Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The art of not being straight

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

Pol Pot tried it in Cambodia and failed, with catastrophic results for the people of Cambodia. Christopher Westcott thinks he can succeed in BBC Monitoring where Pol Pot failed in Cambodia. He, too, will fail, and his actions will probably result in the eventual closure or massive shrinkage of BBC Monitoring, unless his superiors and Monitoring’s stakeholders wise up to what he is doing.

What Pol Pot and Mr Westcott have in common is, first, a desire to obtain the unanimous support of those over whom they have authority and, second, the method of choice, coercion - in the case of Pol Pot, the threat of incarceration or death and, in the case of Mr Westcott, the threat of redundancy or dismissal.

For two years since his appointment on 1 April 2003 as Director of BBC Monitoring, Mr Westcott could only watch in frustration as staff survey after staff survey showed that he is as distrusted as his peers elsewhere in the BBC and his predecessors in BBC Monitoring. However, whereas his peers and predecessors simply shrugged this off, for Mr Westcott this was intolerable.

For most staff at BBC Monitoring, too, the almost universal lack of trust in Mr Westcott and most of his managers is also intolerable. As with any decent, professional people anywhere, they, too, would prefer to be led by managers whom they trusted. For two years, they waited for Mr Westcott to take measures to restore staff trust in management, for instance, by meaningfully addressing the problems of bullying and harassment and by putting an end to the ceaseless, tedious squabbling among his top managers. But he did nothing.

It is said that Mr Westcott’s excuse was that his hands were tied while BBC Monitoring was undergoing reviews as a result of the decision by one of its stakeholders, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), to slash its share of funding for Monitoring. As far as many staff are concerned, this is nonsense. Mr Westcott could have acted six months after his appointment in 2003. And he could have acted in the interregnum between the “Cronin” review in 2003-04 and the Cabinet Office review led by Sir Quentin Thomas in August 2004. Even a small gesture would have worked wonders with staff.

We now know that Mr Westcott had never intended to create trust in his management by addressing the causes of distrust. This is clear from his decision to reappoint almost all of the previous managers. Here, too, staff had not been looking for a completely new management board - that would have been impractical and unnecessary. But they did expect certain key changes.

We have speculated elsewhere on this blog as to the possible motives behind Mr Westcott’s determination to eradicate BBC Monitoring’s culture and corporate memory. The catalyst for the demolition job was provided by the £2 million gap between the FCO’s cut in funding and the funds which Monitoring’s other stakeholders were willing to provide to make up for the shortfall. According to management’s statistics, in order to fill this gap, it was necessary to cut between 40 and 80 full-time jobs - the ideal opportunity for Mr Westcott to launch his Cultural Revolution.

It would be futile to speculate as to whether or not Mr Westcott welcomed the £2 million cut in Monitoring’s funding in order to give him an excuse for launching his Cultural Revolution. In the final analysis, a large number of jobs had to be cut to save £2 million. And we all knew that a large part of the cuts had to come out of our bloated middle management.

What we did not expect, however, was that, among those who would be placed on the precipice of redundancy, would be some of Monitoring’s best and most experienced staff. Nor did we expect that the de-selection of middle managers would be so blatantly used as an opportunity to give greater prominence to staff who fit Mr Westcott’s ideal profile for Monitoring’s next generation of “leaders”.

But what came next is, for many staff, the final straw and a glittering example of the hubris of a management that has exceeded itself in the art of not being straight. While everyone expected a reduction in middle management and in the editorial teams covering regions that have now been deemed as low priority by BBC Monitoring’s stakeholders, the wholesale vetting - and possible dismissal - of other, non-managerial staff was never on the cards.

Since April this year, staff had been asked to express their preferences in writing (i.e. whether or not they wished to stay at BBC Monitoring and, if they wished to stay, in which department they would prefer to work). They had been told that the purpose of this was, first, to ascertain who would prefer to take voluntary redundancy and, therefore, avoid the need for compulsory redundancy, and second, in the case of departments that faced substantial cuts, to get an idea of where their staff preferred to work. The expectation had been that, in the latter case, there would be a discussion, or discussions, between staff and managers in order to ponder the most appropriate options for both staff and the organization.

However, surreptitiously, our top managers, for whose actions we must hold Mr Westcott fully responsible, have turned this into a wholesale vetting exercise in which all staff, even those in departments not facing any cuts, are now required to discuss their options with their line managers, even though these options would be known to the managers from the preference exercise. We can only surmise that the sole, hidden purpose of this last-minute sleight of hand is to ensure that, even at sub-management level, no one who does not fit Mr Westcott’s profile of the Obedient Staffer remains at BBC Monitoring.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thus was it ever so. Managers at BBC Monitoring have a lot to answer for in the way they have used public money. One senior leader mere weeks before leaving for his retirement found it necessary to make a visit to the East Africa Unit. One manager boasted of sunbathing while on a trip to Sao Tome. How vital their presence was only the gods of volcanic sand beaches will ever know? They had an engineer with them who did all the real work. I think they had the nickname of Air Miles. The key task of news gathering for the BBC and open intelligence for the government was always ably handled by very hard-working and well-informed staff. Their reward was to be openly derided in management meetings as a bunch of whinging no-gooders. I spent one year listening to management meetings and thought they were the shoddiest bunch I had ever worked with and for. In addition, I learnt that favours in promotion and working life could be at your disposal if a liason with a leader was on offer. Never seemed attractive to me despite one very much rejected offer in my early days. However, some prospered well under such preferment. One poor woman on maternity leave found her job had gone when she wanted to come back to work. Her temporary replacement had found favour in the upper echelons and stayed. The new mother won her case against BBC Monitoring but never got her job back. Now why were we never surprised?