Monday, 4 January 2010

The Blackwater scandal

As the post on 18 December showed, there is a slippery slope when commercial interests and practices are allowed to contaminate the activities of those who act as guardians of the public’s interest.

Currently in the news is a US commercial security firm awarded government contracts to act as armed bodyguards for US State Department diplomats in Baghdad. Five Blackwater employees were accused of opening fire in Nisour Square, on 16 September 2007, killing 17 innocent civilians. The Iraqi government is incensed that legal charges against the bodyguards have been dropped for technical reasons concerning the manner in which prosecution evidence was obtained.

The first question behind what should remain public and what could be privatized is: ‘What is being done in the name of the state?’ A national army is a clear-cut example; mercenary armies are few compared with historical times. The criminal justice system is another example, as is the police. But, controversially, the state does let private companies run prisons. Their contracts reward them for having more prisoners, generating a clear conflict of interest. Imagine if those companies ran the courts and employed the judges who decided who should serve a prison sentence. Firefighters work for the state; though common commercial practice raised its head when New York City decided to reward firefighters for how many fires they put out – something over which the firefighters had no control. Until, that is, some of them realised that they could earn more money if they started fires! Thankfully, the firefighters knew where the fires were and all were put out!

Time and again leadership and management problems turn on matters of individual, team and corporate accountability. To whom were Blackwater bodyguards accountable? And how well equipped was that person or body to carry out the duties of holding the bodyguards to account for their performance? There is also the issue of the distinction between the bodyguards’ responsibility to, and their responsibility for, certain people and things. This is a major leadership issue and one that is much neglected; a whole chapter is devoted to it in The Search for Leadership. This blog will return to this subject in another day’s post.