Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Theresa May - how likely is it that a senior civil servant takes a critical decision on their own initiative?

I am, I must confess, intrigued by the whole UK Border Force controversy. It is, in my view, a classic example of what happens when you set goals which contradict each other.

I've spent enough time at enough airports to have become a bit of a connoisseur of 'good' border controls. What I want, as a traveller, is an efficient and speedy transit through immigration, so that I can pick up my luggage and get to my final destination. If I'm in transit, it's even more essential. As a citizen, however, I want the border to be sufficiently well-policed to exclude as many 'undesirables' as possible. Quick isn't important. Thorough is.

One thing that is emphasised more and more when entering the United Kingdom is the 'customer experience' (please add the rant against the use of the word 'customer' of your choice). The key measure of this is throughput - how many people can be processed per hour. After all, do you care if the immigration officer smiles at you?

And so the news that, at times of peak flows through airports, the scale of examinations was reduced, comes as no surprise. Managers would probably be evaluated on the queues, or lack thereof, and would have an incentive to find ways to improve the statistics. On the other hand, you can't set targets for the number of people prevented from entering the country, so the stringency of checks might be degraded without risk of penalty... unless the Press find out, of course.

But it is a gamble, and civil servants aren't prone to gambling as a rule. Indeed, it seems to this state-sponsored bureaucrat that the trend is towards having your opinion validated by a senior officer just in case.

And now that Brodie Clark, the senior official at the heart of this controversy, has announced that he will be suing for constructive dismissal, one finds oneself wondering, "who did he seek authority to act from?". He will know that any such claim will have no chance unless he can prove that this was discussed further up the food chain.

So, it seems reasonable to assume that somewhere, in someone's inbox, there is a smoking e-mail. Whose that is, I suspect, is going to be a source of much discomfort in the coming days...

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