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

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