Monday, 15 August 2011

The Eton Redemption

(The following excerpts are taken from the autobiography of Gideon ‘Blue’ Bluetit, a close friend of Dave Conman through all the years they spent together in Eton Penitentiary. The full version can be ordered from

“I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, even though he had been convicted of ruining millions of lives, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from everything. It would be fair to say, I liked Dave from the start.

Like everyone else here Dave told me, he was innocent. He was a man born to soar above culpability. The prosecutor had pinned riots, crumbling public services, rising poverty, deteriorating healthcare, and bucket loads of other things on him, just because he failed to control others he was supposed to be responsible for. Surely it’s everyone’s fault but his. For a long time, I wept thinking about it.

Eventually Dave settled in. He hugged a hoodie and then kicked his head in when the goings got tough. You could argue he'd done it to curry favour with those guarding the right wing of our prison. Or, maybe make a few friends among us Cons. Me, I think he did it just to feel smug again.

One day Dave came up with the idea of giving tax advice to the rich guards watching our every move. He told them to evade paying their tax, so the government would have to concede the tax on them was not worth collecting, and remove the tax altogether. They loved him for that. Well, I always said he was good. Shit, he’s a Rembrandt.

Through it all, he never doubted he would soon be back in the saddle. I told him hope was a dangerous thing; it could drive a man insane. After all, he had been found guilty of fulfilling his own prophecy in breaking the society he inherited. But with a smile he asked me if I knew what the Mexicans said about the Pacific. Apparently, they said it had no memory. And that's what it was like in Dave’s head: a warm place with no memory.

In time his parole with the electorate came up. They asked him if he was sorry for what he did. He looked deep into their eyes and said, ‘there's not a day goes by I don't feel regret, for not being tougher on poor people, disabled people scrounging benefits, young thugs, their parents, the police, and most of all, bloody Boris. I look back on the way I was then: a naïve, caring leader who committed the terrible crime of allowing some public services to survive. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That fool's long gone and this is all that's left. I got to live with that. Remorse? It's just a bullshit word. So you go and cast your vote, and stop wasting my time.’

That’s how Dave got another chance, this remarkable man who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. I have no idea to this day what his politics was about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think it was about something so beautiful, like stripping the poor of their dignity, it makes your heart sing because of it. Sometimes it makes me sad, though, Dave being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”

[Ed: Apologies to those not familiar with the lines from The Shawshank Redemption. Some readers thought the language was not what they would normally expect. But I can't take the credit for the genius that belongs to Darabont and King.]

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Know-Nothing Executives

Who are the KNEs? The Know-Nothing Executives are a special breed who rise to the top of organisations by knowing nothing except the rewards from serving every whim and command of their masters.

They are not uncommon in the private sector. They carry out orders to increase consumption and sales while blanking out what risks those activities might involve, the harm they might cause, or whether alternatives should be considered. Polluting the environment, gambling away others' savings, hacking into the phones of crime victims, fueling addictions, they know and care nothing about them, so long as they can secure what they think is being sought by the top of the pyramid.

Unfortunately since the Thatcherite delusional worship of the private sector took hold, the KNEs have also been on the rise in the public sector. Public servants who have in-depth experience and understanding of particular policy areas, are deemed to know too much and potentially obstructive to what politicians desire. Thus KNEs with no background in healthcare are hired to run our health services; 'leaders' with no experience of working in a police force are sought for parachuting into key policing roles; and the development of public policies is entrusted to KNEs who have not even the most basic grasp of the policies they are in charge of.

This is damaging in at least four ways. First, KNEs don't question their political masters in what they seek to achieve overall. They carry out every requested initiative without pointing out how they might contradict each other or undermine broader objectives, resulting in short-term gratification but long-term incoherence.

Secondly, they shy away from issues of feasibility. Consequently, policies which cannot be delivered without an adequate budget, or won't work without other key components being in place, are left unexposed; and end up consuming precious resources while producing nothing of substance.

Thirdly, KNEs tend to ignore the prospect of negative side-effects. They see their career as solely dependent on the frequency of saying yes. So on their watch, orders are driven forward even if such initiatives risk costing more than any purported savings, being successfully challenged in the courts, damaging private or voluntary sector partners, or worst of all, ruining the lives of the most vulnerable people.

Last but not least, KNEs prefer their masters' approval to evidence-based analysis of policy efficacy. Analyses, surveys, evaluations, which could show up the feebleness of any proposed idea are to be brushed aside, if not scrapped outright. Instead reports are to be produced to validate claims of success. By the time the utter futility of the implemented policies has become obvious for all to see, the KNEs in question would have moved on to a higher rung of the corporate ladder.

Of course the more enlightened politicians are well aware that such obsequiousness would not actually serve them well. I've worked with many different Secretaries of State and Ministers in my time, and what they want is well informed advice, consistently given to them to help them achieve better outcomes for the country. But if politicians want to have this kind of support in the future, they need to make their expectations clear. Shun the KNEs, and place your trust in the public servants with real expertise and integrity to serve the public good.