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Pants on fire - The Ex-Communicator

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November 12th, 2011


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10:03 am - Pants on fire
Our Home Secretary, Theresa May, is in conflict with the recently-sacked head of the UK border force. He says that he relaxed passport controls at British airports as part of a cost-cutting 'efficiency' program, which she was aware of and authorised. She says she asked for something much more limited, and he took this decision without telling her.

Marina Hyde in the Guardian comments:
Career civil servants don't take unilateral policy decisions, let alone ones that might place their career in jeopardy and threaten their handsome pensions... The popular caricature of studied inertia in the upper ranks of the civil service is funny because it's true, as Homer Simpson would say. Every atom of the career civil servant's being is dedicated to avoiding personal risk.

From my interaction with civil servants I think this is true. One of the reasons I did not take the job which was offered to me in the Civil Service is because I find it stultifying, boring, and inefficient, precisely because of the obsessional risk-avoidance.

However, there is another feature of Civil Service life which I think is relevant. Senior people use their powers to push risk onto junior people. That is, the people who are paid least are forced to take most responsibility. A senior person will write an email which says something like 'Document turnaround times must be reduced by 2 days'. A reply might be 'We can't reduce turnaround without compromising validation procedures. Do you want to authorise a change in those?' and there will be no reply. This is just a made-up example, but you get my drift. Junior people are set objectives which require rules to be broken, and everyone knows that is what is being asked, but there is no explicit command to break rules.

I suspect that Brodie Clark has used this tactic a few times himself (I don't know). Now it has been used on him. I suspect that orders were undocumented, deniable, and possibly made by inference. If I am wrong and there is proof that she ordered it in explicit documented words, then she's acting crazy to deny it. It's possible she's that reckless, but surely not that stupid.*

On the bigger picture around this event: scapegoating senior civil servants to divert blame from Ministers is a clever short term tactic but a poor long term strategy. Well paid Mandarins are on the whole not good and selfless people. They are wily and amoral. If they see their colleagues being burned they will act to protect themselves.

*ETA It's possible she's unsackable (as this article argues). In a way that makes her behaviour even more reckless.

(13 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:kalypso_v
Date:November 12th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
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Brodie Clark isn't entirely unfamiliar with controversy (see past career). Though I suppose he must have done something right to get so far.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:November 12th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
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I think what he did right was to do what he was told, to do the dirty work on a wink from above. Possibly - and this is me stretching to be generous to May - he was so used to nudge-nudge wink-wink management that he added two and two and got five this time.
[User Picture]
From:steepholm
Date:November 12th, 2011 01:42 pm (UTC)
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A very plausible analysis. That tactic of responsibility without power is very recognizable within the HE as well, in my experience. I believe it was first employed by the ancient Egyptians, under the slogan "bricks without straw".
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From:communicator
Date:November 12th, 2011 01:52 pm (UTC)
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I was once involved in a multi-million pound project, and I was at a risk meeting. I said we should log a particular significant risk. I was told - and this is literally word for word, because I remember it vividly: 'We can't log that as a risk, because it might actually happen.' This is why I can't work there.
[User Picture]
From:steepholm
Date:November 12th, 2011 01:55 pm (UTC)
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Kafka had it easy.
[User Picture]
From:tehomet
Date:November 16th, 2011 09:19 pm (UTC)
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JFC!
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From:muuranker
Date:November 12th, 2011 01:47 pm (UTC)
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A few colleagues and I were having a similar discussion earlier this week - we thought that it isn't so much risk avoidance (we are good at risk analysis and ok-with-prospects-to-improve at risk mitigation) as blame avoidance, compounded by failure to understand success and failure in a realistic way.

If the Daily Mail cricises or ridicules it, then it is a failure, otherwise it is a success.

So it's not even pure blame avoidance: it's Daily Mail avoidance too.


[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:November 12th, 2011 01:51 pm (UTC)
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Yes, actually you are right, that's better wording. They aren't avoiding risk, in fact more accurately they increase the real risk to avoid the appearance of blame.
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From:happytune
Date:November 12th, 2011 02:10 pm (UTC)
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Yes - I agree with this. It would be nice to live in a cultural context where it was OK to take risks (possibly not in this case, but in some cases) without such a heavy emphasis placed on blame. My mother, having lived in a number of other countries, thinks this is quite an English characteristic - a 'blame culture'.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:November 12th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)
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True. If only the economists could say 'we have got it horribly wrong' but no they have got to keep on digging or lose face.
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From:happytune
Date:November 12th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC)
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Funny you should say this. I had exactly this conversation with an economics professor based in the city we live. He's a Belgian chap - quiet and unassuming. He told me that he'd decided not to go to any more conferences in his field, because he couldn't bear the lack of humility. He said during his last conference he found himself with a strong urge to jump up and shout 'Why aren't we talking about how we got it so wrong?'. I really felt for him - he seemed to be a man sadly let down by his professional colleagues and trying hard to uphold his own values in the face of powerful evidence. Shame the vast majority of the financial sector isn't so reflective...
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From:communicator
Date:November 12th, 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)
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And now it is that very group - the economic technocrats - who are taking over in Greece and Italy. Which is kind of worrying to me.
From:policy-police.blogspot.com
Date:November 13th, 2011 07:59 am (UTC)
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I guess the economists keep digging the holes because somebody else will have to fill them in and increase aggregate demand. Sadly, I don't think that's a joke.

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