Why is everything going wrong? 5: Competence

by | 15 Oct 2021

Competence is not only an individual attribute but a collective one; if the collective culture is incompetent it creates incompetence in all who are subject to it

Contrary to popular perception, competence is not just an individual attribute but a collective one. Competent people in an incompetent culture will make mistakes; a competent culture can make up for a lot of individual incompetence.

As a case study take the trajectory of John Swinney. For eight years he had a strong reputation for being an effective shadow spokesperson and then for a subsequent nine years had an almost spotless record of competence as Finance Minister. Even Swinney’s most bitter opponents granted that he was competent in what he did.

Then the administration changed and virtually everything Swinney touched after that fell apart. John Swinney did not become incompetent overnight; something changed in the culture surrounding him to lead to failures, and so the perception of incompetence. Had you raised the possibility of a vote of no confidence in him in 2013 it wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

The structural problems for what really is a culture of incompetence have been discussed already, but another key factor is ‘tradecraft’, the set of job-specific skills which are involved in any given ‘trade’. Government involves of a lot of tradecraft – there are many government-specific ‘ways of doing things’ which are standard practice . They are standard practice because over the years they have been shown to work.

These are too numerous to look at in detail but a simple example is ‘stakeholder engagement’. At some point something will go wrong – that is entirely inevitable. When it does the key ways to deal with it are to have the earliest possible warning, good knowledge of and developed relationships with those you need to fix the problem.

This is why stakeholder engagement is so crucial. If you want to get advanced knowledge of a looming problem in the NHS, have good relationships across health. Not just health managers or your own policy team – practitioners and people on the front line. As another example, if you weren’t properly aware of the scale of Scotland’s drug death problem then you have failed to build effective relationships with the people at the sharp end of this problem.

If no-one will tell you ‘don’t press the red button’, the chances of you pressing the red button are greatly increased

One of the major changes some have reported (in private) with the change of administration was the rate and nature of contact. A process where contacts were consistent and relational changed to one where contacts were sporadic and transactional – groups were contacted when something was wanted from them but the relationship neglected when they weren’t.

This is only one example of governmental tradecraft. The organisational cultural reasons why it has been lost at least in part relate again to the command-and-control nature of the Scottish Government. But that loss creates a culture which is very vulnerable to mistakes.

In turn this itself is partly to do with personnel. While competence isn’t purely a factor of the individual, it is of course partly a factor of the individual. The way the current Scottish Government is managed, appointments and promotions are treated too much like rewards, gifts or inducements. People in the right circles get promoted while more competent people who are not in the right circles (or are perceived as a possible ‘threat’) don’t.

And personnel are selected on the basis of loyalty and obedience. One of the most important ways to achieve competence is to surround yourself with people who will speak out early when things are starting to go wrong. If no-one will tell you ‘don’t press the red button’, the chances of you pressing the red button are greatly increased.

There are capable people in government but there are also a lot of people there because they will not create a challenge. That removes the mirror in which leadership can identify its own weaknesses, and even a strong, competent leadership has weaknesses.

The numerous errors and failures we are currently seeing from the Scottish Government are not coincidental or unavoidable. They are the result of actions which in turn are shaped by a culture and team which is insufficiently geared towards achieving competence.

Without tradecraft, without the right personnel, without the right internal structure, without a mission and without the right set of expectations and assumptions in place, any endeavour will have a greatly increased risk of failure. That, in a nutshell, is why everything in Scotland is going wrong.

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