Lessons will be learned in 2011

While waiting for publication of the final report I’ve been absorbing all I can of the findings of the presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last April. Me along with BP, Transocean and Halliburton, that is. I’m in Florida at some point every year so have an interest of sorts in the outcome and, especially, the measures that will be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The human and environmental reckoning remains outstanding and I’d like to take comfort in knowing that a recurrence will be avoided. Alas, having heard the utterances from BP this week I won’t hold my breath.

A lot is wrong with the way that powerful companies operate – by powerful I mean those with huge financial and political muscle – as they eventually get to do more or less what they want. The huge financial interests involved allow for the coercion of government and facilitates the bullying of subcontractors so they get their way in the end. According to the commission, which has released a chapter of its report, the root causes of the event were systemic’ and that ‘absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies’ may allow a recurrence. So no specific entity is to blame and all share some responsibility, which is what BP has strived to convince us of from the outset. In simple terms the commission concludes that ‘management and regulatory failure’ led to the disaster, which comes as no surprise and which, all things being considered, is not a bad outcome for BP. This was reflected in the statement they released after the findings were made public when, in cursory and arrogant terms, they again cited ‘multiple causes, involving multiple companies’ and that the company would ensure that the lessons learned from (the) Macondo (well would) lead to improvements in operations and contractor services in deepwater drilling’.

Lessons will be learned, eh? When I saw that it had me thinking about how often I hear the expression and what it actually means. It’s platitudinous in the extreme but not an admission of wrong-doing; it’s dishonest and means in reality, ‘OK, something went wrong, we understand that you’re pissed, we’re not admitting guilt but we’ve acknowledged it and we’re moving on’. Now, of course, the job in hand for BP is to minimise the fallout from the event and that will be achieved by spreading the blame and the need for ‘lesson learning’ as far and as wide as possible.

BP was about 100 years old in 2010 and there is no questioning the experience and expertise that it will have built up. Halliburton started work on well cementing in 1919 and Transocean commenced well drilling in 1953. How, with all that collective experience, is it really possible that they hadn’t foreseen the possibility of what went wrong and put measures in place that would have managed the risks? The answer is simple – they probably did; someone somewhere took a decision in favour of cost over redundancy of safety systems. Saying that there are ‘lessons to be learned’ implies humbleness brought about by a gap in knowledge and infers contrition, but it doesn’t quite say that. In BP’s case it’s patently not the case and it’s as near as can be to being dishonest.

But it’s not just BP that advocates the learning of lessons; the rhetoric flows from all directions so you’d expect that lessons are being learned in a lot of other places, wouldn’t you?

In February 2009 the then Labour government was trotting out the same old line after snow and ice led to travel chaos on the roads and the closing of both bridges across the river Severn. With motorways blocked, drivers trapped in cars and families separated Lord Adonis, the Transport Minister, vowed that ‘lessons would be learned’ but it snowed again this winter and the chaos reportedly cost £1billion. In response the coalition Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced in December that the performance of transport operators would be reviewed. He reported that a national strategic salt reserve existed for the first time but went on to say that ‘I share the frustration of the travelling public and we need to be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep Britain moving. Complacency is not an option. There are lessons to be learned……’.

The Commonwealth Games Federation [CGF] is the governing body for the debacle that led up to the games in Delhi last June. They met in Glasgow for a debriefing on issues such as running sewage, human faeces and falling ceilings in the accommodation, packs of wild dogs, poor security and a collapsing bridge that preceded the opening ceremony, where a lack of protection allowed the competition surfaces to be damaged. In a statement issued by CGF they declared that ‘lessons would be learned’ from problems in Delhi. What sort of lesson needs to be learned when a bridge collapses? I’ve walked on bridges built by the Romans, for heaven’s sake.

Just before Christmas some 40000 homes in Northern Ireland were without water after distribution pipes fractured in the cold weather, reservoirs emptied and management ran around like headless leprechauns. Conor Murphy, minister at the Department of Regional Development [DRP], admitted serious failures as he sympathetically explained how he understood the frustration and anger of being without flushing toilets, hot baths, cooking and drinking water over the holidays. He believed that ‘lessons need to be learned’ and put the point very sincerely. I’m sure that people collecting bottled water from car parks on Christmas morning in below-freezing temperatures agreed with him. But wait a moment – back in July four directors of Northern Ireland Water [NIW], which is the state-owned monopoly controlling water supplies, were fired because of irregularities in the award of 73 contracts. Paul Priestly, permanent secretary to the DRP and speaking at the time, said he found the failings ‘absolutely staggering’ so one wonders how Mr Murphy reached the conclusion that there were still lessons to be learned six months later.

On 2 January the coalition government’s Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt, promised us that ‘lessons would be learnt’ after a riot at Ford Open Prison in West Sussex erupted when prison officers attempted to breathalyse inmates who had been drinking alcohol as part of their New Year celebrations. The ensuing conflagration caused damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room and snooker and pool rooms and resulted in some buildings being burned to the ground. At the time some 500 inmates were being overseen by six, yes six, prison staff only two of whom were actually trained prison officers. So what was there to learn about six people watching over 500 prisoners with virtually unlimited access to alcohol?

And just to prove what a piece of absolute nonsense it is last Sunday in The Independent it was stated that the success of the England cricket team in winning the Ashes as well as the rescuing of the Chilean miners represented opportunities for ‘lessons to be learned’ in how we manage our personal finances. Excuse me? In all honesty I struggled to make the connection but I certainly learned two lessons from the essay; first, the expression is trite and reeled off so frequently as to be meaningless and, second, I was reminded why I don’t read the Independent.

So now when I hear ‘lessons will be learned’ I tend to be more than a little cynical about the sincerity and the honesty of the person delivering the message as well as the organisation it’s coming from. After all, will BP double the number of safety systems as a result of Deepwater Horizon? Will ill-prepared Commonwealth Games hosts be excluded from consideration? Will we see more snow-clearing equipment or salt reserves even if we don’t need them for years? A realistic ratio of prison officers to detainees? Transparency in Northern Ireland? We all know the answer. And as for learning lessons about managing personal finance – doh!


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