Four years ago when I finished university I needed a job pretty much straight away. A committed procrastinator, I went to a few temp agencies and was eventually sent for a job in the Correspondence Unit at the Department of Health, the UK Government Department that oversees the NHS in England. I had to commit to stay at least three months, and there was the chance of promotion after six months. My initial job was on the admin team, opening the hundreds of letters received every day from members of the public, Members of Parliament, the Royal Family and health industry executives, scanning those letters and logging the details of the correspondents into the system. It was dull work but I made it interesting by gradually reforming the processes and procedures to be much more efficient and sensible. As my boss would eventually admit four years later, I’m very good at “managing upwards”. After six months I got the promotion from the admin team to a drafting team, actually writing replies to some of those letters. I had to use my real name, and occasionally disgruntled correspondents would write about my replies on their own blogs, hence why only now, a year on, do I feel comfortable disclosing on my blog where I used to work and ‘linking’ these two parts of my public life.
Every year the Department recruited around ten permanent staff members to work in the Correspondence Unit, and while the jobs had to be offered externally and the recruitment process couldn’t favour the temp staff already in the Department, most of the jobs ended up going to internal candidates. The first year I didn’t apply because I was planning on leaving in the summer to go and cycle around the world for a few years. As you can read elsewhere on my blog, that didn’t work out as planned, and three months later I was back at the Department of Health writing letters.
I was reasonably content working there for a while. By that point, most of my friends were people I’d met through work. The commute, for London, was brilliant. It took only a quarter of an hour from door to door using the tube (I once got from my front door to my desk in 12 minutes!). The slight social cache of working in the “machinery of Government” was nice, and there were frequent opportunities to locum for a few days in senior officials’ or Ministers’ private offices. How many people can say they’ve accompanied a Government Minister to a Parliamentary debate, or watched a World Cup football game in the Secretary of State for Health’s office? (The Secretary of State had to attend a, erm, meeting, with all the other Ministers down the road at party headquarters. Honest.)
Soon after I returned from my failed attempt to cycle around the world, the Department held another recruitment round. This time I applied, but I missed out because I didn’t put enough effort into my application.
A year after that there was yet another recruitment round. This time, I put loads of effort into my application and I had a great interview. But at the last minute, the number of available posts was cut and I just missed out. Then there was a general election, a change of Government, and all civil service recruitment was frozen immediately and indefinitely.
I’d worked at the same place for almost four years, on a temporary contract, without any of the usual civil service benefits like pensions and holiday allowances, for less money than most of my colleagues.
I knew I wanted to leave, but it was always so easy to stay. Then I was given a new role that I really didn’t want. A few years back there was a scandal at a hospital in the midlands called Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The hospital was badly managed and as a result between 2005 and 2008 anywhere between 400 and 1200 patients died that shouldn’t have. The Department of Health was involved, as it oversees the NHS in England. The Correspondence Unit was involved, as a lot of the correspondence received is from people complaining about NHS services and we had received some letters about Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The Department of Health isn’t the correct place to complain to about NHS services, so we would answer the letters giving the official NHS complaints procedure and contact details. At the time, no logging was done of the complaints received, so no analysis could be conducted to see if there were many serious complaints about individual hospitals. That obviously had to change.
At first, the system was updated so details of the complaint could be entered, but it was surprising how few of the drafters on permanent contracts and who only had to write replies to seven letters a day managed to to correctly enter these details, so then a dedicated complaints team of two people was created. The team would scan read every letter received, pick out the complaints, log the details of the complaint including its severity, then allocate the letters out to be replied to by drafters. The most serious complaints would be kept to be answered by the complaints team itself. The head of the Unit had to pick the second team member. As no one wanted the job of reading serious healthcare complaints all day, a short list of four was created and we all had to give reasons why we shouldn’t have to do the job. My reason was that if I was given the job, I’d quit.
Guess who the job went to. Yup. Me.
When my boss told me, even she said it was good opportunity to go and do something that I really wanted to do. I had to stay another three months while I worked out my exit plan, which turned out to be just enough time to establish and refine all the procedures needed for the complaints team to do its job properly.
I had some requirements for my exit strategy. I no longer wanted to live in the UK, I wanted to be able to travel and find work abroad relatively easily, I wanted a job I could explain in a few words rather than a few sentences, and I wanted a job that would be relatively safe even in the economic downturn that was, and still is, dragging on.
The obvious choice seemed to be Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).
Next: how I became an EFL teacher.