Asking the wrong questions on the Plymouth shootings

On 12 August a gunman in a working class district of Plymouth killed five people: his mother and four others who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, before killing himself; two others are seriously injured. The community’s first thoughts, rightly, are for the victims and their loved ones. But questions must be asked about whether this episode could have been prevented. And here the early signs of the discussion are not encouraging. It is hard to see how Britain’s public services will get much better while politicians, senior managers and commentators all look at problems in the wrong way.

What is clear from the evidence that has emerged so far, however, is that this is indeed a failure of public service. The shooter used a licensed firearm; there was ample evidence that he was not a fit person to possess such a deadly weapon, and local people had expressed their concerns about his state of mind. The dots could easily have been joined and the weapon removed from his possession, as it had been temporarily previously. In fact the intervention could have been even simpler: by not returning the weapon to him a month or so ago.

And yet the senior politicians and public servants involved may be shocked at the loss of life, but they look unworried by accusations of failure. This is what the writer Douglas Adams called the SEP field in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which confers complete invisibility. SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. In this case it stems from the way we assume that all organisations should be run, and especially public ones: through a system of written policies and procedures. Lawyers love this. To see if anybody is culpable if something goes wrong, all you have to do is check whether individuals followed the written procedures. Workers and managers like this for the same reason: follow the procedures and you should not be blamed if anything goes wrong. If something does go wrong even though everybody has followed procedures, then the call goes out to amend those procedures – and the public can be told that lessons have been learned. It is a wonderful system that rejects any notion of common sense and leadership, but it is no way to run an efficient and effective organisation. That depends on managers pulling together information from various sources and making decisions to further the interests of the society, or their employers. Procedures can help them to do this, but they can also get in the way, and they are often absent for the particular circumstances of the here and now. It is then that leadership kicks in – and the critical organisational thing here is whether managers have the scope to gather the information they need and the authority to act. This was clearly not the case for those overseeing public safety in Plymouth. But nobody is likely to be talking about it.

Commentary on this incident began badly. One of the main topics was whether the shooter should have been categorised as a terrorist. This matters so far as the various procedural routines that public servants follow, but is a red herring if you think that the main problem was a lack of local leadership. The conversation quickly moved on to the procedures for granting and renewing firearms licences, and the need to trawl social media postings. Absent from this discussion, as usual, is any question over resources and prioritisation. Apparently licences were being waved through because the police managers had decided that other areas were a priority. Police resources are stretched, so I would not like to second-guess that decision. Might the requirement to look at social media simply incur a whole lot of pointless trawling and arbitrary decisions about what is relevant? It would take a courageous public servant to suggest as much in the wake of this tragedy. Furthermore it still leaves those who were worried about the shooter’s state of mind with nobody to talk to.

There is in fact a clear organisational solution to the management of threats like this: neighbourhood policing. In London the police did try this a number of years ago, though only after prodding from politicians, and they quietly gutted it when political attention moved on. I had a little experience of it while helping one of our ward campaigns in the early 2000s. A team of half a dozen police officers and PCSOs were given responsibility for a local authority ward (about 15,000 residents in that case). They made it their business to meet regularly with local people, gathering information about their concerns and intelligence about who was doing what. They then took the initiative to try and head off threats to public order – organising youth activities, for example. In this case at least it would have given somebody the chance to put together the disparate pieces of information that pointed to a threat. The technique is popular in America, but it has failed to get much traction here. Police chiefs clearly think that it is an inefficient use of resources. They prefer to invest in specialist squads and things like heavily armed SWAT teams. Doubtless this follows modern management fashion, which emphasises focus and prioritisation. But a lot of the police’s job is risk management, which does not respond well to such thinking (“prioritising risk management” is an oxymoron: risk lurks in the areas you do not prioritise). But the problem isn’t just the police; it is the whole system of political management and public services. If there was more political accountability at ward level, the police would have to respond to it. Instead being a ward councillor is usually an undemanding first step for budding politicians, or a sinecure for status-seeking political activists. As with most of the country’s political representation, most contests are uncompetitive, with one party dominating. Councillors’ political careers depend more on managing their party connections rather than being accountable to the public.

Added to this is a persistent idea that an efficient organisation requires functional specialisation, which leads to what my management training referred to process fragmentation. Crafting a solution to a problem, such as somebody having mental health issues, often requires the involvement of several specialists, each of who can veto a solution. An official looking at a problem instead sees several problems, most of which are not his or her responsibility – the SEP field again. This can be compounded when people use data protection as an excuse not to share information. This is at the root of many public service failures – though not necessarily this one.

All this leads to a cycle of public service failure. Bad things happen; changes are made; things get no better because people ask the wrong questions. We content ourselves with the thought that things could be worse, and life goes on. We should demand better.