Execution of disgraced mandarin. No Oxbridge College for him!
Someone asked me the other day, in relation to my recent posts about the ghastly mix of incompetence and cruelty in the Home Office, whether I thought civil servants who failed should be sacked.
in general, no. I saw that policy or I should see instinct at work under Michael Howard, a man whose first thought under fire was to interpose the body of one of his servants between himself and the bullets.
It is a bad policy for several reasons. As Putin has discovered, it leads to people telling you what you want to hear rather than what you need to know, and to people doing what is safe rather than what is necessary.
Moreover, in large complicated organisations dealing with complicated matters, failure usually involves many people in varying degrees of culpability.
Moreover , if somebody is in a role where they are completely incompetent, there are questions about the person who appointed them and the person who managed them.
Moreover, the emphasis needs to be on learning from failure not on punishing it, and the second tends to get in the way of the first
Sometimes, too, failure at a very senior level is inseparable from ministerial failure, eg failure to set the right priorities or provide necessary resources.
But equally I do not think it is healthy for there to be no consequences whatsoever in the case of egregious failure, which is what happens in the civil service. At senior level, it is almost unknown for anybody to pay any penalty whatsoever. As far as I can ascertain no permanent secretary has been made to resign or be demoted since before WW2. Usually a senior civil servant who has failed on a big scale is promoted at exactly the same pace as if they had succeeded. That can't be right.
(Case in point, Antonia Romeo, Senior Responsible Officer for the single greatest disaster in justice policy in a generation, the probation privatisation programme, that had to be expensively cancelled after years of critical inspection reports, has now become..... Permanent Secretary at the MoJ. Equality of opportunity was not supposed to mean promoting failure on an equal basis with success.)
The circumstances in which I think there should be a penalty of some sort for failure - I'm talking of failure to do the job or deliver a reasonable service, not something like fraud, sexual harassment etc - are as follows. When someone does something or fails to do something which they ought to know will cause serious failure, or serious harm. When someone covers up or lies about serious failure. When someone allows a serious failure to continue over a period , without doing anything about it or reporting it . And when a senior person takes delivery of a report exposing serious failure and is charged with ensuring that there is an improvement, fails to do so.
Outside of those circumstances, failure should be treated as an inherent aspect of work. It should be acknowledged, if necessary apology made, its causes should be ascertained and put right, which might mean more resources, doing things differently, retraining, or moving someone. But in most cases not punishment. But note that - public acknowledgement, public apology.
An anonymous email, probably from a civil servant, once accused me of believing I was always right. He had obviously not read my book, of which a few copies are still available incidentally, which is full of my reflections on what I did not get right, or not right enough. I've never had any in inhibition about owning up to my failures.
That is in part because I had the enormous privilege of working for three quite outstanding leaders, different in many ways, but united in their total integrity. Richard Tilt, Martin Narey, Phil Wheatley. These were not men who needed to be driven reluctantly to admit failure at. They were the first to announce it, driven by consciousness of the moral imperatives of their work, and the need for leadership.
People at the top who cannot admit to and own failure are a danger to all around them. They are certainly not leaders. Unfortunately the senior civil service is full of them, including the Permanent Secretaries of the Home Office and of the Ministry of Justice.
(By the way, do you know that Antonia Romeo is widely tipped for the next Cabinet Secretary? I put that in here because, sadly, some journalists who profile her fail to mention this in the published article. In point of fact, I think she has every qualification, in terms of how the job is now understood.)
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
Click below to receive regular updates