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Aiming for a balanced view

The true performance of organisations can only be judged over the long term, says Antonia Forte.

I once caught an interview (think it was on Radio 4’s Law In Action) in which a British human rights lawyer explained why he spent so much of his time working for nothing defending American prisoners on death row. His argument went something along the lines of ‘why is it that judgment is based on the worse thing a person has done, as opposed to the best? Judgements should be based on a balanced picture of a person’s overall life’.

For me, these sentiments conjured up the image used in Egyptian mythology of the heart of an individual being weighed against a feather representing the goddess of truth, Ma’at, in a judgment process overseen by Osiris. It was the weight of the entire heart/life that was judged, not just one or even a few incident(s).

That distinction has stayed with me, though I think it is a really difficult concept to realise. Taking the overall view of a person’s right or wrong doing means having to make a long-term assessment, and in general, this often goes against the grain of wanting immediate rectification or ‘punishment’. It also necessitates taking risks – the risk that a single incident of wrongdoing will, in the end be outweighed by overall rightdoing – that the person will not continue to do wrong, but will revert back to their ‘usual’ right doing.

I think that the same applies to organisations, that in the end are only made up of the actions of individuals operating in their professional, as opposed to private, capacity. I’m as guilty as the next person of gawping at the site of something to see, secretly thankful that the person in the frame isn’t me, though suspecting that on a less favourable day it could have been. The concept may be a difficult one for any law maker – judicial or regulatory – but I think it is one that makes any system fairer.

This is time of year when most organisations are producing narrative and financial reports – but to appreciate the worth of an organisation, stakeholders need to look at not only the annual account but also the balance sheet. Timed judgements are just that, taken at a particular time: sanctions and interventions are the ways of trying to bring the person – or organisation – back to their/its usual path of right doing.

In the end, an overall and balanced view needs to consider performance over the longer term. That’s what a mature regulatory approach should strive for. That’s what we need to look at.

Antonia Forte is chair of the WHQ advisory board

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