Corporate responsibility. The word ‘corporate’ has its roots in the Latin ‘corpus’, meaning body. I hate to start an article with a point about etymology, but bear with me. The idea is, presumably, that such an organisation is like a body, and thus individuals in such organisations, particularly the higher ups, take responsibility for the actions of others, and notably for the actions of the body as a whole.
This makes sense, to a degree. Certainly, if we take the example of the subject of my last article, Sir Fred, it would seem appropriate that he should be held responsible for RBS’s contribution to moneygeddon (to borrow a phrase from Charlie Brooker) – he had a direct impact on RBS’s direction, leading to its current predicament, hence why he’s out on his ear, even if he’s not particularly uncomfortable.
Or take Bob “not so quick” Quick – prancing into No.10 with secret documents practically stapled to his forehead. Idiot. He clearly deserved to get the chop – 30 years of service or not, we simply cannot set the precedent that our chief counter-terrorism officer can do something like that and keep his job.
But in Britain, we don’t stop there. If the body corporate stubs its toe, for some reason, we seem to think that the responsible thing to do is to chop off its head. We practically clamour for it – it seems like every week the red tops (Cherwell excepted) are demanding the resignation of somebody or other, be it for daring to have a private life, or, more likely, for the failings of one of their employees. Think about the series of stories regarding data losses by the government – at this point, it’s fair to say that we do seem to have a systematic issue with data security, and indeed it seems reasonable that heads should roll. That wasn’t so obvious at the time it all started, and yet as soon as the stories broke, there were immediate calls for the resignation of Cabinet ministers, individuals who didn’t seem to bear any clear relation to the morons who thought that a seat on the DLR was an appropriate storage location for their laptop/data disc/sex tape.
You can see why we do it – we want to avoid embarrassing incidences, and if the people in charge are likely to lose their jobs, we’d hope they would run a tight ship. But there are limits to what is realistic. We seem to expect our executives to have hive-mind like control over their subordinates; but, perhaps in spite of said executives perspective on the matter, their subordinates are not ants. They are people, and people make mistakes, act dishonestly, and cannot be expected to be controlled on all occasions.
I’d suggest that we might want to rethink our current position, for a couple of clear reasons. Firstly, if we continue to decapitate corporate bodies like so many Tudor brides, we are going to encourage the sort of executive paranoia that has bosses stalking their employees on facebook. When we (eventually) enter the real world, we presumably don’t want to enter a work environment where our employers feel the need to graft a GPS locator to our scalp, so lets not give them a reason to. Beyond personal privacy, it’s also just bad for business – this sort of approach encourages excessive micromanagement, and that isn’t helpful.
Secondly, it is clearly bad for government. Look at the Cabinet – our convention of ministerial responsibility requires that the members of the Cabinet must (at least publicly) agree with everything the government does. Would it be so disastrous if the Secretary for Work and Pensions had a dissenting opinion over an element of foreign policy? Why do we need to fire perfectly capable ministers for having their own opinions? Certainly, if they are genuinely disrupting the government’s work, they should go, but that they should be afraid mention a single instance of disagreement with the totality of government policy is surely not constructive. Given the limited executive talent available to governments, we can ill afford to be despatching ministers left right and centre.
It’s not particularly exciting, but we should keep our heads, and let a few more organisations keep theirs.