25 April 2018

Windrush is a consequence of putting process before people


Two recent scandals have provided stark examples of what happens when moral authority is ceded to that new last refuge of the scoundrel — process.

On anti-Semitism, Jeremy Corbyn and his hapless defenders wring their hands when pushed for decisive action and say he is a hostage to the party rule book. Poor Barry Gardiner was the latest
recipient of this concrete lifebelt on Radio 4’s Today Programme, when called to defend his bosses indefensible dissembling.

On the Windrush children, a callous bureaucracy of proving citizenship overrode human decency and obligation in the Home Office. In public life it seems that process has become the master, not the servant of good judgement.

How did we get here?

I worked as a senior civil servant at the Home Office through the last days of Alan Johnson and into the coalition reign of Theresa May. I had an odd remit as Director of Community Safety for South West England, which required me to be based in my region — holding public authorities to account on crime, drugs and counter terrorism –  but also frequently in Westminster.

The contrast was marked. In the field, one worked with and supported local people, constabularies, organisations who were in the main flexible and responsive in dealing with human frailty. They also bluntly conveyed upwards through me stories of perverse government targets, woefully poor and uncertain funding streams for vital work, such as domestic violence reduction and patently unworkable strategies.

My regional colleagues and I brought what we thought was a refreshing and authoritative view from the front line of Home Office priorities – keeping people safe. We never felt comfortable. The Home Office had – and has – some outstanding people working in it, but the enduring impression, still evidently in place, was of a defensive and inward-focused castle besieged with unassailable problems and mired in a sclerotic insistence on process towards targets, whatever the cost.

Dispatches from Devon, while (barely) tolerated, were indulged rather than acted on and soon our posts were hurled on the bonfire of the quangos.

In relation to unwelcome news, the mandarins were clear: the Home Secretary was to be protected – to death if necessary. Nick Hardwick, the former Chair of the Parole Board, controversially sacked over the release decision of serial rapist John Worboys, summed this attitude up pithily:

“One of the civil servants who I learnt most from once said to me about the Home Office: ‘The people who get on here are those that can write a good minute which gets a minister out of trouble. Not those who can run things so they don’t get into trouble in the first place.'”

The problem is that actually getting a minister (or for that matter a leader of the opposition) out of trouble relies on a culture where senior officials are able to dissent without being accused of
treachery. Where a diversity of voices can be heard at the very top and not smothered by hierarchy or naked ambition.

This supposes a system of promotion which selects people on the basis of authentic skills rather than at best elevating yes men and women or at worst promoting the incompetent as it’s too difficult to sack them. Difficult people are sometimes very useful – a mine without Canaries can end up caving in on you, as Amber Rudd is busy discovering.

The strict adherence to process in defiance of the facts is a shelter for the dull-witted. It’s a shield for the mediocre and it also absolves mendacious people of responsibility. In Corbyn’s case, if the sewer of anti-Semitism he’s paddling in had been any other form of racism, the rule book would have been thrown out the window. Process would surrender to righteous action. You can almost hear the angry determination in his voice. Because anti-Semitism chains him and some of his most ardent supporters together, he can’t or won’t do the right thing.

The response — much like it must have been when reports of the brutal treatment of Windrush children started filtering upwards from Home Office front line staff — a shrug of the shoulders. Due process. Rules is rules. What can you do? This theology of box-ticking has its origins in the Blair government’s obsession with output targets.

This managerial cult grew out of a perfectly understandable desire to demonstrate to the public that their new government’s massive investment in public services was being tightly
controlled and delivering results. In all areas of public life, meeting targets and the algorithmic steps that demonstrate compliance with them joined with, competed against and ultimately overrode common sense.

The people who started their civil service careers marinated in this “compliance or else” religion now number amongst the most senior officials in Government. In the case of the Home Office, this cult of the balance sheet, combined with political rhetoric on migration and weak or absent dissent to produce policies and decisions which seem to lack basic humanity.

It’s not a good look for a party anxious to divest itself of nastiness. Amber Rudd has been clear – her department needs to be less about the numbers and more about the people. This is a welcome if belated acknowledgement of the changes now required. A department that makes the trains run on time is great, provided your engine is still on the tracks.

While I’m at it, what the hell were the four non-executive directors of the Home Office board doing ahead of this well signalled derailment? What these people actually do for their cosy sinecures has been a recurring mystery throughout my long involvement in organisational reform. Macavity isn’t in it. Improvement will require her to have in place leaders – and advisers – who have the integrity, wit and confidence to say, for her own good as well as the country, “No, minister.”

Ian Acheson was the Home Office lead for community safety in South West England. He also served as a Special Constable for Devon and Cornwall constabulary.