The human failing that links the Post Office scandal to 'Keep it Fringe' grants – Kate Copstick

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a prime example of how successful a bottom-up approach can be but it’s being infiltrated by dangerous ‘top-down’ thinking

There are some things in life that simply are, undoubtedly, more satisfyingly achieved with a 'top-down' approach. None of them is suitable for discussion in The Scotsman, I fear. But I digress before I have even started – is that possible? And is this another digression? Moving on.

One of the curses of modern life is that a top-down approach is most favourable to those at the top – in government, in business, in decision-making – and, as they are at the top, they get to dictate the continuing approach. Nothing ever changes and those at the bottom continue to suffer. Please don't panic, gentle readers, I am not advocating a communist revolution.

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I am simply growing ever more convinced that we are increasingly, pointlessly, enthusiastically top heavy in every area and, as Dolly Parton always said about her tiny feet “nothing grows in the shade”. One explanation of the difference between top down and bottom up is to liken them to cooking.

Top hats are fine, but a top-down approach is not (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Top hats are fine, but a top-down approach is not (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Top hats are fine, but a top-down approach is not (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Two types of cooking

Top-down cooking means deciding that you are going to do a full roast dinner for six to impress your new neighbours, setting date and time, checking recipes, making a shopping list, buying everything on that shopping list and cooking the meal. It is for those with enough money to do that.

Bottom-up cooking means checking what you have in the cupboard and creating something tasty with that. Everyone can do some bottom-up cooking. It takes a little more thought, understanding of ingredients, and a willingness to work within the boundaries of what you have. I think this is a splendid analogy.

Of course, the ultimate example of top-down decision-making having devastating consequences for those at the bottom is, of course, war. People never wage war. Governments – and sometimes just one deranged political leader – do. And it happens, as the song says, “again and again and again and again”.

But the principle remains the same wherever the top-down approach rules untrammelled. The Post Office inquiry should be a lesson – but it won't be. Without the endless fortitude and dedication of those at the bottom who fought for a genuine investigation and redress, that horror would have gone unexposed.

Original top-down 'inquiries' did nothing but circle the metaphorical wagons and exclude and ignore those most affected. Because as soon as the 'top' takes control, it creates as many protective layers between itself and the 'bottom' as it can. It might call them 'governance', it might call them 'procedure'. They are, in fact, protection for the top.

Top-down denial

As former MP Lord Arbuthnot, who championed the wrongfully convicted subpostmasters, (eventually) pointed out, “it is not yet clear which of the successive chairs, chief executives, board members, shareholder directors, regulators, departmental sponsors or ministers should carry the can, if any, but, collectively, there was a lack of clear accountability from which the government must learn”. Does that list not speak volumes as to the drawbacks of a top-down system?

Pretty much the same might be said of the NHS’s infected-blood scandal. The same principle, but here the layers of denial cascading down from the top over decades starting in the 1970s, ended with the deaths of an estimated 3,000 patients. The ease with which this was covered up over decades was and is terrifying.

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Are we learning from this? I think we know we are not. Pretty much everything nowadays has to operate through more administrative layers than a knickerbocker glory. Many of these layers are staffed by people who know nothing of how or why this organisation operates on the ground. At the bottom, if you will.

Big charities vs small

I run, as you might know, a small organisation in Kenya, rescuing women and girls and setting them up in group businesses. We work on the ground. Only on the ground. And our beneficiaries – in their own words – “take it from there” on a grant of around £18 per head.

According to Kennedy Odede – born and brought up in Kibera, running several community organisations – “every year, Africa receives billions of dollars of aid. Less than one per cent goes directly to local organisations. As for humanitarian assistance, international organisations receive 400 times more funding than local organizations – $39 billion versus $98 million in 2022.”

Top down in charity does not work. Those at the top generally have absolutely no idea of what is needed on the ground. Even the (generously salaried) chief executives of international NGOs are not happy about that. “Many said they felt stuck, hamstrung by donor expectations, and too focused on internal issues,” Odede wrote in Fortune magazine. Er… what happened to just helping the needy?

A Fringe issue

Ah, the drawbacks of TDG (top-down giving, love three-letter initials) or TDA (top-down anything) in fact. Because now the TD threat is moving into Edinburgh. In August. Well, it can afford to. Those of us who love – or, nowadays, loved – the Fringe should be both sad and angry to read of the recent awarding of the Keep it Fringe grants.

The Edinburgh Fringe is – or was – a paradigm example of how successful a bottom-up approach can be. Driven by the doers. And it grew, still powered by performers and those individuals who facilitated them. Organically. The Fringe was Kim Kardashian around the bottom and Kate Moss at the top. Figuratively speaking. And that is the ideal look for a Fringe.

In recent years, the drive to concentrate power at the top brings us back to Dolly and her tiny feet. Now grants (decided on by the Fringe Society) are given to performers (chosen by the Fringe Society) so they can come and play at the Fringe. Accommodation (held by the Fringe Society) has been offered to critics (selected by the Fringe Society) so they can come and review. Tiny feet, people, tiny feet.

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