Filling a Position

I find this interesting:


It’s tempting to say this happens because an outfit like the FCO doesn’t care what the public think and its spokespeople believe they’re under no obligation to hand out information, but it goes a bit deeper than that.

The FCO is a large, bureaucratic organisation and one needs to understand how appointments are made in outfits like this. In a normal, functioning company people are put into positions which they are interested in and also suit their skills, competencies, experience, and personality. In Sakhalin around 2005 an American company won a large project to build an onshore installation, and needed to mobilise an entire site team made up of both locals and foreigners. I knew somebody who was recruited to work in the document control department, and she told me what happened. The American company called on an employee of theirs who was in his fifties and all he’d done his entire career was set up and run document control departments. He arrived in Sakhalin and immediately said “okay, we need this, that, two of them, four of them, and that goes there and this goes here.” He set up the department, trained up a bunch of locals, ran it for six months, then went back to the US to do the same thing on another project. This is what he did for a living, and he did it brilliantly.

Later on in my career I found myself watching someone in a large oil company trying to do the same thing, i.e. set up a document control system. The problem was he’d never done it before, and didn’t really know anything about document control. His approach was to brainstorm the subject as if he was stranded on Mars with only a small pocket watch, a tub of vaseline, a length of garden hose and 6 hours of air remaining. “Why don’t we try this? What if we did that?” he’d ask, as if there weren’t four decades worth of industry experience and best practices to answer his questions.

At some point I worked out that in large, bureaucratic organisations people are assigned to positions only temporarily, and irrespective of whether they are suited to them. A position doesn’t so much represent a job which needs doing as a mere step in a career path which must be completed. Whether the job actually gets done is largely immaterial provided the person holding the post doesn’t embarrass the hierarchy in any way and remains obedient and on-message. Regarding the guy who knew nothing about document control, someone had decided this was a good position for what passed for his career and simply assigned him to it. It didn’t matter to them or him he had no idea what he was doing, what was important is he occupied the position for the required duration. He might as well have been put in charge of offshore maintenance, and indeed for all I know that’s what he did next. In large, modern organisations both people and positions are wholly interchangeable.

This is why the FCO spokeswoman doesn’t know how to do a spokesperson’s job. My guess is she was plonked in that position for 2-3 years as part of a slow but steady climb up the ranks of the organisation and her brief is not to make any waves but to do exactly what her management tells her; short of swearing down the phone, how she manages the public is up to her. It is an absolute certainty she’s not working that job thanks to an aptitude for personal relations or experience in the same, and you can be equally sure a spokesperson for Tesco has both in spades.

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9 thoughts on “Filling a Position

  1. There is something worse though and that is when a certain post is only filled with the dregs who have failed in other areas. Having been put in that post they are then left there no matter what they do.
    In many parts of the public sector and semi public sector the safety officer is one of those roles. This role tends to be filled with those who can’t be left in a lab , near a lathe , soldering iron or the general public without bad things happening so not being able to sack them the management move them sideways. The problem is a bad safety officer can quickly foul up an entire organisation.

    That said from time to time a person who was a safety officer in the private sector would occasionally be employed. I found these people to be a different breed altogether but they tended to get bored and move on within months.

  2. Is “Gazthejourno” much better? OK, he’s made his point by publicising a row with an official in which he shows her to be inept. Unless he is paid by twitter activity, how exactly does that help him get a story and craft it? I would have thought that a good journalist puts up with this sort of nonsense, gets the story, and then writes a secondary story later on, rather like this one. All he has done is to self-righteously admit failure.

  3. I used to work for a huge telecom corporation. The experience led me to come up with a corollary to Murphy’s Law –

    “The success of any project is inversely proportional to the size of the team” or “Never underestimate the ability of a large company to utterly screw things up.

    I joke that I used to like Dilbert, until I had to live in that world. I got laid off (they kept all the old guard, tossed out all the younger, more IP centric men, keeping the women, most minorities). This was Lucent, of course. The merged with Alcatel and proceeded to ruin them as well. When I was there they had a chubby black woman (totally ignorant of the technology they were supporting) that had been promoted to team manager, over a double masters-experienced engineer that used to work for the end customer. It was jaw dropping. She was one of the last standing. Probably still there for all I know.

    I had a friend get a job with the merged company and tell me “Dude, it’s astonishing. These people have had billion dollar failures, and they just give them more and more”

    This is why I don’t get into those large conspiracy movies and shows like Blacklist, or Crime dramas like NCIS. They are missing the large population of the types in this article. I’ve never worked on a team in a large corp that didn’t have a gold-digger, a slacker, or a retired in place person.

  4. I’m reminded of the Labour Party’s recent travails. As the party has grown, it has begun to resemble a typical government bureaucracy. The question of whether their code of conduct adequately covers antisemitism is moot. What it shows is that the party has been eaten up by bureaucracy and slavish adherence to rules, leaving no energy to expend on actual politics. The Left are eating their own.

  5. Nice observation, but what about the underlying story?
    Judge say “Yes, GCHQ broke the law and did so for years and is still doing so, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Ha Ha.” (always wondered where the Simpson’s Nelson ended up).
    At least when Peter Wright wrote “we bugged and burgled our way across London while the Police pretended to look the other way” the Government was embarassed enough then to try and censor it. Now they brag about their lack of legal restraint!

  6. Good old document controllers, reminds me of a previous life when I used to also set it up and be responsible for it in projects and divisions. I am that old when I first started doing it myself, when it was an engineering function and before we invented the role of document controllers, it was totally manual, no databases not even excel, no t’internet or email. We used to have to manually write up carbonated Document Transmittals (DT), that meant writing the document number and rev number umpteeen times on the DT, and that was just for a single recipient, if it were a multiple distribution you had to do it for each recipient, the manual Document Register and Distribution Matrix was also by manuscript as well. The documents themselves quite often A3 drawings had to be printed and folded or rolled and hand checked, every single document had to be stamped “Controlled Document” in red and the recipients distribution number written within the stamp, (it was the original Bechtel system) no pdf’s back then either, put in an envelope or a tube, addressed and mailed!

    Good old document controllers are worth their weight in gold on major multi-disciplined projects and good project managers know this. Databases, pdf’s and the internet have revolutionised the function but it still needs the same discipline at the core.

  7. You are entirely too nice to bureaucratic scum Tim.

    The best thing for this nation would be the en masse sacking of the entire Senior Civil Service without a penny compo and with their pensions confiscated for Gross Misconduct. There should be cameras set up by all Whitehall exits to catch the looks on their faces as large nasty-looking security thugs escort them from the building without even a chance to get back to their desks . So we can check what they have been up to.

    For certain pieces of work that will not be adequate. Those working against the country on the Oily Robbins level need a more condign punishment. Look up “Broadway Johnny Broderick” on the Net as food for thought. All official and above-board of course. Like an ASBO for the Top Drawer Set.

    Hey–maybe that French git is available for hire?

  8. One of the stories told about the civil service project management style went along these lines:

    Three people would be allocated to manage the project, one to start it off, one to manage the middle process (whatever that might be) and the third to wrap it up and implement it. When the project inevitably ended up ina costly fiasco the excuses were already in place.

    1st project manager “Well, I started it off fine, put in policies, procedures and work instructions to ensure it was on a sound foundation”.

    2nd project manager “Although my colleague did splendid work in the initial phase, due to several misconceptions and slight changes to the project scope, I spent my time addressing the conflicts that resulted, meaning that the progress I intended could not be completed in the timescale allocated”.

    3rd project manager “The project was so buggered up by the other two that there was fuck all I could do to salvage it”.

    Rinse and repeat. And repeat again.

  9. Is there any evidence journalism’s any different? Just looking at the output of much of the msm, it’s fairly obvious what’s absent from journalism is any aptitude for journalism. Solely an aptitude for a career in journalism. Whole other thing.

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