Melanie McDonagh

Sir Humphrey’s new suit

The Civil Service has finally learned something from business: it is now fluent in management jargon

Sir Humphrey’s new suit
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A friend of mine has just come back from a few days of Civil Service in-house training. He managed in no time to get the hang of the exercise, namely, the mastery of another language. Not a foreign language, which might have been handy, but not English either. ‘I learnt,’ he said proudly, ‘about “brain-friendly learning”, “career pathing”, “energy management” and — my absolute favourite — “impact residue”, which is what you leave behind when you have met someone: what the uninitiated would call a lasting impression. I was encouraged to “flex my styles” and identify “meta-objectives”. In short, I am a new man.’ In other words, he’s learned management-speak.

It’s the kind of thing that invites joyful parody from journalists, until it dawns on us how far the rot has spread: David Cameron, talking about transparency in government the other day, insisted that the government wouldn’t be setting targets, oh dear no, but ‘milestones’. And ministers are starting to talk about whether cuts are to be ‘frontloaded’ or ‘backloaded’, which means whether they’re happening sooner or later. How does a minister end up talking about snow as a ‘severe weather event’, as one did recently? It may be because that’s the sort of stuff he’s reading in his briefing papers, the jargon that his civil servants have learned to talk to him. Because that’s what has happened in Whitehall.

I’ll tell you when it came home to me that management-speak had taken over the Civil Service, at its very apex, and that was when I came across a little booklet issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the use of its staff. It was a fine example of the genre, all 14 pages of it. It was called Stakeholder Engagement and it came with the imprimatur of Peter Ricketts, the department’s permanent under-secretary, and David Miliband, then the foreign secretary. Under the new government the Stakeholder Engagement Team which generated it is going strong and there is, for good measure, a ‘network of stakeholder managers’. The introduction set the tone. ‘Stakeholder management,’ it declared, ‘is the core of diplomacy and service delivery. We have engaged many of our stakeholders in the development and delivery of our objectives. We must continue to do this across the board in a strategic, systematic and innovative manner.’ It doesn’t actually say what a stakeholder is, just that his management is the core of ‘service delivery’. Four paragraphs down, we do get a definition of a stakeholder, as ‘those organisations and individuals who can affect the achievement of FCO’s objectives… we must engage with… stakeholders that have most potential influence’. I showed it to a friend who used to work in the Foreign Office and he said tersely: ‘It means who we should be talking to, when, and how.’ Which is pretty well, you might think, what diplomacy is about.

And that’s the problem with jargon. It talks up things that are self-explanatory, obvious or not very important and which could be said at very little length, and makes them seem grand and portentous. But because of the effect of the language, which has the same immediacy as Esperanto, it takes a mental translation to decide what the author or speaker is on about. Stakeholder Engagement equals (in this context) How To Influence People, but if you put it like that, its banality and gratuitousness would be self-evident.

The opening chapter describes the ‘basic principles of engagement’. ‘Stakeholders,’ it says, ‘can have both a positive and negative impact on the outcomes so they can be both partners in delivery or opponent detractors.’ In other words, some of the people you deal with in foreign affairs are on your side, some are not. And it acknowledges that ‘many FCO staff have wide experience of dealing with stakeholders and thus an almost instinctive understanding of how to get the most from the relationship’. That means, diplomats know who are the people who matter and how to talk to them. ‘A systematic approach… ensures consistency… from how we engage to what we evaluate.’

And so we get to a flow chart, which begins with Identification and Mapping, goes on to Prioritisation, then Engagement, then Evaluation. Identification of your stakeholder involves ‘asking who’s on the way up or down’. You might, it says, ‘consider involving someone as a facilitator’, but this should be a ‘brain storm to compile raw information’. You might mock the term brainstorm, reader, but it’s old hat now. A couple of years ago, one company outlawed the term, on the grounds that it was offensive to people with epilepsy; the approved term was ‘thought shower’.

But back to Stakeholder Engagement: having identified our stakeholders, we prioritise them. ‘Our recommended system for prioritising stakeholders,’ it says, ‘is to rate them against two criteria: how much power or influence they have over your ability to achieve your objective vs how interested they are in your objectives.’ Which brings us to another chart, a grid with one axis for power, another for interest, helpfully identifying which bit means high power plus high interest, as opposed to low interest and low power. It’s followed by another graphic, this time of two pyramids. One, right side up, shows at its top the most influential stakeholders; the other, upside down, shows at its top where you should put most money. Or as ordinary people might say, it advises putting most money where it’ll be most useful.

I gazed at all this, and then it dawned on me that I’d seen it before. Remember the row about the Foreign Office memo before the papal visit, the one with suggestions for the Pope to open an abortion clinic and do forward rolls? That was the result of a ‘brainstorm’. It involved making a little grid, of Papal Visit Stakeholders, with one axis for influential, another for non-influential people, which included Help the Aged and building contractors. The result was a diplomatic crisis.

I’ll spare you the finer, further details of the memo, the other grid about the Nature of Engagement and the Focus of Resources or the recommendation for a ‘team wash-up’ after events to assist ‘Evaluation’. But it’s worth pondering that this is something that people in the Foreign Office are required to read. It can be summed up, as my friend did, as ‘who we should be talking to, when, and how’. It employed the attention of four well-paid people yet it was simultaneously impenetrable and redundant. Consider: before the last war, candidates for the Civil Service exam would be required to write a precis of a hard piece of prose in order to be considered for employment. The civil servants of that era would, I’d say, be incapable of writing like this. And the thinking, or what passes for thinking, behind it, is everywhere; on the Foreign Office website there is a section on ‘Campaigning and Strategic Influencing’.

And there’s the other problem. If you’re spending money — staff time, production expenses — on your stakeholder management strategy, you’re not spending it on other things. And a couple of years ago the FCO showed where its priorities are when it did away with the Foreign Office library, an extraordinarily important archive; its institutional memory, if you like. Some of the antique books were sent to King’s College London, where they are not readily accessible; th e rest were left out in the corridors for lucky staff to make away with. And the grounds for doing so was the want of resources. Yet the FCO could, at the same time, use its highly paid, highly intelligent staff to write 14 pages on a concept that you’d have laughed out of existence if it had been proposed in real English.

And the Stakeholder Engagement Team is, as I say, still very much with us. William Hague was asked recently by the Foreign Affairs select committee whether he would be encouraging staff to engage in management speak or to focus on knowledge of specific regions. He didn’t rise to the bait. But he did say he had been surprised at how many Foreign Office people couldn’t spell.

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a leaderwriter for the Evening Standard and Spectator contributor. Irish, living in London.

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