Monday, 23 March 2009

A brief thought about non-jobs

In the comments to my previous offering, Mr Dan asked whether I could specify what I mean by a "non-job". One of the points I put was that the public sector should shed "non-jobs", but I did not explain what I meant by "non-jobs"; so here goes.

In the real world jobs exist because they achieve something. A small factory has people who seek orders for their products, people who actually make the products, people who pack the products, people who deal with the paperwork, people who deal with the business's tax affairs, cleaners, tea-makers and goodness only knows how many others. All of those jobs can exist only for so long as the result of their combined efforts is a profitable business. Mrs Darjeeling the tea-lady never goes anywhere near the machines, but she is a necessary part of the team because British workers need cups of tea.

What you don't find in small factories is people being employed unless their work is thought to contribute to the overall effectiveness of the business. For example, they don't employ a Five-a-Day Outreach Advisor to give readings on the virtues of broccoli in the canteen at lunchtime. Nor do they employ five people in the accounts office when the work can be done by four. Nor do they pay for design consultants to create a new corporate logo unless they see a clear need to do so. The reason none of these items of expenditure is incurred is that it would add unnecessary costs to the business; the additional costs would be unnecessary because any benefit they might deliver would be less than the cost. The managers of each business must decide on its own priorities and exercise their judgment, I believe the trendy jargon is that they undertake a cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes they will be right, sometimes they will be wrong. If they are wrong too often or by too big a margin, the whole business will be at risk.

What amounts to a non-job in the public sector depends on how you define the proper role of the public sector and how you measure the benefit. In the private sector it's relatively easy because you can measure costs in pounds and receipts in pounds and deduce that a surplus of the former over the latter means something has to change. In the public sector it is not so easy because the perceived benefit of a particular item of expenditure might be political rather than economic, in which case there will always be room for debate whether it is justified.

My idea of a public sector non-job is necessarily affected by my view of the proper role of the State. For example, I see no good reason for the State to tell people what to eat. We all receive quite enough information on that subject throughout our lives from parents, teachers, friends, spouses, television and radio that there is no need for a single penny of tax to be spent on the matter. Exit Healthy Eating Initative Facilitators and Five-a-Day Counsellors, non-jobs of the first water.

Then there is wholly pointless and unnecessary bureaucracy. Perhaps the best example comes with so-called regional government. We have Regional Assemblies, whatever they might be, and many a regional quango with specific non-resonsibility for housing and planning. They do nothing that cannot be done, and is not done, by central and local government. Prime candidates for the out-tray.

From there we can move to the cost of governmental megalomania and distrust. These unfortunate and inappropriate qualities manifest themselves most obviously in the setting and monitoring of targets. Targets for schools, targets for the police, targets for hospitals, targets for local authorities, targets for everyone other than government ministers. Targets are set because our current government wants to be in control, because it wants to be seen to be in control and because it does not trust those who actually have to provide services to the public to exercise their own judgment in how best to use the resources allocated to them. Legions of paper-pushers are engaged in disseminating the targets and monitoring whether they have been met. To my mind they are non-jobs because the whole process is flawed. Give each regional police force its budget for the year, give each state school its budget for the year, do the same for each local health authority (or whatever they are now called) and each local authority and let them use the money as they see fit. There is plenty of free local monitoring of the efficiency of these local service providers. That is not to say they will always use the money to best advantage, but meeting arbitrary targets won't do that either. So out go the targeting paper-pushers, they do non-jobs.

These are just a few examples, but I hope they give a taste for what I mean by non-jobs. Essentially they fall into two categories - jobs that should not exist because they do things the government should not be involved with and jobs that exist because government gets more involved than in needs to in areas in which it has some legitimate role. These jobs do not "add value" as the saying goes. All they do is suck up money.


Dan said...

Thank you for your lucid explanation. One thing I would pick up on is your very proper concession that whether a given public sector job is a "non-job" depends on whether or not you think what it entails is an appropriate activity for the State; it follows (I think) that whether any given job is a "non-job" a) depends upon one's political opinions, obviously, but also b) probably doesn't lend itself to broad generalisation.

Take targets, for instance. I suggest that target-setting is an appropriate activity for the State if the target results in an improvement to the relevant service. Some targets clearly are stupid, serve no useful purpose and just create unnecessary extra work. Arrest targets for the Police are a good example. But others - the four week maximum wait to see a consultant in the NHS, for example - have been quite effective. One shouldn't tar them all with the same brush.

Sorry this is a bit rambling. It's too early to think properly.

Mark Wadsworth said...

"cost-benefit analysis" is not trendy jargon, it is a time honoured phrase that means what it means. I'm not sure there is a less trendy way of saying it.

Mark Wadsworth said...

@ Dan, if we scrapped the NHS and gave people "health vouchers" instead (like in most European countries) then we wouldn't need the four week target for consultants either.

People would just go to the hospital with the shortest waiting list, so there'd be pressure on the others to improve or lose all their income.

cornishgiant said...

I am (un)fortunate to work for at least 1/2 of my working week as an Allied Medical professional for NHS Cornwall & Isles of Scilly. We are told money is going to be tight next year, budget' cut etc.

So WTF is someone doing creating this monstrosity?

Makes me want to weep. Why do I bother trying to save money?

Tim Almond said...


Targets are much weaker than competition or narrow democratic choices.

The problem with the "4 week wait" is that we just don't know how much better than that we can go. Imagine if car makers had failure targets like the trains have late targets? We'd have cars that ran as well as the trains do. We'd still be driving Rovers. The target would be met, of course. But we know through competition that much better cars can be made than the Rovers.

It is only when we get more competition in more services that we will answer this with, for instance, the NHS. Sadly, I think that we'll go through years of other ideas such as results-based targets and a clinician-led NHS before a hard-nosed politician gets hold of it and makes it market run and more professional.

Dan said...

Tim, as I understand it the NHS already operates an internal market, which anecdotally at least is an unmitigated disaster.

I would also add that one can already pick the hospital with the shortest waiting list, or at least my GP lets me do so; I don't know how prevalent that particular practice is.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Dan, I am rabidly in favour of vouchers (however funded) and competing provision not out of some lofty principle but because other countries have it e.g. Germany where I used to live and it just works, there's no magic, it just works.

Anonymous said...

I saw an advert for a dance development officer for blackpool.I should think this classifies as a none job surely.What are councils getting involved in this,isn't this for the private sector,why should taxpayers pay for you to learn to dance!
TPA have a regular list too.

james c said...


There are plenty of non-jobs in the private sector.

E.g. management consultants.

Anonymous said...

We only forced to pay for those if used by a public body though james,and a lot do.

Surreptitious Evil said...

Is "management consultant" a non-job? Interesting - in a lot of cases "consultants" are used to say or do something that would cause an insider an immediate career failure if they tried it. Been there (from the consultant side and nearly there from the inside.)

On the other hand, if you are a small or medium business, very good a producing widgets, do you know anything about developing your international markets? Or even the effects on your Standard Imperial Bevelled Widget line of implementing the EU Directive on the Political Significance of the Ruritanian Left-Bevelled Widget? Not all management consultancy is non-productive. And in the wider world - lawyers, accountants, printing, web-site design - all often done by "consultants", although many would baulk at the name.

Personally, I make a good living (ish) from providing specialist technical consultancy to organisations small, large, commercial & government who simply do not have the work to employ somebody like me full-time. They are prepared to take the hit on the day-rate for the convenience of me not being there muttering and twitching unless they actually have work for me to do (and in the latter case, often to be doing it a hundred miles away from them.)

Of course, the other thing about the private sector is that the non-jobs that do turn up are often actually non-roles. You may find the "Social Diversity Interview Co-ordinator" or similar - but this normally involves a lengthy sleep (aka short training course) and then one or two days a quarter away from the real job (including, of course, the Regional Social Diversity Interview Co-ordinators' Away Day, at a rather nice country hotel but ...)

You would be amazed at the boxes you had to tick to do business with the Livingston GLA - and how few people can spend so little time and successfully tick all of them.