John Reid acts. But if he’s in a hole, shouldn’t he stop digging?

Britain’s prisons are crammed full. John Reid announces plans for two new prisons to be built in the future. His actions illustrate a leadership dilemma. When the battle is reaching a critical stage, what should a leader do? Is it better to act, showing that you are not paralyzed into inaction? Or is action – any action – better than appearing impotent?

If you are in a hole, digging may be a good thing to do, providing you are tunneling in the right direction to get out. Or, to use another explanation, provided you are not heading for some wicked problem-solving.

To act or not to act, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the field to suffer the stings and arrows of ….sorry got a bit carried away there. That soliloquy was prompted by Dr Reid’s announcement that two prisons are to be built to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of overcrowding.

It follows the recent accounts suggesting that John Reid was struggling to demonstrate that he had any grip on an intractable problem. In earlier blogs, I suggested that the Home Secretary appeared ineffective because the situation was so difficult that any announcement lacked plausibility. Today’s announcement does little to encourage me to change my view on this. Rather, it indicates the nature of the dilemma for leaders in a tight corner, or deep in the brown muddy stuff. Planning permission for one of the prisons has still not been secured. The other is scheduled for completion later this year.

Background to the Dilemma

The story has been building up with news of the current overcrowding, and following Dr Reid’s recent efforts, encouraging Judges to avoid committing criminals to prison wherever alternatives were possible. According to the BBC,

the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said that the jail system was in “serious crisis” . Prisons had become “like a funnel where liquid is being poured into the top with no tap to release it at the bottom”.

.. Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, said the government had not grasped the basic issue that sentencing policy rather than lack of prisons was to blame for overcrowding .. “It’s not actually going to deal with the fundamental issue… that sentencing has become much tougher. It’s a bit like adding extra lanes to the M25 – they’ll get filled up very quickly.”

The overflow pipe (or release tap) is missing or blocked. Widening the motorways has increased the flow of traffic on them. Such metaphors help us grapple with abstractions, but they have their limitations. I will try to present the issue less colourfully at least for a while. The two cited commentators agree that the processes of supply and demand are out of balance. The mechanisms in the short term involve reducing the flow in, or increasing the flow out (cars, water into the top of the funnel, criminals leaving the system).

Dr Reid’s dilemmas

At some stage we will have to build into our considerations the possibility that Dr Reid is constrained to act in ways that promote his personal ambitions. This is nothing unique within leadership decision-making, as few leaders act ignoring personal implications of the decision. The leadership dilemma, in broader terms, is how should a leader deal with a crisis. To date, The Home Secretary has been constructing his narrative as someone acting decisively although the situation will require many and lengthy struggles. Although he has avoided mimicry of Churchillian rhetoric, he has been quick to remind us that we are not at the end of our problems, nor even at the end of the beginning.

One of the dilemmas is how to deflect criticism of leadership inaction, when there are no actions that appear to be effective in the short-term. Mr Reid opts for offering the promise of an easy-to-understand solution. The solution is derived from a presumption that the problem is overcrowding of prisons and the solution is to build more prisons.

The Road to Cairo and Wicked Problem-Solving

Some while ago I took part in a discussion of these kinds of dilemmas in a group of international business and political leaders. A view emerged that pressures to find simple solutions lead to wicked problem-solving. An Egyptian delegate told the story of a problem of a dangerous stretch of road to Cairo from the International airport. He explained that the favoured solution for some time was to arrange for first-aid services on stand-by at the most dangerous stretch of road. We voted it the best example of wicked problem-solving.

According to Anne Owers and other commentators, Mr Reid may be heading for wicked problem-solving. This tends to arise from a denial of the assumptions around the proposed strategy.

Leadership principles

What leadership lessons can we learn from all this? Under crisis, the temptation to act often goes hand in hand with an unwillingness to challenge assumptions. Returning to a metaphor, the escape from a problem involves digging a hole – but as Edward de Bono would ask ‘Are we digging in the right place?’ Should we be looking for ‘another place to dig’?

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3 Responses to John Reid acts. But if he’s in a hole, shouldn’t he stop digging?

  1. Tim says:

    Hmmmm
    How does this apply to Gordon?
    Since John Reid is (could be) one of the key challegers to Tony’s throne maybe Gordon is enjoying this situtation?

  2. Tudor says:

    Yes, it is a bit like a succession battle.

    Well, we don’t have an English word for Schadenfreude ..
    John Reid is a primary target for The Sun et al and has little control over the emerging stories. Meanwhile Gordon (for the moment) can be a bit more selective about his own media offerings.

    It will be interesting to watch Gordon, John, Tony, David, and Uncle Tom Campbell playing their various parts on stage over the coming months.

  3. John Reid says:

    Not only is Gordon Brown standing in my way for my leadership challenge, he is also blocking my path in my prison building programme by denying me the finance needed for 8,000 more prison places. It is arguable that Gordon Brown is posing a danger to the public under the CJA 2003 and I might have to find a place for him in an already overcrowded system…

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