Was Tesco Corrupt? – II

Corrupt cultures in any organization or city or country don’t happen by chance. Tesco is a microcosm of the real world where activities are engineered by those in authority to create an atmosphere of pressure – maybe extreme pressure.

(earlier post on this: Was Tesco Corrupt?)

Listening to Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” on Radio 4 today about the Haitian Revolution, it is easy to be complacent about how much we have changed. Slavery in Haiti was extreme – 90% of the population enslaved and under conditions that we in the West would rightly be scandalized about. Yet, we see similar conditions in many parts of the world today – countries like Equatorial Guinea where Transparency International is working to alert the world to tremendous poverty and lack of rights that are accorded to its people because the elite there takes virtually all the revenue from oil resources. Showing why “per capita GDP” data is, on its own so misguided in a world which is moving towards more income inequality, Equatorial Guinea has a per capita GDP on a par with Italy – yet most citizens lack access to clean drinking water.

 

The extraordinary problems that Equatorial Guinea has (caused by extreme corruption) may make any comparison with the UK seem a step too far. Surely the issues raised by the mis-accounting at Tesco is not even similar to what happens in Equatorial Guinea, Angola or other nations where vast resources are corruptly taken by a few.

 

However, that argument is much like someone arguing that, because of wars in Iraq and Syria, we should be content and not concern ourselves with knife-crime in the UK or poor waiting times in the NHS.

 

Corruption is corruption and what we are witnessing at Tesco has been the corrupt mis-accounting of £263 million and the humbling of a once-great business.

 

Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

 

Almost understandably, writers on Tesco and the company itself portray the problem as a few people that were under severe pressure and made bad decisions to bring forward hoped-for future profits into earlier periods. The Chairman is now leaving and various senior staff remain sidelined.

 

The auditors, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) claim to have been “misled” by senior staff that were carrying out the mis-accounting. No-one seems surprised that they missed £263 million amongst the billions that are moved into and out of Tesco.

 

Accounting is but a reflection of a business. It is notoriously hard to find major errors which management are trying hard to hide. Most accounting crimes are found via whistle-blowers (as in this case and cases like Enron – which led to the demise of one of the big accounting firms – Arthur Andersen – who were complicit and went out of business as a result). This is not to say that PwC are in any way complicit. The issue is that audit firms are not that good at finding fault and (after 30 years as Tesco’s auditors, with ex-PwC members of the Tesco Board and being paid £10m a year) there are always suggestions that audit firms don’t try too hard.

 

The Board seems to have been in complete denial of the issues. Not only did they not know that the accounting problems existed until the whistle blower blowed, but they did not “see” the culture that led to the problems. Non-executive Directors on the audit committee, for example, are usually transfixed by numbers – and usually fail to ask the hard questions.

 

How many companies operating from the UK into nations where bribery and corruption is the norm ask the hard questions in Board and less formal meetings even now that the Bribery Act (and before it the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the USA) has been in place for 4 years. Glaxo (GSK) is feeling the pressure now about how it did business in China – a country where corruption is / was the norm and GSK went with the flow for many years. Here, staff were under pressure to perform but did so with the help of corruption.

 

The numbers could have indicated the problem but the culture certainly would have. Yet, how many Boards understand the culture of the organization for which they serve and can connect the culture with the potential for corruption or even associate the two?

 

Business Culture is key to success – and failure

 

When the banks entered into their maniacal dance of death resulting in the financial crash of 2007 and thereafter (which we are still paying for – literally), it was their common casino and bonus culture that was to blame. Senior management encouraged their investment banks and those outside the traditional banking rigours to take larger and larger risks but also to defraud customers. Ian Fraser’s excellent “Shredded” about RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) is an example of how individuals create the culture of a bank or any organization and then reap the whirlwind that follows – whether good or bad.

 

The worst business cultures see staff swept along like leaves. As a character in my own book “Last Line of Defense” said”

 

“A business can take on an independent existence of its own. It begins to direct the individuals within it, rather than the other way. There is a dynamic to a business which can make you feel like a leaf in a river, unable to change the river’s course. Eventually unable to change its own course, the leaf is swept away downstream. The river carries on as before.”

 

So, it happened in Tesco. The CEO demanded results and got them – trouble was, they were not real. Instead of Tesco being a great company with great products and services that its customers wanted, it relied on mis-accounting to boost results.

 

That is a corrupting culture. It corrupted staff to engage in non-value added activities that prejudiced the company’s future and were a direct result of the pressures of a business that was failing to differentiate itself through its proper business activities.

 

Some argue that no-one benefitted from this. Maybe true if all the culprits are shown to be culpable and pay back any bonuses and pensions gleaned from the additional profits and maybe pay for the corruption with their jobs. Saving a job and its not unreasonable salary through corrupting the numbers has resulted (arguably) in a threat to Tesco’s future that a focus on how to make Tesco a better business would not have done. Just like the bureaucracy in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” that took up all a country’s resources and added no value, so a corrupt culture spends far too much time “corrupting” and not enough adding real value. So, a business collapses from the inside unless the corruption is arrested.

 

This is true of any corrupt organization – business or city or nation – where corruption exists and exacerbates the already bad conditions in which those who are party to the corruption or affected by it have to endure.

 

Fine, Tesco is not Equatorial Guinea but it is in the same game when, as a respected multinational business, it engages in bad business practices – corrupt practices.

 

Learning the Lessons?

 

Tesco seems not yet to have learned these lessons or at least not admitted to them. Accounting issues, changing board members, adding new processes and the like are all outputs of decisions to change culture. Why doesn’t Tesco actively state that this is what is has to do and then establish how best to do it. If it does not, then the changes will not result in real change but be like those deckchairs on the Titanic?

 

 

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The Second Great Wall of China

Reading Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World” during a week when the New York Times’ website was taken offline in China after it published claims about the wealth of Wen Jiabao. News about Mr. Wen’s alleged fortune of £1.7bn was characterized by the Chinese as a “smear” and resulted in news blackout on the subject. The BBC was similarly off air for months after its detailing of the Bo Xilai case.

 

Jacques’ well-documented book shows China as a “civilization state” that the West will not be able to challenge in its essential ideals based on 2,000 years of civilization and then Confucianism. The desire of its people – massed in a vast area with one-third of the world’s population – for solid government and their Confucian appetite for family connections leads many to believe that their form of government and control is the only way for China and that the rest of the world will not be able to change it.

 

The Wall of Legalism

 

Francis Fukuyama in his excellent book “The Origins of Political Order” http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Origins-Political-Order-Revolution/dp/1846682576/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351345981&sr=8-1on focused how the origins of the rule of law was central to the proper governing of a state. Success, where no government or leader was above the law, is contrasted with such states as China, where, except for brief period, the ruling elite has been above the law.

 

Many believe that a state with Confucianism on the outside and Legalism on the inside is how China is governed today. Legalism, a creed formulated and emerging properly in the Warring States Period up to 221bc, seeks to ensure that strict laws keep dissent down and people equal. The Emperor was in place because of the law and was above it – but had to be flexible in intent to ensure that the leading cliques were satisfied.

 

Coming forward 200 years and the so-called Communist Party has assumed the role of Emperor. A Communist Party that that no longer believes in Communism but in power from the centre; that not just tolerates corruption but uses it throughout China to keep its leading cliques in check; that exports corruption to its supply-chain (its raw materials suppliers) throughout the word in order to keep them sweet; that deals harshly with any dissent and criticism; that only reacts to the worst crimes and then only when it has to (such as with Bo Xilai – who became too much of a burden).

 

Legalism as a creed best describes the current Chinese government style – no longer driven by the equality of Communism – where a ruling elite has taken over the State and drives it according to their own requirements.

 

The post-World War II political and economic direction of the West has been democracy and capitalism. Human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml has been a solid framework on which political thought has been based. The development of the European Union (notwithstanding economic upsets through the Euro) was based on this political fulcrum and a liberal economic system.

 

This post-war consensus in the West has also been the basis on which we have tried to hold the rest of the world to account – to develop democracy and capitalism on a worldwide basis.

 

No use for Wallpaper

 

Now, the western consensus is threatened by China. Having taken the economic principle of capitalism and thrown the centralized system of communism into the gutter, the Chinese are rapidly gaining economic muscle. This was not surprising once the shackles of the communist economic model was broken and Deng XiaoPing was able to redirect the Chinese to a better economic future.

 

This had already had enormous impact in China as wealth has increased and will continue to do so. But, a country with huge numbers of people but limited natural resources (apart from their own intelligence and rare earth minerals) has to then engage with the rest of the world in order to maintain that direction of travel.

 

This is now breaking down the political and governance consensus that the West has tried for the last sixty-seven years to impose. What does this mean? It means that the Chinese are overturning the route to democracy and democratic institutions. It means that elites in developing countries now have huge financial backing from the Chinese – through sales of raw materials to China and through the fact that they are witnessing another political model.

 

The West cannot wallpaper over the political cracks in the political wall. While capitalism is clearly now shown to be the best worst system of improving our material wealth, democracy is no longer the only political product on sale. After the bloody years of fighting against communism and fascism, which World War II was supposed to have won, the challenge is not so much religious fundamentalism (which we have been understandably so fearful of) but the enormous influence that China will have on a world where the most serious challenge to democracy is arising.

 

Taking a brick from the Wall

 

The battle for ideas is just starting. China needs a healthy west and a healthy India and Brazil and rest of Asia and it needs the raw materials from across the planet. Apart from the environmental catastrophes that are likely to be exacerbated by the drive for material growth (upon which the Chinese legalist approach relies in order to keep its people happy), the influence of Chinese political thought is likely to grow exponentially.

 

Recent riots in Ningbo –   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20109743 – against a chemical plant expansion and the Chinese authorities’ methods of dealing with it (which includes the hiding of road signs so that journalists won’t find their way to the riots!) are a simple sign that Tiananmen Square was by no means a low point.

 

As the world waits for the US Presidential election, a change of at least equal importance will be taking place in Beijing and no-one will know who has come out on top until the new politburo of the Chinese Communist Party is unveiled around 15 November.

 

Not that this will change anything. In the US, the economics will be substantially changed by the possible election of Romney and (Ayn Rand influenced) Paul Ryan. The political system will not change.

 

In China, nothing will change and the political, legalist system will continue internally and externally. This is a continuing challenge that is currently seen as economic but will eventually be seen as dramatically political and on a world scale. For Chinese economic growth will challenge the democratic ideals built up by the West and hard fought for by millions. It is now ranged against 2,000 years of Chinese centralism legalism.

 

How (or if) the West reacts to this will be a far bigger story than the economics – and arguments over tariffs and who owns Treasury bonds. We need to start taking the brick from the Wall before it is built around us.

Civil Society – Its Place in the 21st Century

Vern Hughes, Director, Centre for Civil Liberty in Australia, has produced a manifesto for the Mobilisation of Civil Society. Its ten tenets are:

1. Understanding the World Outside States and Markets
2. Personal and Social Relationships
3. Self-Help and Mutual Support
4. Small is Beautiful
5. A Leaner State with Less Bureaucracy
6. A Market Economy without Concentrations of Corporate Power
7. Social Enterprise in Finance and the Exchange of Capital
8. Entrepreneurship and Innovation
9. Social Enterprise in Education Health and Social Services
10. A Renewal of Democracy

and the full proposition can be found on:

http://www.civilsociety.org.au/Manifesto%20for%20the%20Mobilisation%20of%20Civil%20Society.pdf

This links so well with my own philosophy that, this week, it makes sense to show the Manifesto and my own comments on it – which is also displayed on:

http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Manifesto-Mobilisation-Civil-Society-wed-4137855.S.93363203

My own comments:

Vern, this is a courageous attempt to frame a new society and one that, in principle, has a great weight of sense behind it. The manifesto should consider some more variables – which you may already have done.
One is how Civil Society fits in a fractured world made up of democracies (however imperfect) and many states where even the simplest form of democracy does not exist. China is a major player now and the basic forms of democracy (and civil society) play no part. Economics as measured imperfectly by GDP – which ignores all “externalities” – is to the fore on a Maslow index where the basic needs are still to be met. Political change (in the way you suggest and in a way that makes much sense) is well behind in terms of priority.
Second, civil society works (or attempts to work) within the decision-making processes to effect change. Having spent five years in an NGO (until very recently at Global Witness, a pro-transparency and anti-corruption / conflict NGO), the key to any success is operating to make change. But, NGO’s and civil society organisations are unelected and the danger of a civil society in this form taking a dominant role (it already has a very key role) is not obvious.
Third, I agree that in modern society where information is available and transparency should be, the drive to more local decision-making is critical for most decisions. Large, centralised and almost totalitarian agglomerations (monopolies) should not be tolerated. However, the newly developing nations of China, Russia and Brazil (as examples) will see this as a secondary issue. Developed nations will stress the need to compete – this is a major challenge.
Fourth, reducing the state through localism is important but the state’s role needs to be better explained and will vary from country to country. The state has a role to play (such as being the guardian against monopolies across the spectrum) as well as traditional issues of defence and security. These roles are tough to assess.
Fifth, I argue in my own blog – https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/ – that the economics and politics of the 19th Century is still dominant and need massive revision. I therefore support in principle the direction of change from your own NGO with economics being in the centre of the change. Apart from the inclusion of key externalities such as climate, waste, quality vs quantity, pollution that 19th Century economics ignores (except on the periphery of substitution and pricing – with massive disconnects throughout), politics and politicians are too short-term and too focused on the next election to build successful futures. That is why the Chinese and their lack of democracy appears more economically successful today. But, that is not the direction to travel.
So, good luck with this manifesto as a starting point for an urgent process of change!