Gina Davidson: Incompetence is not an excuse

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IT’s like the kind of joke you’d find on an ice-lolly stick: what happened when a social worker was put in charge of a major transport project?

The punchline would no doubt involve wheels coming off and the fact that no-one was at fault as everyone “had done their very best to help”.

Not funny, I know, but then that’s because it’s not too far from the truth when it comes to Edinburgh’s trams. Two days have passed since Councillor Gordon Mackenzie’s Great Revelation that he wasn’t up to the job of being the council’s man on the board of TIE, where he was expected to scrutinise information being put before him and ask the difficult questions. Apparently he didn’t have the right skills – because he was a social worker.

His colleagues in social work must have squirmed with embarrassment as their profession was used as an excuse for his failure to ask about budget over-runs, sliding timescales and cooling relations with the contractor Bilfinger Berger.

If Mr Mackenzie knew he wasn’t up to the job he should never have agreed to take over from the council’s previous transport convener, Cllr Phil Wheeler. Remember him? He was the man who managed to make a pig’s ear of relations between the council and the traders of Leith while the Walk was being dug up, before being more appropriately appointed finance convener as he had been a banker in a previous life.

Perhaps, despite his apparent lack of ability, Cllr Mackenzie suffered from the curse of many a politician: “I-can-fix-it” syndrome. It’s a terrible affliction which seems to strike some of those in positions of power, the idea that now they’ve got a seat in the City Chambers, they are eminently qualified to turn their hand to anything. Well it has spectacularly failed on this occasion.

I am not suggesting for a moment that because of his occupation he should only be dealing with social work committee matters, or that you have to be a teacher to be education convener, or a sandal-wearing, lentil-eating cyclist to deal with environmental issues.

However, becoming a councillor, being given responsibility for the future of the city, does need a certain set of skills – namely an innate desire to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely, a capacity to see through obfuscation by “experts” and officials and the ability to open one’s mouth and ask – without fear – stupid questions.

There’s no shame in telling someone who is busy trying to deflect attention from the truth of a matter with flow-charts, projections and Powerpoint presentations that they’re not making sense and to speak in plain English. Being a rookie and asking the simplest questions can get to the heart of a matter.

Admitting your ignorance on something like a massive engineering project which is costing millions of pounds is not a fault. What is a fault is pretending to understand and then ending up with the debacle that is the Edinburgh trams.

Back in June I wrote that the biggest failure of the whole tram scheme was the fact that councillors, of every political shade, let an arms-length company manage the project because it allowed them to pass the buck, to offload the responsibility on to TIE and to leave them to hide behind confidentiality clauses. Now Cllr Mackenzie’s revelation has proved that right.

Cllr Mackenzie didn’t do his job. Not because he was a social worker, but because he was too cowardly or too full of his own self-importance to allow himself to ask the basic questions about just what was going on at TIE.

But he’s not alone in that. There are many others who need to look to themselves and ask whether they played their role properly when it came to the trams, or whether they just believed it would all go smoothly because they wanted it to work.

Hopefully all will be able to answer for their actions – or inaction – when an inquiry is held. Even more interesting will be the explanation by the legal experts who drew up the contract with Bilfinger Berger. At least they can’t try and hide behind the “how was I to know? I’m just a social worker” excuse.

I’m sorry, Cllr Mackenzie, but wringing your hands and claiming you weren’t up to the job just isn’t good enough.

Central problem

THERE are 72 days until Christmas and unsurprisingly, given the recession, the shops are already filling up with tinsel, trees, cards and mince pies to try and get us to part with our cash.

Marketing Edinburgh is getting in on the act as well, spending more than ever to try and get people from the Borders and Northumberland to come to the Capital to shop.

While it’s all very laudable, I wonder just how much success such campaigns have, especially when Princes Street will be a no-go area for buses.

I know some people, admittedly more elderly, who are already so fed up they can’t get a bus direct to the city’s main thoroughfare that they’ve decided they’d rather travel to Livingston, the Gyle, or Fort Kinnaird to shop.

Best of luck to Marketing Edinburgh, and I’m sure the ads will look lovely, but I think the ringing of tills will be loudest out of town.