Gun Crime Summit as PM redoubles efforts

February 22, 2007

MacBeth (witches)Tony Blair had become more involved in domestic issues this week. He has increasingly taken the lead from John Reid in attempts to deal with gun crime. He also found himself directly involved in a consultation process on road taxing policy which demonstrates the rising impact of information technology in the political process.

Prime Minister Blair has recently been attracting less media attention than has his heir apparent, Gordon Brown. This week he appears to have moved more centre stage again. While there has been some attention paid to military stories around troop withdrawals from Iraq, he seems to have taken renewed interest in domestic affairs. Today he takes change of a Government initiative following last week’s spate of murderous gun crimes. Home Secretary John Reid appears in a secondary role, as he joins with Mr Blair today in what has inevitably been dubbed a gun summit.

The meeting brings together community leaders, politicians, police, victim family-members to an open-agenda meeting at Downing Street. The format has been signaled as a kind of brainstorming.

The Genie out of the bottle

The Prime Minister has also less willingly found himself dealing with the consequences of an experiment in electronic democracy. People were invited to submit petitions to Downing Street. Over a million did, on the subject of a proposed road taxing policy, road in a demonstration of the power of the internet to mobilize public opinion. The innovative approach has certainly offered a lesson in the dynamics of e-consultation. The invitation was couched in terms that provided an opportunity for individuals to voice fears and opposition to change, rather than one for discussion, debate, collaborate problem-solving, and so on.

Seems like a good thing to me. It’s already focused Ministerial attention on the significance of preparing the public better for any change process. The talk now is of clarifying the misconceptions that have been used to mobilize opinion against the proposed policy. Learning is taking place… about the followers we deserve.

The Genie of democratic consultation is out of the bottle. One consequence has been described as Mr Blair sending emails to over a million people. Well OK, a single carefully crafted email will go out to the millions of email addresses connected with the petition. Will the email invite further dialog?

Blair’s last leadership acts?

Tony Blair appears as an increasingly besieged leader, confronting a host of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Another Shakespearian drama. But which one? Perhaps more Julius Caesar than Hamlet, with just the slightest of echoes of MacBeth and King Lear?


Gun crisis: Disentangling the political rhetoric

February 18, 2007

Three teenagers were shot to death this week in London. Politicians have pronounced on the violence and apparent pointlessness of their fate, an emerging gun-culture, alienation, and single parenting, laced with more than a hint of racialism against young black culture. To what extent can we disentangle the calculated and contrived from the compassionate?

Under these circumstances, Politicians find it all to easy to express a view, although fully aware of the minefield they are treading. Proposals will be labelled as primarily gesture politics. Grand visions will have to be backed-up with evidence of thought-through first-steps.

The case illustrates the dilemmas of political leadership. Politicians in power are in the position of being able to announce those specific new and promising first steps. Although this is the case for Tony Blair, anything radically new in what he suggests will be challenged by many in the media with the automatic reaction – why did it take his Government so long to get there?

David Cameron, in contrast, does not have to deal with that particular form of cyncial challenge to new ideas. He may even be able to offer novelty which as long as it has plausibility, will not be tested in the near future. He can justify why the ideas have not been previously policy for his party. He is still (just about) in a leadership honeymoon period (weighing up his overall treatment from the media). However, he still faces dilemmas. There is still the objection that he is operating from the luxury of not having to put his ideas to the test. And he has been careful not to commit his party too closely to specific policy statements, avoiding political hostages to fortune.

What did the leaders do, how did they do?

The early front-runner was David Cameron. His analysis was unusual for a traditional Conservative politician. However, Mr Cameron has been diligent in demonstrating that he is no traditional Tory. His reaction focussed on cultural deprivation as a deep-rooted and significant factor that needed to be addressed. The position would have been ‘nothing new there, then’ if offered by a traditional labour (or contemporary Liberal democratic politician).

John Reid as Home Secretary was at first more occupied with advancing the progress towards the provision of two new prisons. He turned his attention to the teenage deaths after David Cameron. His remedy, suitably tough was to reveal Government plans offering a review of gun laws and toughening them where necessary.

Tony Blair was curiously slower in response, but toward the weekend seemed to have reclaimed Dr Reid’s story for himself, in a TV interview, and a story that had been trailed to appear in The Sunday Times newspaper.

In ‘response’ to the yet-to-be-published statement, Sir Menzies Campbell broadly warned that there could be no quick-fix (sounding disdainful of rhetorical gestures on such a matter), but offering no ideas of long term alternative.

The political cross-dressing continues

Tony Blair has been consistent in his repositioning of New Labour on tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It is now commonplace to attribute the phrasing as a gift to Tony from Gordon when they were somewhat closer buddies. His approach is thus incremental (tougher laws for younger people). Dr Reid, in that respect is also close to this aspect of New Labour orthodoxy temperamentally. David Cameron is also consistent in repositioning New Torydom with considerable invasions of regions of social policies held firmly by Old Labour. Overall, both Blair and Cameron were consistent in their enthusiasm for political cross-dressing, shocking some of their previous supporters in the interests of change. Which leaves Sir Menzies Campbell with the unenviable task of pointing only to the truism that quickfixes do not work.

Winners and losers?

I’m not sure I can find any winners from the political offerings discussed. The proposals remain less than convincing that swift and effective changes are about to begin in the interests of vulnerable groups of young people in the inner cities of London, Mmanchester and elsewhere. The leaders we elected are delivering the leadership the rest of us deserve. Perhaps, as a message from Tim suggested in response to an earlier Blog, Gordon Brown might have some personal conslation in keeping out of the battle.


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

February 16, 2007

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’?


The Leaders we Deserve: Is John Reid really so incompetent?

January 28, 2007

The Home Secretary Dr John Reid has replaced Tony Blair as the prime target for negative political stories of someone who is egregiously bungling his duties. Is John Reid really so incompetent? Are we fortunate to be part of a democracy in which there can be such robust criticism of our leaders? Or are we seeing the emergence of a culture in which apparent increased freedom of expression blanks out access to more thoughtful analysis in a torrent of simplistic rhetoric?

In an earlier post it was suggested that John Reid’s political honeymoon had come to an end. Reflecting further has helped me become more aware of the mostly simplistic treatment within the flood of stories about John Reid and his personal competence.

This weekend, The Sun offered a cartoon-like representation of John Reid as the head of a Frankensteinian monster, which has a space where a brain should be. This follows an earlier representation in the same newspaper of an unpopular England football manager with a turnip for a head. No prizes for guessing what image was provided in more recent times, when the team had a Swedish manager.

The Sun’s campaigns can, arguably, be seen as in the spirit of the grotesque and hugely popular cartoons in the tradition of Gilray , or the social commentary of Hogarth

It’s the Sun wot does it, innit?

The Sun has its own justification for the content and style of the paper. Unlike politicians, it can claim to win the popular vote every morning of the week. Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco made much the same point recently when asked whether there would be a Tesco party for voters at the next election.

A case can be made that The Sun may influence the voting intentions of a considerable number of people at the general election, and that Rupert Murdock may have a further influence on the words and deeds of politicians. But should we buy their claim made after one election that it was ‘The Sun wot did it’ ?

The contrary view is that the overall effect of The Sun’s political messages on voters is rather weak. Possibly, although political leaders such as Tony Blair at very least will put some effort into wooing the Sun lest its opposition will cost them valuable votes at election time. I am inclined to believe that the popular press, including its largest circulation daily paper, has some political impact (perhaps not as much as they might wish or claim).

It’s the heavies wot don’t do it: tabloidification

Less obviously, the impact of the so-called free press (The popular press in Liberal Democracies) is in sustaining a cultural norm accepting the rhetoric of the banner headline and the cartoon images. We may reach differing conclusions over whether the popular press influences political opinions. It seems clear to me that there is little doubt over the way in which the daily diet reinforces cultural behaviours. There are reasoned arguments to be found – publications such as The Economist maintain an admirable level of analysis on a range of business and political issues. In general, however, what used to be called the heavies, or the broadsheets, (or even The Quality papers) have become closer in format (and arguably even in style and content) to what used to be called the tabloids. Tabloidification has won the day.

The Case against Charles Clarke

The Home Secretary took on the job after his predecessor, Charles Clarke, was encouraged to resign by Tony Blair. A succession of damaging stories had emerged about failures in the Home Office. The leader took the rap.

The strongest ‘quality’ case against Charles Clark might be expected to be found in a paper such as the staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph. Shortly before his resignation the paper identified ‘three strong reasons why he should go’. These were mismanagement of his department; failure to address the problem when it came to light; and refusal to accept responsibility for the problem.

The problem turns out to be that the Home Secretary has failed in his primary function of ‘maintaining public order by effective management of the systems under his control. Mr Clarke has allowed some hundreds of foreign nationals, sentenced to prison in this country, to go free without even a formal consideration of whether they should be deported’.

This all sounds reasonable at first reading, and suggests that there was a case to answer. Further reading leaves me unconvinced. I am reaching a conclusion that we have here an illustration of The Nimzowitch effect.

This, simply put, is a state of general anxiety about what might happen, so that the threat appears more important than its execution. (See the earlier post on chess cheating for more on the Nimzowitch effect).

The Case Against John Reid

John Reid bought himself a honeymoon period by announcing energetic measures to put things right, and was equally energetic in indicating what a shambles he had inherited which would require quite a lot of fixing.

The combination worked for a while, but another series of stories (‘scandals’) emerged from the Home Office. The specific details now blur in the memory, but were often concerned with poor record-keeping, and the potential implications of such bureaucratic failings – ‘disappearances’ of various kinds.

The BBC has followed the stories diligently. Individually they are in varying degrees illustrative of our old friend The Nimzsowich effect. From just this week, for example, the time-line of crises includes

27 January…The News of the World claims 322 convicted sex offenders are missing across the UK
26 January….Home Secretary John Reid denies telling judges to give softer sentences to ease prison overcrowding
26 January….England and Wales Youth Justice Board head Rod Morgan quits over youth prisons’ overcrowding
25 January….Risk of being a victim of crime in England and Wales rises for the first time since 1995, figures suggest
14 January Senior civil servant suspended over failure to update police records of Britons convicted abroad

I leave others to decide the evidence of actual rather than threatened harm to the public.

So is John Reid really incompetent?

We are sometimes reminded that you may be paranoid, but you could still be persecuted. I believe that the various stories will have within them evidence that there continue to be problems that need fixing at The Home Office. But on balance, I see the evidence as demonstrating powerlessness of a political leader grappling with ‘events’. Powerless yes. Incompetent? I remain open to a reasoned argument. The view would be the stronger if it offered specific actions that could have improved things. Until then I will hold to the view arguments (stripped of political purposes) are based on a peculiar belief that a leader ‘ought to be able’ to fix everything going wrong in connection with his organization or department. It is the belief that grants the charismatic leader the high road to power, and the low road to eventual defeat.


John Reid’s leadership faces the honeymoon test

January 21, 2007

The Home Office could be split into two departments under recommendations being put forward by Home Secretary John Reid. This will be the biggest challenge to his honeymoon period as Home Secretary. Is he getting the balance right beween ‘quick wins’ and sound transformational policies?

Plans announced this week suggest that John Reid will seek to split the Home Office. One new department will deal with security issues and the other with justice. The plans are to be put before the Cabinet for discussion.

Background

John Reid has displayed an energetic and pugnacious leadership stance in his brief time as Home Secretary. He took over in May 2006, after his predecessor Charles Clarke had departed following a story of foreign criminals being released from prison without being considered for deportation. Subsequently, serous errors on police computers have been revealed and inmates including terror suspects have ‘disappeared’ from custody, (precise numbers not known to the Prison Service).

Initially, he took the line that such weaknesses were inherited. In a memorable phrase, the Home Office was ‘not fit for purpose’. Since then, he has initiated extensive internal investigations. The ‘fitness for purpose’ of forty four most senior figures have been assessed, and two new chief executives have been brought in.

Quick wins?

In business mythology, leaders brought into a crisis go for quick visible results. Shortly after John Reid’s appointment, Nick Cohen blogged that

‘Reid told the senior civil servants that he wanted “quick wins” – his version of Tony Blair’s “eye-catching initiatives”. Quick wins followed by the truckload .. One senior civil servant told me that a part of the explanation for the shambles in his department was the “absolutely unrelenting pressure” for “top-grade people to spend a vast amount of their time pushing out initiatives”.

The BBC noted that ‘In a recent commons statement he addressed the most recent Home Office embarrassment over failure to maintain accurate records of people in the United Kingdom who had commited criminal offences abroad. He found it increasingly difficult to maintain the line that he was not responsible for such continued procedural weaknesses falling within the responsibilities of The Home Office’.

The merits of a quick-win strategy for leaders

There is an intuitive feeling that a new leader should go a quick win. First impressions are important. Particularly if a leader arrives to ‘sort out’ a crisis, the psychology of the quick win is appealing. The leader addresses anxieties, and shows that he or she is decisive. Ritala Houston illustrates the quick win in the context of IT projects (quite relevant in some respects to the current issue).

But the mythology is worth challenging. On one hand, decisiveness may sit uneasily with the claim that there are complex issues to be understood, so that a newcomer may be reacting before being aware of important aspects of the situation.

The Leadership Dilemma

There is a leadership dilemma here. How can a leader take advantage of the leadership honeymoon without starting new schemes based on inadequate knowledge and preparation? Answers please to this blog, or Dr John Reid.


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