Q: With a new year almost upon us, what do you think the business world should resolve to do in 2022?
A: I have given myself three wishes for 2022, none of which, if I’m being realistic, have much chance of becoming true. But, being a bit of a maverick, it’s important to dream.
We are drifting dangerously into a world that’s steadily being brought to its knees by over regulation and a lack of personal freedom. My three wishes are a new year trilogy of highly unlikely dreams that aim to create a watershed in the cause of common sense, while flying in the face of modern management’s “best practice”.
My first wish is for executives to stop using technology to hide from their customers. It has become almost impossible to talk to a company. At best, we must text a computer that hasn’t mastered the art of conversation and can’t make a decision.
Just before the Grand National, Coral, the bookmakers, banned me from placing a bet. After failing to receive a response from text messages, emails and a phone call (“our helpline has been closed due to Covid”), I only got a response when I told my story in this column.
Sadly, the nearest a desk bound executive gets to customers is when they study their performance dashboards at a board meeting. Once a month, the chief executive should step into his or her customers’ shoes and hear the helpline for themselves. “Your call is very important to us, but we are busy at the moment and you are 67th in the queue” should trigger some action.
Artificial Intelligence, “bots”, virtual receptionists and voice recognition are poor substitutes for the personal touch. A company’s service level can be measured by the distance between the chief executive and his or her customers.
Wish number two calls for smaller government and less regulation. During lockdown, there has been a significant shift from private to public sector. In spring 2020, like many other companies, we were fighting for survival and carried out a dramatic cost cutting exercise with a sizable reduction in our workforce. It was tough, but we are much more efficient as we enter 2022. A large chunk of the civil service simply carried on as before. While the private sector was saying goodbye to the poorest performers, public sector employees kept their jobs and started working from home (perhaps out of sight and out of mind).
It gets worse. Covid gave our Government the chance to tell us how to run our lives: stay at home, one hour of exercise a day, the “rule of six”, mandatory masks and Covid passports. It has established a move to more central control, with Whitehall making personal decisions on our behalf and stimulating the economy through multi-billion pound infrastructure projects with more and more regulations. This now requires more civil servants with inflation-proof pensions. The Government needs to go on a diet.
My third and final wish is a desperate plea on behalf of those children and families who need better support from children’s social workers. It’s a pressing topic following the recent, horrible murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.
There will be enquiries, as there were following the deaths of Victoria Climbie and Baby P, but I hope the investigations look beyond individual circumstances and take a proper look at the social workers’ role. If so, they will discover that less than 20pc of a social workers’ time is spent talking to children and families, while 80pc is spent completing administration and filing reports.
Every enquiry leads to another layer of safeguarding and more strict guidelines for social workers. That leaves even less time to do the job. The administrators may be safeguarding themselves, but in covering their own backs they are putting more children at risk.
People who sit in offices or work from home do more harm than good by creating policies and laying down procedures. Rather than issuing orders, their job should be to support front line workers to become the best they can possibly be. If fully trained social workers can spend most of their time talking to families and are trusted to use their initiative, the change to our children’s social service would be transformational.
Four times as many families would get help at no extra cost. Morale would go sky high, making a massive difference to recruitment and retention of social. Overheads would plummet as government departments and local authorities stop writing rules, niggly processes are scrapped, fewer boxes are ticked and all eyes are concentrated on the outcomes achieved for the children and their families.
Three wishes with a common theme: more trust and less bureaucracy.
Happy new year.
Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.
Send him a question at [email protected] and read more answers from his Ask John column here