Working for Ma Guv (Mp3)
spent thirteen years of my life working for Canada's federal government,
Ma Guv, in a Department that shall remain nameless. I came in as a temporary
worker and perservered until I was able to become a regular government
employee; on strength as they liked to say. There was a group
of engineers and accountants labouring in a part of the Department devoted
to local industry. These guys had never been able to keep a secretary
for any length of time. I took that as a challenge and managed to work
my way into their good graces by working very hard, above and beyond the
call of duty. They went to bat for me and I was allowed to compete in
a fair competition and I won the position, possibly because no-one else
really wanted it. That's how I got my start. I worked for those lads about
seven or eight years. I learned there the ins and outs of the government
A wise fellow worker told me, Don't try to make sense of what's
being done. In many cases it makes no sense at all, because our masters
in Ottawa, well, they're all crazy!
I think this craziness was part of a duality. We were part of the public
service and our mandate was to to serve the public but we were also working
for politicians who had their own agenda. An example of this might be
'success stories'. We were at certain times, often close to an election
or some other key political moment, required to scurry about and find
out what good we had done. The guys had to find some business which we
had helped to succeed. This was easier said than done. The fellows went
out and attempted to make silk purses out of any number of sow's ears
until they came up with the requisite number of success stories. These
where served up to the politicians for exhibit.
Another example were 'Ministerials'. Ministerials were letters that were
presumed to be from the Minister in charge of whatever it happened to
be. We were part of the process. Suppose a letter had been written to
a Member of Parliament or even to the Prime Minister. This letter requiring
a reply would be rapidly bumped downstairs until it reached the Minister
who held the relevant portfolio. The Minister's office would promptly
bump in downstairs again until it reached the desk of the Officer who
was in charge of that particular thing in the Province. The Officer, whose
territory included steam saunas in your shower, or some such, would draft
a reply. This reply would bump its way back up through the system to the
Executive Director or, more particularly, to his secretary. The wording
was then corrected and all made good and proper. The Minsterial then went
back to the Officer for approval and back and forth until approved locally,
then it was sent to the Minister in Ottawa. He would, after perhaps some
more corrections and back and forth, accept the letter. By this time the
letter, after the successive launderings, said nothing in particular in
a very bland and pleasant way. We understand your concerns...
etc. etc. No-one could possibly pin any blame on such a Teflon-coated
When I first joined the Department there were great rankings of secretaries
and a hierarchical ranking of officers and all that. Certain secretaries
worked with Directors and then there was the head secretary who was rug-ranked
with the Executive Director. These secretaries ran their little kingdoms
and were a royalty. They spoke for the throne, as it were and everyone
gave them due respect.
When computers first came to the Department they were primitive from our
more modern point of view, These computers were all stored in what had
been the smoking room. There was a glass panel in the door of this room.
Walking in the corridor we would go by and peek in to see all the computers
and monitors stacked up. These computers would be ours, when we had the
support staff which management was still in the process of hiring.
Being a computer hobbyist and somewhat of an activist I formed a little
computer user group at work. Such activities were allowed in our lunch
hours and in social time. Using this computer user group as a base,I started
a petition process to Free the Computers!. It was driving
me nuts seeing those fine machines all locked up. Pressure was thus brought
to bear and through group action those computers were foisted upon the
local populace before the support staff arrived.
The lady who had been responsible for computer work in the Department
previously had risen to the level of her incompetence. They brought in
a real computer guy and his assistant. The new Information Technology
staff promptly set up a network and, bingo, we were online and had a real
LAN (Local Area Network). The incompetent lady disappeared, no doubt to
surface elsewhere in government.
My computer user group had regular meetings and all that. Some users were
very keen but others, like the poor secretary of the Executive Director,
had to attend these meetings and we bored her to tears. She was under
instructions to attend and keep tabs on what was happening with this popular
A wonderful woman was brought in to train us. She was a very good communicator
and very bright. We needed to learn word processing plus a little bit
about spreadsheets and presentation software. She specialized in word
processing and a powerful program called Word Perfect. We became competent
over time but we never approached her expertise.
A strange thing started to happen. There used to be a sort of boiler room
where the typists would sit and type from handwritten manuscripts submitted
by the Officers, who didn't have to type a darned thing. In the fullness
of time, they put computers on the Officers desks. The secretaries
in their rug-ranked offices and the Officers did knot know that this was
part of a plot to get rid of staff and let the Officers do their own typing.
My goodness. Such a fuss and bother. Still, it happened. Over time all
the Officers started to type. The exalted secretaries just drifted off
and we were left with a sort of female administrative staff who pretty
much ran the day-to-day activities of their section with some routine
typing and answering phones and what have you. Soon the typing pool was
gone and the Officers were typing their own reports with some hands on
by secretarial staff for the finer points of Word Processing.
Jim refused to type. He was a bit of a peasant with fingers like sausages.
Jim was smart and shrewd and wouldn't type, so he got his typing done
for him just to shut him up. It was strange to see that wave of change
pass through the department with Jim as the lone holdout. My hobbies sometimes
turn into jobs. An entertainment group I was close to needed a web site,
so I taught myself HTML. I was working in raw HTML code then looking at
the result in a Browser. Then I'd go back to code, fix a bit, look at
it again, back and forth, back and forth. Eventually, through this process
I created a web site for them; a monumental achievement although not snazzy
by today's standards.
This meant that I knew how to put up a website. Continuing in this vein,
I got better tools and I put up my own website of useful links. I picked
up a couple more clients, such as a fellow who wrote networked billing
software in Basic code who wasn't into designing. I did a site for a stained
glass designer and several more entertainers, an online African Violet
newsletter, and so on, It came to pass that another government department
in the same building needed a webmaster. This was (magic word) an INTERNAL
competition. People working currently for the department could compete
for this position but there was nobody in my shop who knew how to put
up a website except ME. I competed for the position and won. Someone else
was trying for it but they turned out to be an incompetent wannabe. That
is they'd take the job if the department paid for their time off to train
for it. Geesh!
I got the job and I went in and put up a real government web site. I gathered
Links and got official approval for parts of it and gradually it came
together. It was a whole lot of work because there was an existing website
with many flaws. The first thing I had to do was root out these flaws.
There was a lot of spaghetti code and files that were too big and files
that were unnecessary and so forth. I pared it down to what we actually
needed. When that was finished was I actually done? Oh no. I was was only
half done. Canada is a bilingual country.
I had only schoolbook French To get the web site translated we sent it
to the Translation Bureau. After a page was translated a wonderful chap
on my floor who was French Canadian, looked at the page to see if it made
any sense at all in French. The Bureau did literal translations of the
English text with sometime curious results.
I went through it all, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence
with the Translation Bureau. There were many pages, and Links and inserts.
Bit by bit, over time, we translated that web site into French, and it
was good French, thanks to the helpful chap who did the overview. It was
a source of amazement to all that that we were, now, in compliance. We
had a site in both English and French. That was my major triumph.
Things went downhill from there on. Having decided that the geeks could
not run the farm Management began to have more and more input into the
web process. The web site had become not just a by-blow but a primary
method of communication. We had programmers now in our department and
in Ottawa. A scripting language called Cold Fusion came along, which I
didn't much care for but I learned it after a fashion. We had to code
the pages so they could use Cold Fusion scripts and it wasn't much fun
I was getting ready to retire because I'm not a young person, looking
forward to the day when I could kiss them all good-bye.
I'll talk a little more about the department. I was a wild card. Human
Resources tried to clone me but it didn't work. There weren't very many
people who wanted to work, not just for their little silo, but for the
whole department. My way was to work for all. I was and am a philosophical
Anarchist and believe that power belonged to the people and we should
do things that would benefit everybody. From each according to his
ability, to each according to his needs, This was something I didn't
bring up in casual conversation while working for Ma Guv.
We Anarchists used to call what I was doing burrowing from within.
I was working for the government. I gave them hard work and loyalty working
for the whole office. I ran a book table for United Way. Pocket books
were easy to read on the subway or the Go train. People donated them and
I would sell them for fifty cents each, never more. Folks tried to get
me to raise the price but I wouldn't do it. We were always able to make
a nice donation from the booktable to United Way and the whole department
here in Toronto was kept supplied with reading matter for years.
I also ran a coffee service which was very popular and also cheap. When
I moved up into being a web master I had to let that go. They play a sort
of musical chairs in government and our manager moved on and was replaced
by a lady who didn't have a clue.
Government is run, by the way, mainly by student labour. A wave of students
comes in every year. The managers and officers do the decision making
but the students do a great deal of the dog work.
That's my take on working for Ma Guv. It's is a rambling tale that I needed
to get off my chest, so here it be!
© Sonia Fricker