My latest piece at DIPLOMAT looks at how performance is assessed and rewarded (or not) in the modern public sector.

Despite (or maybe to compensate for?) the horror that is the modern British government of sullen bureaucracy and shabby clothes, British diplomats tend to work hard and loyally. They trudge through all the protean post-modern process of Targets, Objectives (Objectives must be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timed), Road Maps, Strategic Priorities and Risk Management, and still somehow manage to get something done. How many London-based foreign diplomats have to reckon with all this rubbish? Not too many, I expect.

Not all diplomats want to ‘get things done’. Some hope and scheme to have a quiet, congenial life unbothered by anything as squalid as actual diplomatic work.

I recall fondly an ambassadorial colleague in Warsaw who told me how his core aim over his posting was to do nothing at all. No calls on Polish Ministers, no reports to HQ, no senior entertaining, no senior visits. He wanted to see how long it took his capital thousands of miles away to notice or care. As far as I could tell, he saw out his posting with no great harm done either to himself or to bilateral relations.

What a guy!

We all know what junk food is. Cheap over-processed  that has a superficial appeal but does nothing good for you. Behold its counterpart in public life: junk management.

The current UK Civil Service Competency Framework (sic) drones on for a horrible 46 pages and over 14,000 words(!) about its ‘clusters’ of expected skills. Under ‘Strategic Cluster – Setting Direction (Changing and Improving)’ it notes an example of Ineffective Behaviour at senior level:

Create/tolerate bureaucracies and inefficient ways of working which hinder effectiveness

This sprawling unreadable Framework itself is, of course, a classic example of just that.

I am pondering Rules for my philosophy thesis. Take the rule for promoting a pawn in a chess game (emphasis added):

When a pawn reaches the rank furthest from its starting position it must be exchanged as part of the same move on the same square for a new queen, rook, bishop or knight of the same colour. The player’s choice is not restricted to pieces that have been captured previously. This exchange of a pawn for another piece is called ‘promotion’ and the effect of the new piece is immediate.

That looks simple and reasonable. You move the pawn and replace it with a queen or whatever. Simples.

But what if there is no spare queen-piece nearby? Is the pawn ‘exchanged’ just by announcing that it is henceforth a queen?

What if your opponent ignores that announcement and carries on as if you have made no promotion?

As Elvis Costello puts it, That could never happen here … but then again it might:

And it duly does.

In other words, the more you simplify things in terms of principles, the less detail you have for how those principles apply in real life. Hence rules and Competency Frameworks get longer and longer and more and more useless if not openly oppressive.

Foreign policy is complicated. Long-term v short-term. Big v Small. Certainty v uncertainty. Principle v Politics v Practical v Possible.

‘Judgement’ is the word for all that. Judgement is not about looking at the world from the point of view of one’s feelings and experiences. It’s the exact opposite of that. It’s about acknowledging one’s feelings/experiences but not letting them detract from a hard-headed or even ruthless focus on the wider issues. What’s important v what matters.

In short, without Judgement a civil servant (like a Minister) is useless. Maybe even dangerous.

All true. What if a diplomat has unerring judgement – and the system isn’t interested?

Imagine a UK Embassy watching events in  Yuvnoaydiya, an autocratic state important for regional stability. The Ambassador may have spent a whole career aiming at this posting. S/he knows the local elites and ‘has a quiet word’ here and there to nudge along large commercial deals. Back at HQ, Ministers too have good relations with their Yuvnoaydiya counterparts. All is well. Yuvnoaydiya is a ‘pillar of stability in the region’!

Two young diplomats in the Embassy see it all differently. They think that the Yuvnoaydiya leadership is corrupt, squandering international loans on vanity projects. Out there on the street, living standards are falling fast and people are increasingly angry. How to tell if revolutionary upheaval is looming? If Yuvnoaydiya collapses it will cost UK taxpayers billions. Surely, it’s a wise investment to spend a few million now to engage with the opposition and invest in democratic change. Stop lending Yuvnoaydiya money, even if Yuvnoaydiya’s current rulers will be furious!

The two young diplomats write a trenchant paper analysing what they see as Yuvnoaydiya’s inevitable crisis. The Ambassador is amused by their temerity and sends their paper back to HQ under a lofty letter noting that while some features of the local situation do need watching, basically all is well. Yuvnoaydiya is a ‘pillar of stability in the region’!

Ministers who know nothing at all about Yuvnoaydiya nod. There are far more pressing problems in the papers this morning. Priorities! And let’s be pragmatic. it’s not for the UK to nag Yuvnoaydiya’s leaders to reform, when so many large contracts are looming: “Better the devil you know, warts and all!”

Time passes.

The young diplomats and the Ambassador leave post. Within a hundred weeks or so Yuvnoaydiya collapses into calamitous civil war. The same Ministers who ignored those warnings from the lower reaches of the Embassy go on TV to announce that the suffering in Yuvnoaydiya can no longer be ignored. And UK taxpayers indeed end up spending billions on humanitarian assistance, debt relief, peacekeeping and post-war reconstruction.

How many of those billions go to performance bonuses for those awkward young diplomats who got it right? None.

How much money is clawed back from the plump pension of the Ambassador who got it wrong? None.

The system boasts that it champions Competences. In practice it rewards Incompetences.

In short, with Judgement, all is soon lost.

Why has the word ‘judgement’ been removed from its erstwhile pride of place in the FCO’s staff appraisal procedures? It features a mere four times in that rambling Civil Service Competency Framework’s 14,000 words. What does that change signify for what UK diplomacy and the wider UK government system think they’re meant to be doing?

No-one can say. Perhaps the word judgement now sounds a bit … judgemental? God forbid that anyone these days assert that some proposals are good and some just bad, or attempt to correct sloppy drafting. Why are you projecting elitism and privilege? Show respect for diversity!

Back in real life, some foreign services keep their steely eye on the steely ball:

I fondly recall talking to a Russian diplomat about something that had gone rather wrong. “Yes,”he said, “The official responsible has been punished.”

Punishment! What a simple, strong, noble idea.

It’s not mentioned once in the Civil Service Competency Framework. Let’s bring it back.

Read the whole thing. Weep.