It's not that I didn't like my job, or think that it was going well. But when you look around you and see that nearly all the people at the top of the office have something in common, you tend to want that thing too. And for once, it wasn't a penis.
So, I applied for the fast stream. The Civil Service recruits about 115 fast streamers a year; it gets about 7000 applications. I'd never applied before, put off by the odds and the belief that all the fast streamers were much brighter and better and more committed than me. Luckily, a few months in headquarters cured me of all of these notions, as I met a few fast streamers. To be fair; some of them were very impressive, with the winning combination of brains, enthusiasm and charisma. But they weren't all like that, and the ones that were like that weren't all that much unlike me. So, in the grand tradition of the non-innovative, I thought, well, if they can, so can I.
First came the application form. All the normal stuff; tell us about your life, give us academic references, where did you go to primary school, what do you do in your spare time? Plus, could you write us three short passages showing how you have demonstrated a wide assortment of analytical and communication skills. One of my passages (the least boring one) is below.
In April 1995 I chaired Confabulation, the UK National Science Fiction Convention. This was a four day residential conference with 700 attendees, run entirely by volunteers. In early 1993 I set up a team of five people. We were responsible for most of the pre-convention planning and development. At the 1993 National Convention, we bid for and won the right to run the 1995 convention. As chair, I presented the bid to the members of the 1993 convention and represented our bid in an open discussion forum prior to the vote.
However, just to demonstrate that they were looking for more than merely the ability to second guess recruiters, there was also a second form; a "bio-data questionnaire". This was clearly designed so that applicants could demonstrate their ability to second guess a computer. It was full of questions like "Compared to your friends and colleagues, would you say that you are much more/slightly more/ average/slightly less/much less intelligent/talkative/humorous/ thoughtful/ caring/ tolerant?" There didn't seem to be space for "About average intelligence compared with my friends, but much brighter than my boss." If those questions weren't bad enough, they then went on to "If your friends and colleagues were asked to describe you,..." And no room for "haven't the foggiest", either.
People whose passages pass muster and whose biodata questionnaires don't come out as "loony" are invited to take a day of qualifying tests, at a town hall near you. And for some reason, they invited me, despite the fact that my form will have said "loony" all over it as clearly as if I'd scrawled it on in lipstick. My test was at Battersea Town Hall, in Lavender Hill; a part of the world which I had previously only known for its Mob. The testing was run by aged ex-civil servants who reinforce everyone's worst notions of what civil servants are like; dreadfully embarrassing for me as I talked to other candidates about what the civil service was like and about how the Department of Social Security was much more interesting than you might expect. I had been quite looking forward to the tests, which I had been led to believe were IQ tests. Sounded all right really.
I was in for a shock. All the tests were hard, but the worst was the mathematical one, where you have to interpret charts of data and answer questions about them. A cinch, I thought: just like the work I do every day in the office. Half an hour later my pride was severely dented. Other tests involved logical reasoning and problem solving, and there was a test of our ability to put sentences in order to make a sensible paragraph. It was interesting to watch the way that people left after tests and didn't come back.
I left the test centre feeling decidedly disgruntled, and reckoning that they must be looking for some people who were very good at this sort of thing, because I certainly hadn't done very well. Nevertheless, after the regulation wait, I got a letter inviting me to the Civil Service Selection Board at the beginning of December. CSSB (which is always pronounced cizzbee) is a two day festival of tests, interviews, exercises and a goodly amount of sitting around. "You won't have time to feel nervous," they said, and I can confirm that this is, as you might expect, complete bollocks.
You're asked to bring with you three topics that you're happy to talk about with interviewers. After discussions with some senior officers, I had carefully chosen pub arguments; The Lottery is a Tax on Poverty (as seen in Zorn #1), Smoking Should be Banned in Public Places, and The Internet Should not be Regulated. My pre-preparation consisted of jotting down pros and cons and a line to take over a cappuccino before going into the test centre on the first day. When I arrived at the centre I was given a pink badge and told that I'd be tested along with four other people with pink badges. I found a person with a pink badge and began to chat. He asked what topics I'd chosen. I told him, and asked what he'd picked. He explained he was discussing the failure of the monarchy and got out a selection of marked up textbooks. I showed him my cappuccino covered notes.
The two days are designed to confuse, to disorient. For example, at one point you're asked to write down a lot of personal information very quickly. They could have asked you for this in advance, but they want to see what you write under pressure; they then use the information for your interview with an occupational psychologist.
I was quite rattled by the time we started reading the notes for the first group exercise. I turned over the page. Imagine that you are a team of people asked to come up with imaginative uses for a benefit payment card... I relaxed. The purpose of the first group exercise is to get you used to talking to each other, and discussing ideas; it's not marked as seriously as other work. But nevertheless, being given a topic that's in the zeitgeist of the Department that I currently work in was awfully lucky.
There's a lengthy policy exercise, where you read a dossier of papers and write a report for senior officers/Ministers. I'd been warned that I should on no account cock this up; as this sort of work is the bread and butter of the core civil service, you don't have much chance if you can't make a reasonable fist of it.
One peculiar interview with the psychologist, which seemed pleasant throughout but afterwards seemed awfully worrying. Why on earth did I tell him that?
One cheerful and pleasant interview with the chairman... What are science fiction conventions like exactly? Why didn't you do well at University? Why do you think the Lottery is a tax on poverty?
And forty minutes of being trapped like a fish on a string by the Departmental Assessor (a senior civil servant from MoD, as it happens), who turned my innocuous and ill-thought out assertions into a thorough debate on the nature of censorship and personal freedoms. After about thirty seconds, I felt like saying Is this a five minute argument or are we down for the full half hour? When the assessor realised he wasn't winning, he turned to tricksy arguments, so I reckoned that gloves were off and gave as good as I got. I was lucky. Another in my group had chosen Bosnia as one of his topics; apparently the MoD chap had talked of other things for 38 minutes, then looked at his watch, said let's talk about Bosnia to finish, and two minutes later, had cut all of Tim's arguments to shreds and left the poor chap bleeding on the floor.
More group exercises; each person in turn chairs a fifteen minute discussion. All you have to do is introduce the topic, outline options and give a clear steer, invite discussions, ensure that everyone contributes, summarise all major views, reach a consensus and close, all within the time limit, because if you run over they cut the discussion off dead.
A management in-tray exercise; it's Monday morning and you've taken over a new job and you've got the In Tray From Hell. Your senior staff are all hospitalised, insane or incompetent, and your boss has gone on a two week trip to the jungles of Paraguay or some such.
And one bit I truly enjoyed; a selection of numerical puzzles, which came as welcome relief after all the tricky stuff.
And then a pint in the pub with others from my group, and a wait for results. You'd think that that would be that; that a two day selection board would be enough. But not so. In order to ensure that the people they choose are The Right Sort, they wheel out some very senior people indeed for a final selection board. (This is known as fizzbee, but my mother kept referring to it as Frisbee, which I prefer.) I got my letter, and I borrowed the division head's copy of Who's Who. They're all in there.
After all the previous stuff, a 45 minute interview doesn't seem that bad; but I was really nervous now, and they put you at a table, with one of you and six of them. A soft little question about car use from one person seemed ok; little did I know that I was being softened up for twenty minutes on the Newbury bypass from a deputy secretary from DoT. Lots of questions about the Civil Service and impartiality. Have you ever told a Minister he's wrong? Well, not in so many words.
They told me I'd hear in a week; after nine days I couldn't bear it any more and rang up. It's good news; I've been recommended for a place.
I got an email of congratulation. Welcome to satsuma-land.
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