How to apologise without taking the blame

1834

When things go wrong, members of effective organisations come together to put them right; members of ineffective organisations scatter to escape the blame. It should be no different for politicians, and in the long run it is not.

From the chief executive, Popular Stores:

“I have received your complaint about the service in one of our shops. If anyone was rude to you, it was not me but the check-out assistant, Mrs B. Smith. I was not even present in the store when the incident occurred. The policy of our company is that staff should be polite at all times. Accordingly, the company is not at fault in any way. Nor am I, and I have been completely exonerated by an inquiry conducted by my assistant, Mr A. Toady. I regard your approach to me as a personal insult, and any future correspondence should be addressed to someone else.”

I imagine that Geoff Hoon, the UK defence secretary, or David Blunkett, the home secretary, would receive such a letter with the same incredulity as you or I. This makes it extraordinary that they should respond in essentially those terms to criticisms of their departments over last year’s suicide of David Kelly, government scientist, and recent failures in the UK immigration service.

Organisations are not collections of autonomous individuals. Organisations are bound together by relationships of authority and responsibility and these relationships mean that those who run them are properly held to account for activities they neither ordered nor desired.

The rigid concept of ministerial responsibility – according to which ministers accept blame for actions of which they have no knowledge – has disappeared, and rightly so. Millions of decisions are made every day in tax and benefit offices, schools and hospitals, and it is an unsustainable fiction that each represents the intentions of a minister. But what is the new doctrine? The principle that the minister is responsible for everything as if he or she had personally authorised it cannot be replaced by a principle that the minister is responsible for nothing unless he or she has personally authorised it.

Today’s politicians ask us to judge them on their management skills rather than their rhetorical powers or their ideological fervour, and this is a proper recognition of the changed nature of modern government. So how does the manager of a well-run business respond to a complaint?

“Thank you for informing me of your experience in one of our stores. (We accept, even welcome, substantive criticism.) I regret the incident, and the distress you understandably feel. (Sometimes we screw up, and when we do we admit it, say we are sorry, and move on.) Please accept my personal apologies, and those of the company. (Both the business and I accept responsibility for the incident, even though we did not specifically authorise it.) The policy of our company is that staff should be polite at all times. (This, at least, the two replies have in common.) Our organisation failed to provide you with the service you are entitled to expect. (The failure of policy implementation is a failure of a system, not an individual, and certainly not a named subordinate.) The matter has been investigated, and steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence. (The purpose of an internal inquiry is to seek improvement, not to attribute blame, and it is neither necessary nor appropriate to make details of it public.) I hope that you will have better experience of our services in future, and will not hesitate to contact me personally with any suggestions as to how they might be improved. (Customer feedback is a method of learning what is really going on.)”

Good managers delegate authority but retain responsibility. But, since authority is a prize and responsibility a burden, human instinct is to keep authority while shuffling off responsibility. Success in resolving this dilemma is a crucial difference between effective and ineffective organisations. Capable managers give their juniors scope for judgment and discretion: incompetent ones constantly second-guess and override the decisions of their subordinates. When things go wrong, members of effective organisations come together to put them right; members of ineffective organisations scatter to escape the blame. The chief executive of Popular Stores cannot write the first letter because he would forfeit the respect of his customers and the loyalty of his staff, and subsequently his job. It should be no different for politicians, and in the long run it is not.

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