Reports, quangos and the white-collar crime of clientelism
THERE IS an old physics experiment that attempts to measure the speed of sound. Man A stands with a rifle some distance from Man B. When Man A pulls the trigger, Man B notes the time lag between the spark from the striking hammer and the resulting sound of the bullet being fired. The data yielded permits a crude calculation of the speed of sound. The term for the acoustic register of the missile in that prototype experiment is “the report”. The word suggests a danger, a lethal capacity for great harm.
Away from guns, society stockpiles an arsenal of reports. These reports target banks, traders, finance, care homes, regulators, churches, health administration, planning decisions, hospital locations and killings. The “innocent” among us await their findings with dispassion; the fearful among us must quake. Where their subject is a travesty of justice or dereliction of duty they serve as social verdicts. They can exonerate you, declaring you innocent of complicity in a foul act. Or they can finger you as being to blame.
Often it is a depersonalised, non-individuated entity called “the system” that gets it in the neck: the mushy and comfortable verdict is one of “systemic failure”. It wasn’t your fault, pal. Nor was it mine.
“Groupthink” and other pocketbook psychological terms are used to dissipate blame and exonerate everyone. And so, innocents one and all, we can queue to be the first without sin to hurl filthy and sharp rocks at the culprit called systemic failure.
But the reports keep coming: there is a communications- industrial complex built around them. Thankfully, they often investigate areas of deprivation and unfairness, shameful moments that suggest cover-up and conspiracy among powerful public and private agents. At best, they clear the reputations of people who have been wronged – they serve to give some solace to survivors and descendents of people who got a lousy and often illegal deal.
Such reports stand as milestones. They are turning points at which we realise we were misled. Guilty parties were actually innocent parties; someone was stitched up and left to carry the can for the carelessness or criminality of others.
But these reports can become the new statues, the information-age icons of our democracy. Along with summer schools and tribunals, there is danger of a hagiography in which reports parade themselves as milestones, as implicit agents of change. At face value, reports give us the facts. They are the work of expert committees, of modern sages, of convenient King Sauls.
At their worst, reports are self-serving ledgers of infallibility, balance sheets commissioned and created by people who are biddable and blind to their own flaws. Such reports are press releases, tailored statements of a message vested interests need to keep in currency.
It is one of the many limitations of human intelligence that we tend to discover what we already know is there. We are creatures of habit, loyal customers of convenient truth. We’ll buy most ideas that don’t challenge us. While research is ostensibly conducted in the spirit of truth and transparency, much is constrained by the relationship between parties, by the sharing of vested interests and by thoughts magnetised by groupthink.
Imagine a series of reports based on data that was contaminated in the act of collection. Imagine that a quango or semi-State body commissioning such reports was inclined to favour findings that confirm its competence and the need for its role. Imagine too a professional class of management consultants, economists and light-handed regulators so implicated in talking up the boom from which they benefited that they talked and talked until the bubble burst.
Let’s create one economist who used the invisible hand of the market to write fake positive reports. As Irish society crashes down around his feet, he looks back on a career based on servicing quangos and his white-collar crime of clientelism. Let’s imagine he is a contrite consultant still in denial about the role he played in turning our boom into bust.
From such ingredients you might write a radio play.
John Fleming is an Irish Times journalist. His play The Invisible Hand Report is currently available as a podcast at iti.ms/UdZ5Ww