Another 48 Hours?

South African import Lesley du Toit has earned a reputation for working long hours as the ministry of children and family development's deputy minister. And what decision is she making while burning the midnight oil? Glad to you asked. In an email sent out to the ministry's executive last month at 11:43 in the evening, Ms. du Toit complains "I am getting briefing notes intended for the minister or myself the night before it is due for a meeting."

As a result, she writes, "I would like to see and sign off briefing notes at least a week before they are needed in case there are changes needed or I am out of town. Worst case scenario is I get them at least 2 days before they are needed and they are flagged as urgent. There are of course the odd emergency's but these should not be created by our inability to get things ready on time."

But, as our astute readers in the civil service know, briefing notes are often issue-driven and prepared on an as-needed basis. So many senior civil servants and elected officials would count themselves lucky to get such notes "2 days" ahead of time. In fact, even Rick Thorpe - who has a reputation for being one of the most aggressive ministers in the Campbell administration - doesn't ask bureaucrats to submit briefs a week before they're needed. Forty-eight hours was (and to the best of our knowledge still is) his rule. But we digress. The following is a complete copy of that email.

***

From: du Toit, Lesley MCF:EX
Sent: Wed, September 13, 2006 11:43 PM
To: Ahmed, Sarf MCF:EX; Boon, Les N MCF:EX; Cunningham, Peter C MCF:EX; Doyle, Patrick J MCF:EX; du Toit, Lesley MCF:EX; Eamer, Chuck MCF:EX; Foxcroft, Debra MCF:EX; Gleeson, Kelly T PAB:EX; Hayman, Douglas MCF:EX; Hughes, Doug J MCF:EX; Knox, Donna L MCF:EX; MacMillan, Karen MCF:EX; Markwart, Alan MCF:EX; McCallum, Nikki MCF:EX; Sieben, Mark MCF:EX
Subject: Briefing notes and letters

Dear All

I am not sure this applies to everyone, but I'm sending to you so that we can get all your suggestions and have a discussion at a team meeting.

* I find that I am getting briefing notes intended for the minister or myself the night before it is due for a meeting.
* I find I cannot read the signatures of the people who sign off
* I am concerned about the quality of letters and briefing notes.

My office is working on a proposed procedure for improving things, but it would be great to get your idea at the next meeting or to Nikki sooner.

I assume that I am now only getting the briefing notes which are prepared for the Ministers or myself directly. I would like to see and sign off briefing notes at least a week before they are needed in case there are changes needed or I am out of town. Worst case scenario is I get them at least 2 days before they are needed and they are flagged as urgent. There are of course the odd emergency's but these should not be created by our inability to get things ready on time.

If problems lie within a particular procedure or system, lets change it. If this connects in some way to the ways the Ministers offices run, then I will approach both of them with an opportunity to work with us in doing things better.

I would like to have people print their names and sign. I would like to see letters and briefing notes which focus on a particular speicalised area (like child care, or autism, or child protection, or children's mental health), reflect knowledge of the subject rather than merely a point by point description of meetings, money and history. Briefing notes to the minister (and to myself for that matter) are an opportunity to educate on the subject matter. Of course this applies differently to different areas. I wonder if a half a page on our current policy and practice on some of these issues should not be included when appropriate? While I know this takes time, I would prefer to be improving quality rather than quantity. If we can cut down on layers of approvals and better streamline, as well as set realistic time frames, without appearing to have ignored the person, then that would be better than a dry stereotypical response which gives facts but no real depth on content.

The same applies to letters.....I'll be frank with you. I sign off on letters to be sent by myself or the minister that I feel are pretty much the standard thing with no sense of recognising the INDIVIDUAL person who wrote the note to us. Some times these notes too are cold and and stereotypical so that one would just get an instant sense that we wrote back because we had to but we don't really care. Anyone reading them would know that this is the standard and expected response. Sometimes I just feel like ripping up the letter and writing it myself because anyone reading it would know that it wasn't written by me and would thus assume I really don't care.

This is beaurocratic stuff and we can just go on doing the same thing the same way or we can make a difference. If we're trying to change how the people out there experience us then this somehwat boring ritualistic work should be done with more insight, compassion and a sense of individuality. A difficult thing in a huge organisation like ours...and time consuming.....but imagine what we could do if each of these letters and briefings were reflective of our values which we have listed. Imagine what we could accomplish if we treated everyone who writes to us (even those who just complain and make no sense) with compassion and respect for who they are and what they personally are experiencing. What if we surprised them with how much we genuinely care. Sometimes people are not wanting a bundle of facts, but a human response. Wouldn't it be worth it if we responded to a letter more personally, connected with the person, took the time, and we made a genuine difference in that person's life?

Lets see if we can pool our experiences and thoughts on this and make this one area of transformation......doing things differently.

Anyway...some thoughts from me in the middle of the night!

I would like us to discuss this, and your thoughts and ideas will be appreciated. Think outside the box and the beaurocracy! Imagine it was you or someone you loved who were writing and needing help, or complaining (for the 15th time because you felt unheard) or you wanted to understand some complext matter. We do indeed deal with difficult somebodys who drive us crazy....most of them hurting. Hurt people, hurt people.

This is the ministry of child and family development......how can each letter we send out assist in supporting and developing a child or family, or contributing in a tiny way to the healing of hurt?

I Look forward to your brilliant ideas for efficiency, kindness and quality!

Please send comments to Nikki or save them up for the next meeting.

Thank you!

Lesley

6 Comments

I know of people from some ministries that made a point of having their emails go out late at night to show somebody how keen the are. Anyone can do that. That's sort of like using a cell phone and pretending you are in the office, and not a bar , theatre or show. I'm not saying a Deputy Minister could be that devious and if I missed someone sorry about that.

The idea that people who write to government should get a real response from a real person is smart and overdue. They care enough to have spent time trying to address a problem; the usual defensive, empty form letter destroys their confidence in government.
Of course, the real question is whether the writers' concerns are actually considered, of whether they just get a letter pretending they have been.
I'm certainly rooting for the former.

Wow, someone trying to install some work ethic and passion into the public service, small wonder why the left are complaining.

"If we're trying to change how the people out there experience us then this somehwat boring ritualistic work should be done with more insight, compassion and a sense of individuality."

Sorry Paul, while I'd hope for the former, I'd have to put my money on the latter. It's hard to stay perfectly on message at that late hour of course, but it sounds more like: How To Say No Without Sounding Like A Bureaucrat 101. How to transform crude PR that offends intelligence into slick, sophisticated PR that gets "difficult somebodys" off your back. How to convince "hurt people" who "just complain and make no sense" that you've actually solved their problem without jeopardising the budget.

If Ms Du Toit really wants to demonstrate her compassion, let's see her burning the midnight oil to make a killer case to Treasury Board for a budget increase, and leaving the flack-think to the paid flacks.

Perhaps the quality of the letters and briefing notes are reflective of the standards of Ms. du Toit? If Ms. du Toit cannot be bothered to run her e-mail through the spell checker, why should anyone else?

See:beaurocracy, complext, somebodys,and the numerous run-on sentences, etc., etc.

Well, I guess we can report to Gary Collins that the plane landed safely. It's great to see Sean reporting on something good in government. A deputy minister who expects a high quality of work and sets reasonable deadlines so she and the minister actually have time to be prepared for meetings so they can ask intelligent (and hopefully tough)questions. Just to be sure we're all on the same page, this is a good thing right? Who cares what time she sent it at!?!

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