Saturday, 5 July 2008

Mr Clipboard and the self-perpetuating bureaucracy

We live in an age in which the filling in of forms has become an end in itself, more important than the substance of what we write. For example, failure to submit an Income Tax Return on time leads to an automatic penalty of £100, failure to fill in the form correctly incurs no automatic penalty. If someone is many months late in submitting a tax return Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs will routinely send someone to their home to enquire into the missing form. They will not enquire into the missing tax, it is the form they are after. Once the form has been submitted the taxpayer will readily be given additional time to pay provided they show a reasonable prospect of being able to pay (interest and, sometimes, penalties will be payable but these are negotiable).

If you receive a visit it might be from someone nice and reasonable (the Revenue has many such employees, at the moment) or it might be from Mr Clipboard. Mr Clipboard is one of the banes of modern life, an unthinking, uncaring automaton interested only in strict adherence to whatever version of perpetually changing rules is in force at the time.

We see Mr Clipboard in many areas of central and local government, Income Tax is not a special case, but I will use the example of chasing a late tax return to illustrate the general pattern of behaviour - sadly, it is a general pattern of behaviour, because Mr Clipboard has no mind of his own. There are six stages:

(1) Because Mr Clipboard is an automaton it is necessary for his internal machinery to be turned on. This requires a form. If he is chasing you for a form he must first receive a form from his superiors telling him to collect a form from you. His form is the first document on his clipboard. It is the authority which justifies everything he does thereafter. He guards it with his life and will allow you to see it if you insist but you must never touch.

(2) Then he requires a further form containing a full history of your dealings with HM Revenue & Customs, this form tells him whether you come under (a) the guidance notes applicable to first-time defaulters or (b) the guidance notes applicable to serial defaulters. It directs Mr Clipboard's behaviour because he will act in either manner (a) or manner (b) depending on the classification given to your history of form-filling. This is the second document on his clipboard.

(3) Once he knows which guidance notes are applicable he collects a copy of those notes and they become the third clipboard appendage. At the same time he places a fourth document under the sturdy clip, it has a pompous title such as "Responsible Officer Default Visit Memorandum".

(4) It is in the very soul of his being that Mr Clipboard exercises no discretion himself. The relevant guidance notes might say "the defaulter should be informed that he has 14 days to submit the missing form; this period may be extended up to 28 days for good reason". To Mr Clipboard that means 14 days, never a second longer. Because he knows about forms and understands forms his mind cannot comprehend the concept of a good reason for more time being required.

(5) When you open the door to Mr Clipboard he holds out his little plastic identity tag and introduces himself: "Good afternoon, I am Mr Clipboard from Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, I require to speak to Mr FatBigot". It is never "Hello, I'm Crispin Clipboard from the local income tax office, are you Mr FatBigot?", that would introduce an element of humanity into the encounter. Mr Clipboard requires his mighty authority over you to be established from the beginning. The meeting itself is part of this stage and Mr Clipboard's officious manner must be maintained at all times.

(6) Then there is his return to the office at which time he fills in two forms, one deals with his travel expenses (to which he appends receipts, or if he used a season ticket on the bus or train he might well attach timed and dated photographs of his entry and exit from each bus or train and a copy of the season ticket) and the other form deals with the outcome of the meeting. The expenses form is always filled in first because the Mr Clipboards in the expenses department are just as prissy as him. The form recording the meeting always says the same thing: "The Responsible Officer was unable to make contact with the defaulter, under regulation so-and-so the Responsible Officer remits the matter for further consideration" or "The Responsible Officer made contact with the defaulter and informed him of his statutory obligations". The entry on this form is word-for-word the same as his entry on the "Responsible Officer Default Visit Memorandum" and that memorandum is stapled to the new form. He cannot just submit the Memorandum because that is a note made for his purposes whereas the new form is a report back to his superiors, in his world they are radically different.

The key to understanding Mr Clipboard is his insistence on formality. It is no coincidence that "form" and "formality" have the same linguistic root, and for him they are the same thing. He would no more think of using the first person singular in his report than he would of accepting instructions by telephone rather than on paper. For him it is all about self-preservation - use of discretion leaves room for criticism about how it has been exercised and criticism might impede his career. The result of the formality, and the consequent production of banks of administrative forms, is that a whole new area of practice is developed and must be analysed for statistical purposes.

The inefficiency and waste caused by Mr Clipboard is almost beyond measure because it has become systemic in the civil service. Perhaps the main reason for this is government insistence on statistics being produced for everything. The more formal the system, the less the discretion and the less the statistical variance of performance figures from region to region. Variance of performance statistics is a rod with which to beat the back of bureaucracy and therefore the back of government. Consistency is king. Mr Clipboard is consistency personified.

That his attitude and methods might increase the gap between government and the people is of no concern to him and they are certainly not a worry to government because there are no statistics to prove the detriment. That his attitude and methods might increase costs is neither here nor because the government has statistics to "prove" that performance is consistent across the country.

The more Mr Clipboards that exist the more consistency will exist. The more consistency exists the more government is happy. The more government is happy the more Mr Clipboard's superiors want to prevent a change. The more Mr Clipboard's superiors want to prevent change the more Mr Clipboards will be employed. The more Mr Clipboards are employed the more uniformity of practice results. The more uniformity of practice results the more forms go round-and-round. The more forms go round-and-round the more costs go up-and-up. The more costs go up-and-up the more enquiries into costs are launched. The more enquiries into costs are launched the more practice must be uniform to prevent comparative criticism. And so it goes on in a self-perpetuating orgy of mindless paper.

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