Saturday, February 25, 2012

Vain is Not the Same as Bad: Why we should think again about Emma Harrison

I could not help but notice the almost universal schaudenfraude that greeted the demise this week of Emma Harrison. On one level I enjoyed it too. Her particular brand of icky self-promotion isn't pleasant. She is clearly self-obsessed. As one of her colleagues commented, she sought publicity 'like a burning aircraft seeks the ground'.

But I regret her demise. Why? Three reasons. Firstly, while I don't care much for her style, she spent 20 years of her life building a successful company from nothing. Anyone who's set up a company knows how bloody difficult it is to get things right. And growing companies is, well, massively complex. Show me someone who has done it without some massive f--k-ups on the way and I'll give you a free holiday. Yes, she's made money, but she's taken some risks, employed a lot of people and found a lot of people jobs. All on a scale few of us will ever achieve. If you'd done all of that, you'd feel like you deserved a lot of money.

Secondly, I don't think, in light of what actually appears to have happened, she needed to go. Harrison's company, which employs thousands, had, it is being alleged, a few people on the thieve. They no longer work there. The police are looking into it. It looks fairly clear, unless I am missing something, that this was limited to a few hands. Similar things to those being investigated at A4E actually happened a few years ago in a charity I worked for. A couple of people took the charity for tens of thousands. They were arrested, banged-up, end-of. Checks were lax, management took a bollocking, life went on. It happens every day. Quite why Harrison felt the need to resign I don't know, unless there's something deeper we're all about to find out about. My sense is that she panicked. Now it looks a lot worse than it probably is: A4E is now ' troubled' and EH has left because of 'fraud'. Whoever is advising her is not doing very well.

Thirdly, and finally, there seems to be a whiff of misogyny in all of this. I saw it in the case of Andrea Hill, the former CEO of Suffolk County Council. She seemed fair-game, partly because she was a woman. It is hard to imagine there being such a furore over A4E if some greying old bloke had set it up. Indeed, plenty of such people have set up public service firms, such Rod Aldridge of Capita, and are now lionised by the establishment, rightly in some cases. We seem to have it in for women of a certain type, particular ones who get above themselves a bit, like Harrison, and Hill did, at times. We're very unforgiving.

Of course, were A4E beyond reproach as a company, I am sure things would have been easier this week. Were it not the case that one hears quite a few not-so-nice things about the way they do things, there may well have been more people rushing to her defence. But what bothers me more is that, without a lot of reflection, a lot of intelligent people have defaulted into a blind condemnation of Harrison, her company and the role of other sectors in public service provision.

This is wrong. Being vain and irritating is not the same thing as being bad. Harrison should have stayed put at A4E and Cameron should have encouraged her to keep her post in Government. Her going does not make Britain a better place.


Anonymous said...

1) Bollocks, creating a large company does not entitle you to lots of money. That's an ideological assertion about human endeavor and reward. Its largely a perverse one.

2) The culture in A4E, which has been referred to as grasping in complaints over 20 years, was set and maintained by Emma Harrison. She's culpable, and she knows it.

3) Misogyny? Are you desperate for shag or something and trying to prove you feminist credentials? Get over yourself already. You pick-out examples of other women to make your case but are they any different to various men who do get eaten by the machine that once lionised them? Fred the Shred, for example. Emma Harrison was so lionised she was feted by New Labour and By the Coalition who made her a Tsar ffs!

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Anonymous, you are hiding behind the veil. I don't screen comments on my blog and won't remove yours, but let's have some standards eh? Desperate for a shag, come on??

Alison Garthwaite said...

The problem is not Emma herself but the fact that it's possible for senior managers / the director to make such huge amounts out of public sector contracts. The Prime Provider model is also at fault, squeezing out third sector grassroots organisations. As I understand it, the sacked employees were trying to reach very difficult / impossible targets and making that a bit easier. They didn't have their hands in the till. I agree about the misogyny.