24 March 2011

On the "front line"

A while ago I watched a "Newsnight" discussion on what it means to preserve "front-line" public services in an era of cuts. A couple of speakers tried to argue that the definition of "front-line" wasn't easy, but they came across as self-serving reactionaries preserving "jobs for the boys" [the sexism of the expression matches the datedness and factionalism of the principle].

The context was that of policing, and the simplistic distinction implicit in the discussion was between "proper" (sworn constables with powers of arrest) officers and everyone else. Proper police are more expensive than other employees, but there was no discussion of the more complex question, with which police managers are no doubt struggling every day, of the relationship between proper police and "civilian" staff.

As a rule of thumb, the role of back- or middle-office/support/admin. etc. staff is to enable the "front-line" staff to do their jobs. Sometimes, the best way of supporting the front-line staff is to increase their support.

I wrote this about two and a half years ago. It is generally proclaimed that the major tasks of a university are teaching and research, and that the people who actually perform those tasks are the academics.

So it is ironic that structures have developed such that a colleague has been increasingly required to undertake the "back office" functions to the exclusion not only of research, but also of teaching. In a School of Education.

Sometimes the way to make front-line services more efficient, effective and economic is to support (not "manage", "regulate", "quality-assure", "put in irrelevant services people in the front line couldn't give a damn about but which sap their time energy and motivation") them.

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