Monthly Archive for November, 2007

Resigning is not taking responsibility

Perhaps it’s because I’m an engineer. Whatever the reason I’ve never quite understood the popular media mantra that somehow equates "resignation" after a cock up as "taking responsibility". To my mind taking responsibility for a problem is to deal with it, not walk away.

I was somewhat incensed, therefore, to read Sue Cameron write in yesterday’s FT about how the Chairman of HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) should be lauded for resigning over the child benefit data loss scandal and is something of an example over Sir Iain Blair, London’s beleaguered police chief who stubbornly refuses to resign over the killing of Jean-Charles de Menezes. Personally my inclination is always towards the determined fighter over the quitter.

I’m not completely against politicians and senior civil servants resigning. Estelle Morris famously felt she wasn’t capable of doing her job as Education Secretary. Fair enough: get out of the way. But resigning/sacking after a scandal should really be if the person was directly responsible, culpable or negligent in some way.

For example, if your trusted engineers tell you that the space shuttle will explode because the O-rings won’t function properly after freezing over night and you don’t listen to them you deserve to be fired. If your security controller comes to you and alerts you to a shortcoming in your security procedures and you twiddle your thumbs then again it’s your fault.

If a junior member of staff ignored procedures and, in doing so, caused a cock-up I’m not really sure that it’s the fault of anyone senior. Now, you could say the procedures were lacking. Maybe. In the real world you can’t procedurise the minutiae of every little sub-task an individual does: the civil service is already suffocated by too much bureaucracy. The weak point in any security system is always going to be human error. You can manage that risk (security vetting, training, monitoring, etc.) but you can never fully eliminate it. Even with the best will in the world there will be cock ups. The goal can only be to minimise the chances of them happening and to minimise the impact when they do happen. If you have put in place all reasonable procedures based on what you know at the time, then I don’t think much more can be asked of you.

Would it be too narrow-minded of me to write that journalists and politicians, often with no experience of doing a "real job", no experience of management and a very academic education with no practical grounding call so easily for resignations simply because they don’t know what it is to take responsibility?

This isn’t just a public sector cancer either. I remember very vividly a discussion on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago about how British universities are trying to emulate the entrepreneurial success of Silicon Valley. An American commentator’s views were incisive. He argued that the major difference was one of culture: in California if you screw up, that’s okay, people realise you will learn from your mistakes and do a better job next time round; in Britain if you screw up you are derided for even trying in the first place.

Update:  Since I originally drafted this article it appears some correspondence has been published showing that, despite what the Chancellor reported to Parliament, senior HMRC managers were involved in authorising the insecure data transfer. There’s probably much more to this yet to come out. Nevertheless my general point about responsibility and resignation stands.

Pre-charge detention: a simple question

In the UK police can detain, without charge a suspect in a terrorism case for 28 days. In the USA the police can only do so for 7 days. Why do we need four times the pre-charge detention period when no-one will sensibly argue that we have four times the threat of terrorism?

I’ve put the question to Opposition spokesmen as well as a Home Office minister and never got an answer. With all the other new law enforcement powers proposed (post-charge questioning, admissibility of intercept evidence in court and, most importantly, extra resources so the police can investigate quickly) shouldn’t we be thinking about reducing detention without trial back down to 7 days, not increasing it further?

Blogmuting on South West Trains

It was very noticeable that when White Llama stopped being a long distance commuter her blog activity seemed to vaporize with it. Now that I have a significant amount of daily ‘train time’ to kill on my laptop I suspect I’ll fill the vacuum.

Today was actually a very weird day. I was heavily delayed in the morning because someone had inconveniently thrown themselves under a train just before rush hour. Inevitably the delays caused a bit of frustration but what was much more infuriating was South West Trains’ complete inability to give us accurate information. I was two hours late to work. I’d have only been an hour late if they had advised us to simply take the slow trains (which take a different route and were unaffected). Instead all they did was put up "delayed" on the platform indicators. Had I not jumped on a slow train, out of instinct, I could have been waiting until lunchtime.

At work my attention was distracted by a dark object rapidly gliding towards my window. There was a loud thud and then it dropped to the ground. Judging by the oily residue (and feather) stuck to the window it appears it was a kamikaze pigeon.

This evening I got to Guildford station to find that there was apparently a tree under the line and so significant delays going back to Waterloo. These were accentuated by some train crew being missing (and in the case of one announcement, an actual train having gone AWOL!). Again, South West Trains proved unable to provide good information. After being told there would be a wait of up to an hour we all suddenly had to rush to another platform for the unexpected arrival of a non-stop train to London.

Much work needs to be done on Britain’s railways to achieve the modal shift required to both beat congestion and climate change. Funnily enough I was watching recorded coverage of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee on BBC Parliament last night, but I shall write my thoughts up another time.