The Omnipotent Desk Officer

In a highly hierarchical organization there are far too many people raising far too many expectations from the operations people. Thus even the junior most guy from the support staff of the controller, who is several notches below the level of the operating manager, can make the latter's life miserable by raising utterly flimsy demands.

The desk officer is all-powerful. He can make or mar the careers of the toughest veterans. In a hierarchical setup, the line functionaries, in active operations, are supposed to interact directly with their controllers for day to day management/business decisions but it is only the organizational charts that say so . In reality the controllers are supposed to be assisted by the ubiquitous desk officers who end up as the main centers of hierarchical power exercising it unobtrusively from behind their humble desks.

The power of the desk officer arises solely out of the authority he derives from the controlling authority and is directly in proportion to the influence he can exercise over the boss, which is significant indeed. The influence arises mainly out of the ease with which he can confuse everybody, for he alone knows all the rules and is perfectly at home in the labyrinthine framework of office procedures. When the boss himself does little homework the minion's influence is all the greater. Too often the operations manager somehow manages to raise his head above the waters only to find the desk officer shove him down promptly into the bottom .No matter how much the big boss is convinced about the soundness of a business proposition the desk officer can torpedo it easily. In fact it so happens that if the businessman approaches the desk officer before he actually approaches the boss the work is usually done. Wise men therefore take cue from this and usually approach the desk officer first for any favor and if the latter is convinced about it he will see to it that the business proposition goes through.

Some times the M.D. or some other bigwig- businessman thinks that the desk officer is too lowly a personage in the scheme of things and pays a very high price for his ignorance . No matter how big you are, you cannot pull your weight to get your work done despite its intrinsic merits unless the desk officer gives his nod to it. The humble desk officer is usually called to participate in any discussions that the businessman has with the Big Boss. While perfect bon homie prevails during the discussions neither the Big Boss nor the businessman has any clue to the workings of the desk officer's mind. The fortunes of the businessman have already been decided there as several possible objections , many of them difficult to overcome, are thought up and quietly stashed away in the memory to be used when the proposal comes to an advanced stage. There is nothing on the surface of the earth which cannot be stonewalled and all that is required is to think up a few of the old timeworn objections, purely technical, which nobody in the organization has the guts to overrule or waive compliance. The poor boss promises help to the customer who goes back entirely satisfied. It is only after three or four backbreaking trips that the customer realizes that his work is not being done. It is only much later that both the customer and the superior in the organization realize that the humble desk officer is the chief decider and unless he okays the proposition, in principle, there is absolutely no chance of the business proposal getting anywhere.

In matters of administration the desk officer usually plays a neat role , which is not visible to outsiders, in making the entire administrative machinery crystallize to a particular conclusion. This conclusion is usually what he would prefer the administration to come to , eventually. The whole process is so subtle, much like the 'market-making' that an influential stock-broker or an election-eve opinion-maker does. The poor bosses think that it is they who are actually deciding who is going to be the next chairman of a public sector corporation. Little do they realize that the decision has already been taken or they have been led up to it quietly and inescapably and at the time the decision is formally signed and put on paper, no other conclusion would have emerged. The secret is of course the all-too-familiar technique of systematically bombarding the decision-makers with tons of the so-called 'inside' information which is a euphemism for hearsay, peer-level gossip and black lies. In some cases the intelligent desk officer also uses more scientific weapons like carefully structured bits of data isolated from their context, all inescapably leading to the particular decision. He has the data and the bosses do not have it and have to entirely depend upon him to justify their decisions to the rest of the administration and to the posterity.

Coming to the database who else but the desk officer has it neatly stored on his files and in his memory as well? The mass of data with him is truly staggering, spread over hundreds of typed papers, each representing a particular development at some point of time in the past or some viewpoint taken by the predecessor managers, in volumes carefully stacked in the almirahs. In addition there is his elephantine memory which has recorded over the years each and every decision taken at different points of time and the apparent justifications resorted to at that time. The desk officer has the choice to use any of these amorphous data, although many times inconsistent with the decisions sought to be taken ,which can be effectively marshaled as arguments for a particular decision. The boss is relatively helpless because he cannot go into the past except through the selective chronicling of the desk officer. It is said that in a case of the selection of the CEO of a p.s.u. the qualifications for short-listing the candidates were decided as, among other things, AGE: Not over 55 because there was a particular candidate, a favorite of the desk officer, who was just 54, 5 out of the remaining 6 eligible candidates being slightly over 56. In order to keep the last candidate, who is also eligible age-wise, out of the selection, an additional qualification was fixed for the fist time after a gap of twenty years- a qualification that he should have at least a postgraduate management qualification. The qualifications keep changing year after year depending upon who our desk officer pitches for. They say decisions in the government organizations are not taken but merely evolve. A more correct thing to say would be that decisions evolve depending upon who the desk officer at the material point of time is.

A very important source of strength for the desk officer is the lateral linkages he has established with similarly placed desk officers in other departments. There is an unwritten bond of close solidarity among the desk officers which serves, on a different level, to mobilize support for his stand on several official matters. There are unions, although unrecognized, who lend strong support to the desk officer whenever it is felt among the bosses, (which happens sometimes if the boss is a strong-willed person or has been a desk officer himself in his earlier avatar) that he is over-reaching himself. Occasionally there may be a move to demolish his supremacy but soon enough he comes out on top of the situation when the boss is made to realize the futility of such an attempt. The boss has no time to go into the mass of data that is available for decision-making while the desk officer has all the time for it .In the end the boss realizes that he has no choice other than to peacefully coexist with the desk officer and give him his due.  


More by :  A. J. Rao

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