The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley

By | 7th January 2010

Gang aft agley?

The last three words of this quotation from To A Mouse by Robert Burns may be better known in the Anglicised version of “often go awry”, but the point is clear.

The poem is also widely known for its first line describing the mouse as the “wee sleeket cowrin’ tim’rous beastie” but events over Christmas and the New Year had me thinking not so much of the mice and men but more about how often our most cherished ideas come to nothing because of unforeseen circumstances.

Asked by a journalist what was most likely to blow governments off course, Harold Macmillan famously replied “Events dear boy, events”. Or to use the more common vernacular these days, “Stuff happens!”

What were the events which took place over the past few weeks which were most remarked upon?

I decided to conduct a brief survey around the office this morning and, apart from those who had obviously had such a good Christmas and New Year break that they could remember nothing newsworthy or otherwise which had disturbed their collective consciousness, mention was made of:

  • The attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit and President Obama’s subsequent criticisms of the agencies involved (largely believed to be all show and no substance).
  • Snow, ice and travel mayhem.
  • The forthcoming General Election.
  • David Tennant’s last outing as Doctor Who. (boring)
  • The appalling state of the Irish economy (alright, we have an Englishman living in Ireland amongst us!)
  • The VAT rate change.
  • The X Factor winner failing to record the Christmas number one as a result of a Facebook campaign.
  • The anniversary of the tsunami in 2004.
  • The introduction of full body scanners at UK airports.

I am not sure what this says about those who were surveyed and their news gathering habits but as a random survey of a small cross section of people in our office on a snowy morning in early January, the subjects mentioned are as disparate as you would expect given that those asked had no notice of the question and no time to consider the answers! Anyway, Andy Hayman definitely would have fallen squarely into the mainstream of our sample!

Mr Hayman writes regularly for The Times these days. His subject is often security related which is not surprising because he was at one time Chief Constable of my home county, Norfolk, but more pertinently was, until recently, the Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations at the Metropolitan Police. His subject on January 6th was the announcement that body scanners were to be introduced at British airports [Forget body scans: search the right people The Times, 6 January 2010]

The subtext to the headline reads; “The laborious checking of every traveller is unlikely to pinpoint the terrorist. Profiling is crucial.”

While not wishing to debate here the rights and wrongs of profiling, I found myself agreeing with the principle behind Mr Hayman’s article, namely, that while profiling has its weaknesses, it ensures that our efforts (to identify potential terrorists) are better targeted. His point is that subjecting everyone to the same degree of scrutiny, regardless of background and information already known, means that “energy and expertise that could be better directed at people who pose a real threat is being wasted”.

The same could be said about the database which the Government is so keen to promote which will list anyone who comes into contact regularly with children other than their own. Not only does this idea assume that, unless cleared, everyone not on the list is a paedophile but it surely misses the point because it will introduce a raft of unnecessary bureaucracy which will tend to obscure the objective which is, I presume, to ensure that those who pose a genuine and real risk to children are identified in advance so that they can be prevented from causing any harm. If we spend a huge amount of time checking everyone regardless, we will have less time to check those at whom the checking is aimed.

I am sure I have heard it said that such a database would not in any event have prevented the Soham murders which makes my point that such databases and their all embracing scatter gun approach almost always fail in their main objective. I was even more sure of my ground when I read in The Times on the same day as Mr Hayman’s article appeared that the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has admitted that there was only a 50-60% chance that a scanner of the type now proposed for our airports would have detected the explosive used in the failed attempt to blow up the airliner over Detroit in December.

What can we do to try and plan in a strategic way to ensure we have the best chance of achieving the desired objective? Leaving aside “events” and “stuff” and the“ wee tim’rous beastie”, this is all about using resources available in such a way as to maximise the chances of achieving the desired result. Events may blow you off course but at least if you have considered your strategic approach carefully, there is a fair chance that you will come close to achieving what you want.

Topically, we are hearing calls for inquiries into how we are always caught unawares by problems caused by snowfalls predicted well in advance. I am as keen as anyone not to see my daily activities disrupted but the cost of ensuring this is presumably far too high. It would be economic madness to invest in the amount of snow clearing and gritting equipment necessary to keep all of us on the move on the few days in each year (or in fact the few days each decade) when the snow makes it impossible to get about. This is demonstrably true when you factor in that all that equipment would sit idle for at least 360 days each year.

The same is true of efforts to deal with electronic disclosure. To paraphrase Mr Hayman, what is needed is an approach which says “forget the scatter gun approach to e-discovery and search the right documents”.

I am prepared to accept a little disruption on occasions because I do not think it is sensible for a country like ours which broadly has very few days of sufficient snow each year to cause major disruption to spend inordinate amounts of money trying to cover every possible angle by investing in equipment which will lie idle for much of the time. Similarly, to rely in your litigation strategy on one particular tool/plan/system or worse still to try and cover all the bases by throwing resources at a mountain of largely irrelevant data (just because you can) is not only an abdication of responsibility but a complete failure to make the best of the resources available.

Strategic planning is my modest hope for this year and I think it starts with getting out there and looking at what is available and making sure that that knowledge, once acquired, forms part of the strategy for future litigation.

Failure to do so may well be negligent and could prove to be expensive. To do so may not be a panacea but is likely to produce a more informed approach to the problem of what to do, and with what, in order to achieve the desired solution.

It may not bring back David Tennant or help you predict the result of the forthcoming General Election but it must be better than no planning at all.