Issue 152: 2018 05 03: Bye Bye, Amber

03 May 2018

Bye, Bye, Amber

Ruddy figures.

By John Watson

Readers who fish for trout will already have spotted the analogy.  Put a big bushy dry fly at the end of your line and attach a much smaller fly to it by, say, 8 inches of lightweight nylon.  Cast upstream so that the big fly floats towards you with the smaller fly suspended a few inches beneath it.  The fish spots the top fly as a fake; it is too big and gaudy to be real.  Then, attention distracted, it takes the fly underneath, not having detected that it is artificial at all.

So too with Amber Rudd.  She appeared to be surviving the Windrush scandal, not long enough in post perhaps to have changed the ethos of the Home Office, only to fall to a question about targets made in Standing Committee.  Of course her reply that there were no targets was not a deliberate lie.  Quite apart from the fact that she seems an honest woman, a lie like that would inevitably be found out.  No, it was cock up rather conspiracy but a cock up which demonstrated a lack of grip on her department.  This was no mere botching of numbers a la Diane Abbott, but crucial information on the Home Office’s approach to immigration, something of which the Home Secretary should have been well aware.  So she had to go.

That of course has sparked a media carnival.  Can she come back later?  Who is Javid?  Will he make a good Home Secretary?  Which bus did his father drive?  But hidden beneath all the headlines and excitement, and largely ignored, lies rather an important question.  How do you combine targets and humanity in an organisation as large as the Home Office?

Figures are something of a national obsession, and the pressure to collect them often works to our detriment.  Reliance on performance statistics in comparing investment managers feeds industry’s tendency to focus on short-term returns.  SATs and AS levels gum up the working of our schools and narrow the education of our children.  The need to improve rape conviction numbers produced a culture at the Crown Prosecution Service which led to innocent men being convicted.  Look where you like.  The picture is always the same.  Targets are brought in to measure performance and prevent people sleeping on the job.  Those targets distort the service that is being measured, either because they can be gamed or just because the demand that they be met begins to dictate the approach of the service provider.  Then there is a mess and we wonder how to deal with it.

So what happened at the Home Office?  There was clear public demand for more illegal immigrants to be deported and concern that the process was far too slow.  Pressure needed to be brought to bear and the department needed to show the public that things were improving.  Targets were the obvious answer.  They would improve performance and also provide a way of measuring whether the department was performing its role satisfactorily or not.  So far so good.  In the best of all possible worlds, the imposition of targets would result in re-motivated staff processing the forms more efficiently without any other effect upon the outcome.

But it didn’t work like that, did it?  The increased pressure seems to have resulted in a dehumanisation of the process, with officers taking a cavalier view over whether the individuals in question had a right to stay in the UK or not.  The nation is rightly shocked but where exactly did it all go wrong and how should we deal with it?  Should we now get rid of the targets altogether?

Attractive as that may sound, it is almost impossible to do.  The question of how many illegal immigrants have been deported is an important one and a matter of public concern.  It follows that, whatever the government would prefer, the press will produce tables comparing the number of people expelled in each year and will judge the Home Office according.  No Home Secretary who valued his or her political career could take their eye off the figures, and Home Office policy will be designed to push those figures up.  That is a law of political dynamics, and none of us, in government or out of it, can do anything whatsoever about it.

So if we have targets, how do we ensure that the system remains humane?  What is it that will give each immigration officer a wider perspective than the need to fulfil a quota?  Operating alongside any numerical target there has to be an ethos, compliance with which is also taken into account in measuring his performance.  Here things become difficult.  Checking figures against a target is easy.  Analysing whether behaviour meets a particular standard is far more difficult.  Should we get those deported to fill in a questionnaire as if they were the customers of a bank?  “Did you enjoy this experience?”  “Were your deportation papers intelligible?” “Were you dealt with respectfully?” “Would you recommend to your friends that they be deported by us?”

Somehow I’m not sure that these questions are the answer.  Even when asked by a financial institution they seem vacuous in the extreme.  In this context they would not work at all.  What is needed is managers who can see beyond the figures and ensure that standards of decency are not being compromised.  That means educated, intelligent officers who use their discretion.  Will they be expensive?  Yes, of course they will.  But look at the wider pattern.  We are always being told that computerisation will make many jobs unnecessary.  The role of administrators who supervise systems to make sure that they are being run fairly and decently is not one which computers can fill.  These are the jobs of the future and we need to educate and train people to perform them.  Then numbers will become a tool to be used in enhancing services, and not the dominating factor.  That seems to be a much better way around.


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