18 - Working for Ma Guv

Canadian Goverment building and flags

I 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 were 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 government work.

A wise fellow worker told me, ” Don’t try to make sense of what’s being done here. 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 officers 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 were served up to the politicians for exhibit.

Another example was the ‘Ministerial’. 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 Ministerial 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 letter.

When I first joined the Department there were hierarchical 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, IBM 386s. 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 required support staff which management was still in the process of hiring.

Being a computer hobbyist and something 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 usergroup as a base, I started a petition process to “Free the Computers!”. It was driving me nuts seeing those fine IBM 386 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 previously for computer stuff in the Department 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 usergroup had regular meetings and all that. Some users were very keen but others, like the poor secretary of the Executive Director, were ordered to attend these meetings and were bored to tears. She was under instruction to attend and keep tabs on what was happening with this popular movement.

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 in its use 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 at their rug-ranked desks and the Officers in their office cubicles did not know that this was part of a plot to get rid of support staff and let the Officers do their own typing. My goodness, there was 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 routine female administrative staff who pretty much ran the day-to-day activities of their section along 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 back to the code, fix a bit, look at it again, back and forth, back and forth. Eventually, through this process, I created a website for them; a monumental achievement at that time 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 our 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 to say 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 website. 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 (messy, poorly structured code), and files that were too big, 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 sometimes 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 overviewed it. A source of amazement to all was that we were, now, in compliance. We had a site in both English and French. This was a 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 became 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 any more. I was getting ready to retire because I’m not a young person. I was 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 that 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 Anarchist philosophy, learned at the Libertarian League in New York City, 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, while working for the whole office. I ran a book table for United Way. Paperback 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. I was always able to make a nice $300.00 yearly donation to United Way from the book table and the whole department here in Toronto was kept supplied with reading matter.

I also ran a coffee service which was very popular and also cheap. Folks didn’t have to go outside the department to get coffee for their boardroom meetings. When I moved up to being a webmaster I had to let all that go. Last time I visited my book table was still running. just outside the door to Human Resources.

That’s my take on working for Ma Guv. It’s is a rambling tale I needed to get off my chest, so here it be!

Wavy Line

© Sonia Brock 2005

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