Puncturing pomposity in East Riding’s ‘human relations’ – David Behrens

I’m not sure why it became politically incorrect to refer to the company payroll office as the personnel department and to start calling it Human Relations – a name that sounds as if a robot dreamt it up. It must have happened in the 1980s, when cod science created entire subcultures within the workplace that had not seemed necessary before.

Rachel Reeves MP
Rachel Reeves MP

It was around the same time that time and motion specialists reinvented themselves as management consultants, and when salesmen became brand managers. All of these practitioners needed time-fillers to justify their newly-inflated salaries, so they began going to meetings with each other. Then they started borrowing off-the-peg theories from the Harvard Business School and inflicting them upon incredulous underlings.

In the old personnel offices, clerks who had previously just paid the wages found themselves in vast new departments that oversaw corporate culture, “stakeholder engagement” and “balanced scorecards”. Before long, these had engulfed even the smallest and most inappropriate workplaces.

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But there have always been those lurking contemptuously on the sidelines, thank goodness – standing ready to puncture pomposity like the little boy in the fable about the emperor’s new clothes. This week, you needed to look no further than the East Riding of Yorkshire to see such a remonstrance.

HR departments used to just dispense pay packets

It was there that two facets of 1980s corporate culture clashed head-on. The local council had proposed spending £2m on a team of consultants to review the pay and “evaluate the jobs” of its 10,500 staff, despite maintaining an HR department in-house. Why couldn’t the department have done the work itself, wondered the Lib Dem opposition leader, David Nolan. At a time when businesses and communities were under unprecedented pressure, the needless expense of £2m was a slap in the face to taxpayers, he said.

He’s right, of course. An organisation’s HR department should already know the value of the jobs they pay people to do. And if they’re too distracted to review the pay packets themselves, someone should ask whether there’s any point in them being there at all.

This is especially so in our Town Halls, where oversight on spending is lax at best in some parts of the country, and downright incompetent in others.

In the same week as the East Riding standoff, eight other English councils of varying political persuasions were told they faced Government reviews into their finances amid speculation that they would have to be bailed out. Redcar and Cleveland, on the fringe of North Yorkshire, was among them.

A few days later, Slough Council declared itself effectively bankrupt after discovering a £100m black hole in its budget – the result of what its chief financial officer admitted had been years of accounting errors and poor decision-making.

Slough is the third local authority to have become insolvent in the past three years. The consequences of its impropriety will be cuts to services and significant job losses. In better times they might have tried to disguise those as an East Riding-style job evaluation scheme; this time it was too late to spin their way out of it.

None of this inspires confidence in the ability of our civic leaders to make decisions that are rational or prudent. Yet it’s an issue that politicians at national level have failed to fully grasp.

The Shadow Chancellor and Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves was the latest Westminster figure to miss the point this week when she unveiled a new policy that would influence the way in which public money is spent. It could have been an opportunity to point more cash in the direction of small and medium-sized local firms and their employees. Instead, she proposed “environmental and social clauses” – red tape by any other name – which would have the effect of freezing out small businesses in favour of corpulent outsourcing giants like the failed Carillon.

It’s double-talk like this that makes you realise the extent to which the 1980s management playbook has permeated the way in which almost the whole country is run. It’s become the lingua franca of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yet it can’t quite disguise one fundamental truth – which is that the rest of us can spot bunkum from a mile away.

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