No team or group is without members who underperform, either from time to time, or consistently. Football fans, and observers of successive Cabinets and Shadow Cabinets, will recognise this truth. They will also attest to the fact that, when blame infects a team, collective morale, resilience and effectiveness decline rapidly. The blamers are distracted from keeping their own performance up, and the underperformers, weighed down by blame and scapegoating, often become even less competent. Instead of sharing collective responsibility, and committing to collaborating in improving performance, the team fractures, and becomes even more ineffective. Supporters, whether sports fans or citizens, lose confidence, and their backing, always important to a team’s spirit and performance, degenerates into mistrust, disappointment and anger.
It is depressing to read in today’s press that blame is now infecting those leading the national response to Covid-19. Anonymous politicians are briefing against and passing the blame to, senior civil servants, and their departments, for shortcomings in decision making, and in the speed and efficiency of response. Whether or not there have been such problems – on the part of politicians or civil servants – this is dangerous at such a time. The primary challenge is to work together, to identify and correct errors, of policy, action or timing, and to collaborate in turning plans into the best possible response to the problems we face. As in sport, the leadership should keep strategy under constant review, be ready to adapt it as they learn, and engage the whole team positively in turning that strategy into action and performance.
Just as a football manager, when their team hits a rough patch, will take responsibility and re-consider the strategy that has underpinned their team’s approach, so should political leadership. What follows is my take on this task: not blame, but a critique of strategy and an appeal for positive, collaborative teamwork.
For many years, the strategy has been to slim down the civil service, in keeping with the wider zeitgeist. There has been a constant drive to turn it into a setter, or deliverer, of targets, an agent of bureaucratisation and regulation, rather than a leadership organisation. ‘Austerity’, along with ambivalence about meeting social and health needs, has infected the strategy and the effectiveness of all parts of the system. This has, for some time, made it difficult for the true numbers of people in need to get what they require, when they require it. Starving the system of the resources required to deliver what is actually needed (whatever the rhetoric about protecting the NHS) with a casual demand for ’more for less’, has become chronic. Competitive contracting and outsourcing, whatever economies they have generated, have created a complex, fragmented system that is hard to organise as a well-functioning whole. The ‘delegation’ of responsibility to local health and local government organisations has not been a bad idea in some respects. However, it has meant that it has been easy for the ‘centre’ to shift the blame to them for any shortcomings; to inspect, judge and demand, rather than to lead, support and help. There has been a consequent loss of capacity for leadership of the system as a whole. What is required in the face of the current crisis, though, is not blame, but a mature recognition that this strategy is not fit for purpose, and to move on urgently to correct it.
Thus, if benefits agencies are unable to meet demand, if NHS logistics fail to deliver equipment needed in a timely way, or if local authorities are unable to organise social care to meet current demands, it is worth keeping two things in mind. First, an honest recognition of how the underlying strategy has generated chronic shortcomings, in whole system leadership capability, in problem solving capacity, in responsiveness, and in resources. Second, a mature understanding that years of this culture of bureaucracy, rationalisation and protecting reputation have conditioned the mindsets of all involved – in politics, the civil service and in services. A shift in strategy and culture is urgently required, not the scapegoating of particular individuals and groups. This means being open to needs and problems, being flexible, being ready to respond rapidly with action and leadership, collaboration and mutual support. Everybody involved needs, not blame, but the clear expectation, encouragement, permission and help to take part in such a shift.
Blame is all too human, a comfort to anxious and angry people, a way of simplifying frighteningly complex problems. It must, though, be recognised as the primitive, destructive, and often deeply unfair, behaviour it is. There will inevitably be many shortcomings in how Covid-19 is responded to. This will be partly because of the pre-existing problems in the system and culture, partly because of the profoundly uncertain and complex challenge that it is. And yes, some people will have made the wrong call, or acted too slowly. Learning and improvement, as things progress, and after the crisis is over, will be vital. But blame, especially while we are trying to organise ourselves to meet an unprecedented crisis, is a toxic and irresponsible way of dealing with the problems we face. Politicians and civil servants need to work positively and constructively together: their leaders need to make this absolutely clear, and act accordingly.