28 July 2011

Bureaucracy - a history lesson

When, in the early 1970s, I first secured a paid job in the wonderful bureaucracy that is the civil service, desktop computers had yet to be invented. If you had a policy thought that needed to be preserved for posterity, it had to be typed manually. This was effected by women located in typing pools. In a building like St Andrew’s House, there was a pool on each floor. A minor official - as I was - had to send the hand-written text to the pool and specify how many copies were required, so that the typist knew how many sheets of carbon paper to use. (Carbon paper was a miraculous substance that conveyed the force of the striking typewriter keys onto a sheet of paper beneath it, albeit increasingly imperfectly, depending upon how many copies were required.) This required accuracy from the typist in transmuting the ill-scribed text into typescript. And it required care in the original drafting; the typists would not be happy if they subsequently had to redo the whole thing, just because there were a few drafting errors.

(I should record that I was not a complete novice at the typing, having typed all my university essays. But the idea that an admnistrator, even a trainee, would do his own typing was far beyond the pale.)

Of course there were occasions when material had to be produced in multiple copies, for example, in servicing committees. In the absence of photocopiers, special arrangements had to be made. The typist had to type what was known as a stencil, whereby the letters would be punched through a special kind of cloth paper; this would be fed through a machine which - essentially - sprayed ink through the holes in the stencil onto normal paper. You could run off multiple copies at a rate of three or four per minute. Again this set a premium on the accuracy of the typist. And due to the chemicals involved it was a smelly business.

The boss class of course had their own typists, called secretaries. Yes, I know they had other duties to do, but their main task in life was to be a typist. (I should know - I married one.) The boss’s secretary was a key member of the division; in an emergency, if you had kept on her right side, she might just be persuaded to type that urgent memo. If you upset her, then you would be told that she had more urgent stuff than your petty considerations. And, as she oversaw the written material going into her boss, she knew who was competent and who was not. Who knew what she told the boss?

There was of course a means of making the priority clear to the typing pool: you could attach a red ‘Immediate’ tag or a (useless) green ‘Urgent’ tag, a rather pointless square inch of paper, which you pinned to the folder in which you sent your manuscript to the pool. That meant it took two days to come back rather than three. In order to ensure a speedier turn around, you had to wheedle the pool supervisor, a task which could be more pleasant or less, depending on the lady concerned.

It amazes me that we ever got anything done on time, given that just about everything had to be inscribed on paper. But somehow we managed, and I rather doubt that we were less efficient than today’s service with all its computers and e-mail. Some day, I’ll tell you about the introduction of photocopiers, and why the annual fisheries statistics were produced four weeks earlier in the 1890s than they are today …

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