FIFA: The Organisation That Never Learns

18/05/2017 11:34
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FIFA, football's scandal-plagued governing body, has once again been in the news. Not only have three of the most important people in FIFA's attempt to clean itself up been removed from office - Cornel Borbély, Hans-Joachim Eckert and Miguel Maduro - but Gianni Infantino, FIFA's President, has claimed that 'fake news' stories are deliberately being distributed to undermine the organisation's work. The fact that he couldn't give any examples of apparent fake news led to comparisons with Donald Trump, a man who struggles on a daily basis to keep fact separate from fiction.

Talking the talk but not walking the walk
FIFA's problems may no longer be quite the front page news that they were under Sepp Blatter's tutelage, but they still matter. Football is a multi-million dollar business and it needs to be run in a manner that meets with international standards of appropriateness. Accusations that this isn't the case therefore matter. Claims by formerly high-ranking officials that FIFA has "neutralised" and "incapacitated" its own anti-corruption drive therefore deserve to be taken seriously.

Sceptics have always felt that FIFA's reform efforts left something to be desired. FIFA has been all too keen to manage the messages that apparently independent authorities have been producing; that message-management ranged from strongly controlling the brief that Swiss lawyer Mark Pieth was given back in 2011 when he was asked to point the anti-corruption way forward to editing and apparently re-writing the findings of Michael Garcia's report on the decision-making processes that underpinned the decision to ask Russia and Qatar respectively to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Garcia was another external voice who couldn't quite be trusted to stay on message.

The latest saga saw Borbély and Eckert, chairmen of FIFA's two ethics committees, plus all but two of the committees' representatives, unceremoniously ousted. Maduro, chairman of the governance committee within FIFA, was also removed. Maduro subsequently claimed that his removal sent "systematically the wrong message". None of the men were given any notice of FIFA's decision and FIFA's claim that a "greater international mix" was needed on their committees does little to counteract claims that FIFA is not really interested in systematic change. If it were, then why give the soon-to-be sacked people no notice of the decision? Why get rid of international experts after, in Maduro's case, only 8 months in position? Gianni Infantino's attempts to wave this away as nothing more than a bit of house-keeping don't cut the mustard.

Ethics Management
FIFA's problems with ethics management are by no means unique. Recognising the challenges and then acting on them involves a willingness to be open and engaged in trying to regulate your own affairs. There are two broad but interlinked approaches to doing this. As Paul Heywood notes in an excellent article on integrity management in the UK, there's an approach that stresses getting the values that underpin behaviour right and there is an approach that stresses appropriate risk management ('compliance').

The latter of those approaches, focussing on compliance, is the one that tends to get more attention. Organisations understand the rules and regulations that shape their activity and do their best to ensure that they stay within them. Compliance officers have subsequently moved from being relatively poorly paid staffers to being of key importance in helping organisations (and firms in particular) do justice to company bottom lines without crossing the boundary of what is and isn't deemed acceptable. They, in other words, are risk managers.

Compliance management will nonetheless only get organisations so far. Organisations are best placed to avoid behaviour that is ethically questionable if their employees work in a culture that places value on ethical action. Culture, in other words, matters. Environments that have high ethical standards are not necessarily those where there aren't opportunities to be self-enriching - if one is that way inclined those opportunities can exist more or less everywhere. Organisations 'succeed' in this regard as employees don't take advantage of potentially corrupt situations even when they have the opportunity to do so. The appropriate responses are non-corrupt responses.

FIFA and Ethics Management
There is, of course, a degree of tension between these two approaches. What can be seen as within the rules might still be regarded as ethically inappropriate. Dealing with this tension is difficult. But that's the reason that organisations adopt external oversight procedures. These procedures help check (and they keep on checking) that behaviour matches not just the rules but also the ethical rhetoric. They therefore need to be peopled by respected experts who are given space to analyse whatever parts of the institutional mosaic they see fit.

FIFA's been strong at talking the talk in this regard. It has had an ethics committee since 2006 and the current structures have been in place since 2012. That involves two distinct ethics committees. On the one hand there is an investigatory chamber that does what it says on the tin - it investigates alleged or potential violations of FIFA's own code of ethics. On the other hand there is an adjudicatory chamber. That reviews the investigatory chamber's reports and decides on actions moving forward.

In terms of how these committees are managed, FIFA was within its rights to remove the heads of these committees at its Bahrain conference in mid-May. They had served four year terms and needed to seek re-election. They were both doing that at the time they were told that they were no longer needed.

However, given that the organisation has had to deal with a considerable number of high-profile scandals and given that plenty of the inquiries are ongoing, such radical change came as a surprise. Both Borbély and Eckert subsequently claimed that their removal was "political" and that it was clear evidence that FIFA wasn't really interested in subjecting itself to genuinely independent oversight.

If FIFA really did want to "better reflect the geographic and gender diversity" of the organisation then there were multiple ways of doing this that wouldn't have involved booting out people who have reputations for asking hard questions. Either FIFA executives didn't care about the impression that was left or they didn't see the criticisms coming. Either way, the picture is not edifying.

Cultures change only slowly and incrementally. They can't be swept away overnight. With that in mind no one expected FIFA to bounce back from its scandal-plagued recent history and to suddenly be whiter than white. But the removal of independent investigators when they don't appear to have done anything wrong sends precisely the wrong signal. It looks - regardless of whether it actually is - like someone, somewhere is trying their best to look away, to cover something up or manoeuvre in a power game. Impressions count. FIFA, once again, appears summarily unprepared to acknowledge even that.