Quaint, or obsolete?

Do some things have no place in a modern Local Government Office?

Yesterday a piece of paper appeared on my desk.  It had been folded into three sections, and then placed inside another, larger piece of thicker paper which had been specially folded and glued together to hold this first piece of paper, before being sealed with a gluey gum.  My name and address had been put on the front.

Apparently, this is called an ‘envelope’, and inside it was a ‘letter’.

Somewhat confused (I thought an envelope was the amount of cash that a service had available to it and a letter was any of the squiggles printed on my keyboard), I opened it and read the contents.  Imagine my surprise to find that it was an invitation to a meeting taking place just a few hours later that day.  I already had the meeting invite in my Outlook calendar, had e-mails discussing the agenda items and knew where and when it was, but the letter was sent nonetheless.

It was a little strange to think that one day, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, this was perhaps the way these things were done.  These days written invitations like this have little place in the modern office, even if it did for a few seconds make the meeting – and by extension my involvement in it –  more important than it actually was.  And it got me thinking about some of the other things that still appear from time to time which really should have been put out to pasture many years ago.  Here are a few.

The Fax Machine

Before the days of scanners and e-mail, the only way to get handwritten comments, signatures or even basic information from one place to another almost instantly was to send a fax, and the remnants of this time can be found on most local government officer’s e-mail signature.  Many of us still persist in putting the office fax number at the bottom of our messages despite not knowing where said fax machine actually is, nor how to use one.

Some teams still insist on faxes being sent when a signature is required for approval.  Even without getting technical with all of the many other options available, most photocopiers these days also double up as scanners.  A quick scan, or even a photo of a document on a smart phone, does at least as good a job as a fax machine and has the added benefit of actually being able to be used by officers without waiting for the tell-tale schreeching so reminiscent of the iconic Commodore 64.

White Board Team Rosters

Once upon a time, this was a really good idea.  A simple whiteboard was displayed which laid out the names of your team, and then you simply filled in the space next to your name to say where you were and when you would be in the office.  In fact, it was such a good idea that Microsoft and other software manufacturers developed tools like Outlook and shared calendars, allowing you to fill out your daily comings and goings as required as well as seeing those of your colleagues.

Not only does this have the added side benefit of removing the need for dog-eared paper diaries (although these will persist for some time yet), it also takes away another process to be done every day, and assuming you keep your diary up to date has the bonus of always being accurate.

Admittedly, it is harder to draw phallic pictures on your Outlook calendar.

Secretary/Typing Pools

Finding a new corridor in the Town Hall recently (well, new to me anyway) I noticed a room with a handful of desks and staff tapping away at keyboards, each with a piece of paper stuck to a clipboard stuck to the side of their monitors.  Upon inquiry I found out that this team of people were our administration pool, who essentially spent their days typing up notes from senior managers into e-mails or documents.

I understand the need for adminstrators; indeed, in my m,ind they are some of the most important people in any office, and are fonts of knowledge and contacts who can turn whimsical ideas of others into reality.  So using their time to type, a skill which should be literally at the fingertips of any self respecting manager, is perhaps not getting best value from them.  When typewriters were the norm there was a place; these days it is probably quicker to type yourself than to handwrite, pass over, have them type, read it, make some changes, let them retype it, read it again and then forward it on.  Stop being lazy.

Hand Drawn Paper Maps

A while ago I did some work with our parks and open spaces team, looking at revamping some of the borough’s parks.  This involved getting a lot of information from the public and then using it to create some potential plans to take back out to people who used that space.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that these maps are hand drawn using easels, pencils, rulers and protractors, before being coloured in by hand using wax crayons.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, but surely the same thing produced using a computer system would be better?  Repeating elements such as trees and bushes would then be simply cut and pasted rather than repeatedly hand drawn, clouring in would take a couple of clicks of the paint bucket, and perhaps the data could even be uploaded onto a GIS map.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually love a good map and appreciate a draughtsman’s skill, but in these days of computer aided design it was a shock to see these things still done by hand.


As ever, we’d love to hear about anything you see in your office which just seems a little, well, 20th Century.  Via Twitter (@welovelocalgov) or the comments boxes below, you know where we are.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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6 Comments on “Quaint, or obsolete?”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Until recently we had cardboard case files with treasury tags, hole punches for making holes to put the tags through and red (well pink) tape to hold large bundles together. I saw exactly the same thing in the Cabinet War Rooms in London; but they dated from the 1940’s. We have now (allegedly) gone all virtual, but there still seem to be a lot of cardboard files around the place.

  2. Ed Hammond Says:

    Those who work with members will recognise the things described above as being standard practice to this day.

    Everything has to go out in hard copy, and there is always a flurry to get things down to member services to meet the green bag deadline (Wednesday and Friday in many councils). In this context, I spent a lot of time when I was an officer writing covering letters – “Dear Councillor, please find attached the briefing you requested on…”. And when I said attached, I really meant it – usually with a treasury tag.

    When I was a committee officer, we used to hand-deliver committee papers around the council rather than send them in the internal post. I remember that the distribution list for one committee had about 75 people on it. I used to enjoy trundling around City Hall with the post trolley.

    Two more things to mention – typewriters and telex (neither of which I remember of course). And hard-copy telephone directories for the whole council, updated every month… and the use of compliment slips, and ink stamps saying “RECEIVED”, “PAID” etc.

    And in the authority I worked in until 2008, twice a day one of the catering staff would come around the building with a little trolley selling crisps, sandwiches, chocolate bars etc. They would announce their presence in the corridor with a little handbell. It seemed perfectly normal at the time.

    White board team rosters – I am looking at ours right now. I note that I am “IN”.

  3. Amy Says:

    I’m 25 and I learnt how to use a fax machine about 3 months ago because our office scanner had broken. The fact I didn’t have a clue how to use one caused some hilarity in my office but I’d like to sincerely thank whoever invented scanners.
    Using a fax machine felt like lighting a candle by hitting two flints together.

  4. Some of these practices act as safe guards to protect data and information in hard forms, but the practices to get to that point are often obsolete. Basic skills, such as typing, are ones that every person should have and typist pools should not exist any longer.

    The balance needs to be found in embracing new technology that it does not hinder productivity, but in the same breath special care needs to be given that we do not become 100% reliant on the technology that can fail us at the drop of a hat. Back up systems should be that, backup, but need to exist.

  5. I often prepare maps and building plans by hand because it is so much easier to draw things freehand, but then – essential – it is scanned in and cleaned up becomes the master base copy from which everything else can be done electronically. Or even, print off a copy so you can wander around on site scribbling notes on it with – shock horror – a pen or pencil.

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