UPDATE: this story reads really well, but it turns out the start isn’t actually true. Actually, James Darling was the first person to spot this at MOJ, and I was just carrying the flag without realising. Memories, eh?
For most of the early part of my career, I worked in the private sector. Even when I was at the BBC ’97-’02 it was pretty flush. Yes, Jon Drori’s “cost per user hour” comparison against telly made me feel a bit guilty about how many streets-worth of licence fees I might be gambling on some new interactive format, but I hoped innovative new ways to engage an untapped audience would eventually fix all that. So I didn’t really notice the ambient pampering – and it was nothing compared to the offices I’d worked in before…or would go on to work in. (Yes, you, AKQA)
These days all public institutions have to be much more careful with their money. It needs to go on the things that really matter – public services, being delivered as efficiently as possible. Not luxuries.
This can lead to some fascinating cultural contradictions. And – for most of the time I’ve been inside government – I’ve been fighting a quiet war against one of them.
You see, civil servants have values and behaviours they’re supposed to live up to. Hearing the voices of others, working together, seeing the big picture – that sort of thing. Where you really need to know that you’re all in it together as colleagues. There’s nothing stopping that tight-knit collaboration. Particularly if you’re trying to work as high-functioning multidisciplinary teams with high levels of psychological safety.
So I was slightly aghast when – many years ago – I first went into a civil service kitchen, opened the fridge, and found a vast array of small milk cartons all with individual initials on them.
It was like being back in a student flat. I had flashbacks to the “who stole my milk” arguments, horrendous bulging cartons from people who’d gone on holiday, and someone putting green dye in their milk out of sheer defiance.
I just couldn’t understand it. I mean, that’s not 100% true. I could totally understand it. Public money is precious. You don’t want to waste it on fripperies. But you’re effectively reinforcing a weird niggling individualism with every cuppa.
And I thought “This is insane. This shouldn’t be just one more big of grit people have to put up with when they’re worrying about fixing the justice system or reducing reoffending rates. I’m paid pretty decently as a contractor. I can possibly fix this.”
So I went out to the corner shop and bought two large cartons of semi-skimmed milk, took them back up to the kitchen, got a sharpie and wrote “for everyone” on them. And every few days – when it got low – I’d do it again. Because, you know, milk is pretty cheap – particularly compared to the staff cost of loads of individual people having to get into a lift down twelve floors, through security, out to the shop and back again. If someone’s only on £10 an hour, and it takes ten minutes, that’s £1.66 spend on “popping out”- so you’ve actually lost money by not buying them the milk. And we were quite senior people!
I carried on doing this at GDS, up until we introduced the milk club there, and then picked it up again at DIT when we were all in Windsor House. Every so often I’d head out, get as much milk as I could carry (this was quite important, given the cost of *my* ten minutes), and bring it back up to the fridge for all my digital colleagues.
And now we’re in a new building, in a hybrid environment with fewer staff in the office, so the milk lasts a lot longer – but it’s still going on.
And you know what – it really works.
I’ve had people catch me putting it in the fridge in the morning, writing on the side and saying “oh you’re the ‘milk for everyone’ person; the other day we were just saying how great this was and how it had helped us out”. And best of all – sometimes I’m out of the office for longer than I’d planned, I’ll come back and find someone else has done the same thing. Just because it’s a nice thing to do for everyone, at very low cost, and leaves a tiny bit of delight that enables a slightly kinder culture – particularly when people are already working on challenging stuff.
So please, if you’re in one of those types of civil service offices – quietly break the cycle. I promise you it works. And you won’t have to do it forever.