Matthew Parris

Can anyone defeat the town-hall zombies?

1 December 2012

Others have already swelled a chorus of rage against Rotherham -council for removing three foster children from the couple caring for them, on the grounds that the couple were members of Ukip; and the rage is justified. But few sane people will need persuading that the -council’s judgment was wrong, and I don’t intend to bang on about it. Within that statement — ‘few sane people’, etc — lies the puzzle I want to -examine.

And a puzzle it is; because those who took the decision were not insane. The fact is that the Rotherham’s Children and Young People’s Services department will be staffed by people whom we would not, on meeting, describe as abnormal; yet they and their director — who on the radio sounded like a perfectly level-headed Scottish lady — reached a reasoned judgment that to much of the rest of Britain looks crazy; and thereafter gave every impression of surprise that it should even be questioned. That’s the puzzle: who are these sane people reaching insane conclusions? How did they get like that? Why have their careers prospered?

Two clues are to be found in the following statement, not from a local government officer in Rotherham, but the elected Labour leader of the council, Roger Stone: ‘If the professionals give advice, we take it. We are going to investigate — we always would if somebody complains. We are looking to make sure all the correct procedures were carried out before the decision was made.’

The first clue lies in Cllr Stone’s preposterous ‘If the professionals give advice, we take it.’ Who does he think is in charge — the members or the officers? Councillors should be regularly questioning, often disputing and sometimes blocking officers’ decisions. Cllr Stone appears to think his elected members are there only to ensure that their council is run by ‘professionals’, to whom everything is then left. On Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils too there has been this gradual retreat over half a century or more in local councillors’ view of their own role; and a matching advance in local government officers’ view of theirs.


Of course elected members would not be expected to join officers in the reaching of each decision, or even to be familiar with each, or sign decisions off. But they should require senior officers to keep them in touch with all the important, or most awkward, or politically sensitive cases; and, when learning after the event that a decision was controversial, be prepared to step in. ‘If the professionals give advice, we take it’ sends grotesquely the wrong signal to Rotherham people anxious that their councillors should take up their concerns and where necessary intervene.

Cllr Stone shows some dim recognition of this when he protests ‘We are going to investigate — we always would if somebody complains.’ But he at once qualifies that undertaking, stripping it of force. Explaining what he understands by the term ‘investigate’, he offers us the second clue to the riddle of the rationalisation of lunacy: ‘We are looking to make sure all the correct procedures were carried out before the decision was made.’

Oh what a bleak, bloodless, chillingly robotic remark is that! I heard myself, on reading it for the first time, shouting out loud, ‘No, you tick-box Timothy! No! Your job’s to make sure the right decision was made, not that the right procedures were carried out before it was made!’

No double in due course the council will be forced to admit they simply made a mistake, but what makes the blood boil in their immediate and instinctive reaction is the implication that human judgment can be removed from a decision-making process; that at a certain happy moment early in the 21st century, the science of local government attained a state of such perfect precision that no poor, fallible human mind was any longer required to make any actual, fallible human judgment. It became sufficient to enumerate and validate the inputs — the criteria that had to be met, the questions that had to be asked, the people who had to be informed, and the allowable reasons upon which the decision might be grounded — and the machine would then whirr, click and finally ping and, hey presto, you had your output: your decision. Should any appeal then arise, the review would consist in checking that the machine was working, and that the appropriate data had been fed into it.

In my twenties I attempted postgraduate studies in political science at Yale University. What I’ve described above was very much what postgraduates were then confident could be achieved for the political process in advanced democracies. I remember my class — sane, clever young men and women — being given rulers, back-copies of the New York Times, a computer program, and the instruction to measure the number of column inches devoted to amelioration in East-West relations, then measure the column inches devoted to increased economic inter-dependence between the two blocs, then feed both sub-totals into the computer, and finally ask it to measure the correlation and tell us the result.

People believed that sort of stuff in the 1970s. Few believe it now. But it seems those few and their successors have been disproportionately attracted to local government administration. There is a community of town-hall zombies moving, little-noticed, among our wider community in 21st–century Britain. They’re not at first easy to spot. In their domestic lives they differ little from us; they live, love, sing, dance, socialise, marry and have children. But during office hours they revert to a robotic state. Their community survives — even thrives — by hiring each other, promoting each other, standing (sometimes) for elected office in each other’s councils, sustaining each other’s morale by professional networking and reading the Guardian together, and sucking the life out of any real person unfortunate enough to end up working in local government — until in despair he surrenders and quits.

These, the Process People, are proving utterly impervious to the growing swirl of common sense gusting around their brick and concrete citadels. How are they to be dislodged? Eric Pickles, you’re no obvious Batman, and all before you have failed. But if you can’t do it, who can?

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  • peterwaller

    What you say is very true but one should not underestimate the extent that left wing group think and propaganda means that they genuinely do believe that the Tories are evil exploiters of the poor and that UKIP is just a slightly less thuggish version of the BNP.

    • martinde

      Now, who was the left-winger who called UKIP a party of mostly ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’?

      • Mr Growser

        Can’t imagine. But I don’t fancy his chances of re-election.

  • RobertRC

    This all reminds me of the old Peter Drucker quotation:-

    “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the
    right things.”

    In this case both local government officers & councillors
    appear to have concentrated on doing things right & neither has been
    concerned to ensure that the right thing has been or will be done.

    It is all a product of legalism with its excessive demands
    for a paper trail of justification combined with an ingrained mental outlook common
    to all those involved to the effect that one cannot possibly be wrong if one
    follows the book.

    • Jack Dawson

      Spot on. It is everywhere in the public sector.

      • Chris Morriss

        Not only in the public sector. Management, especially in large American-owned corporations, now are brainwashed to believe that if they follow the current fashionable ‘processes’ then you get the desired result. The ability integrity, and creativity of the employees (or lack of) don’t matter at all.

  • Mr Growser

    Local politics is in the stranglehold of mad regulations and rather dim officials. As a Parish Council chairman a year or two back, I and my councillors were told by our (in general diligent and conscientious) Clerk that we could not discuss council matters among ourselves other than at formal councils, that all implemention of decisions was his task not ours and –as Matthew says–our only role was to vote on decisions. I pointed out that this was rather like Westminster MPs not being allowed to talk about politics among themselves, but he insisted on it. A little earlier came the restrictions on gifts and presents which as they stood, seemed to imply that we should have all our more expensive family Christmas presents scrutinized. And talking about anything one had directly observed for one’s self was very dangerous: if it was close to your house, you could be got for having an interest in the matter. One councillor in a neighbbouring councillor who forgot this and talked, everyone agreed entirely innocently, about a matter to do with the lane outside his house was actually censored and the rebuke published in the press.

    The Rotherham ruling on UKIP is indeed the result of fettering elected councillors and giving officialdom unfettered powers not subject to scrutiny or control.

  • Politics in Brum

    Councillors should be regularly questioning, often disputing and sometimes blocking officers’ decisions #bcc Take note Spot on

  • David Lindsay

    Many a council, perhaps all of them these days, is being run by
    Officers instead of by Councillors. That baleful state of affairs which goes back
    to the 1980s. But nothing was done about it while, for example, Hilary
    Armstrong was Local Government Minister and telling Councillor-laden meetings, which I attended,
    how much she believed in the municipal process.

    • wanderer

      Yes – totally agree. Just as Europe is being run by officers and not the elected. And the armed forces are being run by the civil servants in Whitehall.
      The question for me is:
      If the proper procedures were followed in Rotherham: what is on their proscribed list for prospective foster parents. Is UKIP on their list as a proscribed organisation and who put it there. What else is there? Is this worth a freedom of information question?

      • David Lindsay

        If it is on any proscribed list, then that will have been a central governments decision. One that this Government is far more likely than the last one to have made. There is no actual hatred between Labour and UKIP.

    • wanderer

      Yes – totally agree. Just as Europe is being run by officers and not the elected. And the armed forces are being run by the civil servants in Whitehall.
      The question for me is:
      If the proper procedures were followed in Rotherham: what is on their proscribed list for prospective foster parents. Is UKIP on their list as a proscribed organisation and who put it there. What else is there? Is this worth a freedom of information question?

  • JTK

    As demonstrated when the head of Harringay child services held up a graph to prove that her department was working.

  • Simon Morgan

    Thank you, Matthew, for bringing this to the light. It is not just local government, you know: it is an inherent risk in the public sector.

    I always struggle when someone complains that the NHS has too many managers – it doesn’t. It doesn’t have enough – what it has too many of are administrators. They manage processes, if possible without having to make any decisions. If a decision is needed, they employ a management consultant (McKinseys get the most brownie points) to fill the ‘professional’ role. You are safe from criticism if you do what they say.

    There is a further twist to it too: you employ them on a day rate (which they love) rather than agree a firm price in advance to provide the answer to the question you are facing. This approach is guaranteed to cost more. It is perhaps inevitable though – it reflects the administrators’ need for someone to tell them what the question is first.

    I just wish it wasn’t my tax money that they were spending…..

  • rowbat

    ‘Process’ seems to be a dirty word to many readers here, and of course there are inevitably examples where process becomes its own self-serving end. But ‘process’ is also another word for the rule of law, the discipline of the scientific method, and standards of professional behaviour.

    Processes can be well or badly designed. They can administered by conscientious or self-centred individuals. What we need is well thought out process, administered by sensible responsible people. Politicians have a responsibility to create this system. Diatribes against ‘process people’ are missing the point.

    To remove a child from a home on the basis of Ukip party membership is questionable. To imply that professional advice is of little value and that politicians always know better is medieval.

    • kevinlaw1222

      But these so called ‘experts’ opinions are not set in stone.They can change and vary as time goes on. So what may be dogma within a profession 20 years ago may be dismissed as plain wrong today. And this is particuarly prevelant in the social sciences. Where dogma may change over short periods of time.
      So whlist no one is saying the ‘experts’ opinions should be totally disregarded – those voted into power must also have a say in how matters such as such as the Rotherham case are handled. Leaving to experts alone who can change their mind every 5 minutes is also wrong.
      Personally I dislike the modern use of the word ‘Expert’. It suggest someone who is perfect and beyond any form of questioning. I have yet to meet any expert who is perfect. Indeed for every expert you find who will say one thing – I can probably find one to say the opposite. I think the word ‘Specialist’ is better.

  • Paul

    Twas ever thus. Thirty years ago I was a work study engineer in industry (that is to say – productivity improvement). I several times applied for similar appointments in local authorities and other in those days, state owned organisations such as the utilities. Despite being eminently qualified, at a fairly senior level and with a really good track record I was short listed but once.

    On that one occasion I was able to see that I was the only person selected from the private sector. Needless to say I was not successful on that single occasion. I gave up after that.

    The public sector keeps itself to itself – they are selfish of their easy lives and generous early retirement wheezes.

  • Robert Taggart

    These lame-brain ‘civil’ servants also afflict Central Government – indeed – they be advising Eric ‘fat face’ Pickles !
    As for Councillor Stone – tick box TWAT – surely ?!

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