By Ken Wolff
The old adage says ‘the buck stops here’ and it applies to managers, CEOs, government ministers and similar people when they take responsibility for what happens in their organisations, including mistakes. When applied in full it leads to people resigning if more serious mistakes are made even though the mistake was not personally made by them. But nowadays modern managers are more likely to point the finger down the ladder and say the blame lies there. What has happened to the old concept of responsibility?
In my recent piece about the rise of political staffers I used the example of Barnaby Joyce blaming a ‘rogue’ staffer for changes that were made to Hansard that should not have been made. Not a hanging offence but even for a mistake of that nature Joyce did not want to take responsibility nor even to blame his Chief of Staff (who should be responsible for the operation of his office) and instead it was an unnamed staffer lower down the pecking order. No doubt it probably was a junior staffer who made the ‘mistake’ — if mistake it was and not a direction to that person from someone higher up — but it still occurred on the watch of Joyce and his Chief of Staff. They are the ones who should have procedures in place to ensure such mistakes do not occur and it is for that reason that the old adage applies.
In my early years in the public service I had one departmental secretary who I would describe as being akin to a regimental Colonel: he was somewhat aloof from the staff, worked through the department’s hierarchy and everything had to be done ‘by the book’. He did, however, defend the department strongly to outsiders, including when appearing before parliamentary committees. It was like the old attitude that the regiment (read department) can do no wrong but woe betide the junior officer (read line manager) if a mistake was made. The next manager in the hierarchy would be summoned to the secretary’s office and given a dressing down. That manager, in turn, would pass the ‘dressing down’ along the line until it reached the individual who had made the mistake. In the case of more serious mistakes the threat was that it would be noted on an individual’s personnel file, including the line managers who had overseen the mistake.
The problem with that approach was that it could, in the case of serious mistakes, appear to be a cover-up. The secretary would accept responsibility and defend the department to the outside world but ‘kick bums’ internally — out of public view.
Then came the new secretaries, schooled in modern management theory. They were taught that people are important, not just cogs in the hierarchy, and would call people by their first names. Some of them were also happy to be called by their first name. They would sometimes call upon the person actually doing the work to brief them, not just the line managers. So far, so good. Most of us would agree that some old-style managers did not treat people well when operating with a hierarchical approach.
But these new managers were less likely to bear the brunt of mistakes. Perhaps because they did involve themselves with people down the line and did not always follow the hierarchy, they were quicker to point the finger to where a mistake was actually made. You were supposed to feel that you had let them down but, to my mind, that was a little hypocritical. While the new style was meant to make you feel part of the team, the captain of the team was as likely as not to abandon you when the proverbial hit the fan and push you into the firing line, no longer accepting responsibility.
In modern corporations we see CEOs, already on huge salaries, continue to receive bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million or two, even when company turnover and profit has dropped and the share price has fallen. Are they held accountable or accepting responsibility for the success of their corporation when that happens? Why do their boards allow it to happen? It seems just another step in the diminution of responsibility in the modern corporate world. It takes something on the scale of the Volkswagen deception on emission testing to force acceptance of responsibility at the highest levels but, even then, only after the deception is discovered. Why was it allowed in the first place?
Since President Truman a number of US presidents, including Obama, have had the sign ‘the buck stops here’ on their desk, but consider Nixon and Watergate. Nixon denied all knowledge of the break-in. Even when it became clear that members of his staff were involved in organising it, he still denied any involvement. It was the leaking of the Oval Office tapes Nixon kept that made clear it was not just a case in which he should accept responsibility for the actions of his staff but that he had been personally involved. He operated on the principle that if it was difficult to find the truth, he had scope to deny responsibility and that seems to have become common for modern CEOs and politicians — hence we now have the term ‘plausible deniability’.
We saw it in Australia with the ‘children overboard’ affair (also referred to in my previous article). Political staff have learned from the Nixon experience and now work to keep their minister at arm’s length from awkward situations, so there can be ‘plausible deniability’. Staff kept the corrected advice about the children overboard from Howard so that he did not need to lie when he maintained the story. When it eventually came out the blame was shifted to the public service, rather than staff in Howard’s office because, in the hierarchy between ministers’ offices and the public service, ministers’ offices do not make mistakes (at least not publicly). And I can point to the hierarchy that operates between government departments where the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) also does not make mistakes. In an example when I was still in the public service a mistake (of a minor nature) was made, based on advice from PM&C, but it was the head of the agency in which I worked who accepted ‘responsibility’ for the mistake — he was subsequently ‘looked after’.
When he was first elected Howard introduced a strict code of conduct for his ministers whereby they were held responsible for their behaviour, their pecuniary interests, gifts, travel entitlements and so on. But he lost seven ministers upholding that standard and soon retreated from it. So when it was revealed that Peter Reith and his son had run up $50,000 dollars in six years, from 900 locations around the world, on a ministerial phone card, the government ‘toughed it out’ — Reith did repay the money and retired at the next election. It was Nick Minchin who promoted the idea (now known as the Minchin protocol) that ministers, and other parliamentarians, should be allowed to repay any misuse of tax-payer funded entitlements and, if that was done, no further action should be taken. Both sides of politics initially accepted that idea to reduce ‘losses’.
By the time of ‘choppergate’, when Bronwyn Bishop used a helicopter for a short trip to a Liberal Party fund raiser and charged it to her tax-payer funded travel, then Prime Minister Abbott stood by her until that became untenable — both the media and members of his own party continued questioning it. In that circumstance, simply repaying the money was no longer enough and Bishop had to resign her position as Speaker.
Turnbull lost three ministers in the first six months of his tenure as PM: Jamie Briggs, Mal Brough and Stuart Robert; the first for inappropriate behaviour towards a female public servant; Brough stood aside pending police investigations into the Ashby-Slipper affair; and Robert for having an indirect financial stake in a company he assisted in Beijing.
But the question remains, why did they misuse their entitlements or their position in the first place? Like Nixon, do they not accept any responsibility for their behaviour unless caught? Do they not have principles that would tell them it shouldn’t be done, that as public representatives they do have a higher standard of responsibility? — or even some level of personal responsibility to operate within the guidelines? And why do those above them defend their actions or remain silent, waiting until the furore dies down?
Compare that to Andrew Peacock in 1970 offering his resignation after his then wife appeared in a television advertisement for Sheridan Sheets. Perhaps it could be construed as gaining an indirect benefit from his position as a minister in the Gorton government. His resignation was not accepted but it shows that responsibility was taken more seriously then even for trivial matters.
Similar examples of relatively minor offences occurred in relation to customs declarations during the 1980s. In 1982 Michael MacKellar and John Moore lost their places in the Fraser ministry over a colour television. MacKellar had returned from overseas with a colour television but declared it as black and white; Moore was Minister for Customs at the time. In 1984 Mick Young stood aside from the Hawke ministry pending an investigation into his failure to declare a Paddington Bear, which gave the incident its name; the investigation found he should have been more careful but had no intention of evading the duty and he returned to the ministry.
Then there is ‘misleading the parliament’, one of the worst crimes a government minister can commit. In the Westminster system, in both the UK and Australia, that was supposed to lead, in the old days, to a minister’s resignation or sacking, even if the ‘misleading’ was unintentional. That was because ministers were considered to have a responsibility to ensure everything they told the parliament was truthful — after all, they had large government departments to advise them. Even if the advice they received was shown to be wrong, they accepted responsibility because they should have checked further, had processes in place to verify the information or been more circumspect in their statement. That is often part of the political game, to prove that a minister’s statement has been based on incorrect advice. We have seen that, after the event, in the Chilcot report in the UK which examined the advice on which Blair made the decision to join the US invasion of Iraq.
In the Whitlam government both Jim Cairns and Rex Connor were sacked for misleading the parliament over different aspects of ‘the loans affair’. In the Hawke government John Brown lost his ministerial position in December 1987 for misleading the parliament regarding tenders for a theatre in the Australian pavilion at Expo 88. But no-one has stood down or been sacked for that offence since — that is 29 years in which no-one apparently has misled the parliament (not even Brandis)!
Nowadays, the word ‘intentional’ seems to have crept into that crime, so to be a sackable offence the minister must intentionally mislead the parliament.
Look again at the ‘children overboard’ in that light. Did Howard mislead the parliament? — yes. Unintentionally? — probably, but only because correct advice was withheld from him. So where does responsibility now lie if ministers are denied the information that would prevent them misleading the parliament? Should the buck still stop with them? — if a culture of protecting the minister at all costs has grown in their office and they have done nothing to discourage that, then perhaps it does.
Yes, there are varying degrees of mistakes, from minor errors to serious infractions. Would the colour television or Paddington Bear incidents merit being stood down in the modern climate? Even minor mistakes, however, are less often these days accepted by CEOs and ministers — as in Barnaby Joyce’s case. MacKellar would now likely have pointed to the staffer who filled out his customs declaration for him. Mick Young could have blamed his wife (if he dared) as the Paddington Bear was in her suitcase.
Some offences are not ‘hanging offences’ but they are now blamed on someone down the line. Resignation may not be required for minor offences but the people in charge should at least accept responsibility and explain how they will ensure such mistakes do not happen again.
So in this modern world if CEOs, prime ministers and ministers are no longer responsible, who is? It seems the buck stops with you and me, as voters and as shareholders. With the lack of principle shown by our leaders, both political and corporate, and their seeming inability to say ‘I am responsible’, it is you and I who need to place pressure back on them to do their job as it should be done. It is time we told them you are responsible for what occurs in your office, in your department, in your corporation; you are responsible for the actions of those under you; it may not always be a sackable offence but the buck stops with you regardless and you had best remember that!
What do you think?
Why do you think modern CEOs and ministers have abandoned the idea of being responsible for their organisations, let alone their own actions?
What can we do to make them accept that responsibility?
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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