A definition

This morning’s Today programme had a definition of the squeezed middle from a shadow minister – in the fug of early morning I didn’t catch who it was, but needless to say he was one of Red Ed’s nearest and dearest. (Although not an actual blood relation.)

The last time the Squeezed Middle reared its head on Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme Ed Miliband found himself floundering for a definition. Now I’m no politician, but I know that if you are going to invent a new political bullseye to target, you should at least know what you are talking about. Ed’s efforts saw him define this new category of voters as pretty much everyone in the country – those earning over the national average wage as well as those earning less than the national average.

As an aim for a politician hoping to win the next election it shows ambition – “let’s get everyone to vote for us”. Unfortunately as a concept it lacked a certain amount of detail and Ed and his new old Labour colleagues seemed to go cold on the idea.

But it seems that it is about to make a resurgence – clearly this blog is largely responsible for the change in fortune in the Squeezed Middle concept. Literally tens of people a month are clicking on thesqueezedmiddleblog. Ed Balls and his team clearly know an opinion former when they see one and are not afraid of piggy backing on the wave of popularity already created by this blog.

Except I have been left slightly perturbed by today’s re-classification of The Squeezed Middle. I appears that under the new definition I might not be covered by the term – it now seems that The Squeezed Middle are those people who are having to struggle with inflation while their tight-fisted bosses refuse to hand over a pay rise.

Unfortunately for me and for this blog I was handed an increase just weeks after losing my job. The Job Seekers Allowance I am in receipt of was boosted by a couple of pounds in April. I now feel like a fraud.

However, having taken legal advice I am going to stick with this blog – whether anyone else does is a different matter. So until I am sued by Ed Miliband for flouting the terms and conditions of the Squeezed Middle I will continue to view myself as part of it. If nothing else, my decision to stick with the initial definition will teach Ed and his advisers an important lesson about clarity.

Sugaring the pill

“It is with heavy heart that we have to tell you your jobs are under review” – and so the process begins…

For people with families to look after and mortgages to pay as well as those who enjoy eating food and living in rented accommodation, those are words you do not want to hear. There’s a lingering sense of insecurity around them – do you stick or twist?

The ideal situation is for a review to look at everyone and come to the conclusion that there is nowhere within the department that can be cut; efficiency levels are at a maximum; and the Free World would collapse if just one admin assistant was lost.

But in the environs of public sector communications departments that is never going to be the case. So when you are told that your job is under review you know there is a fairly high chance of it being reviewed out of existence. It has been impossible to avoid the hints from Government that the public sector would be hit hard under the austerity plans from the Coalition Government.

Reducing public spending has a two-fold effect – both positives for the Government.

1. It helps cut the deficit

2. It creates widespread worklessness a ready band of willing and skilled volunteers to help put the Big Society into place.

But before this new volunteer workforce can be created there needs to be some streamlining. Volunteers are no good to anyone if they have to hold down a 9-5 job to help pay the bills.

Telling someone they may soon be looking for work can’t be easy for anyone – which is probably why the issue was handed over to the HR team. A specialist crew who have been highly trained to avoid any emotion in such matters.

Having politely declined to do the dirty deed themselves, senior mangers were keen to be seen to be doing something. Missives were sent out and promises were made that they would be there for us and would do all they could to help us through it.

And behind the scenes, the powers-that-be  had been putting together an event that would be a helping hand for anyone who was facing an uncertain future – or to put it another way, everyone who wasn’t in the Department Head’s clique.

It’s easy to sneer about this type of event before you actually attend one and see what has been laid on in terms of practical advice and help for people facing the grim prospect of losing their job. And after having been to one it was even easier to sneer.

As a bare minimum I would have expected advice on how to spruce up my skills and knock my CV into shape. What would have been really useful is a bunch of representatives from employment agencies looking to cash in on a potential goldmine of 100s of trained workers who would soon be desperate for work. What we got was advice on how to make a fruit smoothie, the citizens advice bureau, a stall encouraging people to get active to avoid depression and heart disease; and a few leaflets on pensions and financial planning.

If I hadn’t been told otherwise I would have guessed that this event was the long-planned employee well-being fair with a few leaflets  on pensions and financial planning thrown in. But no, this was the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

The feeling that it had been hastily re-branded to fit the current climate was hard to avoid, but I did get something out of it. I signed up for a pedometer hoping that a bit of walking would keep me active and stave off depression – plus it’s cheaper than the bus and I have a feeling that every penny is going to count soon.

Restructures, savings and other euphemisms (Part I)

Where I come from we call a spade a spade – in the public sector it’s a human-powered earth moving implement. But after three years in an inner-city council and many more years covering local politics I have become fluent in the language. I may not be able to speak it yet, but I can certainly understand it.

So when senior managers stopped looking us in the eye towards the end of last year and dark murmurings of restructure began to float down the corridors of power, I was able to make a pretty decent fist of what was afoot. It was clear that the state of the economy, a new Conservative led Government and a New Labour ethos within this particular borough meant we were in for a round of restructures where, unfortunately the management team will have to make some difficult decisions in order to rationalise the workforce and secure back office savings job cuts.

The political weather vane had been spun by the wind of change when David Cameron and Nick Clegg walked hand-in-hand down Downing Street on 11 May 2010. It was clear that this latest “restructure” would carry more weight than the previous one I had been through.

Coming almost 18 months earlier that particular “rationalisation” seemed more intent on boosting managers’ responsibilities pay and getting rid of a persona non grata from the office. Although these weren’t the stated aims, they were clearly the desired outcomes. And it proved successful as a wave of managers were given a range of new responsibilities including making sure lights were switched off at night; milk and sugar for the tea club was regularly bought; and shouting across the office to make colleagues think they were doing something constructive.

The staff member that was no longer needed was promptly replaced by someone doing the same job on twice the money, so the whole thing had been a resounding success.

Despite the real world going through some pretty serious cost-cutting measures as the global economy went into meltdown, the public sector was still spending like there was no tomorrow. Staff numbers seemed to be ever on the increase, while productivity remained largely static. But to be fair, productivity has never been top of the agenda for councils, which is a shame when you think about the good that could be achieved by a large, well-mobilised, motivated workforce.

I blame the highly-paid strategic thinkers who have spent the majority of their working lives winning friends and influencing people to help perpetuate the  the myth that they are indispensable. Most would struggle to come up with an effective plan against a three-year-old in the classic game of strategic conquest (www.hasbro.com/shop/browse/?N=63+196).*

But back to the vague mutterings of impending rationalisation job losses and savings cutbacks. Rumours are all well and good, but I deal in facts. Unfortunately my Director’s unswerving desire to be everyone’s BFF (Bestest Friend Forever) meant he was unable to grasp the nettle and all meetings on the subject vaguely resembled a spotty 15-year-old virgin trying to chat up a bemused Pamela Anderson – all shoe gazing, sweaty palms and nervous giggles.

There was very little actual information and constant promises to tell us next time. Eventually the cold-hearted HR team had the decency to send us a letter and information pack and it all became official. Unlike the previous restructure, this one did not have a carnival atmosphere as senior managers nudged and winked their way to a deserved promotion. I think some of them genuinely feared they may be in danger of getting the axe – or should I say getting the sharpened tree-felling apparatus?

* This theory is impossible to prove as all senior public sector managers are RISK averse.