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An alternative to the Dead Hand of Centralisation

As more and more evidence of Maff/Defra mishandling of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak emerges, in such as Alan Richardson's paper and the evidence submitted to the Devon enquiry, the inferences to be drawn by us, the residents of the UK, are dire. Christopher Booker in his Notebook today [14/10/01], blames the EU. I suggest that the real problems are more disturbing; and closer to home. The shortcomings in management and quality of staffing which Alan Richardson describes cannot be blamed on the EU: and Christopher Booker points out that the worst aspect of the handling of the outbreak, like "slaughter on suspicion" and "the contiguous cull" were Maff's own additions to the EU rules. Earlier, it was not the EU that imposed the system of inspection charges on small abattoirs that drove them out of business in their thousands: it was our own government, Maff, our Civil Service. It is not the EU which makes it illegal for us to sell our wares in pounds and ounces: French and Spanish traders, for example, don't have to obey this daft law: it is something specially imposed on us by our own government.

Robert Heller, author of 'Roads to Success',

writing in the Observer on 12th August, points out that while "The truly modern business decentralises wherever and as far as possible. Blair Ltd proudly does the reverse." He points out that this control freakery is not the exclusive preserve of New Labour: Mrs Thatcher was a notable proponent too. Our government "has only to see a 'problem' to monopolise the solution. Whether it's foot and mouth, teaching standards, the Underground, hospital waiting lists, railway safety or business competition, the Man in Whitehall knows not only better, but best. When the centralised answer (as usual) fails, another monster promptly rears its ugly head." This is despite the advice of experienced managers, like General Gus Pagonis [the 'maestro of Gulf War logistics'], who maintained that "wholesale reorganisation is a company's worst course": and Nestli's CEO, Peter Brabeck, who "has likewise attacked 'big disruptive change programmes' and their underestimated 'traumatic impact'." Robert Heller points out that "every reorganisation upsets relationships, threatens morale, delivers unexpected and usually deleterious side-effects, diverts management time from external issues (like pleasing customers), and often only paves the way for the next pointless upheaval."

This wisdom can be applied to the disastrous management arrangements for tackling foot and mouth disease, or the appalling scenarios for the re-organising of British Farming. [Say again: 'big disruptive change programmes' and their underestimated 'traumatic impact': and "every reorganisation upsets relationships, threatens morale, delivers unexpected and usually deleterious side-effects, diverts management time from external issues (like pleasing customers), and often only paves the way for the next pointless upheaval."]

Do we really want to live in a countryside controlled by employees of subsidiaries of Pharmacia [like Monsanto] and the Tyson Foods Corporation, on the one hand and of the National Trust on the other? A mixture of food factory wastelands and untended wilds with Rural Theme Parks? Where we can only buy processed foods imported by Multinational traders from the Disadvantaged in the 'Third World'?

Robert Heller poses the alternative to the dead hand of centralisation, the model recommended by competent management: "The decentralised model means to end this nonsense once and for all. You split organisations into discrete units, as near to the front-line and the customers as possible: place the units under autonomous managements with authority to deliver on their promises, then sit back and supervise. If failure makes intervention inevitable, you intervene - not to change the system, but the management."

In our Countryside, what better "autonomous managements with authority to deliver on their promises" or "discrete units, as near to the front-line and the customers as possible" could there be than our farmers, with their small family farms?

Those of us who are farmers must work together to defend ourselves and make sure that we get our message across to the part of the population who live in our towns and suburbs. Selling produce direct through Farmers' Markets provides an ideal practical opportunity to do this [it also makes economic sense]. Although we have been fighting to maintain the 'biosecurity' of our farm and trying to discourage the walkers we usually welcome: David Handley of 'Farmers For Action' reminds us that he has a footpath which runs right through his farmyard. He ensures that any walkers he encounters there leave the farm with full knowledge of the plight of the British Family Farm.

We must wake up and resist the true source of the threat to our way of life: our own governments, with their misguided preoccupation with centralisation and control. We must make it absolutely clear that we object to the loss of our own power to decide - and do whatever we can to frustrate the centralising tendency. If we fail to grasp this nettle, it will matter little whether we are inside or outside the EU. We will still be in the hands of our own homegrown dictorship!

Lawrence

Why the centre cannot hold...

Things fall apart under the meddling of Blair Ltd's experts, says Robert Heller

Sunday August 12, 2001
The Observer

The grandest enterprise in the land (Blair Ltd), likes to ape its private-sector counterparts - save for one overwhelming exception. The truly modern business decentralises wherever and as far as possible. Blair Ltd proudly does the reverse. It has only to see a 'problem' to monopolise the solution. Whether it's foot and mouth, teaching standards, the Underground, hospital waiting lists, railway safety or business competition, the Man in Whitehall knows not only better, but best. When the centralised answer (as usual) fails, another monster promptly rears its ugly head.

This long-standing, self-defeating British tradition has been intensified under the Thatcher-Major-Blair axis - very curiously, given the simultaneous strategy of devolution. Power has been devolved, not only partially to Scotland and Wales, but near totally to privatised industries,such as BT and BA. Yet the decentralisation is highly conditional. If the private milk curdles (see Railtrack), the public sector rushes to the rescue - or the reorganisation.

The maestro of Gulf War logistics, General Gus Pagonis, vigorously opined that wholesale reorganisation is a company's worst course. Nestli's CEO, Peter Brabeck, has likewise attacked 'big disruptive change programmes' and their underestimated 'traumatic impact'. Every reorganisation upsets relationships, threatens morale, delivers unexpected and usually deleterious side-effects, diverts management time from external issues (like pleasing customers), and often only paves the way for the next pointless upheaval.

The decentralised model means to end this nonsense once and for all. You split organisations into discrete units, as near to the front-line and the customers as possible: place the units under autonomous managements with authority to deliver on their promises, then sit back and supervise. If failure makes intervention inevitable, you intervene - not to change the system, but the management.

The system is honoured as much in the breach as the observance. Top British managers are prone to interfere with sub-units, notably by imposing central strategies that vitiate efforts by the sub-managers to lead their charges to success. All the same, few (if any) of the private sector managers admired by Blair would dream of advocating centralisation because it cannot possibly work.

Running a 700-bed hospital, for example, is a most daunting managerial task, which involves the daily coordination of thousands of people. Most are not under management's control - above all the patients. The latter can only relate to the system at the most local level: one-to-one. Any approach other than local autonomy of discrete units has no chance of working. In fact, no matter what centralisers propose, the localisers inevitably dispose, as the saga of the waiting lists reveals.

Impose central targets on people, and they will adapt their behaviour, not to improve their performance, but to meet your targets. The classic management guru, W. Edwards Deming, taught managers to concentrate instead on improving the system from which 85 per cent of underperformace stems. Blair Ltd, however, specialises in making bad systems even worse, for example, by piling supervisory layer on layer (viz. the hapless and hopeless Railtrack and its overlords). The Tube formula, with its absurd division between track and transport, is another recipe for shambles.

The reorganisations of the NHS and education have followed the same counterproductive pattern. What else would you expect? These schemes are devised, usually at ministerial behest, by civil servants who know little about management, and probably think less, and who are not expert in the practice of medicine, education, justice or transport. The inevitably misshapen plans are sold to politicians even less qualified than the Whitehall wizards.

A prime example of the resulting idiocy (among all too many): medicine suffers from severe shortage of doctors, who take much time and money to train, so some sublime economiser actually and uniquely rationed the number of undergraduate medical places. This guaranteed that the shortage would last for years. Maybe it was the same clever fool who invented the 'internal market' in healthcare, a 'product' for which demand is insatiable, which is not price sensitive, and which is inherently uneconomic.

One horrible side-effect was to convert GPs from pill-pushers to pen-pushers, for which most have neither time nor talent. At a time when Blair Ltd's private heroes are striving to reduce or eliminate bureaucracy, public-sector red tape is proliferating like duckweed. Worse, administrators are being asked to become managers when they lack the authority or leadership qualities required. Worse still, vast reservoirs of knowledge about public sector operations exist among those who work therein -- but their opinions are sedulously ignored.

The prevailing attitude is neatly illustrated by 'the new unified [centralised] Child and Family Court Advisory Support Service'. CAFCASS is determined to convert self-employed child guardians, willy-nilly, into full-time employees. The official defending this policy unwittingly (or witlessly) put his finger on the problem. 'You can't', he told a BBC interviewer, 'have autonomous individuals in a public service.' Delivery of excellent service, which the private sector itself finds so difficult to deliver, depends on the autonomous actions of motivated and well-organised individuals operating in decentralised systems.

Such systems remove an impossible load from centralised management. Monopolising too many and too com plex tasks is alone enough to explain the gross cumulative failures of Blair Ltd.

Private-sector management is having to learn two huge lessons. For success, not only must people involved in implementing a strategy fully support what only they can execute; but the greater their involvement in strategic and operational planning, the bet ter those plans. Avid, knee-jerk centralisers create rods for both their own backs and those of the overmanaged suppliers and dissatisfied recipients at the sharp end. In modern management, that end is the beginning of all wisdom.

Robert Heller is the author of Roads to Success (Dorling Kindersley, #25)

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