Are we surprised there are so few women in public decision-making in Britain?

According to Hilary Thomas (partner KPMG and former First Women Awards winner) who spoke recently to The Huffington Post about the dearth of women in politics and public office “the only direction we have moved over the past two decades is backwards”.   In the autumn of 2012 Public Appointments Commissioner Sir David Normington said it was “not good enough” that taxpayer-funded roles were still going “so overwhelmingly to male candidates”. In his view it is imperative to the “effectiveness of public service and governance in England and Wales” that more women hold jobs at the top of the civil service.

Lin Homer’s “catastrophic failure”

Lin Homer from Guardian
Lin Homer courtesy Guardian

But then earlier this week Lin Homer was vilified in the press for the work she did when Head of the UK Border Agency (UKBA), a role she quit in 2010.   MPs have accused her of a “catastrophic failure” in leadership during this period.    The criticisms were brought to light by the Home Affairs Select Committee who hammered the final nail with the suggestion that the Committee had “little confidence” in Lin Homer’s “ability to run Revenue and Customs”.   Ms Homer, one of the UK’s most senior civil servants was appointed to the role of chief executive and permanent secretary at HMRC in January last year and prior to that she was the top civil servant at the Department of Transport.  There appears to be an issue with the criticisms in that Lin Homer has not been at the UKBA for over two years.  The person in charge now is a man called Rob Whiteman.  She claims herself that several of the most indicting figures used by the Home Affairs Committee to demonstrate her failure in leadership cover a period at least 18 months after she had left the Border Agency.

Indictment of leadership abilities

The Guardian newspaper described the words of the Home Affairs Committee as “one of the most severe attacks by a Commons committee on a named Whitehall senior civil servant”.  The harshness and personal nature of the initial criticisms directed at Lin Homer were indeed shocking.  It is clear from the article in the Guardian that this level of personal criticism is highly unusual.     The words of the Committee have totally damned Ms Homer’s leadership abilities and her management potential.  And yet her current boss Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke describes her as “a highly effective chief executive and the right person to lead HMRC”.

Lack of talent management in the civil service

Now it’s not to say that there is no accuracy to some of the claims made about Ms Homer’s management and leadership skills but one has to wonder whether had Ms Homer been a man would we have heard such strong and personal statements made by a Parliamentary committee?  In the Daily Mail online a senior Whitehall official is quoted as saying “The civil service does not do talent management properly”.  Now this could well be an inew wordcloudssue that it is worth the Select Committee investigating further. These roles at the top of the Civil Service carry considerable responsibility and it is possible that leadership development and training do not form a large part of the succession or high performers development plan in the Civil Service.  The unnamed Whitehall official asks “If someone has a terrible track record of delivery, should they really be being promoted?”  But one thing is clear from all of the articles covering this story, this department and its predecessor the Border and Immigration Agency have been poorly managed for a long time.  Does this not make it even more important that the top personnel are supported as much as possible rather thn vilified.  The Select Committee’s report is highly critical of the slow pace at which a backlog of 320,000 immigration cases is being cleared.   In a three month period last year it was reduced by just 3430 cases – a decrease of just 1%.  But this is during the period when Rob Whiteman was in charge.  How does he feel right now about his performance?  How will his development plan look over the coming year following this very public “upset”.  How many private companies would permit their top personnel to be so publicly vilified without supporting them in some way?

Accusations

In her defence Ms Homer claimed that the accusations were “inaccurate and unfair” as several of the statistics used were relevant to a period 18 months after her departure from the Agency.  Now I can’t help but feel that a man might have made a much stronger and more media friendly statement of defense but we can’t hold her lack of media savvy against her.  But surely we would expect those rallying to her defence would shout a bit louder about the praise that has been attached to Ms Homer in her current role?  The Government has responded to the report with a decision to scrap the UKBA.  Is this not a better approach in the first place – to look at the structure of the organisation and its plan for success rather then slam individuals?  Should we not hope for better protection of individuals and their personal record when clearly the organisation itself is so much at fault?  Or are we hoping for too much?

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