The architect was asking for some significant changes to plans for a company headquarters which was to be built on a former school playing field. After some discussion, the Planning Officer suggested they proceed by informal consultation with councillors and others, rather than make a renewed application. Later that day, he had to address the failure of his office to process an application in good time, which involved talking to managers to work out the source of the problem, and calling the applicant to apologise and explain.
In both instances, the ACPO had to draw on his knowledge of the technicalities of planning, but also of administrative procedure, of the political dynamics of the council, of the people and personalities involved in each case, and of what might count as a normal and appropriate way of resolving them. These are meshed together as he talks to those he’s engaged with, each interaction offering an account of what’s at stake both in his own eyes and in those of each meeting’s ‘nonpresent participants’. In this way, ‘Communicative acts are the atoms of the ideas that mobilize the flow of resources and the realization of rules’.
The planner’s work is to figure out ‘who gets what, when, how’, in Lasswell’s famous phrase; it is a form of governing. It consists in much more than designing, drafting, measuring, calculating and budgeting, for these technical and professional things have to be realised and sustained in a series of communicative political acts. In planning, in practice, ‘talk and argument matter’.
Judy works at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, in the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service. One day a group of 56 asylum seekers arrived from Slovenia, some of them having been refused entry to other European countries. According to the regulations, they could neither be admitted nor immediately returned, so the solution was to create temporary holding accommodation for them in terminal D.
Her work is not simply about applying the rules, which we might think of as the ‘quintessential administrative task’. It is much more about working out which rules might apply, and whether and how to apply them. And that depends not just on knowing the rules, but the context in which they might be applied and the agencies and individuals who might apply them. This is how she must make the rule real.
She thinks of it as creative activity, though the arrangement she makes isn’t quite made ‘out of nothing’. She has an incomplete, less than fully formed sense of the situation in front of her, but knows she needs to act. She does so in consultation and collaboration with others, as they develop a shared sense of what might be done. They learn, together, what that is by trying to do it. Administrative work of this kind is as much collective and pragmatic as it is individual and instrumental. ‘What Judy knows is not held in memory, but instead embodied in the actions she engages in… Confronted with the complexity and overwhelming detail of everyday work situations, administrators have to turn the partial descriptions of such situations, as exemplified in formal rules and procedures, into concrete practical activities with acceptable and predictable outcomes’.
Michael Barnett worked at the US Mission to the UN in 1993-1994: ‘Among my duties as a political officer were reading cable traffic on my issues, writing talking points for the U.S. ambassadors, hosting various Washington officials when they visited the UN, covering the Security Council when my issues were on the agenda and then writing cables on its proceedings, and generally acting as a conduit between Washington and the UN’. Writing memos or ‘reporting cables’ was particularly important.
In this way, his ability as a member of staff lay in his understanding of administrative and organisational process and routine rather in his knowledge of the problem it was to address. Expertise, in his job, was less a way of knowing, than of responding to uncertainty. His task lay in understanding the relations between organizations, and in representing those organizations to each other in such a way as to maintain and reproduce certain kinds of relations between them.
There had been press reports the day before that a government agency had failed in some way. Officials now gather in the Permanent Secretary’s office, some of them having just seen the minister on his way out to another meeting. The minister wants action, right away. It’s not clear exactly what’s happened, or what the affected agency’s statement about it really means. The substance of different conversations which take place in the course of the morning is about ‘getting the story straight’: the PS will have to account for what’s going on to the minister when they meet later, and to other Permanent Secretaries when they get together shortly for their weekly meeting.
The Permanent Secretary is the senior civil servant in a Whitehall ministry. He or she has a combination of managerial and policy roles, and is the principal link with the Minister, an elected politician. Permanent Secretaries are mostly to be found in meetings, both scheduled and unscheduled, from a quick chat with a colleague, to a consultation with the minister, to a full-scale appearance before a parliamentary committee. There’s paperwork too, more reading than writing and often done outside office hours, on the way to and from work.
Both Minister and Permanent Secretary have private offices to support them. The work of the private office is exciting, in the sense that it’s at the centre of things, but also routine, in that its function is to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible; in a way, its work is precisely to take the excitement out of any given situation. What matters is that the Minister and the PS are ‘in the right place at the right time and with the right papers’.