It’s easy to knock government workers, there’s a belief that the combination of below going-rate salaries offset by better than average pension benefits somehow equates to substandard staff. Unfortunately, when I took a short contract at a government agency I found the stereotype in the IT department to be mainly true.
The head of the IT department had made it clear, and even stated as such, that he was going to coast to an early retirement. Unfortunately he didn’t make it. Even in an organisation where bumbling ineptitude seemed to be the norm, he contrived to set off so many alarm bells that his gentle career wind-down was blown off course by the earlier than expected end of his job. His credibility as a functioning member of the department was also undermined by the fact that he looked a lot like the character Uncle Monty from the film Withnail and I, but I digress.
His termination of employment wasn’t unexpected; certainly not by me, after I had been witness to the most surreal episode of my working career.
The organisation was about to hit the headlines for the wrong reasons: a USB key containing names and home addresses of hundreds of thousands of individuals had gone missing. This was at a time when such IT security lapses were highly newsworthy and it reflected very badly upon the organisation and the IT department, in particular. It was not part of my remit but upon hearing the news I immediately put together an email with my suggestions for encryption based upon my experience working in high security organisations; these measures would be quick to implement and would cost only time, but more importantly would show that steps had been taken. Having composed my email, I sent it to the head of department just as he arrived in the office. After some 45 minutes an email notification popped up on my screen advising that I had received an email from the head of department. I was impressed, I thought that he had read my suggestions and had composed a response; I imagined that I would be asked to put together a team to implement some or all of my recommendations. Wow!
The impressiveness was sorely misplaced. Upon opening the email it was not a reply to my email but a letter to all department members in response to a full-time colleague’s email. The email was entitled “Breakfast concerns”. It was very, very long. It detailed how there had been a complaint about the size of portions served for breakfast in the building’s canteen, specifically concerning the number and size of sausages that were currently being placed into a bap and were being advertised as “Breakfast Roll”. Apparently the quantity of sausage meat had been so decreasing over time that something had to be done and that we should rest assured that measures would be taken.
I looked up from my monitor and peered around at staff members’ faces in an attempt to gauge whether I was the only person who thought that there was something slightly odd about this missive in its own right, never mind in the context of the news revelation that I thought should be dominating thoughts within the IT department. Apparently not.
The head of IT was soon thereafter replaced by an almost identical character whose sense of humour involved walking around the office and musing aloud, “I haven’t sacked anyone today, I wonder if I should”. The irony of this appeared later as he became the first person in the department to be sacked after his appointment.