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Polls apart

They’re the staple diet of every news bulletin. Pointless and Family Fortunes could not exist without them. A recent one claimed, somewhat remarkably, that “dour Yorkshiremen” crack seven-and-a-half jokes every day, making us the UK’s most prolific comedians. I am of course referring to surveys: gauges of public opinion.

Whilst they can be highly valuable, they can also be distorted. When RAIB claimed in its 2007 Annual Report that “Stakeholders accept that RAIB seems to publish reports quicker than other safety organisations in the past”, they were basing their assertion on Ipsos MORI research which found that “RAIB is rated poorly…on the length of time it takes to produce final reports with only 42% agreeing that the length of time is reasonable”. Surprise surprise, it chose to conceal that verdict and then resisted attempts to expose it via the Freedom of Information Act.

The Branch’s performance has unquestionably improved over the past 18 months, largely as a result of commissioning fewer inquiries. In 2010, it was notified of 428 incidents but its 23 inspectors started investigations into just 18 of them. Even now, around 30% of its inquiries fail to comply with the statutory requirement for completion [normally] within 12 months.

And RAIB is under increasing financial strain. Hot on the heels of last year’s 19% budget cut - resulting in eight redundancies - is a further reduction of 16%, prompting the closure of its Woking offices. Staff will relocate to Farnborough where accommodation will be shared with air accident investigators. But this upheaval hasn’t prevented the Branch from recently advertising inspector posts with salaries of around £75k. Nice work if you can get it…and most ordinary folk can’t.

A highly motivated safety professional surfs the internet for inspiration.

Corporate surveys are generally prompted by one of two things: a need for self-justification or an over-inflated budget. In RSSB’s case, both apply. Witness the findings of its questionnaire on the ‘new approach’ to the Rule Book, extracts of which were published in a recent ‘Information Bulletin’. According to the Board, they demonstrate that Handbooks 1-5, covering all things PTS, are “significantly better in many ways than the previous style Rule Book”. Three of those words - whilst apparently innocuous - are actually very meaningful; if all was well with the new handbooks there would be no need for “in many ways”.

So what were the findings? 86% of respondents found the ‘new approach’ Rule Book easy to read, compared with 56% for the previous modular version. 90% said the illustrations make it easy to use, an improvement of no less than 3%! You can hear straws being clutched when they ask the question “Is the lettering clear?” Yes, said 92% who had previously only experienced potato printing. But only 52% supported the statement “I can find the information I need quickly”. How many couldn’t find the information they needed at all? And the same percentage - just one person in two - accepted that the handbooks describe “how I do the job”.

Probably of most interest is what the Information Bulletin doesn’t tell us. How many people actually responded and what roles do they perform? What other questions were asked and why aren’t those findings given? You can bet your bottom dollar that the ringing endorsement RSSB was hoping for wasn’t forthcoming.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the ringing endorsement RSSB was hoping for wasn’t forthcoming.

Evidence of that is to be found in the unscientific world of the internet forum. “Every time a new ‘improved’ Rule Book gets published it becomes harder to understand” asserts one contributor. Another recalled “digging out the personalised Rule Book to look at something in detail recently and it was a breath of fresh air.” A third simply asked “What was wrong with the personalised Rule Books that this joke replaced?”

The term ‘new approach’ employs the power of suggestion, creating the delusion that what’s now been offered is something refreshingly different. In fact it’s just another repackaging of the same old stuff. The new Rule Book is both smaller and thinner thanks to much of the previous content being brushed under the carpet into local instructions or non-existent training manuals. But who does that benefit? Certainly not the frontliner who will now be assessed against rules scattered here, there and everywhere, many of which are not written down!

RSSB is an organisation with a restricted skillset. It’s not sufficiently bold; it’s not sufficiently imaginative. It has no ‘feel’ for the Rule Book’s audience, particularly in terms of track safety rules. This is not the fault of its rank and file; it is a function of senior managers who seem content to deliver ‘adequate’ and ‘average’ instead of demanding ‘excellent’. We should expect much more of amply-paid word-shufflers sitting in comfortable offices (in 2010, the average salary at RSSB was £61k), not least because they expect the earth of poorly-paid ballast-shovellers standing on windswept embankments. If the latter fail, their actions are subjected to audit, scrutiny and sanction; the former get a bonus and promotion.

It doesn’t need a survey to gauge the widening disconnect between workforce and management; not just in the railway industry but across society generally. Pay no longer reflects value; more and more responsibility gets devolved downwards; sharp-end resources haemorrhage while office suites are refurbished. It all heightens the sense of injustice.

And that disconnect impacts on our rules too. They’re not respected like they used to be; many see their relevance only in the context of biennial recerts and inquests after accidents. The ‘new approach’ was an opportunity to press the reset button by delivering something pertinent, engaging…and different. But it hasn’t lived up to its billing. Whilst those who’ve developed it can rely on a very generous margin of error, those who use it work to tight tolerances. And their jobs are made no easier by poorly communicated instructions.

Our survey said...

Story added January 2012

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