Getting rid of surplus back-office workers sounds logical enough, but there's always a hidden cost.

I've not yet reached 40, but I already have too few fingers to count the number of times I've heard the phrase "consolidating back-end functions".

If you're wondering if The Business has accidentally printed a column on the love that dare not speak its name (sex with accountants), or are just asking "what the hell does that mean?", let me explain.

Simply put, it means the bean-counters have had their 163rd scrape over the business with a fine-tooth comb and have managed to squeeze out another 15 or so human units deemed surplus to requirements.

It means get your running shoes out, because you'll be doing a lot of cake-eating at endless morning teas to farewell those destined for the scrapheap - or because you'll have plenty of time for jogging when you yourself are given the arse from a perfectly useful, modest-paying job in order to satisfy the insatiable appetite for budget nips and tucks.


The latest group in the firing line as a result of mythical "back-office" manoeuvrings will be bureaucrats, as announced this week by New Zealand's "sexiest" politician, John Key.

Apparently, the shareholders - that is, the voters - have been baying for bureaucratic blood, and Key looks set to deliver. Mergers, data-sharing, departments consolidating and the like inevitably mean quite a few people getting the heave-ho, and a whole lot fewer having to pick up the slack.

As is always the way. But the Prime Minister was making no apology, he said, for saving the country $124 million a year in ICT spending.

I had to laugh on reading that because, like most people my age, I've lived through a few introductions of new IT systems. Now Google, which is reportedly going to be handling the new and improved system for the Government, may well run a flawless ICT service. But it would have to be the first in white-collar history to do so without a painful bedding-in period.

New IT systems may well mean numbers of office staff are reduced - but so are the lifespans of those left behind.

Even in journalism. I know this from my time working for the business wires in Canada, where the boss would regularly blow a gasket when the new system froze every night around the time markets closed.

The Herald itself had some sort of newfangled American system which froze as the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999, as we all pounded in our non-news stories ("All Quiet as Clock Strikes Midnight" and "Nothing Whatsoever Happens" were the predominant themes).

At TVNZ, each system got progressively more complicated for reporters - the last of them requiring several hours of training and a PhD in astrophysics to get past the home page. Still, they presumably make life easier, eventually. Not the lives of those who have lost their jobs, of course, nor those left behind doing the jobs of two people on the wage of 0.75 of a person, of course, but yes, easier.

Key makes no apologies for saving us money, and few of us expect him to, to be fair. But undoubtedly, the way our economy is going and with the jobs market flat, we'll be having to spend that money in a different office - the welfare office - just keeping all those surplus human beings in food and clothing.

Let's hope the welfare department still has enough people in the back office to keep things ticking over.
* Illustration by Anna Crichton: