Holding to account

Regular readers will know of my loathing of politicians’ slang – all that vision, drawing lines, talking tough, hard working families and so forth.  My current bête noire is ‘holding to account’.  You may ask why – shouldn’t we expect those who have important tasks to do for us be asked to justify their performance ? There follows a rant which I reserve the right not to defend when in a more sober and balanced mood.

This is just bias on my part, I guess. I spent my working life actually doing stuff – teaching classes, allocating budgets, appointing and disappointing staff, negotiating with trade unions, writing timetables, reassuring parents and employers, and so on and so forth.  I loved my work, and enjoyed the people I worked with and the students I met.  Towards the end of my career, the main negative was the mass of second-guessing visitors and inspectors that we had.  I think I counted six sets of auditors on one occasion – from the LEA, the TEC, the EU, the Funding Council and our own internal and external auditor.  The harassed Finance Director claimed – rightly – he spent more time explaining to other people how he was doing his job than actually doing his job.  And then there was the valkyrie ride of the inspectorates, which changed form every now and again but changed rules more often.  One year a college was expected to prioritise community links. The next year, it was judged on academic results and to hell with the community.  The next year it was governance – just make sure all boxes were ticked.  Then it was links with employers – to hell with governors.  Then it was safeguarding – don’t let an employer in unless s/he has child protection clearance.  No surprise that schools in the top category one year are in special measures three years later.

Bernard Shaw famously said that those who do, can, and those that can’t, teach.  Not true, actually – teaching is a difficult job.  But it may be true that those who can’t teach join the inspectorate: I certainly met some who would have been crushed by the responsibilities carried by the managers they judged.  A colleague who ran a construction college that was criticised for out-dated equipment let the inspector know, in a kind but forceful way, the (miniscule) size of his capital budget: collapse of stout party, one hopes.  And outside education, too, there are inspectorates who couldn’t run a hospital or protect a vulnerable child, but surely can make life a misery for those who can.  And they place pressure on those in the job to get a good grade in the next inspection, so that every lesson, every ward procedure, every police policy is aimed not to improve the service but to get a big tick at the next inspection, audit or assessment.

One loathsome part of the ‘hold to account’ mafia are MPs.  It’s good fun, I am sure, to second-guess those doing the work.  But when asked “er, who exactly holds you to account for the endless overspends and policy mistakes ?”, the answer comes “I am responsible to the electorate”.  This is pretty fair tosh.  Most MPs – more than two-thirds – are in seats that do not ever change hands.  In the right seat, a monkey would get elected if he had the right party label, and often does.  And elections take place every five years, and do not comment on the subtlety of policy choices.  Which bugger actually voted for PFI ?  Who approved the opening of that stupid academy ?  Who cut police numbers and froze nurses’ pay ?  Would MPs regard a system of quality assurance that took place every five years, had no criteria of excellence and ignored two-thirds of relevant employees, as “fit for purpose” in any other area of work ?

“Fit for purpose”.  Oh, lord, another cliché.

What is to be done ?  Firstly, there should be an annual assessment of MP work – visits undertaken, sessions attended, policy discussions followed up.  And then, to enrich the quality of experience they bring to the Commons, MPs, like American Presidents, might be limited in the terms that they can serve.  Thirdly, they should have a lively programme of work experience, every year, wiping bums in dementia wards, managing refuse collection, balancing a library budget, visiting a vulnerable child, cooking at an army base, patrolling a late-night motorway, serving in a late-night A&E ward.  There is a clear need for inspectors and auditors to spend a maximum of, say, five years in their job before returning to the reality of front-line delivery.

When they’ve all done all that, they can start thinking about systems for holding people to account – people doing real jobs on inadequate budgets under the cosh of corporate wise-acres.  Oh, and have you noticed how rarely those at the top of the private sector, raising prices and reducing services, are ‘held to account’.

p.s. This is not revenge from a bitter man.   The inspector who observed me as a young teacher asked if I wanted to join the inspectorate.  When a Principal, I never failed an inspection, and in fact was awarded a Grade 1 for management after my last visitation.  But I got out because I know they would get me in the end.  Like politicians (and football managers), a public service management career usually ends in failure.

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