What is it about regulators that they like wasting money on frivolities? Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, I received a tip-off that staff and their spouses at the Personal Investment Authority’s office in Edinburgh had all been flown down to London for the watchdog’s Christmas party near Canary Wharf.
The PIA confirmed the story, adding that it offered colleagues working in its two key regulatory hubs the opportunity to get to know each other in a more social setting. This would allow them to work together more effectively in future. As for their spouses, well, it would have been churlish to just bring the staff down.
Fast-forward 15 years and, according to a superb little story by Devraj Ray in a recent issue of Money Marketing, it transpires the FCA paid almost £15,000 for an away day and overnight stay for its 19 board members at a five-star hotel in Hertfordshire last year.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see the value of meeting outside the confines of your own office building. I know it can help participants to focus on the particular task at hand without other day-to-day distractions.
Even so, Premier Inn or Best Western have special conference centres at many of their hotels all over the country. They have dedicated teams of staff skilled at providing everything needed by delegates and their room rates are a fraction of those charged by the Grove Hotel.
As if that weren’t enough, over the past five years the FCA and its predecessor the FSA have spent £200,000 in flowers and plants for its offices in Canary Wharf and Edinburgh, as well as “high-profile events”.
If I read the Money Marketing story correctly, it looks like the FCA, and the FSA before it, has 300 plants in their offices. The main cost, apart from flowers for various events and other supposedly strategic locations, is in the hire and maintenance contract for the plants themselves. Broken down, it looks like several pounds per plant per fortnight.
Last week I spoke to someone who, ironically, provides such a service for the offices of a London-based fund management firm and he tells me: “The plants and even the containers don’t actually belong to that company. We supply and maintain them.
“We go in and feed, water and clean all the plants and the containers. Any dead leaves are removed and failing plants are changed as part of the contract.
“In this case we usually go in every week. In some offices we go in twice a week. We charge about a fiver per visit for every plant display.”
As I write this, I’m trying desperately hard to avoid a sense of synthetic rage over this issue. Again, I understand why an organisation would want to have plants in its offices.
Research shows they lower workplace stress and enhance productivity. One study in the US found that participants were 12 per cent more productive and less stressed than those who worked in an environment with no plants.
Separate research from Norway investigated the amount of sick leave among staff and compared it with the amount of plants they could see from their desk. The more plants they could see, then the less self-reported sick leave there was.
The same research also showed that plants were able to lower fatigue, prevent dry throats, headaches, coughs and dry skin among office workers.
But what it looks like to me is an organisation that starts with a useful insight into how to enhance office productivity and then takes it to a stupid level.
Many years ago, in one workplace I was at the company gave us the chance to brighten up our office environment. Each team was offered a sum to buy some plants – as long as we maintained them ourselves. Inevitably, some teams made a hash of the experiment. But others thrived.
In our team, the maintenance job was taken over by an old boy. When he went on holiday, someone else took over. When he retired a year later, the next “volunteer”, while not as dedicated, managed to keep them alive for the next 18 months without problem. I left before that experiment ended.
It seems to me that the FCA, and the FSA before it, suffers from two problems. The first, in relation to plants but probably lots of other, far more important matters also, is that it assumes people are incapable of making rational decisions over the simplest things and need to be spoon-fed. Yet by disempowering them it actually makes that scenario more likely to happen.
The issue of its board meeting concerns me more. What it implies is a group of people arrogantly lost in a world where an entitlement to a life of luxury is simply taken for granted. For them, a £500-a-night stay in the Grove Hotel, with its 300 acres and 18-hole golf course, is entirely natural.
They clearly don’t understand why the rest of us who, when in need of a meeting room, would be more likely to call Travelodge or a Premier Inn, might query their spending decision.
For a regulator to be so out of touch with the people it watches over, never mind the general public, is actually rather frightening.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org