Resisting the charm of finding a scapegoat

As a coach I have worked with many clients who have been caught in blame games. For instance there was the clinician given responsibility for reforming services that had been appallingly neglected for more than a decade. When she failed to produce the ‘proof’ that these services had magically improved after only a year in her post, she was put through a disciplinary process and fired. She is just one of many with similar tales, often involving services that have been inappropriately politicised. I have been glad to help these clients get their careers back on track, usually through encouraging them to avoid the toxicity of tribunals, negotiating a quiet exit and successfully applying for a job elsewhere. But it is dismaying to see so much pusillanimity at the top of so many of our major organizations.

The human urge to find a scapegoat is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. How much better it is to find a focus for our anger, fear or misery than to accept that there is a shared responsibility or that the causes of a problem are muddy and complex. In the Old Testament, the scapegoat was a literal goat chosen for the Day of Atonement and sacrificed. The whole of Christianity is based on such sacrifice. Finding a scapegoat is part of how groups work: picking on that human ‘goat’ quenches our thirst for revenge and neatly externalises all our discomfort. It is someone else’s fault and someone else gets the punishment- so we can escape.

I watched the recent magnificent BBC programme on ‘Baby P’ wondering anew how human beings can be so very very stupid. Peter Connelly, a 17 month old, was murdered in 2007 by his mother’s boyfriend and his brother, with his mother’s acquiescence. Yet as the programme showed with utter clarity, the ‘murderers’ according to the Sun newspaper appeared to be Haringey Social Services Department, accused of incompetence and neglect. As a result of this appalling hounding, innumerable people who might have made truly trivial and only-human mistakes, lost their careers, their homes, mental health and marriages. Some became destitute and unemployable. The most startling revelation in this programme was that the inexperienced paediatrician who apparently ‘missed’ the child’s broken back and left the medical register as a result, may not have missed it at all because it could well have been inflicted only hours before his death and after she had examined him.

In fact, as the programme showed, every agency that had some responsibility for child protection let themselves down, including the sainted Great Ormond St Hospital, Ofsted and the Metropolitan Police. Few of those in the media or politics who were involved in this case can feel happy with what they did, and the very few who had the guts to face the camera squirmed under its scrutiny. The evidence that was there for the looking was suppressed, denied or mysteriously ‘lost’.

The truth is that we prefer simple culpability to looking at complex underlying causes. We are lazy in our thinking. We panic and seek to push the guilt elsewhere. Often, the last person in the chain is the one who gets the blame so in the case of Baby P, a paediatrician who should never have been given so much responsibility, is held accountable for the deep-seated managerial neglect which had resulted in dangerous understaffing. It is easier to believe that the boundaries that matter are the ones delineated by your own organization, forgetting that crossing such boundaries to solve jointly-held problems will always matter more, but that it takes more effort, more skill, more determination and more imagination to do so.

What would help would be to learn from the aero-nautical industry. When there is an air disaster, the automatic assumption is that this will have a systemic cause. It is assumed to be unlikely that there will be any one person whose ‘fault’ it is, far more likely that weaknesses in the whole system have fatally combined. This does not mean that there is no individual accountability but this is usually located much higher up the hierarchy and involves far more people than is comfortable. Often, as in the case of Great Ormond St, there is someone who has pointed out the potentially deadly weakness but they have not been heard, or if they have, they have received the all too frequent fate of whistle-blowers and have been punished.

The long term consequences of the Sun’s actions have been severe. Their monstering of Haringey Social Services must be at least part of the reason that so many social services departments are finding it hard to recruit and retain their staff. Many of the people so unfairly accused have not worked since and have faced threats to their and their children’s lives and have been forced to move house several times.

And still there have been 260 children murdered by their parents or carers in the years since Peter died.