Monday, 8 December 2008

Today's bad word: Partner

I haven't done a bad word for a while but something said by a government minister last week brought "partner" to my attention as a truly bad word in the wrong hands. Like most words, partner has its uses, as do "investment", "community" and all the other cuddly words the Labour government misuses in order to pretend things are not as they are. I cannot now remember exactly how the minister in question misused "partner" last week but that doesn't matter because they have been misusing it in the same way for years. To make things even worse in some instances it is used interchangeably with "stakeholder", I will leave "stakeholder" to another day.

So what is a partner? In popular usage it covers those who engage in bodily coupling, those who live together without benefit of clergy (whether or not there is much bodily coupling involved) and those who are in business together. Many a prostitute falls into all three categories. When a government minister uses the term the reality is usually that someone is being (ahem) penetrated by the government although they pretend to be working with their victim.

In recent times we have been told that the great British people, the government and the banks are forging a new partnership when the reality is that the government is taking money from us, giving some of it to the banks, demanding more back from the banks and telling them how to run their businesses. It is not a partnership but how many votes have they bought by people being misled into thinking we are all working together to solve the ills of the financial world? We have also been told that social workers and their "clients" are working in partnership; schools and parents are in partnership; the police, courts and prisons are in partnership; local authorities and those living in their area are in partnership and so on and so on. None of these relationships is a partnership in any sense and to describe them as such blurs the boundaries between the distinct functions each has.

The problem with blurring boundaries is not just that the different elements can lose sight of their specific job, that happens but it is a consequence of a far more significant vice. Each of the relationships I have mentioned involves distinct responsibilities which rest on one person or organisation. Generally speaking, the person or organisation bearing responsibility for a particular task has that responsibility because he, she or it is best placed to decide on the best course of action for the benefit of all involved. The police have responsibility for apprehending and charging suspected criminals, the courts have responsibility for assessing whether the suspicion is sufficiently well founded to justify a conviction for a criminal offence and the prisons have the responsibility for carrying a penalty of imprisonment into effect. These are three distinct functions, each in the hands of specialist organisations which (we hope) have the expertise to carry out their function to a proper standard. Muddle them together as a partnership and each might start to think it has the right to be involved in how the others carry out their work. Today we hear more representations than ever from the police about how the law should be interpreted and more judicial opinions about the merits of different sentences.

Education is a classic area in which responsibilities are confused through woolly thinking. The primary responsibility for educating children lies with their parents. The village elders used to require all parents to ensure their children were taught the things they needed to know and set up schools to do it for them if they could not do it themselves. Once a child is at school the responsibility for teaching rests with the school and the teachers in it, not with the parents. Parents can supplement the work of the school but cannot dictate to it or undermine what it does, at least for so long as it does the things the village elders used to insist on - reading, writing and arithmetic. Tell parents they are partners with the school and those least qualified to do so will consider themselves equal to the teachers and expect to be consulted on matters within the exclusive province of paid educators. Tell parents they must send their children to school and support the teachers' decisions, and the atmosphere is different. The teachers are then in charge of what goes on at school and parents are told about it not consulted whether it's OK for little Johnny to be taught that 2 + 2 = 4. Parents who choose to educate their children at home are perfectly entitled to do so provided they do it to the minimum standard expected of schools, but if they delegate their responsibility to a school it is the school which is in charge.

There are times when someone has to be in charge, someone has to have an enforceable right to tell someone else what to do because experience tells us that it is necessary for the general good. The village elders knew that, which is why they set up schools and insisted on all children being taught the basics of literacy and numeracy. It was necessary for the next generation even if the parents of that generation did not appreciate it themselves. Partnership had nothing to do with it, there were those in charge and those required to follow for fear of sanction.

An army does not function through partnership, it functions through orders being given by officers and carried out by other ranks. That doesn't mean they don't work together, nor does it mean that the other ranks have to be harrassed and bullied, but it does mean someone is in charge and someone else follows. Describing relationships which require an "officer group" and an "other ranks group" as "partnerships" does no one any favours. It weakens the chain of command by encouraging those who do not know to believe they do know. It also leads to each group being able to blame the other when something goes wrong. "I can't be to blame because I'm in partnership with him, her and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, we are all in it together, it is a collective decision therefore I must not be made to carry the can." That inhibits the identification of systemic errors and, therefore, makes correcting them far more difficult than it need be.

Keep the boundaries clear and you make sure those with responsibility for taking decisions cannot pass the buck. Leave "partner" to the bedroom and business.


Mark Wadsworth said...

I think to annoy you I'll invent the concept of the "Community-Ethnic Stakeholder Partnership Investment Trust".*

* Colloquially referred to as "Cesspit".

TheFatBigot said...

No, I'm not going to rise to the bait.

I am enjoying a Climate Reaction Awareness Programme this week, aimed at ensuring I enter the festive season in a state of harmony with everybody and everything mother nature has bestowed upon us.

You might try to drag me into your CESPIT but my CRAP will float to the surface every time.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Are you getting confused with the Community Reinvestment Action Partnership?