Don’t Mind Me: ‘Clothes make the public servant?’

Patricia Feehily

Reporter:

Patricia Feehily

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TYPICAL! Just when I have worked up an unprecedented wave of sympathy for over-worked, under-paid and disgracefully denigrated public servants, out comes a new consultants’ report which suggests that there are other more pressing issues taxing the minds of civil servants, still staggering under the weight of the Croke Park Agreement, – like an office dress code, for instance.

TYPICAL! Just when I have worked up an unprecedented wave of sympathy for over-worked, under-paid and disgracefully denigrated public servants, out comes a new consultants’ report which suggests that there are other more pressing issues taxing the minds of civil servants, still staggering under the weight of the Croke Park Agreement, – like an office dress code, for instance.

I was gobsmacked, to say the least, when staff in the biggest State office, the Department of Social Protection, expressed embarrassment during the week over the ‘scruffy’ image some of their colleagues are presenting to the public – the same public, by the way, which over the past few years has shown little sympathy for the lot of the public servant and keeps on asking why half of them can’t be dispensed with.

But I think I know where the workers are coming from. The only way to command respect from an antagonistic and notoriously fickle public in this country, anyway, is to adopt a commanding appearance, and if that means abandoning the casual chic in favour of power gear, then so be it.

The civil servants say they want to inspire more confidence and respect from the public, but I suspect they may also be in self-protective mode. I was a public servant once myself and always wore a suit with padded shoulders to the office to enhance my feeble air of authority, just in case a member of the public, recognising my extreme vulnerability, reached through the hatch and caught me by the throat. But back then, the public was, in the main, respectful. If it were now, I’d be wearing a coat of mail, or carrying a revolver in my pocket.

Nevertheless, this obsession with a dress code is intriguing, especially at a time when the country is in massive dress down mode and when most of us don’t know how to dress at the best of times. Even the national parliament is fast becoming something of a less than impressive and bizarre boho refuge. Last year, a young Limerick county councillor appeared at a meeting “well covered up”, as she said herself, wearing a pair of shorts over black tights. She couldn’t understand why not everyone was inclined to take her seriously, or why anyone in his right mind should consider such an unremarkable fashion statement in the august Council Chamber, to be in any way inappropriate. It was like Caesar going to the Forum with his toga hitched up.

In any case, ‘Dress down Friday’ has become a feature of even the most dress conscious corporations with the most demanding work ethics. In some places, the whole summer is being declared a casual zone when you can turn up in anything that isn’t too mouldy or too titillating. I’m told that there’s more work done on dress down Fridays than there is during the rest of the collar-and-tie restricted week. But maybe that’s because they can’t wait to get out of the place for the weekend.

The civil servants may not yet be aware of it, but the new buzzword in the workplace is casualisation, and when it comes to casualisation in dress, nothing is sacred. A fellow passed me in a hospital corridor last week and he looked like he was on the way to clean a drain. He turned out to be a senior house officer in scrubs. In my day, all hospital doctors wore imposing white coats over their designer suits and there was no confusion. You wouldn’t dream of asking a man in a white coat to fix a leaking pipe.

At the end of the day, it’s all about image, isn’t it? Obviously the staff of the DSP believe that they are not projecting the right image and are losing out on the respect of the public. Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I prefer my civil servants in casual attire. They’re not half as intimidating that way. A tax collector dressed in boardroom attire would look like a highway man in my eyes and scare the daylights out of me, whereas a jumper-and-jeans-clad Revenue official would make me feel much more comfortable, albeit less inclined to pay up. But you can’t have it every way.

Actually, the first civil servant I ever encountered was an unduly officious Land Commission agent who arrived at our house when I was a child, wearing an executive suit with a collar and tie and sporting a fountain pen in his breast pocket. He exuded such an air of authority by his attire that I’m still haunted by the memory.

Anyhow, you’ll be glad to hear that the social welfare workers’ call for a dress code is to be investigated, following the consultants’ report. The same consultants, who incidentally were paid €100,000 for their efforts, also discovered an astonishing absence of a sense of fun in the office at the Department of Social Protection. Cool gear, then, doesn’t do anything at all for morale, nor does it do much to inspire a bit of joie de vivre in the workplace. But whatever about introducing an official dress code, maybe a return to the pay and less demanding conditions those same civil servants enjoyed in pre-austerity days might be even more conducive to good cheer.

Over to you, Mr Noonan!