Shackles of ink and paper

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Managers are chained to bureaucracy when they should be free to achieve their goals, says Patrick Scott

A couple of years ago, I found myself, as director of education, handing over a plan for some initiative or other to the chair of the partnership with which we were working. As usual, it was about 200 pages long."What is that?", he asked apprehensively, as if I had presented him with a piece of rotting cabbage. "It's the plan," I said proudly. "It starts withI" But he cut me off before I could launch into a lengthy explanation.

"I hope you don't expect me to read it," he said. Pausing momentarily for effect, he made his point: "When we plan, we use this." He fished into his inside pocket and brought out a small laminated card, with some writing on it. "We think anything else is a waste of time."

Now this man was not running a corner shop. He worked for a multi-national company, and he was in charge of one of its biggest UK operations. He might even, for all I know, have been one of the captains of industry. I am not entirely sure how to distinguish a captain from, say, a mere lieutenant, as they do not have the kind of helpful uniforms worn in the armed forces. The point is, though, that he knew what he was talking about.

"But how," I said, ashen-faced at the thought, "can you plan without a detailed audit, without targets and stretch targets and success criteria and performance indicators? How does anybody in the business know what they are meant to be doing? How can you identify your outcomes and benchmark your achievements? It must be a nightmare for you."

Well, I didn't use those precise words. In fact, I have just made that last bit up. I think I said something like this: "You lucky bastard. That must mean you actually have time to run the business."

Don't get me wrong. I am as keen on planning as the next person, but I do feel that the brand of managerialism that has gripped government is increasingly an obstacle to progress. What do we think we are doing when targets become more important than achievements, when we cease to learn from our mistakes because we are so busy commissioning evaluations?

And yet, I understand why it is all so seductive. When somebody comes to me now with a good idea, what do I do? I suggest that the first thing they need to do is produce a plan. With some numbers in it, of course, something to make absolutely sure that we can measure progress. Try benchmarking with some statistical neighbours to help you set some challenging, but realistic, targets. Eventually, from this one factory in the Urals, we should be able to increase the production of boots across the whole of the Soviet Union...

My apologies. I drifted off for a moment there, but my point is an important one. I find it hard to believe that the triumphs of LEAs would ever have been achieved if they had been asked to work then in the way we are expected to now.

Would a "Comprehensive Performance Assessment" have prompted the creation of music services? Would "best value" have sparked off the development of inclusive practice for children with special needs? Would "public service agreements" have inspired us to provide community education? We have, I am afraid, created shackles for ourselves and they are made of ink and paper.

Patrick Scott is director of education and leisure for the City of York, but writes here in a personal capacity.

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