The confession by Elizabeth Campbell, the new leader of Kensington Council, that she has never been in a high-rise flat has led to allegations that she is out of touch, and is seen as confirmation that rich and poor are “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones.”
There is, though, another inference. It starts from the fact that Ms Campbell was for years both in charge of the council’s children’s services and on the board of Kensington and Chelsea’s TMO. You’d imagine that either role would require her to know a little of the reality of life in a council flat.
That Ms Campbell escaped such reality is not an idiosyncratic failing. Instead, she embodies a feature of today’s management described by Robert Protherough and John Pick in 2002:
The achievement of modern managerial goals generally involves a high degree of mental abstraction, but little direct contact with the organization’s workers, with the production of its goods or services, or with its customers and users. As the admirable Professor Mintzberg says…most modern managers are “capable of manipulating symbols and abstractions but ill-equipped to deal with real decisions involving people.” (Managing Britannia, p32)
The danger of this was pointed out 42 years ago by Kenneth Boulding – that bosses will become out-of-touch:
All organizational structures tend to produce false images in the decision-maker, and that the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.
This is no mere theoretical possibility. It’s exactly what Chilcot says happened with the Iraq war: ministers didn’t know the ground truth. And we’ve seeing the same thing with Brexit; Brexiteers wibble about mental abstractions such as sovereignty but are ignorant of nitty-gritty ground truth of how exactly to negotiate the countless minutiae of Brexit.
This leads me to sympathize with John Gapper’s lament that politicians lack practical knowledge of science and industry. What’s most missing though, is the scientific method, the essence of which is the collision between theory and fact. If you make no effort to discover ground truth (or in Ms Campbell’s case, 15th floor truth) you’ll never test your beliefs against the facts and you’ll never learn.
And this is just what happened. Blair’s war in Iraq wasn’t so much a moral failure as an intellectual one; he failed to learn not just the messy truth about Iraq but also the vast evidence on cognitive biases. Likewise, Brexiteers failed to learn from Blair that it’s not a good idea to embark upon a risky foreign policy without a detailed plan or strong evidence.
Herein lies what so appalling about Ms Campbell. In being wilfully out of touch, she is actually typical of so many policy-makers. Today’s dangerous ideologues are not Marxists but managerialists of all parties who are constitutionally unable to learn.