The old saw that the success of a brilliant woman (or racial minority or other disadvantaged group) proves little; we will see equality when mediocre women do as well as mediocre men. Of course, the problem with blocking patronage is that it also blocks mentoring, which can be very valuable for the institution if done right.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:47 AM on July 23, 2013


I see the article notes that inspiration was drawn from the Chinese 科举 kējǔ examination system, dating back to the Sui in the 7th century. I'd been dimly aware that the keju had evolved and undergone reforms down the years (there's a sidebar link to a different BBC mag article on Wang Anshi) but book I'm currently reading on the Song makes clear how much the system that survived in the 20th century (and thus prevalent in Trevelyan's time) was shaped by the Song-era reformers -apparently in the Tang well over 90 percent of officials were still there on the recommendation of the aristocracy; by the high Song most senior posts were held by examination graduates, though good old nepotism still accounted for a lot of lower, essentially sinecure, posts.
The author does point to research that shows even this famous system was essentially a work of elite reproduction - candidates almost all had a bureaucrat relative, as while in theory any poor scholar could impress through talent in practice the resources required to train up someone to pass the exam remained the province of a tiny (less than one percent) number of families.
posted by Abiezer at 7:51 AM on July 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


...and in the private sector too
"George goes to sleep at a bank from ten to four each day, except Saturdays, when they wake him up and put him outside at two."
posted by usonian at 8:17 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


The author does point to research that shows even this famous system was essentially a work of elite reproduction - candidates almost all had a bureaucrat relative, as while in theory any poor scholar could impress through talent in practice the resources required to train up someone to pass the exam remained the province of a tiny (less than one percent) number of families.

Of course there's two goals here which are related but not the same. Competent civil servants and egalitarianism. Competitive examinations are better at the first (though hardly perfect) than they are at the latter because of course the children of the privileged will be better prepared for the examination.

The article does point out that the Civil Service examination system was a triumph of the professional classes over the aristocracy, but then most moves towards egalitarianism are gradual expansions of privilege down the social ladder rather than radical revolutions.
posted by atrazine at 9:12 AM on July 23, 2013


There is an enormous amount of paperwork to be done and a similarly enormous amount of process and policy that must be followed precisely and to the letter. And even in the most clear-cut scenarios it can take 2+ years from verbal warning to vacant seat.

This is a great point. Even in an at-will employment state, there can be legal action brought against an institution for a firing that, even if it doesn't have merit, is not cheap to defend against. And in some states, there is the chance that the lawsuit might be viewed as having merit if every possible opportunity was not afforded to even a bad employee, so it's an open exposure for the company to move too quickly. So, many places drag the firing/disciplinary process out in order to make sure that their reasons for hiring can't even be remotely held suspect by the court, or may discourage the employee from pursuing legal action. While a thorough disciplinary process is good for employees, it is tiring for managers and deliberately or subconsciously avoided for this reason, I think. The immediate hassle of dealing with a relatively incompetent employee today is seen as much easier than the tiring 6-18 month process of getting rid of someone, on top of an already busy work schedule.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:08 AM on July 23, 2013


Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule —
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!

posted by Omon Ra at 10:23 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of course there's two goals here which are related but not the same. Competent civil servants and egalitarianism.
Didn't mean to imply that the various dynasties had any egalitarian pretensions, just that as the system actually worked, it tended to reproduce from a narrow scholar class rather than be open to all as one might imagine from a cursory later view.
As I recall if anything the emperors would be far more concerned with a "moral" purpose (for want of a better English term), as the state functioned well or badly as an expression of the imperial or charismatic virtue. There was also this long-standing notion of "employing the worthy" (用贤) which dates back quite far but by high imperial times was again seen as one of the means an emperor could employ to ensure peace, plenty and righteousness in orbis terrarum, which was his peculiar task. Or that's a probably slightly rubbish version of the theory, at least; I'm certain practical and pragmatic considerations came into it too, but the past is after all another country, especially in another country!
posted by Abiezer at 11:29 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


You mean that China centuries ago was a lot like France today?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:13 PM on July 23, 2013


Yet also so much like the Ottomans in their pomp sometime around the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent - in that it was very big and they spoke forrin, y'see.
posted by Abiezer at 3:48 PM on July 23, 2013


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