Dreadful though the ‘Windrush’ crisis is, it’s hardly surprising. We’ve been here before, it’s just that us lot in the public services have become immune to the culture. Ask any teacher, nurse, prison officer or policeman and they’ll have a tale of data being lost, data being manipulated, arbitrary targets set, changed or cancelled. It’s bewildering in its randomness too. I remember in 2008 being so enraged after one meeting when I had been asked to set targets for practically every group of pupils in the entire school. At the time, I actually wrote in my journal,
‘Blimey, next they’ll be asking us for a target on how accurately our Nursery children can wee into the toilet bowl. Or perhaps we should put the target into the toilet bowl to give them something to aim at?’
Back then, I couldn’t see how setting arbitrary targets was going to make a blind bit of difference. I was completely committed to raising achievement, standards of behaviour, leadership – just about everything that we ask of schools. I didn’t need targets; I was going to do my best anyway.
Surely, public servants have (or at least did until they were targeted into submission) an innate duty, an unwritten contract with the public that they will go beyond the call of duty to carry out their work. Think of all the times people trot out the ‘We cannot thank enough the service and commitment of our…’ speeches when the recording button is on.
But that misses the point.
In my naivety, it took me time to realise that the target culture has always been about surveillance and control, dressed up as accountability to the client – the great British public. The public must exercise choice and they need hard facts from which to make these choices. Targets, and the measures set alongside these targets, are there to assist them in exercising this choice. Shame on New Labour for legitimising this in the minds of millions of reasonable people. Society’s shift to the hysterical ‘demanding of rights’ stems from their policies, intensified by subsequent administrations, even though I believe they were made with the very best of intentions.
The unintended consequence of this shift has been ‘a demeaned civic culture’ as David Marquand says in his book ‘Mammon’s Kingdom’, and also a diminution of the public official – the policeman, the nurse (we have to import most of them), the teacher (leaving in droves) and, yes, the immigration officer. If you reduce these people to being paper-pushers, or as the Spanish would say chupatintas ( I love that word), they lose sight of their original vocation. Chupatintas. Just had to write it again – literal translation is ‘ink-suckers’.
There are still plenty of great public servants, but we need to be careful not to drive them all out through factory-style bureaucratic cleansing.
It always makes me smile when I hear people say ‘we must set headteachers free and allow them to run their own schools free of interference’, whilst then subjecting them to onerous accountability measures which suck the life out of them.
I accept the criticism that I may being a little generalised in my assumptions, and I do believe there is a very important place for accountability in public life. For example, I am a fan of developmental but regular inspections of schools. In fact, had they been inspecting the immigration service more readily, much of this could have been exposed far earlier.
So let’s hope this Windrush cock-up heralds a bonfire of the target culture that has infected our public life and evaporated many within that pool of good, honest servants.