Tuesday, November 27, 2007

[incompetence] there may be a reason

This mini-series begins today with "There may be a reason", continues tomorrow with "Human Resources" and concludes the day after wih "Failure Analysis".

The series is a reaction against the massive losses of the past few months in governmental departments and it focuses on the private sector first.

Dave Cole sums up the lost disks saga:
Apart from providing endless fodder for fake eBay auctions and amusing photos, one thing that I hope comes out of Revenue-gate is a desire to keep tabs on data protection, privacy and computer security in all public bodies.

To that end, I think the Government should cause to be published, all in one place, the relevant policies from every bit of government. A Royal Commission should investigate and make recommendations on whether current procedures are sufficient and whether a standardised set of policies would be preferable.
Good analysis as far as it goes but makes the same mistake as many equally astute analysts in assuming the system actually works and that party politics and the juciciary are actually the real source of power.

So George Osborne says Labour is "now officially in crisis. Everything Gordon Brown promised about his premiership - competence, honesty and change - has been blown away in the last few weeks. " What's he talking about "in the last few weeks". My goodness party politics is a bore because it signifies nothing in the end.

The articles called Micro-Control 1-8 are not particularly wonderful but they do include links fed by men and women who have dug deep. These few bloggers outline what really is happening, not unlike the inimitable Wat Tyler does in a more government based sense.

The aforementioned bloggers have shown beyond reasonable doubt that the old enemy inside Europe is indeed moving into Britain with its practices and procedures and has been doing so with a far more wide-ranging agenda than the average person will accept.

There's an understandable tendency to assume the incompetence of losing CDs and all the rest of it as almost par for the course – well of course a wicked man like Brown would preside over an incompetent civil service, wouldn't he? He's NuLab, after all. And of course Bush needs a minder.

But for me, that assumption's not enough. Let me explain.

I worked in the civil service in HM Customs and though I could write a book about that experience, nevertheless, it was just not true that incompetence was endemic. This was in the 70s. We had a situation where 15 pence was unaccounted for one evening and we were kept there until 20:50 going over and over thousands of the day's dockets to find the error.

There was a real top-down demand that everything be ship-shape. Losing five CDs would have been enough for an internal inquiry. Now we are seeing such a continuing litany of error, gross error and I really wonder how such gross error continue? Departments are known for covering their butts, not for such mammoth scandals as these, at least not so often and not so continually.

There are only two ways I can see. The incompetence is either embedded in the essential weakness of modern team-based procedures [see Hewlett Packard] or else tacit acceptance comes down from above, as Abu Ghraib also seems to have done. I'm not referring to direct orders but to far more subtle things.

For example, a junior clerk used to make an error. He was jumped on by a superior because the superior would be jumped on from above and so on. Now the junior clerk's just told to be more careful and his team carries the blame. That's a quantum shift.

The rationales which are now possible were not possible earlier. The new work procedures are always going to have teething troubles, aren't they? Give us time to get things working – these are exciting new procedures, after all and there'll be new ones next year. £5 million mislaid – well, we're still getting our command and control structure right to meet 21st century challenges.

And all the while, Julia Middleton and her ilk are pushing the necessity for change in workplace and regional command practices. Change, change, change, so there's no breathing space for stability and efficiency to emerge. New ideas, always new, with a litany of rhetoric and labels to support them and to vilify traditional practices.

We had this in education, [see link here and this link which links to links here], a field where faddiness is endemic and wholesale changes were made in the 70s and 80s. Look at the result of the fads now.

The truly evil men, those with malice aforethought, are both subtle and removed from the immediate machine which produces the non-functioning people who make the errors. They're never going to be caught out actually doing anything evil – they just fail to do good when it is required [the church during the war for example]. They just appeal to and help along human nature, natural folly and incompetence and let the sheep do the rest.

And one small part of this overall thrust is that team based solutions in “modern” business are always going to equal avoidance of direct responsibility – blame it on the team and punishment is blunted. How do you sack an entire team? A great structure to produce dystopic results.

A huge amount of the blame can also be laid at the feet of HR [post coming up] in organizations and was there ever a set of serpents such as these – incompetents in business, telling staff that they're on their side but in reality either in with management via the cursed monthly evaluations or else marginalized and irrelevant. Get rid of HR now.

The last thing is failure analysis [post coming up] or lack of it in any effective way. Experts rail at top down hierarchies and say that team-based approaches solve the problem. Do they heck as like – they just defuse and decentralize blame giving and taking.

So, as long as the mania for change for change's sake continues, gross errors will continue. I admire Dave Cole's implicit faith in the system, calling for a Royal Commission but I can't share this faith, not when the system is undergoing such radical change on the back of an almost maniacal EU drive.


Anonymous said...

A very good post, James.
I have encountered many people, mostly in their 50's, professionals, possessing of detailed skill sets, and experience, whose position in the hierarchy, and therefor decision making abilities, has been displaced by a "team" of dysfunctional incompetents, effectively "above them", making rules and procedures, that are unworkable.
This team proceeds without a knowledge base, and of course major cluster f*cks happen frequently.
The displaced invariable choose alternative employment, and "let the fools get on with it".
A great loss to all.
Five now do the work of one.

simon said...

"not when the system is undergoing such radical change on the back of an almost maniacal EU drive".

There are signs that the maniacal drive may be halted by the turmoil in the financial markets, which may cause the rupture of the Euro currency, and distressed states may revert to their original currencies to deflect the pain by re-assuming responsibility for their own currency. Southern Med is hurting, and is not as resilient as the DM.

Anonymous said...

Train to Gain is a Government training idea

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Goodness, I nearly agree with everything on an EU post! I certainly that checking procedures at work have changed and not for the better and that in education we were just snowed under with change. We probably wouldn't agree on which changes were bad here but I do concur that there is a "change for change's sake" culture - in my opinion it creates "jobs for the boys".

ScotsToryB said...


Am trying to e-mail you with no luck. Please write me with your address. I'm probably being a bit dense at the moment so be kind.


Anonymous said...

This makes interesting reading on a UK Bill of Rights

Lord James-River said...

STB - you can get me at either:




There are issues though and some people are not receiving notifications and some mail is not getting through. On the other hand, much is getting through.

There is a series of filters in place on this computer now recognizing certain domains and letter clusters as "the enemy" and it may be necessary to send from a different address.

Lord James-River said...

Anon - that's a big pdf - will take some time wading through it.