Saturday, 15 November 2008

Killing babies 101

From my reading of the blogs and newspapers, the UK is up in arms at the moment over the death of Baby P. Two of my favourite blogs - The Devil's Kitchen and Burning Our Money have both decried the fact that an insider got their lawyer to write to the government warning them that procedures that were put in place after the earlier death of another infant were not being followed.

In fact quite a few letters were written, and all were ignored.

Having been in the belly of the beast, I will now explain how and why that can happen.

Let's say you are the RTA, and each year you run a number of unpopular road projects. There is one going on in my backyard at this very moment - the duplication of the Iron Cove Bridge.

The RTA has to invite public comment on projects like this, just so that it can say "we have consulted with the community" - even if the community gives it two thumbs down.

I am one of thousands of locals that have fired off a letter or email to either the RTA or our local MP or the Minister for Transport to say that this is a very stupid bridge. It is our own version of the much maligned bridge to nowhere that was scrapped in Alaska. Ok, it is a bridge to somewhere, but it's a waste of space. The money could be better spent digging a tunnel under Lyons Rd.

But I digress. We are supposed to be discussing dead babies and letter writing.

So just imagine you are the Grand Poo-bah of the RTA, and suddenly your mailbag is bulging with thousands of letters from irate taxpayers, all wanting your head on a pike for blowing taxpayer funds on an insane project.

What do you do?

Do you scrap the project and spend the money more sensibly elsewhere?


You redouble your efforts to get the stupid thing built, and you create a wall of flak catchers to deflect public opinion for long enough so that you can get the pilings sunk. Once you get to that point, the bridge is inevitable and people will shutup and go home and sulk quietly.

The flak catchers are a group of employees who have the unenviable job of dealing with the angry public. This is not a bad job in Australia, as we don't have a large and excitable element in the population. The mob is unlikely to get worked up enough to storm the Bastille and shoot every flak catcher in sight. Instead, the job largely consists of sitting in a nice, climate controlled office and churning out pat responses to angry letters. No, scrap that. I consists entirely of sitting in a chair churning out pat responses.

A major project like the Iron Cove Bridge might result in 10,000 letters arriving at the RTA. Some will be well written and well reasoned. They will be logical, spell-checked and gramatically correct. They will have been printed on a laser printer and signed by a person who is clearly sane.

Others will originate from the other end of the spectrum, being scrawled in pencil on a torn-out bit of paper from UFO Monthly. Those letters will make less sense, seeing as they usually involve a conspiracy between the RTA, CIA and a colony of giant alien space lizards who live under the existing Iron Cove Bridge, and want the bridge widened so that they will have more living space.

Some letters will be angry, bile spewing rants that contain a lot of swear words. Others will include the words "please" and "thank you".

Regardless of how badly or well written the letter, whether it is a noxious rant or a polite missive; the RTA flak catchers will have carefully crafted a form letter that will be used to respond to the lot of them. That form letter might take a team of 5 or 6 flak catchers a week to perfect. It might go through 20 or more drafts before it is finally approved for use. It might leave the Department of Flak Catching and circulate through the CEO's office for a look before it can be used. In some cases, it might even be sent up to the Ministry of Transport, and even through the Chinese Wall into the Minister's office for suggestions or corrections.

But once it has been approved, it will be cranked off the printing press in the thousands. The job of flak catcher at that point will be to turn up for work, unload the cart bulging with angry mail and start sorting the letters into this topic and that topic. Those that go into the enormous Iron Cove Bridge Idiots pile will have the name and address of the sender extracted and put into a mail merge list, and that list will then be merged with the template to generate a great whack of responses. It doesn't matter what is actually in those letters - if the sender has mentioned the words "Iron cove bridge", they get the form letter. It doesn't matter what position they take - they get the form letter.

Depending on how the letter came in, a variety of people might sign the response. If I happened to write to my local MP, and she managed to figure out what I wanted (for she is exceptionally thick) and then sent it on to the correct Minister for comment, then the response might be signed by the Minister for Transport or the CEO of the RTA. If I just wrote straight to the RTA, some flunky a few levels down, probably the Manager of Flak Catching, will sign the letter and send it straight back. Regardless of the path my letter took to get there, I will get largely the same letter back, just on different letterhead with a different signature.

For those of you interested in bureacratic process, this is what would happen if I wrote to my MP:

  1. I write to my MP
  2. MP's office writes a covering letter addressed to the Minister for Transport, creates a file, attaches a copy of my letter and sends it off. MP probably never sees my letter.
  3. Minister for Transport's office gets letter, creates a file, sends it to the Department of Transport to draft a response
  4. Flunky in Department of Transport gets the file, decides RTA will deal with it, sends letter to RTA
  5. RTA flak catcher creates a file, writes a response and has it approved by Manager for Flak Catcthing
  6. Flak catcher sends it to the Department of Transport flunky
  7. DoT flunky doesn't like the use of the word "is", and sends file back to flak catcher
  8. File bounces back and forth a few times until all are satisfied
  9. Flunky forwards file to the office of the Minister for Transport
  10. Policy Advisor in Minister's office reviews response, objects to the use of the word "or" and sends it back to flunky in the Department
  11. Flunky sends file back to RTA
  12. This happens a few more times
  13. Letter finally ends up in front of the Minister for his or her signature, which generally involves using a signing machine
  14. Signed letter is sent back to flunky in DoT
  15. Flunky sends signed letter to flak catcher
  16. Flack catcher posts letter to MP
  17. MP's office gets the letter from the Minister, writes a fresh covering letter, signs it on behalf of the MP, attaches the signed letter from the Minister and mails it back to me.
  18. I get a form letter from the Minister, and a form covering letter from my MP - neither of which have actually read what I had to say in the first place, and neither letter addresses the concerns that I originally wrote about
I actually left a number of steps out here. When my MP got my initial letter, her office would write an acknowledgement letter back, saying I'll get a response in due course. That letter usually turns up within a few days, if the office is even halfway organised and efficient. A "we haven't forgotten about you" letter might also be sent out if it looks like it will take more than a month or two to respond because the letter is bouncing back and forth between departments like a yo-yo, or all the flak catchers are off work with stress leave.

One might surmise that all this transferring back and forth of files and letters is done electronically via email or a shared records management system, but I would not bet on that. It all used to be done on paper, with files being transported between buildings once or twice a day by an inter-departmental courier. On top of that, thanks to constant reorganisations, the RTA, the DoT and the Minister's office are probably using three different and incompatible records management systems, and possibly different email systems. It would not surprise me to find that everything still moves around by hand.

I have of course left out a vital step in all this paper shuffling.

Let's say that there is a cabinet reshuffle, and the Minister for Transport is now someone else. All those letters that are in transit with the name of the old Minister on them now need to be returned to the flak catchers so they can reprint them with the name of the new Minister and send them back for signature.

Sod's Law then kicks in. The new Minister has been shining their new seat for a few days when all this correspondence lands in their tray for signature.

The first thing they do is take a dislike to the particular shade of paper that has been used, so the style guide is rewritten to demand a different shade of off-white be used, so all the letters go back via the usual convoluted route to be reprinted on fresh paper, and then they come back again.

At that point, a Policy Advisor to the new Minister takes a dislike to the Helvetica font, so the guide is rewritten and around we go again.

The Premier's office then discovers that the RTA has $100,000 worth of the old paper in stock, which is now useless, so it decrees that the Minister has to use up all the old paper before switching to new.

The letters go back once again to be reprinted.

It has taken a long time to get to this point, but imagine that is your working life - dealing with tens of thousands of form letters per year, and then having to reprint the same letters a dozen times due to idiotic formatting demands from the Minister..... and then you get a letter out of the blue to say that a particular council somewhere is not following a particular process.

What do you do with it?

Your whole life is spent not in solving problems or trying to adjust government policy to public opinion, but in trying to state that such problems do not exist and trying to adjust public opinion to government policy.

You immediately set about drafting a letter that says something like, "your correspondence will be taken into consideration by the relevant authorities during the next review period", and then file it and forget it.

It does not matter if you write directly to the Minister responsible. He or she never sees your letter in many cases. Their staff send the letter to the Department for advice, who then send it to the authority for advice - the same authority that made the stuff up in the first place. The Minister does not want to rampage through the authority sticking heads on a pike - they want an excuse that will shut the correspondent up and encourage them to never write another letter.

Imagine this. You find a problem, so you write to the authority responsible. They send you back some useless pap that says nothing and promises zero. That response is written by Flak Catcher Jones.

Annoyed, you write to the Department that supervises that authority. The Department sends that letter to the authority, where it ends up in the tray of Flak Catcher Jones. Jones writes a second bundle of pap that says nothing, puts it on Department letterhead and the CEO of the Department sends you much the same response.

Even more annoyed, you write to the Minister that oversees the Department thta supervises the authority. The Minister's office send your letter to the Department, who sends it down to Flak Catcher Jones in the authority.

You can write to your MP, the Premier or even the Prime Minister - it makes no difference. Your letter still ends up with Flak Catcher Jones in the bowels of the authority, and their job is not to investigate or make good or recommend action. Their job is to deflect criticism.

This happens every day.

It's only when a baby is fouly murdered that people get a glimpse of the uselessness and futility of the process. The process is not designed to make things better, to improve government operations. The process is designed to ensure that any bad news that could hurt the government or the authority is sanitised, cleansed, bleached and filed.

This is one reason why I hate big government. It is not there to help you. Help your own damned self. Get your friends or family to help you. Relying on government to help will only result in disappointment and occasionally death.


eeore said...

Alright how do you explain this.

The child was seen on 60 occasions by social workers and health care professionals with injuries inconsistent with explanations provided by the guardian. yet to the very end they ignored this and acted on the basis that bruising to 12 areas of the body was indeed caused by falling off a chair.

The police launched two investigations into these injuries but concluded they could not proceed with a prosecution because they could not establish who had inflicted the injuries: despite being in the belief that the only the child and the mother lived at the house. They also failed to notice that when the child was temporarily removed from the home - at the start of the abuse - the injuries stopped occuring. They were also unaware that the mother had a new boyfriend, or a lodger - indeed they appear to have been aware of pretty much anything relating to the case - and are now claiming that the mother was such a good liar that they had no way of finding out the truth - like for instance ringing up the social worker to compare notes, or calling round to the house, or checking with the benfits agency, or the hosuing assocition, or making enquiries with neighbours, or indeed asking the child.

A doctor failed to examine the child, after a referal from social services - though in fairness to the doctor the letter of referal from the social services did not specifically mention that the child had been on the at risk register for 8 months, or was the subject of two police investigations, or was apparently covered in cuts, bruises and nappy rash to the extent that the child minder had to mop blood from the high chair after use - and the doctor missed that the child had 8 broken ribs and a broken spine and semi paralysis - and possibly an ear hanging off - she couldn't examine the child because he was 'miserable and grouchy' and spent no more than five minutes on the case, though she claims it was longer and she did thoroughly examine the child - and missed the 8 broken ribs, broken spine partial parlaysis and possibly the left ear hanging off.

A government inspection team inspected the social services department and declared it was providing excellent services - despite it having 1 in 4 posts unfilled, and it now appears, a demoralised workforce, systemic bullying by middle management and an alleged culture of racism. And it so happens that the person signing off this report has previously been an employee of the person who is currently running the social work department.

The same social work department was then investigated by a supposedly independent review commisioned by the person running the social work department - whilst at the this person refused to hold a full review of the case, and hired a PR team to coach staff involved in the case to deal with the media.

The social work department withheld information and evidence from the criminal prosecution following the death of the child, and only revealed this information at the insistence of the trial judge - at which point 'boxes and boxes' of information comes to light.

Gagging orders were placed on a number of people by the council involved, and because of these gagging orders it is impossible for for the said whistleblower to get full answers to the questions posed by their disclosure.

A seperate inspection team arrives to investigate the allegations by the whistleblower and decides that there is no basis to the allegations - but orders the social work department to make a number of changes to practice and policy as soon as possible in order to safeguard children - which was in fact the basis of the whistleblowing in the first place. But seemingly these concerns were entirely different to concerns raised by the whistleblower and therefore ministers were not guilty of ignoring the concerns - bevause they were entirely different - substantively the same - but entirely different.

When finally 15 months later the details of the case are revealed, and the public is shocked and outraged to learn that a child has been systematically tortured to death in full view of the police and social workers - the Prime Minsister stands up in parliament and attempts to defend the social work department's, and ther police department's, review as independent and to effectively join in what has been a very successful whitewash until that point - then two hours later he announces that the highest commisioners for each branch of public servants - who have already cleared themselves and done no more than issue a few written warnings - is to conduct an urgent review into the case.

So in your RTA example - how would you explain these things.

And for more accuracy I would urge that the viticm in the RTA is run over repeateedly in full view of all the agencies who are charged with preventing RTA's for 8 months.

Ands perhaps for more realism, at some point you should have the road safety commisioner paint a zebra crossing around the twitching body - since this would match the facts of this case - as when the child was taken to hospital with two black eyes and a swollen head, the social services thought it appropriate to buy a fireguard.

We'll ignore the stories about the child being hit in the genitals with a shoe - or the social work manager thinking it odd that the child didn't respond to pain - since these probably don't work well in an RTA.

Boy on a bike said...

Trans, you obviously know a great deal more about the case than I do. All I can try to do is to explain the mindset behind the bureaucratic arse-covering papertrail that appears to have been created.

I forgot to mention that when a question is asked in Parliament, the relevent department is asked to provide a briefing. In my case, Gordon Brown would have been reading a briefing note written by.... you guessed it... Flak Catcher Jones. The Commissioners of the departments in question would also have been making media statements and briefing their ministers based on briefings produced by...

...Flak Catcher Jones.

When one department (say the Police) raised concerns about the handling of the case by Social Services, guess who would write the response to the Police.

Flak Catcher Jones.

When an inspection team was formed and sent in, it would probably include Flak Catcher Jones to ensure that nothing embarassing came out.

kae said...


"So in your RTA example - how would you explain these things.

And for more accuracy I would urge that the viticm in the RTA is run over repeateedly in full view of all the agencies who are charged with preventing RTA's for 8 months.

Ands perhaps for more realism, at some point you should have the road safety commisioner paint a zebra crossing around the twitching body - since this would match the facts of this case - as when the child was taken to hospital with two black eyes and a swollen head, the social services thought it appropriate to buy a fireguard."

RTA in New South Wales, Australia is the Road Traffic Authority.

Not the road traffic accident.

BOAB's point is that the way that government departments are run (or not run) can cause these sorts of compounded oversights and errors. Nobody seems to care until someone dies... but even then quite often nothing changes because it's someone else's fault.

It also appears from the story of Baby P and your rant that these particular child protection authority failures aren't only found in Australia.

Boy on a bike said...


I remember Tony Blair coming out with the concept of "joined-up government".

It appears that the only areas that were joined up were the spin doctors (Flak catchers is such a 1960's term).

Spin over substance. What a tragedy.

Margo's Maid said...

A fine explanation of why most of my correspondence with poli's and public servants takes months, BOAB.