After the first instalment of this column, the ubiquity of the phrase ‘fit for purpose’ was brought to its attention. A quick web trawl reveals that in the space of a few days, the London stock market, the UN Security Council, British health service reforms, New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and even modern marriage have been tarred as being unfit for purpose.
Until recently, the phrase appears to have lived happily within the confines of consumer protection law and quality assurance for products and services, and outside Britain it still tends to.
The phrase entered the British political lexicon in 2006 when John Reid, the Home Secretary, made a splash by declaring that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate was ‘not fit for purpose’. Reid may not have been a very memorable Home Secretary – his critics predictably turned the phrase on him – but his linguistic legacy snowballs on.
Not being ‘fit for purpose’ has become short-hand for griping about any target, particularly British institutions, which allows the critic to appear technically perceptive rather than just angry. One can wonder whether by now there are any British institutions that have been spared this judgment. There is one: after the Gulf of Mexico spill, British safety regulations for offshore oil drilling were declared ‘fit for purpose’ compared to US ones.
Does this kind of management speak do justice to large, often sprawling bodies? Other than at a very general level, do these institutions have one single purpose? It is surprising that the phrase has struck a chord in Britain. It has unfamiliar echoes of ‘five-year plans’ for a people known for distrusting dogmatic schemes and somehow succeeding by muddling through.