“The British Disease is now rank ineptitude”
“Whatever the trade or profession it seems to be considered bad form to root out the stupid and the incompetent”
Headlines above a column by Matthew Parris, The Times, December 3, 2016
Peevish sacked minister to the then Prime Minister, Mr Attlee.
“Why have I been dismissed?”
Mr Attlee, the laconic PM replied – “Because you are not up to the job.”
“The owner of a hair dressing salon who punched one of his staff in the face, dragged him across the salon floor, and kneed him in the groin, said at an industrial tribunal in Birmingham that he had not dismissed him. But the tribunal accepted a claim that such treatment was tantamount to unfair dismissal.”
Extract from a Bernard Levin piece in The Times headed ”How to know when you’re not wanted”
The Parris article was triggered by an earlier Times piece in which his colleague Melanie Phillips had taken a forensic look at seemingly gross incompetence by the Metropolitan Police. Parris wanted to go further. “From top to bottom in Britain we appear to tolerate major blunders and minor incompetence with a tut tut….”
What followed was a wide ranging review of cock ups in our time covering IT projects, procurement failures by the MOD, and the failure by the BBC over its Digital Media initiative.
Parris went on to “identify three different forces, combining to encourage our fatal tolerance of incompetence. Class hierarchy and educational privilege; trade unionism and employment protection; and the English law of libel.”
He ended his spirited piece by asserting that “Sheer ineptitude is the most important yet the most anonymous, the most damaging yet the least noticed, the most insidious yet the least confronted pf our besetting national sins.”
Sadly Parris allow his anger to cloud his judgement. I will return later to his main points but for now I will content myself with suggesting that he takes time out from producing his own prolific output of written and spoken journalism and read what his own paper, The Times, has to say on ineptitude, and also what The Daily Mail has to say about ineptitude in the public sector and what the Guardian has to say about ineptitude in the private sector.
The papers meet in the middle to excoriate ineptitude in Quangoland.
Let us take the Times to begin with. On December 5, 2016, four letters appeared under the headline: “ Gross incompetency in the British System.” In one of the four letters Mr Werren from Cornwall, a retired civil servant, put his jaundiced view about his former colleagues.
“I came to the conclusion, shared by many colleagues, that the top 20 per cent is on a par with the best in the private sector, 50 per cent are adequate and the remaining 30 per cent are incompetents.”
The question arose in my mind: on the basis of what evidence was Mr Werren able to form his views about the private sector?
Another readers’ letter, published on the same day, was from a Mr Richard Duncan, a peevish critic of “banks and utility companies, none of which appears to be able to do anything without making a mess of it”.
As it happens I share his view of these businesses but he rather spoils his case by expressing his disappointment about the way that his complaint to the bank had been dealt with.
“I asked him whether the bank tracked right first time performance as manufacturing companies do (using Six Sigma techniques) and he replied that he had never heard of such a measure. It is hardly surprising that our productivity is so low.”
Might the manufacturing companies that he refers to include the global car makers now engaged in colossal global damage limitation exercise over dodgy performance figures?
Four more letters, this time under the headline: “Rank ineptitude and the loss of common sense” were published the following day.
Sadly the poor quality of argument expressed in the Monday letters declined still further on the Tuesday.
A Mr Gilmour took Parris to task for describing incompetence as British characteristics and cites examples of cocks ups in Europe. Cock ups in Europe and indeed across the world doubtless occur but that does not invalidate the central Parris arguments.
In another letter a Mr Bean – appropriately named – noted that “ Given that 50 per cent of the population have less than average IQ and presumably need gainful employment, I would be interested to hear his opinion as what the nations should do with “thick” people. Matthew Parris can of course speak for himself but I doubt if he would argue that the unfortunately, if accurately, described thick people should be given top jobs in any sector. That would be taking the attempt at levelling the playing field of life too far.”
So: has anything changed in the intervening 10 months?
In a word – no. The bunglers are still bungling and being left in their jobs to keep up the bad work.
I take it that no one – apart, obviously, from the bunglers, believes that bunglers should be left in post.
The media are replete with stories of ineptitude – hence the pieces by Mel Phillips and Matthew Parris.
This raises the point – what SHOULD be done to tackle the perceived widespread problem of managerial ineptitude?
What about a few basic principles to get our improvement plan on the road.
Firstly, the problems are caused by the employment of the managerially challenged in senior positions. Solve that problem by replacing them with people who are up to the job and one welcome consequence would be that this would not so much trickle down as gush down throughout the organisation.
So – start the purge at or near the top because competent managers will deal as a matter of course with problems posed by the poor performers lower down the organisational pyramid.
A typical exhortation to be – shape up or ship out – clear and crisp.
I do not suggest as robust an approach as that adopted by the hair dresser in the quote from the Bernard Levin article. Good progress can be made without resorting to violence.
I do suggest that those seeking to solve these problems should avoid the approach adopted by Sir John Chilcot in his inquiry into matters arising from the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No one could accuse Sir John Chilcot of being superficial but any concerted campaign to fire the top tier failures would need a rather more brisk approach.
It is important to stress that we are not talking here of shady managerial practices which verge on the criminal. We are talking about how to tackle woefully inadequate managerial performance.
Nor are we talking about the managerial jobs that are grossly overpaid. It is thought in some quarters that the £40 million or so paid annually to Sir Martin Sorrell verges on the generous but I have not seen anywhere comment that Sir Martin is not up to the job – merely that he is overpaid.
I am NOT talking about politicians, even though bungling politicians are possibly the most accomplished bunglers of all. This group has to answer to the voters and the voters are often the most unforgiving of all – just ask Mrs May.
A fictitious but not entirely far fetched case study
- Wayne Rooney obtains possession of the ball in the middle of the pitch during an important match – and to the crowd that has paid good money to be present, all matches are important.
- He quickly assesses the possibilities of the situation.
- He then speeds off down the field with the ball under control.
- Unfortunately he has sped off in the wrong direction towards his own goal.
- His colleagues are too bemused and aghast to grasp what is going on and do not move to tackle him.
- At exactly the right spot he steadies himself and fires a perfect shot into the corner of the net.
- A goal, possibly a nice goal, but sadly against his own side.
Might this incident be sufficient to justify and to trigger the instant awarding of a P45 to Mr Rooney?
I think so but doubtless there are those who argue for a period of reflection to allow Wayne to rehabilitate himself.
What do you think?
In what follows we are looking at not dissimilar situations in which senior managers display startling ineptitude that ought to be followed by the award of a P45.
The bunglers should be sacked – not in Chilcotian painfully protracted fashion but as soon as possible within the terms of the appropriate disciplinary procedures.
Why the haste? In no special order of importance:-
- To stop the widespread practice in some sectors of a stitch up in which the bungler leaves with the full retirement package including redundancy and pension benefits
- To stop the equally pervasive practice of moving the bungler sideways – and free to cock things up all over again.
- This approach would benefit the employing organisation in that the other senior managers would – hopefully – get the message that the sack is just that and not an agreeable alternative.
I suggest that there is case to appoint a National P45 Czar tasked with calling in those selected for the treatment. Not a languid Czar after the fashion of Mr -now Sir Eric – Pickles who was notably inactive in his role as anti- corruption Czar – but an experienced and suitably insensitive candidate – why not Lord Sugar who would, I am sure, relish the role?
A word on procedure
The bungler is called in and informed that his/her gross misconduct and / or gross incompetence and / or gross negligence has triggered his/her departure.
Keep the session brief in the manner of Clem Attlee to his subordinate after the latter was found wanting.
Proceedings to be as per the relevant sections from the disciplinary handbook. We have had cases where the sacking drama was not carried out as per script thus adding farce to fiasco.
I recall that Mr Ed Balls mishandled the dismissal of the official in charge of social services in the area where Baby P was killed and his failure allowed the official to avoid what should have been the full consequences of her failure.
The minimum amount of time of time to be allowed for the relevant appeals to be presented.
It is important that the dismissed bunglers are required to contest the outcome in their own time.
The relevant P45, correctly made out, to be handed over to the reluctant recipient.
The sacked bungler is given a few minutes to collect his personal belongings and to be then escorted from the premises.
Here is my starter list of 5 candidates who in my view were all suitable candidates to be shown the door. There is no shortage of suitable candidates and I have no doubt that readers could come up with equally well qualified names.
Readers especially interested in these matters should be sure to read Private Eye – the magazine is a splendid source of information and those selected for treatment by Lord Gnome are frequently rewarded with a P45.
1. Mr Andrew Marr – BBC Journalist.
“And a rogue is talking to a bore”
Amended version of the line from Rudyard Kipling – to cover the recent interview between Andrew Marr and Theresa May.
A few years ago, it emerged that Mr Marr had taken out a comprehensive injunction to prohibit any mention of his not especially interesting extra marital activities. His media colleagues, who were of course, well acquainted with the root cause of the injunction, acquiesced in and obeyed the injunction presumably for a variety of reasons – there but for the grace of God go I, respect for the law, apprehensive about the consequences of violating the law, and so on.
It was left to the dogged persistence of Mr Ian Hislop, Private Eye Editor, to flush out what was common knowledge in social media.
Andrew Marr ought to have been sacked for this squalid breach of the practices of the trade of journalism, but here, as so often elsewhere in the BBC, his lapse was forgiven and he remained in the BBC to interrogate on the Andrew Marr show.
A good example of the British capacity for selective indignation.
2. The Vice Chancellor of Bolton University, Mr George Holmes.
Readers will recall that University Vice Chancellors came under fire recently for their propensity to improve their reward packages, this at a time when the higher education sector was pleading for increased funding.
Mr Holmes came out fighting when questioned about his reward package.
“Pity all us poor university chiefs. We are not paid enough” says Bentley driving boss on £220,000″
Daily Mail, August 2, 2017
“I’m worth every penny, says £220k university chief”
The Times, August 2, 2017
Mr Holmes went well beyond the simple asseveration made by Dame Breakwell that she was worth her salary. Holmes said that “we – The Vice Chancellors – are not paid enough,” and a little later “they (Vice Chancellors) should be paid more or they could leave the country”.
His view is that he is worth his huge pay because he is a success.
Private Eye mischievously delved into the claim of the Bolton boy to be a success, and came up with the following.
“Eye readers will recall his failed Doncaster Education City scheme which left Doncaster College with a £1.8m deficit in 2005.”
“An Ofsted report in April found Bolton UTC inadequate in all areas, including governance, and placed it into special measures.”
One has to concede that Mr Holmes is clearly a very successful confidence trickster, the Arthur Daley of the Daubhill and Deane Road areas of Bolton.
Mr Holmes is also a strong candidate to be handed a prompt P45 for misconduct and deceit guaranteed to bring his profession into disrepute and Bolton University into ridicule.
I suspect that Lord Sugar would relish this particular leave taking.
3. The Senior Police Officer who authorised the search of the home of Sir Cliff Richard.
“But now I’ll ask you a question. Do you know, or do you not know, that the law of England supposes every man to be innocent, until he is proved – proved – to be guilty?”
Mr Jaggers to a deferential group of topers in the Three Jolly Bargemen, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
To summarise: in August 2014, after a complaint to the Met’s Operation Yewtree, Sir Cliff Richard’s house was searched. The search was shown live on the BBC news, the BBC clearly having been tipped off that something was afoot. In the event, there were no arrests (Richards had voluntarily met and was interviewed by members of the constabulary) and subsequently an independent report into the sorry business concluded that South Yorkshire Police had “interfered with [Richard’s] privacy” by the tip off.
My contention here is that the conduct of the Senior Policeman who authorised the dramatic search and was responsible for tipping off the BBC amounted to gross misconduct and should have been followed, after appropriate but brisk investigation by the responsible authorities by the award of a P45.
4. Lin Homer — HMRC and Immigration Service Mandarin.
“Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilised world …. he was known as a dependable man for a fast tax write off.”
Joseph Heller, Catch 22
Lin Homer was the civil service equivalent of Colonel Cargill in Catch 22 but whereas the Colonel was always employed with the specific remit to cock things up, Ms Homer was employed – why? You tell me. Just how inept does a manager have to be to receive the black spot?
This particular Homer’s odyssey was a narrative laced with incompetence, as she sailed joyously from a post as Chief Executive of Birmingham Council (where she was criticised for her role of returning officer in a vote-rigging scandal) to Director-General/Chief Executive of the Immigration Agency (criticised for “catastrophic leadership failure”) to Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport (alleged to have ignored concerns around West Count franchise, resulting in a bill of £100 million) to CEO at HMRC (forgot to collect taxes from big business, “unambitious and woefully inadequate” response to concerns over public service, etc etc).
The action required is clear cut – convene the firing squad – follow the procedure and out she goes.
What could be simpler?
5. The Senior Management of the UK Rail Sector
A bit of background here.
In September 2016, Nick Brown was appointed as the COO of Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs, inter alia, the Southern Rail franchise.
Commenting on Brown’s appointment, Charles Horton, Chief Executive of GTR, said:
“We’re delighted that Nick is joining GTR. He has a first class pedigree in the transport industry, a wealth of experience and a strong track record of leading businesses in the rail and bus sectors. Nick’s broad experience and intimate knowledge of the sector makes him ideally placed to help us achieve our business goals and deliver a better railway and EXCELLENT SERVICE – [my capitals]- for our customers going forward. I’m looking forward to him coming on board and I know he’ll add real value to the business.”
I suspect that many frequent travellers by rail will be dubious about excellent service and would gladly settle for a service that provided trains that run to time untroubled by faulty points and faulty signals and inadequate numbers of staff.
I suspect also that many people will be dubious about making huge funds available for HS2 to managers incapable of maintaining points and signals and adequate staff levels.
The managers campaigning for the funding for HS2 will of course be relaxed about the challenge given the extent to which they are insulated from the normal pressures of their profession.
Suffice it say that the rapid departure of a few senior managers heads would do more to convince those remaining of the need to get it right than would any amount of self calculated performance based bonuses.