6th July 2017
Have them sleep under the bridge
(Press the red ‘play’ button to hear the audio – 7:45 minutes)
Transcript of the Audio
The Grenfell Tower disaster, that took place in London on 14 June 2017, is symptomatic of a much larger problem – and a problem that is not confined to fire risk, or even all of health and safety.
The problem is that those with power do not listen to those that have little or no power.
We heard that, in the case of Grenfell, there had been many warnings and appeals by the tenants about the fire risk. We also learn that the fire services had warned councils about this very issue following other fires in tower blocks, but that no action had been taken.
Why don’t those with the power to act, listen when they should? , What would have made them listen and act?
There are many explanations but most come down to biases, misunderstandings, and systemic pressures. When some large catastrophe like Grenfell happens, we are only too ready to blame. Our instinct is to identify the culprit and to enact retribution. But blame is a complex concept (see: the blog post ‘Who’s to Blame?’). There is a lot wrong with the idea of rushing to blame.
Firstly, it is not necessarily the most useful thing to do. The most useful thing to do is to reduce the risk of something similar happening again. In the case of Grenfell, this might be evacuating people from high-risk buildings or it might be replacing cladding or taking other fire risk measures. It could for example, involve far better procedures for quickly evacuating buildings. This sort of remedy may have little to do with the cause (and hence who or what to blame), i.e. in this case, the cause of the fire and it’s spreading. Blame is only useful insofar as it helps fix the problem.
However, identifying the cause can be a very useful thing to do, because ultimately this may well lead to the most effective method of prevention. But, the second reason for not rushing to blame is that causes are often complex. In fact, they are almost never simple, and they very much depend on the perspective of the observer. In the case of Grenfell, we could say that the cause was the cladding, or the person or department that ordered or authorized the cladding, or the political atmosphere of austerity that may have influenced the decision as to which cladding to buy. We might also blame the advice to stay put in your flat in the event of fire elsewhere in the building. We might blame the building inspectors or the testing procedures. We might blame the more affluent residents of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea for wanting better-looking buildings or prioritizing the spend of council money on services other than fire prevention. We might blame the manufacturer for offering flammable cladding in the first place. So, there are many possible ‘causes’ ranging from the nature of the material through to the nature of the political regime.
Even though we can take many perspectives on the cause, it is difficult to ignore the fact that there were many warning signs and that these were communicated to the people who had the power to act. So why didn’t they?
I would suggest that it is mainly to do with biases, misunderstandings and systemic factors rather than gross moral turpitude. The biases I am talking about are not necessarily to do with prejudice against the poor or immigrants (although these could play a part). Rather they are cognitive biases such as biases in assessing the probability and impact of unlikely events, failure to recognize the part that one’s own decision-making might play in affecting outcomes, making assumptions that it is somebody else’s problem or that somebody else is dealing with it. There will be misunderstanding about how, and the speed with which, fire spreads, how people may respond differently if the fire happens at night, misunderstandings as to whether either fire prevention or evacuation measures are in place, how smoke, hot air and hot stairs might hinder escape and so on. The systemic problems may arise because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, the effects of staff changes making people unfamiliar with the context and circumstances, operating under the pressure of rising demand for services while having to save costs, prioritizing the demands of those who have power or who shout the loudest, and living in a culture of austerity. Few people would deliberately take risks with life if they had a full understanding of the context, the risks and probabilities, and the consequences, and if they had no subconscious biases.
However, there is a way that encourages people to think harder about all these factors. This is to have them expect to experience the consequences of their decisions. This is more than just putting their jobs on the line.
There was a time when, if you were the designer of a bridge, you would be required to sleep under it for the first six months after it was built. That provides a real inducement to ensure its safety. It is accountability in the most personal and direct way.
The problem is that in a modern, complex and global society we have lost the notion of direct accountability.
Take the financial crash of 2008. The people that designed the financial instruments and systems were far removed from the consequences of their actions on ordinary people. Take also the practice of organizations putting in place customer services department. They just distance the directors from their customers. As a consequence the customer becomes impersonalized and subjected to standardized, faceless procedures enacted by customer service representatives, and increasingly by automated systems such as telephone IVR systems and web-based form filling. There is nobody to answer the difficult questions, deal with the exceptions or rectify poorly designed services. I don’t think I am being too cynical in thinking that the people in charge of many of these companies deliberately evade responsibility and direct accountability in relation to their customers (or even their shareholders). Even the complaints procedures seem deliberately designed to wear down and dis-empower the complainant before a matter is dealt with, let alone remedied. This means that complaints almost never lead to service re-design, as they should, and, like any organism that does not respond to changes in it’s environment, it becomes dysfunctional and eventually extinct.
The systems of regulation are often no better. Regulation failed in the case of Grenfell. It failed in the financial crisis of 2008. It has failed with respect to vehicle emissions and exaggerated claims about miles per gallon. It fails in curbing the biases and mis-uses of power in much of the media. It fails because it is just another layer of protection and delay in feedback to those with the power to make changes.
In the last few days we have learnt that six people are to be charged with offenses relating to the Hillsborough disaster that took place on 15th April 1989, and where 96 people died. That’s 28 years ago. That is not direct accountability.
If we want those with the power, to listen, then we have to devise mechanisms of direct accountability. Those making decisions have to directly experience the consequences of those decisions. The people in Grenfell Tower had to face those consequences. That gave them the right to be listened to and it was incumbent on the decision makers without that same direct accountability, to listen to them.