Monday, 1 February 2016

What we must learn from the Accident Investigation Branches

We have endemic problems in the UK economy and while a lot of Politicians speak about growth and cutting costs, many simply do not have any qualification to make these decisions. Too many Politicians have no business experience to speak of and yet are allowed to make multi-million pound decisions.

What happens? The lowest common denominator is that we do obvious things that anyone could do - we could tell departments to cut budgets without really knowing where we can even save money, we can arbitrarily decide that it should cost less to run the NHS, or the Local Authorities or Education but in reality, there is little evidence for real ways in which costs can be cut.

There are, however, many ways in which our society from the bottom to the top have failed to recognise the most basic of mathematics - that is spending more on things than you should. When you recognise that, you dig down deeper and deeper until you find the root cause and then you must fix that.

You will find this in the Rail, Marine and Air Accident Investigation Branches. Their job, by necessity is to attempt to find root causes of accidents causing serious injury, death or major damage. For them, root cause analysis is critical to serve their fundamental aims but it is also obvious that it is important to find out not what happened but what series of events led to the accident happening and then to apply recommendations to avoid a repeat of it. When flying on a plane, I am glad that this attention to detail is made but as opposed to the Japanese who have been famous for efficiency and reliability since the 1980s, the UK are really poor at applying the principles to other areas of business.

Example. Every day, I see Tweets by railway companies talking about signal failures, train failures, people at stations delaying trains etc. which all adds up to people not using the railway. There is only one use-case for me that works on the trains and that is medium to long-distance journies which are tedious by car and sometimes bearable by train but since trains make several stops, sometimes, the time savings are minimal if existent and even a delay of 10 or 20 minutes on the train makes it seem like the car would have been better. 150 years after we invented the railways when certain things have got better, there are still fundamental issues that are not addressed. Most people would argue that signal failures are unavoidable but yet they are not unavoidable on a plane! You can't control how people behave, but airports are pretty controlled environments, other countries manage to work out solutions and yet we languish with a lack of hope that we have the ability to improve these things.

To be honest, subsequent governments have not helped because where efficiency can be contained by centralising certain functions, instead they are spread between various levels of government, public bodies, independent regulators and private companies. This increases red tape by 500% and makes the worst possible foundation for a can-do attitude. Network rail say they don't have money, the government will say it's Network rail's job, the train operators already pay loads of money and are not responsible for signals and track so every passes the buck and the sad thing is, they are all probably right. The system is so fragmented that no-one can sit in an office somewhere and say, "this is how all signalling systems need to be renewed", "this is the cable that doesn't rot under water" or whatever, instead, each company will make their own decisions for better or worse and cause the disparity and desperation that we all experience.

There are other examples: road surfaces, road markings and enforcement, traffic offences, planning, regulation of construction trades and many others where so many very obvious problems are either unseen or people are impotent to do anything about it.

What do we need? A government which recognises a fundamental structural problem but which doesn't try and fix it piecemeal but which works out for each industry and each sector, what provides the best mix of regulation and freedom to make decisions balanced with the fact that a single office with a few experts might be better than lots of offices of average people.

It sounds hard but I think everyone wants it to be like that, so you would get support from all manner of people and departments who would happily discuss the ways for these things to work. It probably even requires a bigger step back so we can resolve how to mitigate opposite opinions (such as planning officials vs planning applicants), while being fair to everyone.

Until then, we will keep pouring obscene amounts of money into things that should already work correctly just to maintain them in their rubbish state. As long as it employs people, I suppose it's not the worst thing in the world. But it's pretty bad.
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