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.

No comments: