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‘My day in the civil service’, or ‘How good people can (unknowingly) do bad things’

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

On September 14th, I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Home Office, as part of NCVO Forum for Change’s voluntary/public sector work shadowing exchange. As someone who spends a lot of time critiquing bureaucracy, but without any personal experience of the civil service, it seemed like a great chance to learn how much of the urban mythology about the public sector was an accurate reflection, and how much was the stuff of a previous era, not yet cleansed from the collective memory.

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Home OfficeThose who know me wouldn’t expect to find me wandering around a government department, yet, on September 14th, I was given the chance to meet seven Home Office staff members (and one local authority ‘secondee’), from a range of teams, and at least a few different salary grades.  Much credit goes to my hostess, for her excellent work arranging a busy schedule to give me a sense of what the Home Office looked like from several internal perspectives.

What I’ve been trying to determine ever since, is how the good people I met, are able to be part of an institution which creates so much ugliness.  Whether in the form of policing of activism, criminalising young people, or indirectly promoting racism via immigration policies, the people I met did not seem like the kinds of people that would make these sorts of things happen.

What I did notice, however, (with the notable exceptions of a colleague from the Neighbourhood Policing Team/ Policing Reform Unit, and a seconded Oldham council staff person) was a distinct disconnect between action and reaction, or the work that was being done, and the impacts that were happening, as a result, in the real world.  Which is what I want to start picking apart…

Disconnected?

This revelation is probably unsurprising to most. It is one of the hallmarks of the urban mythology surrounding the civil service, but may, I realise, be deeply offensive (for which I apologise) to many of the people I met, who felt confident that their work was good, honest, fair, but still, whose outcomes were often still anything but…

So how does this disconnect occur? How do those assembling the bomb get the impression their individual efforts are part of a collective good, when outsiders can clearly see the destructive effects of these efforts?

What follows are a few observations and my interpretations of them. They may or may not have value, but thought they would be worth putting out, for the sake of discussion…

‘Collective ego’

Though there was little sense of individual egos at play in my conversations, there seemed to be an overarching collective one present.  This seems a contradiction of terms, but what I mean is, though those I met did nothing to unduly elevate themselves as people, there was an unwavering sense of the Department’s collective ‘correctness’ in effectively addressing complex national issues, even when responses to those issues clearly shifted with political currents (and recently, parties).  Was there a sense that ID cards were ‘correct’ under Labour, but then ‘incorrect’ under the Coalition? What might be framed as ‘learning’ within the departmental context, appeared to be nothing more than a collective rationalisation (always backed by a detailed evidence base) of a different political perspective.

Who asks the questions?

So it did not seem to come across as a drastic shift when a previous Minister asked the Department’s researchers and policy analysts “What are the economic benefits migrant workers bring to the UK?”, and then their successor asked “What is the appropriate level for an immigration cap?” Each of these questions encompasses a political attitude (built on certain assumptions), meaning the results will invariably reinforce that attitude, no matter how ‘objective’ the research and policy defining them are able to be. The answers produced can only be as varied as the constraints posed by the facilitating questions. So if you’re asked the question about the migration cap, your research will focus on the pros-and-cons of different migration caps, rather than the inherent value of a migration cap, more generally.

Finding value in our work…

This gives those in the Office the fair sense that their work is not about simply justifying a political perspective, as within the question posed, they have honestly tested each of the possible answers, without bias.  This provides a sense of meaning, which is something all of us seek in our work.  Working in restaurants for several years as a means of funding my community work and music in Canada (which gave my time behind the bar a sense of purpose), I met career bartenders who had been able to ‘give meaning’ to the order in which drink mixes were arranged in a bar fridge.  This made no sense to those of us passing through the jobs, but provided a sense of meaning to those who had made a career of serving drinks and needed to give their efforts a sense of importance to be able to justify the time they spent there.  Which ties into the next idea…

‘Horizons’

Marsham St Home Office

The Home Office, from Wiki Visuals

My colleague Paul Barasi described this concept (as he does so many things) like a game of chess: If you look at your next two moves, you can give yourself the impression of a likely victory, even if you are in fact setting yourself up for a checkmate on the third move.  Most of the legwork at the Home Office (like most larger institutions) is carried out by people a reasonable distance from those asking the types of framing questions listed above, therefore individual’s ‘horizons’ are generally set not with the endpoint of a policy or law in mind, but with the point to which their manager takes responsibility for the actions (finalising a data set, writing interview questions, getting a report approved, etc).  The ‘horizons’ of the job then, allow individuals to work towards what they feel is a positive ‘endpoint’ (ensuring a good report is produced), without questioning either the justification for that ‘endpoint’, or where it might go next (i.e. – the impact of the report, on a law, on peoples’ lives).

These limited ‘horizons’ disconnect the personal actions from the collective result – distancing the she or he doing the deed, from some element of responsibility for the real world impact. This applies to both positive and negative responsibility; the former in relation to the lost sense of ‘credit’ described by Marx’s ‘Alienation of Labour’, the latter as described in Mark Akbar’s ‘The Corporation’ as how corporate board members avoid personal guilt for their company’s crimes.

…So when the (party-political) Prime Minister says: “We want British jobs for British people.”

…Then the (party-political) Minister says: “We need an immigration cap to ensure British jobs go to British people.”

…And the (‘party-neutral’) Chief Economist says: “What is an appropriate immigration cap to ensure there are enough job vacancies for all unemployed British citizens?”

…And the (‘party-neutral’) Senior Economic Researcher says: “How many less immigrants do we need next year to ensure unemployed British citizens will be able to fill upcoming job vacancies?”

…And horizons’ of the person attached to each descending salary grade are reduced accordingly, along with a personal sense of either credit or accountability for their actions.

An offer?

On an issue where I’ve had some experience (youth gang violence), I offered my opinions and the potential to continue the conversation in more detail another time, or to put the department in touch directly with people I know with more firsthand experience of such concerns. In this situation I was dismissed (I have since sent a follow-up email and will add a comment to this piece if I get a reply), seemingly without thought on what, say, local activists dealing with youth violence might think about the Home Office’s attempts to curb knife crime.

This felt (very aware of the subjectivity here) that they had all the knowledge they needed, in-house, and weren’t interested in involving people from the outside in these discussions, even though I saw minimal evidence of in-depth engagement with community perspectives on this crucial concern.

When I brought up a meeting I facilitated three years ago, in which sixteen London community leaders (early-twenties-to-early-fifties, and all black) involved in youth violence issues agreed unanimously that government wanted to impede effective youth programmes, to keep their communities oppressed, they seemed to have never come across this level of cynicism before. When I challenged them on how significant that mistrust was, to getting honest information and building partnerships, it was not seen as something that needed to be actively addressed.

Expertise?

The emphasis in expertise (perhaps this was more a reflection of the people I met?) was very disproportionately economic. As Dougald Hine picks apart, when seen in isolation (from the social, the cultural, the political, the spiritual, etc) economics can provide a very damaging understanding of the world, which is able to justify a range of activities as ‘positive’ (due to their economic benefits), when any more holistic lens would see the inherently negative consequences of, say, (as Dougald highlights) the industrial revolution on British workers.

Further, as Henry Mintzberg describes in ‘The Soft Underbelly of Hard Data’, the ‘hard science’ of economic measurement can often be based on limited information and a series of assumptions:

“Something is always lost in the process of quantification… As Eli Devons (1950:Ch. 7) described in his fascinating account of planning for British aircraft production during World War II, ‘despite the arbitrary assumptions made’ in the collection of some data, ‘once a figure was put forward… it soon become accepted as the “agreed figure”, since no one was able by rational argument to demonstrate that it was wrong… And once the figures were called “statistics”, they acquired the authority and sanctity of Holy Writ’ (155).” [Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, The Free Press, 1994]

While there remain innumerable ‘experts’ on a range of Home Office related issues in neighbourhoods across the country, there seemed to be little interest in hearing from these people and having them play a part in shaping the policies that are likely to affect them. I made several offers to help bridge these worlds, but felt largely ignored. If that comes across as bitter, it’s probably because it is – not for my own dismissal, but for the rejection of people I know who have experienced youth violence and racist policing first hand, but who have remained marginalised from the discussions that will invariably affect their lives.

Maybe this is all unfair

This may all be unfair on my part. I spent one day there with no previous experiences of the civil service. I have attempted to understand my experience there, in the context of my own thinking around organisations and human behaviour, though claim that in no way these represent truths – just the explanations I (at this point) feel make the most sense of these things. I’d been keen to hear the thoughts (by name, or anonymously) of those who have spent more time in Whitehall, past or present, and if any of these ideas resonate, or if I’ve simply drawn far too much from a very limited experience…

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More Like People: Human institutions and ‘the Cult of Professionalism’

Monday, August 16th, 2010

We assume the need to be ‘professional’ in the voluntary sector, but are our concepts of professionalism outdated, unfulfilling and ultimately unproductive in achieving the impacts we are here to achieve?  Instead of a ‘professionalism’ that wedges a gap between who we really are and the role we play at work, what would enable us to ‘take off our masks’ and build work places that are ‘More Like People’?

“You must learn to always be professional. Never lose your temper, never cry, never get impatient, never get upset, never show your weakness. If you are caving under pressure, run to the bathroom. …by being emotional, you are making yourself a liability. No one wants to keep people who are flakey or break under pressure. The corporate world wants people of steel.”
– How to be a Professional at Work | eHow.com
the cult of professionalism's quarterly meeting

the cult of professionalism's quarterly meeting

This may be a somewhat extreme example, but the essence of this excerpt can be found in countless watered-down versions by Googling the phrase: “how to be professional at work”.  Even in the voluntary and community sectors, we are increasingly used to a singular definition of professionalism, one that may have felt initially alien to us, but which we‘ve become increasingly accustomed to during our working lives.  Unfortunately, the old rules of thumb around how one should behave in a working environment often have significant negative repercussions, fostering tension between colleagues and erecting barriers between the ‘professionals’ and those an organisation exists to support.

Tips on ‘professionalism’ from corporate consultants and bloggers often include:
    • How to dress (‘business casual’, ‘formal’)
    • How to speak (Queen’s English)
    • Dining and drinking etiquette (table manners, ‘who pays’)
    • Behavioural guidelines (non-emotional, minimally opinionated)

I recently heard Jon Rouse, Chief Executive of Croydon Council describe these kinds of ‘tips’ as the basis of ‘the Cult of Professionalism’.  This ‘cult’, he said, is guided by an incredibly narrow set of mostly unspoken norms, which strip away some of the core principles that make us human; traits like empathy, emotion, individualism and opinion.  While becoming ‘professional’, we separate ourselves from the vast majority of other people in the world, behaving – and often thinking (while at work, at least) – in ways that seem unimaginable and often highly suspect, to people who exist outside of this constructed reality.  But unlike the cults of Scientology or Freemasonry, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is often fluid – a membership which many of us will pass in-and-out of at different times in our working lives, rather than committing to permanently.

Essentially though, this model of ‘professionalism’ pushes those who accept it to compartmentalise their lives (to varying degrees), to fit its rigid criteria.  ‘From nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, I am a ‘professional’.  During evenings and weekends, I might be a new father, a scout leader, a revolutionary Marxist, an alcoholic, a BNP member, a choir leader, a beekeeper…’.

Some of these roles, we might say, are clearly best left outside of the workplace.  However, like a pressure cooker, if we try to create false partitions between parts of our lives for too long, they will eventually boil-over into one-another.  For example:
    • Closeted racism may slip into hiring practices;
    • Problems in a personal relationship may start to taint interactions with colleagues;
    • Nights spent awake with a crying baby may make it harder to focus on work.
Or more positively:
    • Previous experience in a gang may give new insights into staff motivation and management;
    • Being a parent of teenagers may provide an awareness of the attitudes of younger staff;
    • A mate might be able to help with a piece of work that the team has been stuck on for some time…

So I would argue that ‘siloing’ ourselves (‘the professional’ and ‘everything else in our lives’) is neither sustainable, nor desirable.  The loss of basic human characteristics that so often occurs when we allow only a limited piece of ourselves to show over a significant period of time can limit or damage the relationships we are able to build in our working lives.  And whether in the corporate world, or that of palliative care, good relationships are increasingly recognised as crucial to (relative) success in the workplace.

But such things only happen in the corporate world!

Though the Cult tends to be most associated with the civil service and the financial sector, one does not have to look far to see the growing prevalence of corporate influence in civil society organisations.  Whether as ‘value for money’ audits (as opposed to value for impact), public contract culture (‘we’ve got to compete with bids by private companies’), or Social Return on Investment (and its attempts to convert human stories into cash sums), there are many examples of the values which have traditionally underpinned our sector, being subtly undermined by more bottom-line-orientated approaches.

As may have been expected, the cultures associated with those practices in the private sector have gradually begun to foment themselves in the working cultures of various larger voluntary organisations.  This is clearly more immediately problematic when staff are engaging with victims of abuse or ex-offenders, than if they are simply trading stocks in the City.  Impersonal and sterile policies against ‘hugging’,  ‘personal relationships in the workplace’ and a range of other basically human activities, send a clear message that the ‘professionalism’ an employer desires, is one which checks many of your personal characteristics at the door; not all that far from the quotation I begun the blog with…

So what do we do about it?

This is not an easy one and I don’t pretend to have clear answers, as our entrenched attitudes are not easily re-shaped.  That said I have a couple of ideas that might be worth thinking about if you’ve experienced some of these issues in your organisation.

Push the professional comfort zone
Most of us would find it much harder to be ‘professional’ (in the narrowest sense) if our regular working environment was radically changed.  Jon Rouse at Croydon Council implemented such a change via direct interactions between senior council officers and local people who had felt hurt or oppressed by the council services they had received.  This was not to necessarily validate every negative experience as a fair indictment of the council, but to give people who rarely saw the frontline impacts of their decisions, a first-hand glimpse into what it would have felt like to have a child taken into care, or to be unable to visit a loved-one while they were in the hospital.  The officers were not there to defend the choices made by the council, only to better understand the feelings of those on the other end of those choices – encouraging a sense of empathy with their experiences.  Rouse described the process as intensely emotional for many, but one which shifted the perspectives of many of those from the council who were involved, helping them to better appreciate the difficulties social services could unwittingly create in people’s lives, and how these might be mitigated from the policy level.  It’s hard to maintain a narrowly professional persona, when confronted directly with firsthand human suffering, especially if there’s even a minute possibility that something you did or didn’t do, may have played some role in allowing that suffering to happen.

Trust staff’ judgment – don’t always try to regulate it
I just read an advice piece in Third Sector on dealing with staff who are in relationships together.  It was based on the premise that something bad would probably happen as a result of a romantic relationship and that a policy for such matters was needed… Wait!  A policy?  To prevent heartbreak?  To tell staff not to let their heartbreak show at work?  To tell them not to have personal feelings for colleagues at all?  There’s no question that there can sometimes be messy elements to workplace relationships, but nothing you can regulate will prevent these from occurring.  With that said, most of the time they don’t, but our responses often assume the worst before having reason to do so.  Why not congratulate them on their happiness and address any issues individually, if they do happen to become issues?

This ties into some fairly key ideas of human institutions, challenging the assumption of the worst (‘left unregulated, people will do wrong’) that often underpins organisational planning efforts and policies.  Regulation should be a last-resort, rather than a knee-jerk response to organisational dilemmas.  Humans are remarkable when it comes to addressing issues as they arise!

Make yourself a bit vulnerable
I have only gut-instinct and a limited mix of personal and professional experiences on which to base this, but feel strongly that ‘conscious vulnerability’ is an important step to breaking-through the ‘Cult of Professionalism’.

empathy in a carton by geofonesAs we’re rarely used to expressing anything resembling emotion in the workplace, this is a difficult challenge for most of us, especially as working relationships can be subtly competitive, or even adversarial.  In this context, becoming consciously vulnerable can feel like a death sentence, however, it may be the olive branch that begins to shift a working culture towards something more genuinely mutually beneficial.  There’s no guarantee of success, and a bad experience may not be an easy one, but without risk, we omit the possibility of change…

Conscious vulnerability breeds trust, through the implicit acknowledgment that you have given someone the opportunity to hurt you, on the assumption they won’t.  So if you ask for the help of someone of a lower rank, but with particularly relevant experience, or admit that a decision you made was a mistake, it may start to change the ways people relate to you and to each other.  By modelling little changes and demonstrating trust in those you work with, it may very well encourage others to follow suit.

When we cut-off our own emotions (conforming to the spoken-and-unspoken expectations of the Cult), we often simultaneously limit our ability to empathise with the emotions of others.  Empathy is another key idea in my human institutions work, and one that Jeremy Rifkin talks about in the context of “re-thinking our institutions in society to prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilisation”.  A bit abstract, I know, but an important bit of grounding for some of the bigger picture changes that our collective behaviours can gradually start to shape…

“Push the professional comfort zone,
Trust staff judgement,
Make yourself a bit vulnerable”

Have you broken free of the Cult?

As mentioned earlier, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is far from all-encompassing and elicits different commitment from each of us at different times.  Very few people bring the Cult into every aspect of their lives, as we would immediately find it limiting to our ability to form meaningful relationships and get any real sense of satisfaction from the world.  But many of us, understandably, take on bits of it, as it suits us, when we are in a working environment where it is the norm.  Sometimes it’s easier to refer a member or client to a policy, rather than unpick the details of their concern; sometimes admitting we don’t know something might seem to jeopardise our job or reputation; sometimes the issues we face in voluntary and community sector can feel too difficult to acknowledge our own feelings about…

So I’d really like to hear about when you have:

    • Been able to model an alternative
    • Bucked the office trend and acted in a way that truly expressed empathy with either your colleagues or those your organisation exists to serve
    • Openly admitted your weaknesses to those you work with
    • Refused to use a new bit of in-crowd jargon
    • Given honest (if unpopular) opinions to managers
    • Allowed yourself to ‘just be yourself’ at work
As this blog is very much ‘thinking-in-progress’, I’m keen to hear people’s views on this.  Collectively, we might be able to develop some alternatives to this debilitating notion of what it means to be a professional…

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Talking ‘Human Institutions’ w/ Graham Allcott

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I was recently invited by Graham Allcott of ThinkProductive, to record a conversation about some of the human institutions ideas I’ve been kicking around.  If you get past my moderately frantic body language (does anyone else get this excited about management structures???), I think we managed to pull out some good ideas on where bureaucracy comes from (even in the most well-meaning public and voluntary organisations) and what we can each do in our workplaces to find alternative ways of getting things done.

If you’re interested in finding-out more about the human institutions concepts, we’re running a workshop in London on July 22nd (Pay What You Can/ Pay What You Think It’s Worth) and we’d love to have you along! Click the yellow button below to sign-up:
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution: Keeping People at the Core of Your Organisation in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.