Opinion

How to stop scandals happening

by | 20 May 2024

You can't stop errors, but errors aren't scandals. It's when an error is followed up by a prolonged cover-up that real scandals are born - and that you can stop.

If the infected blood scandal feels to you awfully like the Post Office Horizon scandal or the Grenfell scandal, you’re not wrong. But it should also feel like dozens of other scandals too, from the Edinburgh Trams mess to that school they ‘accidentally’ built half the size it was meant to be to the El Jamel patient-butchering scandal at NHS Tayside. They all have incredibly similar features and causes.

So what are the features of all of these scandals, why do they keep happening and what can we do to stop them, or at least to slow them down and limit their consequences?

Let’s start with features and causes. Obviously they all start with one single factor – an error is made. But an error isn’t a scandal, it’s an error. Infecting patients is an error no-one wanted to make. Implementing a payroll management system which fails and puts innocent people in jail was no-one’s intentions when they woke up in the morning.

I could write you a book on why these mistakes get made in government, but that isn’t what turns it into a scandal. It is always the obfuscation, cover-up and refusal to allow anyone to be held to account that does the real damage. In any one of these examples I give above, had the first warning that something was going wrong been taken seriously and treated honestly, the vast majority of those harmed would not have been harmed.

But that’s not how bureaucracies work, because that’s not really how the human brain works. We will delay bad news if we can delay bad news because in the short term it is always in our interests to delay bad news, and humans usually act in their short term best interest. Bureaucracies are typified by humanity’s least helpful instincts concentrated and amplified.

When these scandals begin they don’t generally look like a conspiracy from the inside. Everyone persuades themselves that they can do the right thing without confessing the error, so they try to do as little as possible, or they find ways to convince themselves that they are not at fault and no error was made.

That’s not how they end up. You can persuade yourself at the time that there is no case to answer or your limited actions without admission of guilt are sufficient, but they don’t look like that with hindsight. They look awful, so now you have little option but to cover-up. You’ve managed to turn an honest error into a career-threatening cover up, often without intending to.

This is the final feature in the genesis of a scandal and it is the most damaging of all. Once you end up in cover-up mode your best friend is time. Delay, delay, delay – pretend you can’t find documents, or go through the courts for months to challenge requirements to publish you know you’re going to lose, set up laborious internal review processes. Just don’t let things come to a conclusion.

This is often when the real harm is done to victims. This is the time they spend dealing with a horrible medical complaint no-one will admit, or the time they spend in jail for a crime they didn’t commit, or the point at which there is still time to build the right size of school.

We all do good things, we all do bad things – it’s the systemic structures in which we live which decide what balance of either we individually achieve

There are other consistent features; whistleblowers who identified the problem early are victimised, everyone blames everyone else (the Grenfell inquiry is a farce of blame-passing), teams close ranks not because they like what was done but because there is an unspoken realisation that this might be you one day.

But in the end, all of this is for a single purpose; to make sure than none of the bureaucrats, private interests or political masters every pay a price personally and, ideally, not collectively either. If you can delay long enough, you can turn the whole thing into a historical curiosity, the only purpose of which is ‘to learn lessons for the future’.

You can’t eliminate errors in government, but you can do other things to minimise the impact of errors and prevent cover-ups and scandals. There are three key tricks.

Trick one is to ensure that the imperative of governors (those who oversee bureaucracies) are not the same imperatives of those they govern. If it is in the interests of one group to cover up, it has to be in the interests of the other to reveal it. That’s the whole point of governance, and it’s why quangos and politically-appointed boards of governors are so inimicable to good government.

Instead, have someone other than government or the bureaucracy being governed voting for or otherwise selecting governors – always elect boards. Trick two is ‘glass walls’. Assume that in the public realm, everyone has a right to see everything unless there is a very, very good reason. Transparency shouldn’t be something you have to ask for with a Freedom of Information request, it should be built in.

But with really big scandals, even independent governance and full transparency aren’t always enough, because the power to do anything about it lies with government, and government often has an ultimate incentive to not do something (embarrassment, cost, legal jeopardy and so on).

So where are the good guys who will always do the right thing and always make the right decisions? That’s the point; asking that question is a mistake in itself. This whole stupid goodies and baddies, white hats and black hats, heroes and villains model of the world is deeply unhelpful.

We all do good things, we all do bad things. It’s the systemic structures in which we live which decide what balance of either we individually achieve. For example, are employers baddies and trade unions goodies? The question is silly.

There are plenty good employers and as we’ve seen this week, trade unions have no difficulty in taking dreadful positions on public policy if it suits the interests of their members. Trade unions will shill for arms dealers and the world’s most evil corporations (like the oil corporations) if it is in the financial interests of their members.

But – and this is the key – generally there are more workers than employers so the self-interest of trade unions is much more likely to be aligned with the public interest most of the time. Yet even that isn’t the real importance of trade unions. It is that employers are massively overrepresented in politics and workers massively underrepresented.

If a second chamber of a Scottish Parliament was made up of politicians elected from the same parties but via a different electoral cycle and the victims of the blood scandal or the Post Office scandal had approached it, would they have got a different outcome?

Trade unions aren’t essential because they’re always good but because they represent an under-represented interest sector – workers. They balance the power of employers and the power of capital. Trade unions are utterly essential for reasons of pluralism. We get better outcomes for all with strong trade unions than if only one side of the equation is represented.

It’s about pluralism and balance. Independent governance balances the incentives of bureaucracies to shut down debate. Transparency balances the incentive of bureaucracies to hide important but inconvenient information. So what balances that third aspect, the power of ultimate political interests to make problems go away without admitting them?

You must balance the power of political interference with something. That something can’t have the same interests as the politics it is balancing, so it must have alternative legitimacy. The media is important but insufficient. This is why I am such a massive advocate for a Citizens’ Assembly as a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

Ask yourself this simple question; if a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament was made up of politicians elected from the same parties but via a different electoral cycle and the victims of the blood scandal or the Post Office scandal had approached it, would they have got a different outcome?

But let’s say we had a chamber with 100 members of the public selected at random with the power to hold inquiries, propose remedies and demand action from the legislative chamber, what would have happened? I can promise you it would have been completely different.

Someone could have written to the relevant a committee of that chamber and said ‘thousands of people are being lied to having been poisoned with bad blood and the authorities are lying about it and trying not to take responsibility – help!’. Or ‘their accounting software failed and I’ve been sent to jail unfairly’.

That committee would hold an investigation, have the power to compel witnesses, drawn a conclusion and demand action from government. Government would be all but unable not to comply. The blood scandal would have been sorted 30 years ago and no Post Office staff would have been unfairly jailed.

If you want scandals to stop happening at the rate that they’re happening, these three simple steps are easily your best bet. Accountability. Transparency. Balance.

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