Alison Wolf

January 6, 2006

Around this time of year my brain atrophies. This is partly the accumulation of occupational shocks that one cannot do much to avoid.

Discovering you have 80 students in your class next term when you were expecting 40 tends to induce mental spasm. So does a piece of coursework where the plagiarism manages to be both obvious and completely inappropriate. However, I am sure the main problem is that human beings are not meant to get up in the dark. If they were, we would have decent night vision.

Year after year, I resolve to read something serious and professionally relevant over the Christmas and New Year break. And year after year this seasonal disorder means that, faced with the Boxing Day choice between an academic volume and Marie Claire , it is the glossy that wins.

This does, however, allow for one piece of social analysis over the festive season. Those of you who never even approach the racks of magazines will not have realised that Christmas really comes in November. By the second week of December, "New ways to decorate the tree" and "Fresh ideas for festive meals" have vanished, replaced by the January issues - and that means horoscopes.

Horoscope specials are a big and regular feature of the new year press.

People's belief in astrology has come in for some heavy-weight sociological analysis over the years, and probably still does. However, what impresses me is how astrologers have perfected the art of moving a given set of words around, saying nothing very specific in an almost endless variety of ways.

Take a few examples, chosen at random from different magazines and star signs: "Are you frustrated because you feel controlled by other people's whims?"; "Remember, you need to make space in your life before the good stuff can happen"; "It is you who must be in the driving seat of your life."

There is a touch of genius here.JExactly the same sentiment, and hardly a single word overlaps. Moreover, they are tapping into universal experiences, creating instant recognition.JStudent demands, departmental demands, demands from the vice-chancellor's office, reports to funders, reports to the research assessment exercise committee, reports on quality assurance, and student satisfaction, and access, and industry links: and all that in advance of family, the Inland Revenue and the morons who lost my parking ticket payment. Obviously, this brilliant astrologer is talking directly to me.

The implication is clear. Government departments should study their stars.

They, too, specialise in moving words around in a repetitive and incantatory fashion. Initiatives, white papers, consultative documents and "independent" reports staffed by civil servants continue to multiply.

Within a department (and, increasingly, across departments) large parts of these documents are completely interchangeable, just like horoscopes.

Somewhere, I suspect, there is a White Paper item bank full of paragraphs about globalisation and UK plc and "taking tough measures" and "building on success". This would explain the ease with which so many thousands of pages appear, month on month, minister after minister. What is completely missing, however, is that instant rapport with the reader that the astrologers all achieve. Some politicians have this knack. Watch one of Ronald Reagan's "fireside chats" and notice how effectively he looks you, the viewer,Jdirectly and sincerely in the eye when actually he is reading the Autocue. But when did you last read an official consultation paper and think, even for a second, "Yes, that's right, that's exactly how it feels to me"?

The answer is obvious: training days with the country's top astrologers.

Given current consultancy bills, this will barely register in any department's statistics. In any case, it will pay for itself in no time because, as numerous government reports insist, training always pays. Last week they even told us exactly how much. The Leitch report on skills, attached to the pre-Budget report, provides a whole list of precise figures. Increasing training by a certain amount, compared with the present, and irrespective of what jobs people actually do, brings an annual net addition to gross domestic product of 0.3 per cent. Spend even more, and you are up to a whole 0.45 per cent increase.

So more training for our civil servants will increase their productivity.

By 2035 this will make us all a large and precise amount richer. Explaining how this actually works seems on a par with explaining how Jupiter in Scorpio will infuse people around me with enthusiasm. However, shorter, better written documents would be a good thing in themselves. So bring in the astrologers - and Happy New Year.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.

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