The banality of institutional ignorance: Rotherham and child sexual exploitation

When people first heard the news about Rotherham Council’s child sexual exploitation scandal, they may have thought the Council and the Police were incompetent.[1] Some may have compared it to Haringey Council’s failure to protect Peter Donnelly (Baby P) and thought that as long as someone was sacked or people resigned, that should be enough. Such a surface view will keep us from understanding the problem. Why and how did Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police fail to identify the source, scale and scope of child sexual exploitation?

What is the problem that lurks beneath the scandal’s surface?

On the surface, we can say that Rotherham Council had a flawed corporate culture and focus on the personalities.[2] All this does is reward the same practices, focusing on the symptoms, without understanding the problem that created the scandal.[3] Another view on the surface is the claim by politicians that the problem was a dereliction of duty.[4] Yet, the report shows the officers were doing their duty and did, for the most part, try to act conscientiously within their understanding of the problem. Others stay on the surface by blaming someone or something in statements like “It is society’s neglect of children” or “It is class prejudices, racism, or sexism”, to explain the problem. These sound good, give a reasonable explanation and they are wrong. They forget that society does care. Society has created institutions to look after and protect children when their families cannot or will not.[5] These approaches deal with the symptoms of the problem but miss the heart of it. The problem was institutional ignorance. The organisations and the officers stopped thinking. What we find is the banality of institutional ignorance.

Institutional Ignorance a refusal to think about the problem

The banality of institutional ignorance is related to Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil”.[6] She coined the term to describe Adolph Eichmann’s unthinking behaviour to implement the “Final Solution” to exterminate Jews and other enemies of the Nazi state. He was not a grand, malevolent figure. Instead, he was an unthinking bureaucrat, which explains why evil was banal. Evil is rooted in thoughtlessness, an inability to think critically, and remaining on the surface of the issue.[7] Eichmann never questioned the purpose of what he was doing or what was being done. A good person would have thought about the problem and realized it was wrong and would not have participated. Instead, he worked to improve the system. As a good bureaucrat, he acted as though the system and obeying the system was what was important. The system provided a moral framework. As a result, the institutional ignorance reinforced and encouraged unthinking behaviour.

Institutional ignorance encourages the suppression of questions.

Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police demonstrated institutional ignorance. They, and their employees, were ignorant of the scale, scope, or source of the problem. Unlike Eichmann, though, they were not evil because they did think about the symptoms. Moreover, external organisations, through inspections, did try to provoke them to think.[8] However, all the main organisations involved and many of the officers did demonstrate an inability or unwillingness to understand the problem. They stayed on the surface of the symptoms and rarely thought critically about the problem’s scope or scale. What is striking from this scandal is that officers were discouraged from asking questions and thinking. When people did ask questions, they were either dismissed or suppressed. In one case, we have a credible allegation that an officer was intimidated for questioning the approach to the problem.[9] Senior managers dismissed these claims by suggesting the evidence was exaggerated. In one case, we have testimony that indicates that questions were actively suppressed.[10] Questions would force the organisations to “think” and take responsibility to understand the problem. The system kept anyone from thinking critically about what they were doing or failing to do.[11] When officers stop thinking, they stop being moral agents. They can avoid moral responsibility for their decisions and transfer accountability to the system. In turn, the system absolved them of a responsibility to think about the problem.

If the organisation refuses to think, why should the officers?

In the Rotherham scandal, we see what Arendt saw in Eichmann except on a smaller scale. The system worked. The organisations had processes and procedures in place to help deal with child sexual exploitation. The police could point to their commitment to deliver the community’s priorities, which were vehicle crimes and burglary. If the community was not interested in child sexual exploitation, why should the police be curious about it? They did not have to think, they had to follow. We must remember they were not idle men.[12] What they lacked was curiosity. The senior officers had higher priorities and they made sure the frontline staff understood and followed those priorities. In turn, the frontline officers could justify their approach to the issue. They shared the same belief as social workers that it was acceptable for a teenager to be in a promiscuous consensual sexual relationship with an adult. The social workers and their managers could justify their work. Their professional judgement indicated that a child could make a “lifestyle choice”[13] to engage in a promiscuous consensual sexual relationship with an adult male. As Sonia Sharp, a former head of Children’s Services, explained, it was normal for the social workers and the police to believe that a vulnerable child could consent to sex with an adult.[14] In all cases, officers and their managers could point to a system, procedures, policies, and partnerships to deal with the issue.

Why question something when your superiors tell you what to think about it?

Why should officers question the system or what they were doing when the system does not encourage it and senior managers are willing to “put it in context”?[15] What junior officer is going to challenge a corporate director on that view? The senior officers and Members had an agreed institutional reputation to defend. Why should they challenge it or encourage anyone, in particular junior officers, to question it? The senior officers modelled the unthinking behaviour as they did not question evidence, challenge assumptions, or try to understand the problem. We see a senior officer testify that she never questioned why no one listened to her reports. She simply passed her reports up the chain of command and for her the system worked. It was not for her to question the system. She provided her reports to the Lead Member for children’s issues.[16] In turn, he testified that he endorsed the officer’s professional recommendations.[17] In one case, he doubled the budget. He never challenged their arguments, evidence, or assumptions of the problem. He lacked curiosity about the problem and followed or amplified what the officers recommended. The Scrutiny Committee never challenged the organisation or the officer’s assumptions on these issues. They seemed to accept almost uncritically, what the officers were doing.[18] Officers and Members did their duty, they made the system work, they just never thought about it.

When you stop thinking, you stop acting morally.

The institutional ignorance also explains why whistle blowers never emerged.[19] A whistle blower would require someone to know the scale or scope of the problem. As the council and the police clearly lacked a candid culture where challenging questions were encouraged, why would someone try to find out enough to blow the whistle? Whom would they tell?[20] From the report, we can see that the cultures discouraged challenging questions or curiosity. We can see this in the way senior police officers reacted to Parliamentary questions. If a senior officer is willing to respond aggressively to an MP in a public forum, how are they going to behave with a junior officer inside the force?[21] Would they encourage challenging question in the force? As they were at pains to explain, they tell their officers their priorities and officers will follow those priorities.[22] We have no evidence that senior officers asked frontline officers how they understood those priorities. Obedience rather than thinking appears to be what matters.

Professional curiosity should be mandatory, not recommended.

The Chief Executive’s response to the Jay Report shows us clearly that institutional ignorance existed. He made the apparently unremarkable statement that “The council now encourages professional curiosity”.[23] How many organisations have to reassure the public that officers are allowed to ask questions? What we see in all bureaucracies is a focus on secrecy that limits information on a need to know basis. These characteristics inhibit questions. When the Chief Executive has to say publicly that staff are now encouraged to think, you know you have a problem. However, we have to remember that throughout the scandal, the system and actors did what was asked of them. They remained institutionally ignorant of the problem and thus could not be responsible for it. If no one was responsible, then no one can be guilty.[24]

What needs to change to encourage ethical thinking?

For Rotherham Council to change, it has to look at the whole organisation. If it focuses on Children’s services or Safeguarding, it will miss the forest for the trees. A curiosity culture across the council is needed. Officers have to be encouraged to think and act ethically across the organisation to change it. Senior officers and Members will model the desired behaviour. The following are some steps to create a curiosity culture.

First, they need to demonstrate a culture where bad news can be discussed and acted upon by the organisation collectively. Bad news is not left to a service or a senior management team to manage. The organisation has to demonstrate how it has engaged in the problem.

Second, they need to create a candid culture. The culture will encourage critical upwards communication so bad news is welcomed and addressed with publicly accountable outcomes.[25]

Third, they need to train staff in ethical practices. They need to use scenarios to raise awareness of how institutional factors can discourage critical ethical thinking.

Fourth, they need to publish standards of behaviour. The senior officers and political leaders have to model the standards

Fifth, and most importantly, the organisation officers will be required to explain how they understand a problem’s scale, scope and source. The officers will report that understanding to Members. The Members, in particular, will need to demonstrate how they have challenged the assumptions and evidence.

[1]“Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (1997 – 2013) (Hereafter the Jay Report) p. 25 paragraph 3.44 (accessed 7 September 2014).

[2] The Jay Report deals specifically with culture in chapter 13 paragraphs 13.61-13.69. The problem with looking for personalities or persons to blame is that it misses the point that the organisation was the problem and it requires an organisational response and not a focus on a few officers or a few members. The whole organisation needs to be scrutinized and not simply for its culture.

[3] It would be easy to say that Rotherham Council failed because it pursued single loop learning and not double loop learning. Single loop is focused on dealing with the symptoms and not with causes. See the HBR classic article by Chris Argyris. The view is correct, but it does not explain why the council lacked the curiosity or courage to pursue double loop learning.

[4] Theresa May has made this claim and others have repeated it or echoed it. (accessed 7 September 2014)

[5] The LSE blog makes a related argument. Institutions and the banality of evil: Learning from Rotherham and Savile (Dave Richards and Martin Smith) (Accessed 12 September 2014) They appear to misunderstand Arendt’s book as the believe that impersonal forces, sexism or classism explain the scandal. Arendt rejected impersonal forces as an explanatory device because they do not provide a solid basis for justice because the revert back to determinism. Instead, as the Jay report that explains that minority girls were also being groomed and targeted for sexual exploitation. (See chapter 11 paragraph 11.14) Boys and young men were also targeted. (See Jay report paragraphs 4. 16-4.19 and 7.15, 7.18 and 10..22) Finally, while class may have played a role, it is not clear that it determined the response as people still tried to help them. If class was a factor, it was not a determinative one and more a sufficient one rather than a necessary one. What they appear to miss is Arendt’s focus on “thoughtlessness” and the failure to think. What they focus on is normality without understanding that the failure to think is what makes Eichmann and Rotherham appear so normal.

[6] I am relying heavily on, but not exclusively on, Judith Butler’s excellent article Hannah Arendt’s challenge to Adolf Eichmann (Guardian Online 29 August 2011) last accessed 7 September 2014 and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s The capacity for evil can spread like an epidemic (Guardian Online 19 August 2011) last accessed 7 September 2014. I have referred to Arendt’s work Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of Evil (2nd Edition)

[7] See Bethania Assy Eichmann, the Banality of Evil, and Thinking in Arendt’s Thought  The problem raised by Eichmann and Rotherham exists within all bureaucracies and societies. The individual is caught between being too thoughtful, to the exclusion of humanity (see Martin Heidegger as an example), or thoughtless to the point of evil (Eichmann). Bureaucracies favour thoughtlessness because they thrive on routine and procedures rather than curiosity and critical thinking.

[8] The Council had inspections nearly every year from 2003 onward. (Se Jay Report Chapter 3)

[9] Reference to statement to Parliament from former Home Office Researcher.

[10] The Council and the Police failed to act on the reports despite being widely circulated to middle and senior managers. p. 83 (accessed 7 September 2014)

[11] We can see in the Jay Report very little reference to lessons learned or clear lines of accountability. See Chapter 7 paragraphs 7.51-58 for lessons learned. Problems of shared accountability see paragraph 7.24.

[12] See Q252 Meredydd Hughes testimony to Parliament Select Committee (Accessed 20 September 2014)


[14]Nine years ago, our greatest challenge was to change the predominant view that these young people were ‘promiscuous teenagers in consensual relationships’, rather than victims of child abuse.

“I regret every case of exploitation of vulnerable girls that was not prevented, but feel strongly that our collective efforts led to gradual but essential improvements in the situation for many young people.” (Accessed 3 September 2014)

[15] Consider that in 2014, while the report in the scale of the abuse was being documented and after years of attention, with criminal convictions for the exploitation, a senior manager at Rotherham can say that the agencies need to maintain a sense of proportionality about child sexual exploitation.

“One manager was reported in a recent minute of the Child Sexual Exploitation sub-group as saying that ‘agencies need to retain a sense of proportionality with regard to child sexual exploitation, as it only actually accounts for 2.3% of the Council’s safeguarding work in Rotherham. Although it is a very important issue, child neglect is a much more significant problem’. This is not an appropriate message for senior managers to give.” P. 30 paragraph 4.8 (Jay Report)

[16] See Joyce Thacker’s testimony Q417-424

[17] See Sean Wright Testimony on doubling the money q550 on endorsing the officer’s professional judgement see q546 and q547

[18] The report, in chapter 7 points out that on some of the committees the work lacked scrutiny and challenge were lacking. See paragraph 7.35 and more specifically chapter 13 paragraphs 13.54-13.56 where it suggests that the Scrutiny was simply ineffective in challenging officer evidence or holding the Executive to account on this issue.

[19] One has to note that the current Chief Executive has stated in his 3 September 2014 response to the Jay report that a whistle blower policy has been created. See paragraph 9.3

[20] See reference to HBR

[21] See the testimony of Meredydd Hughes in particular his response to q277.   It is important to see the body language of the speaker the testimony can be seen on Parliament TV.

[22] See how the Chief Constable explained that “there will not be a single person in the force who is not convinced that this is top priority” see response to q259

[23] One must note that in the Chief Executive’s response to the Jay report, paragraph 9.9 he claims that the organisation now encourages professional curiosity. “Professional curiosity is encouraged and this supports staff to raise issues and know they will be taken seriously.”

[24] The report makes this point directly and in doing so reiterates the same problem that Arendt saw at work with Eichmann. “An issue or responsibility that belongs to everybody effectively belongs to nobody” (Jay Report paragraph 13.57 and Arendt Eichmann “And one can debate long and profitably on the rule of Nobody, which is what the political form known as bureau-cracy truly is.” p.289.

[25] See the work of Denis Tourish for critical upwards communication Denis Tourish Critical Upward Communication:: Ten Commandments for Improving Strategy and Decision Making Long Range Planning Volume 38, Issue 5, October 2005, Pages 485-503 doi:10.1016/j.lrp.2005.05.001  and work of HBR on candid culture.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to The banality of institutional ignorance: Rotherham and child sexual exploitation

  1. Heiko Luder says:

    Hi Lawrence,
    I broadly agree with your assessment of the Rotherham scandal,but would also like to make a few points on that.After the 2nd World war Germany was very keen to avoid any reoccurrence of the excuse for soldiers to be used ever again: I just followed orders.In our written constitution the principle of the “responsible citizen in uniform” was developed and enshrined.
    This principle basically says that if orders from a superior are given to you in whatever position at work you are and they do not conform with human rights or any other law, you are entitled to question that order and there must be a process at your place of work that will give you an opportunity to voice that doubt.This is what is fundamentally missing in the UK.In the UK the person at work is not seen as a responsible citizen in Uniform,they are seen as troublemakers and risks to the reputation of the organisation.Germany has a highly developed team organisation mentality totally missing from the UK workplace where everything is run from a hierarchically organisation.Team organisation is given lip service in Councils,NHS and other organisation I hear about. Usually the team is summoned to give an opinion on a topic and the decision by the manager is unrecognisable by the team when it reaches the Senior Management Team of the Organisation.
    This frustrates the team and support to team work is withdrawn individually by the team in future and everybody just muddles through and never puts their head above the parapet again.
    Successes like 4 x Worldchampions in Football and several other teams from Germany in recent times cement that approach.
    SMEs in Germany are run like that in Germany and are highly successful.For example how is the boss of an SME seen in Germany?He/She is a very prominent member of the community and has a long term plan for the company embedded in the structure of the community.Everybody in the company is highly regarded for his her professionalism and expertise in their field within the company.Try that in the council where your professional expertise only counts for something if you are an outside consultant but yourself are treated like a child.

    • Heiko,
      Thank you for the comment. You make excellent points about teamwork and hierarchies and cultures. I had not intended to focus on Germany for the current example but rather drew upon the example of Eichmann because he represented what could happen when unthinking becomes prevalent.
      I take your points about building a team and encouraging individuals to question authority so that any decision is justified according to standards other than personal preferences.
      The challenge of a corporate citizen is something that hangs over much of the financial markets and many companies. There is a gap between what people believe and do individually and what they do as a corporate person. In that gap, we see the problem of responsible corporate citizenship.

      I hope that Rotherham and other crisis awaken the business world to the ethical crisis in their midst. They need to realize that ethical behavior is ultimately a profitable behavior.

      Thanks again for reading and your post.



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