The Rise of Incompetence

Somehow, actual competence does not seem to be a requirement for appointment to senior office, at least in the UK.

And I think it seems quite obvious if you look around, or examine most organisations in which you might work or study. Yes, there is the UK Prime Minister as the quintessential incompetent example, but I actually don’t think of any of the front benches as having people I can identify as having shown any competence.

And it isn’t just politicians. A sadly long litany of bankers has shown themselves to be unequal to the demands of their tasks. And I think that University leaders show the same lack of ability to do the work for which they are employed. Is industry well-managed? Well clearly major infrastructure projects aren’t.

Of course, there will be some exceptions, and we don’t see them because they don’t do things wrong, but I don’t think it is rose-tinted looking at the past to suggest that the past was a better place for competent management.

Prime Ministers: Johnson, May, Cameron, Brown, Blair, Major, Thatcher, Callaghan, Wilson. I think Blair (with Brown, perhaps) was possibly the transition, but going backwards from Major is just a different class of competence to our last three. And if I look back at VCs, it seems about the same to me. And all the people that supported them, in the cabinet or Deans etc.

Why? Whose “fault” is it?

Is it the Peter Principle at work? Perhaps a bit, but only partially (and if so. why not before?)

We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by a desire for a bunch of characteristics that mean that people are unlikely to also be competent.

We want leaders who will promise better things, of course, but how? The idea is always radical change. It is never that we could perhaps manage what we do more competently – if you suggest that, you lack “vision”. And that is the word that Really Pisses Me Off – “vision”. If anyone aspires to lead, and doesn’t have “vision”, they are completely discounted. And of course they need a 10-point plan too, which promises to change everything.

Did you notice there was no discussion about being competent to actually achieve the vision of the plan? Who cares? They have Vision.

Quite a lot of this comes out of the MBA world, I think. You can manage an organisation without knowing or understanding anything of its business. It isn’t just that, but it contributes.

The Civil Service used to be able to plug the gap in the leaders’ competence, but because recently the leaders have been so incompetent that they almost destroyed it, the Civil Service doesn’t have anything like the capability to work competently as it used to.

Oh, I should have mentioned targets. No discussion of whether the targets are sensible. How many Covid-19 tests did we need to perform by 1st April? Who cares? We had a target of 10,000, and so the question (to our leaders) is simply whether “they” achieved that. How many tests do we actually need by the end of the month? Who cares? We have a target of 100,000, so that’s all we need to know.

Quite often this is all referred to as “populism”. I don’t think that is right, and dangerously misunderstands, because it is a very deep change; and the intelligentsia (or Notting Hill Set or whatever) are probably more to blame than the rest of the population. They are the ones who promote this idea of vision and plan and organisational revolution and targets. As if that was all that is needed to run an organisation.

Perhaps ironically, it seems that the political system in China is delivering competent leaders in all walks of life, where the UK system has signally failed.

Gove put his thumb on it when he said UK people have had enough of experts; but that should have been taken to mean people feeling that we don’t actually need people who have expertise in running things effectively and competently.

But I think we are seeing that in fact we do, and now when we really need them, and we look around for them, we can’t find any.

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One thought on “The Rise of Incompetence”

  1. I just enjoyed this greatly.
    Vacuous ‘Vision’ in this context really pisses me off too!
    Will have a think and post more on Facebook.

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