Nobody was in charge of the operation: a sad motto for our times?

I quote from the Economist’s leader on recent events in the UK banking sector:

….This debacle holds lessons for the way Britain regulates its banks. As Mr King pointed out, defending his performance in front of a House of Commons committee on September 20th, the law prevents the Bank either from staging a covert rescue operation or from engineering a swift takeover; and flaws in the protection of depositors mean that, once an overt rescue operation is under way, depositors will flee. Mr King defended the separation of powers between the Treasury, the Bank and the FSA, but he was wrong to. It has exacerbated the system’s flaws; nobody was in charge of the operation.

Nobody was in charge of the operation. 

Somehow, over the last decade or so, this has become true in so many places, in so many ways. Multinational organisations, governments, public sector companies, the private sector, everywhere. The story is the same. Quango-ed and committee-d to a point of gridlock, decisions are often glaringly visible only in their absence. Accountability becomes a word reserved for matrix charts and consultant-speak. And when something actually happens, almost everyone heads for the hills. A few remain to shoulder the blame and to mop up.

Nobody was in charge of the operation.

I saw a recent report in the UK suggesting that there’s been ballistic growth in the number of quangos here since 1997; the cost of such quangos was described at around £188 bn, which is over twice the NHS budget or, for that matter, the Defence budget. I hear that similar things are happening in many other parts of the developed world. [Who knows, maybe it’s time to come up with a new term “artificial employment”.]

Northern Rock. Katrina. Terrorist actions. Enron. Worldcom. Whatever else you want to add to the list. So many committees, so little time.

We need to think hard about what’s happening. We seem to be sprouting whole armies of intermediaries everywhere, lost in the vegetation of modern jurisprudence and legislation, creating something far worse than just the nanny state; a state where it is no longer possible to lead or to “govern”. A domino-effect house of cards where so much effort is made to manage risk that the risks themselves intensify into something new and infinitely more dangerous.

Small print and get-out clauses overshadowing and dominating the space, drowning the valuable, yet vulnerable, voice of professional opinion.

Nobody was in charge of the operation. The natural consequence of our becoming ever more part of a world driven by The Risk Management of Everything. [I definitely need to catch up with Michael Power.]

4 thoughts on “Nobody was in charge of the operation: a sad motto for our times?”

  1. Is there anything new about this malady? Is it not just the latest incarnation of the “nobody’s fault” syndrome that dominated the logic behind the circumstances of LITTLE DORRIT? The only difference seems to be that, thanks to globalization, the syndrome now presents itself through transnational dynamics:

    Do you see the irony here, JP? Back when Kathy Sierra was receiving her death threats and I interpreted the circumstances as an argument that we had to get beyond “amateur” thinking about governance in cyberspace, you dismissed the suggestion in preference to a better understanding of identity. Now you bemoan the “state where it is no longer possible to lead or ‘govern.'” Could it be that the problem is not with those “whole armies of intermediaries” but with the amateurism of their work practices brought on by models of business processes that basically factor expertise out of the equation? Are we not all beginning to wake up to the consequences of what I have called “the world the Internet has made?”

  2. Stephen, actually I don’t see the irony.

    We have fundamentally different perspectives on this. You abhor many things to do with the internet, with decentralised control, with amateurs. On the other hand, I have no time for centralised control, I love the web, and I think that many sins have been committed in the name of “expertise”.

    It seems to boil down to perceptions of control and of risk. You prefer oligopolies and risk aversion, I prefer democracies and risk appetite.

    You seem cynical, I don’t mind being called Utopian.

    I continue to be bemused by your willingness, almost obsession, to take a contrary position on pretty much anything I write.

    Imagine a student of yours taking a consistent contrary position on everything you said in your class. You see? It can only happen on the web.

    That’s what makes the web the web. As long as we don’t create micro-groupthink cabals, this is the right way.

  3. JP, back when I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, I encouraged my students to always seek out the consistent contrary position. It was what made the learning experience interesting for them (and the teaching experience interesting for me)! Since this was in the Engineering College, I did not bother to tell them that this was called “dialectical inquiry” or that it had been around since Socrates!

    The only thing I really abhor are blanket generalizations. I am cynical that so many of them fly around so freely, but I believe they should be challenged with skepticism rather than cynicism. As I mentioned when you were musing about experts and amateurs, it is almost an “obligation of reason” to view the assertions from both camps in the same skeptical light!

Let me know what you think

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