The Blame Game

First: Cover Your Ass.

First: Cover Your Ass.

Having been focused on travelling and/or working in the later half of 2016 the RHI story was in the background, though hard to miss the heat and noise around the issue.

At the start of 2017 it seemed that despite the heat and noise, there wasn’t much light on the subject. Nolan was on repeat. While plenty of titbits were being bandied about as if Moses had just revealed them himself, nothing seemed to be moving the story forward. The story of RHI had become left behind by the political story unraveling before us.

Worthwhile at this point to rewind. Helpfully, early last July the Northern Ireland Audit Office produced a report on the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme. You can read the report here along with the summary contained in the accompanying press release.

If you want to know about the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme then you really should read the NIAO report. It provides a timeline of events, the likely immediate impact on budget finances and a series of actions that had been agreed within the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment in particular.

And it is worth listening to the short two minute item here from UTV(ITV) on the scheme, closing with the Minister, Simon Hamilton, confirming a pathway forward in respect of addressing the failures of the scheme. The NIAO summary of what was launched into the public arena back in July 2016, is easy to recognise:

The RHI scheme encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period. It was administered on behalf of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM). Read more… »

The big, beautiful, election


From the UK it might have been expected that on landing at Dulles just a few days before election day there would have been a palpable air of outright ferocity, divisiveness and hostilities arising from the mutually corrosive election campaigns of Clinton and Trump.

In the event, all was calm. As were the mostly Republican friends encountered over the next few days. There was no great enthusiasm for Trump as President, but generally agreement that it should be ‘anyone but Hillary’.



Trump / Clinton

This blog piece has been a little while in the making. Earlier, in March, the effort to try to better understand what was going on in the American Presidential Primaries prompted a trip to Washington DC. Probably overdue and making good, finally, on often made promises to visit, this was a chance to meet old friends and gain a first hand sense of what was going on.

Here was an opportunity to hear the views of people involved in education, lobbying, journalism, policy and politics. With the exception of the ex-pat journalist, of whom I would not presume to ask political affiliation, everyone else was a Republican. Anyway, morning TV included CNN, MSNBC, CBS, etc, as well as FOX. Balance restored.

At the time of the visit Trump was still in the end stage battle with Rubio and Cruz, and Clinton still had some months to go of a slugging match with Sanders before getting over the line with the delegate vote required.

So in a few short days, what sense could be made of American politics generally, Presidential primaries in particular?


Where to start?


Political life can be very dull and quite predictable. For a time commentary seemed all too often no more than a variation on a theme. Then, all at once….  These past few weeks in the UK have been anything but dull, or predictable.

Except it is usually that big event merely captures what has been happening in the background, perhaps unseen, or commented upon only in the margins.

Since the Tea Party became a much talked about though little understood political movement in the USA, politics has been changing – it may have been changing before, but that was an early manifestation of a wide-spectrum revolt against mainstream politic/ians. Yes that does ignore nationalist movements in Europe, because nationalism (or race) is so often the only thing that defines those movements. The Front National is a French “Nationalist Party”, but that simple descriptor ‘nationalist’ cannot be attached to the Tea Party.

For some time, no doubt,a voice has been making efforts to be heard. Echoes of that voice were occasionally noted, in passing, in the mainstream media. Without an event it was hard to pin down, and easy for mainstream politicians to ignore.

Some such as leftie journo Paul Mason did try to pin down the change to come. He was very excited by the prospect of revolution in Arab Spring and extrapolated this to “Twenty reason why it is kicking off everywhere” back in 2011. Yet more recently he seems to have been horrified that most of his reasoning is embedded in the campaigning that ultimately delivered Brexit – the shock perhaps that the revolution has not being secured by the young, engaged and educated, but by the poor, disengaged and abandoned ‘worker’ that today’s left appreciates only for the rhetorical value they lend to the ’cause’.

Making some sense of the shifting political sands over this past year has been a challenge. Hence, the absence of posting. Instead, a trip to the Washington DC in March 2016, and in early May a meeting with friends from across Europe (politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, bankers, business people; many no longer politically active, some who now live in North America). Most recently a trip to France, for the Thiepval Commemorative Service and the opportunity to speak casually with many who attended that event from across the UK, from all walks of life. And reading widely.

So in a series of posts, time to look at the USA, Europe and politics closer to home and some observations on some common threads. That will be the summer’s challenge. Making sense of it all.

Not telling.


With the new larger Local Councils up and running there have been a number of stories in the local news about the cost of rebranding – new logos or, in this recent case, a new coat of arms.

There are many arguments for spending on rebranding to create an identity for a new body where it is about bringing a community together, good and bad. Very often this revolves around the final visual identity, the logo, and whether it is considered good or bad design.

Whatever the cost of the process this is voted on by Councillors and agreed by Councillors. So to not be prepared to reveal the cost where the spending was unanimously supported by all parties at Monday night’s Council meeting” seems a little odd and overly-secretive.

If Councillors they are prepared to defend the project on which the money was spent, Councillors should be equally prepared to reveal how much is cost. After all it is the local rate-payer, the taxpayer, who is funding the ceremonial trappings of Council. It is the taxpayer to whom the Councillors are accountable.

The Government is currently looking at Freedom of Information requests, and their cost. Here is a very small example where a Council is not being open, not being accountable. In the total budget it may not be a big item, but it tends to a reluctance of elected representatives to be very forthcoming about how much of our money they are spending and allowing the taxpayer, and voter, to make up their own mind on what is value for money and what is not.

The Government should not be looking at the cost of Freedom of Information requests, instead it should be working harder on more open and accountable government at all levels that reduce the need for FOI requests in the first instance.

Time enough…

breaking time

Back in January 2014 the DUP’s Trevor Clarke asked the Health Minister how much is annually paid to Trade Union officals. The Minister believed that within the Department and its arms length bodies the equivalent of 58 full time trade union officials were involved, at a total cost to the taxpayer estimated to be £1,840,540. The Minister said it was a spend being reviewed as he endeavoured to fund frontline services.

From information provided in an extensive FOI project the total cost to the taxpayer afforded to Trade Unions by the many levels of government administration in Northern Ireland is perhaps around £4.5 million. That doesn’t include agency or replacement in an essential frontline service. Nor is this a complete picture, with many public sector bodies reporting that they do not keep accurate records.

What arises from an overview of the data is that there is are no rules as to what constitutes facility time. There are two many estimates reported. Too often no records are kept at all. Facility time, it would seem, is what the Trade Unions say it is.

At a time when frontline services and budgets are under intense pressure, the taxpayer must ask if such a huge sum is justified, almost always increasing year on year. Surely, at the very least, a small service fee could be charged for collecting and forwarding members dues to the Union coffers. There is evidence of only three bodies doing this across the whole of the public sector – proving it is possible.

Trade Unions in Northern Ireland have a membership of around 242,000. Unions are not poor. In 2013 the total income of Unions based in Northern Ireland was £5.7million, spending £4.9million (an excess of £800,000). Income from Northern Ireland for all Unions (GB, NI, ROI) amounted to around £28.7 million. GB based Unions received £250 million more than they spent across the UK. Across these islands total Union income amounted to more than £1 billion. *

Facility time is justified if used responsibly. The scale of taxpayer contribution to Trade Union business in Northern suggests that closer monitoring is needed – you can’t make that judgement when records simply are not kept. A £4.5 million cost to the taxpayer also suggests that perhaps time is being spent beyond what is needed for that particular employer. Trade Unions can well afford to pay the cost of time spent on exclusively Union business.

Almost two years later it would be interesting to know how that Health Ministerial review was progressing.


* source NI Certification Officer for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations Annual Report 2013-2014.

Wilful blindness…

At the core of Wilful Blindness is the question as to ‘why are facts ignored?’.  The counter is ‘Just Culture’, essential in a challenging and changing environment. 

Just culture: balancing safety and accountability.

There was something about this particular BBC Radio 4 Analysis podcast on ‘Just Culture’ which rang some bells (link at end of post).

Wilful blindness is a legal term associated most closely with Enron:

“Where there is nowledge that you could have had, and should have had, but chose not to have, you are still responsible”

Essentially, you could have had, and should have had, but somehow managed not to…

The ‘for example’ list is long, and not exhaustive:

  • Mid-Staffs patient care
  • Child abuse and the Catholic Church
  • Rotherham child abuse
  • The BBC and Saville et al
  • Iraq and Abu Ghraib
  • Banks – Libor, FX, and who knows what else
  • Safety issues and automotive companies

The Analysis podcast opens with an example from the commercial world, General Motors in the 1990s, when it was clear that commercial profitability depended on cutting costs rather new car sales. In that environment, where the goal was cost-cutting, ignorance is essential to avoid having to deal with the consequences. Costs (corners) were cut. An ignition problem existed for eleven years, resulting in 13 deaths, 54 crashes and at the ‘cost’ of millions of dollars in vehicle recalls.

In the the cost-cutting, deeply competitive, culture that developed within the automotive giant, its steep hierarchy and  sheer size (so large and complex where an assessment of consequences is almost impossible) an internal review of problems at corporate giant concluded that although everyone had a responsibility to fix the problem, nobody took responsibility.

At GM a whole language was created so as not to face up to responsibilities or consequences. Employees were told to ‘write smart‘ and not to use ‘judgemental adjectives and speculation‘. In language, don’t say ‘problem‘ talk about ‘the issue‘, don’t say ‘condition‘, say ‘matter‘, and do not say ‘defect‘ but instead ‘does not perform to design‘. Language was used to create plausible deniability.

The podcast highlighted common patterns in such cultures.

Individuals are overstretched, distracted and exhausted. They don’t see because they can’t think. Too many people from same background share same biases, beliefs and blindspots. The organisations within which they work become places where it isn’t felt to be safe to raise concerns, or ask challenging questions. So individuals focus on their tasks:

Obedient, conformist, and unwilling to rock the boat with the knowledge they harbour. And because they know everyone can see problems they imagine someone will do something.

It is a pattern sadly all too recognisable in Rotherham, where there were seventeen reports over sixteen years and so many people involved: parents, teachers, doctors, voluntary organisations, police and Council.

Young people being abused in Rotherham; belonging to everyone, yet belonging to no-one.

A vast array of safe-guarding plans and protocols in Rotherham were never checked as to whether they were being implemented, or were even practically useful. The care of children became ‘process-driven’ with with large numbers of people attending any meeting: if an issue belongs to 35 people in a room, who is actually taking ownership of the issue? The complexity of inter-agency relationships, the exhaustion of competitive social workers, coupled with a climate of fear created a condition where no-one had the clarity, energy or will to speak up.

Many do no speak because they ‘know’ they will be shot down, or ‘imagine’ that they will.

The airline industry is an example where the dominant culture is one where the workforce has become the early warning system of potential disaster, and where everyone feels safe, and is safe, to speak up. It didn’t just happen that way.

After a series of problems in the 1970s the Civil Aviation Authority created a programme that would break through hierarchy and ensure that a concern would reach the person who could make a difference – this includes a third party advice line to offer pathways to raising concerns. The CAA created a ‘Just Culture‘ to assure the industry lived up to the open standards set. In 1980 around 300 reports of concern were fed to the CAA, over thirty years later there are 14,000 in a year. Despite (some would say cut-throat) competitiveness, Just Culture is shared across the entire industry.

Honesty saves lives.

Just Culture

A Just Culture requires systems to be in place that make it easy for people to speak up with their concerns, and where the everyday heroes who have the courage to speak up are praised not punished. People must feel safe, protected and see something done by way of resolution. Courageous leadership prepared to speak early before things go adrift makes organisations better, smarter and more informed. To create that culture takes courage, practice and time.

We need honesty to be equal cross all levels of an organisation, that those everyday heroes remembered and held up as examples.

Heroes such as Helene Donnelly the Mid Staffs nurse: bullied, intimidated, and resigned from the A&E department at Stafford Hospital; a hospital in which patients were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and safety. She is now Ambassador for Cultural Change at Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Partnership NHS Trust.

Heroes such as the anonymous Home Office researcher who wrote a report into the sexual exploitation of children in Rotherham; who faced “hostility” from the council from a report which stated agencies working to tackle the abuse showed “alleged indifference towards, and ignorance of, child sexual exploitation on the part of senior managers”, and that “Responsibility was continuously placed on young people’s shoulders rather than with the suspected abusers.” Her report was never published and the council even tried unsuccessfully to get the researcher sacked. Yet her words did not remain silent.

Heroes such as the petitioners against electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets, who faced unprecedented official pressure and efforts to undermine the case.

Mr Erlam spent the last week before the case living away from home to avoid the Met. “To my mind, the clear intention of the police was to discredit me just as the case started,” he said.

Heroes such as the writer of the fifty-three-page report written by Major General Antonio M. Taguba: its conclusions about the institutional failures of the Army prison system at Abu Ghraib were devastating. But the words were out there. That report though was because of Specialist Joseph M. Darby, an M.P. who came across pictures of naked detainees and:

“initially put an anonymous letter under our door, then he later came forward and gave a sworn statement. He felt very bad about it and thought it was very wrong.”

Again the Wilful Blindness of a large organisation under stress and in need of results was clear in courtroom testimony: Specialist Matthew Wisdom, an M.P., told the courtroom testified that he told his superiors what had happened, and assumed that “the issue was taken care of.”

Expecting someone else to take courage and/or responsibility for doing something is hardly absent from matters here in Northern Ireland. From the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Report: “The administrative scheme for “on-the-runs”

104. Only with the benefit of hindsight, can it now be seen that there were several indications that an administrative scheme for OTRs was in operation, including, for example, from Ministers’ responses to Parliamentary Questions; the scheme was therefore an example of something being “hidden in plain sight”.

So many involved, yet the whole scheme required everyone being involved, but no-one being responsible. Mistakes were almost inevitable. Abuse of process ever likely. Everyone can see, but no-one can, is willing to, or is able to bring the facts of the issue to the fore.

There is the case of Declan Gormley, who had to go to court to protect his reputation.

There is the case of Jenny Palmer who was not a team player apparently.

There is the case of Maria Cahill, who largely still stands alone.

The Nolan Show thrives on people exasperated with ‘the system’ who often, in desperation, seek out someone who will listen. Whether or not one appreciates The Nolan Show, its success in in part a product of local public administrations (for there are many) which seem wilfully blind to what is actually happening in their name. Pick from any or all of the stories already outlined above and listen to the echoes on our airwaves, all too regularly. How many people in Northern Ireland could recount an example where they felt frustrated, alienated, and inadequate to stand up and speak on something where they thought someone must surely say something?

In the present febrile atmosphere of the deepening financial pressures on services, due to Stormont’s inability to implement welfare reforms and Sinn Fein’s intransigent ring-fencing of social benefit payments, all the negatives from the above will become even more acute. Even if there is an immediate fix, pressures on departmental finances are unlikely to ease anytime soon.

While political discourse, Unions, senior management, and media focus on ‘cuts’, little if any attention is spent on working out if public money being spent is being spent well, and could be perhaps spent better, more effectively, and more directly to addressing need.

It wouldn’t be speculative to suggest public services in Northern Ireland have frontline staff that are overstretched, distracted and exhausted. We have an engrained public sector culture which has created a management of too many people from the same (public sector) background sharing the same biases, beliefs and blindspots. Have those organisations within which they work become places where it isn’t felt to be safe to raise concerns, or ask challenging questions? Do the frontline staff simply focus on their tasks: obedient, conformist, and unwilling to rock the boat with the knowledge they harbour; believing or perhaps just hoping that because they know everyone can see the problems, they imagine someone will do, must do, something?

Northern Ireland has a bloated public sector. ‘Cuts’ are necessary. ‘Rebalancing the economy’ means less public sector, though that does not necessarily mean reduced or lesser services. Reform is long overdue. However, cuts out of financial necessity are unlikely to produce the change Northern Ireland needs. Yes, it is possible to do better on less, but that is only possible where there is reform emerging from a desire and willingness to have a more honest, open and transparent conversation about what services we need and how best to deliver excellently.

Northern Ireland needs ordinary heroes, and we need to praise them for speaking truth to power.

Just Culture on BBC Radio 4 Analysis is presented by businesswoman Margaret HeffananYou can listen by clicking on the image below.

BBC Radio 4 - Analysis - Just Culture

Margaret Heffenan also talks about the dangers of Wilful Blindness at TED.

And in this presentation she entreats everyone to Dare to Disagree.  Many are afraid of conflict in anorganization where they might ‘lose’ one way or another. She encourages people to dare to see – the truth will set you free. Freedoms are only secured by being used.

Finally, she says, in her book:

Willful blindness

Moving on… into another election year.

Nothing much changes in Northern Ireland politics, on the surface.

change same switch

So when three of eighteen Westminster seats have new Members of Parliament does that represent significant change, or just a wee bit of a shuffle? What do the percentages and numbers mean for the Assembly elections in 2016? Read more… »