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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

A question of competence

When it comes down to it, it’s a question of competence.  Can those we elect actually do the job?  Otherwise, it can all end in tears. 


Paula Vennells, the former chief executive of the Post Office, and Simon Case, the current Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, both fought back tears yesterday as they were being examined in two very different public inquiries. 


Few have any sympathy for Vennells.  This morning’s Times editorial is scathing, making much of her being a Christian.  “Ms Vennells, for all her pretensions to godliness, was the opposite of the Good Samaritan, abandoning those in distress, and is now bent on saving her own skin.”


As it happens the editorial in this morning’s Telegraph took a somewhat different tack, though no less derisive with the heading: Paula Vennells is the bland face of British mediocrity.


Matthew Lynn writes:  “Despite her illustrious career, and her huge salary, her main defence appears to be that she had no idea what was going on within the organisation she was paid to run.” 


It wasn’t so much a case of moral failure – which clearly it was – but the editorial continues: “What if Vennells is simply part of a much broader managerial class that is completely inept?” 


So going back to the Times: “If Ms Vennells is to be believed — and an ordained priest of the Church of England who swears on the Bible should be — she was clearly incapable of running a large and complex concern.”


In other words, here we see, yet again, the well-established and disheartening Peter principle.  This predicts that people in an organisation tend to rise to "a level of respective incompetence.”  Worryingly that work which is actually accomplished is achieved by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.


Sadly this principle, presented  by Canadian educator Laurence J Peter in the 1960’s, was all too visible at yesterday’s Covid Inquiry, Here the Head of the Home Civil Service, appointed by Boris Johnson no less, was being questioned by counsel.  Clearly he has some health issues, confidential to the Inquiry.  Case did not look a well man.


What I did not expect was for this experienced public service to break down in tears.  He was visibly upset as he recalled how civil servants had been "smashed to pieces" by poor working practices including duplication of effort and overlapping of meetings, his voice faltering with emotion.


And the basic problem? "I've never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country" in a WhatsApp message to Mark Sedwill, who was the civil service chief at the time.


Essentially, as far as the country being led during the Covid emergency, he clearly believed at the time that Boris Johnson "cannot lead" and "changes strategic direction every day."


The question of competence to lead has to be written large as we enter the General Election.  It’s one thing to have clear vision, great policies and good communication skills, but can our elected leaders actually do this job?


We need to look hard at their past record for here we’re down to the Nehemiah principle. 


You will know Nehemiah; he has a whole Old Testament book named after him. We meet him as the imperial cup bearer who was to become governor of Persian Judea under Artaxerxes I of Persia (465–424 BC).  Essentially, he was called by God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem destroyed over a century earlier by the Babylonians.


Facing huge opposition from enemies on all sides—Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines—Nehemiah incredibly rebuilt the walls within 52 days.  It was an exercise in sheer competence.


However, Nehemiah was only too aware of his weaknesses and so realised his total dependency on God.  He makes this very clear as he encourages his people: “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding. (Nehemiah 2:20).


He shows his dependence in his constant prayers, including his many “arrow prayers.”  So when taunted by Sanballat, the powerful Samaritan leader, Nehemiah simply and pointedly prays: “Now strengthen my hands.” (Nehemiah 6:9).


Nehemiah turned out to be a great organiser.  That’s why God chose him.  But the point is that Nehemiah obeyed;  he responded to God’s call, despite the huge responsibility entrusted to him. 


No doubt he had learned some key skills being the cupbearer to Artaxerxes. Strangely one key skill was to keep on smiling, a key transferable skill no doubt!  His knees must have knocked right at the outset when the Emperor asks him.  “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill?” (Nehemiah 2:2)


At the end of the day Nehemiah knew he was God’s man for God’s work at God’s time.  Vocation is everything. 


To say the obvious, when God calls us (and he will make it obvious, take it from me):  We say YES, even though we are acutely aware of our inadequacy – like nearly everyone in the Bible who God calls.  And conversely, even though there is much prestige, power and pay on offer, if God has not called us, we say NO.


A lesson not just for Prime Ministers and CEO’s but all of us.


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