Out of the mouths of knaves

Those in power don’t even need to tell lies – it’s amazing what you can do by combining the English language with a devious mind.

Statistics are easy enough to manipulate – just listen to the gas and electricity companies deliberately confusing us with talk of benchmarks and wholesale prices – and hospital waiting lists can be arranged to be as long or short as the managers like.

But there are more devious strategies.

Managers say: “the company/organisation has decided.” This distances the individuals from responsibility for the corporate decision.

Or: “this may have been the case but we have taken action already” – very useful when there are a few months between an investigation and its publication.

For example, last month the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust faced being placed into “special measures” after “serious problems” were detected during an inspection in which it was rated “inadequate”.

The Care Quality Commission report was in October 2014, enabling the Trust to use a classic defence – we have new management, we knew what the problems were anyway and we have already taken action – but of course we are not complacent.

CEO Michael Scott said: “We are under new management, the new team is bedding in, and there is no complacency on our part about the need to continue to deliver improvements. I would like to assure our patients, staff and our partners that this is a turning point for the Trust and we will continue to do everything possible to address all of the recommendations the CQC has made.”

So they say they have used the three months since the inspection to change management (therefore current leadership not responsible), make changes (thereby implying that the report is out of date as action has been taken) and insisting there is no complacency (so no need to take any further action against the Trust like putting it into special needs as is recommended).

As always, this approach may be legitimate or an attempt to dodge accountability.

Then look at Rotherham Council’s response to a succession of reports into allegations of child abuse. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotherham_child_sexual_exploitation_scandal)

The council’s consistent theme has been that its services have improved significantly and that its services were stronger than ever before and that any complaints would be taken seriously.

The only problem with this line is that every new inquiry seemed at the very least to show that progress was much less than claimed.

When any organisation says it has already responded to criticism it is worth checking back to see what they said in reaction to earlier criticism – the more evasive organisations will use the same defence from year to year.

Another defence is that “we are examining our procedures.” This is an ideal way of shifting the blame from individuals to processes. And you can’t attack a process.

When we hear this, we should always ask the obvious next question: “If procedures are so important, who is responsible for your procedures?”

Another example of taking responsibility away from individuals came with West Yorkshire police’s response to the investigation into Jimmy Savile’s activities.

It argued that “there was no evidence of misconduct but there was evidence of organisational failure, with a number of lessons to be learned which have now been rectified for the future.”

It too was trying to demonstrate that no individuals were to blame, action had been taken so no more had to be done.

That takes us on to the multi-agency defence, where a number of organisations, like the police, social service and doctors, have been involved in dealing with a case. Rather than all of them being accountable, invariably none of them is.

And when a high profile prosecution fails, there is invariably an elegant passing of the buck between the police and Crown Prosecution Service.

Sometimes senior figures like to present false choices. Remember the recent case when the police issued an arrest warrant for parents who took their sick child from a Southampton hospital and went to Spain. When it became clear that the warrant was wrongly issued, the police argued they would have been criticised whatever decision they had taken. Not true – their job was to make the correct call.

When they get really desperate, companies and civil servants say they have lost the files. You know you have first class bureaucrats when they know in advance which files to lose.

There are a couple of new trends. The first is “bogus integrity.” Instead of dodging and weaving the chief executive will appear to be open, say the complaints are legitimate and he or she is taking on the challenge of resolving the problems.

They say they are disappointed or words to that effect by the performance of their company. They don’t mean this of course but it gives the appearance of activity which is enough until the news agenda moves on.

Secondly, there is the exaggeration of popular dissent. There will appear to be a groundswell of public opinion as similar concerns are represented on phone ins or as petitions gather large numbers of signatories.

Sometimes this a genuine phenomenon – but one should be aware that there are now professional petition organisers and it is pretty easy for any union or trade body to ensure that its members sing the same tune when talking to the media.

And finally, I have noticed that when they face a problem, more and more organisations are blaming cuts in resources which they say lead to changes in working practices that put people’s lives at risk.

This has become very popular, particularly from the police, the fire service and the ambulance service. And their senior executives increasingly use the tactic.

For example, Surrey police face questions about how they handled the case of Lewis Daynes, the gamer, who killed Breck Bednar. The police did nothing even though information about Daynes’s earlier arrest on suspicion of rape and sexual harassment was in the system and Breck’s family had warned police about Daynes.

Likewise, when the IPPCC reported that complaints against the police have reached record levels, Alex Duncan of the Police Federation blamed government cuts. “The biggest rise is due to incivility and neglect of duty and while there is no excuse for this, there are far fewer officers with far more to do and, unfortunately, overworked and exhausted people are often less tolerant and understanding.

This approach is clever as it puts politicians on the defensive, shifts responsibility and is almost impossible to disprove.

Government cuts may well be responsible for problems. But when I hear the formula of cuts putting people’s lives at risk trotted out as an all-purpose response every time an organisation is blamed for something, I get very suspicious.


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