Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

by Josie Appleton


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Officious: Rise of the Busybody State by Josie Appleton

In Anglo-Saxon countries there is a new and distinctive form of state: the busybody state. This state is defined by an attachment to bureaucratic procedures for their own sake: the rule for the sake of a rule; the form for the sake of a form. Its insignias are the badge, the policy, the code and the procedure. The logic of the regulation is neither to represent an elite class interest, nor to serve the public, nor even to organise social relations with the greatest efficiency as with classic bureaucracy, but rather to represent regulation itself. This book analyses the logic of the busybody state, explains its origins, and calls for a popular alliance defending the free realm of civil society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785354205
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 12/09/2016
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club (, which campaigns for freedom in everyday life, and is the author of dozens of reports about contemporary civil liberties. She studied sociology and politics at the University of Oxford (undergraduate) and the University of London (graduate). She worked as a journalist and editor for five years.

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Rise of the Busybody State

By Josie Appleton

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Josie Appleton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78535-420-5


The new busybodies

The new busybodies can be found throughout social life. They are in the street in day-glo jackets, telling people that they should not play ball games or hand out leaflets. They are in institutions, enforcing criminal-records checks, drawing up safety signs or running diversity-awareness courses. They are in voluntary association or clubs, the child-protection officer or health-and-safety officer who fills in forms and invents new procedures with which everyone else must comply.

They have an identifiable manner. They are hawk-eyed, on the lookout for some minor infraction, for somebody who has used 'inappropriate' language or failed to draw up the requisite risk assessments and policy documents. They view the world through dubious and suspicious eyes: most people, they think, are up to no good. And when they discover a violation they draw themselves up: they have a tone which is talking down to you, but quite unlike the tone of those in positions of traditional moral authority. The tone of the busybody is sanctimonious – you have 'failed to comply' or committed 'unsafe practices' – but without the moral weight and grounding of a defined social position. They are uppity and hectoring, shrill with jabbing fingers. People who have been fined by a busybody often say that they felt humiliated, and indeed the exchange appears geared towards their humiliation.

The officious are quite distinct from public-service officials, whose raison d'être and authority is derived from the public: the things people want, the problems they face. Whereas public-service officials seek in various ways to meet public needs, the officious tend to obstruct people's activities, introducing rules that make life more difficult. Rather than representing the public will, officiousness seems rather to be the negative of the public will, not aiding and providing but restricting and stifling.

It is for this reason that these new officials are often rude and derisory. It is not uncommon for florescent-jacketed busybodies to swear at people or to be generally dismissive and disrespectful. One man was followed and called a 'pain in the ass' when he refused to pay a fine for litter he had not in fact dropped. The officious ignore the usual dispensations accorded to the elderly or mothers with young children; they issue their fines and reprimands with an egalitarian disdain. Mothers have been fined when their child dropped a small food item, elderly people for feeding the birds or unwittingly walking their dog in the wrong area.

Aside from this derisory manner, it is difficult to sum up the qualities of the officious in any positive terms. They have no particular beliefs, no ethical orientation. They are not religious or humanitarian, right or left, working-class or elite. They seem to come from nowhere and have no ties or loyalties to any particular social group.

It is easier to say what they are not. They are not like the traditional English police officer, representing interests of state and middle classes in facing down a riot or breaking a strike - while at the same time being the local bobby who gives directions and takes lost children home. Nor are they like the French gendarme, the representative of the state as military force, bound by esprit de corps and set against a potentially mutinous population to whom they relate as might an army of occupation. The officious do not seem to represent any particular social interests, either popular or interests of state and 'public order'.

Nor are busybodies like traditional bureaucrats. Bureaucrats, as Max Weber says, were defined by their 'precision, steadiness, and, above all, the speed of operations'. Bureaucrats were loyal to their office, to the function dispatched without delay or favour, with a swift click-click. The drive of the bureaucrat came from the social necessity of his tasks, the standardised operations necessary for the workings of a modern society. The officious lack this social necessity and so lack the accompanying discipline and precision.

In fact the busybodies who patrol public spaces often wear ill-fitting jackets and seem to slouch. They have nothing like the policeman's hat or gendarme's cap, which in an earlier era were treated with such reverence that it was thought mutinous crowds would quail at the mere sight of them. The new officials tend to wear a black fleece or a fluorescent jacket, with a badge and perhaps a camera around their neck. This uniform is indicative. They are representing no particular authority, but are a sort of generic 'authorised person'. Their power is not in a symbol or uniform but in the badge they flash at you when issuing a fine. The florescent jacket has become the new 'authorised person' uniform, to the extent that it is used as a cover for heists and stunts.

The first Metropolitan police officers were distinguished from the lackadaisical parish constable by their 'perfect command of temper'. In joining the police, a 'wild young fellow' became 'a machine, moving, thinking and acting only as his instruction book directs': 'an institution rather than a man'. The individual became part of a bureaucratic machine, subject to strict orders and lines of command, every morning lined up and given their brief.

By contrast the new officials' behaviour can be random and unpredictable. They lose their cool and shout at people, or get into an argument, trying it on, then walk off. They seem alternately coasting around doing nothing then haranguing people and bothering them. You don't know what they are going to do next. Because there is no particular professional brief, they seem to pick on the things that annoy them personally or on people to whom they have taken a dislike.

The officious have no devotion to office as such: they are generally indifferent to or set against the institution of which they are part. There is a trans-institutional culture of officiousness, which traverses institutions as different as schools, councils, hospitals and art galleries. Very different sectional interests produce day-glo busybodies, indistinguishable except by close examination of their badge: they could be from private companies, councils or the police. These officials talk the same language and can move easily between jobs in different sectors. They often believe that their institution is beset with a host of problems, whether that is racism, sexism, environmentally unfriendly or 'unsafe' habits, and the institution is equally the target for their interventions as is the general public.

At base, these officials' only positive allegiance is to the mechanisms of officialdom; their only belief is in the inherent virtues of regulation. The objects of their faith are the database, the form, the code; these forms of bureaucratic procedure are attributed with a fetishistic power. They demand that every organisation has 'policies in place', which is seen as a guarantee of safety and right conduct, regardless of what the policy actually says. 'Procedures' are seen as in themselves capable of warding off evil, and if people have complied with the official code then their action is judged 'safe', while the lack of a policy, or deviation from it ('non-compliance') is seen as inherently foolhardy and dangerous.

Officious jobs

There are officious job positions within every institution. Some purportedly deal with safety or public protection, such as health-and-safety officer, safer-travel coordinator, child-protection trainer, neighbourhood wardens, community-support officers. Others with equality: diversity officer, access or social-inclusion officer. Others with health or environmental wellbeing: alcohol-policy officer, smoking-cessation adviser, healthy-eating officer, climate-change officer, energy-efficiency officer, recycling coordinator, environmental-enforcement officer, smoke-free officer. Finally, with institutional management: change manager, human-resources manager, strategic-development officer, quality-assurance officer, compliance officer.

If these were public-service jobs, each role would relate to a very distinct public need: one would empty bins, another would clean rivers or investigate sex-abuse allegations. The job would respond to a specific public need for rubbish disposal, a clean environment or the prosecution of crime, and seek that specific useful end.

There is a general recognition that officious jobs lack this useful or productive function. Some have called them 'non-jobs', which are seen as 'useless' and 'money-wasting', obsessed with 'jargon' and 'pointless rules'.

This presentation captures an aspect of truth, but officious jobs are not just creative ways of burning money. They have a logic and perform a function (albeit not a useful one). Their purported function related to sex offences or the environment is a mere garb, because in substance they all have the same content and role: to extend regulation over social life. The officious intervention transforms unregulated life into regulated life; it colonises civil society with standardised forms of thought and behaviour.

Rather than starting from the position of a public need, these officials start from the position of problematic public behaviours, such as people leaving lights on, failing to recycle correctly, organising events without the latest safety guidance, drinking too much, smoking or eating unhealthy foods. The job is not related to a need or a public demand but to an identified problem with the things people are doing. Officious action does not serve but instead acts upon the public.

The role of officious jobs is generally to carry out 'interventions' in order to encourage 'safer' or more 'appropriate' behaviours. This doesn't mean behaviour that is actually safer or more considerate of others; instead it means more regulated behaviour, which conforms to standards of etiquette or recommended guidelines. The officious aim is to encourage people to follow recommended codes or procedures: to put rubbish items in the correct bin, to use accepted words, fill in the requisite forms or eat the recommended portions of fruit and vegetables. The end is the suppression of free thought and action and the regimentation of conduct.

Institutions have a strand of officious jobs which run relatively independently of and indeed contrary to the rest of the institution. Those seeking to perform a more traditional public-service role find themselves in conflict with the more officious layers of activity. In rubbish-collection services, for example, there are bin men who perform a classic public-service role and useful task. Within the same department there is a layer of officious people with a quite different role: going from door to door issuing reprimands and fines, telling people off for having over-filled the bin, put the bin in the wrong place or placed items in the wrong bin. (These two different strands were shown very clearly in the Cutting Edge documentary Revenge of the Bin Men).

While bin men aim to fulfil the public need for waste collection as quickly and simply as possible, the clipboard officials are constantly frustrating the process, inventing new bins and new sorting rules, and increasingly sophisticated surveillance methods to catch people who are failing to comply with their rules. They get exercised if somebody has left their bin lid open by an inch or has put a recyclable item in their regular rubbish.

These jobs work in the opposite directions: the bin men to take bins away, the officious to view the surveillance cameras placed in bins, or to empty out rubbish bags in search of illegitimate items which are then bagged or photographed as evidence of noncompliance. One woman in Westminster was fined for putting a single work bank statement in her domestic rubbish, after the council officer who examined the contents of her bin classed this as 'commercial waste'. Capital expenditure is also at odds, with a new van or street cleaner which would aid rubbish collection pitted against more enforcement wardens or surveillance equipment to aid officious functions.

A similar division of function can be found in other institutions and professions. Local authority health-and-safety departments include officers who enforce hygiene standards in restaurants or investigate factories where there have been accidents. Here the aim is to enforce necessary standards for public protection: washed hands, clean surfaces, machines with adequate guards, restrictions on working hours. In these cases the regulations have a clear raison d'être, protecting the public from hazards over which they have little control. In the same department, however, there are positions which serve not to aid but to obstruct. It is these officials who preoccupy themselves banning pancake races or bonfires, who say that the cakes at the village fete cannot be homemade and that the fete needs a fire exit. They put up signs reading 'caution steps' and demand that every activity be risk assessed and covered with public liability insurance.

The logic of these jobs works in opposite directions: one protects the public, the other is set against the public, preventing people from doing the things they want to do. One makes life easier, the other harder.

We must emphasise that officious health and safety does little to achieve substantial health and safety (ditto environmental protection, child protection). This can be seen by the distorted nature of officious health-and-safety interventions, which are often blithely indifferent to genuine hazards. When a council tenant in Brighton put up Christmas lights on his balcony, the council told him to take them down because they had not been safety checked by an electrician. The council had also told residents that their doormats were dangerous and should be removed from corridors. Yet at the same time (as the head of the tenants' association pointed out) there were chunks of cracked concrete falling off the building and two-foot icicles hanging from the balconies, which threatened to impale those on the balconies below. The council was uninterested in this actual threat to life and limb; for it, public initiative was the hazard.

Officious regulation does not solve a problem, but makes a problem out of the things people are doing, and therefore restricts, incorporates social life within its domain and subjects pockets of spontaneity to formalised systems of comportment.

The rise of the officious in institutions

Over time, the officious strands have grown as a portion of an institution. Within council environmental departments the numbers of wardens issuing fines for minor misdemeanours start to rival those performing a useful waste-collection function. There are more people involved in vetting volunteers and running child-protection training courses than there are working in child protection proper, investigating abuse allegations or prosecuting abuse cases. The police child-protection department is the poor cousin of criminal investigation: one former police chief complained that there were more officers in her force carrying out criminal-records checks than there were investigating or prosecuting child-abuse cases.

The numbers are stark: in England and Wales there are 120,000 serving police constables and sergeants. There are around the same number of busybodies: some 10,000 council wardens, 13,000 police community-support officers, over 2000 'accredited persons' (private employees given police powers) and 100,000 private security guards. And because these officious wardens may have less to do, you are more likely to meet one of these than you are a police officer. The officious officer is becoming the predominant presence in public space.

Within universities there is a growing dominance of the human-resources or management sector who play an increasingly prominent role in academic life, even issuing instructions for the names of courses or procedures for the marking of papers. Twenty years ago universities either had no managers or nobody knew who they were; now 'management' send out a constant stream of missives on how this or that ought to be done.

It is notable that when under financial pressure, institutions often strengthen their officious layers and cut their substantial public-service sections. After budget cuts, many London councils closed old people's homes and other services, but at the same time they expanded their CCTV programmes. They cut rubbish collection, while increasing litter wardens going out to fine people. It is the officious (and useless) aspect of their work that appears essential, while the substantial public service appears dispensable.

The reason for this is that officious forms of thought and practice have become the primary basis for institutional and professional authority. It is through these procedures that institutions justify themselves and mark out their boundaries. The officious procedure increasingly marks the gateway to an institution: when you enter the door you are asked for your ID or subjected to a bag search. The bag search replaces the welcome at the door. When you offer to volunteer your first action is to fill in a police check form. Similarly, the announcement about fire-escape procedure has become the standard introduction to public meetings or even to events such as weddings or christenings. The officious procedure becomes the authoritative basis of an institution, the way it introduces itself and the point from which it commands.

There are cases of head teachers going to the wall to enforce a photography ban in school plays, or bans on cartwheels, chocolate bars or orange juice. The persistence with which they stand by the issue – their resolute facing down of protesting parents as if in battle fatigues – indicates that this procedure has become the primary grounding of their professional authority. The question of the restriction of parent photography becomes the primary issue on which the authority of the school is staked.


Excerpted from Officious by Josie Appleton. Copyright © 2015 Josie Appleton. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vi

Introduction 1

1 The new busybodies 6

2 Officiousness in context 27

3 The structure and origins of the officious state 34

4 Officious language 48

5 Red tape 54

6 Surveillance 72

7 Crime and punishment 85

8 State and society, freedom and coercion 101

9 Opposing officiousness 104

Endnotes 112

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