Secretarial The Temp: Stay cool, it's only money

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THIS IS a story about budgets. This happened last year in a basement off Russell Square, in a room filled with huge, humming machinery. We were working in a branch of a huge multinational conglomerate, and most of the people there were employed to make huge, multi-faceted copies of documents for countrywide distribution. So naturally, as these people were at the bottom of the food chain as far as office life goes, they had the worst offices. I was working for the department boss, and sat in the far corner from the door. Unlike most offices, the door was where everyone wanted to be, as it was the only place where there was a breeze. For, though this place was almost inevitably going to end up home to enormous humming machinery of one sort of another, the designers who made this building back in the 1970s neglected to install air conditioning.

So one day, my boss, after two people had reached a state of near collapse, decided to do something. "I don't think," he said, "that I can swing air conditioning, but would a few big fans help? They would at least keep the air moving." We agreed enthusiastically - and Mike threw me an office equipment catalogue. "Find the cheapest thing you think will be effective," he said. "Nothing too paltry, or they won't do any good, but remember we have a budget."

So I pored over the pretty pictures and the specifications, and picked out a copse of fans on stands that we could move around to blow over the huge humming machines most in use each day. They cost pounds 107.95 each. You don't get nothing for nothing these days. I showed them to Mike. "Isn't there anything cheaper?" he asked. "Not really," I replied. Mike sighed. "OK, I'll see what I can do."

Which is when I discovered the drawbacks of working in a huge organisation with a civil service-style management: it's like ringing up on a cash till linked to a money incinerator. Being nosy, I'd already found out that Mike was on a contractor's day rate of pounds 350 which, taking off holidays, weekends and bank holidays, made just a smidge under 80 grand a year or, put it another way, pounds 43.75 an hour. But he had no authority to sign for any purchase over the value of pounds 99. This is obviously an attempt by the management to minimise fraud, but there is such a thing as choking the flowers along with the weeds.

So Mike composed a memo requesting that the people upstairs consider buying the fans. It took him an hour. Ching: pounds 43.75. Then I spent 30 minutes (at the pounds 19 an hour that the agency charges for me) typing it up and printing it off, and making five copies in different colours and putting them into orange internal envelopes and looking up the names of the people I had to scribble into the bottom windows. Ching: pounds 9.50.

The memo went upstairs to be considered by six people who, assuming that they were superior to Mike, were on, say, upwards of pounds 400 a day. At 10 minutes a pop. That's an hour. Ching: pounds 50. They then put the request on the agenda for the weekly budget meeting, spend 20 minutes discussing it. Ching: pounds 100. The upshot of the budget meeting was a decision to refer the request to central office. Temp secretary to type up memo, copy it and send it off: pounds 9.50. Central office, whose executives must be superior to the people down here but are probably on salaries so, say, only on pounds 300 a day (apart from directors, who will be on pounds 400) discussed it in their weekly budget meeting for 20 minutes. Eight executives on pounds 300 plus two directors on pounds 400 for a combined total of 200 minutes. Ching: pounds 133.33.

So then Executive Committee decided to send a time and motion person down for a day to check out whether our claims were true - ching: pounds 150. Plus report-writing, two hours - ching: pounds 37.50. Executive Committee met for another 20 minutes - ching: pounds 133.33. Salaried secretary to type up their agreement and send it back to our executives - ching: pounds 3.50. Project executives met for 10 minutes to sign it off - ching: pounds 50. Mike filled in the order form, plus payment request for accounts - ching: pounds 14.58. Accounts processed payment - ching: pounds 5.30. Total cost of fans before executive protocols - pounds 539.75. Total cost of fans after executive protocols: pounds 1,279.96. But hey, at least they were keeping a tight control on fraud.