By now, you have probably heard about Sarah Baskerville, the Department for Transport civil servant who was attacked by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail. His article has been thoroughly fisked by Adrian Short so I won’t bother to do a line-by-line assault on it. It’s typical Daily Mail stuff; lots of innuendo but few concrete facts, stopping short of outright allegations while steering the audience towards certain conclusions. Take this, for example:
Before the government cuts were announced to Parliament, Ms Baskerville was Tweeting about meetings concerning the fate of staff about to be displaced.
Ah, so was she divulging confidential information about staff then? Almost certainly not. If Mr Letts had any evidence of that he would have used it. But that is the inference the readers are invited to make.
Writing stuff online about your work is not usually a good idea, especially if you plan to be honest about it. At some point, most people turn up to work with hangovers, take too long over pub-lunches and slag off the facilitators on what they consider to be pointless training courses. These things go on in every organisation but senior managers don’t like people to know about it.
It’s rather like the game we play with friends and neighbours. Most of us, from time to time, eat our meals while watching telly, then leave the plates lying around while we watch the rest of the programme. Sometimes we leave the Sunday newspapers strewn all over the place, fully intending to tidy them all up later in the day. But we hate it if someone turns up unexpectedly and finds our sitting room in such a state. We like people to think that our houses are always tidy and that we always eat at the table. So it is with organisations. Bosses like to pretend that they run tight ships where there is no downtime and no-one ever turns up to work “struggling with a red wine induced headache”.
That Ms Baskerville works in the public sector adds another dimension. The water-cooler whinging and occasional slacking behaviour that goes in every office around the world suddenly becomes a ‘waste of taxpayers money’. I noticed, over a year ago, a tendency in some quarters to dig up any ridiculous public sector story and blow it up out of all proportion, even when there was no evidence of anything out of the ordinary happening. This piece of militant numptyism from Theo Paphitis was a classic. The news that Portsmouth council employees spent an average of 413 hours a month on Facebook had the outraged dragon reaching for his keyboard before even stopping to check the maths. Depending on how you interpret that figure, it either meant that Portsmouth’s employees were spending most of their waking hours, including weekends, in the office messing around on Facebook, or it meant that they spent about six minutes a month each on it.
In the event, it turned out to be the latter but not before other news outlets including the BBC had carried the story and Portsmouth’s managers had banned Facebook.
And that’s the tragedy of stories like this. Such is the determination in some sections of the media to denigrate the public sector, and so cowed are the public sector executives by this assault, that manufactured outrage over trivial issues has a totally disproportionate impact on management decisions.
Esther Harris gave some examples of how far this fear of media opprobrium has hamstrung public sector managers. Many dare not even invest to save money, lest that investment be seen as profligacy. Here is just one case:
[A] government department needs to send staff on an overseas training course so they can learn key skills for their job. The overseas trip means spending £10,000 now, the alternative is to pay for external support over the life of the project at a cost of £100,000.
Decision? Spend £100,000 – we can’t be seen to be sending people overseas in this period of austerity.
Public sector managers flinch in the face of media attacks and most seem ill equipped to rise above the storm and justify rational management decisions. Politicians, if anything, are even worse. Rationality and clear, calm thinking are the first casualties of a media firestorm.
Hysterical articles full of half-truths and unverifiable claims are no basis on which to judge management decisions. Polemicists, in possession of few facts but lots of opinions, know little about how complex organisations work. They are in no better position than anyone else to say what is and what isn’t a waste of public money.
The row about Sarah Baskerville might seem trivial but it is part of a wider problem – the same problem that makes a government department too scared to invest £10,000 to save £100,000. The public sector is under a totally unreasonable media assault which its managers are too scared to face down. It would be great to see a senior public servant tell the people who are making such a fuss to take their silly self-righteous indignation somewhere else. Alas, most public sector managers no longer have the confidence to do that sort of thing.
As Patrick Butler says, Baskers-gate is an opportunity for civil service managers to show some backbone and fight back:
There’s no point hoping to change the Daily Mail’s editorial line. But what seems important here is how Baskerville’s employers respond. It may tell us a lot about the strength of leadership in the civil service.
If Sarah Baskerville has done anything seriously wrong she should, of course, be disciplined. Somehow, though, I doubt that she has. Whatever she has said and done is probably no worse than the stuff that goes on in most workplaces in the world. If there is no case for her to answer, her bosses should dismiss this story as the mischief-making that it most probably is. The Department for Transport’s executives should make the decision on whether or not Ms Baskerville has done anything deserving punishment. It is their job to manage her performance, not the Daily Mail’s.