Tag Archives: bureaucracy

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

Billy, walking the mean streets. When it comes to vermin control, he’s a leading player, and is pretty indefatigable. The other half of our vermin control is an enthusiast with an air rifle. It has to be said that with these two working in harmony and mutual respect, they have managed to keep on top of something that can be a problem on farms.

I prefer these two methods to poison, neither of our paladins is liable to kill a dairy cow by mistake. Not only that but they’re synergistic. The air rifle takes the big rats that might give Billy reason to pause, and Billy has the patience and cunning to take out the smaller stuff that somebody with a rifle might not even see.
Indeed if I see a rat and Billy is about, I’ll pick him up, carry him to where the rat disappeared and stand back. It’s impressive to watch as he catches the scent, the tip of his tail flicks, and he starts to cautiously follow the scent. It has to be admitted that he probably won’t catch a rat then and there, but he seems to mark the location and I won’t see a rat there again for quite a while.

But whilst these two paragons maintain constant vigilance to keep us free of rodent infestation, what about other problems that can beset us? Like, for example, the perpetual tide of bureaucracy and regulation which threatens to constantly overwhelm us.
Here we’re in the hands of others. The best analogy I’ve seen to describe the process is that we have two opposing forces, glaring at each other from opposing trench lines. The problem is, on one side you have, defending us, all sorts of factions and lobby organisations who are allies of convenience. There are issues they disagree on and even work against each other. So the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association represent different sides when discussing landlord and tenant issues.  But because they do have in their ranks a lot of proper grown-ups, they manage to work together pretty well at times. Think of our defenders as a collection of bickering barbarian warbands faced with the might of Imperial Rome and it gives you some idea of our dilemma.
But fortunately for us, the other side, which in theory should be joined up and efficient, is equally fragmented. Rather than the might of Rome, we see a score of bureaucratic empires, often at cross purposes, each pushing their own agenda. The fact that one faction within a bureaucratic empire is pushing forward with a policy that another division of the same empire has abandoned as unworkable is merely par for the course. Democracy survives because of bureaucratic inefficiency and division.

These two forces face each other, glaring across the great divide. But as I mentioned, there are proper adults involved. I’m trying to find a good example here of how grown-ups can get sensible things to happen. Ah, I’ve got one. When the EU introduced Cattle Passports, the UK had a reasonably casual attitude to them. You couldn’t move animals without one but if you were late applying for the passport, when you eventually remembered to apply, then the British Cattle Movement Service sent you the passport, but included a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ reminder that we were supposed to apply within a fixed time after the calf was born. So effectively on this part of the front, the trenches were quiet, there was no shelling, and we even played football together in no-man’s land.

But then the EU decided this sensible attitude wasn’t good enough. Somebody in a Brussels office decided that a farmer couldn’t be expected to remember which calf belonged to which cow if they didn’t apply pretty damned quick after the calf was born. So they demanded the UK tighten up their systems. Indeed if the passport hadn’t been applied for within the time limit, the calf couldn’t ever get one and could never enter the food chain. So effectively it would just have to be shot and buried.

Now this produced problems. Farms are busy places, the office staff are the same people who’ve already put in a full day’s work before they spend a quiet evening relaxing doing paperwork. Stuff gets missed, perhaps because we’re silaging, or Granny’s ill and the family is spending the evenings hospital visiting, or whatever.

Now the farmer suddenly discovers that he hasn’t applied for a passport in time. Think about the situation for a moment. The only people present at the birth are normally the farmer and the mother. I suggest that never in the history of agriculture has a dairy cow contacted a government office to tell them she’s given birth. So the only witness who is going to testify is the farmer. So for somebody who is perhaps a little casual with the paperwork, there isn’t a problem. The date of birth can drift until suddenly the calf isn’t late and can get a passport.

But problems arise for the people who are scrupulously honest and want to get it done properly. They are the ones who would phone BCMS and say, “I’m late registering a calf, what can I do?” To which the only answer the bureaucracy left the people in BCMS was effectively, ‘Kill it now.’

So the EU created as system which only penalises the innocent. Luckily the grown-ups in opposing trenches were willing to do something about it. We talked to the staff at BCMS. They were only interested in making sure the mother and calf with firmly linked together. They are running a maternity tracing database. (That’s another story but not one for now.) When asked if they would accept DNA testing, the grown-up people in BCMS said they would be happy with it, but the various other factions within other bureaucratic empires wouldn’t allow them to.

So that’s where grown-ups got together. Somebody took a delightful picture of an utterly charming small girl with a remarkably cute calf. This appeared on the front page of a national newspaper. If you just read the article’s headline, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the government was intending to kill the calf or the child because their paperwork wasn’t entirely up-to-date.

Moving back to our trench warfare analogy, we mounted a short sharp offensive, and in the opposite trenches, the defenders, BCMS in this case, made no attempt to defend what they regarded as an indefensible position. So we advanced, shored up the flanks and dug in to face the inevitable counter-attack. This counterattack floundered on the fact that the government position had been damned silly and was virtually impossible to defend. Especially as BCMS kept saying that bringing in DNA testing to deal with the issue wasn’t a problem. So we got DNA testing.
Then somewhere along the lines there was another issue, another offensive and we had to rush reinforcements in to prop up a front before it collapsed. Otherwise we might have ended up with having to inform government when livestock moved from one field to another, rather than just one farm to another. Which was something the epidemiologists wanted initially, until it was pointed out that even a comparatively small dairy herd, say a hundred cows, would have to notify perhaps 400 movements a day and government couldn’t put the systems in place to cope with that volume of epidemiologically meaningless data.

I suppose the problem for most people is that they’re too far behind the lines to know what’s going on in any detail. Certainly for members of various organisations like the NFU and CLA, they might wonder what they’re getting for their subscriptions. It’s simple, as Thucydides said, “Having abundance of gold and silver makes war; like many other things, go smoothly.” A subscription is cheap!
If you want to see the result of bureaucracy untrammelled by lobby groups keeping it honest, the last few months have given us an object lesson. From local authorities rushing through bizarre road schemes without bothering to consult the people who live in the areas, to the ever more contradictory or irrational suggestions for what should or should not be allowed under lockdown. What you see there is the sort of nonsense you can see in any sector when the bureaucracy produces the draft regulations but before the various industry groups start asking questions and the grown-ups on either side quietly come to a sensible wording which achieves the desired effect without destroying the industry.  

But of course real life gets involved as well. During the course of writing this I had to go and do some real work. Some of it involved moving some heifer calves from one pen to another. Given it was chucking it down and we really didn’t need a rodeo we loaded them into a little quad trailer. I rode in the trailer to make sure none of them panicked and jumped out.
As I said to one of them, “You don’t need to piss all down my leg.”
But apparently she did.

Some days you’re the person who knows what is going on. Other days you’re just the guy in the trailer with three heifers and wet legs.

*****

There again, what do I know? Ask an expert.

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

As a reviewer commented, “Excellent follow up to his first collection of bloggage – Sometimes I Sits and Thinks – this is another collection of gentle reflections on life on a small sheep farm in Cumbria. This could so easily be a rant about inconsiderate drivers on country lanes and an incessant moaning about the financial uncertainties of life on a farm. Instead, despite the rain, this is full of wise asides on modern living that will leave you feeling better about the world. Think Zen and the Art of Sheep Management (except he’s clearly CofE…) Highly recommended, and worth several times the asking price!”

I may consult you later

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I never thought I’d mention Sherry Phyllis Arnstein in this blog. To be fair, this is because I’d never heard of the lady. But then I only recently came across her Ladder of citizen participation.

Now over the years I’ve taken part in a lot of government consultations. This isn’t a party political thing; I’ve taken part in consultations which have been sent out by all three main parties in power.

Admittedly the government department I’ve dealt with most has been MAFF/Defra but I cannot imagine that the other heads of the hydra of government bureaucracy are all that much different.

The process is simple.

The civil service decides what it wants to do. It then produces evidence for that option. Once ready, the whole thing is sent out for ‘consultation.’ These have to be carefully managed. After all if you could just send out a question, “What should we do about this issue?” The problem with that is you haven’t a clue what answers you might get. Even worse some of the answers could be really brilliant, and weak minded politicians might be tempted to run with those rather than going with the answer the bureaucracy has already picked.

So the more normal procedure is to supply three or four options. One will normally be ‘do nothing.’ As the whole premise behind the consultation is that doing nothing is not an option, they can put that in to prove they’re genuinely looking at all the options, secure in the knowledge nobody will suggest it.

The second option will be something that might be described, by an over-imaginative correspondent, as ridiculous and unworkable. It’s not normally that bad, but it’s obviously not the one you’re expected to go for.

The third, goldilocks, option is the one they’ve already decided they want.

 

Obviously once you know the game, there are things you can do. One is to demolish the goldilocks option, producing hard evidence to show it’s unworkable, illegal, or if all else fails, immoral.

The goldilocks option is the one you’re going to get, so it’s the one you have to work on to ensure that when it is implemented, it does at least do what you want it to.

 

But back to Sherry Phyllis Arnstein. I wonder what she’d have thought of this ‘consultation process?’ There again she might merely have pointed at her Ladder of citizen participation where consultation is merely smack bang in the middle of the ‘degrees of tokenism.’

Arnstein’s perspicacity impressed me. Then I mentioned the ladder to somebody else and she merely commented “I saw it in my A level sociology days.”

Yes, Arnstein published this ladder in 1969. At least two generations of bureaucrats have clawed their way out of the swamp of despond to take up their seats in the sunlit uplands which lead to that happy golden evening of index linked pensions. I’d love to know what proportion of them had come across Arnstein, and in spite of this they decided to stick with the term ‘consultation’. I suppose there’s no joy in power unless you can use it to rub somebody’s nose in it.

Not only that but the alternative terms Arnstein put on her ladder are hardly viable replacements for consultation. Placation sounds, if anything, even more patronising. Moving to the next one up, Partnership, is downright dangerous, hoi polloi offered partnership might expect their ideas and opinions to be taken seriously.

Heaven forefend! That would be the end of civilisation as we know it.

 

♥♥♥♥

 

Oh yes, you strike me as the sort of person who would enjoy a good book. Purely by chance I had one to hand.

It just got a review!
These are four excellent short stories introducing the early days of Benor. Each tale pulses with humour as the well-drawn characters engage in various adventures. Each story features great dialogue, lots of good food, wine and ale, all taking place in a believable and well-drawn world where the streets pulse with life. The reader gets a powerful sense of being there in a real world with real people going about their real lives.

I look forward to reading the next book and wish I’d read this one far sooner.

 

Cutting the back office.

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Various politicians have been saying that local authorities ought to cut their back office and still provide frontline services. It’s an interesting idea and the whole concept of ‘cutting the back office’ probably needs looking at.

Firstly you could just put ‘back office’ stuff onto ‘front line staff.’ Let them do it. It has the advantage that it’s then being done by people who know what is actually happening in the real world. It’s what every family farm does. You put in a full day’s work and then you and/or your spouse do the ‘back office’ stuff at night when it’s too dark to work outside. Sometimes you can save the paperwork to those days when the weather is utterly disgusting and you’re almost glad of the excuse not to go out.

This system works reasonably well. You have to accept that farmers have high rates of undiagnosed depression and about the highest suicide rate of any employment group (Vets sometimes have higher figures.)

It might work pretty well because farmers tend to be people who are hands on and practical, which means they loathe the back office stuff and aren’t going to make a big thing of it.

There again there are those who deal with it by contracting it out to somebody else. I know several accountants who have farmer clients who just give them a black bin bag of receipts, bank statements and chequebooks and just leave it to them to reconstruct the finances of the business.

One problem with ‘cutting the back office’ is that it seems to indicate that there are people up at the cutting edge who have the kudos and authority to do that. The problem arises when those at the cutting edge, who meet the public and provide the services, are the low grade minions who are not held in any particular respect by the rest of the organisation.

HM Revenue and Customs is a fine example of this. They have back office which deals with stuff, and frontline people who meet the public and explain stuff and help us get it right, deal with our problems and make the system work.

So HMRC are cutting the 170 offices where you can actually go in and talk to a real person and making us deal with some of the least responsive call centres ever created. In this case it begins to look as if the back office is trying to save money by having as little meaningful contact with the outside world as possible.

In local authorities, the people in the back office you want to cut are the people who run the organisation and decide who and what gets cut.

Now there are ways around this. Contracting out services is one. This should cut down the need for both frontline and back office staff. It certainly cuts the frontline, but of course the back office reinvents itself as ‘contract monitoring’ and might even have to increase the number of staff it has to ensure the contract is properly monitored.

Funnily enough in small businesses, contract monitoring is done by the same person who does everything else, and involves one simple process. Compare result of contract with price paid. If happy, pay next year, if not happy don’t.

But of course those working for local government would point out that it’s not so simple for them. They’ve got all sorts of things they have to monitor. Not merely that the job has been done properly but that all sorts of other targets have been met, be they diversity, environment or whatever.

At this point the farmer, the small businessman, the teacher, the local government officer can all agree on something. A large proportion of the ‘back office’ stuff, the endless stultifying, mind numbing, time wasting bureaucracy that washes endlessly over us, is actually dumped on us by government in the first place.

So effectively, if government wants organisations to cut the back office, perhaps government ought to stop creating work for the back office to do.

♥♥♥♥

There again, what do I know. If I were you I’d ask a real expert

As a reviewer commented, “I always enjoy Jim’s farming stories, as he has a way of telling a tale that is entertaining but informative at the same time. I’ve learned a lot about sheep while reading this book, and always wondered how on earth a sheepdog learns to do what it does – but I know now that a new dog will learn from an old one. There were a few chuckles too, particularly at how Jim dealt with unwanted salespeople. There were a couple of shocks regarding how the price of cattle has decreased over the years, and also sadly how the number of UK dairy farms has dropped from 196,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 now.
Jim has spent his whole life farming and has acquired a wealth of knowledge, some of which he shares in this delightful book.”

“I’m from the Government and I’ve come to help you.”

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I’ve mentioned the three great lies before.

Of course I’ll still love you in the morning.
The cheque is in the post.
I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.

It’s just that yesterday I was with a group of people whose long term aim is to overthrow society as we currently know it, and the discussion came round to the state.

Let’s be clear about this, having spent a lifetime in agriculture I don’t need convincing that the machinery of government is designed to run for its own benefit and the rest of us are just grit in the wheels that will have to be cleaned out or crushed to dust, (it doesn’t really matter which.)

But I realise a lot of people are under the misapprehension that it’s their government and should in some way represent their ideals. At the very least they expect it to treat them with respect.

We were told yesterday that government has decided to bring in Civil Penalties. If you make a mistake on an application form for benefit, they can fine you £50. This isn’t because they think it was fraud, this is just for making a mistake and wasting the valuable time of petty officials with far better things to do than cope with the ignorance of the public who pays their wages.

When told that my reaction was ‘Only £50? In agriculture they can take up to 30% of whatever they’re paying out, even when they accept it’s unintentional.’

Another thing that was commented on by several people was the need for advocacy. If you have an ‘ordinary member of the public’ dealing with the bureaucracy, things tend to go badly. But if they take with them an ‘advocate’, perhaps someone from CAB, or some other charity, then suddenly things are done with speed and despatch. The medical inspection is done absolutely by the book, or the official admits that, yes, actually, she can deal with that now and she cannot understand how it was that the ‘client’ was given the run-around previously.

Problems that dragged on for months (with the ‘client’ getting more and more out of pocket) are suddenly resolved in minutes.

Last year I claimed Employment Support Allowance twice, both times for a fortnight. This is because I was off sick for that long after my cataract operations. In the process of dealing with the bureaucracy to get this money (because I’m self employed and have no employer I cannot get sick pay) I was lied to, misinformed, and dealt with people who frankly didn’t have much of a clue about the regulations they were supposed to be implementing.

At one point I was told that I couldn’t be paid because I hadn’t filled in a certain form in time. When I told them that actually, on the previous occasion I had been paid without filling in that form; I was told I might be prosecuted for fraud. To this I replied that I would expect to be sharing the dock with a number of that person’s colleagues who had advised me wrongly and would ask for the telephone logs to be supplied as evidence.

At this point it was suddenly decided to resend me the form so I could fill it in and nothing more was said about time limits.

I’m literate, well read, cocky and frankly I probably have a bad attitude. I had got to the stage where I’d paid my stamp since 1975 and I was going to get the money I was entitled to if I had to pick up the First Lord of the Treasury, turn him upside down and shake him until the money fell out of his pockets.

A lot of people out there do not have my advantages. Who is willing to be their advocate?

♥♥♥♥

There again, what do I know, just ask the dog

 

As one of the reviewers commented “Wit, wisdom and just a wee dram of whisky

This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

Living the third great lie.

The three great lies.
Of course I’ll still love you in the morning.
The cheque is in the post.
I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.

There’s been a bit of a fuss about food banks and why people have to rely on them. But two figures interested me. 34% of food bank clients are ‘experiencing benefits delay’ and 19% need help because they are ‘experiencing changes to their benefits.’
Now I talked to a professional who has to deal with people who are struggling to cope with the benefit system and she just sighed. When I gave her the 34% figure she just said, “They’ll have been ‘sanctioned’.” I asked what that meant and apparently the normal situation is that someone misses an appointment and they are ‘sanctioned’. They don’t get two weeks money. But actually when they turn up to ‘sign on’ or whatever they call it now in two weeks time, they still don’t get money for another fortnight, so a fortnight’s sanction means that you have a month without money. The problem was that even for a professional like her there seems to be no way of getting anything changed, even if the appointment was missed for good reason. Indeed she was talking to a lad who was homeless and looking for accommodation. His landlord had asked him to leave because the rent hadn’t been paid for the last two weeks. Now he has no money, and no one in the office that would pay the rent was available to talk to him. Basically the suspicion is that he’d been asked for more information, hadn’t understood the form and not filled it in properly so they’d just stopped his money. My friend did comment that she picks up a lot of those forms and fills them in for people and she finds them difficult.
Let’s get this straight. We have a bureaucratic system that sends out complicated documentation to people who have complex and chaotic lifestyles and if they don’t cross every t and dot every i just so, then the money is stopped.
Now there’s a lot of fuss about lack of ‘care’ in hospitals. But people are incensed about this because respectable and well paid middle ranking members of the bureaucracy do end up in hospital.
But neither our chattering classes nor our bureaucrats ever expect to end up at the bottom of the heap on benefit, so the total lack of care shown at that level worries them not at all.
I was talking to people, round and about, and it strikes me that a little bit of care would in fact go a long way. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just someone sort of guiding their hands a bit. I remember that one local firm used to have a system where you could put so much a week out of your pay packet into a saving fund. Once it reached a maximum amount, the company paid it out, but you could draw it out at any time. You got building society interest rate and the company borrowed money cheaper than going to the banks so everyone gained. I know a lot of lads who bought their first motorbike or car with cash because of this policy. It’s hardly new, even the Roman army used to keep a proportion of soldiers’ pay back in a compulsory savings account which they got when they were discharged.
But who does help these young people? I know one chap who farmed on the edge of town and a lot of lads would turn up to ‘help’. Once they got useful he used to pay them a nominal amount, which would grow into a proper sum when they actually earned it. Because they were lads who weren’t afraid of work, they pretty soon got real jobs working for highways maintenance firms and suchlike, but would still drop in to help at weekends.
Anyway, initially he’d just given the lads money, but they would ask him to look after it for them. As one said, “If my mother knows I’ve got this, she’ll just spend it on the pop.” So on their kitchen window there was a row of biscuit tins, each with a name on, and the lad could put his money in his jar if he wanted.
Now then, on Friday night he and his wife had been working late, and it was about 9pm when they finished and still hadn’t had their evening meal. So quite literally he emptied his wallet onto the kitchen table, she emptied her purse, and when they added the contents of the kiddies piggybank there was enough for a couple of takeaway pizzas. Agricultural was pretty grim back in the decade between 1995 and 2005.
Next day one of the lads dropped round and after chatting said, “Oh I thought I’d get some money out of my tin.” He had counted out over £200 before they stopped him. “How much have you got there?”
“Oh,” he said. “About £1200.” He’d been putting his pay packets in from his day job, not just his weekend farm work!
Three days later the lady of the house had corralled the owners of the biscuit tins and had taken them, and their tins, into town. She marched them into the building society and stood over them as they started accounts and put the money into them.
Young people always tend to have chaotic lives. It’s part of what being young is about. They don’t need bureaucracy, just someone who will care for them a bit when they need it and stand over them with a stick when they need that.

But then what do I know about it? Ask an expert

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”