Information flow and why Managers Mess Up

The Paddington Rail crash in London in 1999 led to 31 deaths and well over 400 injuries. At fault was a simple set of rail signal lights which were difficult to see (from the train driver’s point of view). When the crash was investigated it quickly emerged that Network Rail (then called Railtrack), the company responsible for rail line maintenance, had been repeatedly warned about the danger. A number of drivers had been involved in near misses and reported this to management, yet nothing was done. Then two high-speed trains collided.What led to that crash is not, of course, uncommon. For example in 2003 there was a very serious accident at the Kansai nuclear power plant in Japan. Four workers died and a serious leak of radioactive coolant occurred when a severely corroded cooling pipe broke. In this case it also emerged that, despite repeat warning of the serious danger posed by corrosion, the particular pipe in question – deemed to be critical to operations – hadn’t been inspected for 28 years!

Closer to home, many people will be familiar by with the ongoing blunders in the Irish health service. There have been many but one in particular worth noting was the death of Patrick Walsh in Monaghan hospital in 2005. Mr Walsh, a pensioner, suffered complications during his recovery from an operation. He should’ve been transferred to either Cavan or Drogheda hospitals – both of which were properly equipped to deal with his difficulties – however both hospitals declined to accept him on the grounds that they had no ‘available beds’.

At the time Monaghan hospital was caught up in a turf war to do with the reorganisation of the health service in the region; it was being starved of resources to facilitate its eventual closure. In the subsequent investigation into Patrick Walsh’s death it emerged that there had been a series of other ‘near misses’ at Monaghan hospital. Concerned by these nursing and hospital staff repeatedly warned management that a serious accident, resulting in death, would eventually happen – then it did.

Why does it happen and what can be done about it? One argument put forward is that it’s due to ‘bad managers’ or simple incompetence on behalf of some of those who make it to ‘the top’. There is some truth in this in that being a “boot-lick” is often essential to being considered for promotion. But incompetence alone cannot account for the sheer scale and seriousness of the problem. Rather, to fully understand why it happens, we have to look at how organisations are set up and run. This is where the anarchist analysis of hierarchy comes into its own.

Look around you: at work there is no democracy. There is instead a division of people into order-givers and order-takers. Right now, wherever you work, no matter what the job, there is a rigid hierarchy where some people wield power and others have none; where some make decisions and others don’t. To put it bluntly, a small number of people (“management”) make decisions for the rest of us.

Because of this reality there are certain consequences. One of the most important is the disruption of information flow in an organisation. In the present arrangement information about a problem or a shortcoming often gets to management (eventually) but they don’t act on it.

The reason why management doesn’t act on critical information or the warnings that it receives is very much tied with why the workplace is organised undemocratically in the first place: managers must put profit-maximisation first. Everything else – service to the public and worker safety – comes second. So instead of acting on a warning or being proactive about a problem when they are alerted, management often ignores the issue – until something very serious goes wrong.

Mis-management is crucially tied up with the way work is organised under capitalism. Under the present arrangement management often hold the control levers in a workplace – be that a building site, a factory, a hospital or office – because they control the allocation of resources and flow of information. Safely cutbacks and what we see as ‘mismanagement’ are a consequence of this particular arrangement.

The most important point is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Anarchists want a world where the workplace is organised democratically. So whether you work in a hospital or a factory, you should have as much a say in how your workplace is organised as anyone else. Management is something that we should elect and retain control of: they should do our bidding – not the other way round.

This article is from Workers Solidarity 103, May - June 2008

PDF of the southern edition of WS103
PDF of northern edition of WS103