Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mandate my Ass

In writing about ‘Jobseeker Mandatory Activity’ I’m going to start with a building, and not just to conform to type. In the dead centre of Lewisham is the former Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society's Tower House, built in 1933, a redbrick and white tile department store, with reliefs of trains, liners, the motifs of local industry, the work that was most likely painfully absent in that depression year; inside was a department store for those, like my Grandma, who would get their schoolclothes from the Co-Op and thus be regarded as ‘common’. Nonetheless, loudly holding the borough’s dead centre, the Lewisham RACS was clearly a thumping affirmation of collective, working-class pride. It’s façade-deep. Follow it round the back to find concrete & stock-brick warehousing, snaking round to link up with what is now a Bowling Alley. The RACS building was chopped up into individual franchises: a Yates’s (with SKY SPORTS INSIDE promised), a branch of Fitness First, and at the back, through the warehouse entrance, Twin Training, a private purveyor of education and ‘training’. This is the company to which the (unusually bluntly named) Mandatory Activity has been contracted out. ‘It’s by the bowling alley’, they told me at the Jobcentre, as that’s a better marker than the RACS’ towering (but seemingly invisible) monument to solidarity.

JMA, if you will, is a scheme being ‘tested’ in selected areas of the nation – South East Wales, Warrington, Lanarkshire, South East London (prizes for guessing what links these). At Lewisham Twin, JMA will, according to the bumph, entail ‘upbeat motivational training’. So the image of the Restart counsellor, encapsulated beautifully in The League of Gentlemen’s Pauline, doesn’t quite apply here. The JMA is something a little more insidious. Certainly no-one here is being treated with the casual contempt that Pauline doles out, or that anyone who has waited in line at a ‘JobcentrePlus’ (or tried to walk into one without conferring sufficently with the newly contracted heavy-duty security) gets subjected to. This much is clear when our host – earnest, Nigerian, lanky, clearly very good at his job – declares to us that we should regard the Mandatory Activity as a break, even though it is compulsory, on pain of loss of an already piddling income. ‘Think of it as being like a management training course’. He introduces himself in the third person: ‘Anthony is a person who values people.’

There’s around 25 of us, all men bar five women, one of whom disappears after the first day. Many are people in their 40s, 50s who have worked most of their lives as electricians, shepherds (!) or even lawyers and find employment unsurprisingly tricky to return to. Only one or two conform even remotely to the archetypal hooded malingerer that haunts the dreams of MailLand. So, we get a couple of ‘games’ in groups, such as the ‘you are one of a group who are sole survivors from an aeroplane which has crash-landed in the Indian Ocean on a flight from Cape Town and Karachi. You have managed to get into a life-raft, what personal effects will you throw out’ one, but what the Mandatory Activity really entails is listening to an experienced exponent of managerial tosh wax motivational for three days. Perhaps the best bit is the mnemonics. We’re handed a sheet of paper headed ‘STAYING ON TOP WITH SWOT ANALYSIS’. SWOT being Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. In the midst of the discussion of Swot analysis another is thrown out: GROW, which is made up of Goal, Reality, Options, Will. While we’re taught how to GROW, we’re handed out extracts from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Later, another mnemonic explains that, in interviews, ‘you have to communicate STAR in order to be the Star’. That’ll be Situation, Task, Action and eventually, Result.

The ostensible point of all this is to get us into work by helping with our apparent lack of confidence and social graces, explaining the alleged obstacles that led to our being unemployed for an extraordinary six months. Our host, who lays proud claim to pioneering, when back in Nigeria, 'the project Building Your Tomorrow Today' and a book entitled You Can Make It, repeatedly stresses the importance of three things: Service, Values and Vision. Every job is a service. All organisations provide a service. All organisations have values, and visions. You too have values and visions, you just have to match yours with the organisation’s. Curiously enough, rather than demystifying, the motivational training makes the grimly mundane world of work (Southwark Pest Control is one of the examples we are given) into a baffling, messianic world of entrepeneurs sharing with each other their visionary visions and their valuable values. ‘Anything you want to do, you can do it’ (I quote) is the plainly stated philosophy, a bizarre mismatch with the data entering, painting-and-decorating and benefit-claiming that lies in wait for most of us here. People are mostly bored but relieved by the lack of the Jobcentre’s more obvious inhumanity. That’s still very much here, of course. Someone turns up late for the third day, and the jobcentre are swiftly informed. The stark possibility of weeks without income. In the world of vision, punctuality is brutally important. ‘You must be the master of time’. (again, I quote)

Central to ‘JMA’ is an individual ‘Action Plan’ for each one of us to take back to the Jobcentre and whisk into work, handed out at the course’s end. We’re first given these to fill out ourselves, though the oh-so-efficient private contractors manage to lose some. Regardless, the end result is a chart with cuttings and pastings from internet job sites for each of us to take home. So the only concrete part of the whole thing is the pep talk, and here, in true market Stalinist style, ‘cadres decide everything’. There’s none of Pauline’s dismissal of the ambitious, or the proverbial careers officer’s admonition that you give up space travel for the sausage factory. We can, all of us, make our dreams come true. Right at the end, as everyone hurriedly picks up their travel expenses, we’re told that we’re not to be seen here again. ‘I will next see you…’ ‘On TV!’ someone interjects. ‘As an entrepeneur!’ He’s impressed. ‘An entrepeneur, that’s the aim, isn’t it’. We might all be living on a pittance, but by god we’re going to make it, now that we’ve realised that all that holds us back is our lack of vision.

So at the end of a mercifully brief three days we all walk out, not noticing that this has all taken place in a building once devoted to the now quaint belief that profit might not be the only possible ‘motivation’. Remember the mnemonics, aim high, hold onto those values, and soon enough SE London will be awash with the exploited shedding their collective chrysalis and floating away as exploiters, as long as their benefit isn’t cancelled first.


Blogger Culla said...

Another case of managerialism gone wrong. The motivations are as dodgy as the motivational techniques used, and they may well have been learning from some of McClintock's DUFFF cronies

5:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post mate. Orwell was an optimist and all that. Unemployment is an opportunity to write and, I found, totally isolate yourself from this fucked up society. Do not despair - that is what they want you to do.

Steve Brown

5:56 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

nobody plans to fail, they just fail to plan!

6:21 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

That is a particularly accurate Maclintock...

I was a bit worried at how accepting everyone was of it all...though I did successfully cause a scrap on the subject of the stock market, and there was a very vociferous girl there who tried to derail some of the more silly flights of fancy...the contrast with normal jobcentre obnoxiousness I suppose lulled people somewhat...

NB I do have am writing a thesis part-time, so I'm not totally destined to a life of bleakness and drudgery, or at least better paid bleakness and drudgery.

7:15 pm  
Blogger SPL said...

Signing on in Dalston last year I remember seeing an advert for a position as an "Animal Gut Remover". Oh for such bleak honesty above the 'vision' thing (perhaps the PM should outsource his mainfesto to one of these bastards?). None of my dreams involve corporations or hitting targets, but I seem to be out of step with the rest of society....

12:02 am  
Anonymous Ben said...

A life of "intellectual semi-employment" (Althusser) awaits, although perhaps France in 1970 accorded its "professionals of ideology" more status...
Handily all that SWOT 'analysis' is very popular in academia so you'll be one step ahead in that field as well.
I tend to think people don't challenge it precisely due to fear, as you point out, and general exhaustion. Let's face it if supposedly 'intellectual' academics can't put up any sort of significant stand against management discourse what chance do 'jobseekers' have?
That's my rant over, week 12 of semester one...
animal gut remover sounds interesting as well

10:47 am  
Anonymous Gavin said...

Christ, that sounds nightmarish. I don't miss my dole days - no matter how nice the Job Centre staff, the whole process of having to justify yourself each fortnight was soul-sapping and humiliating.

This JMA pilot - is this what Gordon Brown was trailing this week for rolling out nationwide? The 'take-training-or-lose-benefits' wheeze?

2:18 pm  
Blogger it said...

Just get a job, you shirker! Then you get to have this kind of nu-language thrust at you at the frikking time!

3:07 pm  
Blogger Dominic said...

Hey, have you seen that Fish video (the one about the happy workers who throw fish at each other)? That's still pretty much a low water-mark for me in terms of managerialist stench...

9:08 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

Oh the Seattlite fish throwing scum... I remember being force fed that film in a previous incarnation. It's great how they all loved their job so much that theys left them to go prancing around the world motivating people. In fact, weren't they kind of grunge's obscene other? They had the hair and the smell, but in place of the warm glow of self-loathing was this unbearable smugness, all for the purpose of explaining to you that it was fundamentally necessary for you to 'enjoy' your disgusting job...

8:51 am  
Anonymous kiri said...

I hope you stole the motivational bloke's pens

1:21 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

i know nothing of this fish video - what is it...? is that as in fish from marillion?

4:05 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:37 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...


4:43 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

FISH! is a skill that provides the process, tools and language to generate the skills necessary to design a workplace full of inspiration, creativity and innovation. FISH! creates a common language. A language that will help improve your culture by using four simple practices – Be There, Play, Make Their Day and Choose Your Attitude™. FISH! is a wisdom that everyone can embrace. It is an invitation that enables people to care about each other and their commitments. FISH! is an ongoing journey. It is not a fad. It is a practice and a skill that evolves over time creating a positive workplace and a vibrant culture each time it is embraced.

4:45 pm  
Anonymous cain_devera said...

Possibly one of the most humorous posts I have read on your blog...though not the most interesting (poor, back handed complement). Nonetheless, managerial jargon and dogma is mightily behind here in Canada, where my own experiences at job centres and motivational places involved two hour seminars about 'being early, on time, well dressed' and so, stuff so simple it boggled my mind; the mostly aboriginal attendees probably need something more substantial or effective or meaningful as advice then just 'here is how to organize a resume' type thing.

5:50 am  
Anonymous simon said...

Liked the post a lot Owen. It’s obviously having the affect of reminding a lot of ‘us’ of the time we spent interacting with the variety of governmental strategies aimed at “unleashing the pure potential of the unemployed”. The main things that the varieties nurtured in me was an astounding ability to take what resources I had in my basic ability to lie and amplify this into something which was worthy of being included in a Highsmith story ala Tom Ripley. I not only had to lie to stay signing on but also because I occasionally, throughout my whole time of signing, needed to work to be able to afford to be poor enough to sign on (already the twisted logic and sense of convoluted wording reminds me of the sate of mind of signing). These procedures were always overseen by a selection of posters that offered cash rewards for contacting the ‘officers’ and telling them about anyone who was cheating the system- those who were breaking the rules of being a genuine claimant. I consider these moments to be valuable by recognizing the way in which the system secretes a ‘mental state’ for claimants. Learning a sense of duplicity in relation to survival and feeling the glare from these ‘informant’ posters as you wait to argue your case for housing benefit made me proficient and agile enough to be able to ‘think’ Genet. A friend of mine was informed on. She was accused of cheating the system and lost her right to claim. She had made the mistake of traveling abroad to take part in art exhibitions and not declaring this (to declare it would mean loss of income anyway) but the strange thing is …at her case hearing the officers revealed that they suspected that the informant had been motivated by personal reasons -spite. It wasn’t a serious offence – she had to just lose a complete section of income but would be allowed in the future to claim again. Post interview she talked about how she had learned of the persons name who had begun this process of inquiry, she was as shocked as I was to learn that it was another artist who was aware of her movements-also unemployed and part of a loose grouping of people who worked alongside each other. She has never told anyone who this person is and doesn’t intend to – leaving the fact without air and attempting to avoid breathing any further life into it.
Now as simplified as this description has become in my hands- the main point I want to highlight is that this situation is such a common and complex psychosocial event for the person who signs on. Being able to comprehend such a deeply twisted event and survive its emotional fracturing corresponds with the smooth functioning mandatory idiocy of repetitive task fulfilling that seems to be the other side of the experience of this part of the system.
Perhaps the most estranging feeling is being interviewed by someone you consider to be, more or less, just like yourself (how many times has it been suggested to you that you could find work in the job center by just hopping over the desk to the other side – if you refuse the offer you lose your right to claim) they have that look in their eyes of recognition. You try not to meet this gaze because it may alter your façade of utter nonsense which you have been working on for the last day or two in order to make it look like you are doing exactly what they want you to so they will leave you alone. And I have to add that if all of this seems like a lot of activity (non productive labor? Laborious anti labor?) Then there is always that moment when your fool proof system meets head on with one of ‘their’ mistakes. Chasing your lost Housing benefit across the surface of indifference which belongs to each borough – and leading to that anonymous decision that takes place on the end of a phone (which is always in Manchester?!) – No names given, no discussion. It’s anti discourse line having the affect of directly taking apart the emotional and psychological stability which we try to construct for ourselves on an everyday basis by other means.

11:09 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Brilliant comment, thanks. I was on a New Deal course in another period of sponging a few years ago, and the chap running the 'centre' was a former PhD candidate in Ancient Norse (no shit), and had spent around 15 years on the dole - then got a job attempting to get other people off it. 'I had my entire life destroyed, and so can you!'

3:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now the problem with full time bloggers and 'artists' like yourself, is that when you make political critiques of for example JMA you don't look at the role of the workers delivering these programmes. Being a socialist and having worked in the welfare to work area for several years, I deliver training and programmes like JMA. I try to make a differnce in my delivery,arguing that the way those sitting in front of me change the world is not by going on government courses but by, being in work employing like minded people and fighting back. I dont patronise or force clientS to do things they don't want to, while on the course. Anthony who you patronised, and I spend day after day dealing with those that have serious, mental health issues, who cannot work and should not be on JSA. Then we get 'intellectuals' like you, who spend days thinking about how to describe a building in Lewisham telling us how to do our job. The majority of those that work in the welfare to work area day in day out are working class that are trying to change things for the better. They know what needs to be done with this benefit system and how it should be improved. We don't work in it for the love of it. We dont intrduce the programmes. we do it to pay our bills and look after our families, and to try and treat the unemployed, we work with, with dignity and respect.
If you want to change the system, fight the real enemy not the workers that deliver it.

12:53 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I might have patronised Anthony - he certainly patronised me when I was at JMA - but I don't see how I was attacking the people that deliver these training schemes, but not the schemes themselves. I've spent enough time on the dole here and there to know that most people in public services do it to pay the bills and in many cases, to help people.

What I will say is that motivational courses appear to make sod all difference. the point of this post was to ask why not, as with other courses, give people some actual, concrete help (training, facilities to apply with like computers or newspapers) rather than showering them in managerial bullshit? What interested me about JMA was that it seemed to be about helping people into work through magic, rather than by addressing people's situation. You can call that 'telling you how to do your job' if you so wish.

Also I'm getting a bit bored of the assumption that because I'm an 'intellectual' I'm somehow divorced from the working class. I'm practically the only member of my family not to have worked in a factory, I was brought up on a council estate, and funnily enough, being overeducated but underemployed, I do find it genuinely difficult to get work.

6:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The motivational side of JMA is probably the one that the JobCentre cared less about when approving this programme. It’s a bit disappointing if that’s the only reason of existence you can confer it.

JMA is there to remind you that you are being paid to seek work. An amazing 20% of people sign off benefits only for being referred. That means they probably have a f/t job that clashes with any other mandatory activity or have some other income, enough to live, on top of JSA. This drop in people claiming JSA is probably the outcome that JCP appreciates the most.

JMA trainers are only doing their job. A very difficult one if you think how, having nothing to do with it, they have to deal with frustrations and complaints regarding Job Centres, unfair employers, councils, housing… from part of incredibly heterogeneous groups including people as diverse as herders and wannabe philosophers.

If someone is to be criticised, that’s the people who decided the referral criteria for JMA.

Action plans are normally quite personalised and can contain very valuable information for people who do not enjoy an easy access to the internet or do not even know how to use a computer.

Feel lucky you are part of a very small number of people in the world who receive an income (even if low), free rent and discounts for being unemployed. If you are too cool for school, is it really sitting in front of a computer writing bias information on your blog the best thing you can think of to change the system? And if you don’t want to change it, stop complaining.

10:00 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

'Wannabe philosophers and herders', ouch.

The motivational side of JMA is probably the one that the JobCentre cared less about when approving this programme. It’s a bit disappointing if that’s the only reason of existence you can confer it.

Well, that's as maybe: but seeing as 90% of a JMA course (or at least this one) consisted of listening to one person 'motivate' us, there's little else to comment on. That, no doubt, was not Anthony's fault, and I accept entirely the criticism that it was unjust to have a go at him rather than the people that devised the scheme in the first place: but there really wasn't much else there, and his particular form of verbiage seemed to me to be politically interesting. You may disagree.

By the way, you know precisely bugger all about me other than that I'm unemployed and an 'intellectual' (and hence irredeemably pretentious and untrustworthy), so please don't make the assumption that I'm not politically active, or that I 'have easy access to a computer': I'm writing this in my local library, which blocks this site half the time, for some arcane reason.

Finally - I do feel lucky for having an income, believe me. But this 'be thankful you're not starving/tubercular/homeless' argument is best left to the Salvation Army.

4:08 pm  
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