The knives are out for the public sector

Contestants on Dragons’ Den who don’t have a solid grasp of numbers are usually dismissed with contempt by the assembled business gurus. Theo Paphitis should perhaps show a bit more sympathy in future because the figures he quoted in his Daily Mail article earlier this week were really wild:

During the past year, it has been estimated that Portsmouth City Hall employees have spent an average of 413 hours a month on Facebook.

You sure about that Theo? When the hell did they sleep? Even if they all went in at weekends they’d be hard pushed to clock up hours like that.

Of course, the figures were wrong. As many sharp-eyed bloggers pointed out, 412 hours was the monthly total clocked up between all 4,500 of the council’s staff. In other words, they were spending, on average, about six minutes a month each on Facebook! 

While it is nice to see a celebrity management guru make a dick of himself once in a while, there is a more serious point behind this story.

There was hysteria from the usual suspects and even the BBC initially posted the story without bothering to check the maths. A more sober version is now on the BBC site. Managers at Portsmouth reacted by banning Facebook, even though they had no evidence that staff were logging into the site during work time.

Six minutes a month is nothing. People spend more time than that gossiping at the water cooler or checking the BBC Sports page during their breaks. In many organisations these days, people don’t have lunch breaks. They sit at their desks eating sandwiches and having a quick look at the interweb before going back to their work. It’s possible that internet usage may even correlate with short lunch breaks rather than slacking work practices. There must be a PhD in there for someone.

As I have said before, banning Facebook is often a sign of weak management. It is often the case that a few employees clock up most of the time spent on the site. If so, they should have been disciplined, as they should for any other persistent time-wasting activity. A blanket ban on Facebook makes no more sense than a blanket ban on the sports pages of newspaper sites. It’s only a problem if people spend excessive amounts of time on the web. But a total ban is far easier and less uncomfortable than having to tackle individuals about their behaviour. As so often happens, HR policies are a convenient shield behind which weak and lazy managers hide.

But I suspect there is an even greater problem at Portsmouth Council. Like many public sector managers, they are running scared. They know cuts are on the way, probably from a Tory government, and they know their jobs could well be under threat eighteen months or so from now. They also know that there are people who are out to bash them and who will use Freedom of Information requests ruthlessly.

It later transpired that this silly story was indeed the result of a FoI request.

The council’s knee-jerk reactions hows just how nervous some in the public sector have become. Portsmouth Councilis not one of those badly performing authorities. In fact, it has been doing quite well and showing considerable improvement year-on-year. Yet as soon as a ‘lazy council workers’ story hit the headlines, the management team flinched and implemented a totally unnecessary ban on Facebook. It would have been great to see the Chief Executive of Portsmouth turn round to the idiots who were making such a fussand tell them to take their silly self-righteous indignation somewhere else. Alas, public sector managers no longer have the confidence to do that sort of thing.

This story told us nothing we didn’t already know about what people get up to at work. Nor did it tell us whether or not council workers are lazier than everyone else. It did, however, show that there are journalists and others hell bent on digging up whatever dirt they can and spinning it shamelessly to attack the public sector. It also showed that managers in the public sector are shit-scared of them.

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One Response to The knives are out for the public sector

  1. Pingback: Thursday Blog Grabfrom Jeremy Jacobs Host Presenter

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