Our blessed government seems to still be selling us the donkey (many apologies to any donkey-lovers – and, indeed, donkeys – reading this post) that those ladies and gentleman responsible for the horsemeat scandal are a group of murky underworld elements quite different from anyone in respectable public or private office.
Of interest, then, to my naturally suspicious self is the following quote from the Telegraph article in question:
Mr Paterson [the British Environment Secretary] yesterday said: “As we speak this morning this is an issue of fraud and a conspiracy against the public I think probably by criminal elements to substitute a cheap material for that which was marked on the label.
As he goes on to point out, in language all politicians are prone to understand (the bold is mine):
“It is a labelling issue. Now we may find out as the week progresses and the tests begin to come in, we may find out there is a substance which is injurious to human health. We have no evidence of that at all at the moment.”
Once again, we see that branding (probably literally in this case) raises its ugly and foolish head. For politicians do love to define every problem in terms of how it’s being communicated – and never in terms of how objectively grave it might be. To say that the issue is simply one of labels is – really – to argue the empty-headed toss about one of the most significant concepts in 21st century business: just think of all the money and effort massive corporates, privacy groups and other interested observers are expending in justifying their different approaches to issues such as the integrity of intellectual property, its differentiation and its intrinsic right to earn an exclusive income from its authenticity.
So it is utter bollocks for anyone these days to argue that anything is ever just a matter of labels. If it were absolutely nothing else, it would be more than massively a matter of great preoccupation. If such arguments are good enough to justify oppressive Internet intrusion in order to protect film content and DVD sales, surely a little more hands-on attachment to the integrity of our food chain is also fairly going to be warranted.
But back to my first quote tonight, and this phrase in particular (again, the bold is mine):
“As we speak this morning this is an issue of fraud and a conspiracy against the public I think probably by criminal elements to substitute a cheap material for that which was marked on the label.
Criminal elements – or standard business practice? Isn’t the drive that is continuous improvement – which perpetually looks for ways to substitute a more expensive “material” with a functionally similar but far cheaper equivalent in every single process, procedure, product and service – exactly what 21st century business is exactly about?
In reality, these “criminal elements” are only doing what every good businessperson, CEO and team leader does every single day of their working week. The objective of their respective marketing actions is to match perceived customer needs to such processes, procedures, products and services – and deliver the outcomes in question at both the lowest possible cost and highest possible price. So perhaps, as the Telegraph does indeed suggest today, the behaviours which are coming to light at the moment are rather more distributed, widespread and “endemic” than the furious distancing techniques of recent government statements would tend to give lie to.
As I have already noted on these pages, both the banking and food sectors’ regulatory bodies share the same abbreviation: the FSA in each case. This is, of course, a total coincidence – but not an irrelevant or specious one. That such crises of propriety, probity, confidence and honour should assail banking in recent times has led many of us to assume the problem is sectoral. But that similar patterns should now repeat themselves in our food chains should, surely, make us begin to think more than twice.
In each case, we have perhaps necessarily top-down institutions with about as heavy a governance as one could expect, failing lumberingly to inspire the sort of trust one would hope for in their respective consumers and users. In each case, it would also seem that through the habit corporate organisations always exhibit of building, little by little, every element of their precious practice on the assumption that preceding and successive practice is coherent, correct and contained, the tenuous connections thus finally constructed lead them almost inevitably to criminal downfall. Part of the problem, of course, is that companies are made up of people, and people cement their understanding of whether other people are behaving themselves on the basis of what these other people manage to do to appear trustworthy.
You can never entirely remove from any process or procedure the need to trust that another is doing what they are supposed to do. And when you add to the mix the Chinese walls that are designed to ensure we all behave ourselves – but which, in the event, seem to be leading more and more of us to misunderstand the acts of other specialisations to the terrible detriment not only of the companies we work for but also of the societies we operate within – it would seem the mix is becoming dangerously explosive.
Don’t get me wrong. Corporate organisations are potentially magnificent tools to organise a globalising century of many billions of human beings. But when they become as fragile as they have of late, we might rue the day we decided to construct our societies around them.
They have, I fear, become corrupting in what many of us saw as precisely their greatest virtues: those very paused and structured mannerisms we assumed would guarantee – at the very least – some kind of enduring sense and sensibility.
When businesspeople and criminals both use the same structures to such an extent that it becomes practically impossible – from the outside looking in at least – to tell clearly enough who is who, maybe it’s time we decided on a different set of approaches.
For maybe the day business and criminal practices first began to use the same tools is the day we should have decided – in some way – to shut up this stable for good.
Before all these bloody horses had their chance to bolt our systems and – in that process – perhaps ended up criminalising us all.