Thursday 27 November 2008

The Course of Life

Curriculum Vitae is Latin for 'the course of life'. Heaney with his penchant for dispensing with prepositions would call it 'life course'. The Latin seems to suggest that curriculum means a path, as in a track around a race course. Certainly, some would say a career feels like that: circular, repetitive, competitive, and intended to separate winners from losers. But not I.

These past few weeks I've had the dubious pleasure of revisiting my CV. Writing a CV has become a kind of art form. In an age that values style over substance, you really have have to shape your CV a certain way – details, summary of skills, employment, projects, and so on. The important thing is to throw in keywords. They tell me that the overworked HR mandarin no longer has time to read a CV, not to mention a cover letter. Instead, they now use key word parsers to sift through candidates to find ones with the most hits.

It seems such a shame that a whole career of training and toil could be cast into oblivion simply because HR have decided to become search engines instead of managers. (It all began when the changed from being personnel – who dealt with people, to being HR – who deal merely with resources who happen to be human. But that's another story).

So nowadays you have to write your CV with Google in mind. This seriously limits your scope for using the English language. It makes jargon mandatory. You are compelled to be customer facing, instead of just dealing with them. You have to enable things instead of just doing them. You have competence not ability. Something that can perform a task has functionality. You have to think horizontal, vertical, upskill, downturn, and then take a helicopter view. You have to commit all this verbal violence while claiming to have 'an excellent command of English'.

Given that firms lie all the time in their job ads, you have to wonder how much you can lie about on your CV. I try not to lie at all. Everything on my CV has a truth to it. If I say I have done a job in the past, it means I have gone through all phases of that job, from concept to execution. At least in my head. For me it is still perfectly true to claim you have done something, if you think you could have! There is a risk here of being accused of being Walter Mitty, but I think you can get way with it if you are at least close to the mark. For me it's a bit like saying, yes I have driven a jaguar, knowing that you have only ever driven a mini. You have told a fundamental truth: I have driven cars. Now, to claim you have flown an F15 would be stretching it. Walter Mitty would have argued that this too was fundamentally sound: I have been in charge of a fast vehicle. The trouble would come if your new employer placed you in the cockpit.

I have kept most of my old CVs going back to the days when I was at college looking for a Summer job. Those CVs glow in the innocence of youth. At college, I remember a friend of mine being stunned at seeing a certain name that he knew down as a referee. Why not? I asked. A convict? he replied in disbelief. Maybe deep down I thought my ref had paid his debt to society, but really, I just hadn't even thought of it. Nor did it ever matter.

I wonder if all CVs have a kind of life of their own? Even some of my early experience has evolved over time. The more I learned about my profession the more I massaged the content of my earlier jobs. It's a bit like going back to the same canvass and touching up the background. Again, all of this in an effort to be as truthful as possible. As if I can say, on reflection, yes, I was rather central to that project. True, at the time I was peripheral, but as my life went on I became more central to it, or it to me. Or something like that!

I cannot decide whether it is a tragedy or a blessing that writing a CV does not involve the true meaning of the term: the life course. At one level it seems sad to formally revisit, reflect on, and have to show, only one dimension of a human life. True, the prospective employer is looking for the human side too: are you good with people? do you communicate well? are you proactive? can you cope with very long hours – I mean stress?

But the employer is not really looking for humanity – just a package of so called soft skills. If real humanity were required, you could talk openly about your weaknesses. You are timid or forgetful. You don't like meetings. You fear change. You take decisions but cannot cope with detail. But alas, any admission of humanity and you are set for the dustbin. (Interviews are dramatically shortened by revealing your humanity. Once you mention any weakness, a forced and lethal smile grows on the face of the employer, and very quickly, you're on your way).

But perhaps too it is a blessing. The task of writing down your frailties would be far more daunting than compiling a list of jargon. You would have to peer into your very core – to face your inner essence, with all its lights and shadows. And over time you'd see how the joy and hurt along that race track molded your life. You'd see it all, right there before you in words: tender and quick, wounded but strong, fearful and passionate - the indomitable self.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

FÁS: A sloth in Ireland's Organisational Zoo?

Recent revelations of lavish spending by Rody Molloy and his team at the head of FÁS have provoked an outcry. At a time when citizens are experiencing a painful decline in their standard of living, people have learned that the state agency partly responsible for generating employment has been splashing out a shameful abundance of perks.

As far as I know Shane Ross was central to getting some of the spenging figures out there. He said today on Kenny's radio show that at first FÁS tried to fend off his requests for information under the freedom of information act. But he persisted and got his hands on the goodies.

I think there are two important elements to this which go far wider than FÁS itself. The first is the way in which huge chunks (perhaps now the bulk) of executive functions have been farmed out to agencies in the name of efficiency and under the banner of separating policy (retained by government departments) from implementation (now largely in the hands of the agencies.

There is absolutely no question that the overall structure needs to be reshaped from the roots up – in terms of co-ordinating strategy, appointments, transparency, and value for money.

The second issue that this emphasises is harder to pin dow. It is the prevalence in Ireland of wink and nod government, of patronage and close networks of old pals. And all this in a culture where the notions of civic responsibility and political integrity are almost entirely absent. (This is why Ross deserves credit – in this story his actions are remarkable if only for the fact that nearly all of our political elite know what's going on in FÁS across the myriad of state agencies, but none are willing to break the unsaid rule of letting sleeping dogs lie)

Turning back to the first issue. Our state agencies. The huge number of new agencies created under the Ahern regime is truly stunning. But that is not in itself the problem. The problem is how it was done and the way in which these agencies are themselves governed. Earlier this year the OECD examined the Irish public service and in part of that review they look at the issue of agencification. Below I have pulled out some of what they had to say.

First, the OECD give a general view that “in the absence of clear guidelines or consistent management, however, the proliferation of the agency structure in Ireland, has posed significant challenges in relation to governance, capacity and performance within agencies.”

Taking a closer look, the OECD found that “the current governance system is not transparent for the Public Service, let alone for citizens and private companies, and the management and accountability of the Public Service as a whole has become more challenging as the result of the particular path taken by agencification. This problem is compounded by the fact that, at the time they were created, little thought was given to establishing systematic arrangements for the oversight of agencies or to the idea of governance in general. As a result, the establishment of agencies in Ireland has not improved the delivery of flexible and responsive government services.”

Not only are the agencies internally difficult to penetrate, but the whole idea and concept is as vague as the kind of language used by Aherna himself. The OECD continues that “in practice there is no widely accepted idea of what is or what constitutes an agency in Ireland. This makes it very difficult to track the size of this sector or to analyse its impact. For example, no official Irish statistics are available for staff numbers in agencies in Ireland either today or 10 or 20 years ago. There are currently more than 500 non-commercial agencies in Ireland

Furthermore, “there is no agencification plan in Ireland per se. Instead, agencies have been established on a case-by-case basis. As a result, the vision and policy goals behind agencification are unclear, and agencification seems to have responded to a multiplicity of implicit objectives – some of which are inconsistent – rather than to a strategic vision about the functioning and structure of government.”

And so we arrive in the animal garden: “this situation has led to an organisational “zoo” where citizens, private firms and government have little clarity on how the Public Service operates. The proliferation of organisational forms with different governance arrangements, the lack of logic in the control environment and the absence of investment in steering capacity have hindered line departments from developing a proper steering relationship with agencies

A couple of years ago the think tank TASC looked into the growth of state agencies. According to their survey of the sector, the biggest problem was even getting a handle on the size of the whole mess “however, an absence of good information systems means that accurate assessment of their nature, scale and significance is difficult to establish. The fragmented manner in which they are established results in confusion, inconsistency and opacity.

TASC were looking at it not necessarily from a point of economic efficiency but with regard to democratic accountability. What they found was a system closer to a monarchical patronage than a modern democracy. “There is something in the region of 5,000 appointments to Public Bodies at national level alone, the majority in the gift of Government. Given the number of these appointments and the importance of the function which the appointees must perform, it is a big gap in our accountability structure that Ireland has no clearly established mechanism to ensure that appointments are free from undue political or other influence or that there is an effective independent appointments system in place. As of now, ministers and senior civil servants are responsible for appointing the majority of members to Public Bodies. Moreover, the influence of the Oireachtas in the making of these public appointments is negligible.”

We'll see now in the FÁS case whether TASC's final indictment can be verified “Without clear criteria there is the danger of making appointments where the appointee has either mediocre ability or is lacking the appropriate skills and knowledge. There is a problem of lack of accountability of those appointed. The power of dismissal is, theoretically, a considerable one, but one which in practice is rarely used.

To me the OECD writer was kind to liken the chaotic, dysfunctional, and ineffective nest of agencies to a zoo. It strikes me more like a jungle. But it is not merely the product of unclear thought and ad hoc decision making. And this is where I return to my second point, the political culture in Ireland.

If the Bertie series wasn't revealling in the narrow sense, in terms of why Bertie accepted cash or took a decision to cross Reynolds, it made up for it in another way. It showed Ahern at the centre of a culture of patronage – the proud and arrogant drumcondra Mafia, the developers who felt the had to be friends with the boss, the favours without trace. And it revealed a leader that has never and is incapable of comprehending the notion of public service and integrity in a modern democracy. Ahern tried to brush Haughey out of his past when he enterred power in 1997 and stated publicly that no officer of state should take money from anyone under any circumstances because it left the wrong impression. But he said this out of necessity, not out of conviction, and it is a message that he never again returned to.

The trouble for Ireland is that Ahern was only exceptional because he embodied the culture of nod and wink so completely, so fully. He was merely the best – or from the country's point of view – worst, of a bad lot. The FÁS shenanigans were inevitable not because Ahern had a sloppy view of public office, but because his view is deeply embedded in the DNA of our political system. Indeed, it spans far wider than that, and is likely buried somewhere deep in the national psyche.

Some improvement can be made by revising the structures that the OECD and TASC refer to. The founding fathers of the US knew that the main need for sound and robust democratic accountability is to save us from ourselves. Nothing has changed since.

But in Ireland we need to grow up as a nation. We need to admit the horrendous cost of our acceptance of political patronage and politics by envelope. We need to realise we cannot have the public services we crave, we cannot make the state (and other actors such as banks) work for us, unless we demand integrity and accountability. That is why it would be equally as valid to march on Leinster house in protest against corruption, waste, and arrogance in public office as it is to march to preserve medical cards or any other vital service. And until a rage like that builds in the public heart, we will continue to be surrounded by a tragic field of sloths and opportunists in the dreary confinement of our chaotic organisational zoo.

Monday 10 November 2008

Job Loss, Part III

Two months have now passed since my ex-boss shocked me to the roots with the unexpected announcement that I was being laid off. (See here and here) In the first few days or weeks I felt that my life had been completely blown off course. To borrow from Wilde, I felt like a ship without a rudder in a night without a star. Since then, while I have failed to find a route to a new World, I have had a rather interesting journey.

I made one very informative physical journey - to Brussels, where, over a couple of days I met a range of senior officials, MEPs, and the Irish Commissioner. For most people the notion of such a journey would draw groans of boredom, but for me, an EU anorak, it was almost fascinating. I've written a little about this particular visit elsewhere, so I'll spare the details here.

The important journey these past two months has been internal. I have used the time and space to push back the hurry of the world and try to let life happen at its own pace. Until now my professional life, and therefore my real life, has been like paddling upriver against a stubborn current. You were expected - and expected yourself - to keep pulling on the oars no matter what. It was imperative to edge upstream towards some notional destination. These past weeks, however, I've allowed myself to dissolve into the current, to meander back, drinking the wonder of life around me on the banks.

It seems strange that it was only after I became unhooked from the yoke of work that I fully realised its immense burden. Before I lost my job, I couldn't notice the solemn commuters, crammed in carriages, the tired silence in their bellies, the strained brows, the laptop bags loaded with pressure. Instead I saw copies of myself, happy in the inevitability of it all. But now I began to notice nuances that I had missed, or perhaps refused to see. I saw how a delay of single minute at a tram stop magnified the anxiety on the face of a young woman. Perhaps she had outsourced the care of her children to a creche and was running late. The precious minutes between tram and pillow were ticking away.

In town, a hurried suit, umbrella in one hand, a case in the other, darted to catch the dying flashes of a little orange man on a traffic light. A woman lugging a laptop emerged from the crowd, walking briskly, her eyes misty with distance. In an office block near Charlemont a random constellation of lights shimmered, remote signals of work that never ends. At six pm, everywhere I look, I see the penalty of work, its cruel toll etched into the very fabric of our lives.

Being out of work has turned the week upside down. Even when work was particularly interesting, I had always looked forward to the weekend. It was like coming up for air - essential and delightful. A form of temporary release. The downside was the Tyranny of weekend shopping. Sadly, the entire infrastructure of urban living is designed to just about cope with the surge of weekend demand. Now however, I can wallow in the vast spaces of mid week shopping. Streetscapes and shopping centres are open, brighter, calmer, pumped with oxygen. Shop assistants wear a smile and have a chance to provide, well, assistance. The man in the coffee shop has time to mention the weather, and I have time to learn his name is Alessandro. I imagine that as we approach Christmas the contrast between these two worlds - week and weekend - will fold into a single, frenzied madness, but it was pleasure to have enjoyed the difference for a while at least.

There have been dozens of little things that I had wanted to do but couldn't get around to. I started using my handful of books on cooking again. Basically this meant looking up and then buying ingredients. This is a break with the workaday routine of rushing to the supermarket and collecting the essentials in well worn sweep of known shelves: a pasta sauce here and packet of rice there. Instead, I now try to pick out at least one solid culinary adventure per week. And then go out in search of ingredients at a leisurely pace.

Before, dinner was simply a matter of throwing the basics into pots and willing them to be ready. At the cooker now, however, I can take my time, plan a bit, experiment, hover casually, listen to radio, sing along.

There have been other odd jobs too. A trip to the national archives here, and an afternoon of DIY there.

One superb joy of being out of work is having more time with my 15 month old son. He is still in creche much of the time, but I take him out for days at a time, and even when he's in there, I often leave him in late or take him out early. He is an addiction. He is a sponge for affection, and hoovers up kisses and mad, sustained hugs.

My time off has also allowed me to return to literature. For me this has meant leaping back into the two forms I most enjoy - the personal essay and short fiction. In short fiction I have returned to my heroes - Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov. And I have found new treasures - like the marvellous "Dog Heaven", by Stephanie Vaughan, a truly wonderful example of the short story. I found this in audio form on the New Yorker Fiction website. I have listened to it three or four times, each time discovering more nuances and connections in this complex, inventive, and delightful tale.

I came across a personal essay that struck so many inner chords that I must have chimed for several minutes. It was "For my Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" by Seymour Krim. He says a lot about work, and even more about the notion of failure, all of which is just right for a person in my position. Krim wrote "It is still your work or role that finally gives your definition in our society, and the thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls".

Over these last few weeks, the state of my soul could hardly be described as a riot, but there certainly was some kind of ruction. For the moment, I have sought to let it rage, for no doubt I will have to call it off soon enough.

How Dash Died

Wee Dash grew up just across the road from us. He was four or five years older than the rest of us, but we all played together as children.

As the eldest, Dash was always in charge. He always seemed to enjoy the mantle of leadership. And he was good at it: as six year olds he had us eating out of is hand, sometimes literally.

I remember the time he converted their little back garden into a show jumping course. He had set up a variety of obstacles to mimic what we had seen on TV. Then he timed us younger children as we trotted around hopping over the fences pretending to be Eddie Macken or Harvey Smith. Dash would provide the commentary to an imaginary crowd - " and a clear round for Paul Darragh".

Dash also organised more important expeditions - like the building of a hut in Walls's field or the raid on a silage pit to collect tyres for bonfire night. And I remember he put more thought into these things and insisted on a form of discipline, in a way that we never saw in the other older boys.

As far as I remember, around the intercert Dash dropped out of school and took odd jobs here and there before settling into a regular job as a painter. It was about this time that his talent on the football field began to show. Dash was small, and like the best small players, he had a gift for being evasive - he could switch direction in the blink of an eye. And above all, he had oodles of skill.

But as he entered his twenties Dash developed a growing dependence on alcohol. At the time stories circulated that he would show up half tanked for training. Over time it clawed him under, and prematurely ended a promising career on the field.

By the time he was thirty his addiction had consumed him almost entirely. He would drink only raw spirits. They said he'd down a half bottle, at any time of the day, then collapse into a stupor, then hours later wake and start again.

I remember meeting him ocassionally when I'd come home from Galway. He was wasting away physically, and I always thought there was a look of defeat and shame in his eyes. After a number of failed attempts during his early thirties, however, he eventually managed to cut himself free of his terrible affliction.

A couple of years ago he parked the bottle and got a steady job. Then he got a little house, of which he was fiercly proud. My mother said he kept it like a doll's house, bright, dainty, and impeccably tidy.

Dash got involved in supporting local Sinn Féin candidates. I didn't really know him in recent years, but I would say he had a traditional, nationalist outlook. Either way, he got involved and got a great kick out of election campaigns and local meetings.

Then everything - young commander, athlete, recovered alcoholic, local activist, a half a lifetime of hurt and hope - all this, ended in an instant, terrifying thwack.

Last Sunday morning, Dash and his friend were sailing along the clear, open road to Ballyshannon. Out in the distance, coursing towards them, was a young man, drunk on high speed, brimming with reckless youth, and pushing his car forward like a missile.

The speeding car went out of control and detonated into Dash's car like an angry bomb. It discharged its energy in a violent shockwave that destroyed sinew, and bone, and metal, then rippled out wider to tear mothers' hearts. The two cars exploded into one another and careened along the centre of the N15, then stopped in an ugly, mangled embrace.

A sick silence descended over the wreckage. Hot metal and warm flesh cooled together; and the smell of engine oil and dying blood oozed out into the November air.

May all three men who died in the accident rest in peace.

Monday 3 November 2008

Maith Dom, A Theanga

A theanga, atá sínte, maith dom
as thú a thréigint in uair an anáis.
Chaith mé mo chuid ama
faoi dheifir i gcroílár an anoird,
ag iarraidh an saol a chur le chéile.

lig mé an fhoghlaim le sruth,
agus lig mé an seanrún i ndearmad.

Nuair a chuala mé seanfhear ar Barrscéalta*,
arb as na Cruacha** dó,
ag déanamh spraoi,
agus ag inse scéalta agus seanchais,
a chuid focal báite sa dúchas,
a chuid siollaí ag iompar na hoidhreachta,
thit an draíocht arís orm,
an suan agus an mhuscailt araon.

Táim ar ais ag do thaobh, a theanga,
mothaigh m'anáil ar do leiceann,
Éist le mo rún i do chluais,
gach cogar a rugadh sa chroí,
á sheoladh mar ualach amach
is ag cuartú d'anam' istigh.

*Barrscéalta - Clár ar Raidió na Gaeltachta
*Na Cruacha - leagan gearr de Na Cruacha Gorma, (The Bluestacks) Sliabhraon i dTír Chonaill