I do not generally take a great deal of interest in the news, but I have been trying to follow some of the reports about the Great Post Office Scandal. It is surely one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent history.

I am sure that the first reaction of many of us is to ask, “How on earth could it happen?” However, the reality of the matter is that such things are continually happening; just not on the same scale.

I encountered something similar recently when trying to sort out a safeguarding issue. In seeking to deal with a particular matter, I met with a refusal by those in authority to consider facts or to evaluate evidence. They also declined to talk to people involved. Apparently, there was a system in place. The system had been followed, a conclusion reached, and that was that. There could not be any possibility that the conclusion was wrong as, or so it seemed, the system was infallible. I was told that questioning the system displayed an unwillingness to strive for safeguarding excellence. I therefore concluded that safeguarding excellence was deemed to mean following the system without question.

Someone promoting such an attitude used to be called a ‘jobsworth’, which can be interpreted as ‘an official who upholds rules even at the expense of humanity or common sense’. In the earlier uses of ‘jobsworth’, it tended to be given to people who had a minor area of authority they rigorously enforced. Unfortunately, it seems to be increasingly true of people who have higher levels of authority as well. At times such as these I find myself revisiting “The Peter Principle”, an excellent book I have read several times.

Written over 50 years ago, it deals with the timeless principle that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Thus a good carpenter may be promoted to foreman. If he is an incompetent foreman he is not demoted but remains a foreman. If he is a good foreman he may be promoted to being a team leader. If he is an incompetent team leader he is not demoted but remains in that job. If he is a good team leader he may be considered for a management position…..and so it goes on. This means that many, possibly most people are functioning at one level above their competence. I find the book strangely reassuring that my observations of blatant incompetence in the higher levels of most organisations may have some foundation.

A person promoted beyond their competence will be tempted to take refuge in the systems that support their job. Instead of exercising their authority with wisdom and understanding, they move to the default position of appealing to a system. This eases the uncomfortable burden of responsibility they have accepted. Even an incompetent person can tick the right boxes if they know what is expected.

Of course, there are some glorious exceptions of people at the top who have outstanding ability, but very often, they seem to be those who have actually built the organisation they head up. In such situations, incompetent leadership may not fully emerge until a generation or two after they have gone.

Small children may need some systems in place and even those of us who are older may enjoy the luxury of a minor quirk or two. When eating my dinner, I tend to separate the component parts and eat them one at a time. I have a friend who mixes everything up together in one big heap. It is permissible to do such things, but generally inappropriate to impose them on others. The real problem comes when we make the system or method, the absolute judge that overrules any question or observation from another perspective.

What happened in the Post Office Scandal, was that the management refused to allow the possibility that their computer system could be wrong. Once they had taken that position, it became necessary to discount any evidence to the contrary. In his book “Making Decisions”, the statistician Dennis Lindley makes the point that, unless dealing with a logical or mathematical conclusion such as 2 + 2 = 4, any assertion of probability should allow for a possibility, however remote or unlikely, that the probability may be wrong.

Such a position invites questions and challenges, and questions and challenges, even though sometimes irksome and annoying, are generally helpful. They either expose a weakness, which can then be addressed and put right, or they clarify and strengthen the original position. Either way that is a win win situation. Just sticking to the system come what may, opens up the possibility of everyone losing.

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