ukcivilservant

Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Business Department today published an interesting White Paper with the above title.

The background is that we seem to be undergoing a further Industrial Revolution in which the physical, biological and digital worlds are coming together in the form of new technologies such as machine learning, big data, robotics and gene editing.

Regulators have for some time noted the disappearance of boundaries between the various forms of communication:- “It’s all now bits and bytes”. Road vehicles and aircraft are nowadays little more than complex IT systems in aluminium shells. And biologists appreciate that the genetic code in DNA uses only four chemical bases (A, C, G & T) whose sequence needs to be read, decoded, and translated into the more complex amino acid alphabet used to form proteins. So they now use the same language as software engineers, using concepts such as coded instructions, signalling and control.

The White Paper recognises this convergence and proposes no less than 28 measures to be taken by government and regulators to address these six challenges:

  • We (the UK) need to be on the front foot in reforming regulation in response to technological innovation
  • We need to ensure that our regulatory system is sufficiently flexible and outcomes focused to enable innovation to thrive
  • We need to enable greater experimentation, testing and trialling of innovations under regulatory supervision
  • We need to support innovators to navigate the regulatory landscape and comply with regulation
  • We need to build dialogue with society and industry on how technological innovation should be regulated
  • We need to work with partners across the globe to reduce regulatory barriers to trade in innovative products and services

Comment:  We await the reactions of innovators and industry, but this document – at first sight – looks both sensible and worthwhile.  Its detail clearly needs to be read by all those interested in this important area.

Non-experts wanting easily accessible information about the regulation of communications, the internet, AI and other emerging technologies might like to browse the Understanding Regulation website.

 

Martin Stanley

Editor  –  Understanding Government websites

 

Advertisements

Competition Authority wants to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

The CMA (the UK’s principal competition authority) has clarified its earlier request for more powers.  Its Chair, Andrew Tyrie, delivered an important speech yesterday in which he argued that:

‘The evidence indicates both that competition policy is lacking in vigour, and that it is too narrowly focused on process, rather than practical outcomes for millions of consumers. … Just as the pace of change in markets in accelerating, the competition framework is taking ever longer to get results. In the time it takes to reach a decision and go through the appeals process, markets may move on. The detriment will be developing somewhere else.’

So he wants the CMA to be more assertive:

‘If we don’t contribute to finding the solution to the demise of trust in markets, we increase the danger of being cast – by populists on the left and right alike – as part of the problem. This will put at risk the foundation of an independent competition regime, and many of the welfare gains derived from it. And presage a return to the days when competition policy was subordinated to daily politics.

If  [competition authorities] are to secure legitimacy in this febrile environment, they should do one of two things. Either they should ask for the tools to address public concerns about markets, or they should have the courage to tell politicians that it is their responsibility, and say so publicly, and if appropriate – given their remit – advocate how.’

The CMA’s current processes mean that …

‘… it is slow – it can take over 3 years before the CMA is in a position to order remedies, even in cases where the failure to act urgently can cause lasting harm…. if the CMA identifies – during its markets work – a practice that is harming consumers, it should be able to order it to stop, pending an investigation, under threat of a fine for those who might flout its order.’

Accordingly, the proposals include

‘measures to increase board-level responsibility for complying with the law, so that competition and consumer protection are in the minds of company directors. And it is proposed that, for serious breaches of consumer protection law, director disqualification should be a possibility. Just as it is for competition law offences.’

On the other hand, Lord Tyrie suggests that the CMA’s powers should be rolled back in other areas:

‘These include removing the CMA’s responsibility in respect of regulatory appeals, which may be better heard by the courts. They also include transferring primary responsibility for the prosecution of criminal cartels, which may sit more naturally with a law enforcement agency that routinely brings criminal prosecutions.’

Comment

There is much to applaud in Andrew Tyrie’s speech.  The principal difficulty, however, is that the CMA is a quasi-judicial body – so it, and its predecessors, have always taken great care not to take any decisions before giving those it investigates a fair opportunity to state their case and adduce relevant evidence.

As Andrew Tyrie says in his speech “I was struck, when I took up this role, by how little [the CMA] says in public”. But there was a good reason for this, and the CMA will inevitably find its decisions judicially reviewed if they appear to have resolved in advance “to do something about” an unpopular company or industry – or if they take enforcement action “pending an investigation” – and then confirm their own suspicions.  It might be a price worth paying, of course, but the CMA will need to tread carefully.

I was also struck by Lord Tyrie’s implied belief that he can bring about more rapid change by making recommendations to the government.  He points out that Ministers have asked the CMA to “actively challenge central and local government”.  Hmmm … I wonder.  The CMA recently  called on the government to legislate to end the dominance of KPMG, PwC, EY and Deloitte and their conflicts of interest in the audit market.   But the CMA could itself have begun an 18 month Market Investigation which could have triggered very strong interventions. Politicians might move faster, but I am somewhat sceptical that they will always do so.

Finally, having worked in this area for several years, my instinct is that it will not make sense for other organisations to hear regulatory appeals or mount cartel prosecutions.  I suspect that these duties simply do not interest Lord Tyrie, but that is no reason to get rid of them.  But maybe I am being unfair.  It will be interesting to see others’ reactions.

 

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Regulation

Capita Charges £235 for Sellotape

Senior civil servants seldom experience the intimidation that debt collectors – often acting on behalf of public authorities – inflict on those of limited means.  Sometimes, however, we witness direct the dubious tactics of companies such as Capita.  Here is my story …

One early evening last July, my wife heard someone climb the steps to our front door and very shortly afterwards leave again.  She assumed that a leaflet had been put through our letter box.  No-one knocked on the door or rang our doorbell.  I returned home at around the same time and saw someone leaving our premises and driving away.  I then found a “Collection Notice” sellotaped to our front door.  A redacted copy is below, from which it appeared that the notice was aimed at a nearby neighbour.

equita notice redacted

I rang the “collection agent” straight away, who assured me that he had not delivered the notice himself but that Equita employed “correspondence agents” (or a similar description) who must have made a mistake in this case.  He asked me to send him the notice by email, which I did.  I subsequently became concerned that it:

  • had not been fully completed – e.g. with the name of the debtor and the amount owed,
  • contained a clear lie (i.e. that the agent had visited the property with a view to meeting the debtor), and
  • therefore wrongly included a £235 enforcement fee, which seemed deliberately intimidatory.

I never heard back from the agent, despite a reminder.  I accordingly wrote to Equita’s Chief Executive at his ‘correspondence address’ in central London as notified to Companies House.  No-one in Equita relied to that letter.

I subsequently realised that Equita is owned by Capita plc and that Equita’s main office is in Northampton.  I accordingly then wrote to the Chief Executive there and received an unsatisfactory reply from one of his staff.  After further, almost comical, to-ing and fro-ing, Equita finally admitted that “a colleague of [the collection agent] attended your house in error and delivered a sealed envelope addressed to the account holder”.  I wrote again, as follows, on 7 February:-

You will have appreciated, I am sure, that my main concern was that your agent tried to intimidate the debtor by charging a £235 enforcement fee when no-one – and especially not the agent concerned – had even knocked on (what they thought was) her door.

But you don’t address this issue in your letter, which leaves me in a difficult position.  The misdelivered letter has in effect told me that Equita has tried to extract £235 from my neighbour (….) when no such fee was due.  But you have not yet confirmed that the fee should not have been charged, nor told me that the fee was cancelled.

… I appreciate that the misdelivery was a simple error which does not deserve a strong reaction.  I suggest, therefore, that you should please confirm that the fee should not have been charged, and that this has been made clear to your agents.  If you will kindly do this, I think we can let the matter rest there

I have heard nothing since, despite sending a reminder.  So it seems pretty clear that Capita/Equita still believe that merely sellotaping a notice to a door entitles them to a £235 fee.

I know that the MoJ are currently reviewing the Enforcement Agent legislation, and I have submitted evidence.  In the meantime, I can only hope that local authorities and other Capita customers are getting wise to what is being done to debtors in their name

 

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding the Civil Service  &  Understanding Regulation

 

Has The Competition Watchdog Slipped His Leash ?

The Sunday Times’ OIiver Shah argued last weekend, that CMA Chair (and ex-politician) Andrew Tyrie’s “fingers were all over” recent decisions to “fire a blunderbuss at the accounting industry and a torpedo at the £14bn merger of Asda and Sainsbury’s”.  I am not so sure.

There is no doubt that the CMA Chair has a greater ability to target the authority’s resources than had some of his predecessors.  This is because the CMA subsumed both the Office of Fair Trading – which decided which cases needed investigation – and the Competition Commission – which was a purely reactive body, judging only those cases referred to it by the OFT or other regulators.  But he has to be careful.  An enthusiastic targeting of a particular company or industry, followed by an adverse decision, would be bound to be challenged in court as clearly biased.

Oliver Shah reports that the big four accountants “are thinking of demanding a judicial review” following the recent firing of the CMA blunderbuss.  However – maybe surprisingly, maybe deliberately – the CMA had not been asked by Ministers to carry out a full two year Market Investigation which could have led to enforceable decisions.  Instead, it merely carried out a faster, less formal Market Study whose recommendations are accordingly less robust, and are for HMG to consider.  M’learned friends may correct me, but I can’t see that the CMA took a decision that was JR’able. If (as Oliver Shah suggests) “Tyrie and friends are shooting from the hip”, this is more a reflection of the nature of their study than any apparent bias.

And it would have been more surprising, I would have thought, if the Sainsbury’s/Asda merger had been allowed to proceed, and not blocked. Again, I can see no obvious evidence that “the decisiveness bore Tyrie’s hallmark”, as alleged by Oliver Shah.

Like Oliver Shah, I welcome the CMA’s willingness to take hard and unpopular decisions when this is necessary, and its Chair has an important role in encouraging this.  But its decisions must be based on hard fact and robust economic argument.  Andrew Tyrie will come a cropper if  he seeks to impose his personal views on his experienced and skilful CMA colleagues.

Martin Stanley
Editor Understanding Regulation

Civil Service Ethics – in 700 words

Now seems as good a time as any to publish this beautiful summary of the ethics of the UK civil service, taken from a 1949 Handbook for the New Civil Servant.

“The first thing that strikes many people, when they come into a Government office for the first time, is the importance that the Civil Service attaches to papers – files, memoranda, written records of all kinds. A good deal of the work of the Civil Service, of course, is done by telephone or by personal conversation, but you will find that anything important or new has to be recorded on paper somewhere, sooner or later; and in all probability a large part of your work will consist of dealing with papers – reading them and writing them.

You may think this is a slow and cumbrous way of doing things; but there are two reasons for it. The first is the Parliamentary system of government. Parliament has the right to inquire into any action taken by a Government Department, and a Parliamentary Question may be asked at short notice, perhaps a long time after the event, perhaps in absence of the civil servant who actually took that particular action. So that Parliament may get the information, it is essential that there should be a written record of the action and, as far as possible, of the reasons for it. Secondly, the written record is necessary to preserve the impartiality of the Civil Service to the public. The Civil Service cannot, as a private business sometimes may, give one customer a bargain and make up for it by charging another customer extra; it has to deal with all on the same terms. Therefore, there must be a written record of what has been done in the past, so that it may be done again in the future when the same problem arises. That does not mean that the Civil Service is bound by precedent. Very often there will be no precedent, in other cases it is clearly right to modify earlier policy. But this should be done not by intuition but deliberately after considering what previous practice has been.

Another thing that may strike you is that very few problems seem to be settled by one person alone: the papers may sometimes pass through several hands before a letter is answered or a decision given. This is partly due to the need for looking at the records – a job which is done by the juniors – partly because very often a subject will concern more than one branch of a Department. The process need not cause delay and is essential if there is to be a consistent policy.

From the very first you must learn to be precise and honest in your work. You must fully appreciate the problem to be solved; you must then collect and check all the relevant facts, and set them out clearly and fairly. Don’t take anything for granted: there is always more than one point of view, and it may be dangerous to accept somebody else’s statement without verifying it for yourself. Don’t be lazy and try to pass off a guess as an accurate figure or statement; it may not be questioned, but if it is you must be prepared to justify it. If you see a snag, or a difficulty, or a point which you don’t understand, don’t ignore it in the hope that nobody else will spot it; it is your job to straighten it out, or if you can’t, at least to point it out to your chief and let him deal with it. Whatever shortcomings civil servants may have, they must never be found wanting int his kind of honesty.

Moreover, you must be accurate. You must learn the importance of using words in their exact meanings, so that they convey, to somebody you have never seen, exactly what you intend to convey, and not just something roughly approximating to it. If there is any ambiguity in your phrasing somebody is sure to misunderstand; so say what you mean, simply and clearly. Keep your sentences short and avoid officialese. Read “Plain Words,” the book by Sir Ernest Gowers, published by the Stationery Office at 2s.”

[Rebecca Gowers, Sir Ernest’s great-granddaughter, has created a new edition of ‘Plain Words’, updating it to reflect modern English usage.]

 

Martin Stanley

Editor:  Understanding the Civil Service

Hornchurch & The Bouncing Bomb

Can anyone help solve this mystery?

6

This – surely unique – bomb-proof building was constructed at great expense a couple of years before the Second World War. It sits in the grounds of a house in Emerson Park, Hornchurch, then owned by a senior naval architect called Lazarus Serafim Polychroniadis. He had left Athens to make a career in England at the end of the 19th century and was particularly knowledgeable about the effect of water pressure. His daughter Dorothea worked for Winston Churchill during the war and it is believed that Churchill visited the Polychroniadis family during the war.

The 5 metre square building has extremely thick concrete walls and was provided with its own heating, ventilation, and flushing lavatories. . The only external ‘window’ was a pressure-defying re-purposed submarine hatch. And the only external door was made of strongly reinforced steel, whilst its hinges, too, were made of very thick steel. A 10 ton crane stood outside, powered by non-domestic three phase electricity, which is used in industry etc. to power large electric motors of the sort that are to be found in big cranes.

Here are photos of the submarine hatch (from outside), steel door (from inside) and a hinge (from outside the building).

7 8  9

It seems clear that the building was used for some very special war-related development work, possibly connected with bombs which were designed to bounce off the surface of water and then detonate at specific depths and water pressures.  London Gardens Online says that “Wartime experiments were carried out [in Capel Nelmes, Hornchurch] including development of the bouncing bomb across flooded land.”

The building is not far north of RAF Hornchurch, which may well have supplied the necessary labour and expertise.  And the soggy Rainham and Hornchurch Marshes lie near the Thames just south of the airfield.

There is however no known link with Barnes Wallis and the team who later developed the ‘Dambuster’ bombs.

Can anyone help with further information, or suggestions about avenues of investigation that might be followed?  (We are already in touch with the War Museum and Kew)  If so, please email Martin Stanley .

Regulating in a Digital World

The hatred and bile hosted by Facebook and Twitter, the death of Molly Russell, Trump’s (and pre-referendum) fake news , etc. etc. have caused all right thinking liberals to crave new regulation and a new regulator.  But might they come to regret their enthusiasm?  Today’s (9 March) House of Lords report adds to the pressure for regulation, and contains much useful material, but its recommendations deserve critical scrutiny.  Here are some thoughts, in the order in which text appears in the report

The cornerstone of the report is its assertion that “… a large volume of activity occurs online which would not be tolerated offline”. (Summary)  Well … maybe it wouldn’t be tolerated in The Times or on Sky News,  but it is certainly tolerated – or at least unregulated – in private groups, in playgrounds, and in some recent newspaper headlines aimed at Brexiteer ‘traitors’ and Judicial ‘enemies of the people’.  So the recommendation in the Summary that ‘the same level of protection must be provided online as offline’ looks to me to be a serious over-simplification.

Another recommendation is that ‘[internet] services must act in the interests of users and society’.  I would hate to be a regulator tasked with enforcing that principle.

Still in the Summary, whilst I can see the case of an oversight regulator (‘the Digital Authority’) I doubt that it should have the power to ‘instruct’ other regulators what to do.  This would be a recipe for regulatory confusion.

The next para refers to network effects as though they result in an inevitable (and implicitly near permanent) ‘winner takes all’.  But this suggestion has been debunked by MIT’s Catherine Tucker who points to the once apparently inevitable domination of Microsoft and MySpace, the ease of switching between Lyft and Uber, and relative failure of Google Plus.  ( I strongly recommend her very readable articles here and here.)

There is an important discussion (paras 27-32) about the advantages of principles-based regulation over rules-based systems.  It’s all very seductive, but it ends by noting that “No form of regulation will be effective unless it is enforced.  Enforcement mechanisms must have sufficient resources and be rigorously applied.”  And that is indeed the problem. It can make sense to allow industry to find its own best way to meet a regulatory objective, having provided it with advice and guidance – but not if some in the industry are ill-disposed to regulation, and/or if non-compliance can be dangerous.  Remember Grenfell Tower.  Again, I would not like to be responsible for defending the enforcement record of an “unaccountable,  non-elected” regulator charged with enforcing their Lordship’s principles.

Much of the rest of the report contains useful material and sensible recommendations about data protection, competition law etc.  But Chapter 5 dives back into controversy as it tackles the hot topic of ways to curb bullying, online abuse, extremist content and political misinformation.  The discussion is of high quality, as one would expect from their Lordships, and they in particular say very sensible things about improving content moderation by Facebook and the rest.  They also broadly support the Carnegie Trust/Woods/Perrin ‘duty of care’ proposals under which action against online service providers “should only be in respect of systemic failures” rather than individual instances of speech.  The report also endorses the ‘Digital Authority’ recommended by Doteveryone. (Click here for more detail.)

But the report then seems to go further and faster than Perrin and Woods and leaps to the unqualified conclusion that ‘the precautionary principle’ requires ‘the remit of Ofcom [to] be expanded to include responsibility for enforcing the duty of care’.   (The principle supposedly applies because ‘the scale and risk of these issues is unproven’.)  However, the report does no more than nod at the concerns about the encroachment of free speech and general regulatory morass in which Ofcom could so easily find itself. Graham Smith has written very elegantly about this – see here and here, for instance

More particularly,  is Ofcom seriously intended to hold Twitter, Facebook, Mail Online etc. to be held to the same standards as printed media? Would Ofcom have to consider requests to ban Labour’s alleged ant-semitism as well Tommy Robinson’s alleged racism? Would a duty of care mean a refusal to republish President Trump’s many lies, or the views of anti-vaxxers?

I do like the Perrin/Woods approach, and I am convinced that we face problems that are so severe that something needs to be done to address them.  But i don’t think we can sensibly expect Ofcom to undertake this new responsibility without a lot more thought and guidance than this report appears to offer.

 

Martin Stanley

Editor, Understanding Regulation website

 

 

1949 Handbook for the New Civil Servant

I am hugely grateful to the IfG’s Tim Durrant for letting me publish a copy of his civil servant father’s 1949 induction handbook. Astonishingly (or maybe not), a very high proportion of it could just as well have been written in 2018.  Here are some excerpts to whet your appetite.

This first excerpt  is equally valid today, I think, except for the unfortunate reminder that the post-war civil service was very male dominated:-

HMT1

This is definitely good advice:-

HMT3HMT4

Most of these attributes are equally important today, although I fear they seldom feature in annual reports:-

HMT6

And here is a reminder that women’s equality was some way in the future:-

HMT7

Follow this link to read the whole handbook – It’s only 21 pages.

The Understanding the Civil Service online library contains a large number of other interesting documents.

It also contains a fascinating history of women in the civil service, together with some inspiring stories of ground breaking female civil servants.

 

Martin Stanley

Editor:  Understand the Civil Service  and  Understanding Regulation .

The DPP Should Be Allowed To Talk About Resources

These are some thoughts in response to some interesting questions that arose following soon-to-retire Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders’ interview in the Observer in which she said that her organisation and the police were critically short of the skills and resources required to combat crime … to which The Secret Barrister responded

“Gosh. If only this Alison Saunders, talking honestly about the chronic under-resourcing of the Crown Prosecution Service, had been DPP. Instead for 5 years we’ve had that obliging civil servant blithely insisting that all was well as the CPS burned.”

I chipped in with the standard line that civil servants may not publicly attack Ministers’ resourcing decisions – or any other Ministerial decisions for that matter.  This generated some challenging further comments and questions.

  • The Secret Barrister pointed out that “Alison Saunders went out of her way to pretend that there were no problems. That was the issue that really grated.”
  • Michael Heery pointed out that officials in the health sector have gone much farther than DPP in talking about the effect of cuts.
  • Jonathan Potts asked “Is the answer for the DPP to be not a civil servant?
  • AJP Wood asked “Surely Civil Servants already aren’t allowed to be anything other than honest per the Civil Service Code?:- [Civil Servants] must not deceive or knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others.”
  • And ex-Home Office Lorraine Rogerson noted that previous DPPs were not from a Civil Service background. Prosecution decisions constitutionally independent. The AG also independent. Cutting funds undermines independence. But it is a public service & has also to be accountable. AG’s role, influence and relationship with DPP (and championship of prosecution services) crucial. DPP has to maintain a network of support as well as being independent.

So here are some further thoughts from me.

First, it is very hard to understand, let alone defend, the artificial borders between various parts of the public sector such as

  • the principal government departments,
  • non-ministerial government departments (NMGDs) such as HMRC, the CPS, the CMA, Ofsted and Ofgem), and
  • various non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) such as NHS England, the Environment Agency and the Financial Conduct Authority.
  • And then there are local authorities, various types of school, the police, the BBC, and so on.

There is even, as Lorraine Rogerson points out, a distinction between those NMGDs that have operational independence but a close relationship with a Minister (such as HMRC and the CPS) and those that are even more independent (such as the economic regulators).

Second, I do not find it difficult to defend the obligation of near public silence that is imposed on those – such as Permanent Secretaries – that give policy advice to Ministers.  It is better, as AJP Wood suggests, that they should say nothing rather than make misleading statements about the abilities of their organisations.

But, third, I think that we should now be quite grown up and allow the (civil servant) Heads of NMGDs (such as DPP Alison Saunders) to have the same freedoms as the (non-civil servant) Heads of NDPBs (such as the NHS’ Simon Stevens).  Of course they shouldn’t mount all out attacks on those that appoint and fund them, but Parliament and the public are surely entitled to hear their honest opinions about the strengths, weaknesses and resources of their organisations.  Simon Stevens seems to have walked this particular tightrope with some skill, and has gained resources for the NHS.

The case for such openness is strengthened by the fact that an independent prosecution service is a cornerstone of the justice system and indeed the constitution. However, as many – not least The Secret Barrister – have pointed out, the Criminal Justice system has been shamefully denied resources. Expecting the DPP to remain mute like a senior Mandarin is therefore quite wrong; the whole point of the role is independent decision making.

And there is a wider governmental question here.  Oppositional voices, challenge, and creative tension should all be welcomed and indeed promoted if good services with integrity are to be delivered and improved.

I would therefore like to see Alison Saunders’ successor – whilst technically remaining a civil servant – insisting on the same freedom of expression as his colleagues in the health service and other important pubic roles.  This would also free him from worrying about breaching the Civil Service Code, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Many thanks to Lorraine Rogerson for helping me write this blog

Martin Stanley

Editor:  The UK Civil Service and Understanding Regulation

Bullying and Performance Management

Dame Laura Cox QC today published her report into bullying and harassment in the Palace of Westminster.  It contains some very helpful general advice and definitions, especially for managers (a) who receive complaints of bullying, or (b) who are concerned that they may be accused of bullying when trying to improve the performance of their staff.

Apart from two comments, the following text is taken almost verbatim from Dame Laura’s report.

What is Bullying?

The report contains two useful definitions of bullying:

  • Behaviour that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.
  • Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

The report notes that bullying or harassment:

  • may be by an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people.
  • may be obvious or it may be insidious.
  • may be persistent or an isolated incident.
  • can also occur in written communications, by phone or through email, not just face to face.

Whatever form it takes, bullying is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.

Performance Management

Staff who are facing criticism of their performance may feel that they are being bullied by their manager.  The report offers this sensible advice:

  • When introducing new standards of performance, a good manager will usually involve all the members of the team in agreeing them, rather than seek to impose them without discussion and with accompanying threats of disciplinary action if they are not met.
  • Positive contributions and improvements in performance will be monitored, acknowledged and rewarded openly, rather than dealt with arbitrarily, involving obvious acts of favouritism, or just ignored altogether.
  • A failure by someone to achieve the required standards will be dealt with initially as a performance-improvement issue, the employee being treated with civility throughout and with the provision of appropriate support, rather than pressure to conform being exerted using sarcasm, ridicule, threats or humiliation, often in the presence of others in the team.
  • An under-performing employee should know from the start that their performance is under investigation, and why, rather than learning only after the event that it has been under investigation for some time, and that disciplinary action is now imminent.

Comment: This advice is sensible but I would add that I think it unfortunate that HR professionals generally refer to formal performance management warnings etc. as ‘disciplinary action’.  The word ‘discipline’ implies serious fault – such as bullying – and should, I think, be reserved for genuinely bad behaviour.  Under-performing staff need to have their performance managed – if necessary to the point of dismissal – but they will often be in the wrong job for their skills and experience. I don’t think that they should be ‘disciplined’.

The Need for Full Records

The report notes that:

  • Patterns of behaviour are extremely important in tackling bullying. It is always right to consider whether the “perpetrator” was under acute pressure and just having a bad day, for example, and whether this was just an isolated outburst with no lasting effects and the behaviour was out of character, or whether such incidents had happened before.
  • It is therefore important for organisations to maintain reliable records and to log reported incidents and their outcomes accurately, and to have systems in place to enable patterns to be picked up and their historical and systemic significance understood.

Comment:  The implication of the above advice is that an isolated outburst is bullying and should be recognised as such.  But, if reported to the employer, it should not lead to formal disciplinary action against the bully, if he or she appreciates that their behaviour was unacceptable, and if the behaviour is not repeated.

Martin Stanley

Editor      The UK Civil Service and Understanding Regulation websites

%d bloggers like this: