Sort it out

Who has the upper hand in your business you or your staff?

I once worked in the same office as John, now Lord, Browne: he was a petroleum engineer and I was a geologist. We were searching for $30 barrel oil at the time but, along with the oil price, we have both moved on since: I’m not a geologist anymore and Lord Browne is the “coalition’s lead non-executive director,” according to the Financial Times. I don’t have a great deal of faith in what a non-executive director can achieve, at the best of times, in the real world, so the idea of them floating around the civil service trying to make an impact is frankly laughable, if lucrative to those who are so favoured.

Apparently, John thinks that the civil service is inefficient and it would benefit from a bit of centralisation of corporate functions. This is of course stating the blindingly obvious, so why would this very talented business leader do that? Well, I guess these  days John has a political  role, as a cheerleader for those trying to squeeze a few more pounds out of the civil servants’ budgets. Sentiment is all, in the battle for hearts and minds, and any credible critic will help government to constrain this powerful public entity that in theory at least it is supposed to control.

John’s seemingly helpful observation would make a lot of sense if trying to be more efficient was actually one of the things on any of the civil service’s elite management’s agendas. Unlike in BP, where Browne not only had a career-long understanding of the organisation, but also a strong personal incentive to sort it out, which he did with gusto at times, the civil service doesn’t have either. Their masters are short-termists to a man only interested in sound bites and short term fixes. For a sound bite to support my claim look no further than Francis Maude, who has the challenge of managing this archetypal bureaucracy, who said, in reply to Browne, that any fundamental review of the civil service would just delay reform, as past reviews ended up “gathering dust on library shelves.”

So, does this mean that we will only get changes that the civil servants themselves will allow? Being fair to them though, why on earth would any senior civil servant willingly give up control of such levers of power as HR, IT, legal services, procurement and Finance? Well, they won’t unless someone takes them on; head-on. Little of lasting value will be achieved by encouraging the great and the good to take verbal swipes at them from time to time.

What we need is a bit of leadership. Problem is that there are a lot of folk employed in the civil service and I doubt that there is the political will to do anything much to upset them; no leader, even Browne, if he was mesmerised into taking the job as head of the civil service, would have the support of politicians to do more than they are already doing. The leadership that is needed to improve the efficiency of the civil service is, sadly, political and I’m afraid politicians aren’t very good at that sort of thing.

Whilst the civil service are virtually and almost uniquely untouchable, many people working in, and even whole departments in, big business have crafted similar powerful positions too.  Signallers in the railway industry come to mind and any number of family businesses. What has that got to do with your business? Well, it really can be very surprising how, even in quite small organisations, politics gets in the way of sensible business decisions. Individuals and small groups really can amass a lot of power. Thankfully for you most business leaders aren’t elected. If you own your own business you really don’t have that excuse. Isn’t it about time you put your leadership boots on and sorted it out?

In any business there is always an “it”!


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