Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Let the workers get on with the job! 

A CENTURY ago, American diplomat Dwight Morrow advised his son: “The world is divided into people who do things and people who get the credit. Try, if you can, to belong to the first class. There’s far less competition.” 

Despite having namesakes now in Charmouth, Mr Morrow couldn’t have reached Lyme Regis, so well-supplied with his ‘first class’, such as all those volunteers peopling these columns last year. My explorations among some 30 varied groups – a fraction of the total – uncovered over 500 current volunteers, though many pop up in two, three, four or more places.

A gentle note to the admirably vigilant Geoffrey Mann, who understands that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”: not one of those is a loose cannon subverting democracy – each is accountable to some lawful, properly-governed body.

Could Morrow observe Britain today, he might re-phrase his premise: “The world is divided into people who do things and people who pass judgement.” 

Fewer and fewer people do creative, productive or useful work, while more and more tell them what to do and how to do it – or what they’ve done wrong and how they must change. 

Take just two examples. Education is inspected to death by Ofsted (so many of these parasites’ names – Ofqual, Ofwat, Ofcom, etc – echo Stalin’s USSR: Orgburo, Orgotdel, Partkom ...). 

Ofsted’s empire, exploding over two decades beyond schools, now includes children’s social care, childcare, fostering, adoption, teacher training, nursery education, further education colleges, adult education and training... meanwhile, the Care Quality Commission ranges over adult social care, nursing and care homes, community provision, home care, GPs, dentists, clinics and hospitals.   

We must assume that the legions of inspectors required for all this comprise experienced, well-qualified leaders in their fields – how else could the system be credible? So let’s imagine these thousands of experts back actually doing the jobs – teaching, caring, doctoring – while leading by example from within and sharing the front-line challenges. 

What a boost to the quality of those public services! Imagine the money now spent on their office buildings, travel, accommodation, support staff and reports returning to the places of real work!

Inspection hasn’t improved quality

Our assumption may, though, be false. Evidence lies everywhere that ceaseless inspection, with its bureaucratically-defined ‘standards’ and jargon-stuffed robotic reports, hasn’t improved the quality of what is inspected. Perhaps the inspectors aren’t so brilliant? 

So, is it all wasted money but otherwise harmless – like the ‘Energy Performance’ inspector assessing our home, umbilically-attached to his government-provided computer programme, who reported our need for floor insulation? There’s 200mm of the stuff but, being under the floor, he couldn’t see it so wasn’t allowed to record it.

No, it’s far from harmless. Across swathes of public life, absurdly prescriptive guidelines from ivory-tower regulators, plus ‘compliance’ enforced by inspectors with checklists and clipboards, create a self-limiting cycle. Trapped in the middle are human beings with brains, skills and commitment. But those twin pressures attack their capacity to think for themselves, to act according to the challenges in front of them, to judge their effectiveness – in sum, to be responsible. Top-down diktats aim to turn thoughtful individuals into de-skilled automatons. Nit-picking inspections distort priorities; they create unwarranted stress, demoralisation, and sometimes minor fraud. 

This infantilising process is catastrophic: it undermines self-respect, self-reliant confidence, and trust. Then, as things increasingly go wrong, come the calls for enquiry. Could anyone count them now, or the variety of topics? Whether it’s over-running railtrack repairs, or the Iraq War (four enquiries, with the Chilcot report still unpublished), or phone-hacking or historic child abuse (enquiry into enquiries, there), dozens – no, hundreds – are running at huge cost in money and skilled people. The recommendation in so many of their reports for ‘co-ordinated multi-agency working’ becomes routine, as does the response that “lessons will be learned” – but aren’t.

Of course some are important, not least for those who have suffered – take Hillsborough. But how about fundamental thought to reducing failures in the first place? 

Which returns us to properly-educated, thoroughly-trained, intelligently-led, morally-secure, self-motivating people and teams working in a climate of trust, respect and approbation. And that means putting regulators and inspectors back to proper work, if capable, or into their little boxes.   

For local variants of the imbalance between those who do and those who talk, look to the NHS. The threat to Axminster Hospital’s in-patient beds has absorbed the attention of the Northern, Eastern and Western Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (22 board members) and its Eastern Locality (a 17-strong board), which together commission the North Devon Healthcare Trust (a board of 14) to run Axminster Hospital. Those three boards include 22 qualified medics, mostly doctors; why aren’t they treating patients instead of sitting in meetings? Three costly public consultations (one acknowledged as improperly-run) give no confidence that alternative public views are admitted. 

In Dorset, the CCG is paying management consultants McKinsey a reported £2.75million to review clinical services. Stop! That’s £2,750,000. Think! What could that do for real services here – more doctors, nurses, opening hours...? GP-led CCGs were introduced in the belief that local GPs would understand the clinical needs of patients in their own areas. If true, they don’t need McKinsey to tell them for £2.75million of our money. If not true, why have CCGs?    

Bossyboots in offices alienate volunteers, too. Those many locals whose efforts these columns recorded last year are committed, responsible and self-motivated. Like teachers, carers and medical staff, their motivation is precious. With volunteer work increasingly necessary for society to function, authorities from national government and its quangos to the humblest town council must support, not impede and discourage, voluntary effort.   

So set the workers free. This won’t eliminate failure, for “to err is human.” But smaller, localised problems, amenable to self-correction, are as nothing compared to the systemic disasters wrought by our present remorselessly negative, distrustful, culture.

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