Consultants love to have a stock of memorable phrases and quotes to illustrate the points they make, and if no-one has said the right thing at the right time, then they’ll simply invent one. So the following quote, generally attributed to the Roman Consul Gaius Petronius in AD66, was probably invented by a consultant in the 1950s.
“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising: and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”
It’s a pity that it wasn’t said that long ago, but nevertheless it has a certain feel to it. Like all the best made-up quotes, it has credibility, which is probably why it appears on the staff notice boards of so many organisations facing reorganisation.
The idea that a reorganisation can or will solve the problems of an organisation is nothing new. But for a reorganisation in itself to resolve a problem, the problem usually has to be one caused by the current organisational structure in the first place. And it is rarely the case that the structure is what is causing the problems – they’re usually more, much more, to do with the people in the structure or the processes and policies being followed.
It’s in that context that I wonder whether the ‘radical’ solution to Wales’ under-performing education system announced by Leighton Andrews yesterday is really the right one. That we have a problem is indisputable. That there is too much duplication of effort by having 22 education authorities is less certain, but is the subject of widely-held consensus. But I’ve seen no clear evidence that the one is the cause of the other.
And if the under-performance isn’t caused by the duplication of effort across 22 authorities, then in what way is it suggested that removing the duplication will rectify the performance? I suspect that the problem is more around the processes, policies, and personnel on the institutional side, and the lack of aspiration and application, resulting from inequality and lack of opportunity, on the part of the pupils. And I don’t immediately see how moving from a structure of 22 LEAs to one of four consortia does anything to address that.
It does, though, appear to be decisive and tough, and enable the government to claim to be acting. And it’s something which can be implemented during the term of a single minister, leaving his successor to deal with the unresolved performance issue at some future date.
It’s what Petronius never actually called the ‘illusion of progress’.