Signing on (or Euphemisms part II)

The Job Centre – or Jobcentre Plus, as my local branch has been branded – is a now part of my life. It’s not the first time I’ve been through the doors of a job centre, I had a summer job in the Benefits Agency and our paths crossed from time to time.

Being a dole bludger is not high on my list of aspirations, but when you have a mortgage to pay and food to put on the table £65 a week is £65 a week. And I’m claiming what is known as contribution-based Job Seeker’s Allowance, which means I have contributed enough NI Stamp to be entitled to six months’ worth of pay back – not bad for over ten years unbroken contributions.

Processes have changed since my day – it is now possible to apply for benefits online.  Once completed I was asked to attend an interview where I agreed a plan of action in a bid to get me back into work as soon as possible. I was now officially on the dole a Jobcentre Plus customer; officially just another unemployment worklessness statistic.

Having a structured plan to help me find work would be useful, so I suggested that I check industry specific job sites on the internet every day to see what opportunities are available.

“Hmmm,” said my worklessness adviser. “Perhaps you should say you’ll look at them every other day. We don’t want to set unrealistic targets for you.”

It was nice to know they had faith in me. So that was agreed and my plan of action was in place. Carry on doing what I had already been doing – only do it slightly less often. There was no offer of any sort of help with my CV, no one told me where I could get help or advice on job hunting or interview techniques – this really was to be a literal and metaphorical box-ticking exercise.

Fortunately I had already had my CV polished, but for many people losing their jobs after years in the same position their CVs would be out of date and in need of some work. I know plenty of people who have not updated their CVs in ten years or longer.

being in the system means I sign on every fortnight, having kept a record of what I have been doing to look for work. I tend to lie on the form and just miss out the days when I have been looking for work when I did it on a day that wasn’t part of the agreed “every other day” regime. So far I have got away with it.

Apart from the pretence I am perpetrating to my fortnightly adviser, I am also in a constant battle with the Jobcentre Plus bouncers security staff. These are a new(ish) addition to job centres. In days of yore staff sat behind toughened glass to protect them from disgruntled claimants customers. A few years ago the powers that be decided front-line staff in the benefits agency should be more open and approachable – it came during a major re-brand during which the DSS became the BA and claimants became customers. 

Needless to say this new approachability allowed a few violent nutters who were unhappy at being refused a payment because they had missed a couple signings through a heroin induced stupor to approach the staff in a physical way. So attacks on staff members increased. But to make sure the happy, open feel of job centres was not lost the physical barriers were not replaced – instead a bevvy of G4S security staff were employed to intervene in case things got hairy.

Now most people visiting a job centre are there to sign on and that’s it, so the security staff have very little to do. Which is, I assume, why they create little jobs for themselves. Every time I go I am asked what I am there for, fair enough – if I said I’m there to buy tickets for a Michael Jackson concert they could provide helpful advice, letting me know he is dead and that even if he weren’t the Jobcentre Plus is not for tickets.

But I tell them I am there to sign on – as far as I can ascertain, Jobcentre Plus’ raison d’etre. Instead of saying “fine”, they eye me suspiciously and ask me if I have my signing on book. When I tell them yes and go to move on they ask me to show them it, as if I am lying in order to sneak into the Jobcentre Plus. Maybe someone has done this in the past and they are just being vigilant – The question is why would anyone want to have an illicit visit to their local Jobcentre Plus??





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 (*

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.