Have I got the political X-Factor?

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2005

In days of yore, you would just be told by your line manager if you were doing a good job: a Christmas bonus if you were; a stiff injunction to pull your socks up if you weren’t.

Then came appraisals, in which you would dialogue with your boss: “this is a chance for you to feed back on how I’m doing so we can both work together to achieve mutual empowerment”. It’s moved on a stage further now: 360-degree reviews mean you know exactly what your ‘co-colleagues’ think of your ‘core competencies’; and everybody is required to self-assess their individual performance. Which was fine when it happened to other people. But now it’s happened to me.

All city councillors were recently sent a self-assessment questionnaire “as part of your development process and the Council’s capacity building programme”. There were three sections – but, not being very important, I had only to complete the first of these: on my role as an elected member.

I was helpfully informed that the “questionnaire is divided into clusters of competencies, such as, community leadership, regulating and monitoring, and communication skills”. I was then asked to rate myself, honestly, on the following scale:

* exceptionally effective at this
* generally effective
* not consistently effective
* not confident that fully effective

But, dear reader, I have a confession: I refused to fill it in. I said (a tad pompously maybe) that “it was not a good use of my time”. And as the residents of Headington are my only line managers, I feel I must explain why to you/them (delete as appropriate). The easiest way to do so is to quote five of the questions. (To repeat them all would be tedious for you; and a possible breach of copyright by me.) Take a look, and see if you can understand my reasons.

How effective are you at…:

1. Engaging proactively with the community, canvassing opinion and seeking new ways of representing others.
2. Being approachable, empathetic, understanding and encouraging trust.
3. Understanding and acting on your judicial role in order to meet your legal responsibilities (e.g. duty of care, corporate parenting).
4. Quickly analysing and assimilating complex information and taking account of the wider strategic context.
5. Achieving goals by co-ordinating others, maintaining task focus and persisting in the face of set backs.

Now I don’t think of myself as old-fashioned or Luddite. It is very easy airily to dismiss phrases such as ‘best practice’, ‘performance management’ and ‘capacity building’ as meaningless management bullshit. Behind the inevitable jargon, though, are some useful protocols, from which we can all learn, about how to behave as grown-up professionals in the real world. So I didn’t refuse to complete it as some futile, reactionary protest against our new-fangled human resources fetishism.

Two points did strike me, though.

First, who on earth is going to have the arrogance to self-assess themselves as “exceptionally effective” at any aspect of their job? (I shall tread cautiously here for fear my Council colleagues and friends might have done just that; will read this; and now be offended I’ve labelled them arrogant. But really…)

The reason I stopped filling in the survey is that, after a few questions, I realised I was ticking “generally effective” for everything. Now, I hope and think I’m a pretty good ward councillor. I’ve been elected three times by the residents of Headington, so hope and think they mostly agree. But I know I’m not perfect, or “exceptional”, and that there are areas where I can improve (at least if there were more hours in the day).

Secondly, I have absolutely no idea to whom I should compare myself. Should it be to my fellow councillors; or to all councillors everywhere? If the former, I will do well compared to some of the less diligent (no names!); and less well compared to those who (for instance) are full-time councillors. If the latter, I have no idea even where to start.

I suspect if I had asked for advice on filling in the survey (and I know I should, but, truly, life’s too short) I would have been told that I should compare myself as a councillor to my perception of an ‘average’ councillor in Oxford.

But this, of course, is where my real beef with the questionnaire was.

A survey which seeks to set up an average, a ‘norm’, will skew the answers towards that average: deviations will be seen as just that, even if they are an accurate reflection of the majority. We should, it seems, all cluster within the safe obscurity of the morass of mediocrity, rather than dare to risk exceptionality.

So I have taken my stand, and declined to tick my boxes. However, if you are a Headington resident, and want to assess my performance as a councillor, please let me know, and I will e-mail you my appraisal form to fill in for me: it takes only 20-30 minutes. (And, if you’re nice about me, I’ll publish the results.)